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But a Whimper

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This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
- T.S. Eliot

For most of Rodney's life he had believed the end of the world would come with the mushrooms clouds of a hundred nuclear bombs spread across the world. With the proliferation of weapons and the growing hostility between various countries it had seemed inevitable, but perhaps he should have paid greater heed to the fearful misgivings of his best friend, Carson Beckett, because it wasn't the bombs dropping that sent the world into free fall. It was the smallest of creatures on the planet; a virus more deadly than Ebola, Marlburg, or Bubonic plague combined, cooked up in the laboratory of a small country with an intention of wiping out a tiny, unwanted subset of their population. It carried on the trade winds, mutating faster than anyone could have believed until even the cure that was meant to protect the rest of the creator's people provided no guarantee of survival.

The incubation period was 72 hours and without the cure 98% of those infected died within 36 hours of displaying symptoms. Yet even with the so-called cure the survival rate climbed to only 48%.

The virus swept across the world once it reached the denser populations of the cities, carried on airplanes and ships by sick passengers to every corner of the globe, including to McMurdo, 60 miles north of the Ancient Outpost hidden beneath the ice of Antarctica. The world was falling into chaos and anarchy with frightened people attacking medical centers and research laboratories on even a rumor they might be holding stocks of the cure, desperate to give themselves and their loved ones better odds on survival.

Rodney listened as the McMurdo base commander issued a lock-down on all incoming and outgoing flights.

"Wait! You can't do that! We don't have enough supplies to last thirty people a few months, let alone indefinitely."

"Doctor McKay, if we don't issue a lock-down then you might not have thirty people left to use up those supplies."

Rodney cursed under his breath. If the SGC had introduced decent safety protocols before the infection reached Cheyenne Mountain and two of the three Earth ships, then his science team would not be in this predicament. The third ship, the Daedalus, had been ordered to remain in orbit until the virus burned itself out or a cure was found - or in the worst case scenario, until the crew had no choice but to leave and find refuge on another world. It meant there would be no help coming from them. They were on their own for the foreseeable future. He folded his arms and looked across the star-map table at General O'Neill, who had arrived only an hour earlier on the last flight sent out from McMurdo. A thought crossed his mind. What if O'Neill or his messy-haired pilot had brought the plague with them? He took a step back.

"Um, are you sure you're not infected?"

Carson sighed heavily. "General O'Neill and Major Sheppard are not carrying the plague, Rodney. I tested their blood before allowing them access."

"Oh. That's... comforting," he replied, ignoring the similar expressions of annoyance on the faces of both military men.

"Aye, which leads me to wonder if... Major, can you hand me that wee object?"

Major Sheppard frowned, likely noticing how everyone seemed to freeze and stare at him as he reached for the item Carson had pointed out. It radiated blue the moment it touched Sheppard's skin.

"Oh, that is so unfair," Rodney moaned, looking away in irritation as yet another military Neanderthal proved he had a natural expression of the ATA gene, and a strong one at that.

Elizabeth and Daniel looked intrigued while O'Neill had a smug expression.

"Just as I suspected," Carson murmured to no one in particular.

"Carson?" Elizabeth questioned.

"Only 2% of the population have the ATA gene... and only 2% seem to have a natural resistance to this plague."

"You think it's the same 2%," Daniel murmured. He looked thoughtful. "We know the Ancients abandoned Earth between five and ten million years ago because of a plague. What if this is the opposite, a plague that attacks only humans?"

"Ancients?" Sheppard asked, reminding Rodney this was Sheppard's first exposure to the world's greatest secret - the Stargate and the countless worlds on the other side of the wormhole.

Daniel started to explain but O'Neill interrupted.

"History lesson later. Let's see if we can stretch those rations a little further... and we need to figure out a way to get more supplies without compromising the Daedalus."

"So a quick run to Kroger's is out," Sheppard quipped.

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Daedalus has a hyperdrive and Asgard beaming technology. If not from Earth then she could get supplies from out there." He indicated vaguely upwards, "And beam them down here."

"And then we risk our enemies discovering our current weakness and attacking," O'Neill replied.

"Or blockading the planet to stop the plague spreading to other worlds," Daniel added.

Rodney glanced at the Major, who was trying to look unfazed by talk of aliens, spaceships, and other worlds.

O'Neill turned to Sheppard. "Major, I need you to take stock of supplies, including personal supplies."

"Wait! That's unfair!" Rodney exclaimed, and Sheppard tilted his head one way then the other as he stared at him.

"Why, you got a stash of Twinkies you don't want to share?" he teased.

"No." Rodney frowned in confusion. "And what's that supposed to mean? I'll have you know this is just layers." He tugged at his orange fleece, ignoring the way the others hid smiles behind their hands, and not noticing how the tension had eased.

*****

When Rodney went to grab a meal later he was confused momentarily by the lack of choice. Before there would be several different dishes and meal accompaniments, and a selection of desserts. Now it was limited to a far smaller portion, fortunately cooked bland but with a choice of sauce on the side for added taste. Earlier he'd been forced to hand over four Snickers bars, a Kit-Kat, three large bags of chips, and his personal stash of expensive coffee when Sheppard's men came calling. It still rankled even though he understood the necessity.

After another week things settled but Rodney noticed how often the new major turned up in his laboratory, not that he had any objections because the man was gorgeous. Sheppard didn't even seem to mind the light switch duty, turning Ancient artifacts on and off and letting Rodney know their purpose, which did make Rodney a little suspicious, wondering if O'Neill had ordered Sheppard into the laboratory so he could avoid the duty. Elizabeth and Daniel were scouring the Ancient database in the hope of finding a solution to their current predicament while Carson spent his days locked away in the genetics laboratory demanding blood from any natural gene carriers like a fussy vampire.

Rodney frowned, eyes widening as realization set in. He pointed at Sheppard. "You're avoiding Carson!"

"What? No!" Sheppard protested but Rodney recognized the look on his face, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Okay, maybe a little."

"Huh! I thought so." But he felt a little disappointed nonetheless.

Rodney didn't have much time to dwell on that as Carson came rushing in.

"I have it!"

"Yeah, well let's hope it's not catching," Sheppard murmured.

"No! I have the retrovirus using mouse DNA, to give the ATA gene to those without a natural expression... and I need someone to test it on."

Rodney sat down and rolled up his sleeve, confused by Sheppard's shocked expression.

"Are you insane? What if it turns you into Ramrod?"

Rodney pointed, "I knew you were into Batman." He waggled his finger. "No, no, no. You can't deny it now."

"And you're changing the subject," Sheppard declared.

"Carson, are you sure about-? OW!"

"Don't be such a baby, Rodney. If it takes, you should know in a few hours... and if you have any side effects then-."

"Wait, what side effects?"

"Oh, dry mouth, itchy skin... the urge to run in a small wheel," Carson chortled at his own joke as he packed up the small medical kit and left.

"Ramrod," Rodney stated. "Best villain?" he asked.

"The Joker. Adam West or Christian Bale?"

The next few hours went by quickly despite Rodney's impatience to know if the gene therapy had taken. When the item he was clutching tightly in his hand started to flicker, the light growing stronger and stronger he turned to Sheppard all excited, gaining a goofy smile in return. It had worked. It was only then he realized it meant he no longer needed anyone to switch Ancient devices on and off for him but the following day Sheppard was still hanging around Rodney's laboratory, much to Rodney's relief and pleasure. He still wasn't quite sure why he enjoyed Sheppard's company so much. A good looking face and body had never held Rodney's attention for more than a few days but Sheppard was not just a pretty face. Beneath that non-regulation hair cut lay a quick mind that he tried to conceal, and he played a mean game of chess.

A call on the radio unit sitting on top of his work bench had him grabbing for it.

"McKay here."

"Rodney, we need you in the Star Map room, and if you see Major Sheppard, can you ask him to join us as a matter of priority," Elizabeth ordered.

Rodney looked across at Sheppard, who would have overheard. "We're on our way." At Sheppard's inquisitive stare he raised his hands palm up. "I have no idea."

When they reached the room Rodney discovered they were not the only ones called to the meeting. The room was not very large so it seemed crowded with the designated heads of various departments plus the two military officers. Carson bustled in a minute or two later.

"So glad you could join us, doctor," O'Neill stated, voice laced with sarcasm.

Carson nudged Rodney, "What's that supposed to mean?" he whispered, but Rodney could only shrug.

O'Neill opened the meeting. "Two hours ago Washington D.C. went dark."

Rodney wasn't quite sure why that was significant but he noticed Sheppard straightening from his not-quite insolent slouch.

"Sir?"

"Colonel Caldwell?"

Rodney noticed the monitor, and the grim expression of the man on it.

"We lost contact with Homeworld Security and the Pentagon two hours ago. Attempts to keep the virus out failed after a staff member breached security by bringing in his family. Doctor Beckett, your theory was correct. The ATA gene does offer full protection from the virus, and none are carriers, which makes personnel with the ATA gene safe. Your gene therapy switches on the ATA gene for 48% of test subjects, and combined with the original cure, brings the survival rate up to 61%. Unfortunately we were not able to synthesize and distribute the cure quickly enough. The few survivors have been transported to Cheyenne Mountain to await further instructions."

"Cheyenne Mountain?" Rodney queried. "That's a mass grave."

O'Neill winced. "Yeah... the survivors in the SGC used the opening wormhole to incinerate the bodies, until the grid failed. They're on back-up generators now."

Rodney looked away, wondering who had made that decision. It must have seemed the easy option at the time, rather than carrying all the dead topside and digging a mass grave.

Caldwell continued. "Doctor Beckett, have you discovered a means of increasing the percentage above 61%."

"I'm working on it. The virus has mutated, which is why the original cure is no longer viable on its own. My ATA gene therapy merely switches on an existing but recessive gene sequence. All attempts to introduce the gene sequence into test subjects has failed, which is unsurprising as I suspect the Ancients didn't want just anyone able to use their technology."

"I don't understand. Why do some people have it naturally, or recessive, while half the population doesn't have it at all?" Elizabeth asked.

Daniel spoke up. "I can answer that. The Ancients left Earth in their spaceship city to escape a plague. Ten thousand years ago they abandoned the city and returned to Earth. Some of them interbred with the second evolution of this form, the new humans. Us. In other words, those with the naturally occurring or recessive gene have an Ancient in their ancestry. The rest of us do not."

"Spaceship city?" O'Neill asked.

"Atlantis," Rodney breathed and Daniel smiled.

"The city that sank below the waves, except it wasn't here on Earth, or even in this galaxy. I have the address," Daniel announced. "We can go there."

"There may still be Ancients living there," Elizabeth murmured, and Rodney could hear the excitement and awe in her voice.

"And they might have a cure for the virus, or the technology to find a cure before the virus mutates again and affects even those with the ATA gene," Carson stated.

Rodney felt horrified. "Is that possible?"

"Aye. Anything is possible."

"More likely someone will come to investigate why Earth has gone quiet," O'Neill added.

"And will spread the virus across the galaxy." Daniel looked grim at the prospect.

Elizabeth drew herself up straighter. "We need to find that cure."

****

The logistics of an expedition under their current circumstances were a nightmare, though at least they could use the Daedalus to transport staff and equipment into Cheyenne Mountain once everyone had been screened to ensure they were not carrying the virus. Next came deciding who would go and who would remain behind. The power required to open a wormhole to an address in another galaxy was enormous, and even if they still had the national power grid it might still not have been enough by his calculations. The only other option was to use what little energy remained in the Antarctic Outpost ZPM but that would power only one connection. Just 38 minutes to send through all the personnel and equipment, and there would be no opportunity for a dry run. Rodney was also aware of the ticking clock on their supplies, with every day eating into their rations, literally.

One week later Rodney looked around the now empty outpost. He and Sheppard were the only ones left now and he had one final task to perform. Fortunately John had agreed to stay behind with him because the outpost felt as a cold and creepy as a tomb.

He could feel John watching him as he removed the ZPM from the Ancient Outpost, carefully placing it into a well-padded case. The lights dimmed, now powered only by a single generator in the structures above the surface of the ice. he could feel the coldness stealing in, shivering as shadows danced at the edges of the feeble lighting. It was deathly quiet with just the sound of his and John's breathing. He noticed how their warm breath became visible in the ever-cooling air.

"I hope they haven't used all the generators at the SGC," Rodney grumbled.

Rodney knew they would need to take as many of the Mark 3 generators as could be spared as they had no idea what they might find when they reached Atlantis. The best case scenario was a cache of ZPMs sitting on the gate room floor, and the worst was reaching Atlantis and finding it had been picked clean before it was abandoned, and left without power at the bottom of an alien ocean.

"You ready," John asked.

Rodney glanced around the room one last time knowing he might never see this place again. Finally he nodded, bowing his head and hunching his shoulders as Sheppard gave the order to transport them up to the Daedalus and then back down to the SGC.

They arrived in the space just in front of the ramp leading up to the Stargate, but the sudden rush of noise from all the people and activity around him after so long in the quiet Antarctica outpost sent Rodney spiraling into a panic attack. He felt the pressure of hands holding his head, covering his ears, and Sheppard's face was right in front of him, blocking his view from all the chaos surrounding him. Sheppard's lips were moving but Rodney couldn't hear him above the waves of fear crashing around him. He felt warm, firm yet soft lips press against his, the shock of being kissed breaking through the panic gripping him. Rodney blinked as Sheppard pulled back, his hazel-green eyes holding Rodney's, and Rodney found himself falling into those eyes, mesmerized by the swirls of color from brown to gold, from green to blue.

"You kissed me."

"You okay?"

"You kissed me."

"Maybe I should get Doctor Beckett." He started to turn to walk away and Rodney grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

"You kissed me."

"I think we already established that," Sheppard replied.

"Why?"

"Well, I did consider slapping you."

"But you didn't. You kissed me."

Sheppard glanced around him, looking uncomfortable. "Can we have this conversation another time?" he wheedled.

"John." Sheppard stilled, licking his lips nervously but that merely drew Rodney's attention back to them. He leaned in and kissed John. "We will talk later," he stated, emphasizing the 'will' and John shrugged with one shoulder.

'Later' came that evening when Rodney pinned John to the wall of the small quarters he'd been given and kissed him thoroughly, savoring the taste and feel of the man in his arms. Somehow they moved just the few steps from there to the bed without falling over each other as they shrugged out of clothing, discarding it haphazardly. It had been so long since Rodney was last with another man and he'd almost forgotten how freeing it was, able to use his strength without fear of hurting his partner, and be handled just as roughly in return. Their desperation abated a little once they were both naked on the small cot, lying skin to skin as they explored each other, learning what each liked or shied away from. Rodney ran his fingers through the dark chest hairs, enjoying the way John shivered and arched into his touch as his fingernail scratched over a nipple. They kissed lazily now, with slow caresses as they moved together, feeling the sensations of pleasure building until with one last gentle thrust of his hips Rodney came, hands gripping John tightly as he felt John climax moments later.

After cleaning up they lay together quietly, bodies pressed close in the narrow cot.

"We should talk about this."

"Talking's overrated."

Rodney rolled his eyes but he had to admit he had never been good at bed talk so maybe that was for the best.

****

The next few days were filled with activity, and a strange dichotomy of excitement and trepidation hung over the air as the final moment approached. The gate room was filled with equipment and personnel, most laden down with heavy backpacks. He recognized faces and a few names. Carson nodded nervously as their eyes met. Beyond him he could see the strange little Czech engineer who had proved useful when building a cradle to connect the ZPM to the SGC's dialing computer. Next to Zelenka was Miko, her eyes enormous behind her thick glasses, but Rodney knew she was a lot stronger and more fearsome than she looked, and an excellent scientist. Military mingled with civilians, most of whom had no one left on Earth outside of these concrete walls, lost to the virus that had reached all corners of the world.

His thoughts turned to his sister and her family, and to John's brother and his family, feeling lucky. The Daedalus had transported other survivors, mostly family members, to the SGC where they could be better protected but 38 minutes was not enough time to take everyone. Much to his annoyance, Jeannie had come up with a solution but then she had always been exceptionally brilliant, which was why it had rankled so much when she chose being a wife and mother over a potentially stellar career in academia. Once the ZPM was depleted by the first connection to Atlantis, she and Sam Carter would trickle-charge it using energy drawn from a series of pocket universes. It would take months but eventually they would be able to dial Atlantis a second time, opening another 38 minute window for more personnel and equipment. And so on for as long as necessary, even if that meant sending everyone left alive on Earth.

On the minus side, she wouldn't be part of the first expedition to Atlantis, leaving her in danger should the virus mutate or breach the SGC for a second time.

He had said his goodbye earlier, feeling more choked up than he thought he would, and recognized the same in John when he said goodbye to his only remaining family, though John looked far more stoic as he hugged his brother. Now he and John were in the gate room waiting for the final chevron to encode.

"Colonel?" O'Neill ordered, catching Rodney by surprise when he realized O'Neill was talking to John.

Only then did he notice the change of insignia and the new rank on the velcro'ed name badge since John left their shared quarters only a few hours earlier. The field promotion would make John the highest ranking military officer on Atlantis. Perhaps that was the whole point as O'Neill had opted to stay behind in command of the SGC, to protect Earth for as long as possible.

The plume of the connecting wormhole burst outwards before settling quickly, and Rodney locked eyes with John for a moment before John walked through. Telemetry from a MALP had already revealed breathable air and tolerable conditions, but even though they had spent just a handful of night together, he hated the idea of being separated from John by such a vastness of space.

Moment later the light in the gate room turned GREEN.

"Okay, people, let's go!" Elizabeth shouted.

Rodney had pushed his way to the front and he moved swiftly now, feeling the disorientation of crossing thousands of light years in seconds. He blinked as lights began to brighten all around the new arrivals, feeling a slight welcoming pressure in his head. He was standing in Atlantis, and hope blossomed inside him. He knew in his heart that everything they needed to save what was left of the human race was right here in this city, whether that was a cure for the virus or a quicker means of bringing the survivors to Atlantis. All they had to do was find it, and Rodney knew that would be the hardest part but he had never shied away from hard work.

Ahead of him John turned and smiled, waiting for him at the bottom of majestic flight of stairs. Rodney joined him, holding hands as they climbed the stairs together.

END