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An Introduction to the Characters of Finite Groups

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"The thing about Rodney," Radek says, waving his shot glass, "is: Very relaxing."

It is true. Dr Simpson chokes on her vodka - a waste; very sad - and Dr Kavanagh turns pink, but it is true.

"No, no," he continues. He has thought about this. "His research - unpredictable. Everything else? You know answers already."

"Such as?" asks Dr Grodin. He is not as quiet as Radek remembers from their time at CERN. Maybe he is happier now; Radek is. The newly distilled vodka helps, but even without - he is happier. It is good, though not everyone would understand. Rodney does. Major Sheppard also, he thinks.

Radek takes another drink before answering. He is drunk; he knows because when he composes his thoughts he must then translate them into English. "Is: Did he really just say that? Yes. Will he annoy me in the next five minutes? Yes. Will his project explode and kill us all?" He raises his glass to the enigma that is Dr Rodney McKay. "Not unless he has forgotten to uncouple the secondary crystals."

There is laughter.

He nods. "Predictable."

He catches sight of the shadow of a military man keeping watch around the corner. Off duty, but making sure the scientists - even further off duty - do not go without their protection. Admirable. He raises his glass - full again; strange - to the duty and dedication of the military men and women of Atlantis. Around him, others are adding their voices in praise of Rodney.

"Will he shout at me for something that's not my fault?" says an American botanist. The name will not come to him. "Yes."

The shadow is amused.

"Will he steal my coffee and then claim she was -" Dr Maine pauses to belch. "- it was his all along?"

Dr Maine's voice is lost in the chorus of agreement. Radek looks down. Dr Simpson cannot hold her drink - very sad - but she is not alone on the floor. The vodka, maybe, was brewed stronger than they thought. It has been a long day.

"Is he American?" Dr Predibor made this mistake precisely once. "No."

Radek swallows one final drink. He stops now, while he is glad to have lived another day. He will not let the vodka make him dwell on the futility of their situation, his bone-deep weariness or even the time a secret policeman shot his rabbit.

"Will he and Sheppard ever admit -" He knows he should keep the botanist from speaking, but his reactions have slowed. The shadow tenses. "- their deep and true love for each other? No."

Oh dear. Again, there is laughter. Not cruel, he thinks. The shadow departs.

Slowly, like a salute, the botanist passes out.

===

A secret policeman did not really shoot Radek's rabbit. The animal was not Radek's, nor was the shooter acting in an official capacity. It was still a great shame, he thinks as he drifts to sleep.

===

Radek wishes he were dead. No. He wishes he were still drunk. And dead. And that the power outages would stop; he could then go back to sleep.

Rodney wishes these things too; at least, Radek thinks this is why he is shouting.

"Damn it, Zelenka!" he snaps. Radek misses the time when Rodney couldn't remember his name. "Have you run the-"

"Yes, yes," Radek cuts him off. The third diagnostic pathway, the one they discovered last week. It is good, but will not work miracles. He tells Rodney this, only to be cut off in return.

"Cross-route it through the network- the other network."

It is a good thought. These good thoughts are the reason Radek has not yet killed Rodney and hidden the body under the empty boxes in D-Lab 17. Now, he is beginning to regret this decision.

He cross-routes the output through the F-level network they patched together yesterday. The snapping reminds him of Rodney's behavior when Major Sheppard is on a mission, shooting things without Rodney by his side. In turn, he thinks back to last night's discussion. Today is not relaxing, but he stands by his claim. Maybe not D-Lab 17 for Rodney.

"Piece of crap!" Rodney shouts, hitting the panel Radek spent two hours configuring.

Not until after they have the power back, at least.

At some point, Major Sheppard has entered the room. "McKay," he says in greeting. "Dr Za-" He tails off.

Radek does not look up. "Radek Zelenka," he says, tapping another test into the panel Rodney has - a blessing - not reset. Luck of the devil. "Rodney, only your inexplicable failure to break this panel keeps you alive."

"Yes, yes, whatever."

The power outages follow no obvious pattern; they cease as suddenly as they start, rushing around the city like hyperactive children. Radek's job now is not damage limitation - Rodney takes care of that, with most of the competent physicists and engineers - but to keep track of the problem. They cannot stop it if they do not know what is going on, and temporary reprieves are not a solution. Dr Grodin and he are running every system check they can think of; the task now is to examine the data, to search for answers.

If he does not find them, Rodney will. Comfortingly predictable, yes, but it would irritate Radek. D-Lab 17 would have to be postponed again.

"McKay," Major Sheppard says again. Radek stares at a table of data, but he can hear the man shift from foot to foot. "Remembered to uncouple the, uh, secondary crystals?"

Radek looks up in surprise, catching Rodney's scowl and Major Sheppard's raised eyebrows. The grid Rodney is working on has no secondary crystals, but Radek can see his eyes flick down to where they would be. It is a common mistake, and it was not entirely kind to mock him for it.

So that was the military shadow watching over them. It is in keeping with the rest of Radek's day, at least.

Radek looks straight at the soldier. "Major Sheppard." He sets a new simulation running, its focus - by the second set of naquada generators - the area he hopes most will not be hit next. "Maybe it will be more relaxing here later?"

Major Sheppard nods once. He appears nervous. Or hungry. It is hard to tell.

The major leaves. The simulation finishes just as the power to the second set of naquada generators is, of course, cut.

===

Temporary reprieves are not a solution, but they give time in which one can be found. Why they waste this time on meetings, Radek does not understand.

Dr Weir, Teyla Emmagan and the military men are looking at Rodney as he gestures with a coffee cup Radek does not believe is his. He tells them what he and Radek - and Dr Grodin, it is true - have concluded. The military contribution will be less useful than an hour in the labs, but- No. He understands the need to be kept informed.

"...seven times the level of an ordinary power outage, which means if - by which, with our luck, I mean when - it hits the naquada generators again, Zelenka's simulations show that the increased flux through the iridium-compound substrate used in the generators -" This bit. Yes. Not Radek's favorite result. "- will cause quantum instability at a near instantaneous rate."

No one looks shocked.

"Yes, yes," Radek adds. Dr Weir turns her gaze to him; it is hard not to stumble over his next words. "This in turn triggers a series of exothermic decompositions in the iridium-compound itself allowing the inherent instability of the compound to keep the reaction going."

Still, no one looks shocked. For this he is away from the labs.

"I'm sorry," says Rodney, "perhaps we didn't make ourselves clear: Big boom! Bye-bye Lost City of the Ancients, hello watery grave."

Now they do.

"So what are you doing about it?" Major Sheppard asks Rodney.

Dr Weir nods. "Quite. I have every faith in-"

"I don't," Rodney says. "We've tried every cute trick in the book, and some that aren't, but short of tracking down the magical fairy that's causing the crystals to- Oh no. No, no, no. Tell me it's not possible."

Oh dear.

"It's not possible?" Dr Weir and Major Sheppard both venture. Rodney finds time to glare at the soldier; this is comforting. Major Sheppard shrugs, a gesture that irritates Rodney even now.

Sadly, they are wrong.

Radek swears under his breath. Then, aloud and in English, he offers: "If it is alive, we can kill it." This thought was more comforting in his head.

They must go to the labs now. Major Sheppard follows behind.

===

Rodney is not as subtle as he thinks. Some days it is easy to see the hand he does not place on Major Sheppard's shoulder, the inch he does not move closer, the smile he does not share. Radek only today sees there are two sides to the distance they do not close between them.

===

Ten minutes later, they are still in the labs. Rodney explains their working hypothesis to Dr Weir and Ms Emmagan. Major Sheppard lurks in the background, looking confused.

Meanwhile, Dr Simpson is- "No, no!" Radek shouts, running to her side. "A simple mistake." He takes the crystal from her hand and rotates it. "See? This way round, it will not explode and kill us all." A simple mistake, but it is better not to hasten death, he feels.

Dr Simpson nods, resumes her work.

The hypothesis is simple. Ancients stored many creatures for experiments; very scientific.

"Like the cloud of energy-eating darkness, with the..." Rodney tails off, hand flapping at his chest. He grimaces. This too is predicable, is calming. Radek's heart will maybe not burst out of his chest today. "When I saved us all."

"When you passed out?" Major Sheppard offers from the wall.

"So you think this is another . . . experiment? A test subject?" Dr Weir says. "The Ancients kept it locked away for thousands of years and now it's out?"

"And - again - consuming our power," Radek says, as Rodney adds: "Those kooky Ancients."

"Don't you hate the summer re-runs?" says Major Sheppard. It sounds forced. He and Rodney exchange a look Radek cannot interpret, nor bring himself to care about.

"So, same trick again?" Major Sheppard continues. "We set the bait, dial up M3X-Dune, and McKay passes out?" In fairness, he does not look happy about this. Nor, if Radek is honest, does he look concerned. Perhaps he is still hungry.

Radek is rerouting the power through intermediary circuits. Now all the crystals must fail at once for the surge through the generators to be deadly, but he would not bet against this occurrence.

Rodney shakes his head. "This creature, if that's what it is, isn't behaving like the -" His hands wave in the air again, sketching out a cloud. Or maybe a new hairstyle. " - the cloud: it's cutting power by interfacing with the crystals that keep the circuits from overloading, and it's not doing it at random." He pauses. "It has a plan."

"Huh," observes Major Sheppard.

"Yes," says Radek, looking straight at him; he is not entirely unsympathetic. "It is scary." The soldier looks away.

Rodney may not understand, but he catches the tone. "And why do people think you're the nice one?"

"Stupidity," Radek says in Czech. He knows Rodney - now snorting a laugh - knows this word.

"How did it become free?" Ms Emmagan speaks for the first time. Dr Weir turns her attention to the other woman. It is like watching a compass find north - comforting.

"I was wondering that myself," she says, a forced calm over her words.

Rodney has a number of hypotheses. He lists them, favorite first, as Radek tries not to sigh derisively. D-Lab 17 seems again a possibility. It is hard to see how one man can be so brilliant and yet so obtuse when his pet theories - subspace curve, he is now saying; Radek must laugh quietly - are threatened.

The truth is: they do not know. And so they do not know how to catch it, how to stop it.

Major Sheppard speaks into his radio, organizing teams to search the city for a recently vacated hamster cage. "How many more little surprises do you think the Ancients left lying around here?" he says to Rodney.

Rodney rolls his eyes in disgust. They have had this conversation. Conclusion: it doesn't bear thinking about.

"In such easy-to-open cages?" Dr Weir asks, unhappy. "It can't be many, or we'd already be dead."

They look at her in shock. Ms Emmagan inclines her head, an acknowledgement of a burden Radek is glad he does not share. A moment later, Major Sheppard also looks shocked. Rodney frowns at him.

It is none of Radek's business, but now he cannot un-see it any more than he can help them, any more than he can clap his hands and make the power stay on.

Averting his eyes, Radek sees an anomaly in the plans displayed on Rodney's computer. That was an area - It should not - "Rodney! Your screen."

Yes. That's interesting.

"Major," says Rodney, seeing it too. "Have your men search the store rooms by the jumper bay." He taps away at the interface, bringing up more details schematics of the rooms. There was low, persistent power loss there: not a priority, but - they now see - strange.

===

Bursts of information reach them on the radios. There are many storage rooms by the jumper bays.

"Sir, I've found something," says a young woman. They all make him feel old, it is true, but she sounds very young. "It's some sort of-" In the pause, he holds his breath. "Some sort of cage. It's open at one end - it looks like it was forced from the inside."

"Can you describe it for us, Lieutenant?" asks Dr Weir.

"It's just bigger than a breadbox," says the radio. "With blue lights in a line down one side, and a row of green-" She breaks off again. "Sir! It's here! I-"

Her radio cuts out.

In the seconds it takes Radek to engage the correct emergency subroutine, Major Sheppard has his gun out and is running down to the storage rooms. Rodney follows him without pause, Ms Emmigan too. They call on their radios for Lt Ford.

Radek and Dr Weir wait behind. He is lonely, too; but here, in Atlantis, he is not alone. Of this he is very glad.

===

It is cute, is Radek's verdict. He says so, earning a glare from Rodney.

"The man has a point," says Major Sheppard. He peers into the cage in which they have the creature trapped - it is small, fur-covered, with long ears wrapping and unwrapping around its body; cute - and he will not meet Radek's eyes.

"Yes, yes, cute and deadly, just like me." Everyone looks at Rodney. "What?"

Radek will not be sentimental over creatures that scamper very fast and nearly kill them all, but it is cute. It twitches, then gnaws on the broken crystal someone - Dr Simpson, he thinks - used to pacify it. Thoughts of powerful, malevolent beings, stalking the city with evil schemes, fade away in light of this. It is cute, and Carson assures them it is harmless when properly contained.

Rodney is not even allergic to it. This is not, perhaps, through a lack of trying.

"I can't believe this- Wait, what am I saying? This is Atlantis. Of course the bunny rabbits can blow us up." He cannot hide his relief. "I bet it has fleas. Ancient fleas."

By the time Rodney and his team had reached the correct storage room, Lt Jones had the creature backed into a corner, wrapping its ears tightly around itself in fear. It was small enough to pick up with bare hands, so of course Major Sheppard - calmed, Radek has no doubt, by Rodney's dire warnings - did so.

Ms Emmagan's people had once encountered a tribe who kept the creatures as pets. Their meat was too bitter to eat, she told them, her polite smile audible over the radio.

Lt Ford pokes another broken crystal through the bars of the cage. Ancient technology: things can go in, but not out. Clever.

The creature nibbles on it.

Radek considers the locking mechanism for the cage. It was not designed to withstand the force of a frightened rabbit - they have not yet discovered how the animal got out of stasis; he foresees many days' work for Dr Maine. Still, it was easy to rewire, and now the creature cannot escape again. It would make a good pet. A lucky mascot for D-Lab 17.

"It is interesting," Radek addresses Major Sheppard, "how these trials seem so much less when we confront them."

The soldier nods slightly as Rodney answers. "Sometimes. And sometimes they seem so simple until we examine them closely and realize just how terrifyingly, life-threateningly complicated they actually are."

That is true.

"McKay?" says Major Sheppard, turning to leave. "A word?" His back is straight.

Rodney follows.

===

End

===

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