Disclaimer- I don't own Stargate:Atlantis or any of the characters within.
Characters – Rodney's musings, Carson's musings, and Sheppard's… hell, Sheppard is just there. Elizabeth manages to get a low-end speaking part, but doesn't fare much better than Caldwell.
Summary - This turned into a rather long winded episode tag for Intruder. Lindstrom got blown all the hell, and I assume Rodney takes exception to the fact that someone manages to get killed on what should be the car-ride home. And decides that life is pretty over-rated at the moment, so he's going to go about it the scientific way and try a few alternatives.
A/N: I've been reading so many whumping fanfics that I'm sure my perception of the show has been a bit corrupted. John and Rodney aren't as beaten and battered in the show as they are in fanfics, but let's entertain for the moment that they've been through hell and back more often than not offworld. Not to mention the crap that always seems to happen to them in Atlantis.
What guides your vision?
What holds the balance?
Don't think that I can't see you shake and tremble.
Crying Out – by Bremm
The ragged cough that emerged from deep within his chest caught him by surprise. "Lindstrom." He managed choke out, his eyes still riveted on the monitor. The yellow light flashed again and again, needlessly. There almost seemed to be an echo in the hallway, one that reverberated around in his head. An endless blare of an airlock alarm, one that screamed at him over and over like the word 'failure, failure!'.
His vision tunneled. He could feel himself starting to shake. It was so surreal. Pointless, so goddamn pointless. Logs over junction blocks, wraiths over nano-viruses. A good man torn from the inside out in the cold death of space. He'd been so terrified, screaming into the monitor for McKay to save him. Another cough leapt from his chest, deep this time, and longer. His chest was starting to burn and a hazy gray began to dance in the edge of his eyes.
He reached with one unsteady hand and keyed his radio. "C-Colonel Caldwell, this Doctor McKay…" He choked out with a gasp, before doubling over again and coughing. Dimly, he realized he had probably inhaled more of the coolant than was probably healthy. Something felt like it was eating away at his lungs, so fierce was the burning. Not good. He was forced to lean against the bulkhead as his legs grew shaky.
"What is it, Doctor? We've just had an airlock malfunction and the system won't allow us to pressurize the room."
Rodney sucked in as much air as he could and forced out. "I know, I'm there. There was a rupture in the coolant lines, I had to seal—"
The cough couldn't be ignored this time. "Doctor McKay?"
Rodney shook his head, even though he knew the Colonel couldn't see it. One hand was clutching at his chest, trying to suck in air through the burning. "Doctor McKay?" his radio asked again, more urgent.
His hand fell away from the radio. There was a sudden intense pain in his knees as he crashed onto the unforgiving metal of the floor. Raggedly he coughed again and again and again, trying vainly to gasp in some air in between, and failing. There was a dull buzzing in his head, one that was giving that airlock alarm a run for its money. Tear tracks from his watering eyes curved down his cheeks. Panic began to set it. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to squeeze in enough air between bouts. They grew harder and longer, and he tried to inhale deeply, but that just tickled something in the back of his throat and sent him into another round. His hands were shaking too badly to key his radio.
It might have been the lack of oxygen, or the bitter despair that was welling up from that black place where he shoved all the names, but he could have sworn he heard Dumais' leering, teasing voice whispering "Weak in the knees, McKay?"
He would have laughed then if he could, a dark and helpless and pitiful laugh. Yes, that's what she would have said to him right now. Except he distinctly remembered a body bag with her name on it passing through the gate home, back to Earth.
Gaul… Gaul would have rolled his eyes and pointedly ignored him in that antagonizing way of his. Maybe be bothered to make some sort of snide remark about his age, and how he must be slowing down if he couldn't handle a little bit of coolant.
Peter would have figured out how to over-ride the airlock. Peter had a brilliance with computer systems that had McKay had always respected, and sometimes even envied.
And Lindstrom… Lindstrom was the kind of guy who would have kneeled at his side, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked, "Are you alright?"
But he wasn't, and neither were they. He realized just then, his knees soaking up the frigid cold of lifeless metal, his chest burning with something more than just coolant, and his eyes crying more than stinging pain… that it hadn't been alright for a long, long time. The radio in his ear was talking to him, demanding to know what was going on, but the voice was getting quieter and quieter against the buzzing in his ears. He felt himself listing to the side, but didn't have the energy to care. The coughs were getting weaker and weaker, and he barely recognized the rasp that had replaced his breathing.
"Go save the day."
What a fucking joke.
He could save every day from now until kingdom come, but he couldn't do it without good men and women dying. He'd never been responsible for the lives of the people before. Responsible for their work, yes, but he'd never had to worry about making sure good men and women survived. Now that he was in Atlantis, he was suddenly thrown into a world where every possibly factor worked against him, and these people's lives depended on what he knew. Whether it was coming up with some crazed half-assed plan to save the city from certain destruction or figuring out how to make completely foreign and advanced technology work with theirs, he saved the day time and again, and since he was the one in charge, he was the one who received their flags when the bodies grew cold.
Major John Sheppard got the dog tags of his dead soldiers, and Doctor Rodney McKay got the flags of his dead scientists.
One big fuckin' joke.
America was winning in the body count and Europe was not far behind, McKay thought. If he was getting a bit hysterical, he was ignoring it.
He screwed his eyes shut, his whole body lurching with every cough, and he was sure his lips were turning blue. He couldn't help but think in a bemused and almost hopeful way that 'this was it'. Here it was, death's door, the long white tunnel and the bright light. So what if everything was going grey instead of white. Close enough. He'd lived a tainted life, enough to turn heaven just a shade darker. He had berated others to make himself feel higher, he had shoved others away when they only came with the best of intentions, and he sacrificed others to keep his own hide safe.
Right now was a good enough example. That annoying detached and clinical part of his brain that always ran in the background, especially at times like this, remarked that he couldn't have possibly inhaled enough to be lethal. If he'd just calm down and take those deep breaths, he would get better.
But that other part of himself, the one constantly at war with the other, the one that screamed and thrived with emotion, cried out that there just wasn't enough left. No will left to draw another breath, no energy to expand his chest and quell the coughing, and no heart left to open his eyes and carry on. The burning in his chest was more than just coolant. It wasn't just science, knowing that the coolant was made up of several toxic chemicals. It was the burning feeling that he hadn't even made it home before having a life torn from his grasp.
The illustrious Rodney McKay gave up.
He was still on his knees, one hand planted on the cold floor to hold himself upright, the other pressed against his chest. He closed his eyes, and let the coughing overtake him. His lungs were on fire with it, his throat was raw and burning, and his face was flushed. Tears welled out of his eyes from the effort of it. The listing grew more pronounced, and his arm trembled. Softly at first, as it tried to bear his weight, but eventually everything just became too much and the arm bent and caved and he fell on his side against the unforgiving floor. He didn't even wince when the side of his face connected painfully.
He felt the footsteps before he heard them. The floor beneath him rumbled with them, gently vibrating through him, down the length of his entire body and back again. It tickled, gently. Eventually he could hear the thudding of boots, before everything faded.
John raced through the halls, shoving people out of the way, and tried to ignore the heavy feeling in his gut. Carson followed behind him, trailed by a few of the Daedalus' medical personnel.
No way. No way in hell something had happened. Not after everything they'd been through. They'd survived the Wraith and he'd be damned if something happened to them on something as innocent as the trip home.
Caldwell had said there was an airlock malfunction and a coolant leak in the power distribution center. Where, apparently, Rodney and a colleague were. Attempts to raise either scientist had been met with failure. Caldwell mentioned that Rodney had spoken a few words to him, but had died out with a fit of coughing and not responded further.
When John rounded the corner and came upon the still figure on the floor, he heart thudded painfully in his chest. "Rodney!" he knelt at the scientist's side, and turning him gently onto his back. He sucked in a breath. Rodney's eyes were closed, his skin white and clammy, his lips blue. He wasn't breathing. "Shit!"
Carson was immediately on Rodney's other side, one hand shooting for McKay's neck, the other his wrist. After a moment where John was sure time had stopped, Carson let out a short breath. "A pulse, faint and thready, but there. He's alive, John."
He turned around and started barking orders at the medical staff. Carson yanked a needle from the hand of one of them and injected something in Rodney's arm. "I need oxygen here!" he snapped, and an oxygen mask was promptly shoved in his hand. He placed it over Rodney's mouth and told John shortly "Hold that there."
John held the oxygen mask, and watched as Carson leaned over Rodney, placed his hands on the prone man's chest, and shoved.
What little oxygen that had been in the man's lungs was expelled, and on reflex Rodney took a deep breath. His eyes fluttered open, only to squeeze back shut as an alarming bout of coughing tore from his mouth. "Hold him down!" Carson shouted at Sheppard, who held down Rodney's shoulder with his free hand. He bucked under him, trying to double over with the coughing, but John kept him firmly in place.
"Rodney! Rodney, if you can hear me, I need you to calm down. Do you understand, son? Deep breaths Rodney, I need you to try and take deep breaths. Don't fight it Rodney, just try and breathe-" Carson's soothing voice carried on, talking gently, holding Rodney down.
Rodney's ragged coughing continued, but after a moment of Carson's gentle soothing, his breathing eventually began to slowly even out, deep ragged breaths replacing the halting gasping breaths after the bouts began to lessen.
"That's it Rodney, nice and easy now lad, deep breaths, that's it, you're doing great, just concentrate on breathing, nice and easy-"
Rodney slowly stilled under John's hands, his chest still heaving up and down, but his frantic twisting had stopped. Carson grasped one of Rodney's wrists and stared down at his watch. John watched him with anxious eyes. "Carson?"
"Give me a minute." Carson snapped, gently replacing the wrist at Rodney's side, slipping his stethoscope over his ears and sliding it under Rodney's shirt. The physicist shivered. "Easy, almost done…"
Carson frowned, and slipped the stethoscope back around his neck. He leaned to the side and spoke momentarily with one of the medical personnel, who nodded and stood, jogging off.
Carson turned back to John. "He's going to be fine, Colonel. Looks like he inhaled some of the coolant, but not enough to be lethal."
John glared. "This didn't look non-lethal to me. It looked an awful lot like a not-breathing McKay lying unconscious on the floor."
Carson grimaced. "Aye, that it did. His lungs tried to expel the foreign substance. The effort overwhelmed his system until he couldn't get enough oxygen. You know how panicked Rodney can get about these things, he must have had trouble breathing over the pain. Inhaling the coolant would burn the soft tissue in his lungs and was no doubt extremely uncomfortable. His body expended so much energy frantically trying to breathe clear air that he shut down. He didn't have any energy left to breathe with without conscious motivation, but now that we've forced his system to start breathing again, he is going to be fine now, you have my word."
John bit his lip, only half listening, staring down at the scientist as he laid still, his eyes screwed shut as he gasped in every breath.
"Give him a moment, his breathing should get easier. I've administered a low-level stimulant to energize his body into doing what it's supposed to." Carson said gently.
John was perfectly content to sit there and wait. His own rapid heart rate slowly evened out as he drank Rodney in. He had well and truly been freaked out to see McKay on the floor, not breathing. He swore his heart had stopped in his chest. John watched with greedy eyes as Rodney drew in and expelled every breath, and his hand reached down and looped itself around the scientist's wrist. The heartbeat under his fingers was strong, if a bit fast. He left out a shaky breath.
Carson peered at him. "Are you ok, John?"
Sheppard nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's just- for a minute there I thought-"
The doctor nodded in understanding. "Aye, I know how you feel." he muttered, and rubbed distractedly at his face.
"We're on our way home, god damnit."
Carson jumped at the venom in John's voice. He got a closer look at the Major – no, it's Colonel now, he corrected. Sheppard was a good actor, but in this moment of weakness, Carson glimpsed a dead tiredness in his eyes, which were dark and staring. His posture was slumped, and Carson found his eyes drawn to where Sheppard had wrapped his fingers protectively around Rodney's wrist. How long, he wondered, would it take for the two of them to break? How many brushes with death, how many dead soldiers and scientists would haunt them in sleep before one of them crashed?
Carson has a sudden dread understanding. That's exactly what had happened here. McKay, feeling the burning in his lungs, he must have known he'd inhaled the coolant. But certainly not enough for this to happen. No, only someone who didn't fight it, who just let it overcome, could have possibly gotten this worse.
It chilled him. That Rodney had given up and surrendered over such an easily overcome obstacle. How long had he been tottering on this edge? How long had both of them been standing on this fragile cliff, waiting to see which one of them would fall first?
Carson felt a hollow and bitter helplessness. He could patch them up, heal their wounds, replace their blood, and restart their stilled hearts, but he could do nothing for the blackness in their eyes. He couldn't take away the Wraith or erase the images of twisted scientists with blood running down their faces. He couldn't replace lost soldiers. He wasn't God, but at this moment he feverishly wished he was, just so he could make all of this go away. Make the Pegasus Galaxy safe and beautiful and free from tyranny so these brilliant people could explore a wondrous city without death weighing on their shoulders.
If only, right?
"Rodney?" John leaned towards the scientist, and Carson snapped to attention and gazed down into Rodney's eyes.
"Can you hear me, Rodney?"
Rodney coughed, and gasped, "Carson?" His eyes flicked between the two of them in confusion. "What-" he licked his lips and coughed again. "What happened?"
He lifted an arm and half-heartedly tried to shove away the hand Sheppard was using to hold the oxygen mask in place, but Carson caught the appendage and gently forced it back down.
"Leave it alone Rodney. What do you remember?"
Rodney looked lost for a moment, and then his face grew stony and emotionless and his eyes grew hard. "There was," he coughed again, but it wasn't as harsh as it had been before, "a rupture in the coolant lines. I made it out in the-- the hallway and Lindstrom sealed himself in…" he trailed off, and Sheppard nudged him gently in the shoulder.
"McKay?" he pressed.
Rodney wouldn't look at either of them. His voice sounded hollow behind the mask. "Lindstrom sealed himself inside the airlock."
"Oh." John said. Then paused, a look of horror crossing his face. "Oh."
Suddenly, Rodney was struggling to sit up. Carson jumped forward and grasped him by the shoulders, trying to force him back down. "Rodney, ya shouldn't be movin'! You need to relax, I've sent one of th' medics to get-"
Rodney, with surprising strength, shoved at Carson, snarling "Get the hell off of me!" and the doctor fell back with a grunt of surprise.
Sheppard was looking a bit wild. Rodney rarely got violent with Carson. He'd never seen him even lay a hand on the doctor. "McKay, what the-- what the hell are you doing, you should listen to Beckett-"
"What I need to do," Rodney hissed, "is get the hell off of this freezing floor and get back to work. God knows what else this virus is doing and who else may 'accidentally' stumble across something it doesn't want them to see." He coughed again, and squeezed his eyes shut as he road out the wave.
John blinked at the raw anger in that statement, and held up his hands. "Just take it easy McKay, you were at death's door not a minute ago."
Rodney was propped up against the wall now, and made an attempt to get to his feet. John took one glance at the alarmed look on Carson's face, and grabbed McKay's arms with a grip that meant business. "I'm serious McKay, take it easy!" and the deadly serious tone was enough to make him pause.
After a moment Rodney began to struggle again, but John kept his hold tight. "Let go of me Sheppard." He warned in a quiet voice, but John just shook his head.
They stared each other down, blue locked with brown, and Carson heaved a mental sigh of relief when the runner he had sent off to the infirmary returned and wordlessly handed him a needle.
Rodney, momentarily distracted, turned away from John to stare at it in Carson's hand. "What's that for?" he asked suspiciously.
"Just a little something special from the infirmary." Carson responded lightly. "A nice little cocktail that'll help ease that rather nasty burning I'm sure you're feeling right now." He held it up innocently, and watched as Rodney narrowed his eyes. Carson steeled himself for the rant he was sure to come, but after a moment of silence realized there was nothing forthcoming. Rodney simply stared at the needle in Carson's hand, and the doctor, feeling a bit apprehensive, edged forward.
Rodney simply sat there in John's iron grip, watching with surprising docile eyes as Carson took Rodney's arm and gently inserted it. Still nothing. Carson glanced up at Rodney's face, but the stone wall masked everything. He injected and after a moment removed the needle. There was a slight pause, then Rodney visibly relaxed. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall.
"Rodney?" Carson asked gently.
The physicist remained silent for a moment, and Carson was about to repeat his name when he opened his eyes and muttered so quietly he almost missed it, "I'm sorry."
To say they were taken back was an understatement. "For what?" Carson asked, genuinely confused.
Rodney turned towards the doctor and stared Carson straight in the eye, and said, "That the world is the way it is."
He felt a jolt shoot through his chest, and was left breathless for a moment. He worked his mouth, but no words would come. Rodney didn't seem to expect an answer and leaned back, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. There was a faint wheeze to his breath, but he was no longer gasping air in, so Carson took that as a good sign.
It was like Rodney had read his mind. He'd known that Rodney noticed a lot in the people around him. Emotionally withdrawn people were often like that. They noticed the minute details people missed, because who better to understand than someone who kept the same thing bottled up inside and never let it out. Rodney was rude, abrasive, blunt, and obstinate, but it effectively shut off Rodney McKay from the rest of the world. Sometimes, Carson wondered if Rodney kept up the act either because he'd forgotten how not to, or if it'd become too much of a habit. Or if simply, somewhere along the way, one Rodney had become the other, and there wasn't a difference anymore.
He jerked from his musing, finding blue eyes still locked with his. "Carson, I need to get back to work."
He automatically protested. "Lad, you've just had a very serious brush with death. You should rest, give your lungs time to recover. You don't need to be running around battling viruses--"
The doctor blinked, and trailed off. Rodney began to speak again, slowly, as if talking with a child. "I need to get back to work, Carson. The coolant lines are indirectly tied in with the propulsion system, which in turn is intricately linked with the hyper drive. If the virus has spread that far, we're in serious trouble, and we need to stop it before it's too late. I need to get back to work."
Carson opened his mouth, and shut it again. He exchanged glances with Sheppard, who was frowning but looking resigned to the truth of it. Eventually, with something very close to anger, he said, "Fine. Give yourself a minute for the drugs to spread."
"I can do that on my feet." He replied, and before either of them could move to stop him, he wrenched out of Sheppard's grip and struggled unsteadily to his feet.
They both immediate scrambled to their own feet, and Carson put a hand on the scientist's shoulder when he wobbled uncertainly. "Not so fast! Take it slow." He admonished. He stooped over and grabbed the oxygen mask from where it had fallen on the floor. He shoved it in Rodney's hand. Rodney glared at him, opening his mouth to protest, but Carson quickly cut him off. "Cooperate, and you'll be back to work sooner."
John watched wearily as Rodney stood his ground, then grudgingly lifted the mask and took a few breaths. He didn't miss the almost hidden look of relief that flashed across the scientist's face, and it looked like Carson didn't either.
There was a thudding behind them, and Elizabeth and Colonel Caldwell appeared. Elizabeth took in the three of them, the oxygen mask in Rodney's hand and Carson's hand on his shoulder, John hovering off to the side.
"Carson?" she questioned.
"I'm fine." Rodney snapped before Carson could speak, lowering the mask to his side. "There was a rupture in one of the coolant lines."
Colonel Caldwell didn't look pleased. "We had those systems completely inspected back on Earth. There was nothing wrong with them."
"Of course there's nothing wrong with them." Rodney griped. "I told you, it's the virus."
"The virus caused an isolated rupture in a fully operational system? How is that possible?"
Rodney was growing agitated. "It's a virus, that's what it does. It integrates itself into a system and destroys it from within. It's a simple matter of regulating the coolant flows to a critical level through this part of the ship until enough pressure is built up to breech the pipes. With the efficiency of a system like the one on the Daedalus, it would take only a matter of seconds to take effect. The moment Lindstrom accessed a system corrupted with the virus, it acted to eliminate the threat."
Colonel Caldwell straightened, sweeping his gaze across the hallway. "And where is Doctor Lindstrom?" he asked, frowning.
Rodney grimaced. "The leak was between him and the hallway. He had to take refuge in the airlock."
It took only a moment for both Elizabeth and Caldwell to let that little snippet of information to sink in. Elizabeth raised a hand to her mouth. "There was an airlock malfunction…"
Rodney nodded grimly. "Just like the surge that killed Doctor Monroe. The virus eliminated the threat." He looked like he was about to say something more, judging by the dark anger the shifted restlessly across his face, but he was cut off by another ragged bout of coughing.
"Damnit, Rodney." Carson muttered, grabbing the mask out of the scientist's hand and placing over the struggling man's mouth. "Take it easy lad, deep breaths, ride it out…"
Elizabeth had taken a step forward, asking apprehensively, "Carson?"
"Give him a moment, Elizabeth. His lungs are still fighting against the coolant. They're very raw right now."
The coughing subsided, but Rodney was left heaving shaky breaths. He leaned back against the wall for support, and John had materialized at his side, looking like he wanted to reach forward and offer his own support, but something made him hang back. Eventually Rodney lowered the mask and pushed off from the wall.
Carson immediately grabbed one of Rodney's wrists and looked at his watch. A minute passed.
"Doctor?" It was Caldwell asking this time.
"I'm fine." Rodney said aloud, but he was still pale and his voice sounded hoarse.
Carson gave him a look and said to the Colonel, "He didn't inhale enough toxin for it to cause any permanent damage." He said, emphasizing the word with a dark look towards Rodney. "A few more seconds, however, would have been a different story."
John was watching anxiously as Rodney shifted his weight and grimaced, but forced himself to step back and give him some room. Carson grabbed the scientist's arm and forced the mask back up into place.
Rodney glared, but allowed it. He took a few more deep breaths, knowing he'd need it but not wanting to admit it. He lowered the mask after a moment, and the wheezing quality to his breath was barely noticeable.
Carson could already see Colonel Caldwell bristling with questions, so he reluctantly stepped back to watch warily.
He listened as John, Elizabeth, and Caldwell all spoke and traded ideas, but he had eyes only for Rodney. He couldn't seem to get the image of Rodney on the floor out of his mind. The feeling of his heart leaping in this chest when John had rolled him over, thinking with more panic than he should have felt that the scientist, his friend, wasn't breathing. He'd brought him back, of course, he'd never have settled for anything less, but something was different.
Rodney had let down the wall, him and John both, and Carson had glimpsed the darkness. He knew that being an off-world team had its dangers. He hadn't understood it fully until he had experienced first hand the sheer number of times they came back beaten and battered to the edge of their capacity, and all the times the blood of those people had run red into the sheets. It was bleak moments like these, when one of them tottered on the edge of some great abyss, that Carson really wondered what kind of man it took to do the things they did, and how on Earth someone like Rodney McKay could ever become one of those men.
He'd always desperately wanted to talk with them, find out how they lived with coming back broken and leaving fixed, over and over, and still always moving forward. Rodney supporting a broken Sheppard into the infirmary, or vice versa, and then leaving, no doubt with the all too clear knowledge that they'd be back again. Death and taxes had nothing on those two.
How did they do it? How were these people so damn strong all the time?
They weren't, he realized, staring at Rodney and John. They were strong when it counted, when the Wraith or god knew what else threatened something that needed to be protected, but they broke so easily afterwards. They gave in to the darkness, surrendered to the pools of their own blood, and sometimes he thought he was the only thing keeping them in this world. They seemed to just survive the moment, and if he somehow managed to make sure they survived the aftermath, well, they just tried to keep going until the next one. And if he made sure they survived that one too, the next one invariably came as well, and they just continued on in this vein with no end in sight.
Rodney was still gesturing with his arms, as he always did, and Carson wondered if anyone other than him saw how truly exhausted the man was. He didn't act like it – he was still the man burning with life, but Carson could still see it. There was something off. Maybe his face wasn't as expressive, or his hands splayed too wide, or his voice was deeper than it should be. Whatever it was, it was happening to John as well. He was a little more cautious and guarded, and a little more dangerous. He'd leap into the fight without a second thought if he thought one of his men needed help. He was becoming less the dry and almost mocking Sheppard and become more of a protective, gruff soldier. He had seen the same thing in General O'Neill. The man always seemed to be full of life, always throwing off that effortless sarcasm, but sometimes he'd catch the man at random moments, maybe eating in the commissary or wandering through the halls, and he was stuck by how tired he seemed to be. Not so much physically as something else, a weariness that bled into everything he did. He hid it, and hid it well, but there were moments… almost a decade of Stargate travel had worn down a good man. Rodney and John weren't there yet, not by a long shot, but if it was this noticeable this early in the game, so to speak, how would they be after another year? After two years?
It shocked and scared him at the same time. They were literally just living each day as it came, trying to create a future for all of them without drowning in the past. He'd mentioned it to one of the nurses once, after one particularly harrowing day. How did someone live with just the now, with the only foreseeable future holding no respite?
'What else are they going to do?' she had asked, genuinely confused.
He would have responded with the large number of things they could have done. They could die from a wound too far gone for him to fix. They could break down under the impossible pressure, maybe go insane from the torture, lose the will to live in face of all the death, or shatter into a million pieces because there was nothing left to hold it together… and so many others. But the way the nurse had said it, made him pause.
What else could they do? Carson switched his gaze to John, watching as the man leaned against the bulkhead, looking for all intents and purposes like he was paying close attention to the conversation. The fact that John's eyes never left Rodney didn't miss his attention. He wondered if they were thriving on only the simple fact that when one of them faltered, the other was there with a supporting hand. When one of them woke up dazed and confused in the infirmary, the other was there with assurances that everyone was going to be alright. And if, in the middle of the night, everything became too much, there was always a private balcony and a voice that said "I understand."
It didn't sit well with him. It was horrible that they had to keep going at times simply because to stop meant to die. If they faltered, it cost lives. It was a terrible burden to bear, and he knew because he was a doctor. He knew because he had held their lives in his hands more times than he can remember, and had tried to fix what was broken. He succeeded more often than not. Maybe, once in a while, a bone would simply not set perfectly straight after the brutal beating it had taken. Maybe a shoulder would forever twinge if pulled a certain way, because sometimes the damage was too much for him to fix. And at the end of the day he would sit with his head in hands and try not to fall apart under the strain.
Rodney was still gesturing animatedly with his hands as he always did with his techno-babble, waving them in the air and gesturing around him at the Daedalus, his mouth moving a mile a minute as he no doubt described what exactly a virus would do the ship. Colonel Caldwell was nodding and occasionally adding in his own comments, Elizabeth was drinking in the information as she always did and John hung back until someone told him what it was he'd invariably have to do.
Carson stared hard at Rodney, and mulled over the fact that someone would never be able to tell that the man had just seen a colleague blown out of an airlock, and had been laying on the floor not breathing. No, you'd just see a man doing his job. Lindstrom wasn't going to re-materialize suddenly alive and healthy, and the virus wasn't going to just curl up and die because Rodney needed a break. So the physicist simply stood up and began to do his job. If he seemed normal, then it was because he was learning how to hide the weariness.
What else could he do?
Really, what could any of them do, except continue on?
Carson thought he might be beginning to understand how this man could have survived three weeks on enough sleep to last one, a man who'd watched his colleagues die raving and screaming in pain. The same way John survived staring into the dead eyes of those left behind after cullings and knowing that it was he who had hastened their deaths. And, invariably, the same way Carson tried to live with the fact that there was a planet out there with half of its people dead because of something he had created with his own two hands.
They were leaving now, moving away down the hallway, and Carson made no move to follow, just watching their retreating backs.
Rodney paused just before moving out of sight, looking back over his shoulder and the two of them locked eyes. Rodney didn't smile or grin or glare. He simply made eye contact, held it, and his head bobbed down half an inch in a nod, and then he was gone.
Carson stood there for a moment longer, and then turned on his heel, heading for the infirmary.