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A Mantra for These Times

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"Sheppard is not dead." It's Rodney's mantra, everyone on Atlantis knows, enough not to say the wrong thing around him, not to provoke it. Don't speak of Colonel Sheppard in the past tense, because he's not passed; he's future tense, his time yet to come, forty-eight thousand years to go.

 


It takes them almost a month to figure out that (approximate) date, after Zelenka finds the solar flare—"What? That's impossible, the failsafes should've kept the wormhole from connecting—" but of course they hadn't, and of course Rodney should have realized that sooner. Not like he's got anything better to do. Every day he's sorting through Michael's possible hideouts, calculating odds and interviewing allies, but has nothing significant to show for it.

He and Ronon go to world after world and don't find Teyla on any of them. And every night Rodney spends an hour or two in front of his computer—not any longer; this problem can keep, Michael's got Teyla now and Rodney's got forty-eight thousand years to figure out how to bring Sheppard home. But it relaxes him enough for a couple hours' sleep, to look over the hypotheticals, the scenarios he has yet to test. Time travel's a theoretical absurdity but a practical fact, and you better appreciate this, Sheppard, contemplating building a flux capacitor for real just to save your bony ass.

He actually goes so far as to look up the cost of a DeLorean, just to imagine the look on Sheppard's face when they turn up to bring him home. Maybe they could paint flames on a modified jumper.

Forty-eight thousand years, and the IOA takes all of forty-eight hours to declare Sheppard KIA, about the fastest they've ever moved on anything. The funeral's four days after that. Rodney bites his tongue at the service—he's been yelling for the last four days that this is ridiculous, burying the empty casket of someone who won't die for at least forty-eight millennia; his voice is hoarse by now anyway—and sits between Ronon and the empty space where Teyla would be sitting, if they'd found her yet. Teyla and her baby, which probably has been born by now. Maybe she'll name him John.

Five days after they return to Atlantis, they find Teyla.

 


On New Athos, Rodney stands before the pyre, smoke and ash tearing up his eyes. Ronon stands beside him and there's no one on his other side—where Sheppard should be standing, he thinks. Only Sheppard wouldn't need be here, because Sheppard would have saved her in time; because Sheppard was always the knight in shining armor, even if Teyla was never the damsel in distress. Except this once, but this once Sheppard was gone.

Rodney's fault, of course; the glitch in the gate's failsafes was due to an error in the last update that he should have caught. He's fixed it, but it's too late; it's all too late. Sheppard could walk through the gate tomorrow, and his first question would be, "Did we find Teyla?" and they'd bring him to New Athos where they scattered her ashes and Rodney can't quite believe he's failed. Can't quite wrap his mind around it. Can't forget the feel of Teyla's hand on his arm, the fond exasperation with which she would say his name.

He wonders what she named her son, whether she had a name chosen that she never shared with them.

When they clear out her quarters to give her stuff back to the Athosians, Rodney finds the mp3 player he gave her, not so long ago, that stupid little gift. He takes it back and takes it apart, not smashing it, not anything fitfully violent like that; he just sits down with it at his lab table with a screwdriver, and an hour later it's a gutted plastic case and miniature circuitboards scattered across the counter, like the parts of the toaster oven he disassembled when he was six that his mother hadn't let him put back together, though he'd known he could do it. Like his mother did then, he sweeps those tiny baby-sized parts into the trashcan.

 


He fights with Ronon, voices raised to shrieks and Ronon looming over him, huge and deadly, and Rodney doesn't care. "You should've gone with her to that damn marketplace!" and "You should've figured out where Michael was in time!" and Rodney wishes he were the kind of man who could just say, "Let's take this outside," because he's never been a fan of physical exertion, but a beating would hurt so much less than this.

And then he's saying, "My God, it's all my fault, I know, if I'd—" and Ronon is pulling him into a hug that bruises as hard as a blow from his fists would, saying roughly, "We tried, we tried, it was Michael, damn him, it wasn't you."

 


Rodney keeps searching, trying to track Michael's movements, trace the path of his madness across the galaxy. He plots the locations of every lab they find, inferring what factors Michael is seeking, whether the worlds he chooses are a matter of environment or proximity to the Wraith, trying to predict where he might be now.

It's painful, knowing it's too late, like calculating a star's lifespan after the supernova. But it's more painful to imagine Teyla's son in Michael's hands.

Ronon goes along with every team to every location on Rodney's lists of possibilities. Rodney goes with them sometimes. When he does, Ronon never strays more than a couple meters from his side, gun always ready, as if every barren and deserted planet is hostile territory. As if Rodney can't be trusted to set foot off-world by himself, for all that Ronon has been trusting his cover fire for the last year.

As if Ronon isn't going to lose another teammate.

Even on Atlantis these days, Ronon seems to be in the labs as much as in the gym. Rodney works past midnight and into the morning again, night after night, and gets used to Ronon looming in corners at odd hours and spooking the less confident scientists. Rodney's never sure when Ronon's awake; the man can sleep standing upright, and the only way to really tell is that if Ronon reaches for a knife when addressed, he probably was dozing off.

When Sheppard hung around the lab, he would poke at delicate instruments, co-opt computers against policy and spend hours finagling Atlantis's unique operating system to install his games. It'd take so long to remove them that no one ever bothered; electronic golf is still on most of the terminals, even if no one's around to play it now.

Ronon doesn't touch things he shouldn't, doesn't ask many questions, just, "So what do you have today?"

Rodney doesn't tell him about the other project he turns to when his main workstation is tied up crunching numbers, the reports he's requested. Prior research is sparse, limited to the handful of SGC scientists with the clearance to know time travel is real, despite being a blatant contradiction of modern physics principles. Atlantis's database is not forthcoming; Janus's experiments were banned, verboten, and they lost the Ancient jumper across multiple timelines. There's no other reliable methods, no controlled experiment that's ever succeeded. No conceivable way to cross the ridiculous span of forty-eight thousand years.

If it had been ten years, twenty, thirty—fifty years, they would only have to wait for Sheppard's return. Could be preparing for it, even now; Rodney could schedule his ninetieth birthday party around it.

There's moments late at night, while Ronon leans against the wall with his eyes closed, silent as a bronze sculpture, Rodin's vision of Pegasus, when Rodney wants to sweep his laptop to the floor and smash its screen. There's moments he wants to rant and scream and throw a temper tantrum at the unfairness of it. That Sheppard could have hitched a ride on such an absurd stellar incident, when SG-1 only hopped back and forth a few measly decades. In all the recorded time travel experiences of the SGC, Sheppard's managed a leap five times longer than any other incident. Flyboy show-off, just had to take it further than anyone else.

Rodney reminds himself then, how short forty-eight thousand years really is. It's hardly an eye-blink on the cosmic scale, not even a day in the ten billion year life of an average star.

Then he remembers how much can happen in one human day, how much can go wrong. He thinks of Carson, of Elizabeth. Of how Teyla was alive and now is dead, and crossing the span of merely a single second seems like too impossible a feat.

 


The hybrids are only rumors at first, nightmare tales of monsters stronger than the Wraith, and smarter, and more ruthless. They don't need voices or radios to communicate, and their forces attack in swarms, a plague of regimented locusts come to strip worlds.

The first team of Marines Atlantis sends to a conquered world doesn't come back. The next squad is eight men, and four return, with a single captive who stands in the cell, staring forward with a resolute, eerie smile. His right palm is smooth flesh, and he eats the food they give him. His voice is calm and certain, as he praises his master, his master's plan: today, genetics; tomorrow, the galaxy. He answers no questions.

Keller takes tissue samples, studies his blood. He's a more complete hybrid than the Wraiths' patchwork blend of human and bug, his genetics harder to unravel. The retrovirus is useless; it might eventually be converted into a lethal agent, but it could never save these new beings as Carson had always wanted to save the Wraith.

"We've seen this hybridization before," Keller explains at the briefing. Her voice is quiet, her eyes going between Rodney and Ronon, and Rodney knows what she's going to say. "The Wraith element is far stronger, but most points of the genetic combination are comparable to those of Teyla's DNA."

"He derived the sequencing from her baby's genetic code," Rodney says. His voice is shaky; he's sick with rage and heartache. Michael hadn't wanted Teyla; he'd wanted her child, the child they had watched growing within her for seven months. Michael would have made sure the fetus was viable, waited to be sure it was strong enough to be born, to live; and then he would have taken it apart to get the samples he needed.

"He used her son to make these things," Ronon growls, and it's a vow; it's a curse of death on all Michael's unholy army.

 


New reports come in daily, of Wraith ships destroyed and more human worlds falling, and Ronon leaves the city, even when Rodney asks him not to. Sheppard knew what to say to keep him on Atlantis, but Rodney doesn't.

Rodney's barely on Atlantis himself anyway, with the Phoenix to build, polishing it into their shining hope. There's no night in space, just the sun shining through the tinted foot-thick windows, every day and every day. EVAs to the weapon systems, worming through crawl-spaces, welding until his fingertips are scarred and his nose burns with the smell of solder. When his aching muscles need a break, there's always the computer systems, networking and configurations and screens of simulations. He doesn't sleep and still doesn't have time for everything that needs to be done, let alone personal projects.

Sam finds him in what will be the mess hall but is now another cargo bay, stacked with half-assembled life-support fixtures yet to be installed. He's sitting at the lone empty table with his laptop and a mug of coffee long gone cold, and Sam says, "Get some sleep, Rodney, it's..." She checks her watch, but Earth time or Atlantis time, it doesn't matter on a spaceship. "It's late," she finishes, and then, "Is that the auxiliary bridge schematics?"

"No," Rodney says, and almost closes the screen before she can see, but this is Sam and she was the first person to teach him this lesson; she was on an SG team for ten years, and when he turns the laptop towards her, she nods her understanding. Rodney explains anyway: "You know as well as I do that mastering time travel's beyond our resources. But even if we can't arrange a rescue, we can still leave something for Sheppard. A time capsule, as it were, a recording or at least a text message. Stellar drift will have changed all the gate addresses he knows—obviously the DHDs should update to compensate, but in case there's any problems, this'll give him some likely worlds to try. I'll set the program to trigger with his IDC or his comm signal—"

"That's provided Atlantis's network is still online after fifty thousand years," Sam says.

"Forty-eight," Rodney corrects, and isn't it ironic, that he gave her own teammate's life a deadline with those same numbers, once upon a time. "And yes, there's a chance Atlantis won't even be here anymore, but if it is—at least he'll know we didn't just abandon him. Better than that time he got caught in the time dilation field—" and he stops. Sam's heard that story before; it's not one Rodney tells often, because he made so damnably many errors that are obvious in retrospect, even if he had been under the gun at the time. But they all came out of it triumphant.

Except now when he remembers it, he remembers the four of them standing together in the cave, "Malp-on-a-stick," and Ronon's log and Teyla's amazing understanding. Teyla who had no formal physics education, but had the brains and intuition to follow his panicked explanation; he'd told her what to do and trusted her to do it, and he'd been too rushed at the time to appreciate how easily that trust had come, he who once wouldn't have trusted a PhD from MIT with something that important. "Conan and Xena," but that hadn't been fair, it really hadn't, and Rodney's throat closes up like he's swallowed lemon juice. They'll never be that again, the four of them, going where no one had gone before. It's too late for that. He was too late.

"But this is nothing like that," he says, babbling, strung out on caffeine and the chill of the ship, the cold of space that seeps through any insulation. "My mistake then, too, but I only had hours to make up for it before it was too late for Sheppard. This time, this time I've got—" and he turns his wristwatch toward his eyes, automatically, he can't help it; but he fakes a laugh to make it a joke—"I've got forty-eight thousand years. Right?"

"Right, Rodney," Sam says, and rests her hand on his shoulder, a spot of warmth through his jacket. But she doesn't smile or tell him it'll be okay, and she doesn't advise him to sleep again.

 


Rodney's never kept a journal faithfully. He's tried a couple times, for the sake of preserving his insights for future generations, but he invariably gets distracted from it within a few days. But the night after he wishes Sam good luck and transports back down to Atlantis, he opens a text file, types the date, and keeps going. "Sheppard," he begins, because "Dear John" looks weird even typed on a screen, and then, "So you're in the future," which might be a bit blunt, but he'll have a lifetime to edit this.

He writes up everything they know about the solar flare and the gate's glitch, and then describes the farce of Sheppard's military funeral—because funerals are for the living, not the uncaring dead, and as a living man the irony might amuse Sheppard as much as it annoyed Rodney, like so many things do.

Then he types, "We found Teyla, but she was already—"

Rodney stops, and sits for a long time, rereading that sentence over and over with his fingers hovering above the keyboard.

Then he hits backspace, click-click-click, and deletes the last four words. Forty-eight thousand years in the future, Teyla would be dead anyway. Sheppard doesn't have to know the details. "We found Teyla." Rodney types the period, and goes to bed. Three hours later he's up again, joining Radek in augmenting the city's shields.

 


Worlds are dying, whole populations cut down. Eight planets become a dozen become a hundred, as Michael becomes ever bolder, stepping up his plan. Keller gates somewhere different every day, taking samples and ministering to a scant handful of people, a third of whom die on her anyway. Michael's refining the Hoffan drug further, experimenting; it's as poisonous as ever, but the palliatives she develops are rarely effective on more than one or two worlds. She calls Rodney down to the infirmary a few times a week, to set up this computer simulation or adjust that Ancient scanner. She always apologizes for taking up his time, always tells him to eat something, to get some rest. "In my professional opinion, you could use a vacation," and they both almost laugh.

Keller visits Ronon's training camp sometimes; she sees his former teammate more than Rodney does himself. Ronon's not much for email and Rodney doesn't go off-world much these days. He's not on a team anymore; there are no teams anymore, not for trading or exploring. There're only fighting units, and while Rodney might have picked up a few skills with a P-90, he's still more useful in a lab. His analyses and predictions of Michael's tactics make it to Ronon, but rarely directly from his mouth.

Maybe Keller goes to heal those of Ronon's soldiers who are injured in training or on missions, or maybe she's going to see Ronon. Rodney never asks and neither of them are saying, but he hopes they are together. It's nice to think that someone might be getting lucky.

Keller comes to the lab one day, says, "I already talked to Colonel Carter about this, but I want to clear it with you, too. I'm not making enough progress with the Hoffan drug; I need help."

They only awaken Carson for six hours, not even a whole working day. He's pale and shaky but he answers Keller's questions. Rodney tells him about Sheppard, about Teyla, when Carson asks; but not about the extent of Michael's machinations, how far he's come, the horrors he's committed. But Carson was with Michael for a long time, and probably can guess most of it; he sees enough of Keller's data.

He wants to stay awake longer, to keep trying to help, but Rodney won't allow it. Carson looked scared, the first time they put him into stasis; he looks weary now, heartbroken. "If Atlantis needs the resources," he begins, but Rodney cuts him off.

"The stasis chambers draw insignificant amounts of power," he says. "We'd get maybe ten minutes' more shield. Maybe."

"I'll see you later, Rodney," Carson says, and then he's safely sealed away, silent and unknowing. If the city is destroyed, he won't feel a thing.

Rodney stares at his still, bluish face. Cold sleep, but it doesn't look restful. He doesn't envy that stillness. But the silence, maybe. He'd take off his radio if he could afford to, but he can't.

 


Occasionally Rodney allows himself to imagine a future so far ahead that nothing they're doing now will matter as anything more than a story. Imagines how Sheppard will be feted—Atlantis is millions of years old and might yet last a million more, and with this in mind he pictures Sheppard coming through the gate, to an Atlantis filled with their descendants across two thousand generations. "John Sheppard," they will tell him, laughing at the ancient legend coming true. "We've been waiting for you!"

 


When the Phoenix's crew gates back, no one calls him. Instead Chuck comes down to the lab in person, stands in the doorway. "Dr. McKay, the..." and Rodney knows. He knows, like he's been waiting for it, and he has to put his hand flat on the countertop to verify Atlantis isn't rocking under him with the ocean.

They wait an hour to send a cloaked jumper through the gate. There's nothing it could do mid-battle anyway. Rodney wants to pilot it himself, but he can't risk the trip. Lorne is military commander, but Rodney is the civilian head of the city now, until the IOA selects a replacement.

The video footage shows only a sky of wreckage, debris circling in low orbit. The pieces are all small enough to burn up in the atmosphere, so they let them remain there, a grave marker, a warning to future attackers.

Though Michael will send more ships. And no one will stop him this time.

Ronon comes back for the service. They hold a memorial on Atlantis, before they send the coffin through the stargate. Rodney would go to the burial, but he can't afford to leave Pegasus that long, not when it will take more than three weeks to return, with the Daedalus still on its way back to the Milky Way, and the Apollo in orbit above Atlantis.

Rodney speaks at the memorial and doesn't remember what he says, if he followed the speech he had spent so many hours composing or if it was ex tempore anyway. He hopes that he mentioned Sam's brilliance more than her beauty, her courage as well as her wisdom, and not insignificant things like the gold of her hair or the warmth of her hand on his shoulder. He hopes he remembered to thank her for everything she taught him, for all the flaws and faults she forgave him for. He hopes he didn't say that he loved her, even if everyone already knows, however immature and hopeless a crush it was.

He doesn't know if he shed any tears, and doesn't care.

When he walks back from the stargate, Lorne nudges his arm in passing, and Ronon shifts a little, to give Rodney room beside him. He salutes in the gallant Satedan way as the pall-bearers carry the coffin through the gate, carry Sam's memory home to her team, Atlantis surrendering her to the SGC's mourning. The empty box rides lightly on the soldiers' shoulders.

The wake afterwards is small and abbreviated. Rodney can't afford to drink as much as he wants to, just enough to be able to say to Ronon, "You could stay. Make Atlantis your base of operations. There's enough room in the city to house plenty of your hooligans. Indoor plumbing, even."

"No," Ronon says, "we couldn't. And I have to be getting back." He gets up, and Rodney understands that Ronon only came back for Sam, and for Rodney himself, maybe; that this wasn't a homecoming but a visit. That Ronon is only an uncomfortable guest here, now; Atlantis is no longer Ronon's home.

 


When Rodney updates the missive to Sheppard, he writes about the Phoenix, about their month building it, about the amazing feats Sam pulled off at its helm. He ends, "And in her most incredible achievement, she single-handedly destroyed three of Michael's hive ships, saving a whole planet of people while dealing his fleet a devastating blow."

He wanted Sheppard at the wake, wanted to give a toast in Samantha Carter's name with him. Ronon had raised his glass in remembrance of fallen comrades—only something more poetic than that; Rodney forgets the exact Satedan oath, but it brought a lump to his throat, even hearing it growled in Ronon's rough voice—and Rodney clinked glasses with him. For Sam; for all the soldiers Atlantis was losing and all the warriors Ronon had lost; for Teyla, and her son.

He didn't ask if Ronon included Sheppard in the tally. If Ronon remembered that Sheppard wasn't fallen, that Sheppard would yet be living out his life long, long after all of them were gone.

 


In his heart of hearts, Rodney knows that Sheppard will appear in an empty, lifeless city.

He wishes he could preserve a jumper through all those millennia. Sheppard ought to be able to fly. But Rodney's not sure what he can do if the ships are needed in the battle against Michael's fleet, or if the IOA decides to claim them all for Earth. And they wouldn't last intact fifty thousand years without maintenance; most of them needed repairs after only ten thousand years. Perhaps he should leave Sheppard the engineering diagrams, at least, so he can try. Give him something to do between foraging for food, fishing in the ocean or exploring off-world.

Maybe he'll find a home among the people of another planet. The Wraith only made it ten thousand years; Michael's monsters can't be so strong that they'd outlast them by five times that.

 


Ronon never comes back to Atlantis. Those of his people who come through the gate to report his death are teary-eyed with grief and idolization. The story they tell is epic and heroic and entirely true, Rodney knows, every bit of it, because he knows Ronon. Because he knew Ronon, before any of them.

Still, he's surprised, standing before the pyre, when the tall, black-haired, black-skinned woman who was Ronon's first lieutenant, or squad leader, or whatever, extends the brand to him. "You," she says, as short-spoken as Ronon ever was, a worthy successor. "He wanted it to be you."

Rodney takes the flaming torch, drives splinters into his palms when he tightens his fist around the rough wood. The crackling heat of it against his cheeks is like a sunburn. He holds it to the pyre and watches the flickering tongues of fire curl around the oil-drenched wood and begin to feast. Most peoples in Pegasus burn their dead; it's cleaner than putting a Wraith-drained corpse into the ground. The Athosians wrap the bodies; the Satedans used to paint them in ink designs. But Ronon's corpse already burned, side by side with their most unlikely ally's; there's no body here, just a bonfire leaping up to the night sky.

He steps back, completes the circle around the fire, faces lit in gold. The many others beyond are invisible in the darkness, though Rodney can hear their voices, chants and prayers of dozens of different worlds. He doesn't add his own voice to it, but he listens as the fire burns.

Sometime during the night, Keller's hand curls around his hand, slim fingers slipped between his, cool against his abraded palms. Her cheeks are streaked and shining in the firelight, and her eyes never leave the flames.

Come dawn, Rodney's feet hurt and his back aches. Jennifer is still holding his hand. "I can't believe he's," she begins, voice hoarse from the silent night and the smoke in the air. She doesn't finish what she's saying.

It's Rodney's second funeral pyre, two in less than a year. He believes.

"Ronon took a bunch of desperate people and trained them into elite squads of ninja rebels," he writes to John, "and wreaked havoc across the galaxy. They took out Michael's strongholds left and right. He even worked with our old pal Todd on one occasion."

He closes the document there.

 


Sheppard is not dead, Rodney's quick to remind any pencil-pushers with their heads up their asses, or soldiers who unthinkingly count him among the casualties. It dishonors all those who have lost their lives, bravely and tragically, to include Sheppard among them.

Sheppard's not dead, so Rodney feels guilty about how fiercely he misses him anyway. Not all the time; days go by when he doesn't have a chance to even think about his friend. But then something will remind him—a movie quote, a video game, an Ancient device that no one can activate; and he'll want to tap his radio and say, "Sheppard, get down here and take a look at this," and he can't and he'll feel it like a punch to the gut. For four years Sheppard was only a radio contact away; even when they were forced back to Earth, he could just pick up the phone and call him.

It's been almost a year since Sheppard stepped through the gate, forty-eight thousand more before he steps out of it again, and Rodney is ashamed that he feels Sheppard's absence as much as anyone else's. That Sheppard's not dead, but it hurts as much to remember his lazy, teasing drawl as it does to remember Ronon's rib-cracking embraces, or Sam snapping her fingers as she waited for him to look over her figures, or Teyla rolling her eyes at their lunchtime conversations.

Rodney doesn't eat in the commissary anymore. Sometimes he stops by to pick up a snack, but if he times it wrong Major Lorne or Dr. Coleman or someone else will be there, will try to wave him over to their table, and he'll have to pretend not to notice them. He doesn't have the free time for chitchat. So usually he just steals off the trays Zelenka brings to the lab, and fills up on Powerbars in between.

When Jennifer asks down the infirmary to fix an overused instrument, he arrives to see she's got a full plate of spaghetti and meatballs on her desk, with his favorite blue-leafed salad on the side. It smells delicious. "Don't let me keep you from your dinner," he tells her; she's been working as flat-out as any of them. "Where's the DNA scanner, what's the problem?"

"The display's gone wonky," Jennifer says, "but you can look at it after—eat first," and she pushes the tray toward him. Rodney blinks at it. "You haven't been eating well," Jennifer informs him, "according to the commissary staff."

"You're gathering intell on my dietary habits?" Rodney demands, not sure if he should be more annoyed or angry, so splitting the difference.

Jennifer doesn't flinch under his glare. "I am the chief medical officer. Making sure you don't pass out from hypoglycemic reaction is kind of my job."

"I can manage my own health."

"Great, less work for me. Now prove it," Jennifer tells him, and turns back to her laptop. "I'll show you the scanner when the food's gone."

So he eats while she types, and trades the empty plates for the malfunctioning scanner. And if he feels better by the time he's recalibrated the crystals, less shaky on his feet when he leaves, he's petty enough not to say so.

Later Rodney thinks about the smudges under Jennifer's eyes, how wan she looks under the infirmary's too-bright lights. She may not be hypoglycemic, but her cheeks have gotten narrower in the last months, weight her petite frame can't afford to lose. The next time she summons him to debug a computer simulation, he brings a tray of food himself, to match the one she has waiting for him. "You can tell me the problem over lunch."

They talk and eat for fifteen minutes; then he untangles her programming and heads back to his own lab. That evening he has a breakthrough on the shield overload conundrum that's been plaguing them for the last two months, muddled calculations sliding into satisfying focus, clicking the way too few things have for him lately.

After that, Rodney finds himself stopping by the infirmary more often, to make sure his blood sugar's balanced, and his rapid pulse is only the usual caffeine overdose, and the pain in his side is heartburn and not appendicitis. Jennifer's usually there when he is. This isn't a coincidence; she's rarely off-shift anymore than he is, these days.

 


Rodney's lost himself in his work for all his life, all the way back to when his work was play and he would escape from his family for hours into the precise intricacies of Bach, of Beethoven, the beautiful mathematics of eighty-eight black and white keys. But he's never had so much to do, so many problems to solve, every one of them urgent and important. Prioritizing is its own complex calculation, assigning resources on Atlantis and off, too, because Lorne uses his statistical analyses to decide which planets to send soldiers to, which yet-unconquered peoples to try to risk alliance with or offer medical aid. And when he's out of meetings and in the labs, there are the shields and the depleting ZPM, the new weapons and defenses plundered from the Ancients' stores, the computer viruses intended for Michael's hive ships, problems to occupy a hundred times the staff they have left.

There's work enough to drown in, so much that Rodney never has to come up for air. Never has to look around himself and ask what he's doing, why he's trying anymore. He's lost Ronon and he's lost Sam and he's lost Teyla and all of Pegasus is losing, losing. There's nothing he can do about it. Someday—soon—there will be no one left in Pegasus, only Michael and his creatures which aren't human, are barely sentient in any sense that means anything at all; they can't feed like a Wraith, and they can't love like a human, and what's the point?

Sheppard is still alive, but in forty-eight thousand years he'll walk abroad in a dead galaxy: the final survivor of a war that will have ended God knows how many millennia before. Rodney has no fantasies left about that ending. They might win a few more battles, but the war, that's already lost. Maybe was lost a year ago, on the birth day of Teyla's son, and it's been too late for them all ever since.

He doesn't say so, not at any of their strategy sessions. Not because Jennifer has no choice as a doctor but to keep trying, or because Lorne would reprove such defeatism; Rodney doesn't let optimism impede the truth. But there's no reason to state aloud what everyone already understands.

When Woolsey arrives, Rodney finds he has nothing left to say, no arguments left to offer. He's so tired of losing. Of failing.

Early in the morning, when the labs are almost empty and the sunlight through the windows is pure, he wonders if he keeps working only because it doesn't matter to him anyway. Sheppard's not dead, but he's not here. Rodney's got nothing left, no one left—and isn't that petty, when Teyla lost her people and Ronon lost his world; but Rodney's lost them, and he's not a child of Pegasus, he's not as strong as they are. As they were.

Jennifer doesn't tell him herself that she's leaving; he hears it from Woolsey. It's not until he does that Rodney realizes he even had anyone left to lose.

She's not why he decides to quit. But she makes the decision easier.

 


Rodney wants to tell Radek, "Take care of my city", as he did four years ago, before the siege. But Atlantis is no longer his, and when he shakes Zelenka's hand he can't look him in the eyes. If Radek doesn't hate him for this, if Radek doesn't feel betrayed, if Radek understands—Rodney doesn't want to know. He stares over Radek's shoulder at the gateroom, empty but for the guards standing always and unnecessarily ready, until it vanishes in the light of the Daedalus's transporter.

No one tries to talk to him aboard the Daedalus, or maybe it's just that he never listens when they do. There's no work to be done; he's already tendered his resignation, security clearances revoked and most of his research of the last decade surrendered, as per his contract with the Air Force.

He doesn't have to give it up, of course. He'd never trusted any government, America's least of all, and losing proprietary rights over the fruits of his genius was one of his greatest concerns when he first joined the program. So he'd made contingency plans, filed patents and found contractual loopholes to guarantee that he couldn't be exploited, that his most exceptional and important discoveries would remain his even if his official access were taken away.

He thinks now of what his worst fears were then, and would laugh if he had the energy for it.

He doesn't open his laptop, doesn't go to the bridge or the engineering terminals. Mostly he sleeps. The bunk's narrower than his bed on Atlantis, but the engine noise drowns out any memory of the sound of the ocean. Three weeks isn't enough to catch up on a sleep debt of five years, but it's a start.

Jennifer's no longer the chief medical officer, but she's still a doctor. Every day she knocks on Rodney's cabin door, lunchtime and dinner, asks him to keep her company. They sit for hours in the mess hall as the ship's personnel come and go, hyperspace an azure sea rippling outside the windows.

They might not legally have security access, but they still can talk. Jennifer's left her research behind, but her head's still full of dying patients, failed experiments. "If I'd studied the Hoffan drug in more detail before Michael started using it," she says. "If I'd isolated the lethal agents sooner. If I'd looked for preventives instead of just antidotes. If I'd had more time. If I'd had more staff. If I'd tried harder."

And Rodney answers her, "If Ronon had never gone on that mission, if Sam had realized the trap Michael had set, if we'd found Teyla in time, if Sheppard hadn't stepped into that wormhole..."

Every day they discuss what went wrong; every day they find new ways to define failure. They're running away, and all they can do is stare back at the destruction raging behind them, struck to salt pillars, crystallized by the futility of anything they do.

"I can't," Jennifer says finally, as they sit in her cramped cabin. "I can't talk about this anymore."

"Oh," Rodney says, "of course, I'm sorry, I didn't—sorry. I'll go."

"No. Please." Jennifer reaches out, takes both of his hands in her slender ones, the pads of her thumbs tracing the lifelines along his palms. "That wasn't what I meant."

"But—"

"I don't want you to leave," Jennifer tells him. "I just don't want to talk any more."

Her lips are soft and warm. Her fingers are cool, but folded tight around his, the strong sure grip of a surgeon, and he holds on. This is what they are doing now; they're holding on.

 


It's not what Rodney had thought it would be, working in the private sector. He expected the driving urgency of profit, material results demanded on a quarterly basis; he anticipated the frustrations of being called to heel, assigned to menial problem-solving while his inspired brainstorms were dissected and discarded by marketing executives with an eye only for the bottom line.

Instead he finds the pace easy, the demands lenient. Standard nine to five hours drift to eleven to six, with little overtime requested; he sleeps seven or eight hours a night, wakes to sun on his face and can lie beside Jennifer for half an hour before the alarm rings. His new colleagues are creative innovators, idealists with their heads in the clouds, and higher. The aeronautics firm has refused American defense contracts since war was declared on Iraq; their primary project now is a civilian space-plane. "Someday anyone will be able to fly among the stars!" the head scientist insists; she's pushing fifty but she's never let go of her teenage dreams, still believes she'll get up there herself, someday.

Rodney nods, and doesn't tell her that she might not enjoy all she'd find, not only because he'd be breaking the law to do so. She's an intelligent woman—not an extraordinary mind, but her science is serviceable. She's got nothing but praise for his work.

He wasn't hired for astrophysics but his mechanical engineering degree. It's nothing like anything he's done for years. The puddlejumpers, with their inertial dampeners and non-combustive propulsion, are a world—a galaxy—apart from the firm's suborbital scramjets, and the project is taking a different tack than the F-300 series, not having access to Goa'uld or Asgard technology. They won't be as energy-efficient, but the raw materials are more available; fascinating in its way, to watch the convergent technological evolution. No way to tell which will ultimately win out, VHS or Betamax, alien tech or Earth invention.

Sometimes when Rodney gets home in the evenings, he'll want to talk about what he's been doing, the challenges of single-stage-to-orbit and reentry. Jennifer listens, asks questions to understand more. It's far outside her field, but she follows enough to be interested.

Other evenings, she has her own stories to tell, of her patients, the old woman who hikes mountains with two artificial hips, the track star with the knee trouble who's become a swimmer rather than give up racing. She gets offers from Harvard and Johns Hopkins and private labs, but she has no interest in going back to research. "You'd seriously rather work with people?" Rodney asks with overdramatic astonishment. "But you have to talk to people! They expect at least two words an hour if you're in the same room with them. Sometimes three or four!" and Jennifer laughs and swats his arm.

Sometimes they eat dinner together without talking, with the television on to cover the silence that they agree is more awkward than companionable. They're both used to filling space with words, but sometimes that's too much to ask of either of them.

When Jennifer cries, Rodney holds her close, rubs her back and rests his forehead against the crown of her head.

When Rodney cries, he locks himself in the bathroom, sits on the floor, cold tile under his butt and his head resting on his arms folded over his knees. It doesn't happen often, maybe one or two times a month, and only twice at work—once in front of a computer tech, embarrassingly enough, but he's polite, steps back without a word when Rodney brushes past him on the way to the men's room, and doesn't ask later if he's okay.

 


Weekends it's not raining, Rodney goes walking with Jennifer, long walks with her arm tucked in his. It doesn't feel like exercise, isn't the pounding, heady rush he remembers, but his blood pressure's lower than it's been in years and the couple kilos he was putting on have leveled off.

It's not that he wants to forget, or tries to. But he works a regular day and sleeps in on weekends, argues about who forgot to turn on the dishwasher and calls the plumber when the toilet keeps stopping up, and for days at a time it's hard to remember that Pegasus was more than a dream, that his previous life was real and not a half-recalled sci-fi movie.

But there's mornings he starts awake, adrenaline thrumming in his blood and ears ringing with phantom alarms, until Jennifer murmurs his name, brings him back to earth with a touch. There's mornings Jennifer moans and whimpers in her sleep and he'll have to shake her out of the nightmares. They wrap their arms around each other, and never ask.

Rodney knows it isn't fair to Jennifer, that sometimes when he looks at her, he can only think how pale and thin and fragile she is, the painted porcelain beauty of a doll, not Teyla's real, so strong grace. Or that when she chatters on about her practice, her patients, her friends among the nurses, he can only remember Ronon's solid silences, broken by the occasional wit as cutting as his knives. Or how when he talks about his own work, she pays attention and will scold him to slow down if he goes too fast, but she has no insights or arguments and can't complete his sentences the way Sam used to, before he even finishes speaking.

It's not fair, that when they play chess she only wins if he lets her, and the only Batman she ever used to watch was the animated series, and she never drank Athosian Ruus wine and she never met Peter Grodin and she never stood out on the east pier with binoculars watching alien whales.

It's not fair that she was never an astrophysicist and was never his teammate and was never his best friend. She's Dr. Jennifer Keller, and she's pretty and sweet, funny and brilliant, too young for him and out of his league, and he doesn't deserve her, and it's not fair.

But then, it's not fair to the world he was born on, that when walking one evening they stop to watch the sun drop down behind the black mountains, framed by sharp-cornered buildings with their windows shining the gold-leafed rose of sunset, and he can only think that Earth will never be as beautiful as Atlantis.

 


Rodney's been with the company six months when the annual personnel reviews roll around. Such bureaucratic idiocy ought to outrage him, and he rants to Jennifer about the time-wasting absurdity of circling numbers and assessing potentials, but really he finds it quaint. Humans with their traditions and superstitions are the same across two galaxies: he went through useless, harmless rituals on a hundred different worlds, a hundred different ways of making meaning for those who fail to find it on their own.

He only supervises half a dozen techs, so writing up the evaluations doesn't take long, giving praise and criticism where it's due. He knows it won't be taken seriously, and what does it matter if it does? No one will die in these labs, however badly they screw up.

His own evaluation is like none he's received before. It's speckled with familiar phrases—"knowledgeable and proficient," "rigorous," "stubborn;" but there are others missing, and others are new—"delivers consistently solid, adequate work," "patient supervision of assistants," "quiet." The last makes him wonder if he was given the wrong folder, but there's 'Dr. M. R. McKay' and his employee number typed on the tag, and when the director calls him into his office he's got the same copy, quotes the same testimonials.

The performance review is so glowing it leaves Rodney dazed, until the very end, when the director taps his fingers arrhythmically on the desktop, says, "And I don't want you to take this as criticism, Dr. McKay, but here at AIS, we pride ourselves on giving the best and brightest every chance to live up to their potential. If you're feeling limited in any way, if there's another project that interests you—I understand your experience is diverse, if you'd prefer more variety—"

"No," Rodney says, "that's fine, I'm happy enough where I am," and he's surprised to realize it's more than a rote line.

The director's got short dark hair and muddy eyes; he looks nothing like Elizabeth, nothing like Sam, quite a bit like a particular Genii lower-echelon officer whose name Rodney doesn't remember. (He's almost definitely dead now anyway; the Genii were fighting back when they left, but not successfully.) Rodney doesn't dislike the man; doesn't respect him, but he's not a bad boss. "If you're sure, Dr. McKay," the director says, and then casually mentions, "I see you've logged overtime on the computers, on occasion."

The company mainframe is far more powerful than Rodney's computers at home. Most of the data he inputted from memory; some of it he'd kept on his laptop, concealed from the final security scans. "A few personal projects," Rodney says, "but if that's a problem—"

"No, not at all. It's not interfering with your work, and as I said, we encourage our people to extend themselves. Though we would ask for inclusion in the Nobel acceptance speech," and he chuckles.

Rodney just shrugs. There's no Nobel in his future; that work's all behind him, sealed under Top Secret stamps. His private projects he only works on when he's alone, only shows any of them to Jennifer.

Maybe if he ever had anything, he might try to send it to Radek, if Zelenka's still with the SGC. But the issue of the shield harmonics still stumps him, and he's had no new insights into the hive ship viruses. Mostly he uses the computer time to run simulations, over and again, cycling through scenarios until they inevitably fail. He sits and watches the numbers and waits for inspiration to strike, for the burst of illumination to bring shadowy thoughts into brilliant focus, but it doesn't come. It never comes anymore.

 


"It's not your fault," Jennifer tells him. "I watched you work yourself down to the bone on Atlantis"—after eight months, she can say it aloud, though he rarely does—"and you did everything humanly possible. You tried, it wasn't your fault."

She's said it before, but Rodney never listened closely enough before to understand how wrong she is. Because that's the thing, isn't it; he did the impossible every day there. How many times did he tell Sheppard something couldn't be done? And Sheppard would invariably tell him to do it anyway, and he would. If his limits were only human, then he had no right to have ever gone to Atlantis.

The next time he opens the missive to Sheppard, he scrolls back to the top, to the first paragraph. "So you're in the future," and he moves the cursor to the end of the line and types, "I'm sorry, John.

"I updated the operating system with the failsafe override that let the gate connect through the solar flare. I didn't find Teyla in time. I completed the Phoenix and I sent Sam the coordinates of the planet Michael was going to attack. I evaluated and submitted the intell that Ronon followed to Michael's lab.

"I tried, but I failed to find a way to bring you back.

"I'm sorry," and he saves the document. Someday he'll have to find a way to transfer it to Atlantis's datastores.

He tries to think to the future, Sheppard reading this letter in forty-eight thousand years. Sheppard forgiving him, or Sheppard cursing his name. He can't see it, can't picture Sheppard's face. He would look no different than when Rodney last saw him, but that was too long ago for him to summon a clear image, and the span of time yet to come is too distant to imagine, too far out of reach. Only a cosmic moment, but beyond the limits of human comprehension.

A funeral is really for those still surviving; a time capsule is really for those of the present, hoping to be remembered by the future. This apology is for him, not Sheppard; for this time, for this life. He reads it, and feels like he might be able to breathe, like he's been holding his breath for almost two years.

When blood flecks Jennifer's lips as she coughs, Rodney whispers, "I'm sorry." It feels like nothing, means nothing to anyone at all.

 


Rodney stands in the gray corridor of the SGC. Voices and footsteps echo down the tunnels, but none are approaching him. He doesn't know where he is. It's been a while since he's been here, and he always used to get lost anyway, even when he was watching where he was going. He wasn't watching now, doesn't know how long he's been wandering these halls. Fifteen minutes, or fifty thousand years, and maybe he's alone in the base and the footsteps he hears are the ghosts of men and women long dead.

Jennifer's cheeks are sunken and her skin is like paper, veins showing through like a print-out held up to the light. They don't need the doctors to tell them she's dying. They know what death looks like.

A week, maybe, the doctors say; Jennifer, more familiar with the Hoffan drug than anyone, thinks they're being generous. Trying to be kind, even though honesty would be more appreciated by either of them.

Rodney's already called the funeral home. He knows all her wishes, and she doesn't want her father to suffer through that. Doesn't want Rodney to, either, but someone has to do it. Someone will always have to, until the last man alive dies, with no one left to mourn him.

In a matter of days, he'll be mourning Jennifer. In a matter of days Jennifer will be dead, as Ronon is dead, as Sam is dead, as Teyla is dead, as John is dead.

Sheppard is not dead.

But that means nothing, because Rodney can never see John again; whether or not he manages to send his message, he'll never live to receive an answer. And forty-eight thousand years in the future Sheppard will die, same as all of them. The last man, dying alone: his coffin already buried two years ago, and everyone had mourned him. Everyone who will be dead when he dies, who are already lost.

When he dies, except he is not dead, and Rodney feels an almost forgotten fire blaze in his mind, the blinding brilliance of a solar flare.

Time travel is real, and they know how to do it. He's known how all along.

Scientists have studied the coronal mass ejections of the sun and other stars for over a century; they're impossible to predict or project, too inconsistent, too infrequently observed, and there are far too many variables. A star's lifespan is too long; it would take lifetimes upon human lifetimes to master their patterns.

But with almost fifty thousand years to gather data, to determine the precise sunspot cycles of every possible star—with exact calculations to model chaos theory, tame those uncountable variables with a math that doesn't exist, but if it did—if it did—

Because Sheppard is not dead, and will not die for forty-eight thousand years—the oldest man in the universe, and if Rodney can save him, if Rodney can bring him back, then none of this will ever happen.

Then none of this is real; then none of the last two years, or the forty-eight thousand to come, will be anything more than a forgotten timeline: time erased by fate, crossed out by all the branching infinities of the universe.

Then Jennifer isn't dead, then Ronon isn't dead, then Sam isn't dead, then Teyla isn't dead, or her baby, or those millions throughout Pegasus.

Then Sheppard is not dead. And Rodney's known it for two years, but this is the first time he believes it; the first time he understands the truth. That he lost John Sheppard two years ago, that he will never see or touch or speak to his friend again.

That Sheppard is not dead, and that Rodney will save him, and that Sheppard, saved, will save all of them, in a now two years past, in the only time that matters.