A Simple Thing
It didn't occur to him to falter until he touched her.
It was a simple thing, really. A realization of certain death, rather than an understanding of the concept. Two different things, very separate, understanding and realization. He knew his expression fell when his stomach dropped, and the sudden eyes on him made him want to suck the words right back into his throat.
Right until that moment, bravado seemed to be doing wonders. He knew he'd leaned casually, he knew the intercom system would only work in the section Sheppard was working his way through. He knew that because he made sure of it. It was a nice, easy lean-in, a strong voice that wasn't his, a simple way to let John know exactly where to get the sons of bitches without their being the wiser.
But he hadn't counted on the air leaving his sails, as it were, because he thought he knew what was going on. Genii with guns, some out of control Hitler-type in their face, impending doom from the hurricane from hell. Impending doom was starting to be the norm, and this was no different. He and Elizabeth were indispensable, thus in no danger, and Sheppard was going to take out the Genii.
Understanding the implications of a situation, and the realization of the implications of a situation, they were two different things, separated by more than a slight grammatical difference.
They were the difference between assumed confidence and complete terror.
"Step away from that console."
He flinched away from the console as if it had been electrified, grateful that he was no longer in contact with Elizabeth, and resisted the urge to avert his eyes.
"I was leaning, I was just leaning."
He knew he was in trouble, he felt it even as adrenaline rushed through his system, spiking his pulse and blood pressure. There didn't seem to be a safe place to look, and Elizabeth was miles away. He held his hands away from his body at the sharp looks and pointed weapons, though some part of him knew they knew he had nothing in them.
"Your request is unreasonable." Elizabeth's voice was not shaking, just a little strained. "And you can't possible need all our C-4 or all our medical supplies."
How could she – feel the way she felt, and sound so in control? He was doing his best to keep his hands from visibly shaking, and she was staring Kolya right in the eyes.
Well, how hard could it be? It wasn't as though they were a pack of wolves, depending on body posturing for communication. She was just better at controlling her reaction to fear, that was all. She'd been in more situations that called for visible control of her emotions.
This was her thing. Saving Atlantis was his thing. There was no shame in just standing there quietly and letting her do her job.
Maybe her lack of visible trembling had to do with the fact that every molecule of her being was so tense he doubted the electrons were actually revolving around her atoms.
Kolya was still staring at him, even when he spoke it seemed his attention had not shifted. "You're in no position to tell me what's reasonable at this time."
The words seemed to sink in for her the same way realization had settled on him. Her breath caught, and her struggle for her next words just made it all that much harder to remain calm. He was hoping his expression didn't match his thoughts. John knew where to get them, this didn't change anything. He'd been bold when he needed to be, he half believed what he'd said to her. C4 and medical supplies weren't worth dying for. He knew how to synthesize C4. It would just be a matter of finding the proper materials. Besides, the Genii weren't advanced enough to use the C4 to its greatest potential, and still had the purifications problems, he hadn't really given them enough to have solved that one yet. It wasn't as if –
"How do we know that you won't kill us once we give you what you need?"
Oh, she had to ask that, didn't she. She'd said need, he really did respect her skills at negotiation. Make Kolya feel like he was in control. Because, you know, he was. McKay didn't want to hear the answer, he knew it would be the standard megalomaniac answer and it wasn't really going to be the best thing for his nerves right now.
"You don't. Please show my men where they can find what they're looking for."
It seemed he had only blinked before Weir had dropped her chin a little, when two of them had taken her, hand on her shoulder, and pushed her past, pushed her out towards the main corridor. Pushed her out of the control room, out of the safe room, should lightning strike.
It seemed like a breath before he was alone, in the nice, safe control room, with Kolya.
It was so very safe. If lightning struck and the halls were electrified, Weir would enjoy a quick and breath-taking passage from life, and he would be safe and warm and dry with armed madmen. Yes, the control room was clearly the safest place to be.
He normally abhorred violence, but if John just happened to suddenly show up and shoot everyone, that would be fine.
Without Weir to verbally spar, more of Kolya's attention was on him. He didn't feel confident enough to lean on anything, anymore, and there didn't seem to be a good place to put his arms that didn't give away his discomfort. But it was probably arrogant to assume that the armed lunatics hadn't already figured that out, so what did he have to hide anyway. He crossed his arms over his chest and tried not to look at Kolya until the man was directly in front of him and his other options were pretty limited.
"What are you doing here?"
Ah, yes. A nice megalomaniac type question. Well, there was the sarcastic, flippant answer. It was the type of answer he'd given when confronted with bullies during his higher education and grant interviews. The flippant answers seemed to work because the bullies inevitably were Robin Williams fans, and when he was nervous, his face sort of molded towards the comedian's, and his lips thinned to nothing more than a gash across his face. He knew. He'd seen interview footage of himself.
It wasn't likely that Kolya would be a Robin Williams fan. Luckily, in this case, the flippant answer was very close to an honest one.
"From my understanding, I'm being held hostage."
He didn't like the sound of the word hostage. In spy novels, it was just cliché. It didn't seem so much so now that it was reality.
He was never reading another computer-geek-turned-superspy novel as long as he lived. And that was including the eventual return to Earth, where there were actually authors. And spy novels.
Kolya almost smiled, and his tone turned menacingly conversational. "I mean here in Atlantis." A slight shift in posture. Maybe this was a pack of wolves. "Why did somebody stay behind?"
He shrugged, knowing he was fidgeting, and he couldn't meet Kolya's eyes. He chose to stare at a spot somewhere just in the center of the bushy eyebrows. Even those were threatening.
"Oh." He struggled to continue without using the dreaded noise of 'Um.' Why was he here? To save Atlantis. Not the right answer to give. "Tie up some loose ends." Yeah. Nice and convincing there, Rodney.
If a person could lean casually on a wall when there was no wall, Kolya could. "Like what?" Still the conversational tone. Deceptive. Quiet.
"You know." He looked at the Genii general, but the unchanging expression made it clear that no, he didn't, and unless he got something concrete he was going to keep asking questions. And asking questions would make it a little less likely that the Genii would conveniently be not in the nice, safe control room when lighting struck. Good for Weir, not so good for him. Why was it so hard to say anything? He felt like every time he opened his mouth his brain was blanking. Anything! Say anything!
"Make sure everyone got out okay."
It sounded lame, even to him. Even though it was true. Ford! Beckett and Ford and Teyla were still there. Trapped on the mainland due to the winds, so no help whatsoever, but it was likely the jumpers had been programmed to travel in these storms. Since the Atlanteans had been bright enough to install all the lightning rods, clearly they were accustomed to the storms.
Not that there was a way to get a message to them. And not like there was a way to test that theory without putting them all at risk. It wasn't much of a risk, though, he was pretty sure there had to be some kind of routine that would compensate for 140 mph winds.
He was mentally babbling, and Kolya didn't look any more convinced than he had two seconds ago.
"Isn't that the work of someone less important?"
Yes, definitely not a Robin Williams fan. But this time the flippant answer was not flippant, and the nervous laugh was less disguised and more nervous.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
He realized his arms were pretty much wrapped completely around his chest, and he physically winced at the admittance. Okay, so he was scared. That was fine. They were all in serious trouble, the Genii were unreasonable, and there were a bunch of very green soldiers milling around, all glaring at him as though he'd been responsible for their birthdays getting cancelled or something.
"You have a plan, don't you?" It sounded so superior. This military-minded simpleton who hadn't even mastered atomic theory was gloating in his assumed power. Earth had mastered atomic theory before they'd had access to alien technology, and these Genii felt so superior.
"I have lots of plans about lots of things." It still sounded nervous, but it came to him more swiftly. He could almost think again.
"I'm interested in the plan you have to save the city." A little less conversational. A little more pointed.
"I never said anything about saving anything." That was true. And he wasn't going to. Sheppard knew he had to get out of those halls as much as Elizabeth did. Without backup from Aiden, they needed every advantage they could get.
It was his job to save Atlantis. One base station left to separate, and some nice rubber-soled boots, and Weir and John would be fine. He glanced at the footwear of the nearest Genii soldier, noting something that looked more animal-skin in appearance than galvanized rubber.
Rodney looked back up, thoughts of rubber slipping from his mind. Kolya wasn't looking at him anymore, he was looking beyond him, and he hesitated before he followed Kolya's gaze.
He followed it to a very large, curved, sharp-looking knife, in the hand of a very young and very angry looking Genii. Might have even been stainless steel, progressing their knowledge of mass production and industrialization further than he'd thought.
He felt a nervous snicker sneak out, there was nothing he could do about it.
"You not serious, are you?" It started out indignant, but he lost all breath support, and he wasn't sure the 'you' at the end of the sentence was even audible.
The briefest of expressions crossed Kolya's eyes, but whether it was pity or disgust or regret, it passed too quickly to identify. "Do not test our resolve. You will find it absolute."
The young Genii was advancing on him like a predatory animal might upon hapless ensnared prey. There was no denying that he looked fairly convincing. Surely they weren't going to resort to torture. Surely not.
"There's no plan. The city has an energy shield that should sufficiently protect it."
The young man stopped just past arm's length, his weapon not raised but certainly not at rest, and Kolya remained at his right elbow. His voice was still soft. Not raised. Not even angry.
"Then why the evacuation?"
For some reason, the phrasing reminded him of the meeting earlier in the day, and Zelenka. "I said should. It's possible that part of the shield may collapse and leave parts of the city exposed to the approaching storms." If there was anything he learned at Stargate command, it was that Carter got her way if she expounded into technobabble. Here in Atlantis, usually he did not. But Elizabeth was not military, and it wasn't as if this general was going to admit he didn't understand.
Rodney gestured upwards, flinching when the Genii soldier suddenly jerked in his direction. "Atlantis is covered in lighting rods because the energy shield frequency is keyed to prevent explosive force, like the driving particles of air or explosions, and the energy weapons of the Wraith. I know Genii understanding of energy fields is absolutely nil, but take my word for it. The frequency is the only thing that prevents or allows energy to pass through energy without being negated or altered. It's . . . conceptually similar to a magnetic field. This shield won't prevent common electrical interference from passing through."
The soldier was still looking alert, and Kolya didn't speak. After a breath, McKay realized they both expected him to continue. Good. He could technobabble these people into a stupor.
"I assume the Genii are aware of alternating current, as it was in use in the facilities I visited, and we used it when we corrected your flawed atom bomb design." The soldier's eyes narrowed, but Kolya didn't react. "The city is grounded by the water that surrounds it, so most of the current attracted by the rods will disperse harmlessly into the ocean via countless conductive materials throughout the city construct, without damaging any systems or the inhabitants. The Ancients put this system into effect hundreds of years ago, and it works flawlessly.
"However, our modifications to the power systems of Atlantis are based on electricity, so the changes we've made to places like . . . like the control room, here, have created a vulnerability in the city's power systems. Ancient technology is filled with redundant systems, so the chances of serious interruption are slight, but . . . due to our admittedly limited understanding of this technology, we felt there was enough risk to evacuate the population for the day. I mean, it is the control room. If a crystal blew . . . it was a bigger risk than Dr. Weir was willing to take."
He was no better off the halls than they were, but possible death by electrocution was better than certain death by sharp object in the abdomen. If he could convince them to leave the control room, it would give John a better chance at tracking them.
Kolya blinked, then repeated slowly, "You evacuated Atlantis because of the chance the alterations you've made to the technology you stole from the Ancients have made their city vulnerable to lightning."
McKay tried not to correct the statement. In essence, it was the gist of what he'd said. "Basically, yes. We didn't think we had anything to lose. It isn't as though the Wraith could launch an attack through the storm, and we foolishly assumed the Genii would be intelligent enough to understand that destroying allies only aids the Wraith."
A snort. "Do you often steal from your allies?"
Maybe not the best choice of words. But he was significantly calmer than he had been. It was a good bluff. Full of holes and generalizations, but without a Zelenka to correct him, it didn't really matter. It was worthy of any of the trained soldiers that had come on the mission.
"Only the ones that try -"
McKay didn't see or hear anything, had no warning. The soldier was on him before he felt the brush of displaced air, and in another second there was a shocking blow behind his left knee, and he felt it buckle. His right arm had been grabbed, twisted – he hit the deck facing 180 degrees, his right arm painfully twisted, held straight by the pressure being applied to his elbow.
It wasn't broken, a few short gasps and the pain became manageable. His knee throbbed from the kick it had received, and stung where it had been scraped against the floor. They were trying to bend his elbow the wrong way, it felt like, but the bones were intact.
The pressure didn't increase, and he watched Kolya – now on his left – remain where he was standing, hands clasped behind his back.
"Tell me about your plan for saving Atlantis."
The same numb inability to speak had him instantly. There was pain in his upper shoulder, muscles being torn, tendons being stretched past the normal point. His wrist, forever aching from arthritis and tendonitis, was creaking like a weather-beaten frigate. He tried to think of something else to say, anything else, but there were no thoughts save panic at his thoughtlessness.
The Genii soldier tipped his arm up slightly, and even an inch's' difference at the end of his arm had a huge impact on the angle. He heard someone choke on a yell, but it didn't seem like it had come from him. He couldn't feel anything but his arm, his shoulder, even the stinging as his knee was ground slightly further into the floor.
"You were left behind because there is a necessary action you must perform. What is it?"
He couldn't seem to catch his breath, couldn't seem to think of anything to do. His left hand was braced on the floor, there was no way to strike out that would do any good. They were going to break his arm. They were going to break his arm, and then they were going to kill him, and then he was going to be dead. It repeated and repeated.
He had his head bent, he couldn't have looked at the soldier if he'd wanted to. The Genii was behind him a little, only using the hand that was twisting his wrist. He had a knife in the other hand, they could get him between the ribs, they could get him in the kidney, either was fatal –
The pain was hot, it was so hot it felt as though they'd found a blowtorch and applied it to his arm. He screamed, he knew he did, but the pain only grew worse, it kept crawling like a living thing, it was deeper and suddenly so much more intense.
He looked. He had to, had to know what was happening, what it looked like. They hadn't even taken off his jacket, the blade was right through the beige fabric. It was too stuffed of a jacket to show him how bad, but it didn't look like much of the knife was in his arm. Maybe not even to the bone. He watched, transfixed, as a dark red strain appeared out of the fabric, just like in the movies, and started to spread.
Jesus. It felt like they'd cut off his arm, and there wasn't even two inches of that knife buried.
It didn't even look real.
And even knowing how minor a wound it was, in the great scheme of things, it didn't hurt any less.
The soldier stared down at him in contempt, and they locked gazes. Slowly the soldier's upper lip curled, and then he twisted the knife.
McKay thought for a brief moment that he was going to vomit. He panicked, he tried to rip his arm away, tried with every ounce of strength in his body. Fueled by adrenaline and fear, it was a terrific effort, and the straining of his muscles seemed to dull the pain for just an instant.
But he didn't get away. He didn't suddenly have the power to free himself. The massive effort was ended by an exponential increase in the pain, across his chest, seizing his lungs. He had been pushed forward, his face was turned to the left, pressed into the floor as though it were supposed to be two inches lower than it was. He was curled over, he couldn't even breathe, he couldn't breathe, his arm –
He couldn't stop yelling. He tried to bite it back, but it boiled out of his throat even when his jaw was clenched shut. He was so damn weak, he was going to give in because of the proverbial twisted arm. It was years before he got control of himself, before he was quiet save the hiss of his exhalations.
All he could see were Kolya's boots. "Tell me how to save the city, and Taiel will release you."
The knife was still in his arm. He could feel it, feel the soldier's pulse through the blade. Feel his own pulse from the wound, feel the hot blood oozing out of his arm. It felt so hot, and his face felt hot, and the floor felt so cold.
They were going to keep doing this until he told them.
It was a realization, unlike the knowledge of the wound and the relatively little damage that had been done. He could still use the arm. He didn't think they'd done more than muscle damage, his fingertips wouldn't be tingling if they'd hit a major blood vessel. His fingers would be numb, and he could feel them, he could even wiggle them.
At the wiggle, more pressure was applied at his wrist, and this time he tried to say words, he tried.
"I-I told you! Lightning rods!"
It seemed they had to think about it, it could have been whole minutes before some of the pressure was released, and he moaned with the pain of relief.
"What about the lightning rods."
John wouldn't be giving in right now. John would hold out till the bitter end. If he didn't tell them, and the city was struck, even if Sheppard and Elizabeth died, at least Beckett and Ford could resecure the city.
If he didn't tell them, they'd just keep up. They'd do significant damage. They'd make him even more worthless than he was right now, and if there was an opportunity later, he wouldn't have the strength to exploit it.
"What about the lightning rods."
The knife was moving again, and he clenched his jaw so hard his teeth creaked.
"There are – ugghn – four grounding stations around the . . . city. We need to channel the energy from – from the lighting into the city's generators to power the shields."
"You said the energy would be dispersed into the ocean."
The knife stopped, there was an odd sense of . . . less heat. He wondered if the knife had been withdrawn. He wondered where he'd feel it next.
"I know. The – the grounding stations need to be disconnected, and the electricity rerouted from the . . . the . . . structure to the generators. The more lightning that strikes, the s-stronger the shields."
His release was violent, his arm given an extra twist before it was thrown towards the ground. He instinctively curled it to himself, he'd been trying to all this time, and the heat was suddenly gone, leaving the limb cold save a burning section, a cigarette butt folded into ice. He gasped, not caring that his face was still pressed into the floor, not caring that there was an oddly metallic taste to the air. Relief was overwhelming, and there was still so much pain.
"These grounding stations, are they visible on this map of the city?"
It was a slow in coming, the realization that he was on his knees, prostrate in front of the enemy, but when it hit him it was like a piece of hail. He tried to nonchalantly scramble to his feet, almost falling over in his haste to get his legs casually under him. He stumbled sideways, hitting the console he'd used to warn Sheppard of their plans, and he used it to get his balance back. They were watching him carefully, there was no way he could use the controls again.
The Genii – Taiel – had returned to his position across the room, eyes filled with scorn, wiping his knife with a soft piece of blue cloth. Shame, maybe embarrassment, made McKay turn away, but it couldn't stop his mouth.
"The word Genii is a derivative of genius, a plural form. Tell me, do you feel intelligent and advanced as a people when you resort to torture?"
Kolya was still watching him, his expression oddly . . quiet. "More intelligent than a man that would choose to put himself through it. All you had to do was answer a question, which you have done. The pain was your choice, not ours."
"How conveniently you rationalize it all away." He could still wiggle his fingers, but the arm was surprisingly difficult to lift, and unless he held it curled with his other arm, it tended to flop straight to his side. His shoulder didn't want to bear the weight of it, and he cradled it against his side the best he could.
"The grounding stations, doctor."
There was another Genii at the console, and he met her eyes briefly. Such disdain. He let his eyes reflect it, almost viciously pleased to see her expression flinch.
But it was assumed, just like his bravado earlier. He wanted to crawl unnoticed into a corner of the room, close his eyes, and wish it all away. He was the good guy. Weir and John were depending on him to keep it together, and he'd just failed them. The plan was up. Maybe he hadn't explicitly told them that the city was going to be electrified, but they weren't stupid. They'd almost mastered atomic theory. Surely one of them was a scientist, they'd known they were coming to a city that couldn't defend itself against a storm.
He gestured with his left hand. "These two here, this, and this." No more strength in his voice. God, he sounded weak. He was weak. He supposed he could have lied, but it wouldn't bring more than minutes, and it might cost him more information.
McKay closed his eyes, his face turning to his left, towards Kolya. There were approaching footsteps, and he felt a sudden rush of gratitude that Elizabeth hadn't been there to see it.
The thought chilled him to the core. The Genii were going to use them against one another. What was to stop him from hurting Elizabeth to get more information, or threatening them to flush out Sheppard?
Kolya was silent, just staring at him, and they listened to the footsteps grow louder. He didn't ask any more questions. There was nothing else to discuss. Channel the energy from the lightning to the generators. Clearly the Genii needed him for it, so they weren't going to kill him. He'd made himself openly indispensable, which was good. He had also significantly devalued John and Elizabeth's lives. That was not so good.
He was surprised that his breathing was still so elevated, and he strained to keep it under control. He wasn't going to let Weir know about the injury, not if he could help it. She was already scared, no matter how she looked. He knew. He'd felt the tension in her frame, it had been as unyielding as the console he leaned against.
She was a strong woman. Physically she was fit, she wasn't bigger around than a ball point pen, and it was apparent from the muscles of her jaw, the lines around her mouth and eyes, that she had the mental will to back up her physical presence. She already felt responsible for this, he wasn't going to let her add guilt about him to the long list of things on her mind.
He still didn't have a handle on his breathing when the blonde Genii shoved Weir back into the control room. There was a sweat on his face he could do nothing about, but he did raise his shoulder, trying to hold his arm more naturally. His shoulder screamed, and he held his breath to stop a whimper. He had been weak enough. He could handle this. He had to.
Weir caught his eyes, her own expression somber and worried. She looked fine. Hair wasn't mussed, no bloodstains. Relief flooded through him, and he attempted a normal smile with something he considered sincerity. There was no John, which meant he was still on the loose.
Somehow just the sight of her, still in control, was reassuring. She was a skilled negotiator, surely Kolya would find value in her. Surely she was too important to harm.
Her eyes suddenly crinkled, narrow with concern, and she reached out for his arm. It took everything he had not to flinch, but she was ever so gentle as she straightened the fabric of his coat, staring at the bloodstain.
He glanced. It was bigger than it had been before. He didn't look like an extra from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it was . . . maybe bigger than he had thought. Made it look worse than it was.
So much for saving her the guilt.
Elizabeth barely touched it, and he resisted the urge to pull his arm out of her hands. He could feel blood trickling down his wrist, congealing tackily on his forearm, and moving the jacket arm only made that sensation that much stronger. And weirder. And painful.
"What did they do to you?"
She looked back up at him, and there was a distinct lack of scorn, or hatred, or intense disappointment. Not even a little disappointment. Not even a little anger. Nothing there but honest concern.
Of course there wasn't. She didn't know, yet. Didn't know that he'd squealed on them all like the weak scientist in those damned novels. Because that's what he was. The weak scientist.
It blurted out of him, before the Genii could silence him. She needed to know that their position had changed. At least he could give her the bad news before Kolya started gloating. "I tried to keep my mouth shut, I tried, but I just couldn't-"
Her attention moved from his bloodstain, and her eyes were flashing. Anger. Such sudden fury that he turned away. Well, what did he expect. He felt a deep stab of self-loathing, and snapped his gibbering mouth shut.
But her attention wasn't on him, and it was her voice, quiet with rage, that opened his eyes.
"What's the meaning of this?"
It was directed at Kolya.
But it was a damn good question, and it hit him as solidly as her shoulder in his chest. She'd turned into him to face Kolya, and her shoulder was right there, just as tense as before, just as hard, but not at all the same.
What was the meaning of this, indeed.
He was a scientist. If he gave in to despair every time they were presented with an overwhelming challenge, he'd never have become the leading astrophysicist in the world. Ignoring Samantha Carter.
He screwed up. He made their job a little harder. It was a mistake, every mistake came from weakness, everyone had weakness. Sooner or later everyone made a mistake, and his was unfortunate. It wasn't over. She was standing there, practically vibrating with fury on his behalf, and he was caught up in thoughts of his own embarrassment.
Who the hell did he think he was, Kavanagh?
He turned his head to hear the response, taking a deep breath. Okay. So they knew about the grounding stations. So they might figure out about the electrified hallways. Sheppard could still get them at the armory, since he hadn't at the medbay. In fact, as he was a command in the military, that was probably the first place he headed. C4 was dangerous. Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines were not.
So Sheppard could get them in the armory. All McKay had to do was think of ways to help Sheppard. That was easy. It wasn't as though John was as conceptually difficult to understand as a wormhole. Find ways to help John. That was something he could do.
It just hadn't occurred to him, until she'd touched him.