She thinks that maybe in another life she would have been someone – done something.
She has an abstract notion of grandeur that doesn't quite meld with her daily existence, but seems so much a part of her that somehow, somewhere – she knows she's bigger than this.
Unfortunately, in this incarnation she's not.
She's sitting at a table in the back when she first sees him. He staggers in the door, haloed by the evening's dimming light. As he steps into the room and her vision adjusts she finds herself unable to keep from following his movements. His slumped posture blocks the ambient light, accentuating the dark shadows that swallow his eyes. She's seen his type before – they come to the bar to dull those memories that refuse to fade in intensity.
Sometimes she halfheartedly wishes she was one of these pained souls – that there was something in life she had loved so completely that losing it had left her a fragile shell of the person she once was. But then she realizes how pathetic and trite that sounds and how, really, she's probably better off swathed in her cushion of mediocrity.
It surprises her when he comes and joins her in the booth, but it doesn't throw her. This isn't the first time a strange man has approached her and it won't be the last.
She's about to give him a brush-off when he speaks.
"Do I know you?" She is absolutely positive that she has never seen this man before, but he's sliding in next to her, invading her personal space like they're long lost lovers and calling her by name.
He sighs at her reaction and the cloud that envelops his darkening eyes tells her something is tormenting him; that she's unknowingly taken a large stick and poked him right in a tender spot. She feels a little guilty, but isn't quite sure why or how.
"No," he grounds out hoarsely, "no, you don't know me."
Well, that's a relief. For the briefest moment she was concerned there may have been some portion of her life that she'd blacked out on, and those never end well.
"So, how did you get my name?"
"I know you."
Okay, that one she wasn't expecting. The 'you-know-me/I-know-you' thing should be reciprocal, shouldn't it? Unless he's some sort of stalker, but she's strangely reluctant to dismiss him with that label. She's also fairly certain she's not the type of woman that strange men devote their lives to following.
He's leaning on the table, head in hands, pinching his eyes like he's trying to block out a searing headache or bad porn.
As forthcoming as he's not being, it seems that she's going to have to continue with the leading questions.
"How do you know me?"
He looks up then, big, saucer eyes. "I love you."
All right, so – now she's rethinking the stalker thing.
"How can you love me when I don't know you?" Regardless of the creepy factor, she's oddly drawn to this man. Her insides are clenching in an unfamiliar rhythm and her next words come out softly. "I don't even know your name."
"John," he says on an exhale, the sound black as smoke. He manages to sit up and rub a hand over his face, as if wiping clean the evening's slate – except that when he removes it the pain and anguish have magnified rather than diminished.
"My name is John Sheppard. I need you to know that I love you," he pleads.
Alarms go off in her head and she knows – just knows – she should get the hell out of here, but her body reacts as if severed from her rational mind. Her hand comes to rest gently on his arm.
"John, I don't –"
He slams his fist onto the wood table sending the silverware settings jumping. The utensils land with a metallic rattle.
"How the hell am I…" he mumbles to himself, rambling incomplete and incoherent thoughts. "God, what if – Rodney had better…"
He turns to her, clearing his throat and, she hopes, attempting rational dialogue. "I don't know how I'm supposed to do this, Elizabeth."
She tightens her grip on his arm but she doesn't know why. "Rodney McKay?"
He nods numbly, his rogue hand now running absently through his unruly hair.
"The physics professor?"
He simply shrugs.
"You know him?"
He hesitates for a moment before shaking his head. "I don't know him, don't know you. I know them."
He's obviously heartbroken and for some indefinable reason she really wants to help him, or to get him the help he needs, but these riddles are tearing at her patience.
"John, can you start from the beginning please? I'm trying to figure out what's going on."
His eyes dart around the room as if trying to spot eavesdroppers, or perhaps locate the men with the straightjacket who are looking for him.
"Is there somewhere else we can go?"
If she learned anything from after-school specials it was that strange men are to be dealt with in public venues. Regardless of how much candy they have or how tearfully they profess their love for you.
"No," she realizes her hand is still on his arm and slowly removes it, "let's just stay here."
He closes his eyes briefly before sinking back into the booth. For a moment he just sits there, eyes upturned as if he could actually see into his head to find the words that he's searching for.
"You're not going to believe any of this, Elizabeth. You're too rational."
While that may be true, she doesn't appreciate being analyzed by strangers. She thinks about believing him just to prove him wrong. Which is, if he's telling the truth about knowing her, perhaps the reason he made the statement in the first place. Either he's incredibly manipulative or she's really gone too deeply into this.
"I suppose I should start at the beginning."
She offers him a half-smile. "That seems like a reasonable suggestion."
He speaks slowly, as if the concept is so complicated that she'll need the extra time to process it.
"We're not alone in the universe."
"Right," she says, not knowing where he intends to go with this.
His eyes widen. "You know that?"
"Okay," he seems shaken but continues, "well, there is a program operated by the USAF through which we make contact with the rest of the galaxy."
He looks at her like she has three heads. "You know about the SGC?"
She's trying very hard not to write him off as crazy, but he's not helping his cause. "Everyone knows about the SGC. They publicized it four years ago."
"Do you know about Atlantis?"
"In the Pegasus Galaxy."
"Yes!" he exclaims excitedly. "Atlantis, in the Pegasus Galaxy. And you are the leader of the expedition."
She laughs at that. "No, I'm a political science professor."
His face falls and she feels as though she's just stolen his favorite toy and hidden it away.
"Did you always want to be a professor?" he asks, his eyes cast downward as he fiddles with the corner of a napkin.
She thinks about it for a moment. It's been so long since she's entertained that line of thought. "No, not always."
He turns his head to meet her gaze but doesn't release the paper he's toying with. "What did you want to be?"
"Well, when I was in kindergarten I was all set to be a princess."
This is the first time she sees him smile – even if it is a little halfhearted.
She nods. "And then, when I was a few years older, I wanted to be a cake decorator." He raises his eyebrows. "The person who puts on the icing," she clarifies.
"I didn't know you were artistically inclined." He's grinning now.
"I'm not. This is why by the time I was old enough to have some sense I decided I wanted to be a diplomat."
"…so that, should you become a princess, you would be able to perform your royal duties with a grace befitting your stature?"
There's a light in his eyes that's unlike anything she's seen. A sparkle. She wants to see more of it.
"So, why did you give up your political aspirations?" He leans onto his elbow in rapt attention.
She's suddenly embarrassed. It was a decision she made a long time ago and has wondered about since. But, at the time…
"I was in love," she admits reluctantly. "And he – Simon – wasn't crazy about the idea of having an international relationship. I needed something steady, something that would allow me to stay put." She smiles sheepishly. "I thought it was what I wanted."
"But it wasn't?"
It's the first time she's acknowledged it aloud. "No, it wasn't. Neither was he, but – hindsight and all that."
He nods knowingly.
Feeling off-balance and vulnerable, she changes topics. "I'm surprised you don't know all this information already."
"Yeah, well, I guess that's where the timeline alters." A moment after the words leave his mouth his eyes widen, as if he hadn't meant to let that sentence slip.
"Uh," he falters, suddenly caught, "yeah, well…"
"What's this about me leading the Atlantis Expedition?"
He scratches his temple. "This is the part you're not going to buy."
She crosses her arms, quirking an eyebrow. "Try me."
"Beckett thinks it's time we consider the possibility that she may –"
"The device." John cut Rodney off with a snap of his fingers. "The one from MX2-783."
The scientist looked up from his chair in the corner, brow creased in confusion. "The one –" he stopped himself and dropped his volume to a hushed whisper. "The one that Cadman's team –"
"Yes, that one," John whispered in reply, suddenly mindful of his surroundings.
"How could that possibly help us?"
Grabbing his arm, John pulled Rodney out into the hall so they could speak without fear of being overheard.
"How do you think it could help us, McKay?" he bit out irritably. "You said it was similar to a quantum mirror."
The scientist perked up. "Yes, yes. But I believe it to be even more advanced." He began gesticulating excitedly. "You see, unlike the naquada mirror that the SGC has encountered, it seems that this particular device has a timing mechanism inherent in the design which will enable the user to –"
"…get into and out of different realities without relying on another portal," John finished for him.
Rodney crossed his arms thoughtfully. "Well, that's what it appears, but we haven't even –"
"Damn it, we don't have time to run it through the proper tests!"
"Would you stop interrupting me!"
"Wait, wait, wait," she says, cutting into John's retelling. "Different realities?"
He winces. "Yeah, alternate universes. That's where I'm from."
She's pretty sure the pounding in her head is the sound of her brain attempting to twist and turn enough so that it can wrap itself around all of this. "So, what, you're from the future?"
He shakes his head and goes back to fidgeting, this time pushing a spoon around with his index finger. "No, no, not the future." He looks up suddenly. "It is December of 2010, right?"
She nods and he goes pack to the pushing.
"No, we haven't been able to get a handle on time travel yet."
She fights the urge to take the spoon from him and force him to meet her eyes. He's being infuriatingly childlike in his evasiveness.
"Though we did encounter it once," he adds absently. "But I'm not from the future. I'm from a parallel plane of existence."
The frustrating sense of incomprehension and disbelief must be clearly evident in the catch of her breath, because he looks up from the table and tries to explain. "Every time we make a choice in life, we leave one or more possibilities unexplored. For each decision there is an alternate reality that exists concurrent with our own in which that decision was made differently. If I come to a fork in the road and turn left, in a parallel universe John Sheppard went right."
She bites her lower lip. "So, somewhere out there," she gestures vaguely to the bank of windows at the front of the bar, "there is a version of me who maced you and ran away?"
He laughs mirthlessly. "Did you have the urge?"
"I left my mace at home."
Nodding, he answers, "Then yes, there is." Pausing a moment, he scratches the back of his neck contemplatively. "Although – I'm not sure how it would work since I've crossed into your reality through unnatural means. I forced my way in, so I'm not entirely certain how variations of my meddling – for lack of a better word – would have physically manifested in other parallel planes within the metaverse."
"Right," she says lamely, not entirely sure how else to respond. "So, that would make… a lot of different realities." God, she really feels like a dunce.
"An infinite number."
"Infinite," she echoes. She'd rather work through this in her head, but the sheer magnitude of it requires verbalization. "So, you're from a different universe and you forced your way into mine."
He nods. "Yeah, that's the gist of it. You think I'm crazy, don't you?" He doesn't bother looking up.
"I'd be lying if I said the thought hadn't crossed my mind."
He grunts at that.
"Can you prove it?" she asks.
"In a bit. Until then, can you just trust me?"
No, she thinks. But she wants to anyway. "Did you come to this particular universe on purpose?"
"Sort of," he answers evasively. "A few years ago we had a little mishap that involved tearing a hole in the fabric of another universe."
Somehow she doesn't think 'mishap' covers it, but she leans forward, indicating that he should continue.
"Because there are so many possible universes out there, the odds of tapping into an inhabited one are slim – so when we attempted to test a theory involving drawing the energy from a universe and harnessing it so that it was usable, we assumed that, the odds being in our favor, we'd hit an empty one."
Amazingly, she thinks she might actually understand this… abstract and intangible though it may be. "But you didn't."
His head shakes ruefully, "No, we didn't. This is why we spent a great deal of time and energy developing a way to look into parallel planes without crossing into them. Which we have sort of managed to do."
"Well, yes." He finally turns his attention from the spoon and twists his body so that he's facing her. "McKay created a way to open a window long enough to detect signs of life."
"So you know if there are people inhabiting that plane," she surmises.
"More than that. With modified life-signs detectors we can determine exactly who inhabits the plane and where they are."
She opens her mouth to ask how that's possible but shuts it before making a sound. She's going to place everything she has learned today under 'how the fuck!' in her mental filing cabinet. "So you can look through a window into another universe and see everyone in it."
"Not everyone." He picks up a knife and begins tapping it anxiously on his knee, creating a muted thumping sound. At least it's not the table. "We can only identify the people whose brainwave signatures we have in our system – which is limited to members of the expedition."
She feels a lump form in her throat. "So, you came to this universe specifically for me." She supposes she should have figured that out earlier, but it didn't manage to click until now.
He slows the tapping of the knife as he speaks. "We needed to find a version of Elizabeth Weir in a universe with close enough proximity to our own so there is no possibility of entropic cascade failure."
She's not sure why she bothers, but she asks anyway. "Entropic cascade failure?"
The pace of the tapping picks up again and he looks at his watch while he rambles off a textbook explanation. That is, assuming there are textbooks for this type of thing. "It's the resulting side-effect of having two or more of the same person co-existing in an identical reality." He looks up at her. "It's painful, it's messy and it's best if we don't have to deal with it. When the realities are close enough, it doesn't occur."
The lump gets bigger. "Two in the same –" she halts the thought. That means either he brought her here or… "You plan on taking me back with you."
"Not against your will," he says defensively. "I came to ask if you'd be willing."
Willing to go with him to an alternate universe in which she already exists? Struggling to figure out what his motivation for this whole scenario could possibly be, she thinks back to the first moment she saw him. He was broken, visibly aching. And he had said that he loved her in such a desperate and needy way.
"Your Elizabeth doesn't love you back and you plan on using me as a substitute?" Even saying it makes her feel vile and she backs away from this man – this stranger that she has let convince her of some fantastical science fiction existence. She swallows down the bile that crawls up the back of her throat.
"No." He grabs her wrist and keeps her from bolting. "God, no, Elizabeth." He seems as repulsed by the suggestion as she is, so she lets him guide her back to her seat. "I would never do something like that." He looks at his watch and tenses. "Look, I don't have time to get into this, but she's in trouble. Elizabeth is in trouble and she is – you are – the only one who can save her." When he turns back to her she thinks she's never seen anyone look so desperate. His hand tightens on her wrist and she knows he can feel her pulse racing beneath his touch. "Will you come with me?"
This is all too much. She's supposed to be the savior for her alternate self? What on Earth could she do that no one else could? "But, John, I don't –"
"I'm sorry," he cuts her off, "we don't have time." The words are falling frantically from his mouth like a chain of dominoes. "The device calls me back automatically when the time is up – I need to know now. Will you help me? Will you save her?"
In his eyes she sees a pain and sorrow so completely heartfelt that it sends shivers up her spine. In that moment she knows that if a reality in which she – Elizabeth Weir – is loved so utterly actually exists… she has no choice but to save her. Somehow, somewhere it's only fair that she experience it.
She nods once and he greedily pulls her to him. In a flash of blinding white, they disappear.