Title: "Through the Looking Glass"
Word Count: 19,000-
Genre: Gen, Angst, H/C
Spoilers: Through Season 5's "Remnants"
Warnings: Violence and some darkish tones.
Characters: John, Rodney, Teyla, Ronon
Summary: "Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively" - Voltaire. There is something odd going on with John and Rodney. Maybe everyone. Or it could be the darkness closing in.
Notes: I want to thank my wonderful betas wildcat88 and everybetty for their amazing support and skills. I wouldn't have made it without you guys!
Written for vecturist for the sheppard_hc Secret Santa. Prompt at the end.
Rodney checked his watch, stood up, paced back and forth, stared at the time again and sat back down to scroll through his email. He heard footsteps and snapped his head up, only to scowl at one of his minions for tricking him into thinking his teammates could be on time. The lowly man rightly scampered away.
He fingered his radio just as the wonder twins graced him with their presence. "About time," he muttered.
Ronon crossed his arms over that hulking chest. Teyla said nothing, merely arching an eyebrow. "Sorry, we were detained."
Rodney scanned the entrance to his lab for the umpteenth time, making sure no one could eavesdrop. "Do you know how busy I am? Take your day to a factor of ten."
"What's so important?" Ronon asked, still standing like a cigar-store Indian. "And why are we hiding?"
"Because it's about Sheppard and we've been working on the modifications to the chair room, stepping on each other's toes for the last three days," Rodney explained, peering around the lab. "I made Lorne find some excuse to call him away, but he'll be back any minute."
"Is there something wrong?" Teyla asked, suddenly more alert.
"No, no," Rodney waved his hands. "It's his birthday next week."
Rodney tried not to roll his eyes at the Satedan. "Yeah, well. I thought this time we'd all... you know... do something."
"Sheppard doesn't care about that stuff," Ronon said flatly.
"Of course he does," Rodney scoffed. "A party gives him a chance to flirt with the females of the expedition and drink without using his beer rations."
"I think what Ronon is saying is that Colonel Sheppard might not appreciate being the focus of attention," Teyla explained, using that annoying logical tone.
"Look, we all know how much he hates being in the spotlight. Every year we tiptoe around his birthday like it's a curse or he schedules a mission and we all forget about it." Rodney wasn't sure why this was bugging him. He looked at the two perplexed expressions in front of him. "There've been dinners and parties for the rest of us."
Maybe it had something to do with the most recent alien mind manipulation. Or that John hadn't been acting quite right ever since. What was wrong with a celebration? Drinking to Michael's death hadn't exactly been a time for rejoicing over fond memories.
Or maybe Rodney was just tired of living until the next disaster and it dawned on him that the moments in between imminent death should mean more.
Teyla might have read his expression, silently communicating it to Ronon. "What are you suggesting?"
Rodney wasn't sure; he'd never actually gotten past step one of getting them together to discuss the idea. It wasn't like he'd ever cared before. When had there been time for social niceties?
"Perhaps a card that everyone could sign. This way we could avoid a party that might make John feel uncomfortable," Teyla suggested. "Ronon and I could take it to his men and you could cover the science teams."
"We could take him boflo hunting. Makes you feel alive," Ronon suggested, smiling at Teyla's eye roll.
"I don't think almost getting us all killed is a good way to celebrate things," Rodney grumbled.
Ronon shrugged. "Adrenaline rushes make you appreciate life."
"We almost die everyday. I'd like to avoid that." Rodney was thinking something on a larger scale. "What about--"
His question was interrupted by the subject of their discussion. The three of them went silent, badly covering up their conspiracy session.
"What's going on?" John asked, eying them suspiciously. "Did I forget a meeting?"
"I was looking for Teyla," Ronon lied.
"And I needed Rodney's opinion on some climate issues that might be causing one of our trading partners problems," Teyla added swiftly.
The list of lame excuses proved that they were terrible liars. Rodney reached for his laptop. "And I was just sitting here."
"Riiiight," John drawled, definitely not buying it.
The silence and fumbling for excuses to switch subjects came in the form of a newbie lab assistant.
"Dr. McKay, I've been looking for you."
"Really?" Rodney faced his underling, secretly happy for the distraction. Dr. Hopkins stood there nervously, a plain white box shaking in his young, inexperienced hands. "Are you waiting for an invitation?"
"Um, no, except... well... I..." The young man stumbled over his words. "I didn't know where you wanted me to store these and... I didn't mean to interrupt anything."
Hopkins stared wide-eyed at Ronon who just glared back at him. The geek gulped, glanced at John and stepped back a little with trepidation.
Rodney guessed being confronted with the lead off-world team and the insane military commander of the city was a bit intimidating. "What are you trying to dump on me?"
"Oh. These are some of the unidentified objects that we've been inventorying from Jana's lab."
"Wait, wait, wait. You brought Ancient tech here in a cardboard box?" Rodney asked, appalled. "Do you have any idea what you could be carrying? You know we have rules and regulations for Ancient tech, especially unknown tech that could transport one of us into space or turn us all into flying monkeys!"
"I'm sorry," Hopkins stuttered, backing away, almost right into John.
"And don't get newly discovered crap anywhere near him. If that man even breathes on it, he might cause an explosion," Rodney ranted.
The scientist backed away suddenly, as if touching Sheppard might end in catastrophe. Instead the newbie got all tripped up by his two left feet and was suddenly flailing to keep from crashing to the floor.
Ronon grabbed the kid by the arm; in the process the box got jostled and some of its contents shook free. Teyla caught two of the palm-sized objects easily. "Here, I have them."
"Careful!" Rodney reached for the devices, then recoiled, realizing what a bad idea it could be.
Teyla quickly placed them back in the box without a single disaster. Rodney released a breath, shoulders sagging. That was close. He whirled around to face his newest assistant. What was he, twelve? "I want you to take those to Lab Four on Level Five-B. Hand them to Dr. Polanski then locate the manual that I wrote on the proper procedures for handling alien technology and read it no fewer than five times. Only after you can recite the rules to me backwards and forwards, are you allowed to do anything other than clean and disinfect equipment."
"Yes, sir. Sorry."
"And I want the name of the idiot who sent you here to blow up my lab," Rodney demanded.
"Dr. Kimball," the underling replied.
"Right. Figures. Now shoo!" Rodney waved him away. "And don't you dare drop anything."
"Way to build on those interpersonal relationships," John snarked.
His tone was sarcastic, but Rodney knew John well enough to see through his façade. The man was peeved about being out of the loop on something. It was all in the brooding eyes and cranky posture.
"Oh, sure. Make cracks about possibly saving your life. Do you remember the last time you touched something you shouldn't have?" John visibly deflated and Rodney seized on it. "Good. Because I wasn't a fan of Nightmare on Sheppard Street."
"That was a year ago and I was only stopping by to see if you're done with the latest calculations." John scrubbed a hand through his unruly hair. "But I'm guessing you are if you have time to hang out."
"No, I'm not done. You know how sensitive these calibrations are. It takes time and there's no rushing computations that take hours to crunch for every chunk of data. So, I'm sorry, but this is a top priority that you can't get out of, no matter how tired you get of sitting around," Rodney snapped, putting a bit more zing in his voice. Riling up John was a good way to distract him.
It worked because the colonel stopped glancing at Ronon and Teyla, his focus a laser line on him. "It's been four days, McKay. I was just seeing if we were getting close."
"The pace of science does not adhere to a time table," Rodney replied, pulling up the latest results.
"I have to go to Earth next week, so maybe science could hurry up a bit, or it's going to be forced to wait," John said irritably. He cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just call me if you need anything else," was his slightly peevish follow up. Before anyone could react, his radio went off and John was out the door to follow up on a military thing.
"I am not sure picking a fight with the colonel was a good thing," Teyla admonished.
"It wasn't like I wanted to… it's what we do. Besides, it was better than proving that we're all lousy actors." Rodney turned back to his computer screen. "It'll make things more of a surprise, now won't it?"
"Why's he going back to Earth?" Ronon asked.
Why was John going back home? And why were they just learning about it now? If they hadn't had a squabble would they have ever known until John was walking towards the gate? This wasn't going to ruin his great surprise... whatever it might be. "I'll do some digging," Rodney said, swiveling in his chair.
With his back to them, Ronon and Teyla got the 'you're dismissed' signal. Now all he had to do was find a way to work on the control chair improvements, plan a birthday surprise with no real clue what it would be, and find out about a certain annoying pilot's little field trip.
After five years of certain doom on a regular basis, couldn't one of his closest friends ever confide in the smallest thing? It wasn't like Rodney wanted to be John Sheppard's confessor. But things like an ex-wife, a brother, and an estranged father shouldn't be news. Returning to Earth was a big deal—why hadn't it come up in conversation?
Rodney dug through the following week's missions and communications with the SGC. In the middle of all the military, science, and bureaucratic day-to-day stuff was John's scheduled trip. Using the gate to go to Earth instead of the Daedalus was a waste of resources so it must be a really huge deal.
Which only made him more frustrated. John trusted Rodney with his life; anything else, and it was ten inch thick walls and silence.
John preferred it when the Marine captains took care of their own unit assignments. He didn't flaunt his command, delegating responsibilities and allowing team leaders to control their personnel. They all had too much crap to do to waste time on rhetoric, but there were times when his oak leaves needed to make an appearance.
He waited quietly, stretching out the heavy silence for as long as possible. The corporal before him sweated bullets, standing so far at attention it was a wonder his spine was still intact.
Lieutenant Abrams gave him a quick, "Sir," then stepped away. John wasn't cut from the same cloth as his former COs and didn't believe in having an audience for disciplinary matters. This wasn't a power trip. He stood toe-to-toe with the corporal, close enough to guess the antiperspirant he was wearing. "What is the number one rule for off-world missions, Corporal Higgins?"
"Never lose sight of the civilians, sir."
"That's right. Anything too challenging about that?"
"Yet, this is the third time you've allowed the scientist attached to you to wander off."
"You have one job. Protect those under you. That means becoming their shadow. Knowing every step and matching it. Memorizing their habits and anticipating the unpredictable."
"I don't care how annoying or obnoxious they are. If they drive you bat-shit insane. Don't ever lose your geek. Is that clear?"
Higgins's mouth said one thing, his body language another. John didn't budge, didn't blink. "Do you sleep well at night, Corporal?"
Higgins licked his bottom lip nervously. "Um...yes, sir."
"I guarantee you won't after the day one of them comes back in a body bag." John worked his jaw. "Dismissed."
The corporal's footfalls drifted away, leaving only the hum of Atlantis in the background. John rested his head against the wall behind him, wishing the transporters could beam weary colonels to their beds. Hours in the control chair made him feel like a faulty livewire. Multiply that by four days, and he just wasn't up for social interaction. Not when his veins felt like they were super-charged and his mind was still connected on some level to the city.
He rounded the corner near the gym, noticing a few Marines hanging around the entrance. Their quiet murmurings turned to silence as he passed, making him wonder what conversations they didn't want him to overhear.
Seemed that was the trend for today.
John didn't realize his heart was at a full gallop until it began settling down and he slowed its pace from a mad sprint. He massaged his left temple, feeling a band of tension begin to form. Dressing down one of his men was at the bottom of his favorite things to do list, but it was a necessary evil.
People died if he didn't. Of course, many lost their lives as a result of his decisions. The IOA probably wanted a breakdown of how he weighed threat assessments and acceptable risks then a full analysis of those choices. Like such things crossed his mind in the 'two seconds between life and death' situations. War couldn't be dissected into the columns and rows of a spreadsheet to find better methods for the future. He was sure they had a chart, complete with lives lost for all his failures.
"Way to think positive, John," he muttered under his breath. Then he looked up to see if anyone realized he was talking to himself.
There were a couple of scientists nearby, but they were too absorbed in their conversation to have noticed. Their voices buzzed in the distance and John saw the one with red curly hair glance up at him out of the corner of his eye. Curly quickly averted his gaze and John found himself quickening his steps again.
"Colonel, I need the report of your mission to P2M-173 from yesterday," Woolsey requested.
John did a mental double-take. "I turned that in already."
"I don't have a hard or digital copy. Are you sure you turned them in?"
"I emailed it to you after dinner and dropped off the paper version this morning," John replied, wondering how both could have gone missing.
"Colonel, it would be very difficult for both of them to get lost. I am aware of the altercation that occurred, detailed as it was in Dr. McKay's oh, so candid ten pages. Ronon's was its usual abridged version. Since Teyla was visiting her people, I need yours to balance them out."
John grimaced. That damn thing had taken an hour to type, trying to explain how cultural misunderstandings on top of misinterpretation of hand gestures had kept them from investigating what could have been a source of naquadah.
"I'll make sure you get a copy before 1800 hours," John promised.
"You know, I had to send my daily databurst without your account. I don't need to remind you how that might look so close to your yearly review."
Gee, thanks for the not-so-helpful tip, John thought. "I'm sure that won't be the biggest issue I'll have to face." If all he had to worry about were tardy reports...
"If you could send me the draft from your inbox, the time stamp would help clear that right up," Woolsey suggested.
"Good idea, sir. Sheppard out." Of course, that didn't explain how the paper file had disappeared. This time he didn't voice his thoughts out loud, searching the hallways for an audience. What the heck? Where was he? It took a moment to recognize that he'd taken a wrong turn. Apparently walking and talking at the same time was a skill to work on.
"Yeah," he replied, spinning around to an empty hallway.
He went to the middle of the intersection, searching in all directions, but no one was around. Great. He needed sleep, but that had been an enigma for the last couple weeks. Looking down, he discovered his left hand was balled into a fist, and he slowly uncurled his fingers to shake them loose.
His computer's inbox was filled with request forms, this month's evaluations, twenty status reports from McKay, the usual mix of random jokes, photos, and the rare personal note. John scrolled through the newest update to the movie selection for the common room, ignoring Rodney's demand for his input on the morning's test runs.
The draft section of his mail program saved him from the tedious job of retyping his report, thank goodness. He forwarded the document, bolding the time stamp, and sent a copy to himself. That should have been it, but John's fingers drifted to the 'compose' button. He was returning to Earth; certainly he owed his brother another visit. That was if Dave wanted one. Dropping by unannounced could spare John the hurt of any 'schedule conflicts' that an advanced notice might create.
John stared at the four walls that had surrounded him for the last five years, eyes drifting towards the window. The walls on Earth were made of plaster and wood, dead and unfeeling. He wasn't sure if he could ever accept non-alien exteriors again. Or sleep in a bed on a world that didn't feel like home. He stared at the door, half expecting it to chime and when it didn't, John glared at the blank email.
What are you running away from? The cursor read.
John slammed his laptop closed, breathing hard. He stared at the door to his quarters again, waiting for the knock that never came. It was tough not to think about next week. Colonel Carter would be there. General O'Neill and even Hammond were on board. Nothing to worry about.
John stood up, not sure what he wanted to do. He crossed his quarters in five quick steps and palmed open the door.
He looked down both quiet corridors. John walked further around, verifying that he was the only occupant in the hall. He returned to his room, the doors opening and waiting for him to enter. His quarters were dimly lit; the desk lamp the only source of light. It felt like he was on the outside and peering into a stranger's space.
John backed away slowly, eyes crisscrossing all points of exit. There was no one around, but he wasn't about to go take a nap. Not in there.
With nowhere in mind, he wandered around the city, allowing the low-level thrum to guide him.
Ronon entered the mess hall with vigor, being exceptional hungry after taking the long route for his run. He'd awakened before dawn and had covered the eastern piers before going towards living quarters. John hadn't waited for him and knew that was the colonel's signal for skipping out. That made it six days in a row and while it didn't bother him, John hadn't been joining him for morning exercise for a while. There was no point in pushing for a reason; one might come forward in the next sparring session. Ronon wasn't going to let him duck out of their Friday sessions and he'd prove to John that missing out on runs would only make him soft.
His stomach growled loudly and the smell of food narrowed his focus on the line for the trays. He headed towards the large stacks and piles of utensils when he spotted McKay and Keller a few feet ahead. Ronon was over Jennifer picking McKay. It'd taken a long time before he'd allowed himself to be interested in another woman, enough time not to feel guilty. The interest and affection for her would fade, and he was fine that McKay had found someone...but it didn't mean he wanted to watch them be together.
Time would take care of any resentment and uncomfortable feelings. Not that anyone else would pick up on them. Ronon kept them inside, his rough exterior always in place. Suddenly he wasn't hungry anymore and McKay was being louder than normal while Jennifer tried to get him to lower his voice.
Ronon turned around and headed towards the exit when he spotted John standing in the far corner of the room. When had he come in? Ronon walked over, noticing the way the colonel studied the mess hall, taking in positions and angles. Ronon was instantly alert, scanning for anything suspicious. He took a spot next to John casually, not wanting to bring attention to what they were doing.
"Trouble?" Ronon asked under his breath.
"Why? You see some?" John whispered.
That was a confusing answer. "No, I saw you going over the room." Ronon never took his eyes off the exits or any possible strange behavior.
"Nothing wrong with playing things safe," John responded.
"Okay." Ronon eased up, wondering if any of the food in his quarters was worth investigating. But John was still in observation mode, hand resting above his sidearm, the relaxed manner betrayed by the tension in his shoulders. "How long have you been up?"
"Up?" John finally looked at him. He needed a shave and his wrinkled uniform was the same one he had on yesterday.
"You weren't around for our run," Ronon said, reassessing his friend. The colonel had never gone to bed.
"Already went for a run. Visited the south pier," John explained, but his eyes were busy evaluating people.
It took hours to reach the southern pier. Sometimes John acted funny after using the control chair and he knew the colonel had been running tests on it for days. Then he remembered the trip to Earth and things became clear. Judging a war on paper from a galaxy away was stupid. John knew that; he didn't need to hear it from Ronon.
"So, where were you going?" John asked.
This time Ronon had the colonel's full attention and while the question was casual, the glare wasn't. "I was just leaving."
John smiled. "But you didn't eat."
"Decided I wasn't hungry," Ronon said gruffly. He crossed his arms, closing the matter.
A group of marines entered and he recognized Hardin's team. They must have gotten back from their overnight op; they smelled of the showers and the infirmary from post-mission check ups.
"They weren't due back until 2200 hours," John said, eying them.
"Maybe the mission didn't take as long," Ronon said, shrugging.
"Yeah, that could be it, too."
Ronon didn't understand the implication, watching John's eyes narrow slightly like they did on missions. Rodney waved at them wildly from a table, plopping his plate down. "Come over here!" he shouted across the room.
Jennifer grabbed his flailing hand, urging him to sit down. All eyes were on them, all the normal conversations grinding to a halt. Rodney was beginning to stand back up so Ronon went over, John on his heels. McKay seemed oblivious, pointing at two empty chairs.
"Where are your trays?" Rodney demanded. "What's the point of hanging out if you're not going to eat?" He turned to Jennifer, her cheeks a shade rosier. "Don't you think eating breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" She didn't get a chance to answer. "Don't get me wrong; lunch and dinner are great. In fact, they have tastier items and allow for dessert in most cases. But without breakfast, there's no energy to do what's needed all day. And who are we kidding? My day is never normal."
Ronon was going to tell him to shut up when Rodney began snapping his fingers, and if possible, started talking more. "Sheppard, did you go over all the data I sent over? I know the changes to the power redistribution are only point four seconds, but the results could be compounded over time. Also, I found the rate of transverse from the chair to the conduits can be tweaked enough to affect the way systems respond to the chair's directions. I waited until this morning for your reply, because I can't input more calculations until you fill out the missing data. I know the chair doesn't talk to you per se, but we both know the responses feel differently." Rodney took a breath, fork forever posed near that non-stop moving mouth. "Hello, Sheppard?"
John had been staring at him the entire time. "What?"
"What? What do you mean what? Have you been paying attention at all? About the emails I sent you."
"There's something wrong with my email," John said.
"Something wrong? Like what? It's email not Linux," Rodney said, shaking his head, finally chewing his food and giving them all a moment to breath.
"Don't know; maybe I'll--"
McKay was interrupting John again. "Just give me your laptop and I'll take a look at it."
"Why?" the colonel asked.
"Why? What's with the twenty questions? To fix your email, so you can answer them all," Rodney snorted then did the weirdest thing. He reached over the table and patted John on the shoulder. "Come on, lighten up."
Jennifer stared at Rodney. John merely sat there with his brow furrowed.
Teyla had mentioned to Ronon something called a mid-life crisis after the whole birthday discussion the other day. He suspected McKay's behavior had more to do with guilt that two members of the team had someone to be with now and Rodney wanted to try to make the rest of them happy.
"You know, being all uptight about your review won't help things," Rodney blurted.
Ronon grimaced. Lorne had told him about the colonel's reason for going to Earth, but that didn't mean he was going to say anything out loud.
"Rodney!" Jennifer hissed.
"What?" Rodney asked, bewildered. "We stopped the Replicators, the Wraith are seeking us for help nowadays. And the galaxy feels safe enough to have power struggles, for crying out loud."
John stood up abruptly, his chair scraping against the floor. "My trip is none of your business, so I'd appreciate it if you stopped breaking into my files," he growled.
Rodney sat there while John breathed rapidly. Ronon sat up straighter, glowering at the rest of those in the room until the heavy silence was filled with chatter again. Teyla appeared at the table slightly weary, setting down her tray. "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, everything's fine," John mumbled. "Sorry...I just...you know, didn't catch much sleep," he apologized.
"No, yeah. You look tired, maybe a nap would help," Rodney said, getting up, not one word of reprimand on his lips.
"Maybe you're right," John said, waving McKay away. "Think I'll go do that."
Teyla sat down while John walked away. "Is there anything wrong?"
"No," Rodney replied. "This just means that we need to work harder about next week."
"Next week?" Ronon asked. "You mean the whole birthday thing?"
"Yes, in fact I know exactly what to do to make things perfect," Rodney said excitedly.
Before Ronon knew it, Rodney was out of his seat, food forgotten on the table. "I need to get back to the lab; everything I need is there."
"What about breakfast?" Jennifer asked bewilderedly.
"Oh, that can wait. This can't."
Ronon watched the blur of his teammate dodge around tables and chairs as if his life depended on it. The rest of his meal lay untouched so he snagged the stack of pancakes. "That was weird," he said, before shoveling them into his mouth.
"You talking about Rodney or Colonel Sheppard?" Jennifer asked.
Ronon wasn't sure.
The rest of John's day became one giant blur; time turned fuzzy, and he couldn't recall when night occurred. Sleep never came, and he watched the clock change by the hour in glowing red letters. He stayed in his quarters despite how every fiber in his being told him things were wrong. The bed didn't feel right and he moved it three times, rearranging his desk and chairs with every new spot. At first he thought it was too soft then too firm. He ripped away the sheets and flipped over the mattress to examine it. The label was torn where he'd removed it during his first week in the city.
He noticed a layer of dust had been disturbed underneath the bed. Of course he'd been dragging things all over the place and lord knew he never really cleaned his quarters aside from keeping his clothes neatly in his closet. But there was a patch on the floor that bothered him.
By the time things were put back in their original places, it was morning. There were no missions scheduled today, only a meeting with Lorne. John showered and changed, trying to recall what was on their agenda. The very idea of leaving his room had him breaking out in a cold sweat, yet last night all he'd wanted to do was bolt.
He stood in front of the doors, swallowing a hard lump in his throat, popping his knuckles several times. What was the point of the meeting? It wasn't like Lorne couldn't handle evaluating this month's supplies. Why have a master sergeant assigned to that detail if they had to nit-pick his reports?
John took a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand, releasing all of the air in his chest in the hopes of getting rid of the jitters. The doors were still closed and he wanted to remain where he was.
"Colonel Sheppard, could you please report to the control room?" Woolsey's voice came over his com.
Should he answer or just show up? Woolsey requested a response, forcing the decision. He raised his left hand, realized his radio was in his right ear, awkwardly tapping it anyway. "I'm on my way."
John bit his lip, barged through the doors and into the hallway. His feet felt odd and clumsy and he looked down, discovering his boots were still unlaced.
He walked out of the transporter and onto the wrong level. Atlantis was Manhattan-large and it was easy to get turned around in the vast underbelly of unused sectors. Okay, John thought, he must have hit the wrong button. After dashing back into the transporter, it took a few seconds to process which screen to press.
John rubbed at his eyes. The blue-lit map made sense and he tapped the correct destination to the control tower. The doors whooshed open and all eyeballs snapped in his direction. Blues, browns, greens. They were all glued to him, burning his skin with their collective heat. Chuck, Amelia, heck, even Frank stopped mopping the floor to gaze over.
He checked behind him to make sure no one was standing there then inspected his uniform to see if he was wearing the correct shirt. When John looked up, everyone was back to business as usual. A few technicians even nodded or smiled at him when he got closer.
"Sir," a young man greeted.
John didn't reply, unable to put a name with a face. There was something about how people peered at him out of the corners of their eyes, or made nervous smiles. It reminded John of his first arrival at the SGC. The way the men gossiped behind his back, or how Sumner's inner circle scrutinized his every move. It had been easier to sleep on the last bunk in the most isolated barracks on base despite his rank. Those nights had been more lonely than any twelve hour hops between bases in his chopper.
He reached Woolsey's office, where the rest of his team waited, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
John shook his head. "I'm sorry, I missed what you said."
Richard Woolsey sat back in his chair appraising him. "Are you feeling alright?"
Ronon and Teyla looked at him in concern; Rodney was too busy pacing to give him any attention. John was taken aback; he'd been expecting a lecture about being late. "I'm fine," he replied. "Just tired."
Woolsey pursed his lips but didn't broach the subject again. "I called you outside our normal scheduled meeting because a member of the Pegasus coalition contacted us about setting up a monthly conference to continue relations with other powers in the galaxy."
"You mean the people who imprisoned us?" Ronon interrupted.
"Yes, and may I remind all of you of the importance of maintaining relations with the surrounding governments?" Woolsey warned. "But we're going to have to table that for another time. As Dr. McKay has undoubtedly been waiting to explain, we've encountered a major problem with the city's stardrive."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Finally to the point at hand." Rodney froze mid-step in his frantic prowl of the room. "It seems that the drive is on some automated start-up sequence, diverting power to the engines so the city can fly away."
"How is that possible?" Teyla asked, looking from Rodney to Woolsey.
"I'm glad you asked. Now, I don't have the four years needed to explain the physics and engineering behind the feat, but I'll try to give you the abridged version."
John sat there while McKay grabbed his tablet and started up a powerpoint presentation. The room was silent apart from Rodney's rapid-fire explanation. Instead of insulting and belittling his teammates, Rodney beamed from ear to ear on the finer points of aeronautics and energy to mass ratios.
"---and if a force is applied to an object in the direction of motion, the object gains momentum---"
Rodney's voice rose in pitch, his tone never condescending, hands waving in excitement.
"---the rest mass of a system is always the sum of the relativistic masses of its parts, in the frame where the system as a whole is at rest---"
John shook his head; Rodney's lips moved, but the words were out of sync.
"---this equation gives the rest mass of an object which has an arbitrary amount of momentum and energy---"
John sat there, the equations white streaks on the chalkboard and they just fit. Mapping out how lift and yaw would affect takeoff. The rest of the students seemed confounded by the numbers, but it was just plain logic. The professor was animated and loud, clearly drawing enthusiasm from the topic.
"Can we get back to the problem at hand? I know we all appreciate the time and effort--"
His CO wasn't interested in the reason for the maneuver over North Korean territory; he was plissed that John almost lost a two million dollar airplane.
"You don't understand. I'm just trying to--"
The mission report wasn't going to be enough; it didn't matter that the enemy forced him over Chinese airspace.
"Colonel Sheppard, what is your opinion?"
John gave himself a mental shake. Rodney was sitting down, his foot tapping frantically on the floor. Woolsey was waiting for his answer and for the life of him, he had no idea what the question was.
"I think your idea is insane, even for you," Zelenka snapped.
When did Radek join the party? Zelenka pointed at his tablet, ranting about the absurdity of Rodney's plan. John tried not to act completely lost. He glanced at his watch, noticing that close to an hour had passed.
"I have to agree with Dr. Zelenka. I may not be an expert on this type of technology, but even I think that allowing the power to build up and actually fly and relocate the city is..." Woolsey cleared his throat. "Well, it is not the best solution to our problem. We should find out what's causing the drive to activate to begin with."
"Allowing the action to resolve naturally should circumvent any disastrous effects," Rodney argued, but was all smiles. "I mean come on, why not see what happens?"
"So we can crash into the ocean?" Zelenka shouted. "What kind of idea is that?"
It was a tennis match and John sat there, watching things like some bad movie. Why would McKay suggest they just sit back and watch what happened? And why were Ronon and Teyla staring at him, giving him little facial cues that didn't make sense. Zelenka was furious and Rodney couldn't comprehend why the little man was about to blow a gasket. Throughout the whole spectacle he could feel Woolsey's eyes on him from behind those wire-rimmed glasses.
Ronon was slouched in his chair, both annoyed and bored, yet he'd glance over everyone once in a while. Teyla was worse, trying to get involved, voice full of reason and calm. She'd take a moment to gauge John's reactions, studying him with those fierce eyes.
They were all studying him, waiting...waiting and watching. Was this some kind of test to see his reaction or analyze as to which side he'd take? Zelenka, the reasonable approach. Rodney's the reckless and unfounded. Were members of the SGC observing the crisis from the comfort of their reclining leather chairs?
No, his team wouldn't be in on such a thing. Never.
"The city has always been one step ahead of us in terms of anticipating problems. It was built with advanced automated systems designed to protect itself. Maybe we should listen to it?" McKay asked, boiling over in boyish enthusiasm.
The glint in Rodney's eyes should be daggers. The giddiness, filled with raging contempt.
John took a step back. He glanced down at the gateroom, through windows and barriers of glass. Though they tried to conceal it, those below were also watching. Hiding their actions in the daily gestures and activities of work.
"Colonel Sheppard, what do you think?"
Woolsey was waiting. Rodney beamed at him, expecting his full support. Radek pushed up his glasses expectantly. John's throat ran dry; the gateroom personnel started whispering, their voices drifting upwards with the flow of air. He could hear them despite how low they kept their voices.
"I think we should go with whatever carries the least risk to the city," John said, smiling. His answer was vague and up to interpretation.
"Well, then. I think that answers that," Rodney exclaimed, face gushing.
"I think the colonel is referring to my plan," Radek said, clearing his throat.
They're lying. Can't you see? Can't you feel how wrong this is? How wrong it feels.
"I think we should..."
Woolsey's voice lost shape and form. There were other sounds, talking and arguing. John said things, used proper words when it was needed. Then people moved and shuffled and he found himself in the transporter alone, staring at a screen that displayed gibberish. He wasn't sure how long it took to figure out the control panel or where the others were. John didn't even know what they had decided, if anything.
All that was important was that he got away.
Away from the whispers and prying eyes.
You should leave while you can.
John spun around to another empty hallway. He rubbed furiously at his head, the pain there a constant throb behind his eyes. He needed time to think, to sort things out.
The problem was, where could he go?
Teyla mentally went over her to-do list for the rest of the day. She needed to pick up the laundry, snag dinner, nurse Torren before his bedtime, and find the time to work out. There was no telling what order those things would happen in. She also had to run by Rodney's lab to discuss the progress on gathering the signatures needed for John's card. That was if Major Lorne would ever stop staring at it.
Lorne pinched the ends of the parchment tightly, brow furrowed in deep frustration. Teyla stepped closer, fearing the major might wrinkle the card unknowingly. Lana in the astrophysics lab had digitally drawn the cover of stars and candles upon the backdrop of Atlantis and the sea. The card was larger than normal to accommodate the many scribbles and well wishes.
"I...I'm not sure what to write."
Teyla exhaled a breath. Lorne had mulled over all the notes on the inside for almost twenty minutes. "Whatever comes to mind. I'm sure the colonel would appreciate that you signed it."
"I can't do that...I mean, I should say something," he said, gripping it harder.
"It doesn't have to be long. Perhaps what comes to your heart." At seeing Lorne's dubious reaction, Teyla amended her words. "What do most Earth cards say?'
"Most say, to many years to come, but I think that'd be kind of a jinx," Lorne said morosely, then he barked out a short laugh to cover up the odd remark. He studied it harder as if the words would magically appear while chewing on his bottom lip. "Maybe I should think about it. I mean, what if I write the wrong thing?"
Teyla looked at him puzzled. "Wrong thing?"
"This is Colonel Sheppard. Who knows how he might take it. What if I say something too personal...or what if it's not personal enough?" Lorne glared at the card shaking in his hands. "I'm his XO. I can't afford to screw that up." He shoved it into her hands roughly. "I'll radio you when I think of something appropriate."
Lorne hurriedly left, leaving the gift unsigned and Teyla's day reduced by a half an hour. She would have found the major's behavior a little off, but a few of John's men had debated over what to write as well. It baffled her. They demonstrated their respect for him on the battlefield, in their dedication to duty. She overheard their awe and admiration for the colonel all the time and witnessed their willingness to do anything for John during a crisis. Yet, it was surprising to see such awkwardness when confronted with a way to express that same affection in the form of a birthday greeting.
Teyla found Rodney in the back portion of his lab, the tiny room used often for storing projects or excess equipment. She stood there foolishly thinking he'd stop for a moment to greet her. Her clothes were probably sitting wet and wrinkled in the washer and undoubtedly Kanaan would be radioing her when Torren got hungry sooner rather than later. There weren't enough hours in the day to get all her tasks done and wait around for him to recognize her presence.
"Rodney, I have collected most of the needed signatures for John's card. I'm going to put it on your desk so you can circulate it among any scientists who might want to sign it." Teyla waited to be acknowledged, a rare impatience overwhelming her normal veneer.
The scientist was huddled on the floor, a mess of circuit boards, wires, and other components a wreck around him. He had his tablet hooked up to a projection screen, oblivious to her words.
His head snapped up. "What?"
Teyla counted to three in her head. "I have John's card."
"Oh, yeah. Okay," he replied, his eyes focused on the guts of the instruments before him.
Part of her, no, all of Teyla, wanted to leave, but she knew that the card would be forgotten. It was difficult not to step on the various items scattered across the tile as she navigated towards him. When she edged closer to what had his rapt attention, her jaw dropped. "You're playing a golf game?"
"Playing? Of course not," Rodney snorted.
The large LCD screen displayed a long stretch of thick grass with a white ball set up on something. What did John call it? A tee? The video was high quality, the fake green 'grass' real enough to touch. "These are golf contests from Earth?"
"No, this is real time computer generated imagery that I grabbed from the real Pebble Beach," Rodney gloated. "I used several satellites to download the data and I'm trying to factor every known condition from rain to wind that could affect the environment." Rodney shook his head and muttered under his breath. "I can't get the sand traps to behave properly; they don't impede the ball's trajectory right."
Teyla had watched John hit balls into the ocean from the piece of artificial turf he unrolled on one of the piers occasionally. "You're trying to create movies for the colonel to watch?"
Rodney jumped up so fast it startled her. He was in her face, eyes bouncing around wildly. "I'm making Sheppard a new game!" He grinned, puffing his cheeks out like a giddy kid. While his mood was running high, his state of dress was in disrepair.
"When was the last time you showered?" Teyla asked, wrinkling her nose.
"Who has time for such trivial things?" He wrapped his arms around her, squeezing tightly. "I'm making the perfect golf simulator. Isn't that great?" Rodney pulled back, hands still on her shoulders, waiting excitedly for her response.
His hair stuck up in all directions and for the first time, Teyla noticed all the empty MREs and bottles of water strewn haphazardly all over the place. It occurred to her that she hadn't seen him since the meeting two days ago. "How long have you been working on this?"
"I don't know. A while," he said, shrugging. Rodney's eyes grew bright and, he smiled even more. "Have I shown you how it works?"
Teyla didn't have time to say no. All she wanted to do was deliver the card, but Rodney's behavior was beginning to worry her. Before she could ask him how he was feeling, a golf club was shoved into her hands. Rodney led her onto a rubber mat that she hadn't noticed on the floor.
"I started out updating the graphics of Sheppard's game. Then I realized how outdated it was and started a new computer program from scratch. I didn't know anything about the courses and I had to download all of them to my laptop. Then there were the physics to the game, the rules, all the tools needed."
"You've spent all this time reading about golf?" Teyla asked, still holding onto the club.
"I need to be an expert. How else am I going to create an accurate simulator?" Rodney impatiently took the club from her hands and bent at the knees. "You might want to move."
Teyla stepped aside, perplexed, and her worry increased. She watched as Rodney swung the club, almost knocking down a pile of junk nearby. The ball on the screen reacted, flying in a high arc and tumbling down on part of the course. Rodney hurried over to his tablet, clicking his tongue. "Accuracy is still off by five percent."
"Maybe you should give this a rest and---"
"No! You don't understand! It has to be perfect!" Rodney scrubbed a hand over his tired eyes and the frantic, desperate sounding voice was replaced by a more subdued one. "I'm sorry. I don't want there to be any mistakes."
This was deeply unsettling. "I think sleep might help, Rodney. Between getting the stardrive repaired and this, you must be exhausted."
A hand waved dismissively at her. "I'm sure Zelenka handled things just fine."
The unsettled feeling dug deeper in his stomach. "You do not know?"
"No, as you can tell, I've been busy."
The Rodney McKay she knew would never allow another person to repair a vital system on Atlantis, let alone not be updated on the matter. "You had nothing to do with how it was fixed?"
"Of course I did. I told Radek what I thought over the meeting. He still insisted that he was right and I was talking nonsense. I started working out the solution at my work station when I noticed that one of my underlings had left Sheppard's game on in the background." Rodney plopped himself down on the floor, setting his tablet in his lap. "I was going to erase it when I noticed how crappy it really was. I mean come on… it had X-Box old technology."
Teyla expected more of the story and was greeted by furious typing. "And the stardrive?"
"What? Oh, I told Radek if he was so sure of himself he could fix it." Rodney sat back, puzzled, squinting at the screen. He glanced up at her. "Guess he was right. Think I read an update about it last night, but I was trying to get the sensor motions to work on the simulator."
"You haven't slept in over two days?"
When Rodney peered up at her, his voice made her skin crawl. "I don't need sleep. Why would I?"
Kanaan had called twice with Torren crying in the background. He promised to take care of the laundry so Teyla wouldn't have to when she got back. The infirmary was around the corner and when she entered, chaos greeted her.
A throng of medical personnel was working franticly around a gurney. Teyla stood out of the way while the team of nurses pushed the bed towards the ER section of the room. The person had been obscured by bodies and equipment, and machines beeped and hummed from the closed off area.
"Ms. Emmagan, can I help you?"
Teyla turned to Nurse Harrison who had her hands full with a blood sample tray. "I was looking for Dr. Keller."
"She's in Exam Three and then I think she has to prep for surgery. Is there anything I can help you with?"
"No. I mean, I need to speak with her, but if she's too busy," Teyla hesitated.
Harrison grabbed a chart from another passing nurse, winking at the exhausted woman's expression. "Go take ten; I'll take care of Johnson's meds." She turned to Teyla. "I think you might be able to catch her for a second before she scrubs in."
"Do you know what happened when I walked in?" Teyla asked, peering at the sound of activity in the ER.
Harrison shook her head. "Your guess is as good as mine. One of the zoologists thought it'd be fun to jump off the northern pier and take a swim." The nurse sighed. "Look, ma'am, I've got to run these, but I think I see Dr. Keller. Might want to grab her before she heads to the OR."
The tiny woman scurried off and Teyla followed the physician's bobbing ponytail. "Jennifer, I know you are busy, but do you have a second?"
"Um...not really." Jennifer tucked an errant hair away from her face and let out a slow exhale. "Sorry, crazy day. I just finished with the pins for Donaldson's arm. Some of the Marines took sparring a little too far this morning and broke it in two places and now I'm headed into the OR to try to save Lt. Minetti's leg."
"Was it an off-world mission?" Teyla asked concernedly. Minetti had escorted her a few times to New Athos.
"No, it was an explosion of some kind, here on Atlantis. I think it's being investigated but I have a second while he's being prepped."
Teyla wondered if she was getting ahead of herself, but strange things happened in Atlantis all the time. "I think there might be something going on with Dr. McKay."
Jennifer stopped moving, her face all business. "What makes you say that?"
"He has been acting stranger than normal," Teyla offered. She had to chuckle. Rodney's mood swings were an everyday occurrence, but no, this was something different. "I was wondering if you had noticed it as well?"
"It's hard to say. I mean, he's gotten very involved in that game for Colonel Sheppard." Jennifer cleared her throat. "And he's been... um... well... wildly suggestive of late about certain things." She shook her head. "Not that it matters. He's been so excited about the colonel's birthday that I think anything else is a split-second ping on his radar before it's about golf course designs. I admit I've been a little jealous, but Rodney exemplifies the phrase 'one-track-mind'."
She paused, obviously thinking. After Rodney's second childhood illness, any change in his temperament would cause them all to worry. "What have you noticed?" Jennifer asked, now clearly worried.
"He's been very happy of late," Teyla smiled ruefully. "I'd say he's even been giddy. But he acted very oddly today when I visited him. Moodier. I cannot explain it. I am worried he is not getting enough rest. He and John do not appear as if they have slept very much recently."
A nurse came towards them. "They're ready for you to scrub in."
"Tell them I'll be there in just a minute," Jennifer said, thanking her. She turned to Teyla. "I'd go talk to him tonight after my shift, but this surgery could take ten hours easily."
"I have to go feed Torren. If you want me to, I'll go check in on him when I'm done."
A nurse was nervously waiting in the hall. Jennifer seemed torn. "If you don't mind. I mean this could be just one of his crazy streaks and we are talking about the colonel's birthday, but if it's something else..."
"It will be no problem. I'll politely suggest dinner. And I'll see about grabbing John as well. I fear he worries about his trip to Earth," Teyla commented.
"Thank you, and you can let Lt Harrison know if it is something serious, she can reach me while I'm in surgery."
Jennifer left and Teyla realized it was finally time to return to her room. She had just forced her exhausted self out the exit when the corridor was plunged into darkness. The emergency lights flickered once before pitch black claimed the halls. She reached blindly for the wall to get a sense of direction while tapping her radio. "Colonel Sheppard, come in."
Silence greeted her and she switched channels. "Rodney, it's Teyla. Come in."
Her radio chirped before she tried Ronon. Woolsey's voice was on the other end. "Teyla, please report to the control room. And if you know where Dr. McKay and Colonel Sheppard are, please bring them with you. They're not answering my pages."
"What is going on?"
"I don't know, but we're trying to find out. Power is out all over the city. Back-up generators are failing, but I've got enough to make an emergency announcement."
"I am on my way," she replied.
The darkness crackled with Woolsey's voice telling everyone to stay where they were and to remain calm. She tried John and Rodney one more time but was met with static.
John unlocked the nineteenth case of cluster bombs, counting and comparing them to the inventory sheet. All correct. The P-90s were all accounted for; the same went for the G-36's, M60's, MP7's and M-16 rifles. The crates of C-4 were stacked against the wall; he'd counted them an hour ago, but a part of him thought about double checking just to be sure.
"I said I didn't want to be disturbed," John growled, whirling around.
He'd forgotten the supply sergeant's name; the large man with shorn blond hair stepped closer. "I wanted to know if you needed any help, sir. You've been in here for hours and my inventory PADD could help you track down anything."
"Computers can be inaccurate," John replied. And manipulated.
The sergeant kept his body rigid while his eyes searched the armory, pausing at all the opened cases and disorganized shelves that had been neat earlier. "Did you and Major Lorne find something inaccurate that I should be made aware of, sir?"
"What does the major have to do with this?" John demanded.
"Didn't you have a meeting with him on Monday, sir? The monthly audit?"
His memory was fuzzy. Why couldn't he recall their results? John stared at the clipboard in his hand. All the numbers could easily be altered, making him run in circles for hours. Maybe it was a way to distract him.
You'll never figure it out in time.
John whirled around, seeking out the voice from behind.
"Sir? Is there something wrong?"
His chest constricted. "No. You're dismissed." He waited a beat, the Marine's breathing heavy and loud in the room. "I said, dismissed!"
There was no mistaking the hasty retreat, or the door closing, leaving him alone. They wanted him to think there was something fishy going on, to observe his reactions. His head pounded and his heart tried to rip out of his chest. He pressed his fingers over his sternum, felt the muscle pulsate underneath.
You're so gullible.
He balled up his left hand until it shook and the knuckles turned white. Outside he listened to the footsteps on the other side of the door. Back and forth. Back and forth. He crept up towards the exit, palm above the sensor, his other hand near his .45.
The doors slid open and he slipped out. The supply sergeant stood up nonchalantly from behind his desk a few feet away. Oh, he was good, with his whole 'everything's fine' expression. John lengthened his stride, putting space between him and the Marine. The halls were vacant; maybe that was on purpose, too.
He ducked down the nearest corridor, listening to the footsteps that followed. He held his breath, willing his heart to slow down and not give him away. The footfalls inched closer, echoing on the floor. He waited, weapon readied, the metal cold against his skin. The sounds echoed around the corner and when he spun around to meet them... there was nothing there.
Pathetic. They'll find you, because they're smarter.
The vein in his temple throbbed in place. John staggered, grabbing his head, the pain flaring then slowly ebbing away.
The footsteps had caught up, forcing him to start running.
Where could he go?
He collided with a wall, his feet uncoordinated and his mind overcome with thoughts not his own.
"Colonel Sheppard, are you alright?" a woman asked, hurrying over.
John stumbled back. "Yeah... fine," he mumbled.
"Are you sure?" the woman asked.
She hates you. Her best friend was killed on a mission you sent him on.
"I'm fine," he repeated, forcing the voice away despite the vice squeezing his brain.
Before the woman could get closer, he took off. And the footsteps followed. Dozens of them.
His quarters were a curse and a godsend. They represented familiarity, placing a barrier between him and those on the other side. But the walls sealed him in. He was trapped and John didn't do well being caged. He pressed an ear against the door, listening for signs of his pursuers, the hum of the city vibrating through the contact.
The footsteps fell silent and voices started coming from the walls. Where were you? they accused. Why didn't you help us?
He lurched backwards, the force of the noise physical. The whispers had fingers, poking into his ear and rattling his brain.
How many had to die? Why us? Why not you?
John pressed the heels of his hands into his temples, backing away.
And they multiplied, listing all those he'd failed. Each name driving spikes through his skull. He pressed his forehead to the door, scraping the metal boundary with his nails.
Dex, Mitch, Holland, Abrams, Stevens, Thompson, Simpleton, Garcia, Walker, Lee, Gonzalez, Perez, Reed, Torres, Shelton, Ford, Hughes, Florence, Myers, Grant, Knight, Pierce, Olson, Dunn, Nakamura, Wheeler, Vasquez, Romero, Larson, Watts, Lowe, O'Brien, Weir, Soto, Dylan, Jacobs, Parks, Dawson, Hardy, Walsh, Hines, Cummings, Miller--
"Stop," John pleaded.
The Alep tribe. The Gunorion people.
He stumbled into his bathroom, closing that door as well.
M2X-318, M2S-128, M2S-618...
"I tried!" John screamed.
But he knew who was to blame for all the worlds the Replicators had wiped out. And those slaughtered by Michael. He couldn't hide from the truth anymore. What little progress Atlantis had made could never make up for the multitude of sins they had committed. That he had committed.
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. And he couldn't stand what he saw.
He could feel the taint beneath his touch, how he poisoned everything. He traced the outline of his face in the reflected surface, mapping out the image of so much destruction. Of so much death. There was something evil at his core, and it festered inside. Growing larger and larger.
The room burst into laughter and pain radiated through his skull.
And it wouldn't let up. It never would. He gripped the edge of his bathroom sink and slammed his forehead into the mirror. When it didn't stop the noise, he did it again. And again.
There's only one way to stop this.
He stared at his fractured reflection; blood dripped down his face, making a mess on the tiny basin. The mirror showed his true self.
Then the lights went out; they fought to stay on, failed, and cast him alone in the darkness. All he felt was the raw pain of broken skin and he held on to it, to the warm stickiness flowing down his face.
"Colonel Sheppard, please report."
"Colonel Sheppard, this is Woolsey. Please respond."
He turned off his radio.
John stood there, pressing his head into the cracks in the mirror, gritting his teeth against the fresh agony.