Between the average success rate of the gate teams, and the skill the scientists had for finding new and interesting ways to blow up large chunks of the city, Jennifer spent most of her time cooped up inside the infirmary. Mostly, she was kept busy enough not to mind that, but on her rare days off, she was glad to leave it and her tiny office there behind, and to head to the block of laboratories down on the west pier that were reserved for independent projects. Here, she had space and time to work on her own ideas—examining the genetic samples that Teyla had procured from hive ships for her—sitting cross-legged on the floor with her papers spread out around her, her laptop balanced on her knees, and the windows propped open to let the salt-rich breeze flood in. The light was always something to glory in after the dim airlessness of the infirmary.
Sometimes the labs were empty but for her—quiet enough that she could turn up her music so loud that it rumbled out of her laptop's speakers in a tinny roar; trashy 80s pop music she could sing along to—but frequently there were at least one or two other researchers working away at something. Jennifer didn't mind; even if they were in different labs from her, knowing there were other people focused nearby made her feel companionable.
Walking back towards the transporter one lunchtime, Jennifer looked through an open door into one of the labs and saw a blonde head bowed over several pieces of Ancient technology spread out across a countertop. Jennifer hesitated for a moment in the doorway, wondering if she should interrupt her by saying hello—some people really didn't like being interrupted when they were on a roll—but then Colonel Carter looked up at her and smiled, solving her dilemma. "Jennifer! What brings you down here?"
Jennifer jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Working on something in Lab 4. I was just heading back for lunch."
Carter cocked her head to one side. "You're still working on sequencing the hive ship DNA?"
Jennifer probably shouldn't have been surprised that the Colonel knew what she was working on—even though her visits back to the city were irregular now, constrained by when the SGC would allow her to go on research sabbatical, Carter always seemed to step through the wormhole up-to-date with Rodney's latest power storage innovation, or Dr Zelenka's latest ideas on wormhole travel. Still, she hadn't thought that Carter would pay the same amount of attention to what the medical staff was working on, and Jennifer shrugged awkwardly before answering. "Yeah, after what happened to—well, I thought it was worth following up."
"It's a good idea," Carter said, with a flash of an understanding smile, and Jennifer was grateful that Carter didn't ask anything further—it was bad enough having to deal with the dreams, the occasional fear that some other voice was still whispering at the back of her consciousness, without having to talk to other people about it.
"What are you working on?" Jennifer asked, nodding at the parts spread out on the lab table, hoping to firmly divert the topic of conversation from herself.
"Oh, some bits and pieces that aren't quite worth McKay's time," Carter said with a wry grin.
Jennifer winced, and fought not to wince again when she saw Carter pick up on her reaction. She'd never heard the Colonel pass any remark about the fact that she and Rodney were together now, but Jennifer had heard plenty from other people, and she didn't want to add any more grist to the mill of McKay, Jennifer? Seriously? "He said that, huh?"
"It's all in the tone of voice," Carter said, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. "Besides, what he really meant was that either he can't figure out how they work, or—"
"–it doesn't shoot out lasers?" Jennifer finished for her. "Yeah, he's kind of got a thing for the death lasers." She made air quotes around 'death lasers' before she could quite stop herself.
"Let's give thanks he never turned his powers to evil," Carter said, one corner of her mouth curling upwards. "Or at least to giving in to Colonel Sheppard's demands for more explosions. But there are no lasers here, death or otherwise. Most of these things seem to be some kind of Ancient domestic appliances—not very interesting, but harmless. I think that purple one might be an egg timer."
"These ones are kind of pretty," Jennifer said, picking up one or two—one green; one amber—and turning them this way and that in the light from the windows. They were faceted, made out of that same almost-glass that the city's windows were made from, and warm to the touch from the early afternoon sun. "Like great big paperweights."
"And about as useful," Carter said, hitting save on the notes she'd been taking on her computer, "if I can't find my way in to the mechanism."
"Huh," Jennifer said, turning one of the spheres slowly in her hand and peering at it carefully. There was a tiny line running through one of the panes of glass, like a hairline fracture but perfectly straight. "Look, there's something here." She ran a fingernail down the crack and felt something give—some pressure release and the sphere start to open.
"Take your time," Carter said, reaching out to take the sphere back from her, "these things can be unpredictable."
But it was too late—the sphere split open, revealing a mirrored interior that glowed with a light far stronger than could be explained by sunshine refracted from the windows alone. Jennifer squeezed her eyes shut against the force of it, heard Carter shout something, and then she was cold—cold enough to make her bones ache, cold enough to make the sphere drop from suddenly nerveless fingers.
When she opened her eyes again, the world was darker. She was standing just where she'd been before—by the table, her hands curled empty in front of her, Colonel Carter by her side—but the sun had vanished. Outside of the laboratory windows, the only light came from a faint orange glow visible over the horizon, dim through the—
"How did the windows get broken?" Jennifer said, befuddled.
Carter's brow was furrowed. "More importantly, how did there get to be icebergs floating a few miles away from the city?"
"Icebergs?" Jennifer yelped and hurried to the windows to get a better look. Sure enough, there were two icebergs cutting jagged silhouettes against the sky away to the left of her. She didn't understand—Atlantis may have been more in the planet's temperate zone than its tropical zone, but they still should have been far from any icebergs. "What's going on?"
She turned to look at Carter, who had stooped to the floor to pick up the device. Its light had gone out, and the bright faceted mirrors now looked like nothing more than dull glass, but the expression on Carter's face gave Jennifer more pause than did any change in the device. "What is it?"
"Son of a bitch," Carter said in disbelief. "It must be some kind of portable quantum mirror. I've never seen one of these before."
Jennifer had heard plenty of yarns from the old SGC hands when she was still in training—stories from people who had seen enough clones and lived through enough time loops to be blasé about it, but who still got a kick out of trying to scare the new person who'd arrived at the mountain fresh and wide-eyed from her internship at Johns Hopkins. "We're in an alternate universe?" she said, hoping like crazy that her voice hadn't really gone as high-pitched as it sounded in her head.
"Unless we had some really sudden climate change," Carter said, arching an eyebrow. "I'd say there's a pretty good chance of it."
"Oh god." Jennifer's stomach turned over, and she felt acid at the back of her mouth. "This is all my fault. I should never have—I am so, so sorry. Can we—is there a way back? We can get home, right?" She bit her lip to stop herself from talking further, hard enough to make the chapped skin tear. She should never have picked up the device—first rule in Rodney McKay's labs, after several years of dealing with John Sheppard and Ronon Dex, was "Don't touch the strange artefacts unless you have at least one doctorate in a proper science"—but Jennifer had and now look where they were. Possibly stranded forever in another dimension thanks to her, and Rodney and the others would be off world until at least dinner time—would anyone else notice she wasn't around? She fought to control her breathing.
Carter's lips were pinched. "I'm pretty sure we can—there's no reason to believe the mechanism isn't still intact—but it looks as if the power source is drained. I can get us back, but I'll need to recharge this first."
Jennifer looked around the lab, taking in things she hadn't noticed in her first shock—the overhead lights were out, the banks of computers were powered off, and shards of broken glass and ballpoint pens and pieces of paper crunched underfoot. She felt herself shiver through the thin fabric of her henley and wished she'd thought to put on something heavier that morning. "You won't be able to do it here."
"Doesn't look like it," Carter agreed. "And there's nothing here we can jury rig as a power source. We're going to need one of the other labs, maybe even the gate room, somewhere that I can hook this up to a generator and get it working again."
"Something bad happened here," Jennifer wasn't able to stop herself from blurting out. She resisted the urge to wrap her arms around herself. There was a faint but insistent sense of wrongness at the back of her mind, like a mental itch that she couldn't scratch.
Carter grimaced, but when she spoke she was clearly making an effort to look on the positive side. "Maybe. Or maybe the expedition who came here just had to pull back to the city's core for a while—they might not have as many ZPMs as we have."
Jennifer looked down at her feet. She was standing on top of a crushed pen; its ink, tacky and drying, had stained the grey stone of the floor a bluish colour. Ballpoint pens were always in short supply in the city—no matter many how digital whiteboards or tablet computers were shipped in, there were several scientists and even more military who preferred to scribble things out longhand. Dr Zelenka hoarded ballpoints, guarded them zealously against Sgt Seymour (who had a habit of absent-mindedly chewing the ends) and Dr Porter (who misplaced them constantly) and Ronon (who just liked to flick them at people). He would never have let so many be ruined at once—not the kind of evidence that would stand up in court, maybe, but Jennifer knew instinctively that this was not a city that had seen an orderly retreat. She drew in a breath. Focus, Jennifer. "Where do you think we should go? One of the other labs, or the gate room?"
Carter considered for a moment. "Well, the gate room will always be the last fall back. If there's any power left in the city, it will be accessible from there."
"If there's anybody left," Jennifer couldn't stop herself from saying, and immediately regretted it.
Carter flinched minutely, before nodding briskly. "The gate room, then."
Neither of them had a weapon—but perhaps that was for the best, Jennifer thought, as she followed Carter down the hallway towards the nearest transporter. If she was wrong, if that creeping unease she felt was misplaced, and they would walk into the gate room to find it brightly lit and full of startled doppelgangers, it might be best not to march in, guns blazing. Or, in her case, gun held stiffly at her side in an effort not to have it accidentally discharge at an awkward moment—Ronon had been very patient teaching her on the firing range, and she could now hit the target more often than not, but Jennifer knew she'd never make a soldier.
There was a page or two scattered here or there on the floor between the lab and the transporter, but nothing else that would have prepared Jennifer for what she saw when they reached it—the doors were closed tight, the control panel dark, and though Carter handed the mirror over to Jennifer, leaving herself with two free hands to prise open the mechanism and swear under her breath at the crystals inside, they couldn't get it to work.
"I can't see anything wrong," Carter told Jennifer as she conscientiously replaced the panel. "It's like there's not even enough reserve power left in the buffers to let me run a diagnostic, but there should always be an emergency capacity of three to four per cent."
"Funny," Jennifer heard a familiar voice say from behind them, "I noticed the same thing."
She and Carter both whirled around to see Rodney—dear, familiar Rodney with his blue eyes bright, backpack slung over his shoulders and his tablet computer tucked under one arm, and Jennifer would have run to him if not for the fact that he was holding a gun on them.
"Rodney?" she said carefully, because the tight set of his jaw and the smear of blood on his left arm were quick to remind her that this wasn't her Atlantis—this wasn't her Rodney. "It's me, Jennifer, and–"
"Mm, yes," Rodney said, his aim unwavering. "I'm perfectly aware of who you are, Dr Keller. And you, Major Carter. But since Dr Keller was evacuated with the others through the gate seven hours ago, and Samantha Carter has been MIA since she became host to a Tok'ra, what, five years ago now? You're both either hallucinations caused by the hive seed or life has decided to shit on me from an even greater height today and I'm dealing with Replicators, too."
There was a pause. Jennifer blinked.
"Well?" Rodney said. "What's it to be?" His tone of voice was unusually flat, affectless, and Jennifer was disturbed by that as much as she was by the dark circles under his eyes, by the tacky, drying blood from a shallow scrape that matted the hair over his left temple.
Carter offered him a watery smile. "Would you believe that we're actually from an alternate universe?" She held up the quantum mirror. "We're just trying to find a power source to get ourselves back home."
Rodney looked from Carter to Jennifer and back again. "I'd believe it's possible," he said, "but then pretty much anything is possible in this galaxy. Probable? True? Entirely different matters."
While he was speaking, Jennifer realised what had been bugging her about what Rodney had said before. "Wait—hive seed?" She pressed her hands against her belly, feeling through the thin cotton of her t-shirt the seam of the scar where once a hive ship had burst out of her body. She felt bile rise in the back of her throat, as for one horrible moment she felt an irrational fear overwhelm her—had it come back? Was that thing, that parasite, about to take her over again—were her limbs going to fail her as a slowly creeping paralysis took away her movement and her sense of self?
Rodney peered at her. "You sound like you know what I'm talking about."
Jennifer tugged up the hem of her t-shirt just far enough to let him see the beginning of her surgical scar. "I was infected," she told him, "on our Atlantis. You and Ronon and Colonel Sheppard—you helped get me out. But that was months ago, and I—"
"You were just evacuated along with the last of the support staff, and Lorne was the one infected." Rodney let his gun drop—just fractionally, but enough that out of the corner of her eye, Jennifer could see Carter's shoulders relax slightly. "Alternate universe, huh?" he asked Carter.
She waggled the quantum mirror at him. "Yep. Unexpected quantum mirror. Tok'ra?"
"You and Jackson," Rodney said, and let the gun fall to his side when he rolled his eyes. "Typical."
"Daniel?" Carter asked, wide-eyed for a moment, before shrugging. "Figures."
Jennifer looked at Rodney and Colonel Carter, unable to pinpoint when they had decided to trust one another—but whatever moment of recognition had passed between them, product of almost a decade of knowing some variation of one another, they had. She herself wasn't so certain—would her Rodney ever aim a gun at her and mean it? This one had, though Carter was now favouring him with a small, awkward smile—but she followed when Rodney jerked his thumb over his shoulder and said with a grim kind of humour, "Come on. This way. I'm pretty sure I can dig you out a pack of double A batteries."
"Where are we going, exactly?" Jennifer asked as they headed down one long, curving corridor. Through the clear amber panes of glass, she could see that they were heading out along the pier's arc towards the city's centre—a good hour's walk even if they kept to this same quick pace. "And why?"
Rodney shot her a quizzical look over his shoulder. "The gate room—I thought we already established that?"
"Okay then," Jennifer said carefully, fighting back the urge to roll her eyes at him. So much for tact and working her way around to the question. "If the city was evacuated, what are you still doing here?"
Rodney huffed, but Carter said, "It's a fair question, McKay. You haven't evacuated along with everyone else, and you're this far out on one of the piers?"
"Oh god," Jennifer said, taking an instinctive step to one side and away from him, "are you infected?" Her skin crawled with the renewed memory of what it had felt like to feel her mouth move with something else's words; what it had been like to know that each beat of her heart was pushing more poison through her veins; and further below that, the faint echo of a voice that must be part Major Lorne, part something else.
"No, I am not infected," Rodney said, his tone full of an irritated bluster that reassured her a little—if Rodney was well enough to bluster at people, then he probably wasn't infected with a Wraith parasite. "We managed to contain it to the Colonel, which is probably the only good thing to have happened in the last forty-eight hours."
"Colonel Sheppard?" Jennifer asked, momentarily disoriented. She'd seen a lot of things since she'd first arrived in Atlantis, had read a lot of mission reports and watched many hours of footage, but even understanding intellectually what had happened to them, it was hard to keep in mind that the ground underneath her feet was more alien than any place she had ever known.
"What?" Rodney said, squinting at her. "Sheppard—Dr Sheppard? John?" He snorted to himself. "No, no, Colonel Lorne, we've been over this, keep up." He looked over at Carter. "Do you two come from the reality where everyone is ritually dropped on their head at birth? Because that would explain a lot."
Jennifer repressed the sudden, vicious urge to kick him in the shin. However afraid her Rodney had been when the three of them had been trapped in the mine, however obnoxious he had been towards Carter, he'd never looked at her so dismissively, his gaze sliding over her as if she were nothing at all.
Carter also glared at him, but before she could open her mouth to reply, Rodney held up his free hand and said, "Sorry, sorry, I just—long day. Days."
Carter sighed, and stepped around a large stretch of shattered glass. "Continue," she said, with the kind of patient brevity that Jennifer remembered Dr Weir having—the kind of brevity that was learned from leading people through countless situations like this; that was earned along with fine lines around the eyes and deep grooves beside the mouth. Jennifer was more certain than ever that she never wanted to have that kind of command.
"Well, what do you want to know, exactly? Lorne's infected with a Wraith parasite genetically engineered to be even more disturbing than normal. And believe me, after the last time Ronon had to beat the crap out of Michael, I thought I'd seen the most disturbing things the Wraith are capable of."
"The lab we were in when we got here," Sam asked him, "What happened to it? All the windows had been smashed in; it looked like it was abandoned in a hurry. And here"—she pointed back at the broken glass that lay strewn across the floor behind them—"the whole pier looks like someone's been on a rampage."
"Lorne was down there helping Radek with some project of his, something that required the gene." Rodney was steadfastly not looking at either of them. "That was when we first realised he was infected. He got… violent. Neither Radek nor Captain Vega could restrain him. And so seventeen hours later," he continued briskly, "The city's been evacuated, I had to traipse all the way out here to get supplies from the only lab I could get into before I can"—Rodney was ticking things off on his fingers as he spoke—"oh, and of course, there is that."
They rounded a curve in the corridor and came to an abrupt halt. Where geometry told Jennifer there should be a meeting point of three hallways, there was instead a grasping mass of veins and working muscle. The smell—raw flesh and copper—made Jennifer want to vomit. It was the same smell that had made her scrub at herself in the shower until her skin was pink and raw because she couldn't get it out of her nostrils. "Oh god," she said, voice strangled, and took a step back.
"Just how big has this thing grown, McKay?" Carter asked, eyes blown wide. Even as they watched, the ship-seed was becoming just perceptibly larger, its tendrils inching across floor and wall and ceiling.
"How big is the average Wraith hive?" Rodney said dryly. He reached into the pack on his back and pulled out an Ancient life signs detector—itself a little battered, so that Rodney had to tilt it this way and that under the light to make the cracked screen legible. "Shit. It's expanded up two more levels since I got out here—growth is speeding up when it should be slowing. There's no more power for it to tap into."
"You pulled the ZPM, right?" Carter said. She wasn't looking at Rodney when she spoke; the tendrils of the ship-seed still had all her attention. Jennifer couldn't blame her. "If it managed to tap into that much subspace energy, it could conceivably grow to an unheard of size."
Rodney squinted at her. "We pulled all three of them back when the problem became apparent. Sheppard took them through the gate to Athos… You only managed to find one ZPM in your reality?"
"Is this really the time to be bragging, McKay?"
"It's always the time," Rodney grumbled under his breath, but let Sam consult with him over the schematics on the life signs detector. The two of them turned the detector this way and that, trying to find a way for them to get from the pier back to the heart of the city, but between their three pinpoints and the curved outline of the central tower was an inchoate mass that seemed to fill every corridor along the way.
"It's like a labyrinth," Sam said. "Go down one corridor, and another is blocked."
"Hmm," Rodney said, "except for how instead of a creepy mutant bull, we have a creepy mutant Wraith… thing with an Air Force colonel attached to it. And I neglected to bring a ball of string with me this morning."
"We could go outside?" Jennifer said. "Go around the long way?"
For a moment, she cringed when Rodney and Carter turned to look at her—what was she thinking, suggesting something that two genius engineers had no doubt considered and discarded—but Rodney clicked his fingers at her, then pointed at Carter and said, "That might just work."
"Well, if the hive seed hasn't managed to force its way through the walls." Carter's head was cocked to one side. "We might be able to make our way along the top of the pier."
"Ancient building material is pretty resilient," Rodney said. "We should only have to worry about it putting pressure on stress points—but there's so much salt water out there, we should be safer."
Jennifer nodded in understanding. "Iratus bugs don't like salt water. But it's not so severe an aversion for hive ships—it will buy us some time, but it won't stop it when it figures out we're here."
That got her another look from two pairs of keen blue eyes.
"When it figures out we're here?" Rodney repeated. "It can sense us?"
"Wait," Carter said at almost the same time, "Can you still sense it, Jennifer?"
Jennifer shifted from foot to foot, uneasy. This wasn't how she'd wanted anyone to find out—she was pretty sure she could trust Colonel Carter with the knowledge, but it felt like an odd kind of betrayal for this Rodney to find out before she'd decided how to tell her own. She and Teyla had been working together to confirm the existence and the limits of the Wraith-sensing skills her own infection had seemed to impart to her before she told anyone other than Mr Woolsey. "A little bit. I don't think it knows I can sense it, which is good. It's almost ready to start calling."
"Calling?" Rodney asked.
"To other hives," Jennifer clarified. "That's what it does. It's going to need a queen." She tugged her ponytail away from the nape of her neck and redid her hair into a loose, sloppy bun. Despite the cool air, Jennifer still felt overheated and dry mouthed, uncomfortably aware of the sweat that was running down her back and dampening her t-shirt. Psychosomatic, she told herself. It's just a psychosomatic reaction. You're fine, you're okay, and concentrated on steadying her breathing. This would all be over soon—they'd make it to the central tower, Colonel Carter would find a way for them to get home, and Jennifer could curl up next to Rodney on the couch in their quarters and sip at a mug of tea while he complained about the indignity of having to read Pride and Prejudice out loud to her and thought he was being stealthy about pressing soft kisses to the crown of her head.
"I really hate Mondays," Rodney said, mouth a thin line, before retreating after Jennifer and Carter to the nearest free section of corridor. The windows here didn't open, but Carter simply shrugged and kicked the glass out. It felt as if the temperature dropped instantly, and Jennifer was shivering as she climbed gingerly out after Carter and Rodney. The breeze out here was cold, the salt stinging her nostrils, but in a way it felt good—it woke her up a little, helped her to focus, and she fell in easily with the others when they started to jog in the direction of the central spire. Carter took the lead, but Jennifer was a little surprised to find that this Rodney had no trouble keeping pace with her, despite the pack he was carrying. Her own Rodney would have been grumbling and dropping back some time ago, but this Rodney was running fluidly without complaint, and maybe Jennifer didn't want to know what would have inspired such a change in the man.
They made good time over the top of the pier. The going was mostly flat, the occasional interruption of skylight or miniature spires easy to detour around, and Jennifer couldn't see any sign of the hive seed breaking through the city's walls. Out here, the city looked normal, its spires dark against the darkening sky, and Jennifer could focus on them rather than the icebergs, on the groaning of the metal beneath their feet, and almost pretend that they were back where they should be. She couldn't lie to herself when they reached the city's central towers, though. Where there should have been light, shining outwards in all the colours of Atlantis' stained glass, there was only darkness, and the buzzing in the back of Jennifer's head was growing ever louder. At times she thought she could make out words from amidst the background noise—garbled phrases of hunger and need and deeper still, a fading cry for help.
Between the cold and the constant hum in the back of her mind, Jennifer was shivering by the time they made it to one of the smaller satellite towers that ringed the central one. She stood to one side and watched while Rodney and Carter bickered with one another about how best to make it into the building when none of the doors would open for them. Jennifer walked a little way around the periphery in either direction, but there were no windows to break for at least fifty to sixty feet over her head—just a smooth expanse of wall and doors that remained stubbornly inert.
She walked back to the others in time to see Rodney shake his head and slot one of the door's control crystals back into place. "It's no use, even the power reserves from the central buffer seem to be gone. We'll have to head out along one of the other piers and try to get in through some of the windows there, see if we can get around the hive ship." He scrubbed one hand through his hair, which was already disordered and wild from the salt breeze.
Carter shook her head. Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were pink from cold, and she was rubbing her reddened fingers together in a clear attempt to get circulation going again. "At the rate that thing is growing, we might not have the time to do that. If we could just get in here—couple floors up, we could take the skywalk over to the main tower."
"It's a pity we don't have MacGyver with us, huh?" Jennifer said, smiling weakly. She knew the joke was terrible, but the way it made Rodney roll his eyes distracted her from the numb tingling in her fingertips. She balled her hands into fists and jammed them into her armpits, hoping for some extra warmth, and was completely unprepared when Carter's eyes lit up and she exclaimed, "Hair pin!"
"Excuse me?" Jennifer said, but had no time to say anything else before Carter reached out and snatched a bobby pin from the straggling bun of Jennifer's hair, taking a few hairs with it.
Jennifer hissed at the unexpected pain, but Carter just said "Sorry, sorry" hurriedly, straightened out the pin and turned to jam it into the console.
"Hey!" Rodney yelped. "That's going to short the… oh, that is an excellent idea!"
"If I can just get it to…" Carter's voice trailed off as she concentrated on whatever she was doing—Jennifer couldn't see over her shoulder, not that she would have had a much better idea of what Carter was up to if she could. "There!" she said, in a voice of immense satisfaction. The control panel hissed, popped, released a shower of green-tinted sparks, and the door slid smoothly open.
"Thank you," Jennifer said fervently, and followed Carter into the relatively warm interior of the tower.
Inside it was quiet enough that their footsteps echoed as they groped their way over to the stairwell and hurried up the steps; dark enough that Jennifer lost her footing once or twice and had to grip the handrail for fear of falling. The long muscles in her thighs were burning by the time they made it to the beginning of the skywalk which led into the control tower, but any attempt to take deeper breaths were forestalled by what Jennifer felt as she walked out onto the bridge. The closer she got to it, the stronger its presence was, battering against the walls of her mind, sucking the oxygen out of her lungs. Jennifer had to draw on everything Teyla had taught her when meditating—on all the steely strength Jennifer had seen and admired in the curve of Teyla's smile, the lines of her hands—to make her walk across the bridge.
"You okay?" Carter asked her softly. Her hand brushed against Jennifer's elbow in quiet comfort.
"Been better," Jennifer said, but then she took a deep breath and steadied herself. She could do this. "It's four or five floors below us right now, but it's still growing. If we can't recharge the mirror soon, we won't get home." She swallowed and concentrated harder, pushing down beneath the layers of hunger and greed and decay to find where Lorne was. They didn't have much time, but if she could get to the infirmary, she might be able to manufacture the antidote—or at least leave behind instructions her counterpart could follow later—but soon she had to pull back, shaking her head in dismay. He was too far gone, the hive seed's demands for energy too great for his body and mind to handle; even if they could kill the seed right then and there, chances were there would be nothing left of Evan Lorne to recover. Jennifer looked over her shoulder at Rodney. "I'm sorry. I won't be able to do anything for him."
Rodney's mouth tightened, and in the dim light, it seemed as if the lines around his eyes and on his forehead grew immediately deeper, etched there by grief and weariness. For a moment, Jennifer wondered if that was what her Rodney would look like in twenty years time—sad enough to make her heart ache, stiff-shouldered and expectant of grief. "Please see my earlier comment about this being a Monday," he snapped and pushed past her. "Shall we?"
Carter shot Jennifer a quick look, eyebrow arched, as if to say You know you're willingly dating this man, right? If Jennifer was a different woman, she'd have some kind of comeback on the tip of her tongue, some snappy way of saying this is not my Rodney and my Rodney is not the same person he was when he was trapped in the mine with us. Instead, she took a breath, and reminded herself that she admired and respected the Colonel; that she had to admit that the Rodney she'd gotten to know probably wasn't much like the man Carter had met in the SGC a decade ago; that she'd gotten over the need to defend herself and Rodney long ago.
The three of them abreast, they walked into the control tower. Up two flights of stairs, along one of the narrow service corridors and they found themselves in the gate room—and if the rest of the city had been disquieting, this abandoned room was nothing short of eerie. Jennifer hadn't been one of the first expedition members; she'd never known the gate room to be anything other than full of life, bustling during the day and humming with quiet conversation in the evening. Now it was still and dark, monitors blank and Mr Woolsey's office empty.
Jennifer followed the other two up the great sweep of steps to where the central controls were. There was no destruction here; instead it looked as if everyone had simply stepped out for a moment and would be back shortly. There was a row of empty coffee mugs lined up at the place where Dr Zelenka usually sat; on top of another desk, a stack of neatly indexed files in blue covers—mission reports, Jennifer recognised, probably on their way to Mr Woolsey to be signed off on.
Rodney made a bee line for one of the laptops that sat abandoned on a work station, swapping its battery for the depleted one in his own tablet; Carter, though, made a low sound of triumph when she spotted what some of the control consoles were connected up to. To Jennifer's untrained eye, it looked like a sleeker version of a car battery—graphite and curved but just as blocky and, from Carter's soft grunt as she picked it up and set it on a desk, just as heavy.
"Portable naquadah generator?" Carter asked Rodney, pushing a stray lock of blonde hair back behind her ear. "Impressive."
"Yes," Rodney said absently. His own attention was focused on whatever the laptop screen was telling him, Ancient text scrolling down the screen as rapidly as his fingers were typing. He reached into his backpack and pulled out something that looked like an oversized, blue USB stick; it slotted into the side of his laptop with an alarmingly loud electronic trill. "Singh and I came up with it a while back. We used it to keep the most essential systems once we had to pull the ZPM—should still be enough juice to get your mirror up and running again."
"I'll give it a shot," Carter replied. She studied it for a moment, pressed a couple of keys on the side of the generator, and then rested the quantum mirror on top of it. There was a moment when nothing happened, and then the sphere of the mirror rose up to float an inch or two above the generator—an electromagnetic field, if Jennifer had to guess, though her mind was fuzzy enough from the impact of the hive seed's thoughts that it was hard to follow what Carter was doing.
Stretch, it was saying while Carter and Rodney conferred on valencies and compatibilities; up, up, it was urging itself while Carter stooped over the generator, coaxing the maximum amount of power out of it and into the mirror. Jennifer shivered, wrapping her arms around her middle and closing her eyes against her rising sense of nausea—how long would it take before the hive seed realised it was trapped? She couldn't really remember much of what had happened before the end of her own ordeal, before Ronon and Colonel Sheppard had come for her—the edges of her memory were blurred, thoughts and impressions bleeding into one another—but she thought she recalled the first vague sensations of constriction, of the need to get out. Her eyes flew open. "You need to hurry," she told Carter. "It's going to be angry soon."
Carter looked at her and arched an eyebrow, but didn't question her, just nodded and said simply, "It'll take another four or five minutes."
Jennifer didn't know if they had that long—how long more would it take for the growing hive ship to realise that it had been deformed, twisted out of shape by the city that had seen its birth? No matter how urgently it called to others, they would never be able to free it—the Wraith might take the city, yes, but this new hive would never fly. It had sucked the life from Atlantis in its birth pangs—what would it be capable of when it started to die?
Rodney was making low noises of impatience from the other side of the workstation—whatever he was doing, it needed two computers, and he was clearly frustrated with having to switch constantly from one to the other. Jennifer volunteered to help him, hesitantly—she was nowhere near as competent with computer code as anyone on one of the science teams, but she'd poked around at database code in med school and could follow directions reasonably well. Rodney had peered at her when she'd offered her help, partly as if he'd forgotten she was there, partly as if she was surprised Jennifer would want to help at all. There was a kind of dismissal there that stung even as she started to type, calling up the programs he was telling her he'd need—she couldn't remember a time when her own Rodney had looked at her like that, as if she'd meant nothing at all, even before they'd been together. She missed her own Rodney suddenly, so fiercely it made her chest ache—never mind that she was standing next to a man who looked identical to him, she'd never felt so far away from him before.
"Ready," Carter said eventually, softly. She plucked the mirror from the top of the generator. Jennifer couldn't tell how she knew it was charged, but Carter was looking at it with a quiet satisfaction, and Jennifer figured that if anyone should know the ins and outs of Ancient technology and alternate universes, it was Samantha Carter.
"We can get home?" Jennifer asked her, looking up from her work. Her skin was starting to itch, from adrenaline and her body's memory of Wraith hormones; she was no longer sure if she was imagining it, or if the ground beneath her feet was starting to shake a little. Was the hive ship making one last desperate burst upwards? She felt tired, drained—they couldn't have been here for more than a couple of hours, but there had been few times in this galaxy when she'd longed for home more strongly.
"Only one way to find out," Carter said with determined good humour. "Are you ready?"
"Almost," Jennifer assured her. Another few keystrokes and she had completed what Rodney had asked her to do—Data accepted, both monitors said. Standby.
Rodney nodded at her in curt thanks, but paid more attention to the backpack that he was settling back on his shoulders. "You have five minutes," he said, and hit 'enter' on his laptop.
"Okay," Carter said evenly. "If you want, I should be able to rig a way to send a subspace pulse through the mirror to your SGC once we get back—at least they'll know what happened. They can let your sister know."
"Jeannie?" Rodney looked startled. "I—yes. I would appreciate that." The words sounded awkward, as if his mouth were not used to the shape of them. Jennifer wondered if this Rodney had ever patched things up with his sister.
For a moment, Jennifer was confused, not understanding what they were talking about; then she saw the countdown on the screen of Rodney's laptop. 4:03, 4:02, 4:01…
"What?" she said, urgency giving her tongue a rapidity Jennifer wasn't used to. "You're going to—why? There's an antidote, I can give you the formula. Your—your me, or Dr Beckett, if he's—There's no need to destroy the city!"
Carter didn't look at all surprised, Jennifer saw—in fact, she looked resigned. It dawned on Jennifer that she had known what would happen all along, and Jennifer kicked herself as she put the pieces together—why else would Rodney have been out on the pier, salvaging tools from the science labs, when he could have been evacuated off world with everyone else? "If the Wraith find Atlantis," she said, with the kind of gentleness to her tone that Jennifer had only ever heard from her and Teyla and Elizabeth Weir, the kind that had steel underneath, "they have a roadmap to Earth. You know what that could mean."
"We don't know that any Wraith have heard it yet!" Jennifer said, furious, because surely this was the kind of thing Atlantis had been training her for since she got there—surely it had been teaching her how to stand her ground and fight? She wheeled around on Rodney and held out a hand for his tablet. "I can give you the antidote; I know the formula."
Rodney shook his head and called up a tracking programme on his tablet PC. It showed a solar system that Jennifer wasn't familiar with, but the glowing dot on a planet near its heart was clearly Atlantis. Three green shapes were moving steadily across the screen towards that planet—hive ships. "They're almost here," Rodney said. The circles under his eyes were so dark they could have been bruises; on the main screen behind him, the countdown reached two minutes, thirty seconds. "You should go."
There was nothing Jennifer could say to that, and she let Carter take her by the wrist. "Ready?" Carter asked her, but Jennifer couldn't pay her attention to her, not just yet.
"You're dialling out, right?" she asked Rodney urgently. "You are."
He seemed surprised that she would ask. "If there's time, I—I have to be sure the Wraith don't get—"
Jennifer shook her head, suddenly, shockingly furious. "This is not the time to start developing a sense of heroism, Rodney McKay. Dial out. Go find the others. Not for—not you, the other you, but you and me—"
Rodney's jaw went slack. "Really?" His voice went high-pitched, and for a moment Jennifer could see so clearly how this Rodney and her own could have been the same person once, even beyond the same eyes and the fast-moving hands and the broad shoulders—they shared the same ability to be astounded by the world, even if Jennifer had the dire suspicion that his astonishment at the thoughts of being in a relationship with her mightn't necessarily be flattering to her. "Well. I—I don't know if there's enough power. I'll try."
He nodded at them both, then hurried over to the DHD. Jennifer caught the beginning of the address—Athos, it looked like he was dialling, and she fought back the curiosity that inspired in her; she'd never know why the planet was a haven in this reality when it had long been abandoned in hers; she'd never know what that meant for this universe's Teyla—and then the wormhole flared into existence, as blue and serene as if all were right in the world. Rodney was wide-eyed, looking like this was a bit of good fortune he hadn't dared count on.
"Good luck, McKay," Carter told him, flicking open the quantum mirror in her hand so that it started to power up.
"Bye, Rodney," Jennifer said simply. Part of her wanted to take a step forward and press a kiss to his temple, but it would be more for her sake than his, she knew—instead of a gesture of comfort, it would be almost cruel.
0:45, the computer said, the figures now limned in red. The floor underneath her feet was definitely shaking now—Jennifer didn't know if that was because of the hive seed, or the beginning of the self-destruct mechanism, or a combination of the two—and Rodney staggered a little as he ran down the steps before righting himself.
He looked over his shoulder just before he got to the gate. Jennifer raised her hand in mute farewell, though she didn't know if he could see her; didn't know if he made any gesture of acknowledgement back at her. The light from the quantum mirror was growing steadily stronger, and she had to squint against it in order to see Rodney's back vanish through the wormhole. He may not have been her Rodney, may not have done the same for her, but Jennifer felt that she owed it to him—to make sure that someone was watching his back. On her Atlantis, she knew that Rodney could rely on his team for that, could rely on her; maybe, Jennifer thought, remembering the sleepy affection in Rodney's when she'd climbed out of their bed that morning, it was time for her to let herself truly rely on him, too.
The wormhole shut down behind him, and Jennifer closed her eyes and trusted in the strength of Carter's five fingers curled tightly around her wrist; trusted that when she opened her eyes again, she'd be looking at Atlantis in daylight—at a living city, at Rodney, at home.