"Yes, Rodney you're right, you're always right - about everything - all the time in fact. You're the smartest man on the station, the most brilliant man in the galaxy, probably in the whole universe!"
As he approached the source of the raised voices, John Sheppard sighed and almost turned around to retrace his steps back to Control. He had heard this unpleasant tune before and it was not a song anyone in the city cared to dance to. Doctor Rodney McKay and Doctor Radek Zelenka, Atlantis's two top scientists extraordinaire, were again at it tooth and nail.
Rodney's reply burst from his mouth like bullets. Friend or no friend, at times the man talked so fast it sounded like gibberish. Over the years, however, Sheppard had perfected the art of pretending he understood Rodney's scientific nattering.
Rodney's volume could also be unpleasant. ""Sometime? Somehow?" Rodney was repeating words Sheppard assumed Radek had just expressed, Rodney speaking in a voice of mocking disbelief. "Honestly, Radek, you and your metaphysics not to mention your usual short-sightedness. You have once again missed the crucial point I'm trying to make here, so for a change just listen to me –"
""For a change"?" Radek's lower tenor could be heard now. Neither had noticed Colonel Sheppard's arrival and he watched as Radek stopped his angry march out of McKay's lab and spun on his fellow scientist. ""For a change"!?" he repeated to McKay who, upon Radek's abrupt stop, had almost run into the Science Department's Second Advisor.
Sheppard felt sorry for Radek who had almost made his get-away into the relative freedom of the corridor; the one that led to the mess hall and, no doubt, a welcome and peaceful lunch hour away from Rodney McKay's shrill tongue.
""For a change"?" Radek repeated once more, his face's color washing from normal to pink, over to red and then nearly purple! "All I ever do is listen to you, all day every day, as you insinuate over and over about how much smarter you are than me – or than anyone – my God, what an ego!" Radek marched off muttering a string of what Sheppard suspected were Czechoslovakian curses, most of them undoubtedly in reference to Rodney's mother.
Sheppard considered cancelling his lunch plans with McKay in favor of a little de-stressing sparring with the larger, far less emotionally anal Ronan. With Ronan things were much simpler; you liked your life or not, were happy with yourself or not, were keen on your friends or not, and hated the Wraith or not. He cared nothing about ego or great achievement or being better than the other person. Ronan wanted to be the best him he could be and for him that meant killing Wraith and serving the Atlantis team to the height of his ability. Ego didn't factor into either.
Sheppard bit the bullet and stuck his head around the corner of Doctor Rodney McKay's main lab. "Uh...hey. We still on for lunch?"
Rodney looked up from his laptop where every few seconds another string of mathematical equations flashed across the screen. Sheppard suddenly realised that, remarkably, the scientist was reading and absorbing the complex information as fast as the computer could spit it out. He shook his head. There was no doubt that McKay was an arrogant bastard, but he was without question a super smart arrogant bastard.
Rodney saw who it was and his manner, before tightly wound and frustrated, perceptibly relaxed. John knew he had some influence over his friend – a friendship some in the city puzzled over – and was glad to see the Canadian's shoulders relax a bit. "Uh, yeah, sure, sure..." McKay got up from his stool and stretched. Sheppard noted that McKay gathered up his hand-written notes and the laptop, clearly intending to bring them to lunch as well.
Sheppard sighed. It was just as well. If McKay was in more of a mood to study numbers than talk, it would be best not to push him to leave the work behind. A science-grumpy Rodney did not make a pleasant lunch companion.
Rodney was, however, anything but silent and after several minutes of McKay's complaining, Sheppard held up his hands in surrender. "Rodney! I'm not getting what you're so damned upset about. So Zelenka believes in fate – so what?"
"So what?" To McKay the very idea of fate, predestination or any other metaphysical system of belief was sheer nonsense. "Zelenka is a scientist. If he wants to waste his time – and mine – with talk of god, angels, or karma he should have become a priest. This is an expedition of scientists, not religious Guru's spouting ridiculous theories about, and I quote: "the marvelous construct of the ebb and flow of fate" or "the exquisite harmony of the universe's unfolding of all life". It's–it's fanciful fluff of the weaker minded. It has absolutely nothing to do with proved scientific theory."
Sheppard frowned. "I always thought theory meant that it wasn't proved yet."
"That what wasn't proved?"
"I don't know – anything!" Sheppard was already weary of the whole argument. "Look, Rodney, all I'm saying is we're not all scientists." Sheppard pointed out.
That actually caused McKay to close his mouth very suddenly, a rare enough event that it always surprised, and occasionally amused, Sheppard.
For a moment McKay stared across the table at his friend, his face one of genuine shock. "You mean you believe in all that stuff?"
Sheppard was quick to answer. "I didn't say that. I just mean that there are a lot of people in this city who don't subscribe to the idea that there is nothing else...you know...out there."
McKay huffed at the suggestion that grown-ups could put their faith in anything other than science. "It's utter nonsense. You're talking about gods and angels; myths; fantasies."
"I'm talking about you keeping a more open mind about it and not stomping all over everybody's personal beliefs about..." Sheppard always found these kinds of discussions uncomfortable and not only because it was a topic as personal to him as it was to most people but because he often found himself at a loss to articulate it in terms that made sense – even to himself. "...whatever it is they believe. And besides it's none of your business anyway." Sheppard picked up his forgotten sandwich and bit into it. The edges of the freshly cut bread had already begun to dry out from his neglect. "What was so bad about Zelenka's idea anyway?" Not that he was all that interested.
Rodney huffed twice. "Zelenka wants to use the power of the ZPM to open a small worm-hole in a contained area. He thinks he may be able to regulate the energy flowing from the wormhole and channel it as a secondary emergency power supply."
"Well, that doesn't sound any crazier than any of the stuff you've tried." It didn't. "And we could use the back-up energy supply."
"True but here's the other part of the idea that is bad. Radek thinks he may be able to, and I'm using his words..." Rodney used the first and second fingers of both hands to make little bunny-ear quotes in the air ""convince" the worm-hole to "agree" with his "intentions", that by making some ridiculous, invisible, non-communicated "bond" with the "mind" behind the worm-hole, they together might be able to contain the energy flow." McKay paused and blurted "It's insane."
"May I remind you of the worm-hole you created to an alternate universe? Of the micro-black-hole you accidently caused in the middle of a science conference? Or the solar system you destroyed?"
McKay paused in his tirade. "I am fully aware of all of those incidents-and they were all valid, previously and thoroughly researched experiments." McKay sipped his cold coffee and made a face. "They just didn't work is all."
Sheppard couldn't help it, he laughed. "Incidents." Repeating the word like it was the punch-line.
"Yes - incidents." Rodney underlined. "Which give me more than enough precedent to deny Radek's request to try his idea."
"You haven't said how he plans to open this worm-hole."
"You wouldn't understand it." McKay insisted.
Sheppard felt like smacking him upside the head. But instead gave McKay his most patient look. "Try me."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Fine. Zelenka wants to fly a Jumper through the Stargate and while still in the worm-hole and using the power from the Stargate's worm-hole, open a smaller wormhole using the cargo hold of the jumper as a containment chamber - for safety reasons."
Sheppard shrugged. No problem with the geek-speak so far. "Okay. So?"
"We're talking a wormhole within a wormhole. So if his calculations are off by even the slightest fraction he could lose control of the worm-hole's energy flow, it could expand and swallow the whole jumper and everyone in it. And worse than that it could swallow the Stargate, the city and this whole planet. And here's the least that could happen – it could send us all spiralling back through time."
It didn't sound nearly as nuts as McKay made it sound, although all of this worm-hole experimenting outside of the controlled confines of the Stargate was clearly nuts. "Well," Sheppard mused aloud, trying to target the reason why McKay was so dead-set against the idea when some of his own hare-brained schemes had nearly killed them all once or twice, "if you're so scared, don't go on the Jumper." Ever since sinking to the bottom of the ocean in a crippled Jumper, McKay was less than comfortable aboard the little ships.
McKay snapped. "I'm not scared." He stirred his ice-cold coffee with a nervous spoon. "It's a dangerous experiment. That's all."
Sheppard nodded. "Right." Sheppard took a deep breath. "Rodney, why can't you just play nice? You've told me yourself you think Zelenka is brilliant. Why not let him have his one little experiment? Just this once. You could be on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong. You could even check his calculations to make sure they're not screwy." It would have been easier to drop the whole subject but if he could help Rodney become even a little more circumspect regarding the personal opinions and beliefs of others, then at least Zelenka might be grateful. Maybe even thankful. Maybe he could talk Zelenka into getting his sister to send him some more jars of pickled preserves like carrots and baby onions, his favorites; the kind with the real garlic cloves floating in them. Sheppard filed away the possibilities for later.
McKay shook his head vigorously. "It's too risky. And if Zelenka thinks he can incorporate his wacky ideas into what I consider is already a high risk experiment - no matter what the benefits – he's highly mistaken. And in case you've forgotten, this is my department so I'm not about to allow him to-"
Sheppard resisted the urge to roll his eyes and took a second bite of his dry tuna-fish sandwich when Elizabeth Weir's patient voice was heard over the city's intercom, calling them both to her office.
When they arrived at Weir's office, Sheppard saw that Doctor Radek Zelenka was already there. Sheppard felt McKay stiffen beside him and winced inwardly himself. This was going to be one of those meetings. Why Weir felt the need to have him at these egg-head boxing matches was beyond him, although he suspected that she liked him there because, as she had once told him, she believed he was a calming influence on Rodney, an assumption that at the time nearly made him laugh aloud.
Elizabeth smiled pleasantly and gestured for them to sit down. Two empty chairs had been placed next to Zelenka's and they sat, Sheppard taking the seat closest to the Czech scientist.
Elizabeth offered Sheppard a thankful nod of her head. A physical buffer between the two Science Department's greatest minds – and greatest ego's – was one she obviously appreciated.
Sheppard returned her look with a small, toothless smile of his own, letting his eyes linger for a moment on her features. Elizabeth Weir who he guessed was probably pushing forty, still made heads turn. There was nothing cheaply pretty about Elizabeth. She was on the contrary a refined and beautiful woman. As a habit she wore no make-up but for a soft splash of lipstick. She kept her brunette hair bobbed and styled with simple waves, and in her wide spaced, warm brown eyes and china-doll complexion she carried a delicate beauty that would make many a younger woman turn green with envy. She was also a determined but fair woman and, as far as Sheppard was concerned, made an excellent Expedition leader. They were lucky to have her.
Weir didn't waste time. "Doctor Zelenka has brought something to my attention." She said, "That's why I wanted you here, Doctor McKay."
McKay, who was already bristling, never-the-less managed to keep his tone acceptably respectful. "Oh? And what is that?"
Weir clasped her hands together and looked at Rodney fondly. It was no act. She actually liked Rodney despite his high maintenance, argumentative and often chaffing personality. Weir had made it one of her missions to get to know and try to understand the idiosyncrasies of each of the people who served under her. A noble goal and one in which Sheppard imagined Rodney had presented her a special challenge.
Weir looked at each of them in turn. "I have called this meeting to discuss doctor Zelenka's idea for worm hole energy," she glanced at McKay, "and, Rodney, before you get that look in your eye, I want you to hear him out. I think his idea has merit and we are in need of some ideas now. Our ZPM's recharge capacity is nearing the end of its life. We need more power."
McKay was tight lipped, but he kept glancing passed Sheppard to Zelenka.
"Doctor..." Weir nodded to Zelenka, giving him the floor.
Zelenka cleared his throat. "My idea is to create a mini- worm hole inside the Stargate's worm-hole stream using the rear cargo area of a Puddle Jumper to contain it. If my calculations are correct –"
McKay had to say it "And that's a big if."
Zelenka ignored him. "As I was saying if my data is correct we should be able to contain and redirect the flow of the energy coming through from the other side into the ZPM itself, theoretically this would also re-crystallize it. The ZPM would become as though brand new and able to hold a complete charge again – for many years, maybe for decades."
Weir looked at McKay. "Doctor McKay?" She prompted. "What do you think, and I would appreciate it if you left personal feelings and ego out of it."
McKay looked insulted. "It's...an interesting idea." He finally admitted. "But if even one iota of Radek's calculations is off, the risks are huge. We could lose-"
Weir interrupted. "Have you checked his calculations?"
McKay looked uncomfortable. "No."
Weir nodded. "Well then, you have some reading to do Doctor McKay. Go do that. Take a few days if you have to, use your team and find out if the data is good. Then we'll discuss risks at our next meeting."
McKay appeared a little put-out but wisely he didn't argue with her. Zelenka disappeared out the door and Sheppard followed McKay into the hall.
"Well..." Sheppard tried to keep it light. "That went better than I expected."
McKay offered him a small glower. "Excuse me, I have to go and make sure Radek's Karma experiment doesn't blow us all up."
Sheppard was grateful to return to his own quarters for some shut-eye. There would plenty of time to sooth McKay's bruised ego later.
"So?" Weir asked her two trusted scientific advisors. "What do you have for us?"
Zelenka said nothing and McKay took the floor. "His calculations seem accurate."
Weir brightened "Excellent, then we can –"
"Hang on." McKay went on in a hurry. "Just because we could find no errors in the math doesn't mean we should conduct the experiment. There are a hundred variables that could occur that might radically change the parameters not to mention the thousand things about worm-holes no scientists have ever thought of before - including me. The only reason we're using worm-hole technology right now is because the ancients conveniently left the Stargates behind."
Weir wasn't convinced. "But we've learned so much about them since then."
Rodney sat forward in his chair to better drive home his point. "Yes, but we're utilizing their knowledge and their machines. I admit we've learned a lot about worm-holes within those boundaries, but no one has ever opened a worm-hole inside a worm-hole before. Not the ancients and certainly not us."
Weir sat back and studied the top of her desk for a moment. "Okay Rodney, tell us: If we try this experiment and something goes wrong, what is the worst case scenario you can think of? What could happen?"
"On the low end the worm-hole could release far more radiation than expected and damage the Jumper or us. On the high end we and the entire planet could all end up as a long string of sub-atomic particles in another universe. In other words - dead."
Weir asked Zelenka. "And what can your team put in place to minimize those risks?"
Sheppard remained silent, letting the science team do their thing without interruption. He didn't know science stuff. He was a soldier and an excellent pilot and since he had volunteered to fly the Jumper, Weir thought he should be at this meeting too. He had spent most of it thus far watching McKay, who looked haggard.
Zelenka looked confident. "We can erect a smaller version of the city's shield around the aft section of the Jumper. This should contain any radiation spikes while we channel the smaller worm-hole's sub-atomic charge into the ZPM."
Weir nodded. "Rodney? Any other objections? Do you believe the shield will afford enough protection?"
McKay looked tired. Sheppard had seen him rub his eyes more than once since entering the room. He sighed. "Yes, but only against sudden radiation spikes. We...we can't devise safety parameters for things we've never thought of." McKay said.
Weir considered her options. Sheppard knew she would not make any decisions lightly. "Doctor Zelenka, I think Rodney's right. We should be as cautious as we can so what about emergency shut-down protocols? What if something unforeseen happens? Will you be able to shut it down?"
Zelenka nodded. "I'll have my finger on the button at all times. Anything out of the ordinary happens and we can cut the power to the Stargate in an instant."
"Doctor McKay?" Weir asked. "Does that satisfy you?"
One of McKay's shoulders lifted in a micro-shrug and Sheppard wondered if anyone else caught it. It was one of his friend's gestures, among those with which Sheppard had become familiar during the years McKay had been a regular part of his team.
Weir was adept at details, however, and it had not escaped her notice. She was also not a leader to so easily let one of her staff off without an honest word. "So you still think this is a bad idea?"
"No." McKay stole a glance at Zelenka to his left. "For obtaining power it's a good idea, it's just...worm-holes are mostly unknown quantities. The science is still in its infancy. I just..."
"You have reservations." She offered and McKay nodded. "I understand your concerns Doctor McKay, I share them, but our power needs are urgent and I think it's worth the risk. Okay." Weir nodded also and stood; her unspoken signal that the meeting was at a close. "We'll try this but, Doctor Zelenka I'm counting on you to keep the team and Atlantis safe. That's all gentlemen."
Sheppard exited the room behind McKay and heard him mutter "The whole damn experiment is out of the ordinary."
"Well," Sheppard said, trying to cheer up his worried friend. "That wasn't so bad."
McKay looked grim. "Yeah. Here's to success."
Sheppard watched his friend walk away. He was tempted to follow but knew he sucked at comfort words. Best to let Rodney blow the steam from his bruised ego himself. He could always take McKay on a fishing trip or something when they got a day off together.
Sheppard watched with mild interest as Zelenka and his team of two, including Rodney, hooked up the ZPM to a series of thick cables which were hooked up to the Jumper's controls, which were set to be shut down with a single finger if all did not go well. The rest of Sheppard's usual team members, Ronan and Teyla, stood off to the side, curious but trying not to get in the way.
McKay was seated in the Jumper's co-pilot seat, his fingers a blur of activity on his laptop. Sheppard had no idea what the scientist was doing and didn't ask. He was more concerned with the man. According to Zelenka McKay had stayed up for the better part of two days running hundreds of simulations to ensure nothing what-so-ever that might go wrong would go wrong. But Sheppard could see his friend was still worried. McKay had explained it to him in very few words. "You can't prepare for what you can't predict."
In the light of a soldier's experience, Sheppard had got the point. If you know nothing about your enemy, you simply can't know exactly how to fight them, let alone how to win.
In contrast to McKay's sober expression Zelenka was trying but mostly failing to keep the grin off his face. This experiment was his baby and he was like a parent beaming with pride. "Ready to go here." He cheerfully reported to McKay.
McKay, eyes never leaving his laptop, replied "Oh goodie."
Ignoring McKay's dour mood, Zelenka nodded to the other member of his team for the day, a tiny brunette with glasses much too big for her face. She understood his meaning and entered a series of commands into the Jumper's control panel. In response a portion of the shield that protected Atlantis came to life within the confines of the Jumper. Between the wall separating the rear cargo hold and the control section where they all stood, a flickering light appeared, making the divider glow an electric blue.
Zelenka motioned with his hand for everyone to stand back. "Here we go." He said and pressed a series of commands on his own laptop that was connected, via the Jumper, to Atlantis's Stargate controls.
Suddenly what sounded like a high pitched whine, as though a breach in the Jumper was letting out a rush of air, emanated from beyond the Jumper's dividing wall. "Open the divider." Zelenka told his tiny assistant.
She complied and the strong metal door that separated them from Zelenka's creation slide aside.
What greeted their eyes beyond the barrier was exactly what Zelenka had predicted they would see – a worm hole approximately two-thirds of a meter in diameter. For all intents and purposes it resembled an up-ended tuba, its narrow end snaking this way and that. Despite himself Sheppard was impressed.
Zelenka could not help but glance around to where McKay was seated, a look of triumph on his face. McKay responded in true form. "Congratulations, we're not dead."
Just as Zelenka had opened his mouth to answer, the diameter of the wormhole jumped in size another few centimeters. McKay frowned and said to Zelenka. "I thought you said the size would never vary? You were sure!"
The grin on Zelenka's face disappeared as he studied the numbers on his own laptop. "It shouldn't be." He insisted. "This doesn't make sense. This-this should not be happening."
McKay's face had blanched. "Shut it down now."
Zelenka nodded and hit the shutdown command.
Nothing changed except the wormhole, which again grew in size. Its tail end became even more erratic. McKay shouted this time. "Radek – shut the damn thing down!"
"I'm trying. The control won't respond."
McKay suddenly remembered his own laptop and to the best of his ability began feeding the data of what he was seeing into his preconfigured simulation calculations. The blood drained from his face. He looked at Sheppard and Sheppard knew in that instant that whatever was happening was seriously not good. Not good at all.
Zelenka was going over his own notes and McKay, instead of explaining to them what he was doing, began entering a series of commands into the Jumper's control panel, then he focused his attention on his laptop, the fingers of his right hand furiously pounding the keys for many seconds until Sheppard shouted "Rodney, what the hell are you doing? Shut the damn thing off."
McKay nodded once but his concentration was so intent on what he was doing, all he said was "I will." McKay glanced at them all in turn. First he looked at Sheppard, then Zelenka, over to the brunette and finally Teyla and Ronan. Just one lightening fast flicker of his eyes on each while he mumbled words that to Sheppard sounded like "Too small, too small, way too small, way too big...but oh man just right. Figures!"
McKay pulled out his tiny personal transponder; a tracking devise that each resident of Atlantis was required to keep on their person at all times, and switched it on and then, weirdly, held it up for them to see. He then put it back, shoving it deeply in his pocket.
Ronan frowned. "Rodney, why did you-"
McKay didn't answer but once his fingers were finished their tasks and had stilled, he turned to the team members. Sheppard had never seen a look on McKay's face like the one he saw now. His friend was panicked, terrified and determined all at the same time.
Mostly terrified though.
Sheppard was used to McKay being scared when a routine mission turned dangerous but not this sort of scared. This was a scared that said there was no hope. This was Rodney looking down into his own vision of hell. This was Doctor Rodney McKay, brilliant scientist and valued team member, seeing the only possible means of escape and it was the worst possible choice.
The only choice.
"Rodney –"Sheppard was about to ask him what the hell he was waiting for when McKay glanced back at the Jumper's control panel. With that gesture Sheppard also looked and noticed for the first time the shield's control panel counting down to zero. Sheppard knew what it meant. McKay had set a timer for the shield to drop. If the shield dropped with the wormhole still active, they would all be quickly consumed by it. They were too close not to be pulled in.
Sheppard swallowed hard. "Rodney, what the hell are you doing!?"
The counter was five seconds from Zero when McKay suddenly shouted at them. "Grab something – NOW!"
McKay looked so terrified that no one hesitated. Then he did something in every way unexpected; he pushed his laptop against Zelenka's chest until Zelenka had a firm grip on it with one hand, and said: "I hope like hell you're right."
Then, in the next instant, the shield between them and the whipping, whirling wormhole dropped and McKay without any hesitation at all jumped through its howling maw like a man taking a dive into his own back yard pool.
XXX Part II soon.