The public maglifter had half-emptied by the time John reached the stop for the club where he was meeting McKay. Not many people ventured into this part of Vegas after dark – John's fellow-passengers were a guy with obvious muscle transplants watching some kind of sport on VR goggles and a young couple two seats ahead sharing a vidplayer, jacked in using a "romance" headset with dual plugs for each of the implant sockets just above the collars of their t-shirts. Probably heading for one of the dance venues – mostly it was music places open around here in the evening, or bars.
He got off half a block from the club and walked, automatically scanning his surroundings – ingrained habit from his time in the military and more recently, as a cop. It was a good neighborhood to be cautious in; he heard muffled conversations in dark alleyways as he passed – the latest designer pharmaceuticals changing hands.
John was a little early, but that was okay; he'd get himself a drink at the bar while he waited. McKay usually breezed in around 9.30, complaining about the idiocy of Trafficnet not managing to tame the usual central city AGL snarl-ups. John was pretty sure McKay just liked to piss and moan, and that he actually worked out of town – he'd mentioned a lab in the desert once, then clammed up apologetically, saying it was "classified". McKay tended to drag him off to their room the moment he arrived, anyway, so there wasn't usually much time to chat.
Sometimes John wished…well, he wished for a lot of things, none of which were likely. He'd been hooking up with McKay for several months, now, and it was getting harder to do the scenes and not ask for anything more. Like getting together somewhere they could stay the night, where John could hold McKay in his arms for longer than half an hour, where they could talk about anything other than who was doing what to whom.
A year before he'd met McKay, after the failed rescue mission when he'd trashed a new Condor-class lifter and disobeyed orders, the Air Force kicked him out. The cops were fast-tracking ex-military so a few months later he had a new job, and the only good thing about getting his ass dumped by the Air Force was that he didn't have to hide who he was so much. Well, within limits: cops weren't the most liberal bunch on the planet, either. It wasn't going to trash his career, though, so he started hitting the clubs. Just the usual gay bars and dance clubs at first, then the ones that specialized, the ones where you needed an invitation or connections to get in. John knew a few people.
He'd mostly watched the action, and drunk too much. He'd still felt sorry for himself, bruised by his dishonorable discharge, and lonely. So goddam lonely, but he'd dealt with that most of his life since he'd gotten away from his father. He made some mistakes back in those days due to the drink and the loneliness – hooked up with a couple of guys who were little more than bullies. One he left handcuffed to the bedstead with the restraints he'd meant for John. The other 'roided-up asshole tried to put him in an armlock without any negotiation, so John had to punch him out. When he'd sobered up, John was mainly angry with himself for being careless.
He kept to himself after that for a while, drinking alone, mostly watching. He'd seen McKay once or twice at the club with a pretty redhead kneeling against his legs as they took in a show and murmured to each other, but then he started turning up alone, sitting along with John at the bar, drinking imported beer and looking morose, talking to the bartender about the fickleness of women. The bartender, Frankie, was a pal of John's by now, and said McKay should try guys then, with a wink at John. So John bought McKay a drink, figuring they could lick their wounds together. Two hours later they were still at the bar, John watching McKay's mouth as he eviscerated bad science, his dexterous hands snapping and waving and making John think about what else he could do with them. When McKay – "Not Meredith, because who calls a kid that these days? Oh, that'd be my idiotic parents!" – finally fixed him with a sharp blue stare and said "So, shall we take this downstairs?" with a crooked smirk, John didn't hesitate.
Six months later and they were still hooking up.
"I hate this room," said McKay, glaring at the walls as though they'd personally offended him. John glanced at the red and black fleur-de-lis curtains, the cheap scarlet faux-satin cover on the king-sized bed. The carpet felt sticky underfoot and the ozone smell left behind by cleaning bots was overlaid with something cloyingly floral. In one corner, a flickering image from an old holoprojector showed a dark-haired woman in red leather flogging a blond girl, complete with thwacking sounds and whimpering. McKay snorted and strode over, navigating the touchscreens expertly to avoid a flood of pay-per-view tri-D porn ads and shutting the holo down.
"Yeah, well," said John, impatient now they were together. "It'll do. C'mere," and he drew McKay into a kiss, cock stirring as McKay's wide, greedy mouth covered his, as McKay's hand slid into his hair, warm and anchoring.
They'd been meeting in rooms like this, in clubs like this, anywhere from once a week to once a month – depending on their schedules, and on whether McKay's lab was in crisis-mode: "Hello, saving the planet here!". John doubted he was doing any such thing – doubted anyone could – but McKay liked to blow his own trumpet, and John enjoyed the show.
He'd been turned on upstairs when McKay had arrived and pulled him into a hard, bossy kiss, pressing him back against the bar. John had wanted to buy him a beer and talk a little for a change. He'd wanted to say that he hated having so little control over these assignations, but he knew he'd probably have lost his nerve and avoided it in the end, even if McKay hadn't hustled him downstairs to the room he'd booked.
All John ever got was an email with the time and place. Sure, when they'd set this up McKay had talked earnestly about classified projects and how micros were ten times as insecure as the smartphones they'd replaced, even with McKay's own patented encryption. So, email it was. No way of calling McKay, no idea where he lived. John was a loner, but this was a whole other level of paranoia. The cop in John – which he tried to lock firmly away when he was off duty – wondered what McKay was mixed up in. But John really didn't want to know.
Part of John liked the suspense, of course; not knowing and not being in control. But lately, hooking up only for scenes wasn't doing it for him, and their brief email contacts felt like a thread that could snap at any time, leaving him alone again, only worse than before because he'd been stupid and let McKay get to him, let him elbow his way in, battering down John's defences. He tried to put some of what he wanted into the kiss, tried to say with half-voiced moans what he couldn't say outright. This was what they did, and he didn't know how McKay would react if he said he needed more. He didn't want to scare him off.
John ended the kiss first, a little breathless, cheeks hot. "You want me to...?" He gestured vaguely at his t-shirt. McKay frowned, eyes raking him, expression calculating. John got hard, fast.
"Strip," said McKay crisply, beginning to undo his own tie. "Then kneel on the bed, down by the foot."
"Yeah, okay," said John, lifting one foot off the sticky carpet doubtfully. "I'm sure as shit not kneeling on this floor, anyway. Why'd you book the crappy room?"
McKay rolled his eyes. "Less lip'd be great," he said, swatting John on the ass. "It was all that was left." He frowned, folding his arms, probably as much to show off his biceps as to top John. "Don't make me tell you twice, now."
John grinned and tipped him a fake salute. "Yes, sir." He dropped his eyes and started undressing, folding his clothes on an old divan under the window, then crossing to the bed. He climbed on and knelt before sitting back on his heels, knees parted, hands loose on his thighs, gaze lowered. He hadn't been told which way to face, but he figured McKay wouldn't want to stand around on the tacky carpet too long either, so the action would be on the bed. John knelt facing the pillows, and waited while McKay fussed with his pants and shoes.
John tried to find the good place, the no-thinking place. Part of him wanted nothing more, but all the unvoiced shit was nagging at him, making it harder to let go. The weird ozone-floral smell didn't help, but rented rooms in clubs were all they had.
After the first time, McKay got John to take him back to John's crappy apartment, but after one horrified glance he pronounced it a "rodent-infested slum" and refused to return. John kind of liked the rats – at least they were company, squeaking in the wall-space behind his bed – but it left him and McKay with only rented rooms in motels or clubs, as apparently McKay's place was too far away. John thought he was too paranoid to take casual pick-ups home with him, which was just as well – who knew what sort of low-lifes were out there. Since his own two disastrous hook-ups with douchebags, John had taken to running a few searches on anyone he was seeing. McKay had no home address in the system, nor any work details listed. His last scientific papers were published three years ago and then stopped, the same time his profile went dark. The guy was clearly an accomplished hacker, and he'd taken himself off the grid.
Which was cop-stuff, so John tamped it down and tried to relax. He rolled his shoulders and sighed, wondering what McKay thought was going on between them. Two guys meeting for scenes and nothing more? Casual sex with a side-order of bondage? He hadn't hidden that he was a cop, but maybe McKay had been more freaked out by that than he'd let on? Maybe he still didn't trust John? Maybe he was bored already, and seeing someone else in a rented room at some other club. No. He pushed the thought away.
John steadied his breathing and tried to calm himself, lashes lowered, cock half-hard against his leg. Open, on display. His cock liked that feeling, stiffening some more, making him squirm a little. The trouble with this was how goddam much he liked it. He liked McKay pushing him, making him do things he'd never done before. They needed to talk more, and not just about what worked and what was off-limits. Sometimes he thought McKay was deliberately shutting him up, keeping a gag in his mouth or muttering obscenities while he fucked John or jerked off on him. When he had McKay's dick in his mouth, moaning around it as his throat worked, John could barely remember his own name, and afterwards everything went drifty and soft-focused, unimportant.
John felt the bed dip as McKay clambered on, arranging things to his satisfaction then settling himself comfortably back against a mound of pillows.
"C'mon, John. Get up here and suck me." McKay snapped his fingers and damn, it was a conditioned reflex: John's mouth got wet. He swallowed and licked his lips, knee-walking forward then sliding down to lie on his stomach between McKay's legs. He loved these sessions when McKay let him take his time and suck him off slowly, luxuriating in it and drawing out the pleasure. John wrapped his hand around the shaft of McKay's cock and licked it like an ice-cream cone, swirling his tongue around the flared rim below the head and flicking his tongue against the underside.
McKay moaned and his hand slid back into John's hair, just holding him, his thumb caressing John's temple. John wrapped his left arm around McKay's hip and let himself hump the satin bedcover, small thrusts, hardly noticeable.
"Yeah, you can knock that off," said McKay, sounding amused but tightening his hold in John's hair. "You won't be coming for a while yet. And take it easy down there; I want this to last."
John hummed agreement and shut his eyes, giving in, sinking into sensation and finally, finally, shutting down thought. The rest could wait.
"Teyla," said Rodney in acknowledgement, as she pulled him into her usual greeting, pressing their foreheads together. He tried not to squirm or check out her cleavage in the clinging smartcloth leotard, and after a long moment she released him. "What was so urgent that it couldn't wait for our–"
"There is news," Teyla interrupted him, gesturing Rodney over to the sofa near a low table at the end of the main room of the dojo.
Teyla hushed him, pouring him a cup of tea. The fact that she'd interrupted him twice now was unusual enough to silence him, so he sank down onto the padded seat and sipped his cup of steeped weeds, grimacing, but knowing better than to ask for coffee.
"It is about the man you have been seeing, Rodney," she began, carefully not looking at him. "John Sheppard."
"Yes? Look, I know I only told you about him last week and I'm sorry about that, but I thought you were handling it pretty well. The, the gay thing, and the, um, kink thing, and all that." He waved his hand in a generally encompassing sort of way, feeling a little guilty. She was a good friend, and he should have talked to her months ago, as soon as his feelings for Sheppard got complicated.
"It's not about that, Rodney," said Teyla, turning to gaze at him, worried. "You must realize how much is at stake here, for the ones we help. They have nowhere else to turn, and the GENII are becoming harder to evade."
"Yes, yes, I know, with the disappearances and everything," Rodney windmilled his hand. "It's all very worrying. So?"
"So anyone who gets close to any of us is a possible threat, a security risk."
"Yes of course, but I checked him out, months ago. And believe me, Teyla, I'd know if he were faking it." Rodney colored and looked away, clearing his throat. "He's not faking it."
"Be that as it may," she said, "he is not who he seems. He must have had expert help blocking your searches, knowing that you would investigate him. But I have contacts who can access the databases in ways that the authorities cannot anticipate."
"Ah, Teyla," said Rodney, seeing where this was going. "It's all right–"
"He is a police officer, Rodney," she said darkly, leaning forward.
"Oookay," Rodney said, sighing. "Yes, I know." Teyla looked incredulous, and then angry. "Hey, I was going to bring it up, but it's really not a big deal!" He waved his hands and splashed a little tea onto his pants. Damn. "John told me he worked for Vegas PD, soon after we met." He rubbed at the tea-stain ineffectually. "He's okay, for a cop, and we," he flushed and swallowed. "We get on. We're, er, compatible." Teyla was shaking her head, looking worried. "Look, he's never tried to ask me anything, or, or pump me for information or whatever. He doesn't even know where I work, or where I live. Really, it's okay." He peered at her anxiously.
Teyla was unimpressed. "He has accompanied the GENII on two raids in the past few months. Admittedly no one was taken, as we had managed to evacuate them, but there is no doubt that he is working for them. The police are being forced to align more closely with the GENII squads, you know that."
Rodney got up, the better to gesticulate. "He's not working for them. He sometimes has to work alongside them. He told me about it, and I could see he didn't like it. His boss allocates the cases – they all have to do it, apparently." He raised his eyebrows. "Really, he's not trying to get to you through me, or anything."
"It is a risk, Rodney, and there is so much at stake. Are you sure that he will not betray us?"
"Yes, I'm sure. He, we…we've become close."
Teyla shrugged. "Strong feelings can cloud judgement."
"Not this time." He felt a flare of anger and set his jaw stubbornly. "He's not like that."
"He is a police officer. He cannot avoid being compromised. Can you not see someone else…compatible?"
"No," muttered Rodney, feeling sick at the thought. "No I don't want…" He took a deep breath. "I'll be careful. We don't talk much, anyway. We probably should, and I've been meaning to…Anyway, take my word, he's not a spy. I can't exactly sit him down and give him career advice, now, can I?"
Teyla looked as though that was exactly what he should do. "Ronon mistrusts him."
"Yes, well, Ronon mistrusts puppies and kittens; you know that. I don't want this stuff," flailing his hands as though to encompass the virus, the melt-down of their society and how utterly fucked they all were, "to mess up what I have with John." Even as he said the words he could hear how stupid and naive they were, and he saw the sadness in her eyes. "Okay, okay, point taken, Jesus." He held up a warding-off hand, deeply weary. "Don't say it. I'll talk to him. Or I won't talk to him. Whatever, I don't know."
"Refresh," John ordered his email again, but there was still nothing from McKay to explain what the hell was going on. McKay'd been quieter in the last three weeks, more inclined to shove his cock into John's mouth or gag him, muttering something vague about work being busy. Then the last message, canceling this week's hook-up. He was probably seeing someone else. Fuck it.
"My office," Landry said, striding past John's cubicle.
John's heart sank. He'd heard mutterings about a raid being planned with one of the GENII squads. Goddam Landry knew he hated going out with the GENII, but it was getting a lot harder to work as a cop and avoid it. Harder for him to refuse, as well, since he was a spare wheel, unpartnered.
He'd lost Ford, his partner, after a bust went bad. They'd been chasing a punk wanted for dealing one of the new IQ-enhancing street drugs. The casinos hated those drugs, but it was the Flowers for Algernon fall-out that made John want to get them off the streets. Ford had caught and tackled the kid but they'd both smashed through a store window – blood and glass everywhere. The lacerations were easy enough to sew up, but it turned out the dealer had the RAITH virus, and then, so did Ford. He'd vanished as soon as he got the results. John didn't blame him, but he missed the kid. As a black cop, Ford had had to take a certain amount of bullshit from racist bastards in the force, and he'd helped John make the transition – some of the older officers disliked ex-military guys like John.
Unable to put off the meeting with Landry any longer, John stood. "Close and lock," he ordered his viewscreen. It obediently went dark.
"They've found a woman," said Landry without preamble, thumbing the privacy shield on as soon as John passed the potted peace lilies demarcating Landry's office boundary. John stared out the full-length window, watching an anti-grav bot float past pulling a banner that rippled in thermals rising from the city twenty floors below. GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS GUYS GUYS GUYS BOTS BOTS BOTS screamed the scrolling words on the smartcloth banner. ANYTHING GOES AT CLUB CYBERPINK!
He pulled his attention back to Landry. "Murder?" John asked, relaxing imperceptibly. Murder was okay. Well, no, it wasn't okay, but it was his job, and it didn't involve GENII dickheads.
"No, she's infected, and pretty far gone, from the reports."
Shit. Shit shit shit. "Right," John said, tightening his jaw. Fucking perfect – first he had McKay blowing him off and most probably breaking up with him, and now he had a raid on some poor RAITHed-up woman with a GENII hit squad.
Landry had turned away and was frowning at a passing bot trumpeting SENSURROUND MASSAGE: YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT! in flashing fluorotext. "Sounds as though her father kept her hidden far longer than they usually manage. It's not going to be an easy take-down so they're sending in a squad." He took a deep breath and turned, his face grim. "Kolya's outfit."
"Fuck, no," said John involuntarily. "Sir," he added belatedly.
Landry glared at him. "I realize that Commander's Kolya's reputation precedes him, but less of the attitude would be good, Sheppard. Someone's got to be precinct liaison with the squads when they're on our turf, and it's your district she's holed up in, so this one's on you. Suck it up."
"Sir, yes, sir," John said, wooden.
Landry rolled his eyes. "Thanks for the reminder that you're ex-military, Sheppard, as though that wasn't abundantly clear to me already. You'll fit right in with the GENII militia, then."
"Seriously doubt that, sir," snapped John. His jaw ached. "I'm not a fan of the GENII. Can I…is there any choice in this, sir?"
Landry turned away again to stare out at the hazy Vegas skyline. Another banner drifted by, proclaiming AL'S AGLS! BEST USED ANTI-GRAV LIFTER DEALS IN VEGAS! Landry sighed. "No, Sheppard. Not for any of us."
It was pretty much as bad as John had feared. He'd heard about Kolya, of course – who hadn't heard of the Butcher of Yellowstone? Rumor had it he'd rounded up over a thousand of the RAITH who'd gone to ground in the national park, his squads herding them mercilessly into a dead-end valley with AGLs and stunner beams. Rumor also had it that rather than following policy and relocating the captured RAITH to special treatment facilities, Kolya had culled them like so many cattle. Bastards like the GENII traded on the state's fear-mongering propaganda which increasingly painted the RAITH as alien rather than sick. As monsters.
Fear was the problem, thought John, leaning in a corner of the ready room and keeping a low profile as the four-man GENII squad finished gearing up. There was still no cure for the RAITH virus and more victims every week. The Corporates were running the government in all but name as people ceded power to the authorities in a last-ditch hope that the state could keep everything from crumbling. The GENII hit squads were born from that fear, and, like the virus, they grew stronger by the day.
The squads had started as private militia brought in by the Corporates, undermining the armed forces which had always been dependent on Corporate funding. The U.S. military had been sent off to deal with political meltdowns and wars around the world in the wake of the pandemic, or so the public were told. Reliable media feeds were cut off, so no one really knew what was going on outside the U.S. John suspected that much of the national guard and armed forces had been broken up and downsized, reformed into GENII units or put on endless guard duty along the coasts and at the borders, ostensibly to prevent ravening hordes of infected RAITH from flooding in and destroying them all. John had been kicked out of the Air Force but he'd been about to walk. His unit had increasingly been used for riot control and everyone had said they were soon going to be air support for the GENII.
"Detective Sheppard." The voice was cold.
John looked up. "Commander Kolya." The scarred, pockmarked face was instantly recognizable from newsnet feeds.
Kolya's eyes were flat and cold. "We are required to have a Police Liaison Officer with us for urban operations against the Infected. Your role, however, is to observe and advise, not to interfere. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," drawled John, lounging against the wall more pronouncedly, arms crossed. "I'll try not to be a liability."
Kolya bared his teeth, looming. "Excellent."
The way it went down, though, John couldn't stand aside and let matters take their course. The RAITHed woman was only a kid, for starters, even if she was pretty far gone, her skin all blue scales and her eyes yellow slits. Her father was a wreck, pleading desperately and trying to stop the GENII from finding the cellar where his daughter was hidden. Kolya had him stunned.
John put him in the recovery position and tapped his micro to call in a medical team, furious at the squad's disregard for civilians. The old guy was frail – he could have arrested, had a stroke, anything. John checked his pulse again: faint but steady. Goddamn bullies.
A screech echoed up from the cellar, then the sound of a stunner blast. John grabbed the squad's junior member, who'd been left guarding the cellar entrance, and told him to stay with the injured man, then ran down the stairs, pulling his own stunner from his thigh holster. The place was a mess, furniture knocked over and two of Kolya's men groaning on the floor. One guy definitely had a broken arm. The girl was trapped up by the ceiling, crouched on top of a storage cupboard, hissing.
Kolya snarled and fired his stunner again, but she twisted away, lightning fast, the blast missing her. Kolya rammed the stunner into his holster and pulled another weapon from inside his coat.
"Hey, wait, no projectile weapons!" John grabbed his arm. "We're supposed to immobilize her, not kill her."
Kolya backhanded him casually across the face. "No interference."
"Fuck!" John reeled back, clutching his nose, eyes streaming.
Kolya aimed at the crouching girl and shot. The bullet went slightly wide, smashing into the wall just beside her head. She pressed herself flatter, making frantic clicking sounds.
John righted himself. "Yeah, no. Fuck this." He shot Kolya with his stunner. Kolya fell back against the wall and slid down. Damn but he was a tough bastard. Stunner blasts knocked most people out cold but Kolya's eyes were still fixed on John, glaring balefully, even if he was temporarily immobilized.
John turned to the terrified girl up by the ceiling. "Hey – your name's Ellia, right? Look, Ellia, I'm sorry they frightened you. I know this must be scary, but I promise that if you come with me quietly I'll make sure you're not harmed." She showed no signs of calming down so he holstered his stunner and spread his hands. "Promise. We're gonna have to take you somewhere else to live – you must know you can't stay here, in the city? But you won't be hurt." He tried to put conviction into his voice that he didn't really feel, hating himself for it. The official line was that the squads took the infected like Ellia to safely enclosed treatment facilities, but no one knew where. They just disappeared. Some years ago there'd been special quarantine hospitals in every state. The RAITHed were hard to contain, though – after a certain point they got strong enough to break through ordinary defences, so the hospitals were abandoned. Now there were nothing but GENII squads, detention centers, secrets, and rumors.
John took a tentative step forward, keeping his empty hands where she could see them. He heard Kolya stir behind him and turned slightly to check, so he didn't see her move. She was on him in an instant, knocking him back and grappling with him for the stunner. He rolled onto that side, fending her off with his other arm as best he could and stopping either of them from unholstering the weapon. Only after the adrenaline subsided did he feel the pain from where she'd bitten him on the arm. A second later she knocked him flying, effortlessly strong, and leapt up the stairs. He heard confused shouts from above, some crashing, and then nothing.
John groaned and pulled himself up from where he'd been flung against the bed. He noticed the bite mark on his arm and slid his sleeves down surreptitiously. Man, what a clusterfuck.
Kolya glared across at him, eyes partly unfocused. "Your…fault," he rasped, forcing the words out with difficulty. "Ordered...you…"
"Yeah, well," muttered John. "I'm not great at following orders. Ask anyone."
The fourth member of Kolya's squad clattered down the stairs. "Sorry, Commander. She surprised me – got away. Landry's mobilized some AGLs to search for her."
Kolya hauled himself to his feet, unsteady. "Waste of time. Long gone." He gestured curtly and the minion scurried over and helped him to the stairs. Kolya turned and scowled at John. "I won't forget this, Sheppard - no one crosses me and gets away with it. Kiss your career good-bye."
"Yeah, yeah," said John, waving him off. "I'm quaking in my boots." He'd never have taken a job as a cop if the global emergency hadn't led to ex-military being funneled into the police with minimal training. The old-style police force might have suited him, but they'd been increasingly militarized since martial law had been declared, and now with the GENII take over, everything was messed up. His career was circling the drain, anyway, and the way things were going, he didn't think he wanted the job much longer. Kolya's little vendetta would just drive a final nail into that coffin.
Two medics arrived to transport the rest of Kolya's squad to hospital on AG pallets, so John slipped away in the general confusion. He needed a shower, a drink and a band-aid. Once alone, he squinted at the mark on his arm. It wasn't bleeding. Well, not now, anyway. Maybe she hadn't pierced the skin? It'd probably be fine, but John was suddenly glad there was no hook-up with McKay this week. He'd rest and recuperate, maybe go to the gym. He'd be fine.
Fuck fuck fuck. John had known hitting the clubs again was a bad idea. But his life had generally gone to shit, what with Landry suspending him after Kolya put the screws on, and he was going stir-crazy in his apartment with only the rats for company.
McKay was most likely breaking up with him as well – they hadn't hooked up for over two weeks, McKay fobbing him off with vague excuses. John was furious with himself for getting attached and letting anyone inside his guards. Breaking up what, anyway? he asked himself bitterly. It wasn't like he and McKay were exclusive. They'd never even talked much – well, they'd negotiated about the sex and often chatted about their favorite VR games and holos, and about nerdy science stuff and math puzzles. Never about the R word. So damn stupid, and to make matters worse he'd been really goddam horny these last few days, restless and battling inappropriate erections, jerking off at home or in the head at the precinct. He'd told himself he could go clubbing if he chose, no reason to feel guilty about it, and anyway it wasn't their club, just one of the dance places.
But things hadn't felt right. He hadn't felt right. And now it had all gone to shit.
"Sorry, buddy," John said, backing away and fumbling himself back into his jeans with shaking hands. It took two tries to seal the closures, and all the time the blond guy leaning against the toilet stall partition was staring at him, eyes wide in the dim light, pants bunched halfway down his thighs. "Just got a little carried away there," John said, pasting on his best smirk. Fuck. At least he hadn't bitten…Joe, or Jim or whatever the fuck his name was. It had been a near thing, though, too goddam close, and he'd been way too rough.
The blond was rubbing at his arms; he'd have bruises for sure. "What the fuck was that about?" he muttered, lower lip trembling. His eyes narrowed, speculative, then widened. "Oh shit, you're not–"
John moved fast, pinning him to the graffiti-scrawled partition, getting right in his face. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? I like to play a little rough, and I should've negotiated that with you beforehand. I've been working double shifts, and I guess I got too much of a head of steam built up there – been a while since I got out clubbing. So I'm sorry, but no need to make a drama out of it, right?"
"Get off me, you fuck," spat the blond, pushing him back. He was angry, but the edge of terror was gone from his eyes; he seemed to have bought John's bullshit. "I'm gonna have you blacklisted around the clubs, man, you can't just go apeshit like that."
John shrugged, stepping back and reaching for the cubicle door. "Yeah, whatever. Guess I'll see you around, then. Or not."
He crossed the dingy room, thankful it was empty but for him and the blond. Behind him, he heard the guy mutter "Not if I see you first, dickhead." Ignoring that, he strode past the sonic urinals, setting them off as he passed by on his way to the door so that the whole row was thrumming subliminally. For a moment he wondered if they were responding to…but no, it was a biological change and these were machines. He pushed open the outer bathroom door, thudding beats leaking in from the club as he cracked it.
John made it out to the street and forced himself to walk away calmly, not to run, not to curl over and vomit all the bourbon he'd drunk down a storm drain. He put several blocks between himself and the club before his legs folded up under him. Staggering over to some grimy steps outside a boarded-up household bot repair storefront, he sat down heavily.
He couldn't figure out exactly what had happened with the blond back there, but he knew it was bad. John didn't lose it during sex, not like that, not ever before. He'd been like a wild animal, bending the guy over and just going at him, bruising him, taking him with no thought but heat and need and hunger. The blond's smell had been so damn intense, irresistible, and John had felt weirdly strong. No, he'd been weirdly strong, crushing the guy against the wall like he weighed nothing. And it was crap what he'd said – usually he liked it rough, he wasn't the one being rough. At least they'd used lube and a condom; he remembered the blond rolling it onto his dick before it all went south.
So what? he thought, hugging himself, hands in his armpits, feeling suddenly cold. So there's a bunch of stuff you've been trying not to think about, dumbfuck. Like the running, huh? John had been trying not to notice that his morning jogs had gotten longer this past week, that he never tired now, never felt the heat. It seemed like he could run forever. Sounds were sharper and his skin was super-sensitive. Colors were brighter, with nuances and sheens that made surfaces shimmer greasily. People had faint auras, and they smelled raw, like meat. Like sex. Everything smelled like sex. He'd never jerked off so much in his life as he had in the past week, and it wasn't that new VR hentai he'd downloaded. Well, not just that.
He sank his face into his hands. No, please no. But he knew – Christ, he'd seen it enough in the perps he'd arrested, the ones like Ellia who'd been hiding, trying to conceal their infection until they were too far gone and they lost control. Went feral. Bugged out. The Las Vegas PD Officer's Emergency Handbook had a whole section they'd all been forced to memorize, and John reckoned he ticked all the boxes. Preternatural strength and stamina, check. Sensory enhancement, check. Aggression, well, he was trying to control it but yeah, check. Hypersexuality. Check, damn it to hell.
Only a week since that goddam GENII raid, since he'd stunned Kolya and Ellia had bitten him on the arm. He'd hidden the small wound with an antibac band-aid, keeping his arms covered at work or when he was running. He pushed up his shirt sleeve now, peeling off the band-aid. No wound. There weren't any toothmarks, but a patch of blue scales glinted in the blue-white glow of the quantum-dot strip lighting. He pulled the sleeve down smartly, hoping no spycams had been monitoring him.
No arguing with that. He schooled his face into blankness in case any security bots were hovering. The knowledge trickled into him like ice water down his spine. He was a Retrovirus-A Infected Trans-Human. A RAITH. He was RAITHed, bugged-out, gone spidey. Fucked.
John swallowed, mouth dry. He had to get away. No way was he waiting for a hit squad to come after him; he'd disappear himself like Ford had before letting them take him in. He figured he had at most another month before the change was hard to hide. He rose, rubbing the back of his neck, and yawned, aiming for casual. Just an off-duty cop out on the town, a little buzzed, heading on home. He sauntered off towards the maglifter station, fighting the urge to run.
Alone in the lifter car, John stared at his reflection in the opposite window, alien and greenish from the bio-lume ceiling panels. At least McKay was well out of it. John had been messed up about their relationship cooling off, but suddenly, all he could feel was relief. They hadn't hooked up since he'd been bitten. He hadn't lost it with McKay and hurt him. John frowned: he had to keep McKay safe, and that meant not seeing him again. He'd send an email as soon as he got home, making it clear they were over.
He gazed at his shadowed, green-flickering face as they flashed past a deserted platform, inertial dampeners making the ride dreamlike. It was all going to hell anyway; John was just going to get there faster than most.
Rodney's nose automatically quested to the left, following the delicious aroma of…
"Carson! Is that coffee for me?"
"Aye, I thought that might get your attention, Rodney." Carson handed over the coffee with a grin. One perk of being overpaid government scientists was the top-of-the-line Cafébot in the break room.
Rodney inhaled deeply: mmmm, Kona, a three-shot espresso. He took a sip. "Want something?"
"Just thought I'd see how you're getting on with the database, Rodney. You've done little else these past few weeks but work on it. Making any progress?"
"Yes, but it's slow going." He glanced at the door of the lab anxiously then waved his hand at the viewscreen and said, "Music library." Rodney gestured at Carson. "Your choice."
Carson scrolled rapidly down the list and paused at a highlighted title. "Play track," he ordered. The skirling pipes of the Scots Guards' rendition of O' Flower of Scotland swelled, incongruous accompaniment to the banked computer consoles filling the room, viewscreens flickering in fluorescent greens and blues as Rodney's search strings ran. "A timeless classic," said Carson.
Rodney rolled his eyes, then gestured up the volume and leaned in. "It takes forever as for every hour I spend on the data it takes another hour to cover my tracks so they can't see what I'm working on."
"This Outpost idea of yours?" Carson raised his eyebrows.
"It's well past just being an idea, Carson. I'm certain of its existence, but I can't narrow the location down further than the entire western seaboard of the USA, so far."
"You've got a ways to go, then," Carson agreed. "Why are you fixated about finding the damn thing when we still haven't scratched the surface of all the data from the Antarctic Outpost?"
Rodney glanced at the door. Still closed. "So that we can keep it out of the hands of the Corporates, of course. That's why they mustn't find out where it is."
"You're throwing your lot in with Teyla, then?" Carson eyed Rodney steadily.
"Yes, when the time comes," said Rodney, looking even more nervous. "When I've pinpointed the location. You should come too, Carson, to help us with the virus. What if another plague's released when I find the second Outpost?"
"It wasn't just lying around in the dust, Rodney – the Corporate exploration team broke into a sealed lab to get to it. Trust them to be greedy, looking for alien tech they could exploit. Anyway, I've told you, I don't think the RAITH virus was any sort of bio-weapon," said Carson, annoyed. "There's nothing in the data to suggest it, and no mention of the mutations we've seen since its release. Something's gone wrong with the process, but I think it was intended as a vector for genetic engineering."
"Engineering what?" asked Rodney, as the pipes skirled their finale. A hush followed the drum roll.
"Ah, there you have me," Carson said into the sudden silence, shrugging. "There you have me." He cast a sharp glance across at Rodney. "You've lost weight. You're here at dawn and still working when I go home late at night. Are you sleeping?"
"Don't need a lot of sleep," muttered Rodney defensively. "I've been busy, okay? No time for, ah, for minor details."
"Adequate nutrition and sleep is not a 'minor detail', Rodney," admonished Carson. "You look bloody awful, lad. What's going on?" He nudged Rodney. "Someone broke your heart?"
Rodney flinched away. "You're as bad as Teyla, interfering in my private…Look, just because I mishandled things what with trying to cool things off between us. How was I to know he'd send me a 'Dear John' email, and that's so unfair because he's the one called John, not me-" He realized he was babbling and broke off, looking stricken. "Um, I mean…"
Carson cursed softly. "Oh, Rodney, why didn't you say something?"
Pulling himself up rigidly, Rodney scowled at his friend. "Utter nonsense. I've just been extremely busy, and I'm, yes, I'm tired. I'm just tired." He rubbed his eyes wearily. "Anyway, Teyla and Ronon wanted me to stop seeing John so at least someone's happy. I'll get an early night, all right? Will that satisfy you?"
"Not really," Carson said sadly.
"I really shouldn't be doing this," Chuck muttered nervously, looking around the small café. He and John were almost the only customers, just them and four old Chinese guys playing mah jong, tiles clicking rapidly against the background noise of a Mongolian reality TV show blaring from the viewscreen above the counter. A bored teenager with her hair shaved off to show her implants in the latest "Borg" style lounged there, chewing gum and watching something on her VR visor.
"It's safe," John assured him. "Look, I really appreciate this, Chuck, it means a lot to me." He tamped down the restless frustration that made him want to grab Chuck and squeeze the information out of him.
"Yeah, well," said Chuck. "They shouldn't have suspended you just for standing up to that bastard Kolya. My cousin…we think she was in Yellowstone when…" He stared down, drawing vague patterns in spilled tea on the plasmolded tabletop.
"I'm sorry," John said quietly. "Like I said, I just want some details on a case I was looking into." He shrugged. "Gotta keep active, keep my hand in, while Landry sorts this out."
Chuck nodded. "The GENII've got too much power these days. It's not right." He looked up at John. "You've been okay, though?" Chuck had had a crush on John for a while now, and John felt like a heel for using him this way, but he had to get the information.
"Yeah, buddy, sure," John lied easily. "I had some leave coming, anyway. Maybe I'll try that new game, what's it called? Wormhole Xtreme?"
"Oh, yes," said Chuck excitedly. "You should do that – it's really great! I'm at level three now, got my own team and a space-ship."
"Sounds like a blast," said John, trying not to grab the front of Chuck's jacket and shake him like a terrier with a chew-toy. "Now, about that contact I asked you to look up for me, the one who might know about an underground railroad for the RAITH?"
"Yes, Teyla Emmagan. In theory she runs a martial arts school, but that's probably a front. Her name came up recently in connection with the family who got away before that GENII raid back in April. Landry had me run some search strings and put an alert on her file." Chuck was the tech who looked after the databases back at the precinct – he was the go-to guy for any information you wanted, and for help running searches. He peered across at John, frowning uncertainly. "If she's helping them get away…I mean, from the GENII…um, you're not going to hurt her, are you?"
"No way," John reassured him, palming the slip of paper with Emmagan's details as Chuck slid it across the table. "I just wanna talk with her. Sounds like somebody needs to give her a friendly warning."
From his perch on the corner of a trash-converter in the alley, John peered up at the top floor windows. The lights were off so she probably wasn't there. No point knocking at the front door – if she was part of a covert operation she'd be wary of strangers. He'd get inside and wait until she arrived.
The balcony on the floor above him looked very far away, silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky. John wished vainly for a personal AG suit but they were too unstable, plus they cost a fortune. He'd only been able to rent one once, to play at flying in the big roofed-in WingZone stadium downtown. It seemed like a lifetime ago, and he shook his head, banishing the distraction.
John steadied himself on the lid of the converter. The stench of rotting fruit filled the alley and made his eyes water – aldehyde by-products of the metabolism of organic and plastic wastes in the hopper below him. The converters could break down anything and they'd saved the city authorities a fortune in trash collection, but man, they smelled terrible.
He crouched and sprang, surprising himself by easily catching the rusty platform at the base of the antique fire escape and flipping himself up over the railing. Wow, this Spiderman stuff would be kind of cool if it didn't come bundled with grotesque and painful death. He ran up the next two floors, careful to be silent as he neared the top level.
There was a hand-lettered sign in the window:
Instructor: Teyla Emmagan
He hoped the dojo was a front. Even if Emmagan wasn't running the south-western underground RAITH railroad, she should at least know who to contact.
He tried the door handle, startled when it opened. A woman was sitting cross-legged in the center of the smooth wooden floor, facing the east where dawn was barely lightening the sky. John could feel her staring at him. "Ms Emmagan?"
His eyes adjusted rapidly to the darkness and he saw hers glinting in the shadow beneath her bangs. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Detective Sheppard?" Her voice was calm and she seemed unafraid.
"I…" John's mouth was dry. He swallowed. "I didn't realize you'd know who I was. I need some help."
"Whatever I can do to assist the authorities, of course," she said, eyes never leaving his face.
"No, I mean I need some help. Me."
Teyla's eyes narrowed. "Whatever the case you are working on, Detective, I doubt that I can be of any real assistance. All I do is teach. I want no trouble, and nor do my students."
"Nah, it's not a case." He felt weird, standing in the near-dark; he needed to move. "John. My name's John." There was a cooler by the wall. "Can I get some water?"
She rose to her feet in one smooth motion. "Please help yourself. May I offer you tea? I was about to have some."
John, already halfway across the floor, paused. "Ah, yeah. Thanks, I'd like that." He poured himself a cup of water and drank it down. She beckoned him over to a sitting area, setting the pot and two ceramic cups on the low table. Taking a small whisk, she stirred the pot briskly then replaced the lid, pouring the steaming tea into their cups. The light filtering in through the windows was pink-tinged, and it caught the stream of liquid and sparkled.
To John, Teyla seemed to glow, purplish violet outlining her, shimmering in the half-light. His nostrils flared involuntarily, scenting her. She smelled good.
He closed his hands around the fragile cup, enjoying the warmth. Careful not to crush the porcelain, he raised his tea and inhaled, drawing in the smell, so complex and intense that it almost seemed he could chemically analyze it at molecular level, just by inhaling.
Teyla frowned, watching him, but made no comment.
John took a sip then put down the cup. "I guess I've come to warn you, as much as to ask for help. They've begun watching your operation – the cops, probably the GENII as well. It's only a matter of time before they pick you up for questioning."
Teyla raised a delicate eyebrow. "My…operation?"
"Yeah," John said, brusque. He didn't have time to dance around the issue. "Word has it that you run an underground railroad for the RAITH." He looked at her sharply. "That's why I'm here."
Teyla still had the appearance of relaxation, but to John's heightened senses she was like a coiled spring. "You are here to arrrest me?"
"No!" It came out more forcefully than he'd intended. "Look, I need to know..." He looked away. "Ah hell, this is hopeless." He sucked in a shaky breath, keeping his eyes on his teacup. "I know there's no reason for you to trust me, but I have to know if you can help me, like you've helped the others."
Teyla stared at him in the dim light, frowning. "Others." She put her cup down. "Others…with the virus?"
"Yes, others with the goddam virus," he said through clenched teeth. "Other RAITH."
"I am not admitting to any…operation, you understand," she said carefully. "But I would never betray anyone to the authorities. Especially to the GENII."
"Guess that's the best I'm gonna get," John muttered. He pushed up the sleeve of his shirt and showed her the altered skin where Ellia had wounded him.
"Ah." She nodded in confirmation. "When did this happen?"
"Two weeks ago – a young woman. She was pretty far advanced. Bit me."
Teyla's face was impassive. "This happened while you were apprehending her." Her voice was cold. "Some would call it poetic justice."
John shrugged. "I'm a cop, don't get to choose assignments." He grimaced. "I was a cop. The raid didn't go so well, and Kolya blamed me when the girl who was infected got away. I'm on suspension."
Her mouth thinned to an angry line. "I am aware that you work with the GENII death-squads. Your association with Kolya is a black mark against you."
"I don't work with the GENII by choice," John protested. "I told you, I was assigned – had no say in it. Plus, I stunned Kolya to stop him killing the girl. He's kind of pissed."
Teyla looked sceptical. "I see." She regarded him across the rim of her cup, eyes shuttered. "Why have you really come here, Detective?"
"Just what I said: I wanted to warn you, and I need help." He gestured at the small scaly blue patch then rolled his sleeve down again. "Look, Teyla, they know you do more than just teach here."
Her eyes narrowed, and he hoped she wasn't going to ask him for details. "So you have said." Teyla raised an eyebrow. "Why have I not already been arrested, if the police know so much?"
John shrugged. "Early days – they only got your name recently. The Captain's been stalling – he doesn't like the way things are going with the GENII any more than I do, but the higher-ups are leaning on him." He frowned at her. "That's all – I'm not trying to trick you."
"And why should I trust you?" Her face was stern. "As far as I can see you are a tool of the GENII, in league with Kolya and sent here to make me confess crimes I have not committed."
"I hate Kolya and his goon squads." Heat, and wetness. He looked down. Pale porcelain shards and a pool of spilled tea. A drop of blood welled from a cut on his finger. "Damn, I'm sorry."
Her eyes widened and for a second he thought it was his clumsiness, then he heard it, too. Car doors and footsteps, down at ground level. Something thudded overhead. There were no more floors above them so it must be on the roof. He pointed up. "AGL. It's a GENII raid." Shit, they'd be coming down that fire escape in no time. He grabbed her arm and pulled her back against the wall alongside the balcony door.
She broke his hold effortlessly in a flurry of dance-like moves that left him wheezing on the floor.
"For fuck's sake, I'm on your side. I didn't call this in, didn't know they were coming. Made damn sure I wasn't followed, either. Let me help!"
Teyla took no notice. She'd moved to crouch in the shadows by the balcony door, holding a pair of carved fighting sticks. Boots clattered on the fire escape and more distant noises echoed up from below. She spun into motion as each man pushed through the door, knocking them off balance. One guy went down with a smashed windpipe, another from a blow to the back of his head. John took a third one down with a right hook, then knocked him out with a blow to the chin before he could get up again.
No more GENII appeared from the roof, but it sounded increasingly crowded down below, from the pounding on the stairs. Teyla was out and up the fire escape, soft boots silent on the rusting iron mesh. A laser pulse from the roof shot past her as she rounded the final landing, burning a hole in her coat sleeve. She vaulted the top railing, grappling with the last GENII guard and then using the railing as a fulcrum to tip him down into the alley below. John winced at the wet crunch as the guard's head hit the trash converter.
John ran straight for the AGL, pulse pistol out and his ID card waving. "Vegas PD," he yelled, hoping to confuse the pilot before he wised up and got his sidearm out. "Which unit are y–" He stunned the guy point blank before he could answer, and dragged him out from behind the controls.
Teyla was across the roof, perched on the cornice as though planning to sprout wings and fly; he wouldn't put it past her, after the way she'd fought. She was outlined against the pink dawn sky as she stared at the building across the alley, but it was easily twenty feet away – way too far to jump without AG gear or a booster pack.
John leaned out the AGL's door. "Teyla, come on, I can fly this thing. You're gonna have to trust me."
She turned and regarded him. "So it would seem," she said, leaping down and running across the roof. He lifted off neatly as she strapped herself into the co-pilot's seat.
"Hold tight, now," John said, baring his teeth. The private craft he rented at the small field near Indian Springs weren't as high-powered as this beast, but John could fly anything. As the first of the GENII spilled out onto the roof from the fire escape he cut the AGL away in a steep banking turn, offering the narrowest cross-section for their weapons as he powered her into a spiraling flight-path. He caught a glimpse of the roof as they wheeled past, seeing Kolya's face dark with rage as he aimed a combat laser rifle. John danced the AGL around the beam and cut her away, skirting a cloud of nanomissiles as he gained altitude, leaving Kolya a dark, stunted figure on the roof, staring after them as if he could bore holes through the sky.
"We are not safe, Sheppard. These AGLs have tracking devices."
"Call me John. Yeah, I know, but there's a trick I can do with the proximity settings. It'll buy us about twenty minutes until they come after us. I'm gonna set us down at the main city terminus, then we can take a maglifter."
"No. We need help, and there are people I must warn. Take us to the Bellagio first. Land in the public lifter park on the roof. We will not be there long, then we will go to the terminus and abandon this vehicle."
"Who's at the Bellagio?" John made a course correction, heading for the hotel.
"A colleague. He works in security there." She pulled a micro from her cargo pants pocket and clipped it to her ear, tapping it to transmit and then reeling off the ten-digit code. "Ronon? Time to run, message them all. ETA five minutes, upstairs. I have transport." She tapped it again to terminate the call, then turned to him. "Do you have implants? Please do not lie to me. Ronon will scan you and he is far less forgiving than I am."
"No implants," John said, focusing on staying just inside the speed limit. The last thing they needed was some overzealous trafficbot trying to clamp them. "Implants give me the creeps." He grinned, humorless. "'Sides, I'm already bugged, no need for the electronic sort as well."
Teyla shot him a look. "Indeed."
Before them, the Bellagio loomed like a slice of insane wedding cake and John locked the lifter's ware onto its beacon.
John sprawled in the rear of the pick-up and stared morosely at the back of the big guy's dreadlocked head as they bumped down route 95. The tarmac wasn't the best – traffic was sparse with most people using AGLs these days, so the Las Vegas authorities had little interest in maintaining the roads.
He and Teyla's "colleague", a giant of a man with wild hair and a penchant for leather who answered to the name of Ronon, hadn't gotten off to a great start. Ronon had been tense on the flight to the terminus, glaring sullenly from the seat behind John until it felt like his head might spontaneously combust.
After they'd ditched the GENII AGL they took a public maglifter to an outlying district, where Ronon had a stackbox in a false name. The box – basically a teched-up freight container – was destacked by a lifterbot and set down before them in the storage facility's yard. Ronon fixed John with a narrow stare as he herded them into the container, closing the door with a clang. Dim lights powered up, and John snorted in amazement at the battered old pick-up inside – it dated from the age of fossil fuels, for fuck's sake, even if it had since been converted to solar. No antigrav, not even a detachable unit for emergency boosts or rough terrain. And no inertial dampeners – a real teeth-rattler.
John bent over and peered at one of the tires – oh, man, real rubber. He reached out to touch it, but Ronon was suddenly on him, slamming him face-first into the side of the truck.
"I hate cops," Ronon growled, forcing his left arm up behind his back. It hurt like a motherfucker. The big guy frisked him, finding and removing his pistol while keeping him immobilized. "And he's armed."
"I am well aware that he's a police officer, Ronon, and he has not used the weapon on anyone, not even the GENII who pursued us. Release him," Teyla said calmly. Yeah, easy to be all zen when no one's breaking your goddam arm.
Ronon kept up the hammerlock. "He's the bastard who's been messing with M–"
"Ronon!" interjected Teyla. "Release him." There was steel in her voice. "He has come to us for assistance, as did the others."
"He's bugged?" Ronon let go of his arm, maybe out of shock, although Teyla was pretty scary. John slumped against the truck, rubbing his aching shoulder and trying to catch his breath. Ronon ejected and pocketed the power pack from his gun before grudgingly returning it.
"You know I dislike that term, Ronon, but yes, he has the virus."
"Shit." Ronon paced the confined space behind the pick-up. "Can't fuckin' trust him. Probably a plant. He was on a raid with Kolya!"
Wearily, John rolled up his sleeve and thrust out his arm. "That evidence enough for you?" he said angrily. "And I ended up losing my job for stunning Kolya on that fucking raid, so cut me some slack."
Ronon peered at the blue scaly patch and grunted. "Still don't like it. He's not one of us." John blew out a breath and pulled his arm out of the big guy's grasp. The blue patch already seemed bigger than the day before. John rolled his sleeve down and tried not to think about it.
A few errands later and after stopping at a safe house to collect some more gear, they were on the road to Indian Springs. John had nothing to collect; he'd had all he needed with him when he'd come to see Teyla. His smartclothes were adaptable, and he liked traveling light. He had his gun and the whole Cash catalogue on his micro's HD. He didn't need that much else.
John didn't fully grasp why they were headed this way, but it was out of town so that was a plus. And thinking about it, a vintage vehicle like this was unusual, yes, but it was also off the grid. No tracker installed, not like your average AGL whose GPS was tied into the city's Trafficnet. As long as they had a collector's licence for this ageing hulk – which apparently Ronon did – they weren't likely to be stopped.
He slouched down further in his seat and tried to rest. Sleep had been hard to come by lately, but he doubted he'd get any now – he felt wired, pulse thrumming through him, every nerve alive. And he was hard again, damn it, his nostrils filled with Teyla's spicy scent and Ronon's musk. His tongue flicked out involuntarily and licked his lips. John shifted uncomfortably and adjusted his jeans: he'd been hard since Ronon slammed him up against the truck. It was a relief when Teyla and Ronon started talking.
"I am concerned about access to Rodney. The base has extremely stringent security."
"He's got a place not too far from Groom Lake, on the road to Rachel. He's gotta leave Area 51 sometime."
Teyla made a doubtful noise. "Rodney often stays there working for days on end. He is very dedicated, Ronon, as you know."
"If he doesn't show we can call someone – Carson, or maybe Bill Lee."
Area 51? Was that where they were going? John didn't like the sound of that plan. No one could get anywhere near it, and there were going to be military up the wazoo. "Ah, guys? We're headed for Area 51? Bad idea."
Ronon ignored him, but Teyla half-turned. "There is another colleague there whose help we need, John, now that the GENII have disrupted our plans. He is a scientist, but he is one of us." She broke off, considering him. "I wish that there had been more time to inform him that you are with us, but it cannot be helped. He will be at greater risk as well, so we must warn him." She shot John an intense look and then shrugged. "Well, we must let him make his own decision."
"Carson, too," muttered Ronon.
"Yes, Dr Beckett as well." She caught John's puzzled frown. "A medical doctor at Area 51, not a PhD like Rodney. A geneticist. He works on the retrovirus."
"Yeah? He getting anywhere?" John kept his tone sardonic. It'd been ten years now since the pandemic hit, and there'd been no talk of a cure, or even a vaccine, for at least the last five. Just the squads, the camps, and now the disappearances. A tiny, buried part of him waited for Teyla's answer. He tried not to encourage it.
"I do not know," said Teyla. "He appears to have theories, and the scientists have access to artifacts from the Antarctic Base which have been brought to Area 51, so their research is more advanced. The virus is complex, however, and Dr Beckett has not talked of a cure."
Figured. John squashed the small spark of hope back down. No cure, not for the RAITH. He knew that. John had already decided he'd eat his gun before it got too bad. He'd steal his power pack back from this Ronon guy as soon as he could figure out where the big guy had stashed it, but he'd talk to Beckett first. Something else Teyla had said caught his interest. "What Antarctic Base?"
Ronon shifted restlessly. "Dunno if you should…"
Teyla put a hand on his arm. "He has thrown his lot in with us, Ronon. And he fought with me, at the dojo." The big guy made an annoyed rumble in his throat, but subsided. Teyla continued. "There is a secret Outpost in Antarctica, John. The Corporates discovered it twenty years ago, but could not access the interior for many years as it was frozen and buried. When they did open the complex they found many unusual artifacts, but they also released the retrovirus. Possibly it was intended as a fail-safe defense system."
"Fuckers," grunted Ronon, and yeah, John had to agree.
"Who built the complex? Was it a bacterial warfare research station? Ours? Some old Russian thing from last century?"
"The evidence, according to Rodney, is that they were not human." Huh? John blinked. "Or at least that they were not from our recorded history. Rodney calls them the 'Ancients'."
"Aliens," grunted Ronon. "That's the A in Retrovirus-A, Sheppard. Alien."
"Thought the A stood for Asia," John muttered. Well, that was what was the media and all the wikis said. Asia, where so many viruses had arisen, like the bird 'flu variant that had decimated half the Pacific rim thirteen years ago, back in 2016.
Ronon snorted. "Yeah, that's what they want you to think."
John felt stunned. "But…"
"It is a lot to take in, I know," Teyla said calmly. That zen thing was really starting to get on John's nerves.
"Aliens," he said helplessly. And fuck, that was him gone, him and all the other RAITH. An alien virus, what fucking hope did they have of combating that?
They got to the scientist's house just as dusk was falling. Ronon swore it was the right place, anyway, although it looked like a derelict ranch to John, not the off-duty pad of a U.S. military astrophysicist.
Ronon picked the lock when there was no reply to his heavy-handed knocking, and they stood in the living room, blinking under the overhead light. At least there was electricity.
It wasn't so run-down inside, just messy, with pads and ereaders stacked on the coffee table, gaming gear in a haphazard pile in the corner. Damn, the guy had Doranda Doom II. John wondered if he'd figured out how to get the super-weapon working without blowing up the solar system. John sure as hell hadn't; he always got fried by radiation or taken out by space debris. John picked up a random pad, set to a math journal. Way over his head. He'd stopped at masters level, but he recognised parts of the proof. Since the coffee table did double duty as a holoscreen, he linked it up and enlarged the diagrams, trying to kill time.
Teyla broke his concentration a little later, offering him a sandwich and a mug of coffee. "You are immersed in that," she commented, sitting beside him. Ronon was out back doing something to the pick-up; John could hear faint banging noises.
"Nah, I was just fooling with it. Used to like math." He switched off the holotable with a touch and took a bite of the sandwich: ham and cheese. He screwed up his face – the taste of preservatives, usually unobtrusive, was powerful and unpleasant to his new senses. He ate rapidly nonetheless, suddenly ravenous.
Teyla raised her eyebrows. "You have been focused on your reading for at least thirty minutes," she said. "I was unsure whether to disturb you."
Thirty minutes? But she was right, half an hour had passed and he'd read three articles. And he'd understood them. Not all the details – there were terms he wasn't sure about – but the shape and texture of the math. It had seemed easy, crystalline, compelling. Wow. Weird, but a good weird.
Ronon emerged from the kitchen with a stack of sandwiches, and they watched the news on a state-of-the-art vidwall. No mention of the raid on the dojo, but John hadn't expected any. The GENII didn't advertise their failures.
He got Ronon to play a round of Doranda with him, but neither of them could control the energy spiking and Ronon got bored because there was nothing to shoot at, this early in the game. Teyla was snoring softly, feet curled up beneath her in one of the easy chairs. Ronon shook her awake, and they went off to check out the bedrooms. John nodded off on the sofa until Ronon poked him awake. "You, c'mon. Time for bed. Dunno when Rodney'll show up so we gotta be prepared."
"Everyone's a fucking boy scout," muttered John, sitting up and knuckling his eyes. His body was still buzzing, but it was more subdued and he desperately needed sleep. "I'm okay here. I'll crash on the couch."
"Nope." Ronon was adamant. "Want you where I can keep an eye on you. Teyla's in the small bedroom. You're with me."
John scowled but followed along. It was obviously the master bedroom. The bed – king-sized, John noted with relief – was an ornate four-poster made of wrought-iron, with a knotted mosquito-net bundled up under a ceiling fan. Very retro, except for the mechanized self-cleaning base. John suspected scientist dude wasn't going to be thrilled that they'd commandeered his room, but he was too tired to care. He got himself ready for bed and stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers. Ronon was already in the bed, or rather on it, wrapped in a blanket. He had the look of someone used to sleeping rough or with only a bedroll. John got in under the covers, largely to put as many layers as possible between them. He wasn't sure that it was going to help, but he sure as hell wasn't telling the big guy he'd wanted to sleep on the couch so as not to jump his bones in the night – that seemed like a recipe for swift and painful death.
Sleep eluded him. It was stuffy despite the room's air-con humming away, and the darkness pressed in on John, filled with sounds and scents. He could see pretty clearly, too, even though very little light filtered in through the thick drapes. Ronon was a warm mass beside him. So close, and he smelled so damn good. The dark and quiet had heightened John's arousal; he felt more turned on that he'd ever been in his life, his cock hard and throbbing, balls exquisitely sensitive each time they brushed against the fabric of his boxers.
He couldn't stop himself rocking just a little, squirming against his clothes. Even his chest tingled, nipples swollen and aching as the soft cloth of the t-shirt pulled against them. He bit back a moan, turning away from Ronon and sliding a hand into his shorts, trying to camouflage the movement with his change in position. So good to grip his cock, slide his thumb across the head, slick and wet, and fuck gently into his fist. He stuffed his other hand into his mouth to stifle the groans that wanted to break free.
Not enough. All he could think of was Ronon beside him, the long lean lines of him, muscle and golden skin, how his throat would taste. How his mouth would taste and how his cock would feel under John's hand, or stretching his mouth wide. John turned his face into the pillow, remembering sucking Rodney's cock, the scent of it and the weight on his tongue as it slid into his throat. He bit down on the pillow and came into his hand with a smothered gasp.
An unclear time later, and John was hard again. He hadn't really slept, drifting in and out of a muddled haze of arousal and exhaustion. Ronon had turned away, his breathing slow and even, and John let himself inch closer, brushing Ronon's back with his nose and drinking in the musky smell of his hair. He'd just raised a hand to touch the blanket over Ronon's hip when he was thrown back, pinned to the mattress.
"The fuck you doing, Sheppard?" growled Ronon.
John didn't answer, just panted. God, it felt good to be held down. He writhed against Ronon's grip in answer, whining in his throat and arching his hips up to brush his dick against Ronon's groin. Ronon wasn't hard but John didn't care. "Please," he rasped, "need it, need you–"
"Shut up." Ronon lifted off him, crouched, his legs trapping John's and his hands like steel bands around John's wrists.
John made a wordless noise of protest and bucked his hips up, chasing Ronon's warmth.
"Quit that," Ronon gritted. "It's the virus, Sheppard, you're out of your fucking mind."
"Yeah," husked John. "Don't care. Want you to fuck me. Or Teyla can. Don't care, anything. Need it, please–"
Ronon pulled his wrists up above his head and trapped them both in one big hand. He clamped his free hand across John's mouth. John moaned and writhed all the harder. He licked Ronon's palm. Sweat and salt and yeah, that tasted good.
Ronon pulled his hand away, wiping it on the sheets. "Eugh. Quit it. You're bugfucked, man. No way am I doing you, you're full of the virus. And crazy."
"Condoms," gasped John, licking his lips. "In my jeans."
"Nah. You're fucked in the head, and besides, Rodney'd kill me." Ronon leaned down and groped around beside the bed with his free hand. It brought his body closer and John pressed up, moving against him while Ronon cursed. Then there was something hard around his wrists, a strap. Ronon's belt, damn it.
Ronon left John's hands tied to the wrought-iron railings above his head and sat back across his thighs. John's cock was pressed up tight inside his boxers, the head held flat against his belly by the elastic waist-band. He jerked his hips but wasn't able to get much friction. He could see every detail clearly, his eyes dark-adjusted as never before.
Ronon's eyes had human limitations and he leaned over to reach the bedside lamp touchpad. John was suddenly aware of how he must look: hair damp and spiky, pupils blown, face flushed, t-shirt rucked up under his armpits in the struggle, arms tied above his head. His cock was hard, flushed with blood, the head straining up out of his boxers and leaking sticky trails across his belly. He almost came, thinking about it, shuddering with arousal.
"Jesus." Ronon edged backwards, hands clamped tight around John's ankles. John writhed again, arching up, pulling against the restraints and groaning as his shorts rubbed the shaft of his cock. He felt cloth being wound around his ankles, tugged and tightened as Ronon tied him down with some old discarded shirts he'd found on the floor.
"Please, help me, please, I have to…" Have to come, have to have your hand on me, anyone's hand. "Just, anything, your leg, your foot, please…" Even that turned him on, begging, abasing himself.
Ronon was backing away, shaking his head. "Bugfucked," he muttered again, then he grabbed his blanket and slipped out the door.
John moaned in frustration. He thrashed against the restraints but they held firm. Several fruitless minutes later he'd managed to work his boxers down so his cock wasn't trapped. Still no way to rub off on anything though, so he writhed in the restraints, thrusting his hips up into the warm bedroom air until he tired, lying there crazed with arousal, helpless and exposed and hard and humiliated, and everything about it turned him on. Everything.
He didn't come. Finally, after an interminable period of painful arousal he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
He woke in the morning to find his limbs freed and his body covered with a quilt. His cock was erect again and he had the room to himself, so he jerked off hard and fast, spasming into his fist with raw need more than pleasure. It hurt, but he felt a little less crazy afterwards, which only made last night's escapades more humiliating.
There was a sonic cleansing stall in the bathroom, and John thought wistfully of his crappy apartment in Vegas, which at least had an old fashioned shower. Sure, there were roaches, but sometimes you needed to sluice down. Way out here, he guessed water was at a premium. He used the stall, staying in longer than was necessary, but it didn't make him feel less soiled.
Returning to the bedroom, he pushed the button that flipped the mattress, covers and all, and selected clean and sterilize from the menu built into the nightstand. There was a faint grumbling vibration as the mechanism in the bed's base sucked in the bed-linen and started dry cleaning. Every convenience, but he guessed an overworked scientist needed that kind of high-end houseware; there wasn't exactly maid service nearby.
John's plasboots did double duty as running shoes, but he altered his clothing, switching the smartcloth of his boxers to a heavier black cotton-like weave. The t-shirt would do, but he lightened the color up to a pale gray since the sun was up, and found a band-aid in the en suite bathroom, taping it over the blue scar. He had to use the largest bandage in the cupboard to cover it.
Ronon was in the hallway, leaning on the wall by the outer door.
"Going running," muttered John, staring at his feet and feeling mortified. He couldn't look Ronon in the eye. Ronon didn't say anything, but he moved aside.
John headed out the front door and stretched some, then realised he probably didn't need to do careful shit like that any more and just took off. It was relatively flat here, no need to stick to the road. He headed up a sandy rise through sparse, dried-up bushes and let his body carry him, effortlessly powerful as his legs pumped, muscles flexing with fluid efficiency. At least his body felt great, even if the rest of him was a mess.
What a night. He stared unseeing at a distant ridge as he ran on, inhumanly fast, breathing deeply and not even working up much of a sweat. How much worse was this thing going to get? Were they going to have to lock him up?
After half an hour of not exactly aerobic exercise he called it quits, unable to get his pulse into the zone even on the steepest incline. Ronon was still lurking around the front porch when he jogged back to the ranch, which looked even more run-down by daylight. Protective camoflage, given the tech it contained.
John ignored the big guy's frown and avoided eye contact, kicking off his boots in the bedroom and heading for the cleansing stall, clothes and all, then finding the kitchen. He raided the pantry for cereal and asked the kitchen's autobutler to make him a coffee, cutting off the endless menu options with a curt "Caffeinated, no cream or sugar. Kona if you have it."
The butler sounded positively huffy with it's "I am fully programmed for all brands and varieties, sir."
"Whatever," said John, taking the mug and sitting at the table to wolf down his cereal and avoid looking at Teyla. He wasn't in the mood for lippy amenities.
Ronon appeared, looming in the doorway. Teyla shot him a stern glance, and Ronon hunched his shoulders. "Might have over-reacted last night," Ronon muttered. "Sorry."
John grunted noncommittally and shoveled in more cereal. He was feeling like some eggs. With dill pickles, or maybe bologna. Mmm, or maybe sauerkraut or a really ripe limburger cheese, yeah…What the heck? Food cravings like he was pregnant? For a moment he paused, mouth open and spoon dripping milk, horrified at the thought of the virus using him as a host like some B-movie horror vid. Shivering, he made himself calm down. He still had his gun.
Sated after cleaning out the scientist guy's supply of pickles, John spent the bulk of the day napping on the couch. He surfaced intermittently, aware of Ronon prowling and Teyla talking quietly on her micro, but even over lunch – nuked frozen pizzas, but the cheese was okay – he was only half awake.
He dreamed, drifting in and out. Strange dreams of flying, of sleeping deep under the ocean, of tall towers, alien looking, with fish swimming between them. Sometimes he saw people in the dreams and tried to talk to them, but they didn't seem to hear him. The people were afraid – he could taste their fear. They hid in the forest and peered out at him with yellow eyes. John tried to tell them it was okay, he wasn't going to hurt them, but they melted back into the deep blue darkness under the branches and were gone.
He woke as shadows lengthened, restless energy thrumming through him. In the bathroom, he pulled off the bandage and checked his arm. The blue scaly patch had spread halfway down to his wrist and was up above his elbow. He splashed cold water on his face and got a grip, then opaqued his shirt to black and made the sleeves long and tight-fitting at the wrist.
The medic Ronon and Teyla had mentioned, a Scottish guy named Carson, turned up at about six on another converted antique, a Harley Davison chopper that John eyed covetously. Carson brought burgers and fries, and only the smell of the food dragged John away from admiring the bike. Ronon ate three proteinburgers. John managed two, and scored everyone's pickles.
John was wary but he let Carson check him over, the doctor's hands careful and precise. He frowned at the blue scales on John's arm, checked and double-checked when Ellia had bitten him, shook his head doubtfully and then drew enough blood to start a goddam blood bank. Across the room, Teyla and Ronon watched, impassive.
Finally Carson sat down on the couch across from John's chair. "It's the RAITH retrovirus of course, lad, as you'd rightly surmised, but I need to run tests before I can say why it's moving so fast. Most people transform across several months, even with a specific wound like yours. You're in Stage 2, already."
John shot him a glance. Carson shrugged. "Stage 1 is the initial infection – blood to blood, or through sexual contact. Biting's less common as a vector, but it happens. Stage 2 is the initial physiological and sensory changes. The speed and strength, increased stamina, hearing and vision enhancement."
John looked down at his clenched hands. "How long have I got?"
"Before you're fully Changed?" Carson's voice was kind and John wanted to punch him in the mouth.
"Before it kills me."
"Oh you won't– no, lad," Carson hastened to reassure him. "The virus doesn't kill, it just transforms you. It's only if the squads apprehend you that you might be…well, or so we suspect."
"So I'm not gonna die from this," John said flatly, lifting his head to glare at Carson. "Just turn into a fucking bug with super-strength and super-senses and covered in fucking scales?"
Carson made an ineffectual gesture. "Well, partly non-human, yes. Not actually a bug. Ah, and the initial physical changes are, I gather, quite pleasant." He flushed. "That is…"
John looked away, ears burning. Carson cleared his throat. "The sexual heightening's normal as well, lad. It's not your fault."
Ronon grunted, and Teyla put a warning hand on his arm. She cleared her throat. "It is a concern nonetheless, Carson. Ronon had to restrain John last night."
"Jeez." John flushed and rubbed the back of his neck. "I wasn't gonna…"
"Didn't seem to me like you had any control, Sheppard," Ronon growled. Teyla tightened her grip on his forearm.
"Wouldn't have forced you," John muttered.
Ronon snorted. "Like to see you try. Anyway, got the impression you kinda liked being tied up." He smirked, and then winced. Teyla smiled blandly.
John stared down at his hands. "You don't know what it's like. It's a helluva lot worse at night."
"Ah yes," said Carson. "Diurnal variation. Or to be more accurate, you're becoming nocturnal."
"Nocturnal?" John glared at him. He had noticed that the daylight was getting more unpleasant, and it had been a relief when dusk fell. John picked at some pizza crust stuck to the glass top of the holotable. "Also I wanna eat weird things. Pickled herrings, even tofu." He screwed up his face. Across the room, Ronon looked equally disgusted.
Carson nodded. "Tyramine. The virus metabolizes it quickly and uses up your stores. Just follow your instincts as to what to eat. Anything pickled or fermented is good."
Hopefully that included beer. John fiddled with a light-pen on the table. "Can you treat it? Teyla said you were working on something…"
Carson sighed. "We don't have a cure, lad. There are antivirals. They'll calm you down, maybe buy a little time, but it's moving unusually fast in you so even that's uncertain."
"I want to try them." John's voice was rough.
"Aye. Let me get my bag."
John didn’t flinch as the needle slid into his arm; he barely felt it. Increased pain threshold, a distant part of him noted. "You said I'm in Stage 2. Are there more stages?"
Carson busied himself packing away swabs and ampoules. "It's not clear. Stage 3 is the full physical change. Reports vary but there's talk of a fourth stage, a mental or cognitive change." John didn't like the sound of that. What, was he going to wig out completely, just lose it? Or maybe that was the math thing he'd had earlier? That would be okay. Carson gestured vaguely. "But it's not as though I've had patients to observe and do testing on across all phases of the change, so I've not witnessed that myself."
"Why not?" Ronon's eyebrows drew in. "Thought the state would want some guinea pigs."
Carson looked uncomfortable. "They do, but it's not my area. I'm a geneticist – I don't run the clinical trials. I've heard, though, that they can't keep hold of the test subjects. After a certain point the Changed are too strong, too determined; they always manage to break out and get away. That's when the injuries happen, when the guards try to restrain them or stop them leaving. People have died, but I don't think it's innate aggression. Well, maybe a little, but it's trying to restrain and incarcerate them that causes the worst problems."
Ronon grunted. "Yeah, they get away. I've been a runner for Teyla's set-up for seven years, taken plenty across country and up into Canada. There's a shitload more RAITH than people realize out there, hidden by their families or living wild in the woods." He scratched his beard, considering. "Ones I was with didn't talk about any mental stuff going on. They knew when there were other RAITH nearby, though, dunno how. Maybe 'cause their hearing's better."
Teyla nodded. "Many have escaped the squads, yes, and we know very little of how they live once fully Changed." She frowned. "I do not believe that they have less right than we do to make lives on this planet."
"They're dangerous once they're far gone," John muttered. We're dangerous. I am. "I've seen them kill cops and GENII when they're cornered."
Teyla's mouth tightened. "That is only to be expected if you confront them with aggression when they are trapped and afraid – all animals instinctively seek to survive. But these stories depicting the Changed as monsters who prey on humanity are lies spread by the state. People are afraid of what they don't understand and the squads are allowed carte blanche, giving the Corporates free rein to consolidate their power." She came over and sat on the couch. "There are rumors of more large-scale GENII operations to eradicate the Changed. Kolya's recent Yellowstone culling was notorious, and when the pandemic was first discovered and there was widespread panic, whole towns in the Pacific North-West were targeted. Sateda was razed, as was Athos. Ronon and I barely escaped with our lives – our families were not so fortunate…" She looked down, throat working. Across the room, Ronon's face was grim.
Carson patted her arm and sighed, looking helpless. "What you said when you called, lass. You think Rodney and I are in danger? From the GENII? Surely we're under state protection at Area 51?"
Teyla met his gaze. "If the Corporates have discovered you have links to our organization, that you and Rodney help us…I think they will not hesitate." She shook her head, her eyes sad. "I am sorry, Carson, but the state is run by the Corporates, and the Corporates run the GENII. I believe we have been betrayed and that they have linked your name and Rodney's to mine and Ronon's. We need to leave, and I urge you to come with us. Rodney, too."
Carson scowled. "My research isn't…I cannae just abandon it."
"Won't be doing any research if they disappear you," Ronon said.
"Damn it all to hell!" Carson blew out a breath. "Maybe I can set up somewhere else," he muttered. "Good luck prising Rodney out of his lab, though."
Ronon shot John a glance. "Might have something he wants."
Teyla ignored this, looking worried. "Rodney hasn't answered my calls. Were you able to contact him?"
"Aye, I got hold of him." Carson frowned. "He said he couldn't leave yet and to come here and see you. Said he was on the verge of cracking it, of finding the 'other one'. You know what he's like."
"I do, unfortunately." Teyla turned to John. "He has been trying to decode the database from the Antarctic Outpost. He believes there is a second Outpost, even larger. If we could find it before the Corporates…"
Ronon rolled his eyes. "Still don't see how that'd help us. We need weapons, a safe place to regroup and organize. Somewhere the state can't fuck us over."
"Rodney believes–" Teyla began, but Ronon cut her off with an impatient gesture.
"Need more that that. Need to get well away from here and find somewhere safe. They're gonna get him too, if he doesn't come with us in time."
Carson stood, bag in hand. "I have to go back to the labs, anyway. Have to get my research files and pack up some samples. I can't bring much, though. The guards would notice, and they'll search me when I leave. I'll go and get Rodney and make him come, and talk to him about…" He jerked his head to indicate John. "But I need some materials and equipment, if we're leaving."
Teyla nodded. "Can we be of assistance, Carson?" she asked, rising.
"Aye. The supplies I need are in any decent pharmacy, or better still, a pharmaceutical warehouse. There's one in Indian Springs. Could you get them for me if I give you a list and the address?"
"We will do that," Teyla agreed. "Ronon and I will go, in the pick-up. We can disable the alarms and deal with any security. "
"What about him?" growled Ronon, tilting his chin at John. "Can't take him with us on a gig. Don't trust him."
John slouched back on the couch, giving Ronon a thin smile.
"I think we have no choice but to leave John here," Teyla said. "It is in his best interests to remain hidden."
"Don't like it," muttered Ronon, scowling.
John narrowed his eyes. "I'll be fine. You think I'm gonna turn myself in to the goon squads? I don't think so, big guy."
"Could tie him up again," suggested Ronon, and John's traitorous dick jerked in his pants.
"That will not be necessary," Teyla said firmly. John tried not to look even a little disappointed. He didn’t think he was fooling Ronon.
"Well, mebbe not. But the antivirals will help, and perhaps Rodney..." Carson trailed off, coloring slightly. "It depends how he reacts when I talk to him."
Teyla nodded, looking uncertainly from Carson to John. "Yes, I have had no opportunity to warn him. It is hard to know how he will react."
"Aye." Carson cleared his throat. "Well, I'll be off." He wrote out the instructions for Teyla and took his leave. The ancient bike's throaty roar died away into the night.
Teyla and Ronon threw some gear into a duffel and drove off in the pick-up. Ronon gave John a last warning glare as he swung the truck's door shut with a clang. John smirked back, leaning in the doorway.
The house was oddly quiet with them gone, and as usual he was full of restless energy. He morphed his clothes back into running gear and grabbed a bottle of water, heading out into the night. The moon hadn't risen, so he had only starshine to guide him through the sparse brush, but John could see well and he was effortlessly sure-footed. He ran for pleasure more than exercise, up ridges and along dried-up creek-beds, vaulting sagging wire fences as he ate up the miles and slowly circled back towards the ranch.
He tried to let the running calm him, but after everything that had happened it was hard to get properly into the zone. He kept peering from side to side and up into the dark sky, feeling like he was being watched. No surprise to be twitchy and paranoid, he guessed, under the circumstances. Finally he found a sandy clearing and lay down, staring up at the stars. Above him the bowl of the sky was ablaze with brilliant points of light, so much closer than in the city.
Some time later he came out of a near-daze, feeling cold and slow. From the way the stars' positions had changed in the sky, several hours had passed. The moon had risen, casting long, slanting shadows and giving a metallic sheen to the now surreally-bright night landscape. John jogged back through the low hills, warming up as he ran, then slowing to a walk as he neared the ranch's outbuildings.
He paused behind the barn, nostrils flaring, catching the edge of a new scent trail. A human. John caught himself: Jesus, he wasn't an alien himself, not yet. Another person. The air carried fumes from the fossil fuel vehicles Teyla and Ronon preferred, but that was probably left over from the Harley and Ronon's truck. Still, there was someone here, and he'd been away running for hours...it didn't feel like a GENII ambush but he crouched in the dense black shadow of the barn, suddenly wary.
Nothing moved, and the house was quiet. That was suspicious in itself, of course, unless the stranger was sleeping. It was late, past midnight. Cautiously, John crept around the side of the barn then ran quickly across the open yard and flattened himself against the wall of the ranch house, cursing Ronon for taking his ammo. He was struck by a stronger wave of the newcomer's scent, triggering a confused jumble of reflexes. A man, lurking close by. Danger! The scent was confusingly familiar, but no, that was impossible, so John shook his head to clear it. He had to focus, get control of his environment and disarm the threat.
He threw himself into the shadow of the doorway where the stranger's scent was strongest, diving low, under the likely trajectory of a weapon. The man shrieked and fired, a red laser beam slicing through John's shoulder as he tackled the stranger and knocked away his gun. No pain; the pain always came later - he must be in shock. So much for aiming low - the bastard had shot him! John wrestled the man onto his face and immobilized his arms, pulling them behind his back and gripping his wrists. Neither of them could see much in the black shadows of the porch, but John's eyes were more dark-adapted, his senses sharper. Even when the pain from his wound kicked in, he'd have an edge.
"Ow!" moaned the guy, wriggling annoyingly in his grasp. "Ow ow ow! Get off me, you Neanderthal!" Okay, so definitely not GENII then, or military. A panicked civilian with a gun was still dangerous, but John' shoulder wasn't hurting, so maybe he'd missed?
"Yeah, like I'm gonna let you up when you just shot me with a fucking laser pistol," John growled. "Fat chance."
"It wasn't a pistol, or, well, yes it was, but it's a toy! A novelty laser pointer for presentations. Radek gave it to me."
John froze. It couldn't be. But the scent. He bent and inhaled the back of the guy's neck.
"Okay, that's totally freaking me out now, being held down and sniffed like you're a wolf or, or I don't know, some sort of predator. Oh my god, you are a predator, aren't you? Carson warned me that you'd changed, but I never thought it'd be this bad, and then I got here and it was dark and spooky and you weren't here and I may have panicked slightly, because Carson said we were being hunted by the GENII and-"
"McKay?" John asked, incredulous. "What the fuck are you doing out here? You stalking me or something?"
"Will you let me the fuck up, John? My nose is full of grit and I'm sure you've sprained my wrists. I'll probably have an asthma attack or develop blood poisoning from abrasions, or-"
"All right, all right, jeez!" John let go of McKay's wrists and got off him, scrambling up and dusting himself off, checking himself over in the bright moonlight. He prodded his shoulder where the laser had pierced him. No holes in his clothing. No wound. "A fucking laser pointer?"
McKay was sitting up, peering at his wrists and testing them out anxiously. "I should really have these insured: my hands are vital for my work, you know. The loss to mankind if I couldn't use them would be incalculable!" He glared up at John, aggrieved.
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, sorry, buddy. They're probably just bruised. I guess I'm a little freaked out too, with the GENII thing and, you know, being ambushed by maniacs with guns, and all."
"It's not an ambush if I'm defending myself against home invasion!" protested McKay, scrambling to his feet and twisting to and fro gingerly. "Ow! My back could have done without you jumping up and down on it."
John squinted across at McKay. "Is that a thigh holster? for a plasmolded laser pistol?"
"Verisimilitude," explained Mckay, a little huffy. Even in the moonlight John could see him flush. "Plus, I may have thought it looked...hot."
John stared at him, and then he just lost it, snorting and honking, doubled over with laughter until there were tears in his eyes.
McKay frowned at him, injuries temporarily forgotten. "Oh my god - are you all right? That noise can't be natural. Is it the virus?"
John hauled himself back from the edge of hysteria. "Nope. I've always laughed like that, McKay, but thanks for the reminder. I'd almost forgotten about the damn virus for a few minutes there."
McKay winced. "Well, I'm sorry, but this has all been needlessly traumatic, and I've been under a great deal of stress. I, um, I may not have eaten or slept much lately." He peered at John anxiously. "Carson told me, and I kind of had a small breakdown. Possibly. Um, Are you all right? No, no, I suppose you're not all right. Of course not." His mouth twisted into an unhappy slant.
"Not so much all right, no," said John, feeling flat and tired now the adrenaline from their tussle had worn off. "C'mon, let's go inside, okay?" He moved forward and reached out to take McKay's arm, then stopped himself and gestured towards the shadowed back door. "And can I say for the record here, that threatening possible home invaders with a laser pointer's pretty damn stupid?"
"Yes, well, you make me stupid," muttered McKay, bending over and picking up the fake laser pistol from where it had fallen against a rusting old engine of some sort. He thrust it into the thigh holster with an air of defiance. "You're the one who dumped me by email with no explanation. Just 'sorry, I can't do this any more'." McKay straightened, looking across at John, then swallowed. "So how was I supposed to feel when Carson turned up tonight and told me you'd contacted Teyla and that you were here – huh? And then he told me you had the virus!" His lower lip trembled and he stretched out a tentative hand to touch John's chest. "I had to see you, but he warned me you were different, that you were changing." McKay looked away. "Carson told me what happened with Ronon." There was a long pause. "I, I may have over-reacted."
"No kidding," said John, aiming for sardonic and missing by light-years. He was feeling pretty shaky himself, with McKay so close, and everything so goddam fucked up. He stared at McKay. There was dust in his hair from their struggle and John wanted to brush it away. He didn't move.
McKay looked back at him, eyes wide and dark in the stark moonlight. "I missed you," he said in a small voice.
John winced and swallowed. "I just, I was so freaked out when I knew I had the virus, and I didn't want to take any risks with you, didn't want to put you in danger. I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you."
"Yeah, well you did hurt me," McKay said, not meeting John's eyes.
"Ah, crap," said John, kicking aimlessly at the sandy dirt. He was no good at this stuff. "Look, it's been shitty for me too, these last few weeks, not knowing if you were okay. And you went weird on me first. I thought you were gonna dump me."
McKay made a face. "Okay, yes, that was me being stupid, because Teyla and Ronon were freaked out that you were a cop. I didn't know how to talk to you about it."
John moved a little closer and tugged tentatively at McKay's sleeve. "So we've both been dumb, okay? Truce?" He tugged again, and McKay finally turned and let John pull him closer.
"Yes, okay. Truce," whispered McKay, and they slumped tiredly against each other, hugging awkwardly. John exhaled and let himself feel McKay's solid warmth.
After a while McKay's chatter about a home invasion registered. John pulled back and looked at him. "This is your place, then? So you're the scientist they were talking about? I thought your name was Meredith, not Rodney. At the club, you said to call you McKay, because you hated the name Meredith."
McKay – Rodney – flapped a dismissive hand. "Meredith's my legal first name, but I prefer Rodney, and 'sir' seemed a little formal." He gestured towards the house. "Come on. After all that excitement, I'm in desperate need of coffee." He vanished into the dark entranceway and a moment later light spilled out into the yard.
"Yeah, okay," muttered John, relieved that they seemed to be done with the talking-about-feelings part of the night, even if things were still fucked up. He followed McKay into the house.
Back inside, John sat at the table, unable to stop looking at McKay's thigh holster. In a completely nerdy way, it was kind of hot. McKay noticed his gaze and glared at him, then grabbed a large biscuit barrel printed with lemons and stashed the fake pistol inside, pushing it to the back of the counter. He fumbled with the holster's straps and pulled it off, draping it over a chair, then bustled about arguing with the butlerbot until he got a mug of coffee to his liking.
John didn't want to be any more wired. "You got anything stronger?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Alcohol," he clarified, when it looked like he was going to be offered a triple-shot espresso.
"Are you sure that's wise?" said McKay, looking anxious. "With you being…viral."
John crossed his arms, feeling sullen. "Since when are you my minder? Carson didn't say 'no alcohol', in fact he said I should eat and drink fermented things. That includes booze."
"Beer, maybe. Scotch, not so much," said McKay, frowning.
John could see his eyes flicking over John's hands, checking out his face now they were in a well-lit room. Looking for the changes – the scales, the yellow eyes. He pushed his chair back angrily. "Don't bother, I'll get it myself." He snagged a couple of bottles from the fridge – Carson had practically prescribed it, after all. John sat at the table again, taking a long swallow of beer. It tasted good, the hops sharp and clean on his tongue.
It felt weird to be sitting in McKay's kitchen drinking beer while McKay puttered around getting himself coffee. They'd mostly fucked or fought – there hadn't been a lot of normal in their relationship so far. But then nothing was normal any more, and he supposed it never would be. He sighed and took another swig. "Carson didn't come back with you?" Maybe it was his general restlessness, but John didn't like everyone being split up – he wanted them all here in case everything went to shit and they needed to take off. That elderly pick-up wasn't going to be able to outrun a modern vehicle, though, especially an AGL. He forced his shoulders to relax: nothing to be done about it until the others returned.
"Carson's far too slow; I couldn't stand to wait. He's packing up some tissue samples he apparently can't live without, and copying his files before deleting them. I took all mine as well, plus my scanner." McKay pulled open a drawer and extracted some sort of handheld made of silver metal. He ran a finger down the metal casing and fiddled with the touchscreen.
John peered across at it. Not a remote, more a small pad, the screen filled with symbols he couldn't decipher. "What's it do?"
McKay grinned, his eyes lighting up. "Hah, what doesn't it do! It's a scanner, and a micro, plus it's a remote for my flyers as well."
"Flyers?" asked John, cocking an eyebrow.
McKay grinned. His fingers flickered over the touchscreen and he pointed it at the open drawer. "Didn't you wonder how I knew you were outside?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
John frowned. McKay didn't have enhanced senses and John knew he'd been stealthy, so how had he sensed that John was creeping up on the house. "I give up - how did you?"
In answer, McKay operated the remote and a miniature AGL rose up out of the drawer to hover in mid-air. It was only about eight inches long, painted red and black, and John wanted it with a passion. "Very cool toy you got there, McKay," he said, trying for nonchalance.
McKay shot him a sardonic look. "Oh, like you aren't desperate to have a go with it yourself," he snorted. "And it's hardly a toy." He made the tiny AGL rise up a few inches more and fly around in a circle before landing it on the table. John's fingers twitched. "It's a fully miniaturized reconnaissance device with nanovids and full wireless transmission on multiple wavelengths, linked to my scanner." His mouth quirked into a smug grin. "But yes, fun to operate. I made them in my workshop here."
"Them?" asked John hopefully. He stretched out a careful finger and stroked the little flyer gently.
McKay put the scanner down on the table and grabbed a differently shaped remote off the counter, flicking it on and gesturing at the drawer. Another small flyer rose up into mid-air, yellow with a black speed-stripe down the side.
"Oh yeah," said John, grinning, unable to conceal his delight. McKay brought it to rest beside the red and black one on the table. "Can we?" asked John hopefully.
"Look at you," said McKay, smirking. "It's Pavlovian, I swear. You're positively wagging your tail." John just kept giving him the puppy-dog eyes. "Oh all right, we can race them, but tomorrow, not now. You may have X-Ray vision but the moonlight's not bright enough to stop me smashing mine into a tree." John pouted, but he let McKay pack the AGLs away in the drawer again. Hopefully they'd get a chance to try the flyers out before they had to take off tomorrow.
McKay made some more coffee, and sat fiddling with his scanner. He looked up. "You can call me Rodney, you know," he said.
John shrugged, a little sheepish. "Yeah, okay. It's just gonna take a bit of getting used to." He changed the subject back to McKay's - no, dammit, Rodney's - scanner.
Rodney took the bait readily, showing him the handheld's functions. "It's also a life-signs detector, see? And it locates EM fields and energy sources, so soon, I'm hoping it'll lead us to–" He paused, biting his lip and staring across the rim of his mug at John.
John rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I get that you don't entirely trust me, Rodney. But I'm not gonna fuck you over. I thought we called a truce?"
"Well, yes," agreed Rodney, still looking worried. "It's just, what we had in the clubs was separate from," he waved a hand," all of this. And you're a cop, and Teyla and Ronon are kind of freaked out about that."
"Ronon's not too keen on me, yeah. We didn't exactly get off to a great start and he doesn't strike me as the trusting type."
Rodney snorted. "Ronon doesn't trust the sun to rise."
John leaned forward. "Teyla's another story. We fought off Kolya's squad together and she's okay with me now, in fact she told me about the other Outpost." Rodney exhaled angrily and muttered darkly about nonexistent security. John raised his eyebrows. "You really think there's one they haven't found yet?"
Rodney was obviously torn between his security concerns and the need to talk about his obsessions to anyone who'd listen. The obsessions won. "Oh, absolutely." He leaned forward, and John mirrored him, caught up in his excitement. "The database has screeds on it. I've almost pin-pointed the position. I just need to translate the final section and run some more search strings."
"You sure it's safe? Teyla said the Antarctic Outpost's where the retrovirus came from." If those ancient aliens were capable of leaving lethal viruses around, even accidentally, they were dangerous fuckups.
Rodney waved his hand dismissively. "It wasn't just lurking in the air at that Outpost. They broke into a sealed lab with warnings carved above the doorway. Of course, no one had translated the Ancients' script at that stage. Plus, for what it's worth, Carson's got some whacked-out theories about the virus. He doesn't think it was meant to harm us, or that it was a deliberate attack."
"Right," said John sourly, "just unfortunate collateral damage that's wiped out thousands of people."
"Not wiped out. Ronon says most of them are in hiding."
"Yeah, I got the party line. But they're covered in blue fucking scales, McKay, skulking in the woods with the hit squads hunting them, and people are so scared they're letting the state and the Corporates rule the goddam roost!"
He pulled his sleeve up and ripped off the band-aid, wincing as it took some hairs with it. He held out his arm, showing McKay – Rodney – the altered skin there. Rodney blanched and John felt a bitter, self-righteous triumph twist through him. He tried to slap the bandage back in place but it had lost its stick so he threw it in the trash and pulled his sleeve down. The flare of anger faded, leaving a cold sickness. He could still end it. Would do, when it got too bad. Before I crack up, he promised himself, thinking of the pulse pistol, wrapped in his jacket and hidden away. He was pretty sure he knew where Ronon had stashed the powerpack.
"I'm sorry," muttered Rodney. "I'm not very good at being..." He waved a hand helplessly. "Tactful."
"Yeah, I don't think tact's gonna help much," muttered John. "Of course, if you can miracle up a cure…" His throat was tight. John shook his head impatiently: self-pity was a waste of time. "It's not your fault," he tried again, taking a breath to calm himself. "It's the whole system – the Corporates, the state, the damn GENII." He downed the rest of his beer, letting the bite of the hops distract him.
"You're fairly political, for a cop," Rodney said. "I never realised that about you."
"Yeah, well," said John. "You never let me talk at all. Not much, anyway."
"Oh, pardon me for letting you suck my cock," Rodney said acidly. "You seemed to be enjoying yourself."
John smirked and looked down, feeling his ears flush. "Yeah. I was."
Rodney frowned at him, head tilted. "You don't seem like the average cop, John."
John shrugged. "Used to be in the military. I was a pilot, fighters and lifters. You need a masters degree to do that - math and aeronautics. Had to get out, though. When they declared the RAITH emergency, they broke up platoons to make more GENII squads. Even in the Air Force they wanted to use us for riot control and GENII air support. So I left. Joined the cops." He shrugged. "No flying, but the work was okay until the GENII started taking over there, as well."
Rodney nodded thoughtfully and snagged John another beer from the fridge, fussing with the autobutler's settings as he made himself more coffee. When he turned around, his face was grave. "Carson tested us all a while ago. I don't have it." He looked down at his coffee.
"Good, that's good." John felt relieved. "I was infected a couple of weeks ago – a RAITHed girl bit me on a raid." He took another drink from his beer, not meeting Rodney's eyes. "Carson says I'm in Stage 2, the physical changes. I guess he warned you."
"You could say that," Rodney said almost absently. John shot a glance at him. He seemed to be staring at John's throat and John felt his ears flush. His dick stirred in his pants.
John swallowed. "Apparently I'm nocturnal now. What's your excuse?"
"Never do sleep much." Rodney shrugged. "It's cooler to work at night when I'm here at the ranch. "However," he yawned hugely, "even I need a few hours sleep."
"Surprised you can, after all that coffee."
Rodney snorted and rose. "Oh, please. My caffeine tolerance is so high it has no effect on me at all. You coming?"
John stared up at him. "What?" He didn't know how he felt about that. Things weren't sorted with McKay. With Rodney. Not yet. They were on speaking terms again but John was full of the goddam virus and he didn't want to mess things up any worse than he'd already done.
Rodney gestured impatiently. "I need to sleep and I'm not going to if you're out here, all prowling and buggy." John scowled up at him. Buggy? "Chop chop, John, let's go."
John scowled. "Fewer cracks about me being a bug'd improve the mood."
Rodney sighed exaggeratedly. "Yeah, I'm a socially retarded asshole, but you love me anyway." John flushed and looked away. Rodney raised his eyebrows, then stalked around the table to stand in front of John. "My house, my rules," he said, weirdly intent. John shifted uncomfortably, forced to look up at him. "Come on," said Rodney. "Carson said you should at least rest; give the antivirals a fighting chance."
The virus-driven arousal was right there, crawling under his skin and making him sweat. John was frightened by how little it took to make it well up and threaten to overwhelm him. He looked away. "I'm not okay, Mc-…Rodney. It's not safe with me like this – Carson must have told you."
Rodney cocked his head. "Actually, Carson thought it might help. I'm not talking about a scene – just let me look after you."
John shook his head, confused. Rodney reached out and ran a hand through his hair, and John had to fight not to push into it like a cat. "It can just be for comfort if you can't handle more than that. I've missed you." He waved his other hand. "In my own socially retarded way, that is." John grinned a little, then let Rodney pull him to his feet. "Come on, I need a real bed and you need to rest as well. We can't have you pacing about out here or running all over the desert half the night. Carson said that you were pretty freaked out and it'd help to have me take charge, while you've still got some control and the antivirals are working. So let me look after you."
John followed him quietly. Rodney smelled good – male sweat and coffee, and the faint metallic tang of tech. In the bedroom, John was glad he'd remade the bed after the autobot had ejected fresh linens. Rodney sat him down on the edge of the mattress.
"We don't have to do anything exotic, John," Rodney said. "What do you want?"
John gazed up at him. "You gonna tie me up?"
"That's what you need?" Rodney asked, sliding his hand into John's hair again and tugging. His voice was low and husky. Christ that was good, and John was suddenly, painfully hard. "To be restrained?"
John shut his eyes. It was even more intense with them closed, Rodney's smell so close, his fingers stroking behind John's ear. He didn't think he could stop himself jumping Rodney unless Rodney tied him. "Yeah, I don't trust myself, so it's safer. But last night, Ronon left me. I don't want to be left." He turned his face into Rodney's palm. John's voice was a whisper. "And can I come? I need to come. Last night was torture."
"I'm sorry you had a bad time," Rodney said. "I wish I'd been here to take care of you. You'll have to wear a condom and do exactly as I say. Agreed?"
Rodney chivvied him though his preparations for bed, but didn't make him strip. John was hard already so it was easy to follow Rodney's directions and roll on a condom in the bathroom. Rodney put one on as well.
Rodney didn't splay him out like he'd sometimes done in the clubs, his limbs spread-eagled. Instead, he produced soft leather cuffs from a trunk in the corner and buckled them onto John's wrists and his ankles, checking with John that the cuff was well clear of the spreading patch of blue scaly skin. He checked the restraints didn't chafe, stroking his fingers along the edges of the leather until John had forgotten about his alien arm and was shivering from the sensation.
It was gentle, almost dreamlike. Rodney made him lie down on his left side then ran ropes from the cuffs to the two bedposts on that side. John pulled on them experimentally. He could lie there comfortably but he couldn't get away. It wasn't really sexual; he felt more like a prisoner on a cell cot. And yeah, that image worked, made him squirm and push his face into the pillow. Made him feel how exposed his back and ass were.
He panicked a little and tried to roll over on his back. Not enough rope. Rodney slid in behind him, shushing him and rubbing the ball of his shoulder. He was warm and he smelled of toothpaste. He had on boxers and a t-shirt as well, and he pulled the quilt up to cover their legs.
"Easy, John, easy, just relax and get comfortable. Let me look after you."
Rodney began stroking him, strong, sure hands sliding over his clothes, pulling the shirt across his skin. He gasped as Rodney's hands caressed his aching nipples through the soft cloth, as they rubbed his belly, caressing the sensitive skin above the waistband of his shorts. Rodney moved to his back, and John groaned as he worked out the tension along John's spine, digging his fingers into knots in John's shoulders and neck. John may have whimpered, but damn, that was good.
He rolled a little onto his front and drew his top leg up as much as he could. Offering himself, and Rodney moved over him, heavy and warm, pressing him down, his cock a solid mass against John's thigh. His hands, more insistent now, were on John's ass through the cloth of the shorts, stroking the small of John's back and then further down, between John's legs, cupping his balls. John cried out, humping the mattress and pushing himself into Rodney's hand.
Rodney was talking, a soft murmured litany of that's good, that's good now John, yes, John, you like that, in his ear.
"Please," gasped John into the pillow. "Please, need to…"
Rodney pulled him onto his side again, then reached up and clicked the cuff on his right hand loose from the rope. Rodney curled back around him, breath hot on the nape of John's neck. He had John in a bear-hug, one arm around his chest and his free arm under John's clothing, stroking his belly and the hair below his navel. "Touch yourself," he ordered, his voice dark. John moaned and reached down, taking his cock in hand, pulling hard and twisting a little on the upstroke.
Rodney pushed a knee between John's thighs, forcing his leg up so it rested on Rodney's, opening him. John jerked himself harder, grunting, feeling Rodney reach down and fondle his balls, their hands brushing on each down stroke. He heard himself make incoherent sounds, blown beyond language, writhing in the sweet anchoring pressures of Rodney's body and the restraints as he fucked into his hand.
"Yes, John, so good. Come for me now," whispered Rodney in his ear, and he was gone.
The rest was a sated blur, with John boneless as Rodney rode the crack of his ass, coming snugged up against his balls, with a hoarse cry. Rodney released him and he was guided to the bathroom so they could clean themselves up, then he was led back and cuffed on his side again. Rodney curled behind him, warm and comforting, one arm around his waist and a big hand splayed hot against his stomach. John drifted into sleep with soft snuffling coming from the pillow behind him. And then more dreams, of the underwater towers, the dark forest and so many yellow eyes, staring out. They seemed to be waiting.
Ronon and Teyla returned as dawn was breaking. Rodney uncuffed John and slapped him on the ass. "Come on, up and at 'em."
Grumbling, John surfaced from the restless sleep he'd drifted into before dawn. He'd slept a little, but it had been broken and mixed with the strange dreams. Sometimes he'd just lain there, half awake but peaceful, enjoying the heavy warmth draped across him, Rodney's heat and musk wrapping him in a solid cocoon of comfort.
It seemed a pity to wash the pleasant miasma off in the sonic cleanser, but it was bad enough that the others would know, or guess, what they'd been doing. He wondered if Teyla and Ronon knew as much about Rodney as Carson did. He stripped and cleansed himself, noticing with a shudder that the blue scaly skin covered his entire arm now, spreading down the back of his hand and up across his shoulder. He glared at it in the mirror as he shaved and used the ultrasonic pick on his teeth. As soon as he'd washed his hands, John morphed the smartcloth of his shirt into a fingerless glove for that sleeve. No one commented on it when he joined them in the kitchen, and he kept his arms folded as much as he could.
He was quiet as Ronon cooked eggs and Rodney bossed the autobutler about – which apparently John's cock enjoyed, damn it. Rodney interrogated Teyla about their excursion, but other than a sidelong smirk from Ronon, no one made any wisecracks so John gradually relaxed, hiding behind his dark glasses. Not so much an affectation now; the harsh morning light hurt his eyes too much without them.
The warehouse raid had gone well, with Teyla and Ronon locating nearly everything on Carson's list. Rodney messaged Carson and got a terse reply, saying he was busy running a final genetic analysis and would be there in the afternoon. "He'd better not dick around for too long," grumbled Ronon, and went out to organize the pick-up, saying he was going to lock it away it in the barn.
So they weren't planning to travel in it. John wandered out to the front porch. Even with his aviator shades it was horribly bright, and he squinted. There was a huge SUV parked there, presumably Rodney's ride. The silver-gray paintwork was liberally covered with dust, which was pretty good camouflage, John thought, but what was it with these people and the fossil fuel vehicles? There weren't so many gas stations left any more, just in larger towns and cities. The small local stations had long gone since the advent of AGL technology.
He braved the daylight to wander around the vehicle, seeing that it was not only solar-converted but also, thank Christ, had an AGL booster unit welded to the chassis. Probably enough for a short flight, or some extra lift in rough terrain.
Rodney appeared at his shoulder, chin up and arms crossed. "You like her? I call her Samantha, after an ex...colleague."
John smirked at Rodney. Ex-girlfriend, more like. Rodney's cheeks pinked, and he cleared his throat. "I did all the conversions – Ronon's truck, Carson's bike, and Sam here. I like working with machinery. With my hands."
"Yeah," John drawled, "you're good with your hands, Rodney."
Rodney flashed him a hard, blue stare. "I most certainly am."
John's ears flushed; he cleared his throat. "So why all the antiques?"
"No trackers in them. The state doesn't require them to be on the grid; they're shutting down the whole ground-based transport system, leaving it to hobbyists and tech-shunners. I could disable the tracker in an AGL, of course, but you need GPS to fly it and that puts you back on the grid with a big flashing sign on your head as illegal. Asking to be clamped. There's too much air traffic now to risk a longer flight without meshing an AGL's ware with Trafficnet, even at night." He glanced sideways at John. "Yes, even with you being nocturnal and a pilot and all that, so don't even think about it."
John shrugged. It was kind of a pity, since flying would get them there a lot faster, and with less of the spine rattling from undermaintained roads. "Where are we going?" he asked.
Rodney frowned. "I don't have a lock on the Outpost yet – too many possible solutions to the search algorithms. I need to narrow it down a lot more. We have to get away from here soon, though, once Carson turns up. Right." He rubbed his hands together. "Coffee, then back at it."
He bustled inside and appropriated the holotable, linking his pad up to analyze the last of the database and muttering technobabble under his breath as he worked. John, drowsy again, sacked out on the couch nearby, napping off and on. The dreams mixed with Rodney's projections, bright green graphs and satellite images of the western coastline from LA to Seattle glowing in the depths of the table, overlaid with the towers, the forest. A pulsating orange dot marked their position near Groom Lake, cities were red spiderwebs, and several overlapping circles shimmering in different intensities of blue were apparently the results of Rodney's search algorithms. They covered much of the Western Seaboard.
Ronon made lunch, whipping up a creditable spaghetti Bolognese out of the contents of Rodney's cupboards. Teyla chastised Rodney for the lack of fresh vegetables, but he waved her away, shoveling in forkfuls of pasta with relish. "I'm not here enough, so they'd just go bad. And there aren't any markets nearby. I mostly used to eat on base; I quite like cafeteria food." Red sauce dripped down his chin and he licked it off. John had to look away.
Teyla went off to meditate and do yoga in the back bedroom. Ronon borrowed the main bedroom for a nap. Afternoon heat settled thickly over the ranch, and John drowsed on the couch, a pillow across his face. It was too damn bright and his eyes hurt. Beside him, Rodney muttered and stabbed the light-pen busily at the holoscreen.
Ronon surfaced in the late afternoon, restless and clearly raring to be off. He and Teyla moved several boxes and bags to the SUV, with Rodney ordering them to get this laptop or that box of cables and add it to the load. Teyla called Carson, but there was no reply. She made several other calls, watching out the front porch for any sign of the Harley. She was good at covering her anxiety, but John could smell in on her, and the shimmering violet aura around her form was more pronounced. Ronon's was a deep red, and Rodney was limned in bright metallic blue.
John went into the bathroom and took off his sunglasses, leaning in to stare at his face in the mirror. His eyes, always a muddy green, were now yellow-brown, the pupil on the bad side noticeably slit-like. He put the aviators back on, and extended his fingerless glove into a full glove to hide the blue scales creeping down the backs of his fingers. Then he leaned over the basin and retched up some bile. His hands were shaking, and he took some time to still them and splash water on his face, rinsing his mouth out before putting his game face back on and rejoining Rodney.
John's restlessness increased as the shadows lengthened. It was not quite as bright outside and he felt more alert. he needed to do something, and Rodney'd been hunched over his algorithms all day: he needed a break.
Rodney looked up distractedly, eyes reflecting the blue and green symbols of the maps. He frowned at John's glove and dark glasses. "You promised me a race," said John, cocking his head expectantly.
"What?" Rodney blinked. "Oh, the flyers?" He looked back at the holotable. "But I haven't-"
"C'mon, Rodney," John wheedled. "Best of three." He did the puppy-dog face again. "Give that brain a rest." After some more pouting on John's part and muttering on Rodney's, John finally got them out to the yard with a remote each and the flyers. An hour later and they were on best-of-ten, racing the mini-AGLs from the back porch around a dead tree at the far end of the property and back again. John had the advantage of enhanced vision and reflexes but McKay was more familiar with the controls so it was pretty even. John couldn't resist making his red flyer do a few loop-the-loops and barrel rolls, which had McKay spluttering.
Finally Rodney threatened imminent collapse if he didn't get more coffee, so they trooped back inside. Ronon and Teyla were drinking tea at the kitchen table, talking quietly.
Teyla looked up at them and at the flyers they were holding and shook her head. "We were just ...calibrating the scanner?" tried Rodney, flushing.
Teyla arched a disbelieving brow. "Practising hand-eye coordination", added John earnestly. "Tactical maneuvers." Ronon snorted into his tea.
"And before these...tactical calibrations..." asked Teyla, "were you making any progress, Rodney?"
Rodney got himself a coffee. "Yes, hopefully. Maybe." He took them back into the front room to stand around the holotable, and called up the map. "Here, around Mendocino, it's got to be in this general area."
Ronon looked unimpressed. "Gotta have more specific directions that that. Big area."
"Yes, thank you for stating the blindingly obvious, Ronon, it's not as though I haven't been working on it!" Rodney glared at John. "Until flyboy here distracted me."
"Hey, said John, shrugging. "You needed the break."
"Yes, well." Rodney blew out a breath and scrubbed his hands through his hair until it looked like he'd been electrocuted. Teyla put a calming hand on his arm. "We are very grateful for all your hard work, Rodney. Ronon as well." She shot Ronon a stern glance, and he rolled his eyes, flopping down into a chair. "I believe you will solve this, but I am worried about Carson. He is no longer answering my messages and he should have been here hours ago."
"Could take the pick-up and go look for him," offered Ronon.
"Perhaps," said Teyla, going over to draw a curtain back and peer out one of the front windows. They'd drawn all the drapes earlier in deference to John's photophobia. "But if there is any trouble it is most likely at the base, not on the road, and the closer you get to the base the more dangerous it becomes."
"Damn the man," Rodney muttered from where he was pacing beside the couch. "I suppose I'll have to go and drag his sorry Scottish ass out of there."
Teyla looked alarmed. "I do not think that is wise, Rodney. Either he's just delayed, in which case we must be patient, or there is trouble."
"In which case we need to fuck off," growled Ronon. "We've been here way too long as it is. It's not safe."
"Ah, guys?" said John, turning his shades blindly towards the road. "I think I can hear him. That bike's pretty hard to mistake."
They all listened intently, but it was another ten minutes before the Harley thundered in and pulled to a halt in front of the porch. Superhearing. Peachy. John didn't go outside; the front of the ranch faced the setting sun, and he had a headache. He got himself some Advil and a long drink of water, tuning out the excited babble of voices from the hallway.
"-absolutely incredible!" Carson was saying. His face was flushed, his hair standing up every which way from pulling off his helmet. He noticed John. "There you are, laddie!" His brogue seemed thicker. "It's the most amazing thing, I have to tell you!"
"Tell us in the car," said Ronon. "We're out of here."
Twenty minutes later, they were on the road and heading north on route 95.
It took over six hours to get to the outskirts of Reno, where they'd planned to break their journey. Ronon wouldn't let anyone else drive the pick-up, insisting that Beckett drove like an old woman and Rodney would trash the gearbox.
For the first half-hour Carson regaled them with what he'd discovered in John's DNA analysis. He'd even made a goddam slideshow of the images on his laptop: perfectly interlocking molecules that clicked into place, interfacing seamlessly to make something that just looked right. "Perfect," said Carson ecstatically.
John peered at the screen, trying to maske sense of the colored shapes moving there.
"It's the retrovirus DNA and one of your genes, John," Carson explained, from his cloud in geneticist's heaven. "I've been exploring it with as many samples from patients with the virus as I can get my hands on. But their samples don't do this – they partially bond, but it's not like this, not a perfect match. No one else seems to have this special gene of yours."
John couldn't see why this was such terrific news. "So my DNA clicks with the virus? How is this a good thing?"
"It explains the speed of the change," said Carson enthusiastically. John fought down the urge to throttle him.
"But what does it mean?" John asked, gritting his teeth. "How's it gonna affect me?"
"Ah," said Carson, slightly deflated. "Well, that I'm not sure about. You're unique! We'll have to see what happens."
"Still not getting why this is good news," said John tightly. His chest felt hollow. Dammit, Carson had gotten his hopes up there for a moment. He'd thought it might be some sort of treatment, but no, just more bullshit.
"It's genetically engineered to bind to your gene, John. The Ancients must have made the virus for a very specific purpose. Possibly you're genetically similar to them, unlike all the others I've tested. I've felt all along that there was something we were missing, some piece of the puzzle that would make it all slot into place. And bingo!" He pointed at the molecules revolving in their close embrace. "There it is!"
"Great: I'm the missing link." John couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. "So am I gonna turn completely into a bug instead of just half and half?" The moment he'd said it he felt cold and sick. The SUV's interior went quiet, just the thrum of the road hissing past. Rodney looked up from his pad, his eyes wide. Oh, Christ, that was it. He was going to change completely, become a fucking insect, not just get the scaly skin and weird eyes. He pressed his left arm against his body, feeling the comforting bulge of the shoulder holster. Plan B was looking pretty good about now.
"I cannae believe that they'd engineer a perfect genetic match to that end," Carson said hesitantly. He shook his head. "It wouldn't make sense. There's not much in the database but it talks of transformation, unification and 'the great melding'." He shrugged apologetically. "They tended to write poetically, in metaphors. It can be damn hard to know what they meant."
"They were nuts about ascension," Rodney commented, frowning. "A lot of their science was aimed at helping them reach some big spiritual plane, pure energy, leaving matter behind for us lesser beings. Good riddance, I say, as long as I can have the tech they left behind and work out how to use it."
"How's being a bug gonna help Sheppard ascend?"
"Ronon!" admonished Teyla from the front passenger seat. "We don't know that this process will have that unfortunate result. I believe the Ancients to have been benign, and their science was certainly advanced beyond our comprehension. We must trust that the outcome will be positive."
"Excuse me, their science is not beyond my comprehension, thanks very much. If they'd only left a clearer scientific record instead of, of interpretive poetry, I'm sure I'd have cracked it already." Rodney returned to pecking angrily at his pad.
John slumped down and turned his face to the window. He shut his eyes behind his shades and tried to zone out. Beside him, Carson sat admiring the revolving molecule on his screen, occasionally looking around at them all, frowning, as though baffled by its lukewarm reception.
They were all tired by the time they hit the edge of Reno and found a suitable automotel. Ronon fed cash into the reception slot and it spat out three room cards and a map. Their rooms were on the far side of the sprawling complex.
Ronon and Teyla went in search of food, Ronon to stretch his legs and Teyla to ensure the food contained at least one vegetable. Carson set himself up in the end room and dove into his data.
Rodney commandeered the middle room and bossed John into lugging in his various pads and laptops while he flopped down on one of the queen-size beds and complained about the mattress and how his back was totally ruined.
John dumped the gear on the other bed and went outside. He still felt gutted and his skin was tight and cold, especially the blue scaly side. The muscles in that arm felt slithery and wrong and his fingers weren't working properly. The night was as bright as day, everything rippling with metallic sheens and colors. He was scared shitless, but he tamped it down and walked to the end of the street where acres of dry scrubland stretched away into the night. John morphed his clothes into sports gear and began to run.
Rodney was still up when he returned, sitting cross-legged on the equipment bed with three laptops glowing and cabled to his pad. John checked out the bathroom: another sonic cleansing unit. He used it, then found a container of congealing enchiladas on a side table and worked his way through it mechanically. It had probably tasted like oily sawdust even before his change. He was jonesing for a beer, but the voice-activated chiller only took cards and they were staying off the grid.
"Where'd you go?" Rodney's voice was quiet. The laptops hummed faintly. Outside, there was music in the distance, one of the new atonic salsas.
"I was worried," said Rodney, not looking at him. Probably there were blue scales on his face now. The cheek above his bad arm felt a little stiff, as though egg white had dried there.
"Yeah, sorry," said John. He wasn't sorry, wasn't anything except hollow. You pushed the fear away but it left a hole behind.
"When I'm worried, I need to do things," continued Rodney, and did he never stop talking? "The latest algorithm's running; it'll take several hours, so that left me at a loose end." He took a deep breath. "You know how before, when we met, we both checked each other out?"
John lay down on the vacant bed and shut his eyes. "You mean ran searches? Yeah, so?" He made a 'move it along' gesture with his hand.
"So one of the search bots I'd left running eventually hit pay dirt. I checked the cache on my server, and the results were there. The link was very carefully concealed, I have to say. Really high-end work."
Rodney looked over at him, chin lifted, his mouth a bitter line. "Who are you really working for, John? Eldest son of Patrick Sheppard, CEO of one of the biggest Corporates. How much intel have you been sending back to them?"
John jerked up on his elbows and glared across at Rodney, trying to stop himself from jumping up and just punching him in the mouth. "Oh for fuck's sake! I'm not working for the goddam Corporates!"
"No?" McKay stared him down, defiant. "Tell me why I should believe you. You haven't exactly come clean about your background. And if you're not on your father's payroll, why was the connection so thoroughly concealed?"
"It's not me who's concealing it, it's him," John ground out, jerking up to sit on the side of the bed, clenching and unclenching his fists. "If your bot did its job right, you'll also know that after Mom drank herself to death, I left home at seventeen and put myself through college, then joined the military." He stood, anger still seething inside him, and started pacing. "Dad tried to stop me with threats and bribes, but in the end he had to let me go. I was even more stubborn than he was, so it was that or kill me. I think he seriously considered calling in a hit; he was so sure I was going to 'sully the family name'. So yeah, he cut me out of his will and got all links between me and the family expunged from the nets. My brother Dave's the Corporate player, not me." John really wanted a beer. Or something stronger. He headed for the door, avoiding the too-bright screens, keeping his bad side turned away. "Way to improve my already shitty day, McKay. Thanks a bunch."
John couldn't really see McKay's face with his own averted, but he got the impression of wide eyes and a shocked mouth as he slammed out the door. He morphed his t-shirt up into a hoodie and stalked off towards the joint playing salsa. It took cash and turned out to have decent tequila so he had a few, avoiding eye contact with anyone and sitting in a corner with the bad side of his face in shadow.
The booze tasted like industrial solvent and it had no effect on him at all, so eventually he went back out into the night, into the scrublands, loping along and feeling exposed under the too-bright moon like a specimen on a lab bench. At some point he stopped, because there was no point continuing. There was a shallow dip between some bushes and he curled up in the bottom of it, letting the day's warmth stored in the sand leach into his stiffening limbs. He didn't sleep, but the towers were there, deep under the ocean, and the others looked out from the safety of the trees and called to him. This time he answered: I'm coming.
Time slowed as the desert night chilled and John cooled with it, his thoughts congealing, like wading through glue. He wondered vaguely if he was cold-blooded now as well as nocturnal, then was gripped by a brief flare of anger that he'd never located the power pack for his pistol and now it was too late, and then thinking got too hard. By the time McKay and the others found him, hours later, he wasn't thinking at all, wasn't able to move. Ronon picked him up still locked in a fetal curl and carried him bodily back to the motel room. He heard Carson muttering as he checked John over – something about suspended animation and metabolic slowing.
It took almost an hour before his limbs loosened up and his brain came back on line. Carson pronounced him thawed, and McKay shooed the others out and sat on the bed beside him. John kept his eyes closed. He didn't want to see McKay looking at him in disgust; he could feel that the blue skin had spread across part of his face and his fingers on the bad hand were clumping together, claw-like and covered in chitinous scales.
"I'm sorry," said McKay, and he really sounded miserable. John risked a peek. McKay's face – Rodney's face – was drawn and sad, but he didn’t seem afraid or revolted. "I jumped to conclusions. It was stupid and I'm sorry. I'm not usually a stupid man, but…well, it hasn't been a good day for any of us, I guess. Mostly for you, I know…and I'm babbling. I do that when I'm nervous." John made to turn away, and Rodney put a hand on his shoulder. "No, please, I'm not afraid of you, I just don't know how to make up for being such a jerk."
"Don't do it again," rasped John. Something nudged his cheek. He slit his eyes open a crack to find Rodney offering him a glass with a straw. The water was warm and metallic, but it loosened his throat. John still felt cold. He lay back down and hugged himself as best he could with his slithery arms and stiff skin. The claws on his bad hand scraped against each other and he shivered.
"Roll over." Rodney pushed and pulled at him until he had John arranged on his side, then he spooned around John's back and wrapped an arm around his waist. Delicious warmth all along his back and legs and John let himself sink into it. He didn't sleep, maybe couldn't sleep any more, just the dreams, slow images, and the sense of being called. John stood on a cliff beside the ruins of a building, an old wooden lighthouse, disused. Spray misted his face from the breakers below and the sleek silver towers sang to him from across the waves.
Later, they told him that they'd stayed at the motel for another day, Rodney working furiously on the database to take his mind off what was happening to John, and Carson hovering, checking on him and making notes. He half-remembered a muffled shouting match from outside the room, Rodney yelling that John wasn't a lab rat and Carson insisting that they needed to learn all they could. He was half-delirious by then, the towers and the forest more real at times than the sterile plasboard walls.
Rodney woke him after dark, sitting on the bed, gently shaking his shoulder. Teyla and Carson were there as well, and Ronon was taking Rodney's gear to the SUV. "John? Are you with us?" He tried to nod but his neck muscles didn't want to move that way. He blinked, slick nictitating membranes sliding laterally across his eyes. Rodney winced. "I'll take that as a yes. You can't talk?" John blinked twice. "Okay. One blink for yes, two for no." John blinked once and Rodney held up his pad's screen, pointing at the single blue circle now showing on the Californian coastline. It appeared to be centered in the Mendocino National Forest, a little south of where the Forest Highway cut across from east to west.
"This is the best I can get from the database, about the other Outpost. It makes a kind of sense – more likely to have gone undiscovered in a wilderness area, especially if it's underground like the Antarctic one." Ronon reappeared, leaning in the open doorway, and Rodney looked flustered. "Yes, sorry, you don't need to know all that. We're going to head for the epicentre of the search zone, anyway. I just wanted to explain. And we can't stay here with you…with you so." He stopped, swallowed. "It's risky, if you're seen. We need to get you away from built-up areas."
Teyla stepped forward and put her hand on Rodney's shoulder. "And Ronon thought you might prefer the forest." John blinked once in answer.
Rodney shrugged apologetically. "The trip won't be fun, I'm afraid, as we'll have to cover you up, but perhaps you can sleep. Or, or, whatever it is that you do."
Ronon carried him out to the vehicle. John grunted as a blanket settled over him, and sank back into the dreams.
Rodney sat in the back of the SUV, John curled on his side, his head in Rodney's lap. John's head didn't feel right to Rodney where it rested on his thigh – the temperature was too cool and he was stiff. It was like having a statue made of stone or ceramic propped against him.
They came around a long, shallow curve in the highway and Ronon, who was driving, swore viciously and then braked and craned around, rapidly reversing back around the bend in the road.
"Ronon!" yelled Rodney. "What the fuck? Are you trying to kill us all?" He pressed a hand to his chest, willing his heart to calm down, then twisted around to peer anxiously out the rear window. "Someone'll smash into us!"
"No one else's on the road, McKay, in case that detail had slipped your notice," grunted Ronon. He put the SUV back into drive and parked it on the gravel verge, idling the engine.
"There were people further along," said Teyla, peering ahead where the highway curved away, vanishing behind a dry hillside dotted with conifers. "And several vehicles. I hope that they did not see us before Ronon removed us from their line of sight. It was, I think, too far for them to have heard our engine."
"Fucking GENII checkpoint," grated Ronon, blowing out a frustrated breath. His knuckles were white where his hands gripped the wheel. "Someone must have seen Sheppard in Reno when he was out tooling around by himself."
"We do not know that for sure," said Teyla, looking worried. "It might be a Trafficnet operation to catch unregistered vehicles." She didn't look very convinced by her own suggestion.
Ronon glowered in the direction of the distant roadblock. "No way to tell if they're GENII from here, unless I go cross-country and do some recon. Fuck!" He thumped the steering wheel. "If we backtrack and go a longer way around, like south of Lake Tahoe or up through Susanville, it'll take hours longer. This wild goose chase to look for your mythical Outpost just turned into a high-risk operation, McKay. I vote we abort it."
"It's not a wild goose chase and believe me, we need to control the resources in this Outpost and not let the damn Corporates get their hands on it," Rodney retorted, scowling. "It's worth taking a few risks to achieve that."
"Ah, bringing us back to the current dilemma," said Carson nervously. "I hate to be a pessimist, but there might be roadblocks on all the main highways out of Reno. Even if we take another way."
"There are smaller roads on the map," said Rodney, snapping his attention back to the GPS screen on his laptop. He looked up, intent. "but Carson's right – they could have all the roads blocked off. Plus they might have AGLs standing by for aerial searches as well. We need to know who they are and how widespread their operation is." He snapped his fingers at a sudden thought. "Wait, wait a minute. Carson, help me sit John up."
With Carson's assistance he got John propped upright against the back of the seat. John's eyes were shut and the blue scaly skin covered most of his face. Rodney swallowed hard. "John!" he said in an urgent whisper, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it. It was like trying to shake a mannequin: John's whole torso moved. "John, open your eyes." After some more shaking and badgering, both sets of John's eyelids slowly opened. His yellow, slitted eyes looked glazed. Rodney pulled him around so he was making eye contact.
"Have you still got superhearing?" The weird nictitating membranes slid across once. Yes. Rodney hoped that was assent, anyway, and not some kind of reflex. "Cut the engine," Rodney told Ronon. "Everyone be quiet, and open the doors."
The road remained empty. In the hush that followed the engine dying away and various clicks and creaks as the doors were pushed open, they all listened intently. Cicadas, and a hawk shrieking, far away. Nothing else. "Can you hear engines?" Rodney asked John. A single slow blink. "Can you hear people near the engines, talking? Hear what they're saying?" Another blink. Then a double-blink. Then a final slow blink.
"What the bloody hell is that supposed to mean?" asked Carson, frowning.
"I don't know," muttered Rodney, his mind racing as he stared into John's unsettling eyes. What if the GENII caught them in some sort of roadblock trap? What happened to people who helped the RAITH? Nothing good, he was sure. But they had to find the Outpost, and he had to get John to safety, which meant getting him through this damn cordon. "I think, um, I think maybe it means he can sometimes hear them, and sometimes not." John blinked, once.
"How is this of any assistance, Rodney?" Teyla asked with ill-concealed impatience, constantly looking back down the road towards the checkpoint. "John may be able to hear better than we can, but he cannot tell us what he has heard."
"Whatever that is down there, it's some sort of roadblock. It's too big a risk to try and run it, and the land around here's too rough to take the car off the highway," growled Ronon.
"Shut up, just shut the fuck up and just let me think." Rodney closed his eyes, gripping John to keep him upright. John's upper arms felt odd through the cloth where Rodney was holding him. Too hard, too cold. "Okay, this might work." He looked at John. The yellow eyes stared back at him, expressionless. What was John thinking – was it anything human? Was he trapped inside there, still essentially himself and totally freaked out, or were his thoughts becoming alien and invertebrate? This was fucking impossible. Rodney took a deep breath and fought off despair. "John, are there GENII down there by the engines? Can you tell from what they're saying if they're GENII?"
John blinked once. "Damn," said Rodney. "He says they are."
Ronon punched the steering wheel. "Fuck! I knew it. Someone saw him last night." John blinked once more.
"Yeah, he's blinking yes, so I guess that's right. I, I'm sorry. That's mostly my fault." Rodney swallowed. "John, your core temperature's very low." He turned to Carson. "That's right, yeah? You've been monitoring it?"
Carson nodded. "Well, yes, it's pretty much at ambient, which is absolutely extraordinary. If he were still human he'd be dead, no doubt about it." He patted John's arm. "Sorry, lad." John blinked twice, and Carson looked baffled.
Rodney pressed on, aware he was babbling but unable to stop. "So, you know that intel we got a few months back about how the GENII search for RAITH? Well, for anyone they regard as a fugitive I guess, but especially for RAITH." Rodney raised his eyebrows when the others looked blank. "Oh for – they scan for heat signatures! Yes, the RAITHed have lower core temperatures, but not ambient like John. Carson was right – what's happening to him is a lot more extreme then we've seen before with any other RAITH."
Rodney swallowed. That had to be good, right? It at least allowed for a new outcome, maybe a better outcome. He pushed away the fear that the outcome might also be unimaginably bad. "So we hide John in the rear of the SUV under all our piles of gear. They always use the heat-scanners these days, not a hand-search. I think they believe their own propaganda and think that a RAITH'll leap out and kill them if they disturb one unexpectedly, so they're reliant on technology. We can exploit that. We've all got false papers; they won't be able to trace us on those. I've made sure that the images of us all on the official datanets are of other people entirely, and they didn't get a good look at you on the dojo rooftop, did they, Teyla?"
She shook her head, taking all this in. "No, we were in the lifter and away before Kolya and his men reached the roof. The ones I encountered will not be…well enough yet, to be back on duty."
"Right, right." Rodney rushed on. "So we bluff our way through, with John hidden." He turned to John. "You understand?" John blinked once. "Can you manage to stay under all the baggage and gear and keep very quiet?" Another blink. Rodney grimaced, looking distressed. "Yeah, I guess keeping quiet's not such a problem for you now." John blinked twice, slowly, then left his eyes closed.
"It might work, and there is little else we can do," decided Teyla. "Quickly, now, get John into concealment before there is any risk of the GENII happening upon us."
Colonel Acastus Kolya watched the dusty gray SUV vanish down the road to the west, further into the Tahoe National Forest. Their fake ID cards had been high-quality work, and he wondered how they had tricked his men's scanners. He was also very interested in their final destination. It was irritating that they had confounded his search, but that was ultimately of no consequence: he would have the information out of them in the end. He quite enjoyed that aspect of his work, especially when it involved knives. He liked knives, and it was important to keep your skills honed.
The tracking bugs his men had attached to the SUV would give him all the information he required, and then he would round up Emmagan's whole cell of renegades, one of whom sounded like a RAITH if the barman's report from that low-life salsa dive in Reno was to be trusted. Kolya trusted no one but himself, but he was prepared to utilize technology where it suited his purposes. Still, his squad's scanners had failed to detect the RAITH in Emmagan's vehicle, so when it came right down to it you were better off with something low tech. Like a knife.
Kolya stared into the west. The dust-colored SUV was no longer visible but the tracking bugs were blipping away cheerfully on Sergeant Tyrus's laptop screen. He would follow them to their destination – hopefully rooting out the rest of Emmagan's organization in the process – and then he would eradicate them, like the vermin they were. Clever vermin, and dangerous, but vermin nonetheless - he would enjoy squashing them. Emmagan and the large man driving would not give up their secrets easily, which would be entertaining, and he looked forward to frightening the two in the back seat. Kolya thought they would frighten easily.
Turning back to his squad, he barked out orders to break down the checkpoint and head west.
John recalled very little of the journey after the checkpoint, vaguely aware of close darkness under the heap of bedding and bags. More dreams, and the forest people moving through the trees, coming for him, calling him. There were so many.
Then he was across Ronon's shoulder being bumped with every stride as Ronon led them down a rough track into the Mendocino National Forest. Behind them, Rodney trotted along, muttering. "Another half a mile south-west and we're bang on target. Ouch! Why are there so many goddam roots?" Carson lugged a bag of medical supplies, and Teyla guarded their rear.
John's vision was strange, multi-faceted and shifting. Slowly, he realized that his eyes were shut, and the images of Rodney and the others were coming from the presences around him, flitting through the trees and keeping pace. He was seeing what their watchers saw as John and the others passed by on the track, moving deeper into the forest, into the gathering of the ones whose thoughts he shared.
It smelled good when they laid him down under the trees in a nest of bedrolls. It was dark and soothing, the ground cushioned by pine-needles. His thoughts were filled with the chittering of the unseen forest creatures but he could hear the human speech of his companions close by, from the clearing where they'd made camp.
"This is the place, the most likely location. It has to be underground somewhere near here. I need to find a power signature and some sort of entrance." That was Rodney.
Ronon's deep rumble. "Whatever, McKay, it's as good a place as any for him until it's over."
Rodney again, strident. "Don't say that! Carson, you said this was going to work out, that he was special. Tell me it's going to be okay." Then there was an angry, muffled exchange until Teyla hushed them.
He tuned it all out, opening his senses to the cool resinous embrace of the forest. They were coming.
It happened on Teyla's watch, which was just as well, Rodney told him later. Ronon would probably have shot them when they crept out from the trees to cluster thickly around John. Teyla cried out and the others woke, clustering nervously on the other side of the fire with Ronon and Teyla guarding Rodney and Carson, guns drawn. The Changed gave the fire a wide berth, and he saw images in their memories of burning houses and mobs waving torches.
They were just as in his dreams, yellow-eyed, skins dark blue. They moved oddly, either unnaturally still or with bursts of skittering speed. Some of them hung in the branches and watched. They were still more human than not, though, and none had the claws or the carapace of ridged chitin John was developing down his spine, thick plates across his abdomen.
They talked to him, curious and questioning. Why had he called them here? Who was he? He had no real answers, only the images of underwater towers, the smell of safety, of home. They told him the forests were home to them now, not the cities, not the ocean. It was wordless, all images and scent-memory, and underneath everything, their fear. He told them the humans would come even here to the wilderness, bringing machines to burn them out and hunt them down. They sent back resignation and hopelessness, bitter and acidic.
One of them, a male, approached Teyla, where the humans were huddled across the clearing. His voice was rusty, disused, but he still had a little speech. "T'yla." There were clicks in it from the chitin in his throat. "T'yla," he said, more insistently, and she gasped.
"Kanaan!" She made to approach him but he scuttled away, to the edge of the trees.
"T'yla," he said mournfully, and John sensed his longing. Ronon pulled Teyla against him, his arm wrapped around her as she wept against his chest.
He sensed that there were many more, traveling through the parks and forests, moving in the shadows and by night. A gathering, why? They did not know, only that he had called them. At dawn they drifted away, back into the woods, but he felt them in his mind. The towers were calling and he could not explain it to them, did not understand it himself. He only knew he had to get there, and it was not here, not inland, not in the forest. Wait, he sent. Wait Return Safety Gather. Return. Not Leaving Behind. Return.
The others bent over him once the Changed had gone, in the first faint gray of dawn. He could just move his left arm, flailing at Rodney's pad. Through feverish blinking he made Rodney call up the map of the coastline again but the resolution was too coarse and it was hard to make his limb touch the screen to show where he knew they had to go.
"He's definitely trying to tell us something, but what?" Carson said, puzzled.
"Somewhere we should take you?" hazarded Rodney. John blinked "yes" vehemently.
In the end Rodney blanked the pad and called up a drawing screen, but words eluded John, his brain now running a more visceral operating system. He scrabbled at the screen with a claw and then fell back, exhausted.
Rodney frowned. "Pictionary?"
Carson leaned over his shoulder, pointing. "That lopsided asterisk could be a star, and that there, see, it's a house. That's a window." He squinted at it. "Or mebbe a church?"
"Star church? Star…house?" said Teyla uncertainly.
"It's hopeless," muttered Carson. "I'm afraid he's too far gone."
John blinked twice, forcibly. "No, I think he's aware, Carson," said Rodney, "but I don't know–"
"Could be a sun," said Ronon. "Like kids draw."
"Yes!" Rodney snapped his fingers. "Light! Light house!" He leaned over John. "Is that it? Lighthouse?" John gave a forceful, affirmative blink.
Rodney ran searches and studied his maps while the others made breakfast and packed up the camp. Finally he made a frustrated noise. "There are two near Mendocino, in the search zone. Point Arena and Point Cabrillo - both disused. The Point Arena one was a proper tower but the Point Cabrillo one was wooden, more like a house with a tower attached. It used to be a tourist attraction." He turned the laptop screen to John, showing him an old image of the Point Cabrillo lighthouse; John recognised it from the dreams. "Point Cabrillo?" One strong blink.
He sensed them one last time as Ronon carried him away, back to the SUV. Loss Grief Leaving.
Not Leaving, he sent in reply. Wait Return Gather Safety. Return. Then he was in the car as they bumped down the rough roads and it all faded back into his dreams of the towers.
Rodney's memories of that trip to the coast were full of fear and desperate hope. More of the fear than the hope, given his natural disposition, especially with John hidden under a heap of bedding, mute and cool. Rodney petted his hair helplessly but he was totally immobile now, like something already dead, although Carson swore he had a pulse, beating inhumanly slow. Rodney tried not to think how very remote the chance was of any happy outcome, no matter how excited Carson had been about the genetic voodoo that seemed determined to turn John into a giant bug.
As ever, when afraid, Rodney argued. He and Carson argued about whether John was still lucid, until Rodney shut that down because he couldn't bear to think of John locked in a carapace of chitin, still fully aware. Then he argued with Ronon who'd muttered that the whole damn trip was insane, especially as it was now taking them dangerously close to GENII bases at the Ukiah and Little River Airports.
Teyla insisted that it was John's wish to be brought to this point on the coast, and no one said his last wish but everyone thought it. "Whatever the outcome," Teyla said, "I would like to see the ocean once more."
They drove on, in the end looping west across smaller roads south of Ukiah, cutting back to the coast through Orrs Springs and Mendocino, then north to Point Cabrillo. The road to the Point was a rough track; no one had been there for years and the promontory was deserted. They camped in the lee of the ruined light station. The building's doors were padlocked and its windows boarded up, big holes in the roof where the slates had fallen in.
John had been comatose for some hours by late afternoon when the carapace growth increased, a wide hood of chitin curling up over his head like a helmet. Rodney looked away as the chitinous bulb enclosed John's head entirely, leaving him curled on one side as though in a space suit. Unlike a space suit it was dark and opaque, and there was no pulse when Carson listened, and nothing palpable at all through the hard outer shell. The metamorphosis looked engineered, but Rodney knew better than to assume deliberate design from a biological process. Teleology had always enraged him, but with the Ancients, he guessed anything was possible.
Ronon made a fire from ruined planking and debris, and they kept vigil. Teyla did yoga or made tea, sitting in meditation or moving in slow, dance-like patterns. Carson sat by John's dark, curved form making notes and examining his data, his medical training useless in the face of such unknowns. Ronon paced, "securing the perimeter", he said, although from what, Rodney had no idea. All they could do was hope. Against a GENII attack by land or air they'd be sitting ducks, here on the headland.
Rodney tried to work on his pad but the symbols blurred and lost their meaning. Sometimes he joined Ronon in silent pacing, or Teyla for a mug of tea, and sometimes he sat beside Carson, staring helplessly at the chitinous thing John had become.
His thoughts skittered this way and that like a trapped rat. What if John never emerged; how would they know if he was dead? What if they buried him alive, or if he was still sentient in there when they finally gave up and cremated the carapace? Rodney staggered off behind the ruined building to throw up. He finally fell into an exhausted sleep, leaving Ronon watching silently in the glow of the embers.
Ronon shook them awake a little after dawn. The carapace was no longer indigo, but a glossy golden brown. In the half-light it resembled a chrysalis. As the sun edged above the land behind them the membrane thinned and became semi-translucent and they saw John's limbs stirring within.
"What do we do?" blurted Rodney frantically, wringing his hands. "Should we try to get him out of there?"
"I don't know," muttered Carson, fingers pressed against the chitin. "I don't want to injure him if it's some sort of natural process."
"Oh, please," snapped Rodney. "Anything less natural than this would be hard to imagine!"
"Look, there!" said Teyla urgently, pointing to the front seam. "It's beginning to open."
"Maybe we should help him get free of it?" Rodney asked anxiously. "Like people do with hatching chicks?"
"Okay," said Ronon, stepping forward and grabbing the edges of the seam, pulling them apart. Pale blue fluid gushed out onto the grass, and John's naked body rolled free.
"Oh my god," said Rodney, and fainted dead away.
John awoke underwater, oddly calm, feeling no need to breathe. The membrane around him was splitting open, Ronon widening the gap. He heard Carson cursing at Rodney, then saying to be careful in case the shell was still attached to John, but it parted from head to foot and he rolled out onto his knees, naked and coughing up alien fluid, his hair dripping wet. He was fully human. More than human. He could hear the data humming, loud in his head like a song of welcome.
They dried and dressed him, and Carson checked him over, pronouncing him bafflingly well. "It's quite extraordinary. No chitin anywhere, no blue scales. Let me see your eyes? Hmmm. Hazel, no third eyelid, pupils equal and normally reactive. I cannae be certain without further testing and a scan, but you seem fully cured, lad. Extraordinary."
Ronon was dusting Rodney off after hauling him to his feet, teasing him for having fainted. Rodney blinked, scowling and rubbing ineffectually at the water splashed down his front from where Ronon had revived him. "-quite unnecessary," he was complaining. "It was only exhaustion. And stress. This has all been very stressful." He took a deep breath and turned, staring at John wide-eyed, his face pale.
John tried to smile. "You okay, buddy? Heard you fainted." Rodney huffed, annoyed. "I passed out very briefly. Mild shock, nothing to fuss about. Anyway, I should be asking you that," he said, his eyes busy, cataloging John. John shrugged. "I'm all right now. I'm me, Rodney," he said quietly.
"Well, pardon me for wondering, since you were a giant bug only minutes ago," Rodney said shakily. He swallowed. "We didn't know…we just had to watch." He turned away, fists tight. "It sucked."
"Yeah, I'm sorry. It was easier for me – I wasn't aware, or not in the usual way." John grinned at Teyla, then at Ronon. "Hey, Teyla, Ronon. Nice to see you." He probably sounded a bit high. He felt kind of floaty.
Teyla smiled at him and came forward to press their foreheads together. "I'm very glad to see you well, John." Ronon just nodded, but he looked a lot less wired.
John stared out across the water. "I can feel it out there. And all the rest of them."
"What? Feel who? Are you sure your blood sugar isn't low or something? Carson, is he tracking?"
Carson checked his vitals again. "John really does seem completely recovered now. His pulse had been slow, well, actually nonexistent at the end, but it's back to normal again."
John took hold of Carson's arm. "I know what's gone wrong, Carson, with the virus. It's in the data - I can hear it." Carson looked blank, and John's face creased in frustration. "Look, since I woke up just now, there's this new…thing happening." He tapped his head. "In here. It's like I'm tuned to a special, um, frequency now. Information." He turned to Rodney. "Like a huge database or electronic library in my head."
"You're hearing voices now?" Rodney looked worried.
"No, not voices. It's not a person or a consciousness like that planet in Solaris, or anything."
"Solaris, John?" asked Teyla. "As in the classic movie?"
"Good movie," nodded Ronon. "Could have done with more fights."
"Will you all shut up about goddam Solaris!" snapped Rodney. He turned back to John. "It'll be okay. Anyone would be traumatized after what you've just been through so a few delusions or hallucinations are probably–"
"I'm not hearing voices," John repeated, annoyed. "It's data. From the towers. Out there." He turned and pointed west across the ocean.
"Okaay," said Rodney, clearly humoring the crazy guy. "So what's with the not-voices. The…data."
"It's the Outpost you've been looking for. It's not underground, Rodney, it's submerged." He turned and pointed out across the waves. "Just offshore, where it gets deep. And it's not just an outpost, it's a whole alien city. Atlantis."
"'Atlantis'? I don't think your brain is quite recovered from being a giant bug. Now we're in myths and legends territory."
John frowned. "Don't these 'Ancients' of yours come from a hell of a long time ago? So yeah, myths, legends, history, same thing. Mythical Atlantis was supposed to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean, right?"
"Kind of the wrong ocean, though," Rodney said, hands on his hips. "Hence the reason it was called 'Atlantis'." He turned to the others and spread his hands in a 'help me out here guys' gesture.
Ronon shrugged. "There was a vid when I was in grade school that had green fish-people in an underwater city." Rodney glared at him. "They had gills," Ronon added helpfully.
"And that song from the seventies," Carson offered. He began humming: "Way down, below the ocean…"
"Jesus, spare us the karaoke," snapped Rodney. "Can we get back to the important stuff, like this data broadcast John's hallucinating, and the Outpost?"
John crossed his arms. "Okay, so the historical record's a little patchy, but the data-stream – which I'm not hallucinating, it's more like listening to implants – is clear that this is Atlantis." He knew he was sounding a little less zen than when he'd first emerged, but he bet the Ancients never had to put up with this kind of crap. "Look, since I started doing the bug-thing, I've been picking up the thoughts of the RAITH. Well, some of them – the ones for a few hundred miles around, and not very clearly. More like a badly-tuned holovid. Images. Flashes."
Rodney made a circular 'get on with it' gesture and John glared at him. "So this data-stream is a little like that, only bigger, much bigger. It's the database of an alien city that's sunk right off the fucking coast here, and it's downloading information into my brain. And no, I don't know how, Rodney. It's alien, okay? The same fucking aliens who invented a bug virus to turn my brain into a radio tuned to their frequency!"
"Cracked," said Rodney, shaking his head worriedly. "Carson, can't you give him a pill or something? He's obviously traumatized."
"I told you, I feel fine. Look, hang on," said John, concentrating. The city had been waiting for him, or someone like him, for such a long span of years it made his brain ache to think about it. The mental link worked both ways though, he thought. All he had to do was ask. Come on, he broadcast, show yourself.
There was a trembling ripple right out in the ocean, and he pointed. They were up on a cliff, and he was pretty sure the wave wouldn't reach this high, that they'd be safe. The data-feed switched to city schematics for giant inertial dampeners specifically designed to prevent a tsunami. Okay, come on up, he instructed, triggering the surfacing protocols. Far out from shore the water heaved, a low wave curling back all around and racing outwards as silver towers, the tall, alien towers he'd seen in his dreams, broke free of the ocean, spray falling away from them in glistening veils and sparkling in the morning light as the city surged upwards.
"Atlantis," he said, and it was a greeting.
"Holy crap," Rodney said faintly. "You're not insane."
"John! John!" Someone was shaking his arm. Carson peered at him worriedly, then turned almost involuntarily, his gaze drawn back across the ocean to the towers, eyes wide. Teyla and Ronon were staring at the city as well, and Rodney was moving from stunned to focused, pointing his hand-scanner at the city and frowning at the screen.
"Hey," John said, pulling himself out of the overwhelming flood of information the city wanted to share with him. He'd zoned out there for a moment, and he could still feel the others – so many of them, deep in the forests or hiding in dark places. Too overwhelming, so he closed down the feeds from the city and the RAITH, tamped it all down to a low background murmur. "Yeah, sorry. It gets a bit much sometimes, this being like a radio. I'll get it under control." He scrubbed his hands through his still-damp hair.
Carson frowned and shone a small flashlight into his eyes. John blinked and recoiled. It was too bright; everything was sharp-edged and hyper-real. He guessed that his senses were still heightened and wondered if that was a temporary thing, or if it would last. Wondered what else he'd retain from the RAITH-change. It'd be nice to keep the intuitive grasp of math, and the running had been cool. "I'm fine, everything's working, and I'm all here," he reassured Carson. The constant arousal had gone as soon as he'd become delirious; he didn't feel it now. He had a moment's panic, glancing down and clutching his groin. Whew, all present and correct.
"Oh for fuck's sake, Metamorphosis-boy," said Rodney, looking up from his scanner. "Are you checking your junk's still there? Having seen you emerge naked like some bizarre dinosaur from an egg, I can assure you it's fine."
John flushed and tried to muster a drawl. "Hey, like you keep saying, I was a giant damn bug. Reckon I've got a right to be slightly worried that the virus put me back together without any important bits missing."
"Aye, it's a natural reaction." Carson was trying to keep a straight face, and Ronon was smirking. Teyla was still gazing at the city. "I doubt you underwent a true metamorphosis," continued Carson, "although I'm willing to bet that the virus has made very extensive genetic changes. There'll be years of study in this, years." He looked delighted at the prospect, then he frowned. "You said that you knew what had gone wrong with the virus?"
"Yeah, it's all there, in the city's databases." He nodded at Atlantis, floating on a placid early morning ocean now, gleaming in the sun. The others turned to look at her as well. Rodney was positively vibrating with excitement, and John saw tears in Teyla's eyes. "You were right about the ascension thing, Rodney. They made the retrovirus for that, more than ten thousand years ago. But those people back then – the Ancients – they all had that gene Carson found in me, so they all went through the full change, like I did."
"But why? Why turn you into a bug of all things?"
John shrugged. "Carson'll have to look at the medical data; the genetic stuff's way over my head. All I know is the change lets you link up mentally, like a mind-meld."
"Might have known you'd bring Spock into this," Rodney snorted.
"Hey, he's way cooler than Kirk," John shot back. He rolled his shoulders, stretching. No more slithery muscles, great. "So that's what happened – they all Changed, the whole lot of them, then they got together and merged consciousnesses and bam! All systems go for ascension."
"Leaving us a souvenir," said Rodney sourly.
"Yeah, well," said John. "They were kind of preoccupied with lift-off, so I guess they didn't clean up all that well after themselves. Or maybe the virus sample was some Ancient's gift to whoever came next."
"But the process is derailed in modern humans as we don't all have that gene any more. That's what the RAITH are, failed attempts at the metamorphosis," muttered Carson, working it out. "Apart from you, that is. That can't be right – there must be more than just one person with the gene on the planet?"
"The city can track people like me once the transformation's pretty far progressed, but hardly any have the gene strongly enough for the full change." John concentrated. "It looks like... not all of them survived. One guy's in a mental hospital. He changed alone, freaked out then ran around naked and got picked up by the cops. He thinks he's nuts. So do his doctors - schizophrenia. He's on medication."
"Poor chap. Yes, you were very vulnerable during the transformation," Carson agreed, nodding. "The physiological process was less risky than we'd feared in fact, but in other circumstances, if it happened around people more afraid of the RAITH…"
"Yeah," John said heavily. "I think some of the ones like me must have changed in GENII holding cells. They’re probably dead. The city's aware of one guy, name of O'Neill, living in a fishing shack way the fuck out in the woods. He's not crazy but he's super paranoid about the GENII. He's been protecting the RAITH in his patch; he keeps the squads away from them. He's far away, though, in Minnesota somewhere. Atlantis can barely catch his thoughts, and he's never been able to access the city's data broadcasts." John shrugged. "He just picks up what I was getting before I changed – bits of dreams and images, nothing definite. Being close to the city makes a difference." He swallowed, mouth dry. He wasn't usually a big talker and all this explanation was exhausting. "We got anything to drink?"
Carson tsked. "What are we thinking. Sit down, lad. Here, wrap this blanket around you and we'll find you some water." He looked up. "Ronon?"
"I'll make a fire, get some breakfast." Ronon rummaged in one of the packs. Teyla produced a water bottle, and John drank thirstily. "Mmmm, good." He grinned at her. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, John. I will make us some tea."
Rodney dropped down beside John on the blanket. "So you're, what? Telepathic now? Can you read our minds?" He looked a little nervous.
"Nah, just the data from the city. I can pick up thoughts – well, it's more like imagery – from all the RAITH – the half-changed ones who're out there in the forests, hiding. I can tune it out, but if I focus on it, it's there, like a low murmur. I think you'd have to go through the transformation as well before I could read your thoughts." But then Rodney would be able to read him as well, John thought, stomach clenching. In response to this, the city showed him how to limit what others could pick up. Man, it was like having a search engine in your head.
Rodney's eyes were huge. "Me? But I probably don't have this stupid magic gene. Or else I'd get stuck in that gross half-way bug state." John winced. "Uh, sorry," said Rodney. He turned to Carson, who was sorting through his medical bag. "You can test for the gene, now we know, right? Carson?"
"Aye. Shall we call it the Ancient gene? Clearly it's rare, from what John says, although it could be more widespread but not expressed, due to epigenetic factors."
John nodded. "Uh-huh, that's what the city's databanks say. With only a partial gene, people just get... stuck."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Stuck, huh? Trust you to take the biggest medical breakthrough since the RAITH plague and boil it down to ten words!" John made a face at him.
Carson was nodding. "The virus was most likely engineered to be widely disseminated, but we're not genetically identical to the Ancients any more, so a fair number of people have this latent or unexpressed version of the gene and the result is an arrested metamorphosis. Oh, this is fascinating."
John drank some more water. "The ones who're half changed've only got limited telepathy. They pick up Atlantis in dreams, and they can sense each other's thoughts if they're close by, but just images, impressions; it's not clear."
"But now we know why this is happening, we can do something about it," said Carson, intent. "A gene therapy. I could develop a key to turn the dormant genes on, using your active gene. Then the transformation could progress to completion, in those where it's been blocked." He sat back in the grass against his duffel, face shining. "Laddie, it's the answer. It's finally the answer."
Teyla settled herself cross-legged beside him and took the boiling pot of water from Ronon's fire, making tea and passing it around in plasglass tumblers.
"That mind-melding thing," said Ronon. "That'd be good against the GENII and the Corporates. No need for micros to coordinate, and they couldn't hack our signals. And once people're fully changed they're gonna look just like the rest of us, like Sheppard here does, right?" John nodded. "Okay, so with all the shit the half-changed ones've been through, and being able to do that mental linking-up stuff, they're gonna make a pretty effective fighting force, I reckon."
Teyla nodded. "Some will want to band together to combat the authorities, but not all, Ronon. People have been ripped from their families, from their homes." She frowned. "But I imagine that if their RAITH-change has been documented in the official records and is known to their neighbors, they will not easily be able to return and pick up their old lives."
"What lives," said Ronon bitterly. "This can't go on – we can't let it go on, and anyway it's all falling apart, no matter how many people those GENII bastards terrorize. We have to fight back." He frowned fiercely. "This is our chance."
"Yeah," said John softly. "Reckon you're right, big guy."
"May I remind you that this is all pie in the sky, or, um," Rodney waved a hand, "pie in the sea, or whatever. It hinges on the gene therapy, if Carson can make it–"
"When," interjected Carson, determined. "When, not if. But I need a laboratory. Equipment."
"Yeah," said Ronon. "And like I keep saying, we need a base of operations where the squads can't attack us." He looked at Carson and shrugged. "While Carson figures out the gene thing."
"There!" John pointed to Atlantis. "We've got a whole city. There's something else I didn't get a chance to mention." He rubbed his face. "Jesus, there's just so much…" He looked up at the others. "You're gonna think I'm nuts again, but she's not just a city. It's why I think of her as 'she'. She's a spaceship. She's got a goddam star drive. She flies." He turned to Rodney. "Guess maybe at one time she was over in the Atlantic. Then they flew her here for some reason."
"A spaceship?" Rodney squeaked. He looked like his head was about to explode.
Ronon was more pragmatic. "How's that going to help?" he asked, brow furrowed. "We can't get out there from here, and anyway, one fly-over by a GENII AGL and the squads'll be onto us. City's a sitting duck now it's surfaced."
"No," said John, tuning back into the data-stream. "No, she's got…ships of her own. Not AGLs, but similar. People with the gene can fly them. And the city's got a shield – that's how she survived underwater all that time. There's a shield, and with some adjustment it can hide her. Make her invisible."
"So much tech," whispered Rodney. "All new and shiny and just waiting for me to get my hands on it."
John smirked at him. "Oh yeah, buddy, you're gonna love Atlantis."
"Ronon?" asked Teyla, putting a hand on his arm. "It could work. This is what we have needed for so long. A safe place, a place to regroup and mobilize, where the GENII cannot reach us."
"Yeah, but I still don't see how we're gonna get over there." Ronon looked around at the windswept promontory. "I don't like it – we're too exposed here, too close to those GENII airfields. Only a matter of time before they bust us."
"No boats around?" John asked, but Ronon shook his head.
"Nope. This place is falling down; there's nothing like that anywhere nearby. I already scouted the area out while you were…you know." He flicked a hand at the abandoned carapace.
"Perhaps we could find a boat further along the coast," suggested Teyla, uncertain. "But it might take some time."
"Wait, wait!" Rodney snapped his fingers and jumped up. "The SUV. It's got anti-grav for short hops. I can adapt it. Not so it'll fly, there's not enough juice for that, but so it's like a hovercraft, just skimming the waves. It'll be a damp ride, but we should make it as far as the city."
"C'mon then, McKay," said Ronon, getting up. "What're you waiting for?"
"You want it now? I haven't had breakfast," complained Rodney, hugging his mug of tea protectively to his chest. "I might pass out again if I'm malnourished."
Ronon snorted. "Fat chance of that. Get cracking and I'll bring you some food. We got pancake mix."
"Ooh," said Rodney, discarding the mug and rubbing his hands together. "Real maple syrup?"
"Now, Rodney," said Teyla, helping him locate his tool case in the crowded rear of the SUV. "You know that Canada is not trading with the Corporates any more, in protest at the disappearances. You will have to make do."
"Maybe we can take the city up the coast," Rodney said, prising off the anti-grav unit's casing. "To Canada. They'd give us asylum. And syrup."
"An excellent suggestion," said Teyla, handing him a wrench. "Once we have rescued as many as we can."
"Of the Changed?" asked Carson, looking up from the duffel he was packing. Ronon flipped a pancake.
"Yes," said Teyla. "We cannot abandon them to more of Kolya's cullings." She gestured out across the ocean. "And we have somewhere for them to live, now. A city."
"I could use the little ships from the city," said John. "Atlantis has quite a few of them. But we need more pilots. Can't fit that many people into the ships on each trip…Oh, wait." He cocked his head, focusing on the city's feed. "We can shield Atlantis's ships as well, make them undetectable. They go fast, more like spaceships than AGLs. I think…yeah, she's got a map of all the gene-holders like me. We can go get them, if they'll come, and train them up as pilots. And I can call the RAITH hiding in the forests, get them to come to collection points so we can evacuate them. They gathered together when we were in the Mendocino forest, so we can start there." He blew out a breath, feeling tired at the thought. "It's gonna take some organizing."
"I will help with that, John," said Teyla, taking a spanner from Rodney who was under the SUV, one hand extended, his fingers snapping impatiently. She put a screwdriver in his palm and the hand disappeared.
"Where's my breakfast?" came a plaintive voice from under the vehicle. Rodney's hand came out again, making gimme gestures. Ronon stuck a folded pancake into it and it shot back out of sight. Munching noises joined the metallic clangs and muffled curses drifting out from under the SUV.
They were halfway across the expanse of ocean to the city when Rodney realized they had no Plan B. Ronon was driving, face grim and determined, big hands tense on the steering wheel. Teyla looked like she was saying a mantra in her head to stay calm, and Carson was white-faced, clutching the back of Teyla's seat. John had that preoccupied look he got when he was tapped into the city's data-feed, like someone listening to implants. Rodney knew John didn't have any implants, and hopefully the feed from the city wasn't open to subversion or to tracking by the Corporates. Drawbacks like that were why none of them had ever been implanted.
He glanced down at the water again, stretching out dark and frighteningly deep all around them. They were in a big metal vehicle designed at best for fording shallow creeks, not pan-oceanic transport. What if his hasty re-jigging of the anti-grav failed, and the SUV fell the remaining few inches into the sea? It had taken on a little water as it skimmed the tops of the waves – the footwell was damp. Would the nose tilt down into the water? Or would it rear up and slide under the ocean ass-first like that holo he'd watched once about an old fossil-fuel ship, the Titanic. The water looked cold, and very deep, and there could be sharks, or whales–
"Breathe, Rodney," said John, beside him. "C'mon, nice and slow, in and out, yeah, like that." He'd been clutching John's hand, he realized.
"I can't swim," Rodney said, his voice small. "Well, I can, a little, but that was when I was a kid, at a rec center sim tank, all nice and tame." He glanced sidelong at the dark green ocean outside the window again, feeling the panic well up.
"Easy, buddy." John squeezed his hand. "It's working just fine. She's a good little puddlejumper and she's gonna get us all there safely."
"But I had no way to estimate the exact distance," Rodney fretted. "The charge left in the AG unit might not– what did you call this thing? A puddlejumper?"
"Sure. She'll be fine," said John firmly, patting the SUV's door frame approvingly.
"It's a car; it's not sentient," snapped Rodney. "You can't mind-meld with everything." Clear blue skies, he thought desperately, clear blue skies.
They barely made it. The SUV's wheels were right in the water, churning up foam, by the time the city loomed overhead. They'd never have had enough lift to get her up onto one of the high-sided metal piers, but John found a long, gently sloping ramp in the city's schematics and told Ronon where to aim. There was a nasty moment when the wheels spun on the weed-slick surface of the old ramp, water spraying out behind them, before their treads caught on built-in corrugations, gained purchase, and they were rolling up, out of the water, just enough juice in the AG unit to get them up off the ramp and onto the deck before the engine faltered and died.
For a moment nobody spoke. Then they were grinning and talking across each other, piling out of the SUV onto the sun-warmed deck, made of some alloy that Rodney didn't recognize. Alien metal! he thought excitedly. John was kneeling with his eyes shut, hands pressed to the deck, face transfigured, and Rodney felt a pang of jealousy. But to go through that freaky metamorphosis…. He shivered, not sure that he had it in him.
They milled about, craning their necks back to peer up at the city. They'd come on board at an outer pier, a small tower rising from the center of the deck. John pointed to an entrance at the base of the tower. "We can get inside there. I can open the door."
"Bring the gear," Ronon ordered. "The car's too heavy to push that far."
It took two trips to empty out the SUV, and they were halfway across the expanse of deck with the final load when the AGL found them, hurtling past overhead and strafing the deck with laser-fire.
"Run!" yelled Ronon, pushing Carson ahead of him, and John grabbed Rodney's shirt and hauled him on, shoving him sprawling through the doors into the cool shadowy space at the base of the tower. The AGL swooped back, firing again.
"Get down!" shouted Ronon, shielding Teyla and Carson as they all hit the deck and the SUV vanished in a ball of flames and coiling smoke. "Shut the door!" Ronon yelled at John over the noise, "Shut the–"
John got that concentrating look and the outer doors slid shut and locked with a click. Through lozenge-shaped windows flanking the doors, paned with gold and green glass – alien glass! thought Rodney – they could see the AGL settle onto the deck, well away from the burning wreck of the SUV. Several GENII militiamen got out, and then a tall, dark figure in a long coat. Kolya. He gestured at the tower doors with his laser rifle, shouting something.
John was dragging their gear into a large rectangular indentation in the back wall, a little like one of the old mechanical elevators Rodney had read about. Did he think they could hide there? They piled in, squashed against bags and standing on boxes, and oh! The doors whooshed closed, and Rodney had to shut his eyes and think clear blue skies several times because it was horribly cramped, really most unpleasant.
He dared a peek, and saw John frowning at a schematic on the back wall. And hey, that looked like a diagram of the city. Rodney peered over, and then John touched something on the wall and there was a split-second flicker before the doors silently opened onto a dimly-lit corridor, totally unlike the tower vestibule.
"Transporter," said John, as though that explained everything, but there wasn't time for the millions of questions crowding Rodney's brain. Transporter? Matter transporter? Fuck.
They piled out of the cramped space. "I've got to find a room with a Chair," said John, peering left then right.
"Well, I'm sure we’d all like a nice rest, Sheppard," said Rodney, tart, "but there's the small matter of a GENII hit squad parked outside, in case you hadn't noticed."
"No," said John, grabbing Rodney's shirt and hauling him off to the left, Ronon loping alongside and the others following. "Leave the gear," John called to Carson, who was struggling to extricate his bags. "Not just a chair," John muttered. "The Chair."
"Yes, yes," panted Rodney, half-running to keep up but still managing to make the necessary air-quotes with his fingers. "'The Chair', excellent, so at least one of us can take a load off. There seems to be a general dearth of furniture here, but I'd settle for a patch of floor, as long as that GENII bastard's not blowing it up."
"You'll see," said John, rounding a corner and palming a control plate beside yet another identical door.
And, oh. The Chair, right. It was smack in the center of a cathedral-like room, part blocky functionality, part fantasy, the tall back covered in filigree designs. John made a beeline for it and sat back, placing his hands on the armrests.
"But what's it for?" Rodney asked, and god, did he hate being out of the loop. As though in answer, the Chair lit up, blue light surrounding John, and holoscreens exploded all around the room, some scrolling indecipherable symbols, some numbers, and there, in front of them, a big display with a bird's-eye view of the pier where they'd landed, the smoking hulk of the SUV, dark figures of GENII militia, and Kolya outside the doors, trying fruitlessly to get inside.
As they watched, Kolya ordered the squad back behind the AGL and shouted a command at the pilot.
"They're gonna bust the doors down with a missile," rasped Ronon, furious.
"Not on my watch," snarled John, from the Chair. He frowned, fingers digging into the soft gel-like pads on the armrests. Four large nozzles rose up from the deck of the pier between the AGL and the tower and high-pressure seawater jetted out, knocking over Kolya and his squad like a bunch of ninepins, even washing the burnt out SUV and the AGL itself off the deck before the pilot could get his craft airborne again. Probably only a matter of minutes before he regrouped, though. AGLs were designed to function underwater for brief periods.
"Nice," said Ronon appreciatively.
"Just cleaning house," said John. "City doesn't like them any more than we do."
A shimmering veil appeared around the pier on the view-screen. "'s okay," muttered John, "I'm just shielding the part that's in the blast zone."
What? thought Rodney. Blast zone? And then it was like the camera zoomed in on the end of the pier. The AGL floated there, squad members clinging to it or swimming towards it. The feed zeroed in to show Kolya grasping a handhold near the upper hatch of the AGL, his coat dripping water as he hoisted himself up.
Then John was there as well, up on the very edge of the deck, glaring down, arms crossed and legs astride. Rodney could see through him, though, and he had to snap his head away from the wall screen and back to the real John, here in the Chair. What the fuck?
"Holo program," John muttered, eyes shut, biting his lip.
On the screen, holo-John said "Wanted you to know that it was me, Kolya. This is for Yellowstone, and Athos, and Sateda. All the people you bastards have destroyed."
Kolya had dragged himself out of the water and was standing in the hatch of the floating AGL. His face was dark with rage, and he gripped the handholds on either side of the opening, shouting "Sheppard? Sheppard! You're dead meat, hear me? Dead!"
"Yeah, no," said holo-John looking back up over his shoulder at the city. "Think you'll find it's the other way around."
Here, in the Chair, real-John frowned, a sharp crease between his eyes, and on the screen, something glowing arced up out of the center of the city and curved down towards the water where Kolya was tugging the hatch closed, ignoring the two last squad members floundering in the waves. Kolya was still visible through the AGL's reinforced plasglass windshield, his face furious then shifting to puzzlement as he squinted up into the sky at the glowing missile descending. He yelled a final threat, shaking his fist as John's projection flipped him the bird, and then the screen went white.
The feed pulled back, and there was nothing there but wild waves and foam, tendrils of steam rising up into the sky. No AGL, no bodies. No Kolya.
"Gotcha," said John, with dark satisfaction.
It was just his luck, Rodney mused bitterly, that despite not being killed by GENII psychopaths, and now living on a floating city – a floating alien city – with John, who had zoomed right through being a giant bug and out the other side, Rodney still wasn't getting any sex. Perhaps there were only so many good things that could happen, or space-time imploded.
All those good things were the problem, really. The amazing alien city was ten thousand years old and hadn't had a tap of maintenance in all that time. Rodney was rushed off his feet from morning to night, well, from night to night, since he didn't exactly sleep much any more. He'd been lurching from one desperately urgent project to the next, wiring in AG-driven generators to boost the city's dwindling power supplies, stumbling over extraordinary wonders – glowing stained-glass cylinders that somehow drew energy from vacuum! – and then dashing off to do more emergency repairs before the flotation tanks flooded and sank the whole damn city. John sometimes collared him and dragged him off to sleep, but that was all they did: sleep.
John was run equally ragged as the only one of their group with that magic Ancient Technology Activation gene that made the city's systems initialize. Not that that was entirely true – it turned out Carson had the gene as well, a fact he'd kept suspiciously quiet until glowy lights started coming on all around him. He'd found a disused genetics lab soon after they'd gotten shot of Kolya and had disappeared into it like a rat into a bolt-hole, emerging only to eat and refusing to operate any Ancient tech on the grounds that it terrified him. Rodney couldn't argue with the urgent need for Carson to crack the gene therapy so they could treat as many RAITH as possible. It was hard, though, not to feel resentful when Carson was tucked away in a cosy lab doing what he loved with nice clean Ancient electron-microscope thingies. Rodney, on the other hand, was crawling through ten thousand year old muck in the desalination center, banging at U-bends with a wrench while John sprinted back and forth the length of the city twenty times a day, touching this and turning on that and holy fuck turning that other thing off before everyone was bombarded with radiation.
So it wasn't surprising that when they finally fell into bed, John was snoring seconds after his head hit the pillow. Rodney, on the other hand, lay there vibrating from a heroic coffee intake coupled with the fear that some Ancient gasket would explode and plummet them all to the bottom of the ocean. It wasn't conducive to sleep, and it gave him far too much time to think.
He thought about John. He seemed the same, as far as anyone could tell; he'd never been forthcoming about his inner world, even in less frantic times. But now he had some sort of mental data-link to the city, like a walking terminal. Rodney'd avidly read comics about heroes with superpowers in his youth; he'd even had a stash of Fantastic Four classics at Area 51 before it all went to shit, but it was one thing to admire superpowers in the pages of a comic, and quite another to be sleeping with someone who apparently got data-feeds from alien tech and was telepathically linked to thousands of mutated humans hiding in the crevices of society. Rodney didn't think the fact that he hadn't had an erection since they got to the city was solely due to exhaustion and coffee; he figured his cock was just plain intimidated.
Rodney sighed and rubbed his face wearily. He and John had never had a relationship most people would call normal, anyway. The clubs, and the kink, and then John going buggy and shutting him out entirely, the self-sacrificing dick. It had all happened so fast, in the end – there'd been no chance to talk about how they…. Yeah, like either of them was any good at that, anyway. And now there was no time, and John was…altered…and their old dynamic seemed so distant it was like two other people. Rodney couldn't see how they were going to get past all that, and he was almost too tired to care. Almost.
The ships in Atlantis's hangar nearly made up for Rodney telling him in no uncertain terms, nose smudged with black grease, that John wasn't going to be flying the city any time soon. Probably never, unless they found a lot more of the weird energy sources like big golden batteries that had Rodney incoherent with excitement once he'd figured out what they were. Something about a vacuum, or a point in subspace, or some damn thing.
Still, flyers that responded effortlessly to John's thoughts and could leave atmosphere! He'd settle for that. The city inventoried them as gateships, maybe after the roof-gate that opened like an iris for take-offs and landings, although John also got fragmentary schematics of a huge metal ring with a flyer threading the needle. That part of the database was damaged and incomplete, and when John tried to check it at a terminal he got a flashing warning about "insufficient power". Whatever. John decided to call the little flyers puddlejumpers in honor of the SUV, and he and Ronon went out on short-range supply trips, bringing back food and other essentials as well as tools and material for Rodney's emergency repairs.
He wanted to start the evacuation of the RAITH, but it was harder than he'd hoped. Despite his transformation he didn't find it easy to communicate clearly with the ones whose genes were blocked, and until Carson made progress, they could offer so little. The RAITH preferred forests and wild places. John didn't think the damp, damaged lower levels of the city, all metal and sludge, were a good exchange for woods and caves. He and Ronon took a puddlejumper back, though, and located a few of those who'd gathered in the Mendocino forest. They were easier to win over, and he was able to bring Kanaan and a few others back, although they hid away in darkened quarters and stairwells, keeping to the ruined, once-drowned sectors where the city's shield had failed. Many more RAITH stayed hidden in the cool depths of the woods, despite the continued threat of GENII raids.
They'd made a temporary base in a less-damaged tower on the East Pier. Two weeks had passed, and all four of them except Carson were gathered around a holotable in what seemed to have been an Ancient meeting room. John leaned forward. "We're hanging on here by our fingernails. Camping in the ruins." He gestured at Rodney, who was pecking frantically at his laptop muttering something about balancing out power surges in the emergency network of linked AG generators and the almost-depleted zero point vacuum thing. "Rodney's run off his feet and Carson's gone to ground to work on the virus. I'm forbidden to touch anything new because Rodney hasn't had time to deal with the stuff I've initialized so far–"
"I agree, John," said Teyla. "We must defer rescuing the Changed. We do not yet have a safe refuge, let alone a solution for them. The few who returned with John and Ronon have taken the food and bedding we left out for them in the lower levels, but even Kanaan…" She swallowed. "I think he does not want me to see him like this. He is…elusive."
"Need more people to run the city, and for the whole operation," said Ronon. "If it's safe to bring them here." He stared across the table at Rodney, tapping obliviously away at his laptop, a stylus clenched between his teeth. "McKay?"
"Huh? What?" Rodney blinked and put the stylus down.
"What's with that shield that stops the GENII seeing us? It gonna keep working?"
"It's cloaking the city, yes, but as I said before, we can't have both shield and cloak at once. So we're hidden, but if anyone dropped a bomb on us that'd be curtains. And we're only properly hidden because I patched footage from the nearby ocean into the cloak rendition, otherwise there'd be a suspiciously city-shaped footprint with no waves in it."
"Nice going, Rodney," said John. "That was smart thinking." Rodney looked smug.
"Yeah," said Ronon. "But it's not safe. Like he said – they could stumble on us any time. AGs from Little River airfield are overflying us a few times a day. Probably still running searches for Kolya's lot - we're too close to the local GENII bases."
"You want to move the city?" John asked. "We can't fly her – don't have enough power for that. Right, Rodney?"
"Mmmm. Sorry to disappoint, but unless I can figure out how to recharge the ZPMs, that's never going to happen."
"The Zero Point Modules. I told you – they use vacuum energy by folding subspace. Incredibly advanced." Rodney's eyes went dreamy. They always did when he was thinking about the glowy jello-mold battery things.
"So," said Ronon doggedly, "we can't fly the city. Gonna have to sail her."
John frowned and Rodney looked up from his laptop. "She's not exactly square-rigged, Ronon."
"No, but," John checked the data-feed and thought "on" at the table screen. A blue schematic of the city appeared, blocky structures deep beneath her lit up in orange.
He and Rodney spoke almost as one. "Maneuvering engines." John bent over and pointed out the relevant parts on the diagram. "She's got engines here and here. They're part of her storm defences, and for small-scale relocations. They don't use anywhere near the power of the flight propulsion system. See, these are the figures. Rodney?"
"Yes, yes, I'm calculating. If we use…hmmm…four of our AG power sources together with the last ZPM and shut down all non-essential functions, we can sail her like a…"
"Huge floating city?" asked John, grinning. He checked the data-feed again. "I can do it from the Chair."
"You're still thinking we should go north?" asked Teyla, looking at Rodney.
"To Canada," Rodney said firmly. "They cancelled their extradition treaty with the States in protest after the Yellowstone culling."
"Plus they have real maple syrup, right?" John teased.
"It's a point in their favor, yes," agreed Rodney, flushing. "I have citizenship. It might help, but I think they'd give us sanctuary anyway – especially if we develop a gene-therapy and offer the RAITH treatment and a home base."
"I agree," said Teyla. "Canada has taken in large numbers of refugees with the virus. I believe they would welcome a solution." She looked at Ronon, eyebrows raised.
"Might work," he agreed, considering. "If we were in safer waters the risk'd be a lot lower. I don't trust the GENII not to raid up the coast across the border, but they don't want outright war. We'd be safe if we stayed cloaked."
"Okay," said John, leaning back in his chair. "Looks like I just joined the navy." He grinned. "You can call me Captain Sheppard."
Rodney snorted. "Who made you the boss?" There was a small, pregnant pause, and he shot John a nervous glance. "I, er…I mean…"
John shrugged. "Nah, you've got a point. We've pretty much been winging it, but like Ronon said, we need a hell of a lot more people to make this lunatic plan viable, and we can't wait until Carson fixes the RAITH problem. We need to recruit, and the more people we have, the more we'll need some kind of command structure. Need to figure that shit out now." He looked around the table. "Gene or no gene, I don't want the top job. I've got enough to handle with the city interface, the RAITH and flying the jumpers. I'll be more use out in the field anyway – especially once we start evacuations."
"I wanna hit back, once we can," said Ronon. "I'll help run the offensive when we get to that point – and I'll train our forces. But I don't want it all – the city and the whole operation. Not my thing."
"Don't look at me," Rodney said quickly. "My people skills, I'm reliably informed, are abysmal. Anyway, I'm a scientist, not a politician. I'm far too busy keeping us all from sinking to the bottom of the Pacific, not to mention recharging near-magical energy sources and getting ten thousand year old plumbing to work so that we can flush more than three toilets at once. And Carson just wants to do research and cure the RAITH."
"I see," said Teyla. "Am I to take this as a nomination?"
"Hell, yeah," said John. "All in favor?" He, Ronon and Rodney raised their hands, then lowered them, looking sheepish.
"Face it, Teyla – you're perfect," said Rodney, spreading his hands. "You already have experience running an organisation. You're a natural diplomat, and you've got that zen thing going."
"Have I indeed," said Teyla, looking tired. "I suspect that I will need it."
RAITH Boatpeople Granted Safe Haven: USA threatens border closure
By Gabrielle Davison, Vancouver Sun, April 25, 2029 9:01 PM
Following information leaked from the Prime Minister's office, an official press release has confirmed that a large vessel carrying activists, scientists and refugees from the increasingly totalitarian United States has been granted safe haven by the Canadian government.
The ship, called the Atlantis but about which no other details are available and whose precise location is undisclosed, is apparently anchored west of British Colombia in Canadian waters. It is said to be carrying passengers infected with the RAITH retrovirus together with medical and support staff, including activists who sailed the ship from California to avoid GENII militia incursions.
Their leader, Teyla Emmagan, said today: "None of our guests pose any risk to the Canadian populace. Atlantis is a haven and treatment center for those with the virus and we invite refugees already based in Canada to join us, as well as Canadian citizens affected by the virus. Atlantis carries scientific and medical staff and is actively developing treatments for the RAITH retrovirus. We are grateful to the enlightened government of Canada for granting us safe anchorage."
Joseph Cowen, the United States ambassador based in Ottawa, sent a stern diplomatic note to the Prime Minister's office demanding the release of the vessel to USA military authorities and threatening to close the border with Canada in retaliation. In a media release, he described the decision to shelter the Atlantis as "a hostile act, aiding and abetting terrorist insurgents who have brazenly stolen classified technology from the United States of America". He also stated that if allowed to remain, the ship would be "a source of contamination, rotting the Canadian nation from within."
Dr Janet Frasier, an immigrant from the USA herself and now Director of the Public Health Agency of Canada, denied Ambassador Cowen's assertion and said that in her opinion the expertise on the Atlantis was "a positive resource and the best source of hope for those afflicted by this virus that we have seen in many years." She released a statement denying that the Atlantis posed any public health risk and will be visiting the medical team there to assist with their research.
From: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
To: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
Subject: Very Important!
I never thought I'd say this, but I need your help. Plus, you need to be here, Radek, it's amazing. Indescribable. Damn – I can't explain by email. Not that I don't trust your ability to encrypt properly, but... No, actually I don't trust you to keep it encrypted – not on an academic intranet, plus you're bound to have grad students and this is just too big to let them get their sticky hackerish fingers into. Call me.
From: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
To: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
Subject: Re: Very Important!
And hello to you too, Rodney. So nice to hear your dulcet tones again, even in email. I see your ego has survived the USA top secret military establishment and you have become an international terrorist. Bravo, my friend, I knew you had it in you. I cannot call you as do not have number of a secret boat parked somewhere off the Canadian coast. What exactly do you need my help for? I am not a sailor. My number is in public domain on prague.uni.net. If it's so crucial, you can call me.
From: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
To: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
Subject: Re: Very Important!
Might have known this would turn into a pissing contest. I've texted you my number and I'm serious as a heart attack: call me. This is absolutely an offer only a moron would refuse. See above where it says I'm Chief of Science and Engineering? Not doable so I need you to come and take over Engineering to free me up for the real science. You can have minions.
From: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
To: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
Subject: Re: Very Important!
Minions are all very well, but if you are my boss I will have to decline your very baffling job offer. Ah, your text has pinged so I will call.
...Do prdele! I am still in shock. You were joking, yes?
From: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
To: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
Subject: Re: Very Important!
NOT JOKING. When can you get here? Boss is Teyla Emmagan. You'll like her.
From: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
To: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
Subject: Re: Very Important!
Next week. Tuesday. You had better not be joking, Rodney, or I will kill you with secret techniques learned in Czech military.
From: Rodney McKay, Chief of Science and Engineering, Atlantis
To: Radek Zelenka, Charles University, Prague
Subject: Re: Very Important!
Yes, yes, I'm quaking. See you next week. Bring vodka.
"No crawling about in sludge-filled tanks ever again!" crowed Rodney, barreling through the door to their quarters with his shirt already pulled up over his face as he headed for the bathroom. He flung it to one side and bent over to push his pants down, giving John a fine view of his ass as he toed off his boots. "Finally! Zelenka's happy band of plumbers has taken over. Oof!" he kicked his boots under the divan. "They even got the toilets working across two whole levels. Now I can devote myself entirely to the power differentials and recharging the ZPMs. And sleep! I might actually get some sleep – unimaginable luxury." He bundled his pants and socks up and chucked them haphazardly at the laundry crate, then turned and beamed across at John. Then his face fell.
"Ah," said John awkwardly from the bed. Perhaps the handcuffs had been going a little far, but he'd been hoping Rodney'd be in a good mood after a day spent bossing around his old scientist buddy. He widened his stance slightly, sitting back on his heels and flexing his hands in the cuffs. It felt good but kind of weird as well – so goddam long since they'd played. Christ, had it been before he Changed? Must have been. It seemed like another lifetime, but he'd been so busy sorting out the recruits Teyla and Ronon's underground network had sent their way. And Rodney, as he never failed to remind everyone, had been racing about preventing one damaged piece of Ancient tech after another from exploding or imploding. "Hi," John tried again. "I thought we could…maybe…have some fun?" Rodney was still looking like a deer in the headlights. "To celebrate," John explained, increasingly off balance. His treat seemed to be falling flat.
"I, yes," said Rodney, clearly meaning no. "I, that is…I'm just, um, sweaty and, and messy. From showing Radek the crawl spaces where the worst damage is." He flailed generally at the bathroom. "Just let me, ah, spruce up…"
"Yeah, no problem," said John, trying not to let his disappointment show – he'd hoped they could relax and take their time. They'd hooked up a few times in the last frantic weeks, but just for a few rushed blow jobs or mutual jerk-off sessions, nothing fancy. Rodney hadn't said no, not yet, but he was acting weird and clearly the mood was gone. "Can you?" He twisted and waggled his cuffed wrists. They were real cuffs, part of Ronon's new city security gear, together with weapons and a designated brig. "The key's there, on the nightstand."
"Oh, oh yes," blurted Rodney, hurrying over and fiddling with the cuffs. "Yes, sorry. Look, I just need to take a shower, okay? Don't go away. But, um, it's been a long day – so maybe something simpler? I could blow you?"
The handcuffs sprang open, and John massaged his wrists. "Yeah sure, whatever. Go freshen up." He lay back on the bed. He wasn't going to say no to a blow job, but he'd rather be the one giving it, kneeling between Rodney's legs while Rodney fucked his mouth. Somehow he didn't think tonight was going to play out that way.
Anyway, vanilla was fine as long as he and Rodney were cool. He knew they needed to talk, but…yeah, no. Rodney was probably just tired, like he'd said. Blow jobs and cuddling, no worries. He looked across at the cuffs on the nightstand, sighed, and then stashed them in the sex drawer, eyeing the lube sadly as he closed it.
Yeah, vanilla was fine as long as he and Rodney were cool. Which they were. He circled his fingers around his left wrist, remembering the feel of the cuffs, and waited for Rodney.
Evan Lorne slumped on his favorite bench in the late afternoon sun and drowsed. It was better outside, in this quiet corner of the hospital's gardens. He still heard the voices, whispering in his ear. They told him to join them, deep in the woods, told him to run and hide. They didn't upset him as much as they had, though, out here in this overgrown corner of the institution's grounds. Sometimes he had visions of a city, silver towers shining in the sun. The hallucinations had been worse before, overwhelming, but the drugs the staff gave him had dulled them, made them bearable.
He should head back inside soon, get his five o'clock meds, but it was noisy in there with the vid room, the other patients chattering and arguing, sometimes yelling back at the voices, sometimes sobbing. He'd been confused, too, at first. He'd thought he was dying, infected; he'd had all the signs. But he must have been wrong because here he was, human as ever. Crazy, but human.
He hadn't been crazy before, hadn't had the voices. He'd been a pilot, once, a lifetime ago. His lifter'd been shot down, and maybe it was the transfusion. Contaminated blood. They shipped him home and they said he was fine, just a broken arm and some nasty cuts and bruises. He discharged himself from the VA hospital two weeks later when he felt himself changing, went back to his apartment and waited until he was sure, then took his truck to the nearest national park and started hiking. No way he was waiting for the GENII to come knocking.
After that he'd gone crazy and it was all hallucinations and nightmares as he shivered in his tent in the woods, delirious. Vague memories of losing everything – sight, movement, speech, then he was drowning, then surfacing, screaming and running, running through the woods away from the nightmare-thing, insectile, a shell. The voices had started then, and the visions, and he'd run onto a highway and nearly been flattened by a logging truck. So it hadn't been the virus, just ordinary madness. Some sort of combat psychosis or schizophrenia, they said. Evan shut his eyes. He'd go in soon and have his evening pills.
"Mind if I sit here?"
The guy with sticking-up dark hair was a stranger. He didn't look like a patient. Lorne knew he should be cautious, but there was something about him...
"Buddy?" the guy asked again, raising his eyebrows.
Evan nodded. "Sure." He slid along the bench a bit and the spiky-haired guy sat, elbows on his knees, not looking at him.
"Nice spot you got here," said the guy. Evan wondered if he was military; he was wearing some sort of dark BDUs. Not GENII gear, and the shoulder-patch was nothing Evan had seen before. That hair wasn't military, though. The guy turned and smiled at him, and Evan found himself smiling back, uncertainly. "I'm John," the guy said. "John Sheppard. You're Lorne, right? Evan Lorne?"
"Yeah," said Evan slowly, frowning. "How'd you know my name?"
"It's a long story," said the guy. Sheppard. "How would you like to fly again, Lorne? You're a pilot, right?"
"I was," said Evan, putting some bite in it. "Then I went crazy." He gave Sheppard a flat stare. Maybe this jerk got off on tormenting patients with bullshit dreams about stuff they couldn't have. Evan frowned. Maybe the guy wasn't real at all, just another vision. Unable to stop himself, he reached out and fingered the dark fabric of Sheppard's uniform. It felt like a BDU shirt, but then the voices sounded pretty real, too.
"Yeah, I'm here, buddy," Sheppard said quietly. "You've been hearing voices, right? People in the trees, telling you to join them?"
"You've had it too?" Evan asked, staring. "And the visions?"
"Of the city? Lots of towers, kind of alien-looking?"
"Yeah!" Evan grabbed the guy's arm urgently. "What – did they cure you? Is there some treatment? Would it work on me?"
"You're not sick, Lorne. It's something different, a special gene you've got, together with the RAITH virus. But yeah, I can help you control it. Look, it's easier just to show you. You ever watch Star Trek?"
"That old show?" asked Lorne, totally thrown. "Um, yeah, I was a fan. Had the classic series on holodisc. Kirk and Spock and–"
"Yeah," said Sheppard. "Spock. What I'm gonna do, it's like a Vulcan mind-meld, okay? So don't freak out on me. Try to relax."
"Relax," said Evan doubtfully, "while you do a Vulcan mind-meld on me. I think maybe you need the meds more than I do."
Sheppard sighed. "Look, Lorne. I'm a pilot, too. I know it's been a rough time but this place has to be killing you. Just give it a try, okay? Don't you want to fly again?"
Evan swallowed. "If this is some mind game... If you're messing with me, Sheppard, I'll beat the crap out of you."
Sheppard politely didn't call him on the empty threat. "It's a deal." He held out his hand. "It works better with contact, c'mon."
Tentatively, Evan reached out and gripped Sheppard's hand. "Now what?" he asked.
"Now this," said Sheppard, and he blew Evan's mind.
There was nothing in the hospital that Evan needed, so when Sheppard dropped the invisibility camo on the flyer – the jumper, Sheppard called it – Evan followed right along. There were two men inside, a big guy in lots of leather and another guy, ex-military, by the look of him, in a uniform like Sheppard's.
"This is Ronon and Stackhouse," said Sheppard. "Guys, this is Lorne." The big guy just grunted, and Stackhouse nodded a greeting.
"Went okay?" asked the Ronon guy.
"Yeah," said Sheppard. "Lorne's in. We thought we'd skip the discharge planning formalities and head straight for the city."
"Suits me," said Ronon, stretching his long legs out in the back.
"You mind, Stackhouse? I want Lorne up front," said Sheppard. "So he can get used to the HUD and try out the interface."
Stackhouse nodded and got out of the co-pilot's seat, waving Lorne in and taking the chair behind Sheppard. He leaned forward. "You're gonna love this," he said to Lorne. "It's a blast."
"You're a pilot too?" asked Evan.
"Yeah, and now you make three of us. Be good to have someone else, the roster's been a bitch." He grinned at Sheppard. "No offence, sir." Sheppard rolled his eyes.
"There's no one else who can fly these…jumpers?" Lorne asked, distracted by the glowing read-outs and schematics Sheppard had called up on the view port.
"We're still looking," said Sheppard. "There's this one guy: O'Neill, ex-Air Force too. Bit like you – he went bush and changed in the wild, but he got control of it pretty fast so no one misdiagnosed him as psychotic. He's out in the woods in Minnesota, built up a network helping RAITH cross the border into Canada. We've linked up with his outfit, but he wants to stay there and run his own show. Maybe in the future, though…we'll see." He turned to Evan. "You want to fly her?"
"Hell, yeah," Evan said.
Sheppard nodded. "Like I showed you, it's a mental link. Just tell the jumper what you want to do. Take her up, then head north. Tell her to head for the city. She's cloaked again, got sophisticated scanners to avoid any AGLs we might encounter."
"Okay," muttered Evan, biting his lip as he opened his mind to the interface – silvery, welcoming, elegant – and told the little flyer what to do. "Up we go…." They rose smoothly into the air, the state hospital dropping away below them, a wing of west-facing windows flashing pink in the setting sun. He turned the jumper north, dark blue sky ahead and the sunset to their left.
"Second star to the right," said Stackhouse with a grin, "and straight on till morning."
"You're certain the poor lad's given informed consent, John?"
Carson had drawn John aside into the nursing office adjacent to the treatment area. In the main room, screens surrounded Kanaan's bed. The treatment room was darkened, and Teyla sat beside Kanaan, talking to him softly.
"I've shown him images of what happened to me, and he knows the therapy's never been tried on someone with the latent gene so we can't be sure of the outcome. I'm gonna stay with him as much as I can, though, to reassure him. So's Teyla, of course. He's been clear that he wants to be the first to have it, even with all the unknowns. So yeah, I'm sure." John handed over the form on a clipboard.
"He canna sign his name of course, not in any meaningful way. This is his mark?" Carson indicated a large ragged X trailing across the signature line.
"Yeah. I've countersigned, here, and written that he's given cognitive consent." Carson raised an eyebrow. "Well, I couldn't put 'telepathic consent', could I?" John said, shrugging. "Rodney suggested we call it that."
"Aye. It'll all have to come out sometime, though. If this works we'll publish the results and there'll be more trials, until the therapy's widely available. It's only a matter of time."
"I know, but we thought we'd keep the mind reading side-effect quiet until a lot more people have been treated. The GENII are paranoid enough as it is. Besides, we don't know yet if this gene therapy of yours'll even work."
"True enough, but I'm optimistic. The in vitro trials with Kanaan's tissue samples were very promising." Carson rubbed his hands together. "Right then, let's get to it. No time like the present."
"You're just a glass half full kind of guy, aren't you, Carson?" said John with a smirk, following him out of the office.
Carson looked back. "Aye, if it's a glass of single malt you're talking about, laddie."
"Make this work and I'll buy you a crate," promised John.
"John?" Teyla touched his shoulder and he looked up, seeing Kanaan beside her, his entirely human shape silhouetted against the dim light from the hallway. "We will stay with Marta now. Kanaan will comfort her. You should rest."
"Yeah, I guess…yeah, sure," said John, standing, stiff from the infirmary chair. He linked with Marta again to tell her he was handing over to Kanaan.
Marta moved her hand convulsively, the claws clacking. She made a choked noise in her throat and then Kanaan was there with them, a calm presence in her mind. He soothed her, calling up images of her favorite place in the forest, a fern-fringed cave under the roots of a fallen tree.
I am here, Kanaan reassured her. All will be well with you, as it was for me and John Sheppard. Try to sleep. Marta's thoughts drifted, and Kanaan smiled at John. You, also, my friend. You have done more than enough. It is my turn now. He took John's chair and picked up Marta's hand.
Teyla walked John out to the hallway. "You sure he's rested enough to manage this?" John asked, glancing back. Kanaan was a shadow among shadows in the darkened room, his mind shining brightly with images of Teyla. Even at the surface level of his thoughts it was too intimate, and John closed off the link.
"He is fully recovered," Teyla said, and even though she didn't have the ATA gene and he had no mental link with her, her happiness was palpable. "We enjoy these vigils – it gives us a chance to be together, and to talk. And for me, it is a respite from the pressures of the day." She drew his head down to touch brows, her hands on his arms. "Thank you, John."
"Hey, I didn't do anything, it was Carson and his harem who cracked the gene therapy."
"They are not his harem," said Teyla, mock severely. "They are highly qualified physicians and researchers."
"Sorry," said John, grinning. "It's what Rodney calls them. He's a bad influence."
"You encourage each other," Teyla said, smiling, "Go to him; we are fine here." She squeezed his arm and slipped back into the room where Marta lay.
Another few days, John estimated, before Marta reached what Carson had started calling endstage encapsulation. "I can hardly call it pupation, now can I?" Carson had said. "That'd be a tad too entomological for general consumption."
It had been so much easier for Marta and Kanaan with John to calm and reassure them. Now Kanaan could help, and soon there would be Marta as well, and then others. They'd be better at it than John was, his memories still tinged with the raw panic he'd had to suppress when showing them what to expect.
He began walking. Rodney was probably asleep – It was late, even by Rodney's night-owl standards. The remembered terror of his own metamorphosis twisted inside John, Marta's changes bringing back flashbacks of his own limbs immobile, hands turned to claws. He was suffocating, drowning, becoming a monster.
John thumped his fist against the wall and it brightened reflexively. He rubbed at his face with one hand, forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths. Then he turned, jogging down the hallway, into a transporter and outside, onto the pier with the wind in his face, running, running.
"Wha--?" Rodney started awake, still half in the dream he'd been woken from. In it he was slotting fresh ZPMs into the Power Room sockets, the city coming alive around him. He sighed regretfully and let it slip away.
John was moving around the room, stripping off his clothes, damp with sweat. "Time is it?"
"Late. Go back to sleep. I was with Marta."
"Mmmph." Rodney knuckled his eyes, yawning. "She okay?"
"Yeah, it's going well. Teyla and Kanaan are with her now." He moved towards the bathroom.
"You're all sweaty," said Rodney, catching his arm as he went by.
John stilled. "Went for a run," he said.
Rodney peered blearily at the clock. "What, at...3 am?" His gaze sharpened. "Why?"
John's arm twitched. "Just…restless. Needed some fresh air."
Rodney narrowed his eyes. "It's being with Marta, isn't it? You were like this with Kanaan as well. It brings it all back."
John shrugged, but he didn't pull his arm away. "I can handle it. Kanaan's helping now."
"You can handle it," said Rodney, frowning. "Panic attacks, and flashbacks and nightmares. But you can handle it."
"Yeah," muttered John, not meeting his gaze. He disengaged his arm from Rodney's grip and went into the bathroom. The shower started.
Rodney got up and pulled a t-shirt on over his boxers. He stood in the bathroom door, watching John through the steam. "Maybe you should see someone. Get some help."
John turned the water off and started drying himself. "Nah. Talking doesn't help me."
"I guess it's easier for you with Kanaan, now," blurted Rodney. Damn. He hadn't meant to say that.
"What?" John's face emerged from the towel, hair standing up in all directions.
Rodney waved one hand, then crossed his arms and glared at his feet. "Now you can not-talk telepathically. With each other." He lifted his chin. "I suppose you think I should do it, too."
"Do what?" John sounded equal parts pissed and baffled.
"Get the gene therapy. Do the bug-thing. So we could do the–" he flicked his hand between himself and John. "Not-talking."
John's face tightened. "I never said you should Change. When did I ever say that?"
"You don't need to say it!" Rodney snapped, wheeling away to pace up and down beside the bed. "It's always there between us. How can we be together when I'm just me, and you've got, I don't know, superpowers?"
"That's crap," said John angrily, pushing past him and hauling on boxers and a worn t-shirt. "I'm still myself. Anyway, what about Teyla and Kanaan?"
"Oh, for…she's Teyla!" Rodney shouted. "She's practically got superpowers just as she is! I'm not all zen-like and calm and accepting and, and…Plus I hate not knowing! Not having that connection to the city. All that amazing data – imagine what I could do with it!" Rodney sagged, deflated. "And, and, I do want to be able to…" he flicked his hand between them again, "not-talk to you properly. It's like we're cut off from each other. Different species."
"Jesus, Rodney. It's not like that," said John, biting his lip. "I'm still me. Anyway, you could get the therapy if you wanted."
"Oh yes, that's easy for you to say, Mr. Flashbacks-R-Us. But it's not just the gene therapy for me, is it? I'd have to get Carson to infect me with the RAITH retrovirus as well, after I'd had the ATA treatment. I can't…I don't." He turned away. "I'm not brave like you," Rodney said in a small voice.
"Christ." John came up behind Rodney and put his arms around him. "It'll be okay. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. We're fine, really."
"Are we?" asked Rodney, hating the plaintive sound of his voice. "You're the one having a shitty time putting yourself through it again and again, and here I am, making it all about me. I should be helping you. Comforting you. I would have, before. I'd have taken you down and looked after you."
John's arms tightened and he rested his head against Rodney's, but he didn't say anything.
"I miss it," Rodney said quietly. "Us, like we were. I miss taking you down and keeping you safe."
"Yeah, buddy," said John softly. "I miss it too." He sighed. "We could still…"
"I can't," muttered Rodney miserably. "I'm off balance. Can't get into the headspace any more with all this…stuff. I'm sorry."
"Hey," murmured John, holding him. "It'll be okay. We're okay."
Rodney didn't reply. It should have been him holding John, caring for him and taking him where the nightmares couldn't reach him.
"Come to bed," said John.
ATA Gene Therapy for Adults Affected by the RAITH Retrovirus: A Case Series
C. Beckett (corresponding author), L. Biro, J. Frasier, J. Keller, C. Lam.
Canadian J Infect Dis. Published online 2029 September 30; 232(4): 442–451.
The RAITH mutation has been shown to be a partial metamorphic transformation arrested prior to completion in individuals with the ATA gene in latent (unexpressed) form [Beckett, June 2029]. In those with no ATA gene, no mutation occurs. In those with the fully expressed gene, complete metamorphosis occurs. See linked articles on ATA gene epigenetics [Keller and Biro, July 2029].
A small sample of RAITH-affected adults who had given informed consent to the procedure were treated with ATA gene therapy. Ten male and 8 female subjects participated. Subjects were aged from 22 to 57.
All subjects showed rapid transformation following therapy, culminating in encapsulation followed by recovery with no residual physical mutations. All subjects made a full recovery, with no mortality and no significant morbidity other than transient anxiety symptoms and insomnia. Time to full recovery varied from 16 to 23 days. All subjects noted enhanced sensory functioning following recovery.
In an initial sample of 18 adults, ATA gene therapy was successful in treating the RAITH mutation in 100% of subjects. Further research is needed but the therapy appears very promising. A large multi-center trial is planned [Frasier and Lam, Sept 2029].
Keywords: RAITH, gene therapy, ATA gene, case series
Re: Decisions decisions
The thing is Jean-o, John's never going to come out and say I should suck it up and do the bug thing, because the whole process scared him shitless. I mean – he was turning into a monster, and he was trapped in his body, no control, like locked-in syndrome. Plus he honestly thought he was dying. We all did.
Every single one of the people we bring in for debugging has a 100% easier time than John did because he helped the first few through it himself and then trained them up to help the rest. He had to, I don't know, psychically transmit what Carson was going to do and he stayed with them through it even though he was sweating and freaking out, going through it over and over. But he made himself be Mr. Living Proof because he's just stupid that way, even if it gave him panic attacks and flashbacks after. And nightmares. The nightmares are bad.
So John pretends like it's totally cool – hey, whatever, Rodney, it's your choice – and I know it is. I just…no one's ever done the full thing before – the ATA therapy and the retrovirus. Carson says it'll work, that I've got the latent gene. He's a quack of course – probably just wants another splash page in Nature. I've never trusted doctors, not since that moron GP back in Vancouver almost killed me after the tangerine jello disaster. But…all that data, Jean-o, it drives me crazy knowing I can't access it and more and more people – who aren't me, who aren't geniuses! – have it right there on tap.
Also I don't like feeling this different from John. Carson's experimenting with sedation, and he's got the whole transformation down to two weeks now. But I don't know if I can risk it – if anyone's going to develop hideous side-effects from the gene therapy, it'll be me. I want to be closer to John, but it's a big step. By which I mean it terrifies me.
Re: Decisions decisions
"I want to be closer to John, but it's a big step." You said it, Mer.
Re: Decisions decisions
That's what you fixate on? Too much daytime holovision's rotted your brain. Anyway, in romcoms, aren't people supposed to love each other for what they are and not try to change the other person? We're talking about changing all my goddam DNA here, not just getting me to eat with my mouth shut (not that you ever succeeded with that, ha!)
Re: Decisions decisions
Sounds like John doesn't want to change you. You want to change you. Maybe it's the closeness that's scary. Maybe you don't want to let John inside, let him see who you are. It'll be okay, Mer. I know what you're like in there and I still love you. Mostly...
Re: Decisions decisions
Not helping! Go away now. I need to think.
Ronon finished the Security report, which was mercifully brief, and Radek started droning on about stabilizing the environmental controls before winter. Rodney tuned him out, glaring at the spreadsheet open on his laptop. He added risk of lethal hypoglycemia during transformation (John stopped eating) to the "cons" column, then typed should be able to fly jumpers if it works on the "pros" side. Not that he wanted to join John's growing pool of amateur pilots, although being able to take a flyer up above atmosphere to gather solar emission data would be handy. After another moment's thought, he added turning into a new species to both columns.
"Thank you, Radek," said Teyla, inclining her head. "Carson and John cannot give reports on Medical and Flight Operations today as they are in the infirmary, monitoring the new patient's ATA therapy." She looked across at Rodney. "He is one of the RAITH O'Neill's network sent to us – apparently he used to know John?"
"Yes. Ford something, or maybe that's his last name. He used to be John's cop partner, so of course John has to oversee his Change personally." He rolled his eyes and tried not to sound bitter. It wasn't that he begrudged the time John spent in the infirmary but he'd thought they were over this – that John had handed on babysitting transformations to the others who'd changed less traumatically. Rodney hoped John was coping, but he figured they were in for another run of flashbacks and panic attacks.
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "You're gonna want him to do the same for you when you get the treatment."
"Who says I'm going to subject myself to Carson's quackery, huh?" Rodney bristled.
"Then you're a fool, McKay. If I had the gene, I'd do it like a shot." Ronon shrugged and stood, looking at Teyla. "We done here?"
"Yes, we are done," Teyla said, frowning up at him. "Thank you, everyone." She cast a concerned glance at Rodney as the others gathered their pads and laptops and left the room. "I am sure Ronon did not mean…"
"Oh, I'm sure he did," Rodney said wearily. "He's just saying what everyone else is too polite to come right out with, John included."
Teyla shook her head. "John of all people knows why the decision is not simple. I do not believe he wants to influence you in either direction."
Rodney smiled tightly and stood, gathering up his pad. "No. He just wants me to decide. Hell, I just want me to decide."
"Wake up, John!" Rodney shook his shoulder. John moaned again, thrashing, drenched in sweat and all twisted up in the sheets. "John, wake up, it's just a dream!"
"No, not that! Not the…wha?" John jerked awake, shivering, pupils wide and dark. "Where?…oh, fuck." He curled up on his side, clutching his stomach and rocking.
"Oh my god, you're a mess. Come here." Rodney pulled John into his arms, stroking his back and drawing the covers up around them. "Bad one, huh?"
"Yeah. Ford – you know he was in the Yellowstone culling? Found a cave, holed up, but he's been kind of a crazy loner ever since. All he can think about is killing GENII. I kept having to show him Kolya going boom to calm him down."
"Ronon'll love him. He'll fit right into the Fight Club." John snorted, but relaxed a little, his breathing easing, less shallow and rapid. "You can't keep putting yourself through this, you know?" Rodney said softly. "It's not fair on you."
There was a silence, then John whispered. "I can handle it. Some of them, like Ford, if I know them. It helps if it's someone they know."
"Um, yes. About that." Rodney took a deep breath. His timing was crap, but if he didn't say it now... "I'll make you a deal." John made a questioning noise into his chest. "One more, then no others. Me. Help me get through it, then promise me you'll let Kanaan's team look after everyone else."
John pushed back, peering up at Rodney's face. "Really? You've decided?"
"Yes, but there's the ATA gene therapy first, for me, and Carson'll want that done and dusted before he'll risk giving me the virus." Rodney faltered, losing confidence. It was too much to ask; John shouldn't have to go through it again. "Look, no, you don't need to baby-sit me, I'm sure I'll be fine." He swallowed, aware he was babbling. "I can get Kanaan and Marta to stay with me, it'll be okay, so really, you–"
"Yeah, like I'm gonna let that happen," said John, smiling up at him. He ran his thumb down Rodney's cheek, stroking the soft stubble along his jaw. "Of course I'll help you handle it, and anyway, Carson's got it down pat these days. What made you finally decide?"
"Enhanced mental abilities? Hotline into the database? Remote possibility of improved communication between us? Please, it's a no-brainer." Rodney frowned at John. "Anyway, if we're turning into a new species, I'm not going to get stuck with last year's model." John snorted, and Rodney raised his eyebrows. "So – deal?"
"Oh yeah, sure. Just you, no one else." John pulled Rodney into a wet, happy kiss, then slid down his body. He paused to push Rodney's t-shirt up and suck on his nipples. Rodney squirmed and gasped. John slid down further, taking Rodney's boxers with him. He paused with his mouth hovering over Rodney's stiffening cock and licked his lips, then looked up. "Just you, Rodney, no one else," he repeated, low and full of promise.
Propped against the pillows, Rodney stared down at him. John was sprawled between his legs, messy hair sweat-soaked and his lips red where he'd bitten them. His eyes were dark and fixed on Rodney. "Suck me," Rodney said, his voice rough.
John shuddered and his eyelids fluttered shut. He closed his hands around Rodney's hips and his mouth around the head of Rodney's cock, then he took a ragged breath through his nose and went down, swallowing frantically. It was like something out of a porn movie: John's dark head rising and falling, the noises, the hot salty smell of sex. There wasn't much of Rodney's observing brain left to store the sight away – he was too busy fucking up into John's greedy mouth. John liked it when he thrust, grunting and choking, but sucking harder, curling his tongue around the shaft. He whimpered, head bobbing and hips working helplessly against the sheets, completely gone.
No one could withstand this, some vestige of Rodney's brain managed to conclude, and he didn't try to hold back or prolong it. The head of his cock slid deliciously in John's throat and he clawed at the bedclothes on either side, fisting his hands in the sheets. It was vacuum point energy, raw power, the hot bright point building, swelling, bursting from him as his hips arched and he shouted incoherently, coming in hot sweet pulses into John's mouth.
John sucked it out of him, moaning as he chased every drop, then pulled off, a trickle of come trailing slantwise down his chin. He was darkly flushed, his hips moving erratically as he rubbed off against the sheets. "Please," he gasped. "Rodney, please, please I–"
"Yeah," rasped Rodney, and he reached down and knotted his hand in John's hair, pulling his head sharply up and back. "Come for me now, John."
John cried out hoarsely. His hips jerked convulsively and his face went slack. Rodney waited until he'd stopped shuddering then released his grip. John collapsed on top of him, gasping, his face mashed into Rodney's thigh. Rodney rested his hand on the back of John's head, gentling his messy hair.
"Oh my fucking god," said Rodney dazedly, and then there was no talking, just ragged breathing. He pulled on John's arm after a while and got him to slide up, tucking the blankets around them. "So you've missed me being decisive, I take it?"
He looked down. John was grinning into his armpit, eyes shut. "Oh yeah," he said.
"Take a break, laddie." Carson touched his shoulder and John blinked, shaking his head to clear it. Rodney had fallen asleep after the last sedative dose and John must have nodded off as well. He stretched, then winced. He was going to make it a priority to get more comfortable infirmary chairs.
John looked up at Carson. "He's doing okay?"
"Right on target. Really, John, it's going swimmingly – you should get some shut-eye. How's he doing from your side?"
John rocked his hand in a so-so gesture. "He's sleeping now. I've had to keep calming him down about the endstage, when he's not gonna be able to move at all. It's triggering his claustrophobia so there's been a lot of 'clear blue skies' stuff." He smiled tiredly at Carson. "Kind of my forte, as a pilot."
"Aye, very handy," Carson agreed. He checked the monitors and made a note on his pad. "What was that godawful high-pitched noise he was making last night?"
John grimaced. "I was trying to distract him with movie memories, but he spiralled off into panicking that he was turning into a pod person." He gestured at a laptop beside the bed, headphones beside it. "The music was a great idea, though, thanks for suggesting it. It really works." John rubbed his neck. "He's even turned me on to Bach and Beethoven. It's different somehow, hearing it through Rodney's brain. It makes more sense."
Carson nodded. "Well, I must say that since his vocal cords fused this morning, my infirmary's been blissfully quiet."
"Yeah," John said ruefully. He tapped his head. "In here, not so much. Not since he got far enough along to be able to communicate."
Carson eyed Rodney eagerly. "He's the first patient who's started Changing without partial telepathy. I wonder if he'd let me do a qualitative case study about his experience. In the interests of science."
"Uh oh, he's waking up," said John absently. "Must have been the s-word." John's eyes went unfocused, then he smirked. "Yeah, no, I don't think I'm gonna tell Carson that, Rodney." He looked up at Carson. "He's not a big fan of qualitative research. You can imagine: 'soft science', 'voodoo', 'touchy-feely bullshit'. Those were the polite bits, before he got onto your sheep-buggering credentials."
Carson rolled his eyes. "Just because you dinna understand it, Rodney. But we'll discuss it later when poor John's not playing piggy in the middle." He turned back to John. "Really, lad, try to get some sleep. You're looking a little ragged around the edges."
"I will, Carson. He's drowsy and he's dropping off again. I'll use the bed next to him."
"That's what it's there for," said Carson. He eyed Rodney carefully, raising the sheet to check the extent of chitinization. "Three more days, I'd estimate."
"Yeah," said John. "Three more days."
"Okay, I know you're having some kind of data-orgy, but it's time for bed, Rodney."
Wait I can't leave this now it's the stardrive system. Rodney flapped a hand at John, who was leaning in the doorway.
"Yeah, you can leave it. Jesus, Rodney, you've been in the lab drowning in data for the past fifteen hours. Carson said you still had to take it easy – it's only been a few days since your change."
Too much to do. Far too busy. Rodney didn't look up from his laptop screen.
John rolled his eyes and came over, putting a hand on Rodney's back. I'm feeling kind of neglected here, buddy. C'mon, come to bed.
Rodney blinked and peered up. John?
Yeah, buddy. Me. He switched to speech. "Might have known you'd be impossible once you had access to all that data. But you gotta pace yourself. You'll burn yourself out." He sent Rodney a graphic image of a moth burning up in a candle flame.
"Eww," said Rodney, grimacing.
"The data'll still be there in the morning," John told him, pulling at his arm.
Rodney shook John off but reluctantly got up and closed the laptop, sending John a vivid technicolor vision of Zelenka running off with a huge armload of Rodney's data.
"How is that even possible?" John said, rolling his eyes. "He doesn’t have the gene, Rodney!"
Rodney scowled and sent images of sneaky-looking rats, hoarding squirrels and Zelenka stealing the last muffin.
"Yeah, I was afraid that there was gonna be a downside to this telepathy thing with you. We've created a monster." John pushed Rodney gently towards the door. "Come to bed and put those talents to a better use."
Rodney smirked. You're hoping I'm feeling decisive, huh?
John grinned. "I am, yeah." He glanced at Rodney. "It's weird with you not talking so much. Is this like the data-obsession? You're playing with your new superpower?"
Rodney gave him a look. "A) it's a superpower, so yes. B) it's you. The mind-melding stuff's a lot freakier with people I don't know. And they shut me out more. They say I'm too noisy."
John grinned. "Now there's a surprise. But I know what they mean. You try to dampen it down for the rest of us but there's a lot going on in there. It can be overwhelming, linking with you." He sent an image of Rodney's mouth moving in a blur.
"Oh, ha ha." They reached their quarters and John palmed the lock-plate. Rodney looked thoughtful. "How's this going to work? We can't use the link when we're in a scene, can we? How am I going to take you down if you know what's coming the whole time? Or use a gag. Hmmm. That might be hot, though, if you couldn't speak but could use the link just for sensations."
"Maybe we should keep it simple at first and not use the link. Or just bring it in when things are getting really good, to, you know, amplify it all." John sent an image of a dog chasing its tail.
"Wait, what? what's a dog got to do with…oh, that's meant to be a feedback loop? Oh my god, we definitely need to work on your imagery vocabulary." Rodney paused, one finger raised. "Oooh, I just realized, we can share fantasies."
John smiled wickedly and pulled him into a kiss, sending an image of himself flat on his back on their bed, wearing nothing but a black corset and a cock ring. Cords attached to dark leather cuffs around his wrists pulled his arms up above his head and were knotted onto the ornate wall panel. John's back was arched and he was keening, eyes shut and mouth open, his legs folded up against his chest. Strong, capable hands gripped his thighs, spreading him wide as Rodney fucked into him.
Rodney pulled back from the kiss, cursing and pressing one hand hard against his groin. "Oh sweet Christ. You've got a corset?"
John flushed and rubbed the back of his neck, but couldn't resist sending Rodney the image of a locked toy box, under the bed.
"You really have been looking forward to this, haven't you?" Rodney grinned. "Okay, we're definitely doing that thing with the corset, but tomorrow, okay? You're right – I have been overdoing it, and all this telepathy's exhausting. Tonight you can ride me. Now strip down and get yourself ready."
John pulled off his clothes, then clambered onto the bed and lay back, spreading his legs to give Rodney, who was undressing more slowly, a good show. He slicked up his fingers from the tube of lube on the nightstand and slid one into his ass, moaning a little, already thrumming with arousal after the telepathic teasing.
Another. Rodney was at the end of the bed, his eyes fixed on John's fingers.
John slid in a second finger, stretching himself, enjoying the burn.
And another. Take it for me. Open yourself.
John whimpered, pushing in a third finger. The mental commands were even hotter than speech. He added a mind-controlled sex slave scene to his wish-list of things to negotiate with Rodney.
Rodney was kneeling at the foot of the bed now, staring avidly. He sent an image of John's fingers plunging into his ass, and John almost came on the spot. "Too much, need you in me please, please–"
"Over. Up." Rodney slapped his hip and he rolled to hands and knees and knelt up. Rodney took his place on the bed, wriggling to get comfortable. His cock was hard and he raised an eyebrow at John. "Come here and use that leftover lube on me."
John scooted forwards and used his wet hand to slick Rodney up.
Yeah, c'mon, ride me John. Now. I want to fuck you.
John shuffled forward eagerly and steadied Rodney's cock, lowering himself onto it, thighs shaking. He leaned forward and put his hands on the bed to brace himself, either side of Rodney's chest. He'd meant to take it slow and easy, but the feeling of being splayed wide for Rodney to fuck into was intense, and he couldn't help but give himself up, opening his mind in a flood of shared sensation as he opened his body.
They both lost it, the careful slide changing to frantic thrusting. John's eyes locked on Rodney's, their minds linked as Rodney fucked up into him and John moved in desperate tandem. Hot thick so good Rodney so big pressure filling me got to move got to yesyes JohnohgodJohn perfect harder deeper moremoremore yesthere rightthere fuckyou takeme mine yours mine yesyes comingnow comingnow yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes.
"Fucking hell," said Rodney, a few minutes later. He always got his words back first. John was semi-comatose as Rodney pushed him to one side, cleaned them both off and then pulled up the covers. "Okay, so that's going to need work. Pretty incredible, though, huh?" he poked John. "You gone to sleep on me?"
John was too drowsy to bother talking. He sent an image of a purring cat curled around Rodney, smooching him.
"Yes, yes, I love you too. Idiot."
(11:30:39 PM) jeanniebean: john emailed me while u were changing. ok now?
(11:31:55 PM) smarterthanu: amazing. brain wireless linked 2 alien database. u shld do it 2
(11:32:34 PM) jeanniebean: ha ha no. kaleb not keen on genetic engineered anything
(11:32:08 PM) smarterthanu: luddite. why u married him i'll never know
(11:32:55 PM) jeanniebean: not this again >:-(
(11:33:10 PM) jeanniebean: anyway u were freaked until a few weeks ago. u can't talk
(11:33:59 PM) smarterthanu: think u'll find I can talk. to alien databases!
(11:34:39 PM) jeanniebean: v. droll. back at work?
(11:35:09 PM) smarterthanu: never stopped. 3 words: zero point energy source
(11:36:44 PM) jeanniebean: 4 words. also not possible
(11:37:08 PM) smarterthanu: totally possible. come visit & i'll show u
(11:38:57 PM) jeanniebean: can't leave kaleb and maddie
(11:39:38 PM) smarterthanu: aw cmon. help me recharge semi-magical alien battery
(11:39:58 PM) smarterthanu: need ur brain
(11:41:59 PM) jeanniebean: now ur like a bad zombie holo. No really can't leave the family
(11:42:20 PM) smarterthanu: bring the luddite and mads
(11:42:58 PM) smarterthanu: sea cruise. mads wld love the city. pretty please?
(11:45:14 PM) jeanniebean: …maybe. I'll talk 2 kaleb. u really ok?
(11:45:56 PM) smarterthanu: yes yes. telepathic sex is spectacular
(11:46:48 PM) jeanniebean: OMG mer. TMI !!!
(11:47:01 PM) smarterthanu: well u asked
(11:48:19 PM) jeanniebean: not about that! john wld kill u
(11:49:18 PM) smarterthanu: yeah, point. no really, talk 2 kaleb. I'll clear a lab 4 u
(11:51:39 PM) jeanniebean: i'll try. zero point energy?
(11:52:18 PM) smarterthanu: really. srsly amazing tech u have 2 come
(11:53:36 PM) jeanniebean: ok i'll try. TTYL
(11:54:18 PM) smarterthanu: :) bring maple syrip
(11:54:57 PM) smarterthanu: \syrup
John stepped off the transporter at the 35th level. The lifesign still glowed on a south-facing balcony.
Identify lifesign? the city queried.
No, John thought. If need be he could call up a map of all 214 residents of the city, tagged with names and image files. It would have been an invasion of privacy, though, so he never did, keeping the capacity in reserve for emergencies. Anyway, he was pretty sure he knew who the solitary watcher on the balcony was. He was often up here.
"Sheppard." Ronon acknowledged his presence as John stepped up and leaned on the balcony railing beside him. He didn't look at John, just gazed straight ahead across the ocean. It was a calm night, clear and not too cold. The sun had set an hour ago and a waxing crescent moon splashed a silver trail across the sea to the east.
"Nice night for it," responded John. "You come up here often?"
"Yeah," said Ronon. He shot John a wry glance. "Like you didn't already know."
John tipped his head in acknowledgement. "Thinking about home?"
"My home's gone, Sheppard. I'm thinking about payback."
Ronon nodded, and turned, staring out towards where the United States lay, cloaked in distance and darkness. "This shit can't go on."
"Think we're ready for it?"
"No, but we will be."
John couldn't keep a note of scepticism out of his voice. "Rodney hasn't cracked the ZPM recharging yet. Or drone manufacturing."
"He will." Easy for Ronon to say. Rodney wasn't anywhere near as confident.
"Maybe." John shrugged. "But even with the treatment being rolled out in Canada and Europe soon, it's still gonna take a while to build up a critical mass of the Changed."
"Yeah, but it's happening." Ronon turned slightly and caught his eye. "When we're ready, you in?"
John thought about Athos and Sateda – places he'd never seen, now gone forever. He thought about Chuck's cousin, about Ellia and her father and the GENII-incited lynch mobs he'd seen in the memories of the RAITH in the woods. A scene from Ford's memories of Yellowstone flashed before him – stunned RAITH immobile in a high mountain pasture while GENII soldiers moved from one crumpled form to the next, shooting each one in the back of the neck with cold efficiency.
Crazy to think of taking on a whole country – of spearheading a revolution. Not like it hadn't happened before, though. They'd need the city fully operational, but if Rodney could…
"Yeah," John said. "I'm in."
- the end -