AN: This is a story I wrote just about a year ago. It remains one of my favorites. This story is pre-slash, McKay and Sheppard, but it's more along the lines of a consideration during events about taking chances for what might be in relationships – if you can tolerate the concept of slash, you should be able to read this story without having issues. I considered editing to create a gen version, but in the end decided against it, as the 'what if' theme was the driving force behind the emotion in this story and to change that would do it a disservice.
Also, a final note. As you begin reading, you may panic with events. I'm begging a favor and asking readers to trust me and go into this story without reading warnings. If you feel you absolutely must know, they will be posted at the end of the story, so once the chapters are all up (will be same day), select the final chapter and scroll to the very bottom. There are times when a writer takes twists and turns and wishes them to come as a shock to the reader, because there are moments where something happens that you might not have predicted and it's that moment of "OMG!" that the writer wants you to feel. I know this is a long note, but if you can at all chance going into this without reading the warnings, I'm pleading that you do. I do not feel there is any seriously disturbing content. There is no sexual situations, non-con, or anything of that nature.
Thanks to my betas ankayoh, vonknibble and linzi! And again, this story is complete, I'm separating it into chapters due to length and posting them.
But trailing clouds of glory, do we come
"Run!" I shouted, waving madly at Ronon and Teyla. Both lay down covering fire, each taking a side of the sloping corridor in an attempt to keep it clear of the Replicators so that we could make our escape. I heard the gunfire chasing me up the hall, and ran harder than I'd ever ran before, bursting into sunlight. Even as I pumped my legs toward the Jumper, my steps faltered. I looked back, suddenly knowing he wasn't there. I stopped so abruptly Teyla and Ronon almost tripped over me. I turned back towards the building, shoved the device in Teyla's hand. "When they send a rescue team, tell Elizabeth that's the weapon we needed."
The radio cackled and spit. "Ron...on't …let …Kay come bac..!" I locked eyes with Ronon even as Sheppard finished.
"Don't even think about it," I swore, lunging to go past him. It wasn't that I was brave, I was incensed. He'd tricked me, said we'd run on three. We'd both decided to risk the mechanical bugs finding a way to turn off the bomb. We'd both decided.
Ronon looked vaguely sorry, but he cold cocked me nonetheless.
I fell boneless to the broken pavement of the abandoned city and felt him picking me up, slinging me over his shoulder like a massive sack of human potatoes. I heard Teyla asking urgently, "Should we not go back for John?"
"He isn't coming back," Ronon answered roughly. "Now run."
I was jarred hard against his shoulder and felt nausea well up. I blanked out and only the terrible concussion throwing us to the ground brought me around. I lay on my back, stared at the blue, deep blue sky.
The only thought I could process was that I'd lost. I'd lost.
How many cups of coffee? How many sleepless nights?
"I found it," I gloated to the people sitting, watching. I stood off to the side of the large display screen, and I was gloating because that was what I did. I found answers to impossible situations, and I'd done it again. "According to the databanks, there is a quantum mirror here." I pointed to the south pier, where we'd run into more dangerous things than I wanted to remember. "Using that, I can find a reality where Sheppard is dying, rescue him, and poof, our problems are solved. We can nurse him back to health, and he can deploy the weapon."
I waited patiently for the chorus of "wonderful, Rodney", and really, it seemed fairly straight forward and obvious to me. This was the answer we'd needed, the one I'd gotten permission to look for, but now that I'd delivered, Lorne merely exchanged a skeptical look with Elizabeth and Carson went straight for the jugular. "I realize I haven't spoken up yet about my doubts, but don't you think this is just a wee bit dangerous?" He frowned at the display and the concept. "This is a man's life we're talking about. You can't be playing chess pieces with alternate realities."
Exasperated, I bobbed my head and reminded Carson, "He'll be dying." What difference would it make in a reality where he would've been dead anyway? The absence of a corpse wouldn't change much.
"Rodney," Elizabeth warned. "You know Carson wasn't talking only about the reality we pull him from, but also this one." She leaned over the table, her arms bent at the elbows, hands clasped. "What are your theories about the ramifications to this time line?"
Lorne's skepticism twisted into disbelief. "How is that possible?"
I sighed. It was like explaining that Earth wasn't even the center of our galaxy, let alone the universe, to Ptolemy. "To alter the time line, you have to interfere in past or future events, not current. What we're doing is in the present. No time travel involved, therefore, we are not altering any time line."
"I don't care what you claim, you're altering something, Rodney, because Colonel Sheppard died in our reality, and you'll be essentially replacing him with another. That's got to have some ramifications!"
Of course I was altering something. That went without saying. God, my headache seemed to be spreading outward like an accretion disk of a singularity, sucking energy and light inward to keep feeding itself. It should be against the law for any part of the body to hurt to this degree, but I'd spent the last two weeks defending my theory, and at this stage, I wanted all the smaller people to shut up and let me do my job.
"What's it going to change?" I challenged. "That we win?" It sounded so much like something Sheppard would've said, arguing alongside me, that I had to fight against a sudden wave of bitterness that threatened to overtake me.
"That would be one possibility, yes," Elizabeth conceded. "Rodney, we all know that without John to use the weapon, the Asurans will win. If he's here to use it, hopefully we win. That significantly alters events in our reality."
Before she finished, I was all ready shaking my head. "No, you don't get it. You're thinking only in the x, y and z." I brought up a graphic I'd prepared and stared at them for a beat and admitted irritably, "That really shouldn't surprise me." On the display was a grid filled with green lines, and peppered on it were a multitude of red dots. "Pick one," I told Elizabeth.
She paused, but I stared at her with a "what are you waiting for" look until she got up, picked one in the upper right corner and put her finger on it.
"Good," I said, pleased. "Look." After she'd touched, I pushed a button, and a multitude of other red dots began appearing. "When you placed your finger, we rescued a Sheppard and replaced the one we lost. All the new red dots are realities that spring up from that 'fork in the road' – don't you get it? For every decision, every choice made, theory dictates that a reality exists for the opposite outcome, the other decision not made. We are merely following one possibility. Another reality will make the other choice, and in that reality, we will lose." I waited till she returned to her seat and then I faced Lorne, Elizabeth and Carson before asking sharply, "Which fork do you wish to live?"
As I set up the control device on the quantum mirror, I considered again how difficult this was going to be. When I'd been focusing on the proposal, and then locating the mirror, I'd had something concrete to look at, but this was going into an area that seemed a lot less certain, and I disliked, on principle, vagueness. Would this take a day, a week…months? And horribly enough, I knew at the same time that we didn't have months. We needed to find a Sheppard that was on death's door enough to ethically remove him from his reality. Therefore, he needed to be clinically dead, or moments away from it, with no hope of revival. Drowning, freezing, fed upon…well, I'd really prefer we not go there.
Seeing how we'd almost drowned in this reality, saved by the last minute, damn near miraculous, return of Sheppard, along with the Athosians and a ZPM, I imagined a city floating on a massive body of water would give us our best possibility -- drowning.
But we would still need either fate, God, or ascended Ancients interfering – please – to help us get lucky. We needed to locate one mostly dead, but still viable, Sheppard. In days, weeks at the most, because months would be too long, and if we didn't do that, we might as well just update our wills and rig what Sheppard termed a mercy charge -- nice pretty wrapping, minus the ribbon, for suicide. Myself, I preferred the narcotic nudge.
It was hard enough just having had to live the last month.
The trip to the pier had been simple enough because transporters just made our lives that much easier -- the hard part would come in coordinating the rescue. To find a Sheppard on the other side of this mirror, a certain set of parameters would have to be met. First, that he'd be in Atlantis, along with the other mirror; two and most problematic, that he'd be dying, and we'd have to find him in time to rescue a still viable body. The odds of meeting that last clause were making me refuse to do the math.
Elizabeth wouldn't consider abducting a Sheppard that was anything less than clinically dead or dying (with no hope of rescue or revival in the alternate reality). I reluctantly had to agree, because one, we didn't know when the Asurans would come for us, we just knew that it would be soon, so snatching a live Sheppard without a set timetable for his return to his reality probably wouldn't go over well, but also two, Sheppard had a life in the other realities and to take him from that, even if we managed to quickly return him safe and sound after the threat here was over, the impact on the other reality might be catastrophic. We might take him during a critical junction, and change everything.
So, I took what I could get and only reminded her every now and then that I wasn't likely to succeed with such limitations. I didn't want any false hope on my shoulders. She'd merely replied, "Why, Rodney, I thought you were a genius?"
As for the math, it didn't matter what I had or had not done, because Radek had done it for me, and then shoved it under my nose with a Czech curse.
The Mirror Team consisted of myself, Teyla, Ronon, and Carson. Elizabeth had tried to argue the need for me to stay, but I'd held up the control device and said, "ET must phone home, remember – if I'm not there, they will most likely spend the rest of their lives hopping through alternate realities looking for us."
Now, I set the control device to scan and began searching. The first six realities revealed people we didn't recognize and some we did – Genii, Asurans, even Naasians, and they weren't wearing the tell tale animal skins in that reality, but they still had the familiar crested nose and ridged necks that gave away their identity -- and then there were the two realities where we saw wraith staring back at us. I switched to the next reality faster than I thought my reflexes could allow. We had the wraith subdued here, and it would be nice to not be responsible for a new invasion. One evil enemy to conquer at a time, thank you.
"Bloody hell," Carson swore after the last one. He stepped back a couple of meters and wiped at his forehead. "Is there still time to say I think this is an incredibly bad idea?"
"You can say it," Ronon offered gruffly.
Teyla added, "But we will still proceed."
I sent a brief smile her way, before turning back to the device. In the argument about going ahead with this, well, in fairness, less than ideal plan – even I would admit, to myself, that in ordinary circumstances (which this wasn't), it was fairly insane – Teyla had not only stood by me, but supported it. I was oddly pleased and touched in places I'd…really rather not examine. Suffice to say, I'd thought Teyla would be completely against it and tell me what I was proposing was wrong, insisting if we could not find another way, then we would celebrate the time we had left.
Her people had very strong ideals on dying and death and after Sheppard had died, she'd returned to the mainland and mourned for one week, while Ronon isolated himself in the gym, and me…I walked around Atlantis in a daze thinking something had just gone terribly wrong.
Even now there were still moments when I was alone in my quarters that I let myself feel the full depth of his loss. The things I never said or did. And it was then that I swore there'd better be some form of afterlife where I could tell him just how unfair it was for him to die and leave me with regrets. I'd never had a real regret before in my life and I found the entire experience grossly uncomfortable.
I'd blustered through school, college, and even into the military machine as a civilian GS employee, with far more assurance than anyone should have had, and then -- then I'd pulled up short after forming some kind of attachment to Sheppard, avoiding waltzing blithely into the one thing that probably meant the most to me, because the friendship alone felt incredible enough that I couldn't risk it. I'd told myself that if I died, I'd be happy with what I had. It wasn't until he had died that I realized it hadn't been enough, I wasn't happy. I didn't have the more of what could've been because I'd been such a social coward.
Of course, by then it was too late, the opportunity was gone, and I should've known better. You can never go back. Well, not without time travel or quantum mirrors. The former had annoying rules. And while maybe I could've pushed the limit of those rules without the universe smacking me down – a hastily scribbled note left to be found, a well-timed whisper –we lacked the necessary time machine to do it. As for the latter, I suppose if all went according to plan -- I know, optimism, which really wasn't like me -- but anyway, if this worked out, I'd have a shadow of that second chance, but it still wouldn't really be my Sheppard, now would it?
The next three realities met my parameters wherein we didn't see any sign of any occupants other than Earth-based expedition members, and we actually traveled through the mirror to scout. One had life signs, and we quickly realized it was, in fact, our counterparts. We lurked around and overheard all we needed to know. The Sheppard in this reality had died two weeks ago, and so did their version of me, Ronon and Teyla.
We snuck back to the mirror and thankfully escaped without being seen. The next had an empty city and before we left, I set it to power back into sleep mode, on the off chance that the expedition was merely delayed on Earth in this reality. The third was harder. People were around and we tried to act casual when we were seen. No one reacted badly, so we pushed on, remembering that to everyone here, we belonged.
Outside of the mess hall, we ran into Sheppard.
He narrowed his eyes at us in confusion. "When'd you get back?"
"Ummm, just a few minutes ago." I tried to pick a random response that would make sense and then tried to act like I believed it.
Sheppard's face brightened and he slapped me on the back. "Great, look, I found something when you were gone and you've got to see it. Remember that shield device you thought was going to kill you?"
I nodded numbly. This was some version of hell. My personal hell. Because I wanted to stay. I wanted to go see whatever it was that he'd found, and get lost in the thrill of discovery with him again.
Carson intercepted when I didn't speak up fast enough with an excuse to vanish, "Colonel, I've got to borrow Rodney for a moment – his post mission physical."
"Major," smiled Carson tightly. "Sorry, I had Colonel on my mind after talking to Rodney about another man I knew back on Antarctica."
He seemed to accept it, but some of the eagerness had dissipated. "Call me when you're done," Sheppard said with another slap on my arm. "It scrambles life signs on the sensors. Very cool." Then he headed back the way he'd been going when our paths had crossed.
After we made it back to the mirror, and back on our Atlantis, I collapsed against the wall, sliding down to the floor. Teyla and Ronon knelt beside me, and Carson covered his face in his hands.
We stayed liked that for too long.
"Crap," I finally croaked. "How can I be sarcastic after that?"
"You'll find a way," Carson murmured. "You always do."
The rest of the day was a waste. We found realities where Atlantis was flooded, and a couple we ventured into only to find an exclusively civilian expedition and no Sheppard at all, or once, we found a military expedition led by Sumner, and it was only through lurking, dodging, and hacking into a computer in an empty room where I found out their Sheppard had died, along with Ford, in a mission to Athos, along with all the natives on the world; everyone taken in a massive culling by the wraith.
We found a reality where the Ancients still lived in their city. I wanted to travel through, ask questions we needed answers to, but Carson called Elizabeth and tattled. Lorne arrived after that to observe.
Late into the evening, and with a growing pile of powerbar wrappers to show for our useless day, I powered off the mirror and we left, tired and physically worn out, to get some rest. I would've kept on through the night if it weren't for the drooping faces on Teyla and Carson. Ronon suggested we do just that, but Carson pulled his CMO power from his pocket, and ordered us to get some rest before starting fresh in the morning. .
Over coffee the next morning, Carson lectured me, "I can't see how you expected it to go any faster, Rodney. The odds --"
"I know the odds, Carson, but I fail to see how we are going to accomplish what we need to do if we stop to sleep according to unrealistic bodily demands. That's what stimulants are for." I took another gulp of the crappy mess hall canned coffee, and almost burnt my throat. "Let me put it in terms you can understand – we'll get all the sleep we need when the Asurans arrive and we don't have a Sheppard to use the weapon."
He shot a dirty look across the table and speared his sausage.
Less than an hour later, we were back in front of the mirror and I was scrolling again. Empty, empty, flooded, woah…was that…?
"Iratus bugs?" Carson leaned closer, then pulled back, his lips twisted in the same disgust I felt.
I flipped to the next reality. Empty, empty – that was getting a little depressing – then finally, a reality where I recognized crates from Earth. We got prepared to go, and when Teyla and Ronon were ready, we went through. We wound up an hour later, back in our reality, breathing hard.
"Well, that wasn't so bad." I tried to act nonchalant as I pushed a hand against the painful stitch in my side.
Ronon looked over from where he was hunched, his hands braced against his thighs. "We were almost killed," he panted.
"Bloody hell," breathed Carson.
Teyla nodded solemnly. "I did not know the colonel could run that fast."
I exhaled, trying to slow the rapid thumping in my chest. "Only when he thinks something is threatening." And because the Sheppard in that reality hadn't known Teyla or Ronon, he'd wanted to take us down first and ask questions later. Shit.
We ate some more powerbars, drank some water, then I started scrolling again, ignoring the muttered jibe from Ronon to try and find something that wouldn't get us captured, stunned, or running for our lives.
Lorne and a couple scientists showed up an hour later, curious this time. I discarded another five realities before finding another that looked promising. The city was powered up, the room empty, and I thought I could make out some Earth supplies tucked off to the side of an exposed hallway.
When we walked through those halls minutes later, we found shriveled, desiccated, drained corpses. Though there weren't any life signs, a sick fascination seemed to drive us forward, no one suggesting we should leave.
I found Lorne's body not far from the mirror room, then Kavanagh's and Caldwell's…Miko and Radek. The only way we knew who they were was by checking dog tags. We found a few bodies with names I didn't recognize. After that, we stopped looking at the names. I went to a computer and brought up the list of expedition members and found that Sheppard was on it, as I was, though Carson wasn't. Ronon was added at the end, but Teyla wasn't anywhere on the list.
"Maybe --" Teyla began.
"If he's here, he's beyond our help," I interrupted angrily.
From the last recorded data entered, the attack had begun seven days ago. Three Hive ships and a battle that lasted four days until the ZPM was drained and there wasn't any option left. Not everyone had been able to escape, or wanted to. A fair amount of personnel had chosen to stay behind to limit the power drain on the ZPM caused by opening a wormhole to Earth.
I sighed in disgust as I stared at another dead body wearing what I thought was a science uniform, if the colored panels were the same in this reality. "Lot of good it did you," I snapped at the body. The infinitesimally small difference it would've made in the power capacity...there'd been no need for so many to die, but I knew it hadn't been about power at all. It'd been about not wanting to leave your friends. "Stupid sentimentalism --"
"Rodney?" Teyla was standing uneasily in the hall to my right, her P90 pointed into the distance, hair softly lying against her shoulders. This could've been us, except for different choices made, different forks.
"This is what caring gets you," I said harshly, nudging a corpse with my toe.
Ronon was the one that surprised me by speaking up, his voice gruff. "At least they had someone to die for. Someone they cared enough to die with."
I stared at him, reminded of his world, his life as a runner. Eventually, we broke eye contact, though I have no idea who was first. We walked back to the mirror and I pulled up our reality as quickly as I could, and then we were back home, Lorne waiting to get a report. Instead, I just shook my head.
We spent another week going through similar versions of the first two days.
The days passed like the ones before, unsuccessful; soon, we were on day ten, and I'd already found an Atlantis populated by Ancients – again – and a city of aliens that I didn't recognize. Not Ancients, wraith, Asgard…I wondered if they were a new enemy we hadn't found or if they were possible allies and we just hadn't ran into them yet. Then, I found a reality promising enough to scout.
As we moved through the halls of this Atlantis, we talked a hell of a lot less now then when we did when we'd first begun the search. I had to wonder, that even if the Asurans left us alone, gave us the months we needed, holding off their attack for whatever reason, that maybe we wouldn't be able to hold out…to keep going to all these alternate realities. They were already beginning to blur together.
When I felt the impact of the stunner against my back all I had time to do was utter, "Oh, no," and then I felt the hard floor against my face and saw black combat boots, then darkness.
I woke up in one of the holding cells.
Everyone else was awake. Teyla sat cross-legged on the floor, Ronon hovered next to the wall nearest the door, and Carson was sitting next to me. "This is bad," I stated.
Ronon looked over his shoulder at me, held it for a moment, then turned back to stare at the guard, doing some kind of threatening thing. I thought about reminding him that we were in here, and the guard was out there, so really, waste of time, but then again, the guard was looking a little nervous at the continued stare.
"I'm beginning to think I'm not cut out for this mission," Carson mumbled forlornly.
The door slid open and Sheppard came through. Sheppard.
He shot a questioning look at the guard and stuck his chin out in that way he had. "Sergeant?" he prompted.
"Nothing, sir. The big one there, he's spent the entire time staring at me, and the others were slower to come 'round."
"Okay, then," Sheppard said. He came over to the cell and skimmed his eyes over us. "You, and you, I recognize." He had pointed at Carson and then me.
"Then why are you keeping us in a cell?" I demanded, standing up.
"But seeing how you're on the mainland…" Sheppard tilted his head and added with a grin, "I checked." I followed him with my eyes as he circled the cell. "That means that at least two of you are some kind of imposters, or clones."
"Clones?" I snorted, rolling my eyes. "Please, this isn't science fiction, Sheppard. Try alternate realities."
He stopped and leaned in, vaguely annoyed with me, but staying far enough back that he didn't touch the force field. "We have clones."
I straightened. "You do?" Really? Wow…that's kind of…hey, would you mind if we cloned you?" At Carson's sharp look I waved my hands irritably, "Solves everything!"
"No!" Sheppard retorted, looking like I'd asked for his firstborn or something. Then he settled and looked only mildly irritated at me. "Besides…they don't…live long."
Oh, not irritated then…embarrassed. Ha! "Carson could help with that."
"Rodney!" Carson shoved me aside, then quickly explained we were from another reality, scouting out other realities. Sheppard seemed to accept it. He stared curiously at all of us. When he finally agreed to let us go, under Teyla's assertions that we would not only agree to leave now, but that we would show him where the mirror was so that they could secure it, he admitted that he believed the whole 'alternate reality' schtick because apparently I wasn't really alive anymore, just Carson, and he was off caring for a bunch of sick Athosians on the mainland. As for Ronon and Teyla, he'd never met them. The leader of the Athosians was a man named Dagan. I saw Teyla pale and she admitted in her reality, Dagan was her father, and he had been culled years ago.
On the way to the mirror, I explained in more detail about alternate realities. Ronon hovered close, continuing to shoot the guards vague threatening looks – I think he was just pissed because we'd been stunned without warning – and as we left the transporter, Sheppard jerked his head at Ronon and muttered, "What's with the watch dog?"
"We picked him up after Ford went dark side," I confided, our heads practically touching. Then I straightened and we shared a moment of realizing that the 'we' wasn't 'us'.
His face went to a similar sad place and said, "It hasn't been the same since you…died. You know, if you're looking for a place --"
"I can't." I almost wanted to. His drooping shoulders made me wish I could, but not in the way he meant. I could take him with us. He'd lost me, I'd lost him – two halves to form a whole. "I'm --"
"Sorry," he finished. "I know. Well, look at it this way, we'll always have the memories."
So, this Sheppard wasn't quite like my Sheppard. He was more open, but I could still feel the deadly danger that always seemed to hum underneath his skin. The mirror waited, and I quickly brought up the right reality. The others went ahead, Ronon last, with another warning look until I finally said, "Would you stop that! What, you think he's gonna kidnap me and keep me here? Just go."
After Ronon did leave, the guards suddenly seemed too close. "You aren't going to kidnap me?"
He leaned lazily on the wall. "I thought about it, but you can go, just answer me one thing before you do."
"Did I ever tell you how I felt before I died?"
"Did you ever tell me?"
Sheppard shook his head. "I guess maybe things don't always work out, do they?"
"Please, this is the Pegasus galaxy," I snorted. "Nothing ever seems to work out."
He nodded, and pushed off the wall. He gave me a small wave as I touched the mirror, instantly transported away from him.
For such a genius idea, this was turning out to suck incredibly badly.
"We should eat," Teyla said.
Momentarily losing the veil of selfishness, I realized that it wasn't just sucking for me. I took the powerbar from Ronon, dropped on the floor next to Carson, and let my head rest against the wall.
Chewing, I admitted, "This might take longer than we have."
"I think it might be bloody impossible."
Ronon swallowed a mouthful. "You give up too easy."
"It's not called 'giving up too easy'," I argued. "Besides, it's self-preservation. Any situation that's going to have Sheppard near death will, oddly enough, place us in the same situation."
Why was I arguing in favor towards giving up?
"You don't want to run into another copy that you have to leave behind."
Of course, Ronon was right. I crumpled the wrapper and tossed it to the floor, standing abruptly, because I sure as hell wasn't going to admit to the wookie just how close to home he'd hit. I had my pride, and being read by someone who'd been raised on 'see the sun rise there, see the sun set here' wasn't on the same playing field as someone like me, when I'd teethed on Faraday's law. I was supposed to be complex, complicated…
"Are you done psychoanalyzing me, Freud? We have a Sheppard to rescue." And stubborn…I was definitely stubborn.
Teyla walked by, and told me, "Carson has taught me about Sigmund Freud. He had very…unusual ideas."
I followed her progress to the mirror, bemused, then shot a filthy look at Carson. "Why?" I had to demand. Couldn't that be considering corrupting alien minds?
He shrugged his pack into place on his shoulders, kicked his own trash into the pile where we'd mutually kept the mess in one location. "It wasn't my idea, Rodney, so don't go giving me that look. It was Grodin that started it. He and Radek were having a conversation about the Id and the Ego, and I happened to be standing nearby, minding my own business, I might add --"
"Oh, shut up," I snapped.
"Who's Freud?" Ronon asked.
It was a moment that could've been lifted from any other day, on any other mission, except one person was missing, and because of that, it all seemed to be flat, like I was living in past memories, painted in sepia, and pulled out for forced reminiscing. "Let's try again," I muttered, ignoring his question.
As I scrolled through possible realities, I heard Teyla explaining Sigmund to Ronon.
There. That one had promise. Water was puddling on the floor, but not too high, ankle deep if I guessed right. "We brought emergency air tanks, right?" I knew we had, but when I get nervous, I talk. Often uselessly. Sometimes importantly.
"We did," Teyla confirmed.
"Good, get them out. I don't think we'll have a lot of time to assess what's happening here, and we might have to pass by other dying personnel, so get ready." It was the first time I'd acknowledged a considerable dark side of my plan. If we found a dying Sheppard on Atlantis, odds were, we'd find other personnel we knew dying. If their counterparts were dead in our reality, we could bring them back, but otherwise, bringing anyone else to our reality would only delay the inevitable, and dying from temporal entropic cascade failure was bound to be incredibly painful. The only solution would be for us to search through other realities where those people would not exist and frankly, that was when it got too tedious and I'd told Elizabeth my recommendation was for rescuing Sheppard only, regardless of who else might be with him.
That's when Elizabeth had asked, "What if you're with him?"
I never did answer her. I don't think she expected me to.
We stepped through, the change in ambient temperature shocking enough that I inhaled sharply and swore, "Jesus!" Alarms were blaring, and emergency lights were all I could see. This Atlantis was in trouble; it was almost tangible.
"—anything?" Carson demanded above the din.
Oh, right. Life signs detector. I pulled it from my vest pocket and stared at the display. There were life signs, but very few, and above us. "That way," I pointed out the door. We'd have to go to the transporter that was nearer to the center of the city and find our way up to see if one of the life signs was Sheppard.
Progress was slow because the doors were shut. I had to override each one as we went. Particularly disturbing was the water that was deeper after each override. "They're locking down because of the water." I had said it aloud but I was thinking this through in my mind. Somewhere up ahead, the city was taking on water, and it'd sealed the doors to try and limit the damage. "Why is it doing that?"
"Why is what doing that?"
I looked up at Ronon. We were at the next door, and he was trying to figure out what I was rambling about, which was never a good idea for anyone but me. "The city," I explained. "Radek and I theorized that if we submerged the city without shields, the first areas to flood would be the outer --" Wait a minute, wait a minute! "That was in the case of shield failure and a direct order to the city to submerge." I looked up at the ceiling where the lights were mostly dead. "But if the city lacked the power to submerge, then anyone left would have to rig explosives in key locations to cause the city to take on water and sink. Just sabotaging the ballast tanks wouldn't work fast enough because of the redundancies!" I snapped my fingers excitedly, this was it! If Sheppard was still here, I had a pretty good idea of where to look for him, because knowing him, he would've been on the team to set the charges.
Carson, Teyla and Ronon were staring at me with matching 'what the fuck?' looks and I just shook my head and pointed back the way we'd come. "This way, trust me. We don't have time for me to explain!"
"Wouldn't a nuke have been more effective?" Carson huffed behind me as I sprinted through the ankle deep water.
I was all but running, because if I was right, odds are the life signs detector wouldn't do a damn bit of good. The rate of influx, how many charges they would have likely set, and picking the direction the teams would have taken. Sheppard would've taken the assignment most likely to result in death, and not ordered anyone else to shoulder that risk, although I had to wonder, the life signs above, what was their plan? Playing cards in the fashion of the doomed Titanic passengers, waiting for the inevitable? Or was there a ship that was going to rescue the survivors?
"Rodney? Carson is right, if they wished to destroy the city, a nuclear bomb would be far more effective, in which case, perhaps we should abandon this reality and look for another?"
Another door blocked our path; we'd passed the room we'd arrived in via the mirror and were now heading to an access way that would allow us to go one floor down. We were all ready below water level on this floor, one down would lead to one of the vulnerable locations Radek and I had discussed, and it was the farthest away from a transporter and any possible escape. The south pier was one of the most damaged in our reality, and it seems the design flaw that caused it to be existed in this reality as well.
"McKay," Ronon prodded. "Are we gonna get vaporized?"
Right. I wasn't ignoring them on purpose, I was just busy. Lots of thoughts, lots of worries, come on you damn door, open! I swore as the override didn't work. "Just shut up," I snapped. "If we get nuked you'll be the first to know." Now, second override, come on…yes!
The door pulled open slowly, and a gush of water slid out and crashed against our shins.
I could see the lines in the floor ahead where the access way was, and I practically ran to it. I knew time was counting rapidly against us. If he was here, if he was below, if my mental calculations about the depth of water I was seeing up here were right…cold water drowning victims could survive for extended lengths of time. I read about a man that was fully resuscitated after sixty minutes, and right now, my calculations put anyone below us at having been submerged for at least thirty minutes, but hopefully less than sixty. We had to get to him now. If.
"Help me," I grunted, tugging on the curved half-moon handle to pry the metal slab up. Normally, it would've pulled up with little effort, but the almost foot deep water was pushing down on it despite my tugging.
Ronon shoved my hand aside and yanked, straining hard enough that his lips bared against his teeth and I could see muscles flexing underneath skin. With a sluicing motion, water slid away, and the panel came free. Looking down, all I saw was dim water, and a far off glow. Could the glow be from a submerged flashlight? Crap crap crap. "I've got to go in there," I said, all ready stripping off my boots. We'd already decided who'd go in this scenario. Ronon couldn't swim, and neither he nor Teyla could activate ATA tech that might block access to Sheppard. Carson would need to be available to immediately begin any type of medical care needed.
"This is insanity, Rodney!" Carson was staring at the hole that led into a deep water grave.
I tossed my boot and grabbed the rescue tank from Teyla's outstretched hand. "You're only now realizing that? Of course it's insane! Now, get ready, we're going to have to get him back to our reality in order for you to resuscitate him." If he was down there.
We'd brought headlamps and I fixed one now over my head, flipping it on. I shoved Carson to the side, and stepped over the hole, my rescue tank clutched tight against my chest.
The cold made my heart stutter, but I flipped myself around till I was heading downward, and I remembered deep blue skies. I felt it. He was here.
When I swam down towards the flashlight, a body brushed against mine, and I pulled back, fighting the rush of horror. Then the body rolled eerily in front and my headlamp illuminated the face, and the horror asserted itself, this time stronger than before. It was me. Oh, God. It was me. I didn't know whether to panic or help, when I realized the eyes were staring sightlessly in the water, the body floating free. I…he was dead – and he'd stay that way. See, Elizabeth, I can handle this. And if he was here, then Sheppard wasn't far away.
Desperation and a sense of time running out made me swim harder, and I found him, down further, the flashlight coming from the P90 still hooked to his vest. I sucked in oxygen from my tank, and unclipped the gun. His eyes were thankfully closed. More creeped out than I could ever say by swimming amongst bodies, I grabbed his vest, and pulled, kicking up with all I had in me. I sucked another breath in from the emergency tank, then two, and aimed for the opening I could barely make out the small exit above.
It was a square of water lighter than any other, and I bumped the ceiling before I could stick a hand up through the water and waved frantically, centering Sheppard's deadweight enough for them to grab him. They pulled him up through the access way, and I followed on my own. I got myself standing, soaked and shivering, to see Ronon all ready wading in the now knee-deep water as fast as he could through the hall, heading back to the mirror. Sheppard was slung over his shoulder and my gut clenched painfully at the familiar body. "Can you save him?" I shouted desperately at Carson. I didn't want to take his corpse back. I couldn't go through that again.
"I won't know until I try," Carson ground out. "Now on with you!"
We made it back to the mirror in half the time it'd taken us to get to him; the doors had stayed open because of my overrides. I quickly located our reality, and we touched through. Carson called for the medical team, and started snapping orders at us. Blankets, while he rolled Sheppard and began swiping in the colonel's mouth to ensure the airway was clear, the ambubag, more blankets, and all the while they worked on him, I stood off to the side and shivered.
The medical team and Carson raced away with him, leaving us standing in the debris. The blanket Teyla wrapped around my shoulders barely registered as I stared at the discarded medical detritus. She tried to smile. "It worked, Rodney. We found him."
Ronon looked at the mess, then focused on me. "Are we gonna go see if he's okay?"
"It'll be a while till they know," I told him. "They'll have to warm his body up first and they have to go slow. We've got to get changed, and dry. Then we'll see if we brought him back only to have to go through another memorial service."
We left, not bothering to clean up the mess. Eventually, Elizabeth would send someone to deal with it. We reached my room first and as the door slid open, Ronon slapped me on the back in a gesture so familiar it made me ache.
"You did good, McKay."
I could only nod, but I tried to let him understand with that small nod, that I appreciated it. I wasn't used to being thankful to anyone for much, but we'd just spent…what time was it? I peered in through my door, focused on the LCD and realized it'd been over fourteen hours since we'd began searching again this morning. We'd been lucky. It'd only taken us ten days. Or, maybe we'd been lucky…time would tell if this Sheppard would survive.
Teyla lightly touched my arm. "Whatever happens, you did your best."
I raised my chin slightly and forced more of a smile forward. "Thank you."
Before we could degenerate into Places I Didn't Want to Go, I escaped inside my door, and let it close behind me. As I clutched the blanket tighter around my shoulders and headed tiredly for the bathroom, I had to wonder, were we lucky because fate owed us, or were we lucky because everything was about to go spectacularly wrong?