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Hindsight 20/20

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On the morning of his grade six Presentation Day, Rodney dressed in his favorite corduroys and a t-shirt with brown and green stripes. He didn't believe in superstitions, but if he did, the t-shirt would have been his lucky one. He'd worn it when he saw the Wormhole Xtreme movie and when he visited his grandparents and got spoiled while his sister was home with chicken pox. His mother kept threatening to throw the shirt out, but Rodney told her he'd never fix the washing machine again ever if she did. It was getting tight around his chest, but he'd built a real working model of a nuclear bomb, and he wanted to be wearing the shirt when the newspaper photographed the prize-winners.

Instead, Meagan Baxter's father took one look at Rodney's bomb and called the police. The whole school was evacuated, and Rodney was taken away for questioning. They kept him overnight and made his mother cry when his parents were allowed to bring him home. Rodney wished he could blow up all the police and his whole school, especially when they threatened him with juvenile detention and made him promise not to do anything bad ever again.

A week after that, Rodney did not go directly home after school the way he was supposed to because he'd been grounded until summer. His mother called the school, his father, and the library, and was just putting his sister in her coat to go out looking for him when a police car pulled up in front of the house. Rodney's mother went out to apologize again for her child, and instead was asked to identify the blood-stained rags of a brown and green shirt.

Down playing by the train tracks, she was told. He died instantly, they assured her, when the express hit him. Still, the coffin at his funeral was closed because what happened to Rodney's body was horrible, and his family moved away within the year, to a place where train whistles couldn't be heard.

*

Rodney didn't find that out, of course, for another five years.

He'd been cutting down the alley behind the barbershop when there was a flash of light and he was in a spaceship, staring out through a massive window at the planet below.

A woman with long black hair met him. She was dressed like a mechanic, in gray coveralls and heavy black boots. Her name was Dr Brooks, and she talked about hard choices and duty and the good of the people of Earth. She said it had been a difficult decision, given how young Rodney was, but his genius shouldn't be allowed to lie fallow in public schools. She talked about sacrifice and freedom and responsibility.

Rodney had wanted to know how the transporter beam worked and what kind of fuel the spaceship took, and if it was alien technology and whether he could look at the weapons, because he was sure that the whole point of spaceships was space battles. And going to other planets.

There had been papers to sign, and Rodney had signed them all impatiently.

He'd been given his own uniform to change into, and then a tour of the ship, and then he'd been beamed down into a top-secret research station in the New Mexico desert. There really were alien relics, and aliens, and everything was thrilling.

There were other kids in the program; Rodney was way behind on his studies for his age, he was told. That made him angry; he plotted to be better than all of them combined.

The students were sorted into two groups by uniform colors – Rodney wasn't sure, but he thought he might have joined the military accidentally – and Rodney's blue group was the oldest. The red group were tiny and did a lot of ball games, crafts, and crying. The blue group met in one corner, seated at a long white desk. The computers they were given to work with were like nothing Rodney had ever seen.

"Alien stuff," the boy who sat next to Rodney had told him on his first day, before introducing himself as John, and the younger boy – practically red-group – as Charlie. The girl in their group was Dr. Brooks' daughter, Samantha. John said she was kind of stuck up, and Charlie squared his shoulders and told John he was being rude.

John looked abashed. "I'm sorry," he said to the girl. She shrugged. "Hey. You want to know a real classified secret?" he asked Rodney. Charlie punched him in the shoulder. John punched Charlie back, but not very hard.

Samantha directed a look of loathing at both of them. "You're going to get sent away," she told John, as if she couldn't wait. "They'll have to send you to jail, because your family's dead."

John went as stiff and still as Rodney's model bomb, and Rodney was afraid for a moment that he was going to throw himself over the table and rip Samantha's hair out. But then he turned and ran for the door.

"That wasn't nice," Charlie told Samantha. He looked like he was going to cry. No, wait, he really was crying. Rodney rolled his eyes, got up, and jogged after John. He didn't think he was going to like either Charlie or Samantha.

The heat hit Rodney like a blast from an oven when he stepped outside. John was pacing in the dirt lot between the building and the chain-link fence, and there were two guards with machine guns watching him.

"Hey," Rodney said. John glared at him. "I'm sorry."

John threw out an arm like he wanted Rodney to go away. Rodney sat down on the steps instead.

"You can tell me classified secrets anytime," Rodney added. "I'm a genius at math and I'm here because I built an atomic bomb. All by myself."

John looked at him, as if that piqued his curiosity. "What did you use for your fissile material?"

Rodney had wanted to go to Saskatchewan and steal some uranium, but even with his Christmas money the bus ticket had been out of his reach. He didn't want to say so, though – he didn't think John would be awed by a non-working model.

"I just met you," Rodney pointed out. "Why would I trust you enough to tell you? You could be trying to steal my work, or blow people up. I don't know anything about you." He winced. Except your name and the fact your parents are dead.

John studied Rodney sideways, and then gave him a smile that looked kind of mean. "I have superpowers," he said, lowering his voice so it didn't carry as far as the guards. "That's why I'm here."

Rodney was skeptical, but... spaceships and aliens were real. So maybe.

"Do something," he told John, crossing his arms. "Show me."

John's shoulders slumped. "Not that kind. I have special DNA. It means I can interface with alien technology." He raised an eyebrow. "Pilot spacecraft."

Rodney tried to figure out if that was as cool as being able to turn invisible or incinerate things with eye-beams. He decided it wasn't, but John probably needed the reassurance. He was smaller than Rodney, and he'd been nice to him.

"Cool," Rodney said, and John grinned. "I'm Rodney. I'm from Canada. How old are you? Can you work the alien transport beam?"

"Almost twelve," John said defensively, and, "If I wanted to," and then with a sigh, "We should go back or we're going to get in trouble."

"I don't like Samantha," Rodney told him, in a kind of solidarity. "And Charlie was crying."

"Charlie does that a lot," John said, and pulled open the heavy door with both hands. "He's like... I had a little brother. He died in the crash, too." The armed guards watched both of them until they were inside and John shut the door in their faces. "I guess Charlie misses his mom and dad."

"I have a sister," Rodney said, and then made a face. He didn't mean to rub in the fact that his family was still alive. "I'm adopted," he added, nervousness making him talk more and faster. "But as soon as they brought me home, bam, my mother got pregnant with Chloe."

"That sucks," John said. "You never got to be an only child." Then he bumped his shoulder into Rodney's, and when Rodney jerked around to glare at him John grinned ear to ear. "So I guess the dorms won't bother you."

"The what?" No one had told Rodney there were going to be dorms, and his indignation must have shown on his face, because John slapped him on the arm with a fast tag, you're it and took off down the hall, laughing as Rodney gave chase.

The dorms weren't as dismal as Rodney had pictured, though they weren't great. There were three houses in the compound, two for the researchers and staff and one for the kids. It was presided over by a Miss Maria, who adored the little kids and mostly turned a blind eye to whatever John – and now Rodney as well – got up to as long they did their chores.

Rodney didn't mind. For the first time he could remember, he didn't want to build bombs. He liked his classes. Their teacher was a man named Dr. Hartkans, who gave Rodney the passwords to access his classwork and let him set his own pace, explaining that his son was gifted, too.

"Maybe the next time he's on Earth you two could play together," Dr. Hartkans concluded, and walked off to talk to the red group.

"Play together my ass," Rodney repeated under his breath as soon as he was out of earshot.

John, seated across the table, gave him a sidelong amused glance and kicked his ankle. "Daniel's idea of play is, like, reading the Rosetta Stone," he said, and shrugged. "He's staying with a group of scientists on a planet with an alien library. Apparently, aliens have been messing with human history all along."

Rodney was so busy absorbing new knowledge that it took a whole month for him to realize that he missed his family.

He didn't have anything from before: he'd left his schoolbag and clothes in the spaceship. He wanted a picture to put next to his cot in the boy's dorm room. He wanted to hear his mother's voice.

One night when Rodney was trying to hide that he was crying, John got up and came and sat down on his bed. He patted Rodney's shoulder gingerly and said everything would be all right.

"I miss my stupid sister," Rodney said.

"Yeah," John said. "I know."

John probably did know, but Rodney didn't want to be reminded that other people were worse off. He was angry with John for having a better reason to grieve, and pushed his hand off.

"You want me to figure out how to send her an email?" John asked, keeping his voice very low. They all knew that the base was and had to be top secret, for reasons of national security, and that meant communications with the outside world were monitored and censored. Even using the internet was far too dangerous. The kids weren't even allowed outside of the compound, not that there was any place to go. Nothing but desert in every direction.

"They'd catch you," Rodney muttered. He swiped the sleeve of his t-shirt over his face. "Kick you out."

John was silent for a long minute, before finally saying, grudgingly, "I'm sure she misses you, too."

Rodney snorted. "She hates me."

"She misses you anyway," John insisted, and stretched out on the covers next to Rodney, one arm going warm around his back. Rodney wanted to protest that he wasn't a baby like Charlie or Carson from the red class, but it was nice. His mother had used to tuck him into bed. It made him feel safe, and before he knew it, morning light was spilling through the gap in the curtains and John had drooled a wet patch all over one side of Rodney's pillow.

Chapter Text

Rodney had never had a best friend before, and he didn't realize for a while how easily John was slipping into that role. John had a deal with one of the guards where he cleaned her gun in exchange for five comics a month. Rodney suspected this was sanctioned by Hartkans and Brooks, somehow, but he and John both benefited, spending their free afternoons on Saturday and Sunday reading and arguing about superheroes. Their friendship started then, Rodney thought afterward, sneaking up into crawlspaces and breaking into locked storage areas to spend time away from all the little kids.

Rodney made John demonstrate what he could do with his own superpowers, and John let him conduct experiments with the alien technology he had access to, in the class building and in the warehouse where the transport rings were. John's genes didn't interface with most of the pseudo-Egyptian alien stuff, which was what Hartkans and Brooks had built most of the curriculum around, but he could turn on some fun toys. Hidden at the back of the storage lockers, gathering dust, they found gene-powered flashlights and an awesome handheld console that showed life signs. John said it was like a Marauder's Map, but Rodney scoffed. Just the idea of Harry Potter made him break out in hives. Science was obviously so much better.

In their classes they learned about the Ori, Replicators, Asgard, and Wraith, and how all of them had attacked Earth in the past. They were taught about the secret armies that were being trained all around the world, made up of exceptionally talented children. Hartkans told them that when they were eighteen they'd be stationed on one of Earth's spaceships, The Ouroboros or maybe The Tenryu, or even on other planets like Daniel. Rodney couldn't wait, and he knew John felt the same way. They jostled with Samantha for first place in their math and physics classes – different alien races each had very different ways of expressing the order of the universe, and Rodney could lose himself in formulae for hours. Sometimes he felt like he was so close to understanding it all, and other times he came close to drowning.

Still, though Rodney would never admit it, the training center out in the middle of the desert was... boring, sometimes. The little kids got to play dodgeball and do crafts and things with clay and glitter. Brooks checked Samantha out of the compound to do mother-daughter things like get their nails done and watch movies at the mall. When the stir-craziness reached a peak and Rodney felt like he was a bomb about to go off, he cornered John when he had cleaning duty and expounded his frustration while John was trapped, wearing rubber boots and gloves and scrubbing hard at the shower grout.

"So what you're saying," John cut in, after about five minutes, "is that you want internet."

"Not for porn," Rodney said quickly. He wasn't really sure what porn was – his parents had been inhumanely strict with his internet usage at home, and his father hadn't had anything interesting in the bottoms of his drawers except for some condoms. Rodney was curious about what people looked like having sex, that was natural, but also terrified, because the only person he'd ever seen getting off was John (they were so bored with no internet, and it wasn't Rodney's fault that he watched John, and it was definitely John's fault that Rodney liked watching him and wanted John to watch back). "It's educational."

"No editing Wikipedia," John said, raising an eyebrow threateningly. "Nothing big."

"Duh." Rodney waved his hands and concentrated on how stupid John looked with a scrub brush. "We'll... play chess or something."

"Chess," John agreed. He sounded kind of suspicious. Rodney gave him a grin and a shrug and started plotting.

One good thing about the compound was that there was lots of space for junk to pile up. The regular garbage was sent away via the transport rings every Saturday, but things like old computers, radio sets, microwaves, satellite dishes, and so on were just jumbled into boxes in the warehouse. John and Rodney spent nearly a month digging through the clutter, and in the end produced a fleet of remote-controlled cars and trucks for the little kids to play with.

"That's so sweet of you," Brooks told them, stepping aside quickly to make way for a pink convertible. "I wondered what you were up to."

"The solar rechargers were my idea," John said, bouncing on his toes, one hand tight on the strap of his backpack. "But Rodney designed the engines, and Samantha donated her nail polish for the paint jobs – "

"Maybe we'll build a racetrack," Rodney interrupted, gesturing widely, and Brooks quickly schooled her expression from enthusiastic to wary.

Back in the dorm after dinner, John followed Rodney up into the crawlspace over their closet. Rodney took out the life signs detector and handed it to John; John passed over his backpack and watched over Rodney's shoulder as he took out the last parts for their cobbled-together computer and got everything screwed and wired together.

Rodney held his breath as he ran the program to connect them to the internet via satellite, and twisted around to give John a high five in victory when the browser opened, their own private window on the world. The first thing Rodney did was to make them user accounts on his favorite free chess website. He'd been playing so long only against John and Samantha that he was rusty, but pretty soon he was moving up in the ranks. He just wished that A) John didn't play better than he did and B) John took the game seriously, instead of trying to work out systems for using chess moves as secret codes. Rodney hated losing a game only to realize later that John'd made him spell underpants with his pawns.

After that first flush of victorious net surfing, they made rules, swearing to obey in a pact involving spit and mud. Internet use was limited to half an hour a day, and they were never online at the same time – someone always had to stand guard with the life signs detector. They also – and this sucked, even though the reasons were obvious – swore not to make contact with anyone from their previous lives. John looked torn up about that on Rodney's behalf, but they both knew their carelessness could endanger the whole planet.

Rodney did use some of his precious internet minutes to ask Google how he'd know if he was gay, because he kept fixating on different parts of John, like his hair or his eyes or his hands. He thought about leaning over and kissing John when they were lying side-by-side reading comics, and tried to make himself think the same thing about Samantha, but it didn't work. She was cute, but she hated him and was mean to John all the time. Even knowing what she looked like in her bathing suit didn't make him want to have her watch him when he touched himself.

Google was no help with the John problem. Rodney figured he'd just have to live with it until it went away.

But then John got sick. Their teachers told John it wasn't anything to worry about – all the kids had monthly scans to make sure they were well and were building the muscle they were supposed to, so they caught it early. Whatever it was.

As the weeks went on, John got tired and had trouble keeping up, first in PE lessons and then in simple things like walking from the dorm to the training hall. In a few more months, he was out of breath all the time, getting dizzy spells when he pushed himself too hard. Once, Rodney got John to agree to an experiment where they jerked each other off, and John's lips turned terrifyingly blue. John said it didn't matter and that he'd liked it, but Rodney was never going to touch him again and risk killing him.

One night John came back to the dormitory and started packing all his clothes into his backpack.

"Are you running away?" Rodney asked, dropping his tablet on his bed and getting up, his heart racing as if it had a premonition that something was about to happen.

John shook his head. "Transferred," he said. "To the medical center."

Rodney thought that sounded horrible. "Do you have cancer? Are you going to lose your hair?" His hands came up all on their own, waving around. "There are spaceships, don't tell me the government doesn't have, have healing beams or whatever."

"They have experimental drug therapy," John said, and took a few quick shallow breaths. "Here," he said, and held out his hand. Rodney reached out automatically, and had a card pressed into his palm. He folded his fingers down quickly. There were hidden cameras everywhere, which John thought was creepy. "I'll be back when I'm better," he added, and gave Rodney a pinched smile.

Rodney still didn't like Samantha or Charlie much, but having them was better than having no one. John was going to be alone. Rodney grabbed a pair of scissors off the desk and pulled a long curl of hair out at the side of his head. As soon as he'd cut it free, it rolled itself up into a loop around his fingers.

"Take it," he said, and John did so gingerly, making a face.

"Gross." John grinned. He picked up a notebook and pressed the hair between the pages before stuffing it back in his bag. "Do you want some of mine? Is this like being blood-brothers?"

"It's a lucky charm," Rodney said, as sarcastically as possible. "I just – I'd go with you if I could."

John bit his lips, looking up at the ceiling until whatever emotion had blindsided him dissipated.

"I'm going to miss you," John said finally. He looked so lost that Rodney had to hug him. It was a terrible, self-conscious hug, and he accidentally pinned John's arms to his sides. John was stiff, and Rodney could hear how hard he was breathing, and he thought he'd made a terrible mistake – maybe John hated hugging – until John coughed and leaned in to rest his head on Rodney's shoulder. Then, it was perfect.

After John left, the days were painfully empty of fun and companionship. The card from John didn't say much, just that Rodney was John's best friend and it had been a pleasure knowing him. But John had drawn a terrible picture of the both of them on the front, and signed his full name inside. Rodney made a wallet out of duct tape just so he could carry John's card around everywhere.

Rodney started to get constant headaches and stomachaches; he told everyone he was coming down with asthma and allergies, not to mention the food poisoning. Brooks humored him, letting him go lie down on the infirmary cot after his classwork was done. Rodney supposed everyone knew how much he missed John. He felt pathetic, which was why when he found one day that someone had left the infirmary computer in sleep mode but not logged out, he seized the opportunity to copy all of John's medical records and his own as well, and steal the password.

Rodney wasn't a loser with only one friend in the whole world now; he was a spy. He thought John would have approved.

He was terrified the rest of the day that someone would notice what he'd done, and impatient to find out what the medical records said. He really hoped John didn't have cancer. As soon as the last class finished and Rodney had been subjected to yet another lecture about the need to keep his work up, he escaped to the secret crawlspace computer room. John had diverted in air from the AC duct, so the space was always icy cold, but Rodney could handle being frozen if it meant he could open the files on a computer that he knew wasn't networked or monitored.

He managed to open John's records with a downloaded freeware program that could display the data, and for the first time in ages had absolutely no idea what he was looking at. There were three sections, labeled John Sheppard (Accelerated), John Sheppard (Normal Alpha), and John Sheppard (Normal Beta). John's family name wasn't Sheppard, but all the pictures in the files – taken at ages 5, 10, and 15 for Alpha and Beta, and 15 for Accelerated – were nearly identical.

Rodney felt himself start to hyperventilate when he checked the birthdates and realized that Immunitech wasn't a terribly-named baby hospital, it was a research facility that made clones. And apparently there was a really fucking huge problem with their cloning process: all three of the John clones had started experiencing organ failure once they hit puberty. The accelerated-growth model had died two years ago. John and... the other John were in an Immunitech lab in Colorado. Probably being hideously experimented on, Rodney was sure. He could think of one terrifying but plausible reason for having two clones instead of one: spare parts.

Rodney blinked hard as his vision blurred. He had the sudden, horrible certainty that John's family had been murdered, and on the heels of that thought came a wave of nausea. If Brooks and Hartkans had been willing to make secret clones and didn't mind if they or their families died, how did Rodney know that they were the good guys? For all he knew, they were the spearhead of an invading alien army, and he'd been duped into working against humanity all along.

He dragged the hem of his t-shirt up and wiped his face off. He opened his own file, and wasn't shocked to find out that there were two Rodney McKay models. The other one of him – his clone? His twin? – was a year younger, lived in a center in Nevada, and didn't appear to have any failing organs so far. Good, Rodney thought. His younger self also apparently had an IQ 7 points higher, but Rodney seriously doubted that.

He cleared his mind ruthlessly and started formulating a plan. The Immunitech site had to have transport rings – John'd gone into the warehouse carrying his bag and never came out again – which meant Rodney could get to where John was easily. But he had no idea what they'd do after they made a daring getaway. He didn't want to find John only to have him die.

The next morning in classes he didn't have to fake a stomachache: he hadn't been able to choke down breakfast, either. Brooks gave him a quick run-over with the scanner in the infirmary, handed him a protein bar and a box of milk, and told him he was going to have to shape up or he'd be shipped out.

"Can I call John?" Rodney asked, picking at the bar's plastic wrapper and trying to look sad. "I miss him."

Brooks crossed her arms. "We're training you to fight a war. You know that. You need to toughen up."

Rodney thought about his parents and his sister, and how neatly he'd been removed from their lives. He wondered if they missed him. He didn't succeed in making himself cry, but he did get an uncontrollably wobbly chin. "He's my boyfriend," Rodney protested, feeling foolish the minute the word was out of his mouth, but Brooks looked genuinely surprised.

"Jesus," she said, her mouth twisting. Rodney wondered suddenly if she hated gay people. He couldn't imagine how who he liked would have any effect on the war against aliens (or for aliens, if it turned out that Brooks really was a bad guy), but... people could be stupid. "You're just kids."

Which was a stupid thing to say, Rodney thought, and made him have no remorse about lying to Brooks' face. "I love him," Rodney said, and bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to send a single fat tear sliding down his cheek, finally. "Can I lie down just for ten minutes? I'll be good after that, I promise."

"Ten minutes," Brooks agreed, tapping her wristwatch with a finger for emphasis. "And we're talking about this later."

"Okay," Rodney said, and sat down on the edge of the cot, swinging his feet and sticking the straw into the box. He took a sip. He hated milk. He took another sip, aware of Brooks staring at him like there was something she wanted to say, but then she let out a huff of air and walked out, leaving the door ajar.

Rodney took a few deep calming breaths, eyeing the door and calculating how fast he could work versus how suspicious it would look to close it. He could work fast, he decided, and got up to go turn the computer on.

He was hyper-aware of every sound that came through the door, and panicked twice, turning the monitor off and scurrying over to sit on the bed with his heart hammering and his hands sweaty. He didn't even know exactly what files he needed, so he took everything he could, timing himself to the second. When the downloads were complete, he turned the computer off, hid the drive in his shoe again, and wolfed down the protein bar in a fit of nerves. He lay down on his side, knees pulled up, and started shaking, which made him feel queasy. When the clock on the desk showed exactly ten minutes had passed, he got up and went back out to sit at the table with Samantha and Charlie.

Charlie asked if he'd barfed – Charlie loved long gross conversations about body stuff – and Samantha scooted her chair as far away from him as possible. Brooks was impatient because Rodney was working too slowly, to keep from making mistakes. His head felt funny, like it was stuffed full of cotton.

"I'm okay," Rodney said, after being told three times to get himself back into the game. "My stomach hurts."

"Baby," Samantha muttered, scornful. Brooks didn't reprimand her, and suddenly Rodney couldn't wait to get away from all of them.

He made contact with John – finally – after a week, on the chess forum where they'd agreed to look for each other. Rodney wanted to ask how John was, if he had good internet, if he was still sick and if he'd met his clone and whether he was being experimented on. But John's chess-code was clumsy to use, and so Rodney just asked if John could get to the transport rings early tomorrow morning, because Rodney knew where they had to go now. His stolen files had been useful. John said sure; he had the address, and how he'd found that out was something else Rodney wanted to ask, but...

Only if u want to excape, Rodney typed quickly, because he didn't want to force John to do anything. We don't have 2.

Yeah we do, John wrote back, and then he was logged out and gone. Rodney thought about trying to get him back, but then took a deep breath and decided he should stick to the plan. He wiped the computer's memory, disassembled it, and dumped all the pieces in his backpack to be disposed of. He was hit by a wave of irrational sentimentality, remembering the excitement of building the computer in secret with John, but set his jaw. He'd sacrifice just about anything for John.

The compound had tight security, but they'd found this was mostly intended for threats from the outside. The gates being stormed, for example, or aerial assault by helicopters or spaceships. The students, on the other hand, were trusted with... just about everything, according to their age. Alien tech for starters, but also weapons, potentially lethal chemicals and compounds, medical supplies – they were soldiers, Brooks always told them, and that meant they had to be able to not only follow orders but also think their way out of situations. The enemy wouldn't treat them gently just because they were young.

John had apparently been a troublemaker at school before he was taken from the burning wreckage of his family's car, and he told Rodney that based on his personal experience, Brooks and Hartkans were being punished by their bosses.

Rodney had said that they seemed happy, with their own perfect adopted children and getting to be in charge of everything.

John had countered, "They don't see any action." Rodney made a face at that: he couldn't wait to be assigned offworld, but he was terrified by the idea of actually fighting and maybe killing people – aliens – or getting killed. "Look," John said. "They're trapped here in the desert with, what, one day off a week? And they hardly ever go into space. I'm not saying they're not good soldiers or teachers," he added quickly, probably covering his ass in case there was a hidden microphone somewhere he'd overlooked. "Because of course they are. But it's a boring-ass job in a boring-ass place, and I'm pretty sure they're teaching us how to make laser cannons and disintegration beams because they don't give a damn about the rules or babying us. They've got bigger priorities."

Rodney had thought about that. The disintegrator had been pretty cool, made out of a reverse-engineered alien gun, but the implications had been terrifying. It had zapped small rocks, a half-eaten sandwich, and half a basketball into nonexistence too easily, and Brooks had taken it away with an admonishment that it was all fun and games until someone put their eyes out. But she hadn't said the experiment was unsuccessful, and probably somewhere weapons were being made, maybe big enough to disintegrate cars or spaceships. Or planets.

He, John, Samantha, and Charlie had trained on The Ouroboros the previous summer, and there'd barely been any adult supervision, at least Earthside. On the first day, Hartkans had given them a run-through of how to work the transport rings, but after that they'd been responsible for getting up and dressed, delivering the little kids to class, and transporting themselves up every morning at half past seven. The first solo trip Rodney had been so scared he'd nearly thrown up, even though he knew the rings wouldn't engage unless there was a lock on the other end; after all, they all helped unload the water barrels and supplies every Friday, and the shipments always arrived just fine. Still. The mere possibility of being turned into a matter stream and garbled or trapped or lost forever was terrifying.

Rodney had had to pretend he was fine, though, to keep Samantha from laughing at him.

Thinking back on it now, pretending to be fine was great training for developing the strong nerves a spy needed, so Rodney was glad for the experience as the vibration of his alarm clock jerked him out of sleep at two in the morning. He needed to be calm. He had a daring plan, and John was counting on him.

He'd left his backpack and one of the student telescopes in the pantry, and he collected them on his way out the kitchen door. He had to cross the entrance road to get to the parking lot and the playground beyond that, but he was a calm, cool, collected spy who waved at the guard in the sentry-box and held up the telescope by way of explanation at the guard's questioning gesture.

He set the telescope up in the middle of the basketball court and made a show of observing and taking notes, freezing his ass off for twenty minutes before the guard came out, strolled around all the buildings, and returned to his station to play sudoku and drink bad coffee or whatever. Rodney bet his job was even more boring than Brooks' and Hartkans'.

Rodney told himself that he was a kid and the kids were trusted, not to mention there wasn't any trouble Rodney could be getting up to all by himself, with a telescope. Probably the guard had made a note in his logbook, but by the time anyone checked that, Rodney would be far away.

Rodney dug the roll of tape out of his pocket and attached his sign to the telescope's tripod: Gone To Toilet DO NOT TOUCH. The warehouse was just a short dash away. There was a light over the side door, but Rodney repeated in his head that no one was watching (he was not the spy they were looking for) as he put his palm on the scanner and waited for the system to recognize him. As soon as he heard the lock click, he yanked the door open and then pulled it shut after him, breathing a sigh of relief.

He went to the toilet, because nerves really did make him have to pee, and then left the light on and the door locked from the inside. The ring transporters were just down the corridor. Rodney was sure that there were motion sensors hidden somewhere, but he knew he could do this fast. He was a genius. John had better appreciate what he was doing.

He walked into the transporter room fast, circling to the address console and inputting the address John had told him. He set the timer for half a minute, which gave him plenty of time to get on the platform and put the parts of his computer that he wanted disintegrated along the edge where the transporter rings would fall.

The noise of the rings engaging as they fell was horrendously loud, but Rodney relaxed as they dropped around him. Let Brooks or Hartkans come now. He was –

the rings flashed, hummed, and retracted

– already in the Colorado research center, and John was waiting for him.