The quarters he ended up in weren't terrible—he'd half-suspected Bates would put him in a storage closet adjacent to a hull breach or something just as petty, but no, he had a nice empty room in which to kick around for however long it took Weir to decide what to do with him.
He took the longest, hottest shower of his life, and cranked the temperature inside his room just because he could; he even got a few hours of sleep, mostly out of sheer exhaustion, and woke up feeling slightly head-achey and disoriented. The ship's chronometer declared it to be 1440, but by this point his body clock was so out of whack he didn't think that mattered. Somebody had brought him by some lunch, if a ration pack counted as lunch, but seeing as he hadn't eaten since...hell, he didn't remember when he'd last eaten, so he wolfed it down fast enough he wouldn't have to taste it.
Had he actually convinced Weir to listen? She hadn't thrown if off the ship on sight, hadn't abandoned him on Delta Vega, that had to be a good sign...then again, Jonn had trespassed on her ship twice and insulted her to her face. There was no reason for her to overlook that, no reason not to keep him locked up indefinitely. Which, so far, appeared to be exactly what she was doing. He thought of the warm affection Ambassador Weir had regarded him with, and sighed. You weren't kidding. Everything's different. But it wasn't like he could miss something he'd never actually had...
The doors chimed once, more a warning than a request—Weir barged in without waiting for permission, and Jonn jumped to attention, almost holding his breath in anticipation. "I'm going to ask you again," she said with the same steely voice she'd always used on him. "And this time I expect an appropriate answer. How did you get from Hoff to Delta Vega?"
"It's a secret," Jonn said, which wasn't technically a lie. "A little bird told me how."
She raised an eyebrow at her. "Not a little bird named McKay, I'm sure."
Jonn rolled his eyes. "When exactly would that have been? Before or after he started screaming himself hoarse at the entire engineering staff?"
"How did you—? No, never mind," Weir said, apparently realizing it was a stupid question when Jonn had spent four years rooming with the guy. She raked her fingers through her hair, as if still surprised at the new cut. "So you're not going to tell me how you got here."
"I've been reliably informed you won't actually want to know," Jonn said, which was also the truth.
Weir tipped her chin up, eyes narrowing slightly. "All right, so let's skip to the why. You realize you've walked right back into detention."
No, gee, hadn't noticed that at all, Jonn thought, but bit it back. "At least I earned an upgrade from the brig, though," he pointed out. "I appreciate that."
She ignored this. "Why is it so important to you that we chase down Michael, Mr. Sheppard? Because I assume that's you've come back. Is it revenge?"
"Oh, hell, no," he said firmly, but she still looked dubious. Jonn sighed, and folded his arms across his chest. "Look at me. You're more of a Vulcan than I am. I never knew my mother."
"And if Michael hadn't destroyed the Kelvin, everything might've been different," she said.
That was a little too close to the conversation he'd had with the other Elizabeth for comfort, not so soon. "It is what it is," Jonn said quickly. "The important question is whether we're going to pursue that ship while we still have a chance."
She sighed. "Even if we find him, we can't possibly stop him," she repeated mechanically, but there was something rehearsed-sounding about the words, like the fight was gone out of them.
"We can try," Jonn said, seeing an opening.
"Not all of us have a death wish, Lieutenant," Weir shot back.
"'The good of the many outweighs the good of the few,'" Jonn quoted at her. "That sound familiar to you? We can end this before any more planets get culled, and it'll be worth the sacrifice."
For a moment, she just stared, mouth pinched to a thin line. Jonn clenched his fists around the cuffs of his jacket, willing her to just listen, to be the woman Ambassador Weir seemed to think she was. If they really were the same person in any sense, if the same character was somewhere down in there like a seed crystal—
Miraculously, Weir opened her communicator. "Weir to Zelenka."
"How fast do you estimate the hostile ship was traveling when it left Vulcan?" she asked without breaking eye contact with Jonn.
Wherever Zelenka was, it was loud, and Jonn thought he could just make out Rodney screaming at somebody in the background. "At warp? No more than warp six, probably closer to warp five."
"And how long until our warp drive is operational?" she continued.
"If we work quickly—shut up, Rodney!—ah—two hours? Installation of warp coils is not a simple process."
She nodded quietly, as if she was doing the math in her head. "All right. I want you and Mr. McKay to devote all your attention to figuring out a way to track that ship. Consult with Lieutenant Emmagen if necessary. You have eight hours."
"Wha—ah, I mean, yes, ma'am?"
"Weir out." She closed the communicator and put it away. "Eight hours from now is the soonest he could arrive at Earth at that speed, assuming he went directly there without stopping. If we don't have a location for him by then, we will proceed back to Earth at maximum warp as per the original plan."
"I...thank you," Jonn stammered. He'd been so focused on the impossibility of convincing her to act at all costs... "I didn't think this was actually going to work."
"I never expected to hear you apologize to me," she replied, as calmly as if she was talking about the weather.
Jonn blinked. "Seriously? That's what it takes to get you to listen?"
"It certainly got my attention," she asked, folding her arms; a note of genuine frustration crept into her voice. "Every psychological profile the Academy ever concluded you were detached to the point of apathy and would never rise about the rank you were commissioned to. That you were arrogant, lacking in empathy and unconcerned with the consequences of your actions. And here you are, having bent the laws of space and time to preach morality to me? I don't understand it."
Something twisted viciously in Jonn's gut, and every thought of Ambassador Weir flew out of his mind. "You want to know why I came back?" he asked, stepped up into her personal space again. "Exactly what you just said. Because everyone I've ever known has told me I'm just going to end up pissing my life away, and half of you were willing to help me along. So I figure if I'm doomed to be a failure, I might was well go out on my terms. And if that means throwing myself into a fight I can't win, fine. At least that way I'll die for a reason."
Weir actually took a step away from him, staring. Jonn swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. Card on the table now; her move. "I have never regarded you as a failure, Mr. Sheppard," she said quietly.
Jonn snorted and looked away. "Really. Could've fooled me. Or did you forget about the hearing last year altogether?"
"That wasn't personal," she said quickly.
"And that's the problem," Jonn snapped. "That was my career, that was my damned life that you dragged through the mud, and it wasn't personal to you? If that's true, you really are Vulcan on the inside."
It was Weir's turn to avert her eyes this time, and Jonn looked down at his hands, at the little scratches he'd picked up while climbing down into the cave. The room felt strangely like it had too little air and too much noise at the same time.
Jonn looked up, blinking, but no, Weir had raised her chin and was looking at him with smudged and weary eyes. "Don't look so surprised, Lieutenant," she added dryly.
"Just trying to make sure I heard you right," Jonn said.
"I'm sorry for my actions during the hearing," she said, and even though it sounded like the words were being pulled out with pliers, she was still saying them. "I went too far in arguing my case, and I stood by while members of the board pursued an unrelated agenda. I should never have accepted Admiral Nixon's request to serve as lead investigator when I was already so heavily involved. Is there anything else I need to add?"
"Why are you telling me this now?" Jonn asked, bewildered.
She sighed, and shut her eyes for a moment. "Because right now, I don't trust my own judgment. Because I have spent too much of the past four years doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Because I just watched my homeworld get reduced to ashes, and by every regulation I am not emotionally fit to command—except there's no one on this ship who is fit to take it over for me. In a perfect world I could just hand this problem over to Jack O'Neill or someone else with more experience and a fleet at their back, but that's not an option right now."
"And where do I come in?" Jonn asked.
"I can't afford to make any more mistakes, Lieutenant," she said bluntly. "And you've already demonstrated that you have no qualms about pointing mine out, in public and at considerable volume. The Vulcans say that the seed of truth is conflict. You need something to do on Atlantis and I need a 2IC."
Jonn held his breath, waiting for the catch, the complication, the other shoe to drop. She just stared levelly back at him, as if daring him to say something smart. He was very, very aware that the next words he said might change everything. "Just so we're clear," he finally asked her, "are you going to throw me in the brig every time I disagree with you?"
"Are you going to actually follow my orders as given?" she shot back.
Jonn nodded, conceding the point. "All right. So...when do I start?"
"As soon as you can get yourself in uniform," she said, and offered him a hand. Shaking with her felt like a weight settling on his shoulders, but Jonn found he didn't really mind it all that much.
Rodney pulled the gauge out of the interface cable and patched it back into the main data bank. "Okay, try it now," he called, and above him, he heard Emmagen start typing. "Anything?"
She gave a hissing sigh. "The Bell stabilizer is still running high."
"Of course it is," Rodney snapped. "Atlanis is a second-generation refit and the long-range communications array isn't backwards compatible with the parts we actually have." He shimmied out from the console and rubbed his head. "Square peg, round hole, not enough power tools to do anything about it."
"Can we not compensate by using a low-pass filter on the calibration sensors?" Emmagen asked, leaning back in her seat.
"Well, if you've got one handy, sure," Rodney snapped. "You'll just have to splice it into the primary array by hand, because there isn't a port for one. Or install a software solution directly on the buffer, if you don't mind doing a little spacewalking, because that compartment currently has atmospheric pressure of zero. Take your pick."
She made an irate noise, but began typing furiously—manually calibrating the array, dear god. "Better you than me," Rodney muttered, but the last word trailed off into a yawn that he couldn't quite fight down. Dammit, he couldn't fall asleep now, he'd only been awake...he realized he couldn't remember how long he'd been awake. Not long enough, obviously, because there was still more yet to do, and that wasn't even counting Weir's latest directive to chase down the big scarey monsters that they'd only so recently escaped from...
"You need not stay," Emmagen said, and Rodney blinked, suddenly unsure how long he'd been sitting there next to the communications station, staring across the nearly-empty bridge. "I will not be much help in tracking Michael until I am finished here."
"You're more help than Radek, at least," Rodney told her. "He's running a 'model'"—he made certain to mime the quotes in the air—"unless he's just fallen asleep again, which is entirely possible. I told him to take some of those little blue pills from the infirmary but he seems to think they're dangerous or something. So what, more for me."
Emmagen was looking at him with knit brows now. "Perhaps he is right," she said quietly. "You will be very little good to us if you are too exhausted to function."
"And I'm not doing anyone any good if I'm passed out in my bunk when there are still holes in the ship," he pointed out. Besides, that was the whole point of the little blue pills—didn't she get that? He could sleep when they were back on Earth, unless of course they didn't actually go back to Earth, because why would Weir ask them to go hunting for Michael unless she meant to actually follow him? She had apparently let Jonn back onto the ship, too—Rodney hadn't managed to corner him yet regarding that, but when he did there would be screaming, to be sure—so maybe Weir had just gone insane recently and nobody had noticed yet? So in a way, crawling into a Jeffries tube and going to sleep would only be a good thing, since without him the repairs would drop to a standstill and thus she would be unable to do anything suicidally reckless with the whole damn ship...
He was doing that thing again, the drifting-off thing. Probably he was due for another cup of coffee and a dose of synexadrine.
Instead he found himself asking Emmagen, "Do you really think we're going to do it?" Which made sense, he supposed, since she knew Weir better than anyone else Rodney knew of and would be able to identify signs of madness.
Emmagen glanced down at him. "Pursue Michael, you mean?"
"Well, yeah." What did she think he was talking about, competitive macrame? "Provided we can find him, of course, which, I mean, Radek's got a simulation and all."
She shrugged. "I do not believe we have a choice."
"There's always a choice," he said, rolling his eyes. "Free will, ever heard of it? Or, no, aren't you—you know—" he waved a hand about, groping for the words, "all religious and stuff?"
She made a face, a sort of scrunched-up one that he didn't think boded well for him. "My people believe in free will, Lieutenant McKay. The Ancestors do not preordain our lives, they merely guide us if we seek their aid."
"Yeah, whatever." Rodney scrubbed at his eyes. "The point I was trying to make is that we always have a choice, and I happen to like choices that result in me continuing to live. I like living. It's my favorite hobby."
"We did not join Starfleet for the safe and comfortable lifestyle," she said, sounding vaguely annoyed.
"You didn't," he muttered. "I wasn't supposed to ever serve on a spaceship."
An alarm went off under the console—oh, hell, she'd tripped an overload breaker again—but Emmagen silenced it while Rodney dragged himself back into the open panel with a little groan. "We all fear death, McKay," she said, just loud enough for him to hear. "But that does not prevent us from acting."
"Easy for you to say," he snapped. "Don't you beat people with sticks in your free time, or something like that? When was the last time anything scared you?"
Emmagen was silent for a while, while he fixed the breaker and got the interface booted back up. Before he could ask her if her if she was getting input, she said quietly, "I can hear the thoughts of the Wraith."
For a minute, Rodney didn't realize she was answering his question. When he did, all he could think to say was, "Oh."
"It is disturbing enough on its own," she added, and were they seriously having this conversation in the middle of the bridge? Then again, nobody was around but Chief Campbell, who was sitting at Ops and didn't seem to be paying them any attention. "But what worries me more deeply is that, for all their age and malice...they fly in ships. They fight as we fight. They seem so mortal."
"Isn't that good?" Rodney asked her, not quite following the logic. "I mean, I'd rather fight aliens in spaceships than demons from Hell, you know?"
She shook her head. "You do not understand. The Wraith are the enemy who defeated the Ancestors. But if the Wraith themselves are mortal..."
"Oh," Rodney said again, just to be saying something. Emmagen had stopped working for a minute, and she looked weirdly sad and kind of lost—not scared, exactly, but maybe somewhere on the rubric of terror, to the left of loneliness and three ranks below an uncontrolled plasma fire.
Which somehow made it seem perfectly logical to blurt out, "My baby sister's pregnant."
Emmagen blinked at him, clearly not following at all. "How young is she?"
"Seventeen," he admitted. "Which I realize was like the average a couple hundred years ago, but this is now and she thinks she's in love with this—this English major, and she's not even applying to graduate school, and I tried to tell her right before we left earth what a bad idea it was and it...it didn't go so well."
"Define 'well,'" Emmagen asked.
"Um. 'Shut up, you hormonal cow?'"
"That's actually pretty much how my family's always interacted, though," he hastened to add. "Screaming, I mean. And if you can't scream at it you drug it or ignore it. So, you know...I guess I'm at the trifecta moment here." And he didn't even know why he was telling Teyla Emmagen about his maladjusted childhood, out of all people, or why now, except that she was here and he was tired. Really, really tired, in ways that didn't have anything at all to do with being awake for a day and a half. He'd joined Starfleet to get away from his fucked-up parents and it turned out he'd gone and become them.
"Do you regret what you said?" Emmagen asked him, sounding genuinely curious.
"Of course!" Rodney said. "I mean, not that I was right, because I totally am, but...I mean...she's Jeannie." Who'd thrown polar bears at him and promised to hate him forever, but still called him with allegedly happy news. Who made sure he didn't find out about their fathers' death from an obituary column. Who had somehow not succumbed to the congenital insanity of the McKays or Ingrams, despite no obvious signs of being adopted.
"Then you have a powerful motive to survive the coming battle," Emmagen said. "So that you can return to Earth and apologize to her."
He flinched. "I'm, uh...we're better at the screaming part than the apologizing part, usually."
"Rumor has it that you are a genius, Lieutenant," Emmagen said, looking back at her work. "I am sure that you will be able to think of something."
Right. Because sisters were solvable like an equation. Divide by x to atone. "I'll work on," he muttered, and dragged himself to his feet. Time to wake up Radek and find out if he'd ever actually had a simulation in the first place...
The golden tunic with the wide stripe on each cuff didn't fit perfectly—Jonn had just grabbed the first one that looked the right shape from the laundry when he had the time. He didn't really care, either. Even if this was the only time he ever got to wear it, he could always say now that once, at least for a little while, he'd been a real Starfleet officer on a ship of the line.
That didn't stop him from tugging on the cuffs compulsively while the rest of the staff filed into the briefing room. If you could call it a staff at that point—out of the seven people at the table, five had been cadets this time two days ago, and now they were heads of departments. Rodney was the last one in, and he brought an entire urn of coffee with him. "Thank you, Mr. McKay, that's very thoughtful of you," Weir said when she spotted it.
"Huh?" he asked, blinking. "Oh, no, this is for me."
"Rodney," Jonn warned while Weir blinked.
"What?" he asked. "Get your own coffee."
"What else did you skip in kindergarten besides sharing?" Jonn asked out loud, and snatched the urn out to Rodney's hands. There was a set of cups in a cupboard along one long wall of the briefing room, under a display of all the ships that had born the name Atlantis, all the way back to a two-masted sailboat; he dug them out and started offering the coffee around, while Rodney sulked.
"What's the status of the long-range antenna?" Weir asked, accepting her coffee without looking in Jonn's direction.
"There is a hardware incompatibility that prevents us from transmitting or receiving accurately over more than twelve light-years," Teyla said. "I have been able to get incomplete transmissions from some of the aid ships orbiting Vulcan, but no further. Once we leave orbit around Delta Vega, we will again be out of contact with Starfleet Command."
Weir turned to Rodney and Zelenka. "Warp drive?"
"We have repaired the warp drive, and it is functioning at one hundred percent capacity," Zelenka answered. (Rodney was busy sucking down his coffee.) "However, some of the hull breaches have proven too extensive to be repaired outside of drydock. I have devised a stopgap means of stabilizing them, but for the time being I would not advise going higher than warp nine-point-five at the very highest."
"Which is still six times faster than Michael's ship is going, so that shouldn't be a problem," Rodney added, punctuating it with the clack of his coffee cup on the table.
The mood in the room seemed to sharpen, and Jonn dropped back into his chair. "Do you know where he is?"
"No," Rodney admitted. "Well, maybe. We can find out where he went, though, which is the first step."
"Sensor data we gathered en route out of Vulcan revealed a very unusual muon decay pattern," Zelenka said. "It does not match the signature of any warp drive currently known by the Federation. Yet, anyway."
"Oh, don't even start," Rodney grumbled.
"It is a viable possibility," Zelenka protested.
"Only because you are delusional from lack of sleep." Rodney raised his cup again, and pouted at the absence of coffee in it."
"You guys want to let us in on the joke?" Jonn prompted.
Rodney sighed dramatically, but Zelenka said, with a perfectly straight face, "I believe there is a strong possibility that Michael's ship may have traveled in time."
Jonn's heart jolted, and he quickly glanced around the table, as if Ambassador Weir was going to materialize and confirm the story. But the others were just frowning or looking a little lost, except for Rodney, who rolled his eyes. "You see?" he said. "You see what I've been putting up with?"
"Just because you will not recognize the data—" Zelenka started to say.
"Time out," Jonn snapped, cutting them both off. He wanted to hear this.
Teyla was blinking. "What do you mean, exactly, by 'traveled in time'?"
Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose. "The muon decay pattern is atypical in part because of the high levels of co-occuring taychon particles," he explained. "These are theorized to be generated by a mass traveling non-relativistically though time."
"Delusional," Rodney muttered, sing-song, under his breath.
"It'd explain where he got weapons like that," Ford observed.
"And how he knew our names," Elizabeth added thoughtfully. Then she shook her head. "But unless that helps us stop him, I don't see how it's relevant."
"Wait a moment," Beckett said, leaning forward in his seat. "If this ship's from the future, doesn't he already know what happens next? How are we supposed to stand up to that?"
"That would be true if it were a stable time loop," Rodney said. "In which case, yes, everything that we're going to do, we've already done, which theoretically includes whatever it was that pissed him off in the first place, which may very well be what we're about to do, which is why stable time loops are stupid."
"And what is your better idea, then?" Zelenka challenged.
"Many-worlds," Rodney shot back. "If Michael even traveled back in time, which we don't know for sure, he would've forked the timeline and created this reality, which has absolutely no relationship to the one he came out of. No predestination paradoxes, no magical foreknowledge, and absolutely no relevance to this situation."
"Yes, but—" Zelenka started to say.
Weir cut him off with a sharp "Gentlemen." Zelenka subsided, pouting a little, and Rodney smirked at him and then tried to drink from his empty coffee cup. Weir glanced at Jonn, who could only shrug—yeah, they're always like this. "Back on topic. We can follow Michael's warp trail, yes? What does that buy us?"
"Well, given his speed and bearing when he left Vulcan, we have a vague idea of where to start looking," Rodney said. "Now that we've got part of an antenna, we can also ask around the neighborhood for clues, so to speak. So if we can pick up the trail, and if his ship is still held below warp five-point-five, it'll take us, what, eleven hours to catch up to him? Maybe twelve. Of course, if he has fixed his warp drive, this whole mission is pointless..."
"Either way," Jonn said. "How soon do we break orbit?"
But Weir turned to Emmagen first. "Has there been any response from Starfleet Command to my request?"
Jonn didn't know what request that was, exactly, but apparently Emmagen did; she hesitated a moment before saying, "According to Admiral Hammond, the star in the Vorash system went nova ten hours ago. Several ships in the task force were damaged, and the whereabouts of Captain O'Neill and the Cheyenne are currently unknown."
Jesus, it was just sunshine all over, wasn't it? The task force from Vorash was the last real way to defend Earth, if that was where Michael intended to attack next. If all those ships were out of commission too... "Nobody here but us chickens," Jonn muttered, and for some reason Weir gave him a sudden, sharp look.
"Admiral Hammond also instructed us to return to Earth, in the event that Michael's next attack falls there," Teyla added.
"Except that's not the heading he took leaving Vulcan," McKay said.
"Starships can turn, you know," Ford shot back.
"We'd stand a lot better chance against him with a bit of help," Beckett said.
"He'll stand a lot better chance against us if he's got time to repair," Jonn said. "How do we know he's not headed to his own drydock somewhere to repair? Or to find reinforcements?"
"Well, if either of those is the case, we're completely screwed," Rodney said.
"We're screwed if we do nothing," Jonn said. "We go back to Earth, Michael is free to pick the time and place of the next engagement, we get another Vulcan. We either face him now, when he's at his weakest, or we face him later on his terms."
"That's enough, people," Weir said, in one of those teacher's voices that projected further than seems possible. The whole table quieted, and Weir took a deep breath. "Lieutenant McKay is right: following Michael is a dangerous idea, and unlikely to succeed." She paused, and Jonn clenched his teeth, hanging on the next words. "For that reason, if anyone objects, they are free to remain here on Delta Vega while we proceed."
Jonn let out a breath he hadn't consciously held. Rodney's eyes bugged out. "You're disobeying a direct order from a Starfleet admiral? You?" He turned on Jonn. "Did you put something in that coffee?"
"Look at it this way, McKay," Jonn said. "If we fight him and lose, we aren't going to live to regret it."
He winced. "Thank you for that stunning moment of optimism, Mr. Sunshine."
"I want to be ready to set off in an hour," Weir declared. "Inform your respective departments of the plan and the option to stay behind. Lieutentant Emmagen, I don't think I need to give you any unlawful orders?"
"I have no intention of violating Starfleet's Uniform Code, Commander," Emmagen said confidently.
Weir looked at them all once more, and then nodded. "All right. You're all dismissed."