There was nothing Carson could do. The only thing that would save him would be to find a reality where he truly didn't exist, and send him there. After the episode had passed, I'd pulled Carson into his office, explained that according to previous experiences – his mouth had tightened there – Sheppard had a couple of days, at least, maybe three or four, and as his time drained away, the convulsions would become more frequent, more painful.
Even though Carson didn't say another word about the monumental mistake I'd made, I could feel the accusation heavy between us. Sheppard had instantly demanded to know what the hell entropic cascade failure was, but for that, I didn't want to tell him here, with an audience.
"Let's go to your room," I suggested painfully. It wasn't his room…that was the problem. And now I had to live with the knowledge that my Sheppard, the rightful owner, was alive out there, probably on the Asurans home world, a prisoner for the last month, while we'd mourned him and moved on, even replaced him.
As soon as the door closed behind me, he walked with hollow steps to his desk and picked up the picture. He didn't look at me as he asked, "When where you going to tell me the truth?"
"You were faking." The momentary annoyance at being tricked overwhelmed the terrible guilt. "Tell me, where should I send your Oscar nomination, hmmm?" I said bitingly.
He turned and faced me, holding the picture in his hands and taking this with far more stoicism than I'd imagine myself capable of if our positions were reversed. "I knew from the moment I woke up and saw Beckett. He died a year ago in my reality." He chuckled humorlessly and flipped the picture around till I could see it. "I never had a sister, and my mom died when I was twelve."
"I didn't actually think through the plan after the 'rescue a dying Sheppard' stage," I admitted ruefully. I wasn't really the humble sort, and my nature asserted itself as I felt inclined to add, "We would've told you the truth, if you hadn't pretended to have amnesia."
While he chewed on the shared culpability, I wandered around the room, more confused then ever. I couldn't keep this Sheppard because my Sheppard was still alive, out there somewhere, but in order to have either one, I'd have to rescue one and send another away. I'd only known this Sheppard for less than twenty-four hours, and all ready the thought of sending him off to another reality made me want to run to my lab and immerse myself in a plan that would get around temporal physics.
The scientists on Earth hadn't been able to, and that Daniel Jackson hadn't been sent through the mirror to another reality. The NDA had decided he'd seen too much and presented a security risk, and before O'Neill's team could send him through to a safe reality, the NDA had gotten a hold of him. Thirty-six hours later, he'd died, his body twisted from the awful corruptions in his cells and tissues. Closing my eyes against the memory, I swore that, regardless of what happened, that wouldn't happen to this Sheppard.
Then again, the scientists on Earth were nothing but a group of bleating sheep, which is why they were there, and I was here.
The uniform he was still wearing was wrinkled, his face showing the shadow of stubble. His hair was longer than my Sheppard's had been, hanging more over his eyebrows than was probably allowed in the military. When he dropped on the bed and stared at the trumpet I felt inclined to ask, "Let me guess, different instrument?"
"Guitar," he confessed.
I sighed, and dropped next to him. "I don't often apologize, but --"
"Don't," he interrupted. "I remember the important stuff. Like drowning." He looked sideways at me. "With you…or him, what I'm trying to say, is that even in my reality, you did what had to be done."
"Ordinarily, I would agree with you. Apologies are a waste of effort because one word fails to undo a thing, yet, let me go against my nature and say it anyway. I'm sorry for bringing you here, putting you through this. I'm sorry for not telling you the truth from the beginning. I'm sorry for not --"
He reached over and placed his hand on my mouth. I stopped talking, felt the heat of his palm against my lips. His eyebrow raised and he said, "Are you done?"
I bobbed my head.
"Good." He pulled his hand away and smiled lazily. "Some things should remain the same, regardless of what reality I'm in, and a humble Rodney McKay goes against the grain of universal nature."
What was I supposed to say now? Where was the confidence and bluster that had so rarely left my side since I'd learn who 'me' was? I knew we'd been given this time for me to talk to him, answer questions, but I also knew they were waiting. We had to make plans, figure out how to solve this, because I knew no one on Atlantis was happy with the thought of this Sheppard dying.
It'd be back to the mirror, searching realities to find him a good home, like he was a God damn puppy. I'd have to meet alternate 'me's' and decide who deserved to have a new Sheppard to replace the one they'd lost, while making sure it was a reality that was safe for him, where our counterparts weren't the 'evil mirror universe' pod people. In short, I felt the apprehension similar to someone sending their child off from home.
And we also had to figure out how to rescue our Sheppard.
"So, tell me about these Replicators and explain entropic cascade failure."
I looked up from the floor and the really interesting scuff mark on my boots. "It's a long story."
He shrugged. "I'm not going anywhere."
Seeing how I had played with my dinner instead of eating, I was beginning to feel hungry now. I stood, stretching tired muscles. "Let's talk over some food," I suggested. Bad news always seemed better when you chased it down with pie.
He had pumpkin, I had the lemon meringue.
And while we lingered over our bites, I explained how we'd first met the Asurans while looking for allies against the wraith. Their planet had a shield that kept them safe, and they'd lived, isolated in their little bubble until we arrived and changed everything. It wasn't until after the wraith were decimated, the few survivors limping away – to where we weren't even sure, the two remaining Hives had simple disappeared off our long range sensors – that they came to Atlantis under the guise of celebrating the win of a long war that had cost far too heavily on our side, and made their move.
Apparently the Ancients had created the Asurans in their early attempts at finding effective means of battling the wraith. Their concept had been an army of androids, safe from the life-sucking danger, and therefore letting the people stay safely protected while machines essentially fought the war. But the Ancients were too good, and their androids didn't care for the war, taking their spaceships and abandoning their creators to the wraith. Atlantis was moved to another world, and the location kept secret from their progeny, because at the heart of it, the Ancients no longer trusted the androids, though a treaty was brokered whereby the Ancients agreed to let the Asurans, as they called themselves, live in peace, while they continued to fight –unsuccessfully – against the wraith.
Sheppard looked at me over his fork. "So, when you stumbled into them and they found out you were from Atlantis, they decided it was time for the kids to move back home?"
I rolled my eyes and said drolly, "Yes, Sheppard, in simplistic terms. We were living in the city they viewed as theirs."
He nodded knowingly, looked around the mess hall and turned back to me. "Obviously, they lost."
"Because of Ronon," I admitted. I swiped some of the fluffy meringue and licked it off the fork. God, that was good. "That super blaster of his was the only weapon that killed them. Or, shall I say, made them 'cease functioning'."
"They didn't like that," guessed Sheppard.
Before I could reply, he looked over my head and his expression grew uneasy. I turned in my chair to see Teyla and Ronon walking our way, along with Radek and Elizabeth. I turned back to Sheppard and assured him, "They aren't going to hurt you, Christ, Sheppard – we want you here more than I will ever admit to saying. Relax."
He shook his head at me, and pushed the plate away, his pie only half finished. "It's not that," he muttered quickly. He leaned in close to keep it between us. "They were all dead in my reality. It's just…hard. Seeing everyone again."
I frowned at him. "What a depressing reality."
"It really was."
We locked eyes for a moment, and only pulled away when Elizabeth asked loudly behind me, "May we join you?" with forced cheerfulness. Even before she'd finished or I'd said the 'no' that was on the tip of my tongue, Ronon was dropping next to Sheppard and eyeing the left over pie.
"No, you can't have it," I stated irritably. If Sheppard wasn't finishing it, that was mine. It'd been the last slice of pumpkin. I looked at my half-eaten lemon and shoved it to Ronon, then pulled the pumpkin in front of me.
"Thanks," Ronon grinned.
"So," Elizabeth said. "I take it Rodney has explained entropic failure?"
"No, I haven't. I was getting to it."
Teyla shot me a cross look. "Rodney, there is much to plan. John deserves to be told, now."
Sheppard lifted his cup for more coffee when the mess hall clerk walked by, and murmured his thanks when she filled it full. "He was telling me about the Asurans, first."
"Yes, well, it really can be summed up by saying they weren't happy facing mortality, and in exchange for Ronon not using the blaster on any more of their people, they withdrew."
"It was only to get time to figure a way around it, though." Ronon jerked his head towards me. "McKay, Doctor Weir and…Colonel Sheppard, were captured while we were trying to keep them from taking over. Did some kind of mind probe."
I shuddered at the memory. "Yes, having a hand stuck through my forehead ranks up there with every bad experience I've ever had." It'd been painful enough that I'd screamed for them. The one that had probed my mind, Hadrus, he'd been completely unaffected by it, had even seemed annoyed at the noise I was causing while he stripped the layers to find anything useful he could find in hopes of defeating Lorne and the other personnel who had avoided being caught.
That's when he'd found the information on the Replicators we'd fought in our galaxy.
Sheppard was kneeling in the center of the room, the domed ceiling so high overhead it disappeared into shadow. I had the weapon we'd come for clutched in my hand. "It's a bomb," he said, beginning to straighten from where he'd been kneeling near the boxy device, when the first eerie sounds of click-clack echoed around us.
I turned, lighting the wall with the flash light in my hand, to see hundreds of the mechanical spider-like Replicators crawling down from the above darkness. "It's a trap," I breathed.
"The Asurans didn't know about the miniature drone like Replicators that had almost ruined the Asgard. At least, not until they found the memories in my mind." I'd studied them during my time at Area 51. Had theorized different weapons to defeat them, and in the end, it'd been the information O'Neill had gotten in his head from the Ancients' repository that had proved the salvation the Asgard needed. Still, it was only by the skin of our teeth that Earth had remained safe.
"So, in essence, they are guilty of doing what their creators did," Elizabeth said softly. "They created machines to fight their battles."
Sheppard was hiding his emotions well. He sipped his coffee and listened. And I still hadn't explained the real bad news, though I figured, he all ready got the gist of it. What he'd gone through in the infirmary had to make it obvious that it was bad news. Having your body convulse wasn't a good thing.
"And the weapon, you said I was the only one that can use it – will it defeat the Asurans as well as these Replicators?"
He asked the one question I didn't know. I knew a lot, hypothesized that which I didn't, and usually, my theories were better than other people's supposed facts, but in this, I hated to say.
"Maybe," I settled on. I sipped my now cold coffee and made a face. "It doesn't matter anyway."
Teyla interjected, "Because we must send you to another reality. There will be no one to use the weapon."
I'd explained the basics to her and Ronon before we'd embarked on the mirror mission. She'd wanted to know why we couldn't rescue everyone, had argued logically that we could always use more people, even though she'd admitted having copies of individuals would've been, in her words, disconcerting.
"This entropic failure…what's causing it?" Sheppard asked.
"Can you rig this thing with a delay?"
I stared at the Ancients' bomb, then back to Sheppard. We were surrounded by Replicators; they were just waiting, not moving beyond the five meter diameter they'd given us. Teyla and Ronon had remained above, just outside the door that led into the building, and a quick radio report had clarified that we were the only victims caught in the Asurans' snare. They'd known we'd come looking for the weapon. We'd walked in with as much gullibility as a trained animal sitting for a treat.
"I think so," I said. At his raised eyebrow I got even more flustered. "It's hard to think with those things surrounding us – when I say 'think' I mean 'yes, of course I can, because I am a genius'!"
I should've known they wouldn't have let him die in that explosion. I shouldn't have left his side.
"Temporal Entropic Cascade failure is caused by two of the same individual's residing in one reality," I said flatly. "Incredibly painful and always fatal."
Then I stood and left, not running, to somewhere private.
I'd heard Sheppard had collapsed sometime in the early morning hours. This time the episode lasted two minutes, and left him unconscious. Two episodes, ten hours apart. I was sitting in front of the mirror, the remote clenched in my fist. When I'd gotten control of my emotions, I'd gone to Elizabeth's office, found out that Ronon and Teyla were babysitting Sheppard, and had her call Lorne in for a meeting.
We needed to send him away and the sooner the better. She'd agreed. Lorne hadn't. He mentioned that maybe we should consider first taking a side trip to the Asurans, rescue our Sheppard and decimate them so that they wouldn't threaten anyone else again; not us, our allies, or anyone.
I'd punched him then, for continuing to think of this Sheppard as merely a commodity.
He'd punched me back, and now my fat lip only served to remind me he was right, at least a little. I wasn't any better than Lorne. I'd packaged my reasons in noble rationale, but in the end, I'd wanted to replace Sheppard because I didn't want to face a life on Atlantis without him. I'd thought my Sheppard was dead, and so I'd told Elizabeth we needed an alternate reality version to power the weapon -- to save us against the Asurans, and the Replicators they'd surely send to conquer us -- but all I'd really cared about was seeing that rugged face again, hearing his voice, having that companionship. Destroying the bastards that had taken him from me in the first place had just been a bonus.
"Go away, Elizabeth."
She sat next to me.
Did no one listen?
"This isn't your fault."
I slid an incredulous look at her. "It's completely my fault. I never should've left him back on that planet. None of this would've happened."
She nodded slowly, folding her hands in her lap. "You're right," she admitted.
"Oh, thank you. You came down here to agree with my self-flagellation. How kind."
"Let me finish. None of this would've happened because you would be with John, on Asura, just as much a prisoner as he is, and Atlantis would've fallen."
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I could've done something that'd kept us from being captured, or maybe I could've gotten us free. Either way, did it matter? "Have you thought about what they've been doing to him for the past month?" It was what had kept me from catching even a few hours of sleep last night. Instead, I'd sat in front of the mirror and remembered those words the one alternate reality Sheppard had said.
"Did I ever tell you how I felt before I died?"
She nodded soberly. "Yes, I have."
I didn't have anything left to say – what else was there? We were both remembering the time we'd spent as prisoners of the Asurans here in Atlantis. Two very unpleasant days, during which it'd been made clear to us that the only reason why we were allowed to live was because of the personnel still running loose in the city and the need they had to find out what our minds could tell them.
But why keep Sheppard alive, a prisoner for that long, without contacting us? What were they doing to him?
"He wants to go," she finally said, cracking the silence that had fallen over us.
I smiled briefly, and opened my hand, showing the control. "No time like the present," I joked. "Time is life."
Elizabeth took my hand in hers, and folded my fingers back around the device. When I looked up at her face, she shook her head gently. "No, Rodney, you misunderstand me. He wants to go to Asura, to rescue John, and save us."
I searched her eyes. Hope, pain. "You can't let him do that."
She withdrew her hand from mine and stood up. Looking down at me, she said, "That's not our right. Talk to him." Then she left me alone, left me with my mirror and all the self recriminations I could continue to run through my mind, as I tried to fight the desire to let him help while at the same time, wanting nothing more than to send him through the mirror before he died or suffered another minute.
Dropping my head onto my hands, I swore. This was all my fault.
I left the mirror room not long after she'd left, and headed for the infirmary. I had every intention of talking Sheppard out of this stupid idea. It was suicide; he needed to accept that if he didn't go through the mirror now, sooner rather than later, he'd be seeing the bright light at the end of the tunnel…again. Then again, had he seen it the first time? I really should ask what he'd seen, because death was probably not far off for any of us.
"So," I said by way of greeting. "You've stopped foaming at the mouth."
"I guess I got my rabies shot."
The infirmary was mostly empty. Ronon was leaning against a nearby bed; Teyla was sitting in a chair next to Sheppard. I could hear Carson talking with Elizabeth in his office.
"Yes, well, I always did say that you were going to catch something."
Everyone looked at me and I waved irritably. "Yes, yes, bad joke, I know." I snapped my fingers and said, "How about 'what did the mommy wraith say to the baby wraith'?"
Teyla exchanged a look with Ronon, but Sheppard fought down a smirk. I looked eagerly at them, "No one's going to guess?"
"Give it to us, Rodney," Sheppard drawled.
I grinned. "No dessert until you finish your human."
Ronon threw a pillow at me, Sheppard groaned and…aha…Teyla's mouth twitched! "Please, it's slapstick! It's supposed to be bad," I defended.
"Ha ha, I'm going into temporal convulsions," cracked Sheppard.
"See this is why I never told you…him…jokes. If it doesn't have a blonde and a beer, it's no good."
He shook his head, beginning to grimace, and Teyla straightened abruptly as Sheppard said through gritted teeth, "No, really Rodney, I'm --"
Then his body arched against the gurney and I was shouting, "Carson! Get in here!"
There wasn't anything medical to do other than support him through the pain, but seeing his body writhing on the bed made me want to do something. This was awful. Like kneeling by the bomb, rigging it to explode, knowing we probably wouldn't make it, awful, and then staring at the smoke filled sky, and realizing that when I lost, I lost big.
It didn't matter that he was still alive. What mattered was that I'd left him.
Teyla and Ronon held Sheppard's legs, I had his right shoulder while Carson took his left. Elizabeth worried at his feet and we rode through it. At the end, I think I was sweating as much as Sheppard was. God, this sucked.
He was unconscious again. Teyla excused herself, to go get ready for the mission, but seeing how we hadn't even planned the mission, I'm not sure who she thought she was fooling. Ronon cast a sick look at Sheppard and said, "Me, too." They made their escape, promising to be back later.
"He's not going to back down," I said to myself, staring at his slack features, open and vulnerable in his quiet condition.
Elizabeth inhaled raggedly. "No. We need to do this, soon, or there won't be time to get him back and through that mirror."
"Aye, he's weakening, Rodney. But I fail to see how you plan to infiltrate the shield? As much as I would like for the happy ending for both Sheppards, I don't see how it's possible." Carson pulled the blood pressure cuff from Sheppard's arm and put it back on the trolley. He brushed the strands of hair away from Sheppard's eyes almost without thought, and then turned to me, shoving his hands in his pockets. "They know we've got the weapon."
"But they don't know we've got another Sheppard." I snapped my fingers, the plan all ready forming. "I need to see Lorne."
The plan was, "We surrender."
I'd gotten Lorne, and once Sheppard had woken, we'd huddled in the infirmary, putting our collective heads together. We'd gone over all the possible ways we could get through their shield. In the end, only one viable option was on the table.
Still, Elizabeth's open-mouth surprise from where she sat across from me, at the apex of the briefing room table, made me squirm a little in the padded chair.
Her eyes cut from me to Sheppard -- who was looking a little shaky -- and then to Lorne, who was sitting to my right. As far as Carson figured, he had about five hours before the next convulsion would hit. The first three had followed an increasing exponential curve that had allowed Radek to plot when the next episodes would likely strike. Using the inflection point, we also had a good idea of how much longer he had to live.
I smiled smugly and reminded her, "Occam's razor." The chair was cool against my back. Every moment we spent here, was a moment we were losing, but I realized that running over her concerns would only lengthen the process. "We offer a conditional surrender then ask if we can come to an agreement on terms. We take a Jumper over. I've got a device that can hide Sheppard's life signs. It was never practical to use on missions because of the limited capability, but here it's perfect. As soon as we go in the building, he uses the weapon, and once they start dropping like flies, we search for the colonel." Really, sometimes the simplest plan is the best plan. A lot less to go wrong.
Although, that also meant that if even one thing did go wrong, it was pretty much 'oh my god we're screwed' kind of deal. Nothing like going up to the table with a double or nothing bet, and praying the deck wasn't stacked in the dealer's favor.
"Look," Sheppard said, leaning forward on the table, all of us noticing the tremble in his hand, "I'm running out of time here. One thing that's the same in both our realities is that I know my job. You trust him, trust me."
"What if they want to do it next week?" she asked, raising her eyebrow in a 'what then' expression.
"Then you tell them you'll be busy next week."
I snorted into my hand.
"Rodney," she admonished.
Lorne inclined his head towards Sheppard and said, "He's right, Ma'am. We don't have the luxury of taking no for an answer."
She stared at us, shaking her head. "This is insanity."
I shrugged. "Wasn't it Moliere who said, the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it?" Really, did it matter if we died now or a week from now. "Elizabeth, this weapon is the only real chance we have, and Sheppard isn't going to live till next week, and the other Sheppard, he's a little inaccessible right now."
"If this doesn't work --"
"Then we died trying."
I held her gaze until she nodded. "All right. Before I try to contact them, is everybody ready? I'll ask for an hour from now, will that work?"
She asked all of us, but centered on Sheppard. "I can do this," he promised.
She stood and pushed back her chair, closing the notepad she'd brought. "Then, gentlemen, I suggest you do whatever it is you have to do."
We left the briefing room and Lorne offered to bring Teyla and Ronon up to date on what was happening. The gate was dialing Asura, and I'd just as soon not listen in. This was crazy, all of it, and I'm not normally inclined to bravado and sacrifice, but I was also not going to walk away from what needed to be done.
"So, how long have you been fighting these guys?"
Sheppard followed me to my quarters. I was exhausted, but I wouldn't rest until this was over. I had a supply of stimulants for when life got desperate and busy, like now. "A year and a half."
"And what about your allies, the Genii?"
I stopped at my door and swiped my palm over the panel, pausing only long enough for it to open. I aimed for my desk, he aimed for my bed.
"Licking their wounds," I explained. I dropped in the chair and pulled open the drawer, searching for the bottle. "It was about six months ago when you…he, we…earned that medal. See." I pulled mine out of the drawer along with the bottle of stimulants, tossed the medal to him, and popped the cap, shaking two into my palm. I re-capped the bottle and tossed it back in the drawer, and while he studied the medal, I went to the bathroom for some water. When I came back, he was leaning against the wall, the medal on the blanket next to him.
"Anyway, as I was saying – they tried to get to us through the Genii, and we were contacted to help. You saved Commander Kolya and his entire team after they'd been captured."
"You mean we saved them?" His eyes crossed for a moment and he amended, "You and your Sheppard."
"And Ronon and Teyla."
A knock on my door interrupted me from explaining further about that mission, not that I really cared to relive it. Before I'd even called 'come in', Carson rushed in, focusing on me then sliding till he found Sheppard. "There you are, lad, did you not hear me say to come straight back after the briefing?"
"I'm fine," Sheppard said, nonchalant.
"For someone dying from entropic cascade failure," I deadpanned.
The pillow that smacked me in the face was a complete surprise. "Which one of you did that?" I demanded. Those stimulants seriously needed to kick in – if I hadn't been staring into space, I would've seen it coming. As it was, though, I only managed to slide a little further down in the chair.
"Shut up, Rodney, and close your eyes. You look like you're about to become part of the furniture." Carson glared at me, then turned it on Sheppard. "I suppose I can check you here. Any new symptoms?"
I must've taken Carson's advice, because their talking droned together and I stayed slumped for a few minutes, long enough I hoped for the stims to finally kick in, and then Carson was patting me on the shoulder and muttering, "Good luck," and leaving.
"You know what's bothering me," I mumbled, still not rocketed into hyperactivity.
Sheppard looked sideways at me. "What?"
"You – how you're taking this whole alternate reality thing, and insisting on using the weapon instead of going through the mirror now – I really thought you would've shot me for kidnapping your dying body and bringing it here."
He shucked his body lower, resting more on the pillows. "If I'd shot you, would that have made you feel better?"
I rolled my own head against the back of the chair. "No," I admitted. I kind of slid a lazy look at him. I think I needed more stimulants. "It just would've killed me."
Sheppard chuckled. "I think Beckett's tampered with your stash of drugs."
"Why'd he do that?" I slurred, even as my sluggish mind finally realized that not only was Sheppard right, but I was so far from functionally awake that they'd have to dump my body into the Jumper when it was time to go.
"Probably because you, like my Rodney, refuse to rest even when you should."
Made sense. I lifted a clumsy finger and pointed at his hair. "Universal constants – your hair and my insomnia."
Sheppard was suddenly next to me, pulling me to my feet and dragging me to the bed. His arms trembled around my waist and I felt boneless, drooping in the spot where he dropped me. Then I felt the bed dip when he sat. "I'd like to think there were more constants than my hair and your insomnia," he murmured.
The meaning was lost to me as I couldn't hold off the drowsy, drugged sleep any longer.
We walked together to the Jumper, the seven of us, and I kind of thought it felt like I was in The Right Stuff – I was Ed Harris, or maybe Sam Shepard, no, Ed Harris…had to consider the hair situation, after all.
We were walking towards history, we were walking towards fate – and just maybe, we were walking to our deaths.
Carson had fessed up to swapping my stimulants when he showed up an hour later and pumped me full of the real deal. I'd warned him the next time he went with us on an overnight mission, he'd better wear Depends to bed or his sleeping bag would be in need of a washing. Warm water and his hand had an appointment.
Elizabeth had gotten the Asurans to agree to a meeting and all they'd said was 'call when you're ready'. I knew they wanted Atlantis, but I also knew they were far from stupid. Either they knew what was coming and had a plan to prevent it, or…they knew what was coming and had a plan to prevent it.
I paused by Ronon and asked sotto-voice, "Your super gun is fully charged, right?"
He pulled it from his holster and flipped it around to show me the charge indicator. I jerked my head appreciatively and murmured, "Good. Very good."
Lorne slid into the pilot's seat, and I let the Marine from his team take the co-pilot's chair. Carson had strongly suggested Sheppard not fly because of the temporal convulsions and the off chance that the next bout would strike early. Radek had theorized there might be some interaction with the mental components of the ATA tech but I'd told him that was ludicrous. It wasn't like the Jumper would suddenly warp and convulse just because Sheppard did.
Elizabeth had stood firm and in a show of solidarity, I remained in the rear with him. Ronon and Teyla sat in the two rear seats behind Lorne and what's his name. Elizabeth sat beside Sheppard and I sat across from both of them. It was only going to be a five minute trip and before we went through the gate, Sheppard would need to put on the scrambler.
I'd named it. Scrambler. It scrambled the sensors ability to register your life signs. Really quite clever. Much better than 'Gate Jumper'. Sheppard and his ridiculous need to name things over anyone else.
And thinking about my Sheppard, I looked at this Sheppard, thinking just how much he looked like crap. "Are you sure you can do this?"
We had a souped-up medical kit, with drugs Carson pre-measured to help correct the imbalances in his body chemistry that Carson had recorded after Sheppard's first use of the weapon, but the convulsions he'd had had exacted a toll that showed on his face, dark circles under his eyes, sunken cheeks.
A cocky grin and Sheppard asked, "Are you sure you can? You guys are going to be the ones walking into the lion's den."
"Yes, don't remind me."
Ronon peered through the cockpit doors. "Put the scrambler on, we're going."
Sheppard pulled it out of his pocket, stared for a minute, and then stuck it to his chest. He'd have to take it off right before he activated the weapon, but at that point, his life signs registering wouldn't matter. Radek and I had argued, yet again, on the ability to use it with or without the scrambling device, but ultimately, I won. And I knew I was right. The jamming properties would interfere with the weapons' ability to spread. We had an entire city of Asurans to render inert.
Elizabeth leaned forward to call to Lorne, "We're ready, Major."
Lorne held a 'thumbs up' and the ship lifted smoothly from its berth, glided forward, and then dropped through the bay doors. The gate was all ready dialed and waiting, and a moment later, Grodin's voice filtered through. "Our request has been received, permission granted to gate through."
Elizabeth tapped her earpiece. "Send the MALP through, Peter."
We weren't stupid. The thought that they'd just leave their shield up and we'd go splat had occurred to us. Of course, there was always the risk that they'd anticipate us sending a test object first and then going through, in which case the shield would be raised after the MALP and we'd still go splat…
Elizabeth smiled knowingly. "You're over thinking again. The MALP shows triple moons in a bright sunny sky. In short, here we go."
I met Sheppard's eyes and he nodded.
Inhaling deeply, I braced my sweaty palms on my pants. "Here we go…"
The trip really was fast. From the gate to the landing pad within the city center, was five minutes. Five heart stopping minutes. Then Sheppard was sharing a final look with me before he crouched and tucked himself under the bench. We had to get out of here and hope they didn't ask to search the ship. Lorne and the Marine…what was his name? Bob, Barry…Bates…that's what it was, Bates -- joined us as the hatch finally touched down and together we made a sea of bodies the Asurans would have a hard time seeing through.
After we walked forward, Teyla activated the hatch, and I tried not to hyperventilate when I saw that Hadrus was in the welcoming committee. He'd really seemed to enjoy spending time in my head, which meant, he was mostly likely a neurotic android with no qualms about harming the little humans that they completely did not serve.
His knowing smile when he saw me staring at him made me instantly go to places that involved cells and Sheppard and torture.
Thirty minutes. That's all I had to do. Make it through the next thirty minutes. Sheppard was going to wait that long before deploying the weapon, in the hopes that we could get them to possibly show -- or tell us-- where our Sheppard was being kept.
Oberoth stepped forward and assessed us, his eyes raking over our weapons. "Leave them, and follow me," he ordered, before turning, and heading back to the doors nearest the landing pad.
We'd been here once before; the first time when we'd made the monumental mistake of ever trying to be friends. That's us. We make monumental mistakes on a weekly basis. This week belonged all to me.
Last week, that was Lorne, and some day, I'll find the time to actually reference the report about the events on MX9-XX2.
Carson pushed me forward and I stepped rather quickly around Hadrus after tossing my pistol into the pile that was growing a lot bigger as Ronon grudgingly added his blaster…not the blaster, we needed that! Then some knives…and wow, some more knives, until I was following Elizabeth in the dejected line of our people. They walked us into their center pier that, of course, looked just like ours, because they had the need to build their city in Atlantis' image – the same décor; the same flowing lines, tempered metal, burnished bronze and subdued silvers. The briefing room was only slightly different. Larger, with one table instead of a split V. Oberoth gestured at us to sit, but I'd imagine I'd rather sleep with snakes then sit –
"Rodney, let's not offend our hosts," Elizabeth scolded.
'Oh, right," I stated acerbically. "Because they're Miss Manners themselves. Tell me," I stared at Oberoth, "where is he? Because personally, we're not giving anything up until you bring him to us."
Because I was sneaking another glance to make sure Hadrus was keeping his distance, I saw Carson blanch and Elizabeth's face twist into something like 'what the hell are you doing,' but hello, thirty minutes! We needed to find out where the colonel was being kept or we might just wind up in an ill conceived desperate search among a city full of inert bodies trying to find him before he starves, and for that matter, what if they weren't even keeping him on this planet?
"He is alive, Doctor McKay." Oberoth moved to an Asuran standing near and whispered in his ear. When he straightened, he asked me, "Do you wish to go to him?"
Did I wish to go to him? "Of course I 'wish to go to him!'"
Elizabeth stepped towards me, then all around us, Asurans pulled weapons and pointed them at us. Like we didn't see this coming. I gave Elizabeth a reassuring look, because really, this happened all the time, and at least this time, we had our rescue hiding under the bench in the Jumper and, oh, look at the time – twenty minutes to go. Really, it was far simpler for them to just toss us in the cell with the colonel, and that way we could have him with us when things changed…but then again, woah, wait…flaw in the plan…if we were locked in the cell, who was going to let us out?
"Uh, you see," I lifted my 'wait a minute' finger. "That wasn't what I had in mind. Can you stop with the evil bad guy routine and do something outside the box? Like returning our very-missed person and 'no harm, no foul?'"
An influx of new androids rushed forward, grabbing us roughly, and as we were shoved towards the door, Lorne muttered sotto-voice, "Nice going, McKay. Way to make friends on the playground."
Because I couldn't make my mind up whether to respond with an insult or a defense, the opportunity was lost when Lorne was pulled too far ahead, and Hadrus sidled up alongside me. He gave me an enigmatic smile. "I've been having some deep conversations with Colonel Sheppard."
Asshole. I hated this guy. He was baiting me and we hadn't even been locked up yet. "Really? About what? Football?" I tsk'ed. "I'm afraid we had to agree to disagree on which was better – hockey really is the manly sport." I snapped my fingers as my guard shoved me harder. "Oh, wait…" I exaggerated a light bulb moment. "I bet he's been arguing blonde or brunette with you."
"No." Hadrus smiled pleasantly. "More along the lines of 'why did your team so easily abandon you'."
I inhaled sharply.
The transporter took us to the door that led to the cells. Déjà vu…it looked exactly the same as our cells in Atlantis, and I shuddered; these people really had a mommy dearest complex. For a race of robots that supposedly hated their creators by the time they parted ways, they sure did keep everything 'just like home.'
When I was pushed alongside the others, lined up to be put in the cells, I saw him. Slumped in the corner -- there wasn't a bed or a chair, or even a blanket. He wasn't wearing his uniform, instead, it was an Asuran outfit. On the outside, he looked perfectly normal. There wasn't a bruise on him, but the unconsciousness…well, we all knew how the Asurans liked to play. They got in your head, your mind, and they made you relive memories, twisting reality to remake events. They could turn Christmas morning when you were ten into a horror movie.
The force field collapsed, and Hadrus nodded for the guard to open the cell. When he did, we were prodded forward.
As soon as we were in, the extra Asurans left, the force field returned, and I, along with everyone, hovered over Sheppard. Our Sheppard.
He didn't look any different. His hair, his face, he didn't even look thinner, so they must've been feeding him. But I couldn't help from knowing things were changed -- the things inside. The psyche. Because you didn't spend a month as the Asurans toy and not show something for it. We'd spent days that first time and had walked around like the hollow men afterwards.
After a few tense moments, Carson looked away from Sheppard and smiled tightly. "He's alive. Physically, he seems fine, but I won't know more until he wakes."
Ronon growled, and turned to punch the corner beam, and just as I tried to warn, "Force f --" his arm was flung back with a snap-crackle, and he was shaking his arm to try and get rid of the discomfort from being zapped. "—ield," I finished, just on principle.
I looked at my watch. Five min—
The door opening made me turn, like everyone else, and the unpleasant surprise of seeing the other Sheppard held tight between two guards, one at least had a bloody lip and a very pissed off look, made me utter, "We are so screwed."
Lorne snorted. "When aren't we?"
Oberoth arrived right after and watched while the guards added one more to our crowded cell, staring at the two identical men and remaining unruffled on the surface. "This is unexpected," he admitted coolly. "But, really, Doctor Weir, did you truly believe we wouldn't examine your ship for any surprises?"
She stayed a lot calmer than I felt, tilted her head as if Oberoth had just scored a checkmate, and really, I suppose in a way he did, if he had searched Sheppard and found the weapon. "We had to try."
"I suppose you did," Oberoth conceded with stilted politeness. "While my colleagues and I discuss how long we will let you live, please, accept my hospitality." He inclined his head in a slight bow, and left.
"Well, this is fantastic," I groaned, throwing my hands in the air. "At least we're all together when we die. I don't suppose they left you your…important…things." I slid my eyes uneasily at the guards, knowing we were being observed, and not just from the two Asurans standing straight at the door, but from the cameras up in the corner.
Sheppard, the one that was looking more haggard that I could stand to see, walked over to me, smiling…sadly?
At the same time, Ronon and Teyla, along with Lorne, moved to the front of the cell, blocking us from the guard's sight, and as Lorne passed Sheppard, they bumped in a casual accident and I saw the weapon transferred to Sheppard's hand. What? I looked from his hand to his face and he said, "Did you really think nothing would go wrong?"
What they'd done – the gamble they'd taken… "Are you insane?" I demanded.
He slung a friendly arm over my shoulder, and turned us towards Elizabeth, Carson, and the other Sheppard…my Sheppard… "If they hadn't found me, I would've made sure they did. Either way, they didn't suspect anything with Lorne, and they didn't search him, did they? They expected what they got, and didn't look where it mattered."
Before I could truly appreciate the military back stab they'd orchestrated so simply against the Asurans, he was clasping the weapon, holding it tight in his palm, and as the white light began to spread, there were shouts coming from the guards. I heard the force field hiss as it was deactivated and watched as the guards tried to get past the three immovable objects to give them access to Sheppard, but Ronon, Teyla and Lorne weren't giving an inch, fighting with everything they had to keep them away, to give Sheppard time…he had stepped away from me, more centered in the room.
The white corona spread, the beads dancing just above his skin. He glowed. Luminescent…Ronon was thrown aside and when a guard went to grab Sheppard his arm touched into the white aura. The Asuran guard just…dropped. Like a stone. One moment, he was moving, and the next, he was down. The other guard stepped back, the white crept towards his feet, and by the time he thought to move away, it was too late.
We stared, transfixed, and then Oberoth, Hadrus…all the members of the council were back, hovering at the door into the room. I watched with satisfaction as they stared in horror at what was happening, but Oberoth merely glared, and pulled back to leave.
I was standing near enough that Sheppard reached out with his other hand, grabbed me on the arm. The weapon's effect was spreading, slowly, too slow…they could get people out of the city and I could all ready see the terrible price it was exacting from Sheppard. His skin paled, thinned -- it was like staring at the sun through a sheet of paper. For the first time, I thought the weapon might drain someone until there wasn't anything left, and I shouted, "Something's wrong…Sheppard! You've got to stop!"
His hand convulsed on my arm and he whispered, "Goodbye."
"No," I think I shouted. I know I thought it. I stepped closer, to take the weapon from his hand, forcibly if I had to, but my hand went through him and he wasn't holding me anymore. White light flared so bright I had to look away, the room flashed, and a surge of white energy exploded outward, like a massively expanding sphere, screaming in all directions -- a bubble of devastation for the Asurans.
I stumbled back, until the bars of the cell stopped me, and held me up. I think at some point I slid down, and closed my eyes…I didn't know. I swear to God, I didn't know the weapon would cost him that. But with a sickening sense of hindsight, I realized the signs had been there. The altered body chemistry, the aura, the explosion of energy that took out the much smaller Replicators. It just hadn't needed as much last time. It wasn't meant to be reusable…Oh, God. It wasn't supposed to do that.
"You stupid sorry son of a bitches!" I shouted at the ceiling. "You couldn't invent a better weapon than that?"
I don't know how long it took, because when the light faded, and everything was dark, everything was dark. The lights were out, my watch was dead…it was like the city had been struck by a massive EMP blast and then with a 'no shit' moment, I realized, that was probably pretty close to what had happened.
Sheppard, my Sheppard, he was still unconscious, and I could see Ronon and Lorne were down, still trying to recover from the physical toll of keeping the guards at bay. The Asurans were stronger than us, I mean, way stronger.
Carson tried to check on everyone. Teyla was at least on her feet compared to the others. He stopped in front of me and I waved him off, not even able to process what'd happened.
Eventually, we were all standing. Ronon cradled Sheppard in his arms and we stepped from the cell, around the downed guards. I felt just as battle scarred as if we'd spent days under Siege again.
It's funny. The Asuran threat had been hanging over our heads for so long, and in the end, it was ridiculously easy to defeat them. We walked through halls littered with their bodies just lying there, not a visible mark on any of them.
Maybe some had gotten away, if they'd had the foresight to believe they could be taken down, and hadn't been as wholly arrogant as what I believed them to be. We'd done something that had rendered them inert.
Inert sounded more clinical and less permanent. Could a machine die? Was it genocide to kill them all?
We didn't linger in the city, didn't bother looking for technology, or answers, instead, we walked to our ship. The Daedalus would be sent to nuke it, so that no one could come behind and take over and maybe even revive them. We had no idea just how permanent the weapon was, but I knew at the cost it took, we wouldn't have another chance, even if we could locate another one.
Lorne took the controls; Elizabeth sat in front by him, moving woodenly, just as we all were doing. The rest of us, we hovered over Sheppard in the back. Ronon had laid him gently on the bench, Teyla pillowed his head in her lap, and I just stared. That face…the cost. One Sheppard for another – and as much as I hated myself for it, I was pathetically thankful that this one was here.
And yet, I felt sick because the other one wasn't.
One of my physics professors had had a thing for quotes. He'd put them on our tests, quizzes, and lab books. Some of them I disagreed with, some were important, and some…some I just hadn't understood, because at the basis of every paradigm you view things from a cornerstone of your own experiences, and I didn't have any experience to prove to me the statement had validity. But now, one in particular, made me wish I could meet the one who'd said it.
No one should approach the temple of science with the soul of a money changer.
Thomas Browne had said that, and at the time, I'd thought it was something a lot less than profound, but now…now I stared at the colonel and felt the stain of the price for a life, even if that life meant more to me than I'd been able to admit.
Science had created that weapon, the mirror, the Asurans – and science had saved us at a heavy price.
A low, terrible moan came from Sheppard. His legs shifted and I watched transfixed as he lifted a hand and placed it shakily against his head, blinking himself into consciousness. He rolled his head just a little, staring at us in confusion.
"McKay?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
I wanted to say something witty, profound…important, but all I managed to say was a slightly accusatory, "You said you'd follow me."
I should be in my lab. Or in the infirmary. Yes, forget my lab, I definitely should be in the infirmary. As a semi-patient, because, really, the events of the last two days…I didn't feel normal. I mean, I felt so far from normal that I wasn't sure whether to be giddy, depressed or horrified.
And yet, I wasn't in my lab, or the infirmary, hell, I wasn't even in the mess hall.
I was sitting cross-legged in front of the mirror, the control cold and small in my hand, scrolling through realities.
Oh, sure, it was probably stupid, risky, dangerous…a hundred things wrong with it, not least of all, that it was definitely neurotic, but I was doing it anyway. I had a pistol in my lap and my radio was on in case anything was waiting to leap through when I just happened to dial up their reality. I didn't really pause long, I was just looking. Seeing who was on the other side.
Besides, I hadn't gone here right after we got back. I'd collapsed in a bed in the infirmary next to where Carson had put Sheppard.
He was a mess, all the while insisting he was fine. Well, no, that wasn't exactly true. He hadn't said, "I'm fine," but rather, "I'll be fine." For Sheppard, the line between the two was blurred, but for me, like everything else, the difference was more concrete.
Anyway, who knows how long I slept for, because my watch was still dead. I'd have to fix it eventually.
I'd checked with Carson after I'd woken up, about Sheppard, and I was told he was sleeping. Sheppard was having a lot of nightmares until Carson had finally knocked him out with drugs. It wasn't a permanent solution and what would be, I had no idea – like I said, we needed a psychologist because the human mind wasn't my specialty, or anyone else left on Atlantis. Maybe they'd send us one now. Maybe not. Maybe we'd just have to bounce off each other until we put this behind us.
Another reality… Radek peered curiously at me. Woah. I clicked past that, and this time the room was empty. Another click. I could make out the backs of people I didn't recognize. The uniforms weren't even familiar. I clicked again.
I heard the door slide open. I figured it was Elizabeth, maybe Teyla, probably not Ronon, but when I saw it was Sheppard I almost lurched to my feet. "He let you out!" I demanded.
Really, on the surface, he looked better than I did. I had barely slept in days, and he'd spent a lot of time cooped up in his mind. They'd fed him, he'd slept, and the mental torture the Asurans had specialized in just didn't leave outwards signs…except his eyes. I could see something in his eyes.
"Yes, he 'let me out.'" Sheppard made a face. "It's not like I've got a sucking chest wound, Rodney."
"What if you…you know."
He narrowed his eyes at me, his hair hanging over his eyes, just like the other Sheppard's had…he needed a hair cut. "No," he enunciated slowly. "I don't know."
I chickened out and looked away from him and back to the mirror as I muttered, "Suffer traumatic shock, flashbacks, go crazy and attack me."
The soft clump of his boots signaled his movement, and then he was dropping to the ground next to me, tucking his legs up under him. His shoulder was so close it touched mine if he breathed deep. "Sometimes, I think I'm still there."
I looked over at him. "Really?" I only said that because I was surprised he had admitted it.
"Really," he repeated. He dropped his gaze to the device in my hand and then looked at the mirror. "So, Elizabeth told me you might be here." Sheppard contemplated the empty room on the other side of the mirror before raising an eyebrow at me. "This behavior's a little worrisome, even for you."
Nodding slightly I agreed. "Disturbing, I know." Yet, I clicked again, and the image shifted. This time we stared at an almost perfect reflection of ourselves, looking at us looking at them, and who knows who was more startled, but I stared at Sheppard then back to the mirror, before waving awkwardly and clicking forward again. This time it was another empty room and I felt my heart thump a little too fast as I gathered the shreds of courage.
He took the device from my hand and turned the mirror off. "To talk."
Yeah. That. I closed my eyes, pictured a deep blue sky, obscured by trails of smoke.
"Did I ever tell you how I felt before I died?"
"I guess some things never do work out."
"Maybe we should go somewhere that has coffee," I suggested, with a weak grin. "An addiction a day, I always say."
Because maybe, some times, things would work out. I took his proffered hand and stood, holding onto the pistol with my free hand, and meeting his searching look. Maybe you never knew until you tried, and maybe second chances weren't meant to be thrown away.
(This was me, after all.)
Warnings: AU. This is a quantum mirror story, where the reality is not the reality of canon SGA. There is a character death of an alternate reality main character.