General 4th season spoilers. Written for sga-flashfic's Second Verse challenge. I've been told it starts out a bit confusing; stick with it, all will be explained.

I like playing with multiverses way too much, but I am not a quantum physicist (nor do I play one on TV), so you'll have to give the technobabble a pass. I also might like putting Rodney McKay through the wringer way too much. Sorry, Rodney. I do it because I love!

Games of Chance
X-parrot

Rodney's never actually been very good at chess. Sure, he could beat the pants off his high school club, but that just took reading through a couple Bobby Fischer books to defend his genius reputation. He's no grand master. On Atlantis he rarely plays.

It's not like chess is really about intelligence, after all. It's not about reading people, either, or military strategy, or else a computer couldn't master it, not a simple Earth adding machine, anyway. All chess boils down to, in the end, is predicting all potential moves, and choosing the best, a tiresome sorting of odds and possibilities. The likelihood that your opponent will do that if you do this, or this if you do that, and Rodney's got better things to do with his time. It's not guesswork but game theory, probability calculations, and the odds have never been in Rodney's favor. In any given poker hand, he'll get the pair of twos and the guy across the table will be dealt the straight flush. Statistically unlikely but proved in infrequent practice. So usually he doesn't bother, just moves what pieces look smart to him at the time.

Rodney is good at the endgame, the chess puzzles--black mates in six, white mates in ten, finding the single exact path that forces one side to victory, the other side to defeat. He enjoys the straightforward simplicity, even if he kind of abhors it, too, for being so abstract and irrelevant to the messy facts of reality.

Same as he hates Schrodinger's cat, and yet appreciates the truth of it. Even though he knows that if he's opening the box, the cat's probably dead.

Pessimism, he's been told. Rodney prefers to call it honesty.

Sheppard, now, is annoyingly good at chess. He's never played Zelenka, but Rodney knows what side to bet on, should that match ever be arranged. It's not that Sheppard is Deep Blue in black fatigues; he's smarter than the hair makes him look but he's no super-computer. As far as Rodney can tell, he plays chess like he flies, by the seat of his pants and with a death-defying daring that pays off. Unless Sheppard really is that smart, and the risks are calculated. They might be; his subconscious might be a computer after all, spitting out probabilities that he accepts as instinct. It would explain how he lasted this long. Given the career he's lead, Sheppard's survival is something of a statistical anomaly.

It should be Sheppard sitting here now, not Rodney. But if Sheppard were here, then Rodney wouldn't have to be anyway, and that's more of an irony than he can bear to think about right now.

o o o

Rodney lays it all out, thirty-one planets they've combed from the database, with Wraith relays or outposts or landed hive ships, all likely possibilities. It takes him five attempts to convince Colonel Carter to try them, backtracking and repeating but he's finally on the right track, with armed teams of Marines assembling in the gateroom. There are going to be casualties, sending people to Wraith-occupied worlds, but those hypotheticals don't matter.

He fast-forwards because he's on a time limit here, skipping over the blaring of the gateroom alarms as the returning teams come in hot. Sometimes they make it back intact; sometimes they're missing men. Some teams don't return at all, don't even get the chance to dial back and make a report, and Rodney has to try again, and again, this team and that one, arguing with Sam about which men to order through the 'gate, until he gets an answer.

It'd be easier just to send Ronon through to all of them, but this way's more efficient, more worlds covered simultaneously, and Rodney's painfully aware of every passing second, even as he watches days flicker past.

Twentieth world is the jackpot and he almost misses it, maybe did miss it a couple permutations back. The Marines make their report in Sam's office with their spines stiff and straight, four parallel lines, and she calls Rodney in, shows him what they found.

Wasting time, but Rodney has to see for himself, he can't help it. He has to know for sure, so he rewinds and volunteers for the mission to M8G-723. No one's particularly surprised; Sam doesn't protest and Major Mbali just nods and puts him the middle, Ronon on point.

Rodney was in such a hurry that he hadn't gotten the full intell on the planetary situation from the previous team, though that would be a few days out of date anyway. The Wraith only have a couple guards on the gate when they charge through, quickly taken down.

It's not a parked ship but a small facility, a Wraith science lab, on another of those desert worlds they're so partial to, purple-brown sands blowing over barren dunes. The structure is nestled in that wasteland like a lone seashell on an endless beach, a couple spiraling stories high. At the sound of gunfire, more drones come marching out. The Marines hold them off, while Rodney leads Ronon scrambling over the sands, left of the building, as the previous mission had described.

The Wraith don't bother digging graves for their leftovers, but baked under the hot reddish sun the corpses won't smell much, and over time the winds slowly sift sand over them. The freshest are still uncovered, unburied, meals only a day or two dead, though so desiccated from the feeding that they could pass for millennia-old mummies.

Looking down at them, Rodney claps his hand over his mouth and nose, and breathes through his mouth like he can smell the putrefaction anyway, impossibly. But he doesn't allow the churning of his stomach to force him to look away, as Ronon bends over the body on the top of the pile. Doesn't look away as Ronon reaches down, tears something from the neck of the blackened husk and holds it up, chain dangling from his fist, twirling and twinkling obscenely in the sunlight.

Rodney squints at the dog tags, reads the block print capitals, SHEPPARD JOHN A, USAF, and thinks he's going to be sick after all. Before he can be, denial rises up in him like the bile burning in his gorge, and the hologram of dog tags and desert shudders and fractures away into nothing around him.

o o o

The mission to P3X-950 wasn't supposed to be anything special, practically downtime, another make-do assignment while they waited for Teyla to have her kid and get back in the game. Atlantis had been trading amicably with Luarong for a couple years. The Luarongi were technologically advanced, luckily living on a planet far from any of the main Wraith throughfares. While they didn't often ally with other worlds, they had enough interest in Earth medicines and weapons to invite the Atlanteans over every few months to maintain good relations.

Sheppard's team hadn't been to Luarong before, and Rodney was pleased at the chance to check out the Luarongi nuclear power generators, still fission, but a far cry from the inadequate Genii research and a step or two above modern Earth tech. The Luarongi were happy to give him a tour, with Sheppard sticking close to elbow him mid-lecture when necessary (Sheppard had an uncanny sixth sense about when Rodney was going to inadvertently mention naquadah, though it wasn't like the word on its own would mean anything to them anyway.) They were also suitably impressed by Ronon's gun, and fascinated by Sheppard's comments on their up-and-coming aeronautical research (only about twenty years past the Wright Brothers, but they'd have something in the air versus the darts, when the Wraith did come. Sheppard wanted to fly one, naturally, and was put out to be apologetically informed that there were no open test flights.)

It was a relaxingly satisfying visit, up until the point they were heading back to the stargate citadel and were captured by the Wraith worshipers.

Not proper Wraith worshipers, they found out later, when the stunning had worn off and the hoods had been ripped off their heads. The Gate Minister's Primary Aide, black hair falling in tangles from her formerly sleek bun and a purpling bruise down the side of her face, explained to them between gulping sobs, while the chanting rose and fell around them. The cult had existed on Luarong for centuries, but had only gained a dangerous number of followers in the last few years, since news had come of the Wraith awakening.

They believed in sacrifice to appease their leather-fetishist vampiric gods, believed it was their offerings, and not luck, that had kept the cullings from their world, and with every day passed that Luarong stayed untouched, more people began to believe.

The object of their devotion was surrounded by obelisks à la Stonehenge and covered by a great granite disc, a giant stone manhole cover. It wasn't until that was slid aside that they understood the Aide's terrified tears.

Luarong's second Stargate was set in the ground like a swimming pool. They had a list, the Aide explained, eleven sacred addresses memorized by the high priests, dialed at random and the sacrifices were thrown through, one to each, under every full moon.

Luarong had three moons, though he didn't know the synodic periods of any of them, Rodney thought in a sort of numb haze that might have been disbelief, or the aftereffects of the Luarongi taser that left a hangover worse than the Wraith's weapons, if better than a zat's. His headache spiked as the chanting around them crescendoed, and then the freaks in the gray robes and pointed hoods were grabbing Sheppard--of course they were grabbing Sheppard, he'd put himself in the front of the line. How, Rodney couldn't guess, but he knew Sheppard.

He shouted, struggled up against the ropes hobbling his ankles. By then they'd already had to stun Ronon twice, and two more gray-robed fanatics grabbed Rodney by the arms, pressed their tasers to his chest but didn't pull the triggers, giving him a chance to stay still.

Sheppard looked at him across the stargate's broad circumference, as someone dialed the unseen DHD and the event horizon fountained up through the ring, splashed down into the rippling wormhole.

Lit by wavering indigo, Sheppard mouthed something to him. Rodney couldn't make out what. He yelled and thrashed and the bastards in the dingy wannabe Klan gear applied their tasers. The world whited out in an electric flash of pain, and the last thing Rodney saw was Sheppard getting stunned himself, falling backwards, limp, into the stargate, not-so-virgin sacrifice thrown into the mouth of a blue-toned volcano.

The next thing he knew was the retort of gunfire--and what did it say of his life, that he could distinguish a P-90's bang-bang-bang from any old alien ammunition--and rough hands were working at the cords around his wrists. "Relax, Dr. McKay, we'll have you out of these in a sec."

The Luarongi government, valuing trade relations over their own reputation, had contacted Atlantis immediately after the abduction. The strike force was joint Earth and Luarongi, using Atlantis equipment to track the energy signature of the second gate as the Luarongi had never managed.

The rescue arrived just after the nick of time, thirty seconds too late. The two high priests were easily identified by their scarlet hoods, but they both were dead, bullets riddling one, burns from Luarongi blasters smoking on the other. They died clutching blasters of their own, and their secrets died with them, eleven gate addresses to Wraith worlds.

Sheppard had been sent to one of them, stunned unconscious and hobbled hand and foot. But alive, when he had dropped through the event horizon. He didn't return to Atlantis or the Alpha site, however, so something must have found him, stopped him.

The Wraith didn't fall mindlessly on every human they encountered; chances were reasonable that he had been captured, stored away for a later feeding. "They kept me for a week or two," Ronon said, "before they put a tracker in me."

"Many Wraith know of Colonel Sheppard," Teyla said. "They may recognize him, imprison him for interrogation."

Rodney didn't say anything, wondering what the odds really were, when you took desperate hope out of the equation.

"You know I'd authorize the rescue mission in a split second," Sam said, "but we need an address. We don't have any idea where to search. The Luarongi are tracking down the remaining cultists, but they don't even know if there are any others who knew the addresses, and that's still eleven planets, possibly all Wraith-occupied."

"We have the addresses of plenty of Wraith planets," Rodney said. Many were well-known across the worlds, warnings passed by word-of-mouth, and the Atlantis teams took strict notice of all of them. "We could try the most likely, send a few teams of Marines, basic reconnaissance--"

It would be easier to hate Sam if her eyes weren't brimming with compassion and shared loss. Sheppard wasn't on her team, but he was an officer under her command, and becoming a friend, too. "Rodney, I can't risk so many people--" And she knew better than to finish, 'for the life of one man,' and Rodney wanted to hate her for that, too, and couldn't. "Even if they're all willing volunteers, and I know they would be. But we need better odds than that."

A game of probability, and Rodney realized there was a chance. If Sheppard were lucky enough, and he always had been before, so it was a long shot worth taking.

o o o

'M8G-723, Wraith facility,' Rodney enters onto his tablet, and saves it. But it's not enough. Not when it might already be too late, and there's no point in risking lives if they can only ever bring back a corpse. And the more information he has, the better their chance of success will be.

He checks the timestamp--a good week from now. So there should be time, if the body had been only a couple of days old.

Rodney wipes his hand over his face. He's cold enough to shiver but his hand comes away damp with sweat, and he's breathing hard. He sips water from a bottle and sets it down, leans back and works his hands into the straps, tightening them around his wrists with a thought. Then he turns back the clock and tries again.

He doesn't waste time, gives Sam the whole picture, complete disclosure. She hesitates, but she doesn't disbelieve him; they both understand the theory behind it. Teyla and Ronon stand by him, unquestioning, and his heart swells with it, to have their trust even when they can't follow the scientific proof. They know this isn't about discovery or ego, not with Sheppard's life at stake.

No time to bask in that, though, and door number one was the right pick, so he fast-forwards. The planet looks the same, dull violet sands and two Wraith drones standing watch. Major Lorne's leading this team, along with Rodney and Ronon and two Marines. They make short work of the guards and stride in when the facility's maw gapes open, gunning down the Wraith marching out to fight them.

It is a laboratory of some kind. Not humans or cloning; ships, maybe, but Rodney doesn't waste time finding out. He speeds things up, moments flickering past like strobe lights. The structure's not that big, without a basement, what you see is what you get. But the passages are twisting and confusing, and it's slow going with Wraith coming at them every few meters in. Still drones, mostly, but these take longer to fall under the gunfire.

"They've fed recently," Ronon says ominously, and Rodney flips ahead, and there, down a side passage, walking into the corridor of cocoons, bodies sealed in the walls. The Wraith didn't have time to fully feed, and the half dozen corpses are old but still recognizably human. Still recognizable, Sheppard's gray hair hanging over his sunken, wrinkled face.

Ronon makes a low, wordless, terribly human sound; and Rodney's gut twists and rewind, before he's even consciously aware, jumping back to the gate, first foot landing on this desert world, dusty under his boots. He breathes deeply and the air seems drier, like he can almost feel the grit of holographic sand between his teeth.

Stutter of P-90 fire as the pair of guards go down, "This way," Rodney says, charging forward, and Ronon follows. Lorne shrugs and gestures for the Marines to back them up. This time they're almost to the facility when the entry opens and the wave of Wraith emerge, and one of the Marines gets stunned. Lorne leaves the other man to guard him, and they go in.

Once inside, Rodney knows the way, better than he did, anyway, guiding them somewhere to the left. But no good, when he skips, because the corridor's still a crypt, drained cadavers staring at them with empty, accusing eyes.

Rewind, and this time he goes slow enough to keep track of the route, memorizing which turns to take. Rewind again, but they're still too late, even when he knows where to go, the fastest way to get there. Not fast enough, again and again and again, and Rodney's head is pounding and Sheppard is always, always dead. "Still warm," Ronon says, reaching to shut John's milky, staring eyes. Still alive, when they come through the gate, but then the Wraith are under siege and devour their captives to fight.

"If I knew the way," Ronon complains, as they make their way down the halls of the facility, "I could go faster by myself," and Rodney gawks at him, and rewinds. Back to before they enter the gate, time Sheppard maybe can afford. With luck.

In Sam's office, he sketches a diagram on his tablet, a crude map of the facility, marking Sheppard's cocoon, along with the twenty-four Wraith and where they're usually encountered. Ronon nods, big arms folded, and Lorne whistles, "Be nice to get intell like this more often!" and Rodney shakes his head, because he's not supposed to be listening to this, has no time to be watching these trivialities play out.

But it's easier to sit back and watch the minutes unspool than to force them ahead. This timeline is so very narrowly unlikely, hard to focus on. His eyes feel gritty, as if with dust that isn't real, but he's afraid to blink them. The track might jump if he does, and he'll be back in one of those other realities where Sheppard's definitely not going to survive, instead of only probably.

There's something harder about it when the timeline's recursive, when he's referring back to previous loops. Anti-paradox restrictions? But that's absurd; there are no paradoxes in an infinite multiverse. Anything can and does and will happen, that's the point. Perhaps the system's not designed to show potential outcomes below a certain probability. A measure to keep things from spontaneously levitating, or the universe exploding. One in ten million, maybe, or one in a hundred billion.

Though the improbability doesn't seem right to Rodney, because Sheppard's dead if he can't figure this out, so even given infinite realities, why would he be choosing to do anything but this?

They go through the gate at full-tilt, providing cover fire for Ronon while he blows past the guards and shoots his way into the facility, entry rustily grating open for him when he blasts the controls. The Wraith defense squad isn't yet waiting for him behind it, and he disappears down the twisting corridors before Rodney and Lorne and the Marines make it to the entrance.

Ronon leaves Wraith stunned and dead in his wake, and the others that attack are quickly dispatched--they go down fast, even the unmasked males; they haven't fed yet. Rodney's pulse is hammering and he skips ahead, until he's coming into the corridor. Wraiths dead on the floor, and one drone looming, reaching like a zombie in a low-budget movie. He holds his finger down on the trigger, and it finally collapses.

And there, there, struggling against the sticky binding tendrils of the Wraith cocoon. His hair is still dark and his face has only the usual laugh lines around the eyes, now drawn tight with fury, frustration, pain.

Rodney's grinning, this timeline and in reality, too, mouth open and his cheeks hurting from it. "God, John, you're--"

"Rodney!" Sheppard rasps desperately, clawing at the cocoon, "get me out of this--Ronon--!"

Ronon's not in the corridor, Rodney realizes, not applying one of his many knives to cutting Sheppard free. He's nowhere in sight, and then Rodney looks past the seared and bloodied Wraith corpses.

The dreads are bleached white and brittle, like just another Wraith's; and the blackened skin is so shrunken to the skull that the features are unidentifiable. But the skeletal fingers are still curved around the hilt of his gun, the power cell gleaming red and alive above them.

"The male was going to eat me, and then Ronon's blaster got all of them and I thought we were okay," Sheppard's saying, throat hoarse like he's been screaming. "Until the stunner took him down, and why the hell didn't he have backup, it fed on him in front of me, goddamn it, why didn't you have his six, McKay--"

Rodney doesn't hear him; he's fallen to his knees, and back in reality he's straining against the wrist straps, head slammed back against the headrest of the chair and eyes shutting on this nightmare, not what he wanted, not what he chose, reset reset reset--

o o o

It had been one of Rodney's pet projects for a number of months now, back-burnered when he had been working on the Replicator virus, but always in the back of his mind. Especially after they learned about Elizabeth. He worked on it alone, one of the few he didn't even bring Zelenka in on. Not because he thought Radek might appropriate his work--that's only a joke between them; they respect one another too much for that.

But he might lose Radek's professional esteem if he knew about this; it was skirting too close to the edge of mad science. Tempting fate, doctoring destiny--those wild here-there-be-dragons places at the fringes of sensible reality, where the Ancients treaded fearlessly but a human physicist risked reputation and sanity to follow.

The principles it was based on were firm enough, really. Conceptual theories of quantum decoherence become irritatingly prosaic after you've had a couple conversations with your too-cool-for-school self from an alternate universe. Most physicists in the Stargate program accepted the many-worlds interpretation as basic fact and went on from there.

It wasn't the theory that was at fault; it was what you could potentially do with it. What the Ancients had been attempting. Or maybe they hadn't been at all, and the reason the original project hadn't gotten anywhere was because it was just a game, a party trick. Rodney didn't know, didn't much care.

The Chair in the chair room, hooked into Atlantis's virtual brain stem and controlling the drone defenses and hyperdrive and everything else significant, was called The Chair, but it was not the only control chair in the city. They had discovered a few others similar if not identical to it, designed for guidance over more minor systems. One was apparently a construction device, though the attached machine was inoperative; another had some kind of medical/biological scanning function--"Perhaps it really is a dentist's chair," Carson Beckett had remarked, after which no volunteers could be finagled to sit in it.

They found another chair room on the north pier shortly after the Wraith siege, when the new ZPM was bringing all manner of hitherto unknown systems online. Like all the chairs, it could only be operated by the ATA-enabled, and so it took some time for the right investigators to examine it, but after that everyone in the city with the gene was lining up to try it.

According to Ancient database entries it was designated, roughly translated, as Staring into Tomorrow through a Prism, but the expedition soon took to calling it the F.T.C, the Fortune Teller Chair. Sheppard had, of course, been among the first to test it, so Rodney was inclined to blame him for that one, though he hadn't been there at the time to know for sure.

Rodney supposed that 'Fortune Teller' was meant to evoke images of mysterious crystal balls, wrinkled old women concealed behind clouds of incense and heavy damask curtains.

The first thing that came to mind for him, however, was the craze Jeannie had gone through, back in whatever grade she'd been in when he had been filling out college applications. She and her bratty friends had spent their time giggling over fortune tellers, paper squares folded into pointed little mouths. Pick a color, spell it out opening and closing, pick a number, lift the flap and the fortune teller would tell you your randomly selected future, written out on the triangle underneath. Which boy band idol you were going to marry, or how many kids you would have, or how much money you'd make.

All the fortune tellers Jeannie made for him, Rodney recalled, gave him a choice of working at McDonald's or Tim Hortons. Except the one that banished him to Siberia, which was a little eerie, in retrospect.

The name wasn't so very inappropriate, though, because the Ancient's chair wasn't much more than a high-tech version of the same.

The holograms were visual and audio, and as vividly convincing as hallucinations. The futures they showed, however, were no more real than daydreams, no more revealing than one's own speculations. They fooled you at first because they weren't so easy to manipulate; you couldn't simply blink your perfect life into being. You had to choose, to make the decisions which would lead to the future you wanted to see, going back and choosing again when it worked out wrong. As many times as you liked, but it could get frustrating, failing again and again. And some people, in the chair, couldn't find their path to their ideal at all. An infinity of alternate realities, but no way to get there from here.

But it wasn't anything more than a game, a roleplay of your own life. The sophisticated holograms were drawn direct from the subject's mind and memories; the projected futures were based only on one's own flawed and uninformed perspective of the universe. As a tool for psychological analysis, it would be no doubt useful, and for all they knew that was what the Ancients had used it for. But the only fortunes it told were the ones you could already figure out for yourself, minus the admittedly cool holograms.

Except that for a simple wish-fulfillment game, the programming was terrifically complex, Rodney had noted in his original report. The probability matrices used to calculate potential futures were beyond any math he knew, applied quantum mechanics on a scale that was inconceivable under the limitations of binary-based Earth computers. More than half of Atlantis's networking power could potentially be accessed by the FTC. There was no need for its models to be so accurate, not for the purpose of mildly entertaining visions.

Visions and scenarios scanned from the minds of humans, not Ancients, Rodney realized one day. The system processed whatever data it was given, but it could handle far more variables than a simple human psyche could provide. He didn't believe in prognostication, but the Ancients were far beyond astrology and reading tea leaves, so maybe they'd been onto something.

He didn't think much more about it, until he met a man called Davos, who took his hand and showed him an impossible, undeniable glimpse of a future Davos could not possible know. A true future, or at least a highly probable one.

After which Rodney began to wonder if destiny was such a closed book after all.

o o o

Rodney tells Ronon the truth. He doesn't know what else to do.

He tries stunning Ronon, but that gets the mission scrubbed and Sam sending him for a psych evaluation. He tries scheduling the op when Ronon's off sleeping, but Sam just calls him in anyway.

Finally he tries engineering a malfunction that locks Ronon in the gym, and that works, except the mission is a failure. Sheppard drained and dead in the cocoon when they find him, every time. There's no one else who can move as fast as Ronon, not through a base of Wraith.

He convinces Sam to send a small army, twenty-five Marines, half the complement of Atlantis, but the Wraith panic under siege and feed on all their captives early. He tries sending Ronon alone, a one-man strike force armed with maps and full intell. Ronon doesn't come back. Skip ahead a week, and the reconnaissance team returns with Sheppard's dog tags and Ronon's fang necklace, taken from corpses discarded in the sand.

He tries the original mission again, Ronon charging ahead, and when he reaches the corridor Sheppard's thrashing wildly against the cocoon and Ronon's body lies on the floor. This time he doesn't immediately rewind, but fast-forwards to when they come home through the gate, Lorne and two Marines and Rodney himself, and Sheppard, carrying Ronon's corpse with the help of one of the Marines, and after them come five feeble and frightened ex-prisoners, staring about themselves in wonder. They're all safe and alive, and Rodney twists in the chair and the holograms fragment, melt away, the vision banished before he can hear Teyla's voice, though he glimpses her face for an instant, staring at them from the control deck, before he can close his eyes.

It takes Rodney a few attempts to reinitialize the scenario after it's shut down, to navigate back through convincing Sam to send the mission. She keeps refusing and he keeps slipping into realities where Sheppard's corpse rots unclaimed and unidentified under a reddish sun a thousand light years away, keeps having to reset and start over. His head is pounding and he forgets the right words, the right choices to make. Once he slips and the timeline jumps and he's been put in the infirmary, tied wrist and ankle to the bed and sedatives pumped through an IV to keep him from shouting, an embarrassing retread of the enzyme incident.

He ends up having to play out the conversation with Sam in real-time; she's looking at him warily, but she calls in Lorne and they're back on track. Ronon and Teyla still stand by him, at least.

Rodney doesn't know what else to do, so this time he tells Ronon the truth. "You go and save Sheppard, but you die. You're on your own, and the Wraith stun you from behind."

Ronon nods, serious. "Okay, then I won't let them."

He sounds so confident that Rodney almost believes him. Is desperate to believe him, forewarned is forearmed and maybe this is enough, is all it takes. But when he tries again, Ronon's still dead, and Sheppard's still hoarse and furious and stricken, and this time his hair is shot with silver--"The thing was feeding on me, and then Ronon stunned it, and then they got him from behind, the bastards--"

Rodney thought it might be easier, knowing that Ronon knew the risks, that it was a willing sacrifice on his part, but it just hurts worse. Like he might as well be the Wraith who killed him, by his own hand, and Rodney feels like he can't breathe, knows he's starting to hyperventilate and it takes all his will to stop. The hologram of Sheppard's prematurely aged face stares at him, until he rewinds back to the gateroom.

"Why don't you want me to go?" Ronon demands, looming. Rodney, looking at him, guesses the prickling in his eyes are tears, even if his face is dry in this timeline, even if Ronon was never really dead and it was just an unrealized possibility.

"You die," he says. "Even when you know you're going to, you still go and you still die."

Ronon nods, exactly as he did before, just as serious. "But Sheppard lives?" he asks.

"It doesn't matter!" Rodney cries. "I've played it out a dozen times--" Two dozen? A hundred? He can't remember, and that's wrong, he should be taking notes, recording all experimental variables, but there's no time--"I play it out and every time at the end, Sheppard's dead. Except when he isn't, and then you're dead. Like it's a fucking either/or proposition. An infinity of realities to call on and I got the damn switchboard, press one to hang up or two to stay on the line, choose your life or choose his, and this isn't what was supposed to happen--"

Those were only his thoughts, but he's speaking them aloud within the holographic timeline; there must have been a short circuit in the chair's interactive mental interface. Ronon just looks at him. "Sheppard's there," he says, "and I'm here. So it's my choice."

"No," Rodney says, "no, it isn't. Not here--everything that happens is my choice; all the multiverses I can see are the ones I create. That's the way it works, these choices are mine."

Ronon's face darkens. "If you think you can tell me what to do, McKay," he growls, but Rodney just flaps his hand at him.

"No, you're sentient, you make your own universes, every move you make--you're valid, you're real, and it's your choice whether you eat the tubers or the bread, or whether your gun's on stun or kill. But I can't see it from here. That's the only limit the chair has now, can't avoid the observer effect, so I have to restrict my point of view to what I can personally affect--"

"McKay," Ronon says cautiously, "you're not in that chair now."

Rodney starts laughing. "Not from your point of view, no," he says, and then rewinds, because this is accomplishing nothing, nothing, and he's running out of time. Sheppard's running out of time.

It's still his choice, all his choices. And he can't choose between Ronon or Sheppard, can't pick one teammate's life over another; that's not a choice that's his to make.

But his own life--that's his decision. Not an option he usually considers, not rationally, not readily, but he's getting down to the wire here and it's not like it's the first time. He knows he's got the strength of will to do it, and John won't be around to stop him. If there's a way...

All Ronon needs is a moment, for the Wraith to be distracted a single extra instant, long enough for him to kill it first.

Lorne yells when Rodney takes off down the corridor, "McKay, get back here!" but he doesn't listen. He knows this base well by now (he's been here a dozen times, a hundred times, before), knows where the Wraith will come from, where to shoot. Lorne and the Marines can't keep up, and Rodney feels as powerful as Ronon, running down the twisting passages ahead of them, working the system, playing the game--

The Wraith doesn't even stun him; the drone smashes him into the wall with the butt of its stunner, then slams its hand against his chest.

There's no sensory connection between the holograms and the chair. Dying feels like nothing; everything just goes black. Game over. The dead can't make decisions, so there's no alternatives for the system to show. No way to know if he succeeded or failed, and Rodney's high-pitched, humiliated giggle echoes through the dark room's empty spaces, because of course he should have realized that before.

He rewinds. Lorne shouts, "McKay!", and he keeps running, and this time he knows when to duck, tilting the P-90 up to fire. Except there's two Wraith, a tattooed male behind the drone, and the stun flares bright over Rodney's vision--

Rewind again, duck and twist and the P-90 spatters bullets in an arc and he's gasping but alive. Alive, and running, not as fast as he knows he can run, but he can't make himself go faster, can't seem to catch his breath. It doesn't matter, as long as he's fast enough.

He's not. Three drones guard this door, and even knowing the exact angle of their stunners, the exact timing of their shots, he's not a soldier, not Ronon Dex. Again and again but this isn't Doom or Duke Nukem, isn't programmed to be beatable. This is reality, and past that door Ronon is dying or Sheppard's already dead, and there are not enough alternatives here.

No, of course there aren't, and he's going mad, or stupid, because these narrow parameters are self-imposed and he's got a multiverse to exploit. He rewinds back to the gateroom, before they've set foot on the Wraith's planet, tersely explains the new rules.

"I don't know, Doc," Lorne says, scratching his head, "you're sure you can remember the place that accurately?"

"I can," Rodney said, "because I did before, and I wouldn't have been able to if it hadn't been within my capabilities. There is no cheat code in the chair's system; what I see is what I can do, what I will do. You want Sheppard alive, you listen to me."

If they're looking at him oddly, it hardly matters, because Lorne nods, says, "Okay, then, we'll follow your lead."

"Follow exactly," Rodney stresses, and Lorne bobs his head again, only rolling his eyes a bit.

The first try's a failure, he's not used to the Marines' cover fire and gets clipped in the shoulder, not a life-threatening wound, but it distracts him enough for the male to grab him. The next two runs go better, and the fourth time, Lorne and his men draw the Wraith away from the door, give Rodney enough time to get it open and dive through.

This passage is small and shadowed and filminess like cobwebs brush his face; he claws the strands off with one hand and keeps going.

He hears the stunner before he's close enough to see the blue flash, comes pounding around the corner and the Wraith is kneeling, hand raised, black coat spread over the floor like spilled oil. Rodney brings around the P-90 and the Wraith jerks as the bullets impact, hisses and tries to turn and crumples to the floor instead, lies on its side bleeding and still.

"Rodney?" Sheppard says, staring at him for a second, and then he squirms against the cocoon. "Get me outa this thing, you got a knife?"

"Ronon?" Rodney pants, and Sheppard shrugs as well as he can, grimacing because he's bound up in sticky Wraith swaddling.

"Just stunned," he says, "you got the Wraith before it laid a hand on him," and that's almost a macabre pun and Sheppard's almost smirking, even tied up, and Rodney stumbles backwards until his back hits the wall, slides down it with his hands shaking.

"Rodney?" Sheppard asks, and Ronon groans, and without sensory input Rodney can't feel the tears dripping down his cheeks, but he knows they're there, that they will be there, when he's living this triumph in reality.

"McKay?" Lorne's voice asks through his headset, weary and almost afraid. "Status? You there?"

"Here," Rodney says, fumbling for the button. "Here, I'm here, we're all here, we got Sheppard and we're okay."

"Great," Lorne says, life returning to his voice, "then let's get the hell out of here. We'll be waiting for you here--doesn't look like there's any more Wraith alive, but can't be too careful. We lost O'Malley, but Rodriguez and I will--"

And that's all Rodney hears, all Rodney lets himself hear. He doesn't give himself a second more of Ronon waking or Sheppard's gaze on him, just cuts it all off and sits alone in the darkness, no one watching him and nothing to see.

o o o

The truth is, Rodney never had any interest in seeing the future. Of the whole array of fictional abilities, prognostication had never sounded that appealing. Certainly in myth prophets never fared well, Cassandra or Laocoön, doomed to be ignored, if not eaten alive by snakes. To Rodney, it sounded like cheating anyway. What would the point of life be, if you had the answers before you asked the questions, if you always knew what happened next?

In principle, anyway; in fact, Rodney always read the last page of a novel before he read the first, always loved being in the know, understanding what was going on before anyone else. But then, he sincerely didn't want to know his own end, couldn't imagine any death that wouldn't horrify him, gray and feeble and senile, or young and frightened and failed. And to know the future but be helpless to change it would be as nightmarish as being locked in a box. So if he ever got offered superpowers, he had long ago decided to go for something cool and safe, like telekinesis, or telepathy.

When he started working for Area 51, and read about the quantum mirror and the SGC's experiences with time travel, he understood that future sight was a practical impossibility anyway. In the multiverse, the best you could hope to see is a future, a potential probability that was no more applicable than the certainty that flipping a coin would get you either heads or tails. And after he was sent to Siberia, Rodney decided he was content enough not knowing his destiny, if there was only more of that in store.

Then he came to the Pegasus galaxy, and sometimes he thought that seeing the future, however impossible and useless, would be worth the pain, just so he would know when to stop caring.

He used the FTC himself once, of course; every ATA-user did. The chamber was designed for privacy, with no way to record the holograms, and it would only activate when there was a single life-sign present. He wasted a few unashamed, entertaining hours navigating to a reality where Samantha Carter finally realized his appeal; she moved to Atlantis and they had a couple blue-eyed, tow-headed children, his convictions about superior genetics producing strikingly adorable little moppets that he'd almost wished he could take a picture of. He hadn't bothered to fast-forward ahead to the inevitable divorce, had shut down the simulation and not used it again. Better things to do than invent his own make-believe in holographic technicolor.

But Davos's visions were not only vivid, but accurate; reflections of potential futures, not fantasies. Rodney probably wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't been shown it personally--but he had, and he did, and afterwards he couldn't forget.

"Even if the visions were true," Sheppard pointed out, "they aren't much use anyway, out of context and with no way to change them." Sheppard was a pilot, used to steering his own course through the sky. Though he didn't say so, Rodney could tell it shook him, that the future could be pre-written, that free will might only be a kind illusion in a deterministic universe.

Rodney could have discussed it with him, could have argued universal wave function and quantum suicide long into the night. But he hadn't been able to stop thinking about Elizabeth, about Carson, about a hundred fifty thousand strangers dead because he hadn't realized what would happen next. About all the mistakes they had made, and all the mistakes they had yet to make.

He asked Dr. Keller for copies of Davos's brain scans, MRIs and EEGs and the Ancient devices' intricate analyses. Late in the night when the Replicator virus code blurred before his eyes, he brought up the scans, studied them. He was no neurologist, but the human brain was only an electrochemical computer, and he devised algorithms to simplify the data, describe it in functions and matrices he could more easily interpret.

Some of those functions were uncannily familiar. It took him weeks to place them, and when he finally did a chill went up his spine, putting them alongside the SGC's studies of the quantum mirror and seeing how perfectly the figures matched.

Not inevitable, then, but probable; perhaps Davos's visions had come when the probability passed a certain percentage, when a potential collapsed to practically a single datapoint. It didn't matter; what mattered was that Davos had seen them, had been somehow able, with merely the computational power of a human brain, to glimpse a slice of the whole broad spectrum of the multiverse.

Atlantis's network was a thousand times or more complex than even an advanced human brain, with countless more circuit pathways than a human had neurons. The Ancients who had designed the FTC hadn't bothered with accessing all that power; they'd been more interested in applying it to harness their own innate abilities. But in theory--if the system could be reprogrammed to call on its internal algorithms, rather than only the mental input from the chair's user...it wouldn't have the scope the Ancients might have seen; maxing out the processors would limit the futures to a single individual's perspective. But an accurate perspective, a vision of potentials drawn from the multiverse itself, uncoupled from observer bias.

The reprogramming was delicate, but more tedious than difficult. It would have gone faster with help, but there were more pressing tasks for the computer teams, and Rodney didn't need Zelenka around to tell him he had gone mad, or worse to tell Sam. He worked at night, on lunch breaks, in his off-time; not often, just a few hours a week. No one noticed; no one had used the FTC in a year. The novelty of a dream you can never really attain eventually loses its shine, even when you're living among nightmares.

He was within a week or two of a trial run when they went on the mission to Luarong. When they got back, it took him three hours to finish the coding, slapdash and buggy but it would have to do. Over a thousand worlds in Pegasus, and Sheppard might be stranded on any of them, if he weren't already dead.

Rodney had already obtained the right drugs weeks before. He had enough other prescriptions that Keller hadn't questioned his requests. A sleep aid to depress certain functions, a stimulant to keep him awake and lucid, antihistamines for the mildly hallucinogenic side-effects: a cocktail to alter his neurochemistry to best approximate Davos's unique patterns. He'd quizzed the medics on adverse drug interactions, and the worst he should suffer from this mix would be a mild hangover. He downed the handful of pills with half a bottle of water, set aside two other full bottles and sat down in the chair.

The wrist cuffs were only designed to steady the subject during the vertigo of the hologram activation, not to hold a person in place. Rodney made sure they were strengthened, fitting solidly around his forearms. He didn't know exactly what the effects of the reprogrammed chair would be, but it was bound to be quite a trip.

He tipped his head back against the chair, felt it glow to orange life as the mental connection was established. The holographic projections initialized, and Rodney plunged headfirst into any possible future.

o o o

Rodney thinks he might have been introduced to USMC Lieutenant O'Malley once before. He isn't quite sure. He hasn't been on Atlantis long, Rodney thinks, maybe a few months, one of the Marines on the latest six-month rotation. His first name is Connor or Sean or Patrick, something frighteningly Irish like that.

He's in his mid-twenties, taller than Sheppard and big-boned, with a shock of short orange hair and a broad, pale, freckled face and a broader, whiter smile. He wasn't smiling in the gateroom before the mission to M8G-723, though, all business in black, the same grim look on his face that all the soldiers had since they came back from Luarong minus Atlantis's military commander.

Rodney sits in darkness, thinking about Lieutenant O'Malley, how he doesn't remember exchanging any words with the man. He rarely bothers talking to any of the Marines, there's not usually a point, or a chance for him to. Sheppard knows all of them, their skills and hobbies and how best to deploy them; same as Rodney knows his scientists, although Sheppard also knows his soldiers' first and last names, and ranks to boot.

He thinks about O'Malley, and how he wouldn't notice if the man were gone, wouldn't register his absence from Atlantis, any more than he notices the absence of all the other soldiers who have died since they came to the city, as little more than funerals to avoid and painful but abstract statistics. Every single person who comes to Pegasus, who steps through the stargate, knows what they're signing on for, knows what their odds are of never coming home, and accepts them.

He thinks about his last chess game with Sheppard, the queen sacrifice Sheppard used to force a checkmate. Rodney doesn't arrange sacrifices, usually, doesn't think of the tactic; they never look right to him, somehow, even if it's just a single pawn.

He thinks about how O'Malley looks absolutely nothing and exactly like Aiden Ford, once upon a time, and he knows he can never do this.

And he knows that he wants to, and he doesn't know what's strength and what's weakness, the inability or the desire. Doesn't know which one's making him sick to his stomach, so nauseous he can hardly move.

Sheppard would have the strength, he thinks, if Sheppard were here in this chair instead. Strength for what, Rodney isn't sure.

He sets his head back against the chair, and reinitializes the system.

He stumbles on his way to Sam's office, the holograms blurred and tilting around him, thinks it's a programming malfunction until Sam takes his arm, sits him down and everything stabilizes. "Rodney," she says, "you look terrible," and it's not a bug but an accurate projection of his future, now; he's been in the damn chair long enough that he won't be walking out of it unaffected.

But there's no real harm done and he takes a few breaths and explains and Sam listens, as usual, and agrees. Except at the end she adds, almost as an afterthought, "But Lorne's team goes without you, McKay, you're not in any shape for this mission."

He argues, protests, rewinds three times but can't change her mind, not on this track. And he hasn't tried running the rescue without him; for all he knows he's been slowing them down. So finally he agrees, sits with Ronon and Lorne and tells them everything they need, every detail he can remember. He has a diagram of the Wraith facility on his tablet--he's made that already in reality, the tablet's resting on his lap now, ready to be used in all timelines--and he goes over it with them, explaining the best routes, where the Wraith are stationed, until Ronon says, "We get it, McKay," and they go.

Rodney watches O'Malley, nearly Ronon's height as he walks beside Rodney's teammate, step through the wormhole, unhesitating.

Skip ahead until they're coming back, just Lorne and O'Malley and Rodriguez, and Lorne shakes his head and Rodney listens long enough to find out where the hold up was, then rewinds and tries again, giving them appropriate warning. Ronon makes it back with them this time, but still no Sheppard. Third try Sheppard finally comes through, but without Ronon or Lorne, and Rodney gives up and resets.

Reinitializing is hard; it takes time for the holograms to solidify, and even when they look real, they're strangely distant, like he's squinting at them through the wrong end of a telescope. Something's tampering with the probability, making even the starting timeline harder to access, which doesn't make sense. The longer he's in here, the smaller Sheppard's chances become, but he still should have a day or two's leeway, and besides, the system doesn't care about Sheppard's chances. The eventual success or failure of the rescue should have no effect on the planning of it, and there's nothing improbable about Rodney simply walking down the hallway, so it shouldn't be this difficult to see.

But then, given how he rushed patching the programming, he's lucky it's lasted this long. And the timeline proceeds smoothly enough once he's on track. Instead of going straight to Sam's office, he goes back to his quarters, skips ahead through a full night's rest. It's worth trying the rescue at different times, anyway, as long as Sheppard's still alive, and Rodney looks well enough the next morning that Sam clears him for the mission.

Rodney debates a split second and requests that O'Malley not be included on the team. Lorne blinks, shrugs and selects Sergeant Denizard instead, and the mission proceeds.

It takes Rodney five tries to make it to Ronon in time, and Lorne and Rodriguez don't make it, when he radios back. Rewind, give them warning, and this time--two rewinds--it's Denizard. Another rewind, and it's Lorne.

Rodney can't catch his breath, in the hologram or in reality. The chair's cuffs dig into his wrists when he tries to gesture, though his body shouldn't be moving, not in reality. The mental interface has been damaged, or maybe it's the inexplicably decreasing probability, wreaking havoc on the system. He should have had Zelenka look at the programming after all. Radek's good at debugging, at nitpicking, at pointing out all the little insignificant places that Rodney might be wrong.

He's getting used to the sight of Sheppard's drained dead husk hanging in the cocoon, to the sight of Ronon's white-dreaded cadaver on the floor. He's getting used to the sound he hears himself make when the Wraith's slitted hands slam into his chest, sometimes the male, sometimes one of the drones.

He's charted the courses to hundreds of alternative futures, and someone dies in every one; he's a murderer in every one.

He'd give his own life, but it's not that simple, no matter how much he wishes it were.

In a fit of frustration he rewinds too far, to before the mission sets out. He doesn't stop Lorne from choosing O'Malley, this time.

"We could send more people," Sam says, but Rodney tried that earlier; any larger a contingent and the Wraith get spooked, feed on their prisoners too soon for Ronon to make it in time.

Teyla is standing at his side. "Rodney," she says, "if I go--" but he shakes his head. She makes no difference; he's tried, he's tried.

"There is a way," she tells him, holding his hand and he wishes he could feel the grip of her cool fingers, "we will find a way to save him," and he can't tell her that he knows a hundred ways, but is too strong or too weak to take any of them.

He doesn't tell Ronon but Ronon guesses, sometimes, and he's angry whenever he does, tells Rodney that it's worth it, tells him that it's his choice and if that's the way he can save Sheppard, then he's going to do it. But Rodney is a coward and rewinds every time, always erases that possibility.

Sheppard wouldn't choose that, wouldn't choose any of them; Rodney knows this, but it doesn't make it any more bearable.

Again, and again, and again, and every time it's a failure, every time there's death. His head is throbbing and his pulse is racing and it's getting harder just to rewind, as if every time he runs through a track its probability drops exponentially lower, but he grits his teeth and forces it. Because a limited infinity is still infinity, and there's always another option, another choice to make. He can fire twelve rounds instead of ten, he can take five steps instead of four, or six breaths instead of five in any given moment. It's addition, subtraction, simple arithmetic; and he was born a mathematical genius, even if Sheppard can beat him at chess three out of four matches.

He has a multiverse of possibilities and all he needs is one; one in a billion or one in a trillion, it doesn't matter; all he needs is to find it.

He's stepping through the stargate, again; he lost count of how many times this makes it dozens of permutations back. He tries to fast-forward--and everything flip-flops, holograms drained of color into a distorted black-and-white movie. He's in the gateroom; he's in Sam's office; he's in the infirmary.

Then he's in the chamber sitting in the chair, watching a hologram of himself in the chair, watching a hologram of himself in the chair, watching a hologram of himself in the chair. Hall of mirrors, infinite recursion. He's slumped over, not moving, unable to move; exceeded his own limits, unable to get up and walk out of the room, and he understands.

All the probabilities, reduced to nothing. One in a billion, to one in a trillion, to one in infinity, and one divided by infinity equals zero.

Oh God, John, I've killed you.

Rodney's eyes are closed; he can't see the holograms anymore. In one reality Rodney screams and sobs and can't order his thoughts enough even to release himself from the straps. In one reality Rodney silently rocks his head back against the chair and listens to his own breaths get slower and slower, until he's not breathing at all. In one reality Rodney snatches up his radio and calls into it, "Teyla, Ronon, I found him, the FTC, I found him, but it's too late, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and he hears Teyla's voice come crackling back, "Rodney, Rodney, where are you? We've been looking for hours--"

They're all possibilities, reasonable probabilities, but Rodney can't remember which he chooses, doesn't know what reality he's in. His head falls back and his body goes limp, and he can see nothing and say nothing, and there's no choices left for him to make.

o o o

Rodney is in the infirmary. He identifies the sounds, the smells, while he lies there hiding in the darkness behind his eyelids. Not a hologram; he knows from the metallic taste on the back of his tongue, from the twinges of stiff joints and the throbbing pressure around his temples. From how time flows at its fixed pace, only forward, immutable.

He's not in the chair anymore but he's seen this timeline a few times, flipped to it mistakenly before he could rewind. Teyla will be beside the bed, when he opens his eyes, or Ronon, or both of them. They won't believe him when he tells them it's his fault, that they'd have Sheppard back if he'd only had the endurance to keep trying. "You tried," Teyla will say, and Ronon will growl, "Did your best," and he won't be able to make them understand.

Except it's neither of them, nor Sam, nor Keller, saying, "Rodney? Goddamn it, McKay, if you're out of the coma and just napping now, I'm going to smother you with a pillow. Do you know how sore a guy's butt gets, sitting on these chairs?"

Rodney opens his eyes. His vision's blurry, but black and pale and spiky mess on top, and that tired rasp--"Sheppard?"

Sheppard's dropped his handheld, is standing up, leaning toward him. "Rodney?"

He never saw this one. It's not possible; he must still be in the chair. Program error, back to any dream you dare to dream, but he can't feel the straps around his wrists, can feel the foam pillow indented under his head.

"Hey, Doc, he's up," Sheppard calls, and the doctor on staff--not Keller, the guy usually on the night shift, and the infirmary lights are low--bustles over, checks Rodney over, quizzes him on his name and location and simple enumerative combinatorics.

Rodney stares past him to Sheppard the entire time, while Sheppard talks into his radio. He hears Ronon and Teyla's names, and then the doctor adjusts the IV and tells him to settle in for the night, promises he can look forward to a round of medical tests in the morning, and Sheppard's back by his bedside.

"So you're doing okay now?" Sheppard asks, as if his own health's not even a question, as if Rodney hadn't seen his shriveled corpse more times than he can remember or be able to forget.

"This isn't possible," he says.

"That's what I said," Sheppard shoots back, irritably. "I said that McKay couldn't possibly be so damn stupid as to activate another Ancient device that half-kills him, but then they brought me to the infirmary and there you were, half-killed. That was three days ago." He drops down on the chair with a thump, folds his arms.

Three days ago--but the rescue had succeeded, against all odds. The cost, however...for Sheppard to be here, for him to have survived--"Ronon--"

"Sleeping," Sheppard says, "or he was. He wanted to know when you woke up, he'll be coming down first thing tomorrow to thump you a good one. If Teyla doesn't beat him to it."

"But--how? It's not possible, I looked, I couldn't find it, it's not possible--" Rodney's in the chair again, seeing Sheppard's body, gray and fragile; and then Ronon's with the dreads bleached pale; and then both of them, dead. Every time. He failed, he knows he failed, felt it crush him. He's in the chair and can't get out; he's hyperventilating again, not enough air around him to fill his lungs, trapped in the chamber, that tiny walled-off space.

Monitors start beeping in high anxious pitches and the doctor comes back, presses an oxygen mask over Rodney's mouth and makes him sit up and count his breaths until he brings them back down to a more reasonable rhythm.

Sheppard's face is drawn tight and wanly serious afterwards. "Jesus, Rodney," he says quietly. "It's possible. I'm right here. They rescued me from the Wraith resort, Ronon and Lorne and his team." He sits back down on the plastic chair, eyes Rodney with brooding apprehension, like he's awaiting another attack, but Rodney's too exhausted to manage an encore. "They pulled off the rescue with your intell," Sheppard tells him. "You had the address, the map to the base. You don't remember?"

Rodney feels wrung out, can only lie limp on the raised bed. "I found the information. But I wasn't able to tell anyone, I passed out--"

"You passed out and into a damn coma--Teyla says you were barely breathing, when they found you in the FTC. And Keller says it was a good thing the chair was off, because otherwise pulling the plug might've stopped your heart. But your tablet had all the info on the Wraith planet saved, including my location. 'JS' marks the spot."

Rodney stares at him. "But it was incomplete, I wasn't taking proper notes, I was going to explain in person--"

Sheppard shrugs. "It was enough. For Teyla and Ronon, anyway. Teyla convinced the Colonel that if you were crazy enough to risk your life to get the info, it had to be worth it. And Carter can read your handwriting, luckily enough, so they knew which X's were Wraith, and Ronon, well, you drew him a route, he was only going to go for it. According to Lorne it was some decent strategizing."

At Lorne's name Rodney swallows, shuts his eyes. It's too much, too fast, and he doesn't get any of it. Can't believe this to be anything more than a malfunction. Neurological if not technological. But he can ask anyway, might as well know the count this time. "How many losses?"

"Huh?"

"How many casualties?" Rodney asks clearly. From experience he knows that guilt is one of those pains that dulls with time, so better to start as soon as possible. "How many people died on the rescue mission?"

He can hear Sheppard's frown in his voice. "None," he says.

Rodney's eyes fly open. Sheppard is frowning, but more puzzled than remorseful. "No one died, Rodney," he says calmly, honestly. Not lying to spare his feelings; Sheppard wouldn't. "Rodriguez and Kim got stunned, and Lorne got a bit banged around by a drone, but everyone made it back intact."

"Everyone?" Rodney's voice cracks, but Sheppard understands.

He nods. "Everyone and then some. The Wraith had five other captives, we brought them back, too, the more the merrier. They're at the Alpha site now."

Rodney wants to laugh. So badly wants to believe in this glitch, because it can't be anything else; this is possibility stretched until it snaps, this is reality broken. He's seeing what he wants to see, even if he's no longer in the chair. "I wish I'd found this way," he says. "I wish I'd been able to make this real."

"Make what real?" Sheppard's still frowning. "What the hell did you do, Rodney? How'd you get the Wraith base intell? And what'd you do to the Fortune Teller, anyway? I couldn't get it to work."

Rodney sits up. "You used the FTC?"

"You were in a coma," Sheppard says, sounding annoyed. "And Keller didn't know why, after she'd ruled out physical trauma and hypoglycemic reaction, and it was a good bet the chair had something to do with it. So I tested it."

Rodney feels a glimmer of--confusion; the doubt he can't afford. But the Sheppard he hallucinates shouldn't be insane, should he, just because Rodney is? "You thought it had put me into a coma, so it would be a good idea to try it out yourself?"

"Keller had a team of medics waiting right outside the door, monitoring my life-signs. Hell of a lot more precautions than you took. But nothing happened, I couldn't get it working. I thought at first that the holograph display had been shot, but it was actually projecting a hologram of the room, overlaid over the room. But that was the only vision it'd show. I couldn't even picture myself eating lunch that day, couldn't fast-forward to you waking up." Sheppard narrows his eyes at Rodney. "And I tried."

"It's stuck in a recursive loop," Rodney explains. "Calculating one over infinity. It's broken," and God, if only reality were so easily busted.

"So I owe you one Ancient fortune teller?" Sheppard cocks an eyebrow at Rodney's baffled blink. "You burnt it out to rescue me, didn't you."

Except he hadn't, of course, and this is all in his head, where he's telling Sheppard, rushed with regret, "I'm sorry, I couldn't do it, I couldn't handle it--can't handle it, obviously, or I wouldn't be imagining you here. But I wanted this real. I looked, John, believe me, I looked--"

"Rodney!" Sheppard might not be real, but those two snapped syllables shut him up regardless. He's used to Sheppard saying his name, but not to Sheppard sounding scared. Sheppard's hand is on his arm, gripping almost hard enough to hurt and it feels so real, as the holograms never did. "Rodney," Sheppard says, slowly, patiently but for the way his gaze is fixed on Rodney's, but for the bruising pressure of his fingers, "I'm real. This is all real. You're not in the FTC or wherever the hell you think you are; you're here, with me, in the infirmary."

"You don't understand," Rodney replies, gesturing as well as he can without tangling the IV line. "I never got this far. You, everyone--there was no way to get here, there was no way to make this happen. I tried every alternative I could. It's not unlikely, it's not improbable; it's impossible."

"Yeah, so?" Sheppard almost sounds amused. "Like that ever stopped you before."

"But," Rodney says, "But," and he can't get further. Sheppard's gold-green eyes are bright and alive and so real that all he stammers out is, "but this can't be possible, this wasn't--the system could access every variable, every potential. It would've crashed immediately if it hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to see anything. I didn't make any mistakes, all the information was accurate, this shouldn't be--the rescue couldn't succeed. It couldn't."

"Actually I was thinking the same thing at the time. Now...frankly, Rodney, I don't give a damn." Sheppard shakes his head. "I've never been so glad not to see it coming. That green son of a bitch had his hand about an inch from my chest when Ronon blasted him, out of nowhere. I thought I was seeing things."

"But he couldn't shoot all of them in time," Rodney says numbly. "Not alone. There were too many Wraith."

"Too many for Ronon? Never see the day," Sheppard drawls. "Besides, most of the drones were busy going after the reinforcements Lorne dialed in for, after Rodriguez got taken down by the drone that wasn't on your map." He must mistake Rodney's expression for shame, because he squeezes Rodney's arm again. "Hey, it's okay, he was just stunned. Nobody expected the map to be perfect. It rescued me--you rescued me, from a fate worse than and also including death, that's good enough for me."

Except that Rodney hadn't. He hadn't rescued Sheppard, hadn't found the way to save him. That had been Ronon, battling his way through the base; and Lorne and the Marines, backing up Ronon's fearless charge; and Teyla, who had believed him, who had come and found him in the chair before he had stopped breathing.

He hadn't ever tried that, had he, the timeline where he was the one rescued, though he should have known better than to try to be the hero, when he can't even win at chess--and Rodney starts to laugh, not hysterically, but for real, because some ironies are so beautiful they can only be appreciated.

Sheppard's still got the death-grip on his arm, is saying, "Hey, buddy, want to let me in on the joke?" in a strained way, like he's talking down a rabid hyena. For his sake Rodney gulps back the loudest amusement, but he can't stop the grin, even if it's at his own expense.

"It's okay," he says, "I just got it. What I was missing. Or what wasn't missing, what should have been missing--the observer effect, of course, I could cancel out my bias but I couldn't change my perspective. I was always there; even when I wasn't on the mission, I was influencing it, dictating its course with everything I knew. Every detail, every insight; and they didn't need me, nobody needed me, when they all had their own choices to make, their own chances to take..."

Sheppard's staring, standing up, going to drag the doctor back over, perhaps, and Rodney breathes deep and tells him, "No, it's okay. Really. I'm okay. It's just. If I'd known..."

The chair's broken. If Sheppard failed to cancel the probability loop, with his genetic advantage, Rodney will very likely--probably--never get it working again. Infinite possibilities, lost to him; lost to all of them, all the things they might have learned, all the catastrophes they might have avoided.

But Sheppard's standing by Rodney's bedside with his tense little half-smile, not quite hovering but almost, not quite worry but nearly, and all the way alive. Later, most likely, in most probable futures, Rodney's going to be furious about the chair, all that effort and he didn't even take notes; such a great loss to science, not to mention the cost of his invaluable time. Right now, Rodney's too selfish to care about that price.

When he grins, Sheppard grins back, cockeyed and genuine, even if he missed the punch-line. "By the way," Rodney asks him, "what's O'Malley's first name?"

"Who?"

"Lieutenant O'Malley? One of your Marines? I know you've got lots of them, but he's tall enough to stand out."

"Oh." Sheppard has to think for a second--hah, Rodney smugly observes; even the diligent military commander doesn't have all his people down. "Darryl. Darryl O'Malley. Why?"

Rodney shrugs. "He went on the rescue mission?"

"Yeah, I think Lorne picked him." Sheppard leans back, crosses his arms. "So, about that--how'd you know where to send them to fetch me? And what were you using the FTC for? Telling the future? Is that how you got the address, divining it in an Ancient holographic crystal ball?"

"Not anything so linear," Rodney haughtily replies. "I wasn't telling the future, I was finding a future."

Sheppard's eyebrow goes up. "A future? Which one? The one with the Federation, or the one with Mr. Fusion? Or just any old future?"

Any one worth living in. "This one," Rodney says. "This one works fine for me."

fin