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Remorse

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Sam waited until she was alone in her lab to let her anger show. That son of a bitch!

I just wanted to give you my honest analysis, Major. Calling her a whack job, accusing her of letting her feelings cloud her judgment. Teal'c is toast. All the while, so arrogant, so smug, so damned ignorant, waving off Teal'c's life as if it — he — was nothing. She had pushed it away, but seeing his insufferable smile again brought it all roaring back.

It was walk away or attack McKay where he stood, and she wasn't ready to sacrifice her career because of him. He wasn't worth it.

She still ached to do something to him. Much as he might trigger a desire for violence in her, though, this wasn't a military situation. He hadn't broken any written laws or regulations, so there were no official ways to punish him. He wasn't even part of the SGC proper, so unofficial methods were out as well. Sending him to Russia got him out of their sight, sure, and he probably wouldn't enjoy the experience, but he probably wouldn't learn anything from it either.

That was what got to her. The real problem was that there just wasn't any way to make him understand. The truest punishment she knew was guilt — utter comprehension of one's trespasses. Guilt was a torment, a torture … but only to those capable of feeling it. Remorse required compassion, sympathy, humanity — all qualities McKay spectacularly lacked. He could never possibly atone because he would never feel even the slightest remorse.

Unless ….

She carefully pushed her anger down. A lot of that had to do with his treatment of her, which rightly pissed her off, but none of it was exactly new. She had been dealing with that particular brand of idiocy, from scientists and soldiers both, for most of her life. If she took that out of the equation, she was left with the problem of McKay's lack of human feeling.

She could ignore it — and him. She could wave as he left for Russia and hope that they didn't cross paths again. Unfortunately, the Pentagon thought he was the expert on the gate. She was used to that sort of thing, to being dismissed so easily, but it still stung — no, focus. Regardless of which of them was better or of how much theory mattered compared to practice, he was one of the few people in the world to have an advanced knowledge of gate technology. Even if they shunted him off to Russia for a while, the odds that no one in the program would never have to deal with him again were too low to count on.

And that worried her, because he clearly hadn't learned a thing. What would happen the next time there was a problem and someone trusted him to fix it? Whose safety or life would be disregarded or written off as irrelevant the next time he was called in?

And she could do something about that.

If she dared.

{}

 

Sam called Hammond first, because he did not waste time when he was angry, and once McKay was on a plane her suggestion wouldn't be enough to have him brought back. Hammond agreed to delay that much, at least, but he wanted a full explanation from her before he would agree to anything further.

She had to look up the device she wanted in the computer logs to find it — it had long since been assessed as unimportant. She took it and the testing records with her to Hammond's office and explained what she wanted to do.

He was skeptical. When she pointed out the likelihood they would eventually need McKay again, though, and what his lack of understanding had nearly cost them this time, he considered for several minutes but finally told her to go ahead.

{}

 

Back in her office, she opened the case and lifted out the wrapped device. She set it on her desk and very carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal the device itself, not letting her skin touch any part of it.

And then she hesitated.

The Valentine, as they had taken to calling it, was perfectly harmless. It was small, somewhere between a grapefruit and a cricket ball in size, and looked a little like a miniature communications satellite. Its recipient was subjected to a few minutes of unconsciousness — she still remembered Daniel's agitation that first time, because the locals hadn't warned him of that — but it didn't hurt at all and didn't cause any damage or injury as long as it wasn't interrupted.

The problem was loading it.

That didn't hurt, either. Not physically. The sort of bravery it required was a different sort entirely.

The locals of P5X-992, Kaiau, had been remarkably vague about it. They had shown Daniel exactly how to hold it and then asked him questions about Sam. Nothing embarrassing or sensitive — which was fortunate for all of them, since she'd been sitting right there — just general questions about their relationship and feelings for one another.

Daniel had been his usual careful self in his answers, trying to fit the idea of a field team into their terms. Then they took the device from him — using a cloth to do so — and placed it in the hands of a man Sam had been pretty sure was napping in his seat. The group had talked of other things for several minutes. When the napper awoke, though, all the locals had fallen silent and turned to him, only to droop with disappointment when the man shook his head.

When Sam asked, the man denied anything was wrong but added, "You are good friends." Sam didn't see how that related to the sudden dismal mood. The man then gestured for the cloth-bearer to take the device from him and give it to Sam. The moment she touched it she felt a flood of warm affection that she couldn't exactly explain, followed promptly by disorientation as she blinked back to consciousness. Daniel's tense demands for an explanation came from inches away, since he was kneeling next to her chair and checking her pulse, and he sighed with relief when he determined she was fine.

When they finally got the explanation, they both had to fight not to snicker. It turned out the locals had heard them enthusiastically discussing the apparent function of the archaic mechanism at the edge of the settlement and thought they would make a good couple. The Kaiauia turned out to take pride in their matchmaking skills, which were augmented by means of devices like the one they'd handed Daniel. They had hoped to strengthen their fledgling relationship with the Tau'ri by gifting them with a free match — a service they usually charged for, providing one of their more significant sources of tourist income.

Jack had teased them both about that for weeks.

The device was their way of checking matches they meant to recommend. It recorded emotions when held as they'd directed Daniel, and it evoked the same emotions in anyone who touched it otherwise. The warm affection she'd felt was what Daniel had felt at some point when answering questions about her. It was flattering and a little awkward, but fortunately — for her and Daniel, if disappointingly to the Kaiauia — it wasn't the physical desire or amorous attention that inspired a Kaiau-certified betrothal.

The device itself, one of about a dozen the Kauauia had, became their alliance gift. Further investigation and testing at the SGC determined that the emotions loaded into it could be directed consciously by the user, rather than randomly inspired by questioning.

Unfortunately, that meant she would have to experience those emotions as strongly and truly as possible … and then reveal them to McKay. He wouldn't necessarily know they were her feelings any more than she had first known she had been given Daniel's, but the thought of exposing herself to him like that still made her skin crawl.

She couldn't pass it off to anyone else, though. This was her idea and therefore her responsibility. More specifically, she was the closest person to McKay's function. If they did need him again, they would need him to have her perspective as a scientist and a team member, both able to take direct action to resolve gate issues and motivated to want to. Since he was apparently incapable of normal human emotion, it would have to be personal.

It would have to be her.

{}

 

It was hard.

She cared about her team. She honestly did. She had her hands positioned carefully on the device, touching only the input contacts, and she knew she needed to let herself feel what her team meant to her.

As she tried, though, when it wasn't thoughts of McKay himself making her tense up, it was years of military training shutting down her reactions almost instinctively. She didn't dwell on this stuff and she certainly didn't go advertising it.

She had meant what she had told Hammond, though, so she had to find a way to make this work.

McKay had criticized her for spending time on fieldwork, as if that was some unrelated dalliance, so she took a deep breath and started by focusing on what fieldwork really meant — the practical results of theory, the confirmations and refutations, the need for improvisation and adaptability. The urgency of deadlines and countdowns, not just as low scores on some test or simulation but as the measure of risk and lives.

She brought up every mission she could remember, every injury, every long hour waiting for a trace or a medical report or rescue. She summoned every team-inspired emotion she could think of, doing her best to feel it all again so the device would pick it up. To her surprise, that grew easier with each memory, her self-consciousness falling away.

She considered the team as a group, and she thought of them singly, trying to tease out her own reactions by concentrating on how an outsider like McKay would see them if he would only look. Jack — the leader, naturally charismatic, trusted and trusting, underplaying his own intelligence, charming and witty, seemingly easygoing … but with a steel core and a ruthless streak. Teal'c — the warrior, the outsider, graceful and strong, compassion camouflaging a subtle sense of humor. Her heart stuttered as she thought again of losing him forever, and suddenly this was simple. Daniel — the specialist, so earnest and enthusiastic. Even herself — the technician, the fixer, staggering sometimes under the burden of producing impossible solutions in inadequate time but fiercely proud that this duty was hers.

They didn't always get along, but they pulled together when it mattered. They did what was necessary to protect each other — such as the way Daniel had gone to speak to the Russians, and Jack had put aside his dislike to work with Maybourne, and, well, she had worked with McKay. They considered every option when it came to saving a friend.

But it was more even than that. It wasn't just the team, it was the whole of the SGC. Hammond, open to alliance but unyielding when pushed, loyal defender of those under his command, always worrying as he waited for his teams to come home. Janet, standing by to put them back together, equally prepared to coddle them or cow them. The gateroom staff. The other teams, military and scientists both. All of them united against a vast, implacable alien force, keeping earth safe, searching the galaxy for allies and tools — bonded not merely by duty or even friendship but by something very like a sense of family.

She poured it all in. All the wonder of gate travel, all the thrill and excitement, the fear and anxiety, the elation and guilt, the duty and honor. Everything.

{}

 

Sam came back to herself abruptly, surprised at how easily she had let go in the end. She took several minutes to compose herself before she gathered the device carefully and set out to find McKay.

{}

 

"Well, well, if it isn't the beauteous Major Carter." McKay abandoned his exploration of the small conference room and smirked. "Come to apologize for that little tantrum of yours earlier?"

Sam kept a small smile firmly on her face, not letting him see the way he made her grind her teeth. If the smile turned a bit feral, well, it wasn't like he would ever notice, not when his eyes spent so little time on her face. "Don't worry, McKay, we just had to reschedule the flights. We'll still get you to Russia in plenty of time."

"You don't need to make excuses to keep me around," he smugged. Until that second, she would never have imagined that smug could be a verb. "Genius here. Consulting with a Goa'uld for hare-brained schemes? You obviously need someone who can think clearly under pressure. And I have to say I like the scenery here."

If she wasn't so disgusted by him, she could have laughed at his pathetic lines. "I think I'd rather hire the Goa'uld. You're going to Russia, and they're welcome to you." She waited a few seconds for his smirk to dim before she added, "Unless …."

She had the device cradled in one hand, safely wrapped in the cloth. It was perfectly natural to unfold the layers of cloth, revealing the device gradually, letting the cloth drape down around the supporting hand.

She meant to make him an offer, to give him a choice between the device and Russia, but he was too arrogant to give her the chance. "Ha! I knew it! You need me!" He bounced, he actually bounced. "Do you even know what it is yet?"

"You tell me." She had intended to explain, she honestly had, but one look at his condescending smirk made it so easy to lob the device gently at him, forcing him to catch it. He did, clumsily, one of his hands making sufficient contact to trigger the device's output phase.

The Valentine nestled into his hand, adhering gently, and he crumpled. She barely had time to catch him and ease him the rest of the way to the floor.

{}

 

Daniel had passed the open doorway before he really registered what he had seen from the corner of his eye. He doubled back and leaned in the door. "Sam?"

She looked up at him from her odd position. She sat cross-legged on the floor, just barely visible since she was on the other side of the conference table. He moved into the room. "Why are you —" He broke off when he moved close enough to see the civilian gate consultant sprawled next to her, his confusion turning to worry. "Oh, no, is he —"

She put out a hand to ward him off and he stopped immediately, confused again. "Sam?"

"Everything's fine, Daniel."

"I'm sure it is," he said doubtfully. "You know, you really have to do a better job of hiding the body than that."

"He's not dead," she countered.

The consultant — McKay, that was his name — looked like he was still breathing, at least. "Okay, he's not." McKay wasn't moving either, though. After a few seconds Daniel added, "Still, shouldn't we get a med team in here or something?"

Sam sighed. "He's fine. Should be almost done, actually."

"Almost done?" Daniel repeated. He looked at McKay again and frowned more deeply when he recognized the object in the man's hand. "That's not that Valentine thing, is it? Because really, Sam, you can do a lot better than —"

"He's not feeling my love for him right now, Daniel," she said, irritated.

"Okay," he said slowly. "So what is he … Sam. You did tell him what you loaded that thing with before he started it, didn't you?"

She might have flinched slightly.

"But even then," Daniel mused, "he wouldn't … oh, Sam. You tricked him into touching it, didn't you? And you didn't even get him to sit down first? You know what effect that thing has." That must be why she was sitting on the floor herself to monitor him, when they both really ought to be in chairs.

"So it's a little uncomfortable," she sighed. "It's not like I'm obliterating him in the gate or anything."

He squatted down to look her in the eye. "What did you load it with?" he asked her.

She looked insulted. "Not how I feel about him. As tempting as that was."

He nodded. "Okay. Then what?"

"He didn't get it, Daniel. He had no idea what he was asking us to do — what that deadline he imposed was risking. It was all just equations and theory to him. He didn't care. No matter what we do, no matter where we send him, he'll never get it. I can't … I can't accept that. I can't accept him just walking around free, thinking it was just some simulation, not knowing — not caring — that this is about people. That this was about Teal'c's life."

"So then you loaded it with …?"

"What we are. What he was risking. What he needs to care about if we're going to have to rely on him."

Daniel studied her for a long while. He saw her point, but it didn't really explain the situation he'd walked in on. He'd heard that the two of them hadn't gotten along, but he hadn't gotten any details about that yet. She looked drained, too, in a way she hadn't just a short while earlier, and he wasn't sure she realized that.

Regardless, he couldn't change what she already had done. He settled back to sit on the floor, keeping her company as she waited for McKay to recover. If McKay hadn't been warned, sticking around to help Sam explain what had happened might be a good idea.

{}

 

It really should have ended quickly. Daniel remembered the device triggering no more than a couple of minutes of unconsciousness, and Sam told him that the effect had never lasted more than five minutes in extended testing.

She bit her lip when she noted the five minute mark passing.

"Any second now," she murmured at the six minute mark.

She just gave Daniel a worried look at the seven minute mark.

When it hit eight, she closed her eyes for a moment and then called in a med team.

{}

 

"Talk to me, Dr. Fraiser," Hammond said.

Janet looked up from McKay's still form and eyed the trio crowding her infirmary. Hammond stood at the foot of the cot, with Sam and Daniel flanking him. Sam fought not to squirm.

"I can't really explain it," Janet told him. "From what we know of this device, it only acts for a short period. It should have shut down by now. I can't tell what it's doing to him — his pulse is racing and he shows signs similar to REM sleep, but I can't find anything else to explain why he isn't coming out of it."

"Is it hurting him? Is he in any pain?"

"There's no way to tell. The pulse rate might suggest that, but his respiratory rate and blood pressure are normal. He may be agitated or simply … excited." Sam really, really hoped Janet was wrong about that. "All I can do is guess, though."

"So the device is still affecting him? Can't we just take it away?"

"No," Sam said hastily, nearly drowning out the doctor's calmer voicing of the same word.

Janet eyed her for a second before continuing. "The testing records indicate that interrupting the device's function triggers a neurotransmitter crash in the subject, resulting in crippling depressive episodes that can last days. I don't want to risk that, not yet."

Hammond frowned. "So what do you recommend, Doctor?"

"At this stage, the safest option is probably to wait and monitor his condition. If it lasts much longer I can set up an IV to keep him hydrated, but he doesn't seem to be in any danger at the moment. If more than a few hours pass, or if his condition changes, we'll probably want to look into removing the device, but I can't recommend that course of action yet."

"Very well, Doctor. Keep me informed." Hammond turned to Sam. "Anything else she should know, Major?"

Sam winced. He wasn't dressing her down — he was good about handling that privately — but the others already knew this whole thing had been her idea and that Hammond wasn't happy about the outcome. "This shouldn't have happened, sir," she protested. "It's never done this before. It's harmless."

"Apparently not," Daniel muttered. He hastily added, "But no, she's right. It's never done anything like this before. It's really not much more than a toy —" He had started into lecture mode, drawing attention away from her, but he broke off as McKay emitted a soft groan.

Sam looked over and was relieved to see that the device had fallen away from McKay's hand. Janet swiftly moved over to pick it up with a small towel. She passed the bundle over to Sam and went back to her patient. "Mr. McKay? Mr. McKay, can you open your eyes for me?"

His face twitched. "Doctor," he muttered irritably, his eyes still closed. So he still had his oh-so-charming personality, then, and that suggested he hadn't really been affected. Sam felt a rush of relief that left her almost dizzy.

"I need you to open your eyes, Dr. McKay," Janet persisted.

McKay waved a limp hand as if trying to swat her away but then sighed deeply. "First sleep I've gotten in — oh, ow." He sat forward abruptly and drew his knees up to cradle his head in his hands.

"Tell me what you're feeling," Janet prompted.

"Headache," he answered offhandedly. "Hardly surprising, since some people won't let me get five minutes of sleep. Just bring me some aspirin and about a gallon of coffee and I'll be fine. I have to …." He raised his head, looking confused. "Be in the infirmary, apparently. Huh. Well, as much fun as …." He trailed off again, his expression turning bewildered. "All right, would someone please explain what I'm doing in this infirmary?"

Janet glanced at Sam before turning back to McKay. "What's the last thing you do remember, Dr. McKay?"

"Um. Recalibrating the … no. Rebuilding a console. I don't remember coming here at all." That shouldn't even be possible, dammit. "Was I injured? Was it something our infirmary couldn't handle so they had to transfer me here?" He was starting to sound panicked. This was the same man who managed to complain of two different medical conditions as he insulted her. Of course he would be a hypochondriac.

"Not at all," Hammond said smoothly. "We brought you here to the SGC to help us with a problem with the gate."

McKay looked over at him, still frowning but growing calmer. "Well, that makes more — oh, hey, Sam." He gave her a warm, brief smile before starting to look at Hammond again, but then he glanced back. "Oh, you cut your hair. It's, um, it's nice." She had no idea what function of the device could have put that thought into his head. She didn't remember having any stray thoughts about needing a haircut. With his words he smiled at her again, almost nervously, his cheeks turning a bit pink, but that creepy possessiveness of a few hours earlier was almost entirely missing and his eyes had barely even flickered down towards her chest.

Instead his smile quickly turned back to a puzzled frown. "But if you're here, I don't see why you'd —" His expression abruptly cleared as he snapped his fingers rapidly and pointed at her. "Primacy, of course. Not that there's much to be done about that on this end, but if I already did most of the reconfiguration, it would probably be faster for me to do the rest here, too. Huh, I really don't remember any of that."

Sam stifled a sigh. Clearly the device hadn't done what she meant it to, if he didn't even remember why he was at the SGC to start with. He certainly didn't seem to be consumed with guilt. Still, it seemed to have had a positive effect on him. His manner was completely confusing and not exactly reassuring as to his mental state — but it was also marginally less obnoxious.

So far, anyway.

McKay clapped his hands together. "Well, you haven't gotten me into any embarrassing gowns or impaled me with an IV yet, so clearly it can't be anything all that serious. Are you sure I wasn't just taking a nap?" He hopped up out of the cot easily. "So did I finish … whatever it was I was working on here?"

"Yes, you've certainly done enough," Hammond said wryly.

"Good, good, then you can send me back —" He broke off with an appalled double-take. "Wait a second. Aren't you, you know …." He patted briefly at his own chest. "Dead? I mean, I thought we heard that. And actually —" He looked over at Janet sharply. "Now that I mention it, Carson always cited you when he had to go offworld. So how … what, did we start a fad? Was there a two-for-one clone-your-CMO sale?"

Janet got the steely look with which she faced down unpredictable patients that had just bought themselves an extended date with her equipment. "Dr. McKay, if you'll just sit back down, I need to run some tests —"

McKay avoided her reaching hand easily, not possessing the hard-won wisdom to give in to Janet early. "Oh, no no no, my vampire friend, I think I'll wait to see my own improbably resurrected witch doctor, thank you very much. I feel fine, other than …." He started patting at his clothes.

"Something wrong?" Janet asked.

"Hungry. Hypoglycemia, remember? I should have …." His hands slowed and he looked down at himself. "Okay. That's different. Um, where are my clothes?"

Sam's stomach sank further. The bizarre pronouncements were one thing, but if she had actually broken him ….

Finally Daniel spoke. "You're wearing them," he said carefully.

McKay's head snapped up and he rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious, I'm wearing clothing." He looked back down, gesturing at his shirt. "I meant where's my clothing, my uniform, not this blast … from …."

He went very still.

After several seconds he slowly reached up towards his head, but his hand flinched away as soon as he touched his hair. He took a deep breath, his head still lowered, and asked, "What year is it?" in a low, tense tone more appropriate for a question like How many died?

After a few seconds, and after Janet gave him a slight nod of approval, Hammond spoke. "It's 2002, Doctor."

McKay looked up again, his eyes wide. "What? Oh, no no no, this is — this is … well, not good, obviously, but how —"

"What year do you think it is?" Janet interjected, smooth and professional.

"As far as I know, 2008. Wait, no, 2009? It's kind of hard to keep track where we are."

"And where is that?" Janet sounded much more patient than Sam could ever have managed.

"Atlantis," McKay said, his tone suggesting the answer was obvious.

Oh, hell.

It made no sense. It simply made no sense that the device could make McKay think he was in another year and from some mythical place. What the hell had happened?

After a long, stunned pause, Daniel ventured, "The Lost Continent?"

"City," McKay corrected, his tone suggesting he thought Daniel was the crazy one. "Ancient outpost? Pegasus? International expedition? Anyone?" He closed his eyes for a moment in sudden realization, but Sam's hopes that he was just still waking up didn't even have a chance to form. He just said, "Which, right, 2002 is too early. So again, how and why the SGC in 2002? I wasn't here then, I was in Siberia. And I was at Area 51 before that. I didn't come here until — oh, wait, except — Teal'c. In the gate. Is this then?"

There was another pause before Hammond confirmed, "We brought you here to help get him out, yes."

"And is he out yet? Is he still stuck?" McKay looked at them all with such earnest worry that Sam considered hoping again. Maybe this was all just a complex, roundabout way of satisfying what she'd tried to load into the device?

"We got him out," Sam told him. "No thanks to you."

"Good, good," McKay said, actually looking relieved. That lasted a few seconds before shifting to a mild annoyance. "Right, and that would explain why you've all been looking at me like something you wiped off your shoes, too. Lovely. So, again, why this? Why drag me back here?"

Everyone looked at Sam.

"We didn't drag you back from anywhere, McKay," she said. "You were … affected by an alien device. It's normally harmless, but it kept you under for longer than usual. It may have caused some kind of hallucination, or maybe you just had a really vivid dream, but it really is 2002 and you haven't gone anywhere."

"Well, that's obviously completely wrong. What's this device you're talking about? What does it do?"

"Not much," Sam told him. "It just shares emotions and feelings — at least usually. I'm not exactly sure what it did to you, but you are still here and it is still 2002."

McKay was quiet for several seconds and then assumed a very fake smile. "Okay, great joke, very funny. I'm laughing on the inside. Hysterics, really. You're all very clever. Now, joke's over, okay?" The phony smile slipped, leaving only an uncertainty that verged on desperation.

He really believed it. He really thought he was from some mythical place in 2009.

Sam sighed. "Look, I don't know how we're supposed to prove this to you, but we're telling you the truth here."

"She's right, Doctor," Hammond added.

"We really haven't seen this happen before," Daniel said. He looked over at Janet. "Is there some kind of scan you could do?"

Janet tilted her head, considering. "I don't think anything I have would be appropriate," she said, "but maybe we —"

"I don't need any scans!" McKay backed away, one hand warding them off. "Don't — just — just give me a minute." He locked eyes with Daniel, of all people. "My perceptions are being affected by an alien device of unknown function," he said, deliberate and forceful. "I am, understandably, somewhat disoriented. That does not make me crazy," he emphasized.

Daniel regarded him for a few seconds and then nodded, frowning. "He's got a point. Back off, guys. Give him some space."

The only thing Sam could think of that met McKay's description and had to do with Daniel was that thing with Machello. Only how had McKay known about that? It wasn't exactly public knowledge. Then again, plenty of Machello's little toys had gone over to Area 51, and all it took was one person.

They held back and McKay collected himself slowly. After a couple of minutes he took a deep breath and gave Sam a determined look. "I want to see this device you're talking about."

Janet started forward. "Actually, I should —"

McKay jerked further away. "Oh no you don't," he snapped. Sam realized that his movements weren't as purely reactive as she had first thought, because he had nicely shifted himself around towards an exit. "No exams, no tests, no scans, no touching. Nothing. I want to see this device, and that's going to happen somewhere that's not here."

{}

 

They went from the infirmary to the nearest conference room. Hammond moved into the lead, with Sam and McKay next, and Daniel brought up the rear. He noticed that McKay kept looking around at the hallways suspiciously and gave Sam more space than was strictly necessary.

When they reached the conference room, Sam set her bundle down carefully, making sure the device was steady before she pulled the towel straight around it.

McKay frowned. "That's the device." His tone was flat, disbelieving.

"That's it," Sam agreed. "It conveys emotions. It doesn't seem to be good for much except sharing feelings."

"And that's how you normally carry it around? With a towel?"

"Not usually a towel, no, but touching it directly activates it, so we have to use something to prevent contact."

"Oh, no." McKay pinched the bridge of his nose. "No no no no no. There is absolutely no way the real SG-1 was ever this incompetent."

"I really don't think you should be calling anybody incompetent, McKay," Sam said coolly. Something about McKay brought an edge to her tone that Daniel almost never heard from her.

McKay's gesturing hands were as outraged as his voice. "Your containment protocol is a towel! Seriously, what the hell is this thing even doing here? Where is the full analysis? What are the tolerances? You don't know how to handle anything safely, you treat it like a toy — this should be at Area 51, not left lying around to ambush visiting geniuses. There are actual protocols about this sort of thing, and I know no device anything like this ever made it to Area 51 when I was there."

"How would you know that, McKay?" Sam challenged. "You're gate, not xeno."

"Oh, please, as if I have that kind of luxury." His voice was slightly distracted as his eyes studied the device. "I'm everything. The gate, the jumpers, Ancient tech including the database — and every half-brained experiment they left littering the galaxy, Wraith tech, Genii tech, civil engineering but only because everyone else is completely incompetent so I don't want to hear it, zero-point energy and naquadah generators and shielding and I really need a raise, come to think of it. But even in —" his hands waved sarcastically "— 2002, I put in time in the artifacts lab."

Considering Sam's increasingly bewildered expression, Daniel expected her to ask what several of the things McKay named were, but she went a different direction. "I thought you were busy being the 'world's foremost expert on the gate,'" she told McKay.

"That was my primary assignment, yes. Everyone needs a hobby, and it's not as if there was a shortage of random offworld crap coming in. But this is definitely Ancient-derived, if not directly Ancient, and that's exactly the sort of thing I watched for. And I went back through the records and reviewed every report of every object that even looked as if the designer might have been thinking about Ancients, back when we were exiled back here." He glanced up at Sam. "This never came through Area 51, and don't think I won't be mentioning that little lapse to the IOA."

He looked back down at the device and rubbed at his forehead. "Oh, I have not missed Decline-era script. Like a badly designed captcha, with the hidden bonus that a misinterpretation might actually kill you."

Daniel frowned. "You can read it?"

"Of course I can read it. Or recognize the script, at least. Maybe I don't have all day to spend learning obscure languages or — or Ascension poetry or whatever it is you spend your time on, but it would be surprising if I couldn't make out even corrupted technical Ancient by now."

"How do you translate it?" Daniel asked.

McKay immediately pointed to the markings, identifying the script more quickly than the physical scientists usually ever did, his hands never moving closer than a good foot away from the surface. "Two clusters. The first looks related to twopair or couple, maybe, or join. The second one is more vague. Delay or time … or forecast? That's the one that would be trouble. But you've had this thing for a while, so let's skip the pop quiz. What does it say?"

"Well, we're still not certain," Daniel said, warming to the topic, "but that's actually very close to what we found. You're right, that second term is the harder one. I think prediction or forecast is the best fit, but we weren't able to find any supporting artifacts, so it's still tentative. We've just been calling it 'the Valentine,' though, based on what it does. Or what we thought it did, at least."

McKay gave him a disgusted look. "All right, that does it. Please stop pretending linguistics is remotely related to science. You see something that could be related to pair and something that could be forecast, so of course you decide it's a Valentine's card. It could just as easily mean quantum entanglement!" With that he stomped over to the whiteboard, grabbed a couple of markers, and slashed a line down the middle of the board.

Daniel was starting to understand that edge McKay inspired in Sam's voice. "It's actually just a nickname," he said. "The people who gave it to us were using the devices as matchmakers, but they had scavenged them from an abandoned civilization that died out or drifted away thousands of years ago. That society was probably pretty close to a true Ancient influence on their technology, based on what the analysts here say about the design of this object, but the writing shows clear signs of drift. We have no way to know how much their version of the language itself had changed by then, especially if they were only using it as a scientific language, which we've seen before. For that matter, we can't be certain whether the original designers included those markings or whether some other group added them later. We have several viable interpretations, but as I said, we weren't able to track down any supporting artifacts and only have a few fragments of any form of script from that society."

"Whatever." McKay had started writing some sort of header on either side of the dividing line as Daniel spoke. "I'm sure this has been entertaining to someone, but I'm done. I'm ready to get out of here now." His headers equated c to the traditional circle-and-cross Earth symbol on one side and to what was either the home gate symbol for Earth or a stylized lambda on the other. He wrote capacity/memory - scale in red under the lambda. Then he switched to blue and wrote Replicators under the Earth symbol, followed by mist people. He took up a black marker briefly to add cartoon sci? after that last one.

Daniel and Hammond both turned to Sam, who made a face at them for leaving it up to her to ask. "If you want to leave, what are you doing?"

"Working out how to leave, of course," McKay snapped.

"It's called an elevator, McKay," Sam said. "We have a few." Her expression indicated that McKay's notes made no more sense to her than they did to Daniel.

"And if this really were the SGC, that would be useful," McKay replied. He added VR and then gave that item its own sub-list: Aurora, quantum, other.

Sam's eyes widened. "You think you're in some kind of constructed reality," she said. "You think we're not real."

"Oh, well done," McKay said sarcastically. He added medical. "Keep up that kind of brilliance and you might eventually fool somebody into thinking you're really Carter."

Sam sputtered as Hammond protested again that they were all real and Daniel tried to figure out how exactly they could prove that. McKay just ignored them as he gave medical a sub-list, too: poison, fever, parasite, virus. Sam joined Hammond in the attempt to persuade McKay, who just waved a dismissal as he added time travel to the list. When Daniel tried to get his attention, McKay finally snarled that if they felt like being useless and distracting, they could go do it somewhere else and let him work.

Sam, Hammond, and Daniel moved over to the doorway for a quiet conference. Sam suggested they all leave McKay alone for a while to get it out of his system. They both looked surprised when Daniel said, "I'll stay." He pointed out that he had some idea what McKay was probably going through, reminding them of Shifu.

Hammond said he would have Dr. Fraiser arrange to have Dr. MacKenzie on standby, just in case, and Sam offered Daniel a wry, "Good luck." They left and Daniel settled into a chair. He had taken the "simulated life as object lesson" ride himself, thanks to Shifu, and he knew how disorienting it was to wake up with all those years and experiences undone. Once McKay actually let it go, Daniel was probably the best person to help him.

{}

 

McKay really didn't want to let it go.

After about ten minutes of watching McKay scribble on the whiteboard, mutter, and massage his temples, Daniel left the room briefly, nodding a greeting to the airman stationed quietly just outside the door of the conference room. Anyone whose first request on waking with a headache included "about a gallon of coffee" was almost certainly prone to withdrawal headaches, and Daniel knew what those were like. It couldn't help that no one had been getting much sleep for the past couple of days. He went to the commissary and brought back a couple of cups of coffee.

McKay's expression lightened slightly and he reached out, saying "About time," but then he snatched his hand back and scowled. "Oh, right, of course, because I would trust anything any of you people hand me. Nice try."

"It's just coffee," Daniel said, taking a drink of his own in testament.

"So you say. Then, when I'm sprawled on the floor not breathing, you'll laugh with your buddies that you spiked it with lemon or something like that, because obviously McKay was exaggerating about that whole deadly allergy thing, and he'll shake off that little bout of asphyxiation he's doing any minute now."

Okay then. "I'll admit I don't know what to say to that," Daniel said. He left the second coffee where McKay could reach it easily and sat back down. "If you're that convinced we're all out to get you, anything I could come up with would be just as likely to make things worse as it would be to help. I don't think I understand why you believe that."

McKay just narrowed his eyes and turned back to the whiteboard. If nothing else, though, Daniel succeeded in destroying McKay's concentration. The man kept shooting little glances over at the abandoned cup, each more desperate — and, frankly, pathetic — than the last.

Once he'd finished his own coffee, Daniel couldn't take it anymore. He went to his office and brought back the coffeemaker, coffee, and filters, as well as a small stash of disposable cups, and then went back out for water. He set it all up where McKay could easily see what he was doing, poured a stiff pot's worth of grounds directly into the lined basket by eye, and started it brewing.

By the time the carafe was a quarter full, McKay had abandoned his pretense of ignoring and just stood there watching the liquid drip down.

When it finished, Daniel poured himself a cup and took a drink before gesturing that McKay could take his own, if he wanted. McKay did but then only barely touched his lips to the liquid before setting it aside, as if he truly did expect some sort of contamination.

He held out for about five more minutes. Then he downed the cup and continued steadily through most of the rest of the pot — limiting himself to most only because Daniel wrested it away long enough to get a little more for himself.

McKay turned less hostile after that, the coffee not only easing his headache and bracing him against weariness but also loosening his tongue. He kept poking at his cryptic notes, but as the hours passed, over a few more shared pots of coffee and around a field trip to a vending machine for food, he started telling Daniel about the missing years he claimed. He started with offhand comments, but as Daniel gently prompted for explanations, he expanded. Soon he was sharing stories about his team, his lab staff, and the city he called Atlantis.

Daniel encouraged him at first because he had begun to wonder whether McKay's vision was an interaction with Oma Desala or her kind. There was certainly precedent. Daniel had no idea how McKay, of all people, would have been the one chosen for such a thing, but it could have been a matter of opportunity.

McKay's stories proceeded to reveal a person Daniel hadn't expected, one he thought Sam would explicitly disbelieve. As McKay shared the details, he revealed warmth and affection, at least for some of his subjects. He revealed a surprisingly strong sense of responsibility for both his duties and the lives of his staff and friends. He occasionally retreated into a defensiveness that clearly was meant to conceal guilt and failures that he seemed to feel deeply. Even with those moments, he gave an overall sense of belonging and contentment.

Unfortunately for McKay, every word just gave Daniel further proof that none of it was real and more reason to think it was all due to Sam's device.

He worked extensively with myths and legends, tracing them back to the inspiring events or people. Finding common traits and tracing drift were second nature to him. He didn't know how much of McKay's creation was inspired by the rumors of SG-1 that circulated at Area 51 — and Daniel knew for a fact there were legends about them — and how much came from Sam's contributions with the device, but the connections were pretty plain.

Some details shuffled around, of course, in the way of all legends. Some came from other, unknown sources, or possibly McKay's imagination. And some, like this Sheppard who featured prominently, were pretty obvious. From McKay's details, Sheppard was a younger Jack with crazy hair — and a flirtatious manner that McKay found exasperating. Daniel had to wonder which of Sam and McKay that bit was contributed by. Sheppard also had an unfortunate compulsion towards taking missions that amounted to suicide, to hear McKay tell it in jokes that covered his bitterness and distress poorly. Oh, Sam. Daniel might once have described Jack that way, long ago, but he hadn't imagined that Sam might harbor that kind of worry about Jack, even unconsciously.

Daniel tried speculating on the possible symbolism of shepherds, not bothering to keep the thoughts to himself because he hoped McKay would catch on to his own invention. All he accomplished with that was provoking McKay into writing out the "correct" spelling of the name in blue at the bottom of the Earth-symbol side of the board, as if the different spelling alone disproved any possible metaphorical interpretation. Daniel realized too late that he should have asked for the spelling first, because now he had no way to know whether McKay's choice of spelling was a defensive confabulation.

And then, just to throw him for a loop, McKay pulled a Wizard of Oz on him: And you were there, and you, and you. He gave Sam a promotion and a year of command of this Atlantis. He told, with some disdain, a story of Teal'c visiting and fight-bonding with someone he named Ronon, emphasizing their similarities so much that Daniel couldn't believe he wouldn't make that final connection. He spun a strange tale of Jack's involvement in retaking the city from some kind of complicated takeover involving rediscovered Ancients, of all things, and beings McKay called Replicators but described as humanoid. And he had Daniel visiting, too, as the culmination of wanting to go there for years but being thwarted.

McKay had certainly painted enough details to make it sound like a fascinating place, but he really didn't know Daniel, despite his newfound attitude of familiar rivalry. If the place was as irresistible as he implied, Daniel wouldn't have simply sat back and twiddled his thumbs for years.

"Of course, there was the whole being-kidnapped-by-rogue-Asgard thing the second time, and you nearly died again, but …." McKay shrugged as if that was inconsequential. "You seemed to enjoy it other than that."

Rogue Asgard? Daniel raised an eyebrow at that idea — McKay had a strangely active imagination — but he decided to comment on something else. Two themes featured prominently in McKay's ramblings. One was water, particularly people being trapped or having to work underwater. Daniel had heard that McKay hadn't seen the real gate in action before his arrival at the SGC a few days earlier, and the gate's event horizon did look a lot like water. Could that be linked? And as for the other … "You seem very preoccupied with death," he pointed out. McKay kept mentioning deaths — not just this strange comment about Daniel himself or his words to Hammond and Janet, but numerous other members of this putative expedition. Was that the manifestation of Sam's fear for Teal'c?

McKay scoffed. "Oh, please, you're the Weeble of mortality." The what? Daniel made a mental note to share that one with Jack. "And mentioning one time out of your, what, dozens is hardly … oh. Right. Look, it's not as though I wanted the other two to die. Hammond was … well, okay, he never liked me, and sending me to Siberia was completely unnecessary, but, well, I suppose he occasionally listened to reason. And that doctor person was apparently pretty good — as voodoo-practicing bloodsuckers go, that is. And Carson liked her. Of course, Carson liked everyone, but … still." He scrubbed at his face, but the expression he seemed determined to wipe away was less one of weariness and more one of muted loss. After several seconds he turned back to the whiteboard, squaring his shoulders. "Right. Time to figure this out."

McKay studied his notes quietly for a long while. Daniel finally decided to take advantage of his silence and explained his own experiences with Shifu. Daniel had barely started when McKay set down the markers and assumed a very defensive posture, but McKay said nothing for the entire story — or for a couple of minutes afterwards.

Daniel was seriously considering mentioning Sam's experiences with Orlin as well, even though they didn't really seem to apply in the same way, when McKay finally spoke. "So you're saying everything I remember was all just a dream to teach me a lesson. How very Christmas-movie of you. The problem with your theory is the spectacular lack of a tour guide for this alleged Afterschool Special you seem to think I'm in. Unless …."

"Unless?"

McKay frowned at him thoughtfully, the first signs of doubt creeping into his expression. "Unless you're meant to represent my own personal quasi-Ascended spirit guide. That would actually make a strange kind of sense."

Before Sam's experiment, Daniel had only seen McKay in passing, just long enough to link the face to the name. They hadn't even spoken. "It would?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know why.

"Obviously," McKay said, freeing one hand to gesture at Daniel. "Because of your whole —" He clamped his mouth shut suddenly and recrossed his arms. When he spoke again, it was warily. "Because of that thing you'd already know about if you are."

Daniel wondered if there really was a reason or if McKay was just unconsciously defending his own construction. "I'm pretty sure I'm just myself," he said, figuring the truth to be the safest option.

"Right." McKay's mouth twisted with a sour humor. "Thank you, then, for that delightful and ultimately useless diversion." He turned back to his notes, dismissing any consideration of Daniel's actual point with the gesture.

{}

 

Sam came back several hours later, apparently having napped because she looked much more rested. "You guys are still here?" she asked, clearly surprised. Daniel just shrugged to signal his lack of progress. Sam's eyebrows climbed further as she saw the whiteboard.

McKay had added quite a lot to the board in those hours. He had listed types of time travel in blue: wormhole diversion, jumper, psych. displ. — though that last had the note sci fic! in red after it. Next was the phrase android download, also in blue, but with a red note of pulse and a black note of magnet?. Below those were several symbols and abbreviations Daniel couldn't assign any meanings to. The lambda side of the board was sparse, with only two additional notes: Ancients = insane in blue, and a red Sam ≠ evil that McKay had added with clear hesitation.

"You still think we're not real?" Sam asked, her disbelief clear. She glanced at Daniel, who could only shrug again.

"Not real or not right, at least. I mean, not right for me, not the same temporal offset, whatever. I'll figure this out," McKay insisted, weary but stubborn. "Alone if I have to." The look he gave her was unguarded and pleading.

Sam either missed that or chose to ignore it. "Honestly, McKay, there's no trick. It was just some kind of hallucination. Whatever you're trying to get back to, it's not real."

"You think I made up seven years? Dozens of — no, hundreds of people, new races, an entire galaxy? I'm not that creative, Sam," he said earnestly. "We talked about that, remember? The piano …?" He watched her expectantly for several seconds, but then his face fell. "Oh, right, that 'hasn't happened yet.'" He turned away from her, his expression shutting down, closing them both out.

"Look, you're just confused," Sam said gently. "I guess that device gave you a pretty intense experience. I am sorry about that. I just wanted you to understand what you tried to do to Teal'c."

"I didn't do anything to Teal'c," McKay snapped. "You're just angry because I'm the one who came up with the deadline — and, okay, yes, it's possible I may have been slightly rude to you about it. But I ran the calculations based on the information I had and gave an honest answer. My conclusions may have been off, but I had no way to know that, and at no point did I act with malice or even negligence. Someone else used that information for political ends. But because the information came from me and you don't like me, suddenly the whole thing is my fault. Except I didn't do anything.

"And it's not even really about Teal'c. If you hadn't known him, he would have been just some random offworlder, and if he got caught in the gate, well, that's sad but these things happen sometimes. You might not have liked it, but you would have accepted it. There wouldn't have been any deals with Russia. What you're angry about is that you almost lost who he is to you, the person he is in your head. And …." He stared at her with growing horror. "And by that measure, you're taking credit for killing my whole team. For murdering them — the whole expedition, hundreds of people, you killed them all." He backed away from her, looking gutted.

Sam reached toward him, but her expression was skeptical. "McKay —"

He drew back and his eyes narrowed as he regarded her with loathing. "Get away from me." He had one hand up, warding her away. The other hand clutched at the outside of his thigh for a few seconds but then stilled as he took another step back.

Daniel could see Sam was about to protest, so he drew her over towards the doorway. She frowned at him instead. "Hammond wants me to bring him —"

"Give him a minute, Sam." He guided her a few steps further towards the door. "You know, for all his mockery of the 'soft sciences,' he made a pretty good point there, psychologically speaking," he added quietly.

"What? Come on, Daniel. None of it was real. He made the whole thing up. Nobody really got hurt here."

He studied her closely, but he saw only conviction. He remembered her words from earlier: He doesn't get it, Daniel.

And now she didn't get it.

Daniel could try to explain, but McKay had the better claim to that and he had already tried. Each had a grievance; each felt misunderstood. Where did it end?

He sighed and let it go. He turned back, meaning to call McKay over, only to see the man seated at the table, his face buried in his hands.

"McKay?" Sam prompted, worried.

McKay shifted his hands so that his forehead was braced against them but his words were clear. "I made it up, didn't I?" he said, his tone flat and dull.

Daniel and Sam glanced at each other, surprised. "Yeah, I think so," Daniel ventured finally.

"I made it all up," McKay repeated, his head still lowered. His voice turned vicious. "Stupid McKay, so desperate to think anybody might actually like him he has to invent a whole new galaxy, and then the only person he manages to convince is himself."

They both winced at that. After several seconds Sam prompted, "So you get that we're real now?"

"Yes, yes." For a moment McKay sounded as he had before, but then he sighed deeply and went back to sounding defeated. "Look, can I go now?"

"Hammond wants to talk to you first, but probably after that," Sam said.

"Right." McKay finally lifted his head and stood. He nodded sharply and started towards the door, not looking either of them in the eye, but as he reached Daniel he paused. "Look, you, um …." He made a face. "You've seen the second Star Trek movie, right? Wrath of Khan?"

Daniel blinked at the non sequitur. "Yeah, I think so."

"So … Spock made an … interesting choice, in the end." He watched Daniel intently, as if he was willing Daniel to understand more than the words themselves.

"You want to talk philosophy? Ethics?" Daniel hazarded, considering both that element of the movie and McKay's earlier observations to Sam.

"No, of course not, it's —" McKay broke off with a shake of his head. "You probably won't even remember anyway," he muttered, low and bitter. He headed for the door again. "Come on, let's get this over with." He left the room.

Daniel caught at Sam's sleeve. "Take the long way," he said quietly. Sam made a face but nodded.

Daniel used the extra time she was giving him to call ahead to Hammond. McKay clearly meant to leave and didn't want their help, but someone should make sure that McKay would get the support he needed when he got back to Area 51. He shouldn't have to deal with this alone.

{}

 

Hammond seemed to want to settle things between them all, but McKay, predictably, was still being difficult. "Look, let's forget this whole thing. All I want is to go home. So if you'll just call off the guards …." McKay shot Sam a dirty look.

"Actually, Dr. Fraiser has recommended that you speak with Dr. MacKenzie first," Hammond said.

"Let me guess. Some kind of headshrinker, right? Let me think about that. No."

"We do have a responsibility to ensure that you're medically fit —"

McKay sighed and folded his arms. "English, no. French, non. Russian, nyet. Feel free to stop me if I hit one you recognize. Czech, ne. Japanese —"

"You do have the right to refuse medical treatment, but I don't recommend you do that," Hammond said.

"Yes, right, whatever, you've covered your ass. I'll even sign the paper that says you begged and pleaded but I refused your magnanimous offer. If I change my mind, I'm sure I can find someone in the general vicinity of Groom Lake, but for now, I'm leaving."

Hammond studied him. "If that's what you want, Dr. McKay. We can have you on a plane —"

"Oh hell no. I get on one of your planes, the next thing I know I'm eating borscht three times a day and discovering just how many body parts are at risk of frostbite inside what is laughably called an advanced research facility. I'll rent a car, thank you."

"Don't be ridiculous, McKay," Sam said. "You haven't slept. There's no way we're letting you drive all the way back to Nellis."

"No means no, Co- Carter." He really didn't make it easy to feel sorry for him. "I'm not stupid enough to fall for one of your shell games. I am not going to Siberia. I am still a civilian, and I'll resign from my contract first."

Sam never thought he would still expect to be sent to Siberia, but if he was willing to just go away, they wouldn't have to worry about whether they could trust him to consider the human side of the equation.

"That won't be necessary, Dr. McKay," Hammond said. Dammit. "I've already requested someone else to fulfill our agreement with the Russians. You can go back to your lab. We'll fly you straight back to Nellis."

"And I'm supposed to trust you because …?"

"I give you my word, Dr. McKay," Hammond said levelly.

McKay started to protest again but then sagged, running a hand over his face wearily. "Fine, whatever." He looked up again to glare at Hammond. "You screw me on this, and the Russians discover the joys of an uncontrolled reaction in a facility they can't afford to lose." His voice was low and vicious, and he couldn't possibly mean that.

"It won't come to that, Doctor. We'll have you on your way back home in just a few minutes. First, I need to know whether you're planning to file a legal complaint over this incident."

"What?" Sam and McKay said together.

Sam felt sick. She hadn't hurt McKay, and she had never meant to hurt him, but he could call it assault. He could — oh, god.

"A legal complaint?" McKay continued. "For … for what, a court-martial? Please," he spat. "That guy everybody in the entire program hates against SG-1's golden girl? No thank you. I think I've already met my humiliation quota for the year."

Sam had never, ever expected to feel a flash of gratitude towards him.

Hammond frowned. "It's my responsibility to —"

McKay crossed his arms again. "No. It's a remarkably simple concept, but I am willing to repeat it as many times as necessary until you all manage to understand it: no. Just drop it. Leave me alone. Just … just let me go home."

Hammond studied him again. "As you wish, Dr. McKay." He picked up his phone and called for an airman to escort McKay out.

McKay looked startled. "Oh. Well. Good."

An airman appeared within moments. Hammond gave him instructions for repackaging the device and getting both it and McKay back to Area 51. Apparently he had decided the device should be studied further there and he might as well make use of McKay as a courier. McKay listened closely, scowling throughout, but found nothing to object to. With one last suspicious look at the airman, he straightened, raising his chin as if steeling himself, and then nodded to Hammond. "General."

He turned to Sam and opened his mouth, but nothing came out before he closed it again. His eyes searched her face, his expression so hurt that her breath caught. But that lasted for only a second before he narrowed his eyes, scowled, hiked his chin back up, and left the room without another word.

Hammond let out a long breath and then turned to her. "Major." His tone had her snapping to attention without a thought.

"Sir. I made a bad choice. I honestly thought it was safe, but I made a mistake." The least she could do was own that.

"You did." Sam carefully didn't wince at that. "I did authorize it, but this sort of thing can't happen again, Major. We're all very lucky nothing worse happened to McKay. He's actually Canadian. The situation with the Russians is tense — we don't need a second international conflict. We're also very lucky that he didn't insist on terminating his contract just now. Area 51 was already lodging a protest about losing their primary gate expert and one of their best naquadah researchers to the Russians."

"Wait — we were sending someone else with McKay, sir?"

"No, just him. Apparently he's both. There's a reason we brought him here in the first place, remember. I think the complaint is as far as they would have taken it if he had gone — they don't seem to like him any more than we do, but they needed something on record. They would have taken a pretty big hit from our decision. Now we're sending another of their leading naquadah researchers to the Russians, though, so if we lost Dr. McKay from the program entirely in addition — we can't afford that."

"If it's that bad, couldn't we still have sent just him, sir? Do you really think he would have quit? He gave in pretty quickly before. "

"Yes, he did," Hammond said dryly. She could have kicked herself for walking right into that one. "No, Major, I couldn't push him. Apparently there are now security concerns. His ties to Canada are weak, but the Stargate program is his only real tie to the US. Remember, the Russians have their own gate, and they're still not satisfied about leaving us in control of the active gate. There's no evidence that McKay has any connection to them now, but if he was actually living there … let's just say certain people have expressed reservations about that possibility."

Sam was careful to keep her tone mild when she said, "He's just one man, sir."

"He's one man the Pentagon considers the authority on Stargates, Major. McKay would be hamstrung professionally if he wanted to go into civilian research, even if he left on good terms. The Russians are the only other place he'd be able to continue his work. They don't have the resources to challenge us right now, and they don't have a DHD anymore, but didn't McKay say he knew your dialing program? They do have scientists of their own, and McKay might be able to give them enough to make a play for control of gate access if the situation gets bad enough."

Sam doubted it, but her judgment didn't matter in this case. She knew once the suits got an idea, they would cling to it. "I understand, sir."

Hammond didn't put her through much more before dismissing her. He made it clear she had disappointed him, though. That was the worst part.

Though the prospect wasn't exactly appealing, she considered McKay as she took the long way to O'Neill's office, to … be out of the way until McKay had left. She found herself wondering about his specialization. McKay did know the bare theory of the gate system, the cold dry equations, and he knew just what to challenge her on. He might well be the best Area 51 had. They valued his naquadah research, too, though — and McKay had suggested he dabbled in alien artifact research, in his spare time.

Modern scientists specialized. It was nearly impossible to excel in most fields otherwise. The researchers within the Stargate program were generally more flexible than most, but very few worked extensively in more than one or two very narrow subfields. In fact, Sam was one of those few. If McKay was so multi-talented, why wasn't he on a gate team, or at least working directly at the SGC, learning about teamwork and responsibility firsthand? For that matter, why hadn't she heard about him already?

Then again, understanding the wormholes of the Stargate system did require at least a decent understanding of the properties of naquadah. So even if his expertise was unusually broad, it was still only one general area of study, aside from whatever he actually knew about the potentially vast field of xenotechnology. Half of the long list of other responsibilities he'd rattled off consisted of made-up terms, so she was inclined to dismiss all of that. Even the most brilliant lab researchers were often disasters in the field, and McKay would have been strangled by any team forced to work with him within their first three missions, so his not being assigned to one made perfect sense.

But … maybe he could adapt. He seemed to have gotten something out of his experience with the device. He hadn't shown any sign of interest, but with time, he might be worth considering the next time they needed field scientists. She would just have to keep an eye on him from now on.

That less than thrilling line of thought was interrupted when Jack poked his head into the office. "Nice hiding place. So what'd the commissary do?"

She smiled at him. "I think I'm going to need a little more than that to go on, sir."

"Well, they did something to that McKay guy, but nobody knows what."

Sam sighed. "I thought he was finally gone. What's he complaining about now?"

He gave her a confused frown. "No, he — come on, I'll show you." He led her to the conference room McKay had been using and pointed to the whiteboard. "What, did they sneak lemon in it or something?"

McKay's bizarre notes were still there, but a new message had been scrawled across them in what looked like sloppier version of the same hand: THE CAKE IS A LIE.*

Sam wondered how many days it would be before she could stop wincing. "I maybe, kind of, sort of … broke him a little bit, sir."

His eyebrows rose. "With cake?"

"No, sir. I don't know what that's about."

"Well, why don't you buy me some cake and tell me all about it." He swept an arm towards the door. "After you, Carter."

As they headed for the commissary, Sam decided to ask Teal'c to join them. Daniel already knew what had happened, and he probably wanted to catch up on some sleep, but she might as well tell both of the others at once. Besides, she wanted to see Teal'c again anyway. She knew he was fine, but she would feel better if he was there at the table with them, solid and warm and alive.