By M.N. Talbert
They say it only takes a second to make a mistake, but a lifetime to regret it. The second is debatable. In actuality, I think it was less than half a second, less than the time to blink an eye, or a flutter of a hummingbirds' wing – but a lifetime to regret? I think they were wrong on that one too. It'll haunt me even after I die.
I was sipping my coffee, reading the report that Bates had given me on a planet he and his team had visited. It'd been worthless; the only evolved life form consisted of some kind of elongated tapeworm. Either the wraith had been busy in the past, or the Ancients had never seeded this particular gem of a world.
My personal vote was the pass option. The world was proto-earth - volcanic, volatile. McKay had said something about it being in the throes of its final days. Whatever the cause, I'd rather not be there when it finally imploded and took itself, and anything nearby, along with the destructive ride. Even back in the day, the Ancients would've known its life was waning, and it wouldn't have made the top ten of potential breeding grounds. You don't build a henhouse on quicksand.
I looked up from the report, and saw Rodney McKay peering worriedly into my office. I know that I didn't manage to hide the irritation at being interrupted - interrupted, I might add, before I'd even managed an hour alone, and I'm equally pretty sure I telegraphed the fact that I'd actually noticed he was worried about something, and if McKay was worried about something, that generally meant I should be worried about something, and here's the funny thing - I don't like being worried about something, when I don't know what that something is.
"I was." I kept it straightforward. I always did with McKay. He took enough curves and turns for both of us.
"Good," he said, oblivious to the double meaning in my reply.
Or maybe he wasn't oblivious. It was hard to know with Rodney. He didn't seem to care about social skills like most people. An example, I care if I say something rude, or at least I attempt tact and diplomacy, except when I'm really pissed – but you get the idea. Not McKay. In fact, I sometimes wonder if he doesn't intentionally belittle to emphasize that it's not all about you, or anyone else.
McKay was leaning forward, and staring at me. Abruptly he waved a hand in front of my face. "Where do you go when you do that?" he asked with a mixture of wonder and annoyance.
I frowned at him, just because some of us employed mental thought instead of constantly speaking out loud – "You wanted something?" I said, steering him back to the original reason for him darkening my door.
He straightened, and gave me one final puzzled look, before I saw the mental rubber band snapping back to the original topic. "Right," he declared. "There's a device in my lab, I think it wants you."
"Wants me?" I repeated stupidly. How can a device want someone?
"Not you," he said derisively. "Your gene."
"I knew you only wanted me for my genes," I teased. I was rewarded by a disgusted look.
"First time, mildly amusing," he said. "Each time after, increasingly annoying."
I stood up from the desk, figuring I might as well go see this device that he was so hot about. As I walked by him, I couldn't help but throw in one more jab. "It's only annoying because my genes are superior to your genes."
I chose to ignore his shouted retort as he followed.
This was the device that wanted me so badly? I was holding a rock. Maybe an Ancient rock, but it was still a rock. A rose is a rose –
"You dragged me down here for this?"
McKay rolled his eyes, and grabbed the rock out of my hand. "Not only that." He pulled some kind of circular device off the table and held the rock in one hand, the circle thing in his other. "It's a set, Major. I can't get it to work."
"How do you know it does work?" I asked. Grudgingly, I took both items, and tried to figure out what it was. The circle had a few holes, and they were about the size of the rock, so McKay at least had the right parts from what I could tell. Still, "Maybe it's broken. You've got the gene, after all."
"I'm aware of that," he replied testily. "But as you know, some devices respond better to those born with the gene."
Boy, that had to have killed him to admit it. I couldn't help the smirk, and from the hooded glare, I could tell Rodney was seething. I suppose I was needling him, but it was fun, and he had interrupted my coffee.
"All right," I said. "Did you try to put this – rock thing into a hole?" I didn't want to look like an idiot by sticking something somewhere when it might not supposed to actually go there.
"So it goes in the hole," I clarified.
"Stick it in the hole, Major," McKay said tightly. "I'd prefer to not look like a wraith drained skeleton before you get around to testing it."
I've got a reputation already for having a dirty mind, and if Ford was here, I probably wouldn't have let that hole comment pass, but seeing how McKay was getting testy, I supposed I'd let it slide – this time. Taking a last look at the rock, I pushed it in one of the holes on the circle thing.
I didn't realize at first I was holding my breath, but as the seconds ticked by, and the device didn't respond, I relaxed. As the seconds turned into a minute, I tossed it towards Rodney. "It's a bust, McKay. Broken, useless, hunk of junk." I wasn't overly concerned. "For once it wasn't your lack of genetic prowess."
McKay, for his part, looked oddly deflated. "Try again," he said, thrusting it at me.
I pushed it back, "No." Why was he so interested in this? "It doesn't work. I could stick it in the hole five ways to Sunday, and it's not going to change the fact that it doesn't work."
"Would you just -" he tried again to hand it back.
Normally, when I've made up my mind, that's it, but there was something about the way McKay was looking at me. I flashed back to the worried look in my office. Reluctantly, I took the device back, and shook the rock out of the hole I'd stuck it in. There were four others, all arranged symmetrically around a center hole.
"Where's the other rocks?" I asked.
"There aren't," he said.
"That doesn't make sense," I argued, showing him the front of the device, why I don't know, he was the one who found it, and he already knew there were a bunch of other holes.
Judging by the second eye roll, he was thinking along the same line. "And everything about the Ancients makes sense?"
"More or less," I reasoned. They'd invented the Jumpers, after all –
Right. Device, rock and hole.
I think I did that irritated twist to my lips again. I was trying to stop that, because damn if I wasn't getting tired of being an open book in my responses to McKay. It was like feeding the sharks. Let them see weakness, and they'd circle closer for the kill.
So, anyway, what if I tried dropping this rock in the center hole? I did just that, and waited again. A second can go awfully slow when you aren't sure exactly what the next is going to bring. But the next didn't bring anything, or the one after, and so on.
Shaking my head, "It's a negative, McKay." I handed it back to him. "Maybe there weren't any other rocks with it, but I think there's supposed to be." I headed out the door, not waiting for a reply, didn't really expect one.
"Maybe you're right."
I stopped my feet from continuing forward out the door, and turned to look at him over my shoulder. He was staring dejectedly at the device, and suddenly I had a flash of insight. "You threw them away, didn't you?"
"How was I supposed to know they were anything other than rocks?" he exploded.
Oh this was good. All-knowing Doctor Rodney McKay had thrown away important parts to an unknown device. No wonder he'd looked worried when he'd shown up. "Well, get 'em back," I offered reasonably. It wasn't like there was a dump truck hauling our garbage to the city landfill.
He muttered something unintelligible. I rotated on my heel and faced him again. "What?"
I saw him take a deep breath, and look away. "Iskippedthemoffthebalcony."
I was kind of torn. My gut reaction wanted to rub this in. Infallible, arrogant, self-important scientist, that can do no wrong, actually skipped valuable technology off the balcony into the water. The other part of me took in the dejected status of Rodney McKay, and my inner nature was repulsed at the thought of kicking a dog when he was down. McKay shouldn't be down. It went against the physical laws of nature.
"So the other rocks are missing," I said loudly - pointedly. "File it away as missing parts, and move on to something else."
I gave a pained smile, because that was a really hard thing to do - to just let the opportunity slide away, and before it got all gushy or anything, I turned back and started out the door.
"Thanks," called McKay.
I lifted a hand and waved it airily over my head. No mooshy stuff, remember. I knew Rodney would regret it as much as I would. The dirty gutter mind taunted, 'but would you still respect me in the morning' – savagely, I told the inner voice to shut up, and hoped the coffee wasn't a total write-off.