It was the most idiotic apocalypse ever.
Rodney included Hoff in that assessment. Their vengeance was arguably just as Pyrrhic, but they at least were attempting a survival scenario.
Sheppard tried to pull him away, early on. "Quit blaming yourself," he said finally, exasperated. "There wasn't anything more we could do. Any of us."
Rodney would have continued ignoring him, but Sheppard didn't leave. "I don't blame myself," he informed Sheppard finally.
"You don't," Sheppard said, disbelieving.
Rodney honestly didn't. He was beyond frustrated that he hadn't been able to do more, but he recognized that he had done everything he possibly could have. He had been right there in the gate room when Banks broke off her inane chatter mid-word, blanched, and switched the city from cloak to shield. With every possible advantage in their situation, he simply couldn't do enough to matter at all.
He didn't blame himself. "No. I blame you."
Nuclear research had long been a hobby of Rodney's. He had, after all, built a model atomic bomb for his grade six science fair exhibit.
It wasn't just the science itself; he collected rumors and incidents as well. He drew lessons from every report he came across. Even if they were only cautionary ones, like Daghlian or Slotin. There was a sort of comfort in the thought that mistakes could be redeemed, that even failure could be useful in its own way. A scientist, after all, learned something from any outcome; if not, why bother?
The Arcturus Project robbed him of many of those illusions; the only value to Collins's death was to serve as the canary in that particular coal mine. In missing that lesson, Rodney had instead learned a far costlier one about his own recklessness, his own blind spots.
But at least he bothered to learn that much.
Sheppard didn't take blame gracefully.
It wasn't that Rodney blamed him personally, but Sheppard's country? Sheppard's military? Hell yes.
All he got out of that particular confrontation was the delay of a few hours of work and a headache from the shouting. And the loss of a friend.
But that meant fewer distractions to deal with, so it was probably for the best.
Most people assumed Rodney was a pessimist; he considered himself a realist. What he was, tragically, was an optimist.
Despite his regularly voiced misanthropy, he had always believed, truly believed, that most people not only could but would learn from their mistakes.
Radek tried to talk to him periodically. "We could use your help with the repairs," he would suggest one week. "The ZPM relays are failing and you are needed now," he would insist another.
Rodney waved him off most of the time. If his own lab was in danger, he helped as long as he was absolutely needed and then went back to his own project. They could manage.
"You are not the only one —" Radek exploded one day before cutting himself off and walking away.
"If you want to talk ..." he haltingly suggested a different day, or week, or month.
"I don't," Rodney replied. And then he thanked Radek, because that would buy him time before the questioning started up again.
He knew Radek thought he was burying himself in work, distracting himself, letting time numb the grief and rage. He wasn't wrong.
But he wasn't right, either.
The United States Air Force did a bang-up job of handling their country's deadliest weapons. Literally.
Palomares, Spain, 1966. Thule, Greenland, 1968 — leaving one of those four bombs lost somewhere under all the ice. Faro, NC, 1961 — leaving one of those two bombs sunken irretrievably deep in a swamp. A dozen or two other such incidents, bombs dropped in oceans or exploded "conventionally" midair or scattered across foreign civilian territory like British Columbia and Quebec. (What's a little dispersed radioactive material between allies?) Nuclear-armed bomber jets showed an alarming fondness for abrupt terrestrial tropism.
A fighter jet allowed to slide off the Ticonderoga and into the ocean, nuclear weapon still in place as it disappeared into Davy Jones's Locker ... to be joined in spirit by numerous lost nuclear-armed submarines, because the US Navy really wasn't much better.
A dropped socket wrench causing an explosion that tossed a nuclear warhead 600 feet in Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980. Slotkin must have been rolling in his grave at that one.
In 1960, NORAD couldn't tell the difference between an incoming missile strike and the moon. (What's two orders of magnitude between deadly enemies?) In 1954, Castle Bravo nuclear scientists learned the hard way that the isotope they had assumed inert really, really wasn't.
And those were just the American incidents Rodney had idly compiled. Those just sampled the human-error incidents. There were of course similar minor disasters amongst the Soviets and the few other members of the nuclear club. There were of course also numerous computer malfunctions desperately warning of nonexistent threats, one after another after another.
Reciting "Would. you. like. to. play. a. game?" isn't a joke anymore.
Teyla had changed.
Calm, unflappable Teyla was shocked and distressed. Rodney had explained pieces of it, when he had time in those early days. Some of the social scientists apparently welcomed the chance to explain in greater detail, as if they could somehow make sense of what had happened by explaining the background clearly and carefully.
Or at least render it safely into history instead of tragedy.
"I do not understand," she told Rodney. She had brought him lunch, and it was faster to eat with both hands than to try to type one-handed, so he didn't mind her presence. She continued, feeling her way carefully through each word, "It is a profane thought, but ... perhaps my galaxy is lucky to have the Wraith. An acknowledged external enemy."
Teyla wasn't brainless. She certainly wasn't naïve. She had seen — and warned the team of — intraplanetary and interplanetary conflicts. She knew war existed entirely apart from the fight against the Wraith. She just hadn't seen anything of this scale, obviously. Or of such monumental stupidity.
Five and a quarter billion. To start.
In some ways, he was waiting for her to blame him personally. She knew he had worked with and used nuclear weapons, if only against the Wraith and the Ori. She knew he had built a model before he knew anything about true external threats.
But then, he had been a child at that point. He had grown up.
So far she hadn't focused on the technology. It was the policy that offended her. "But to do such a thing to yourselves — to even threaten such a thing seriously —"
Rodney was pretty sure she kept getting stuck on that point. It sounded familiar from her.
"People," he reminded her, "are idiots."
She considered that for a couple of minutes. Then smiled at him — her new smile, bitter and twisted. "You are wiser than I knew, my friend."
No one knew precisely what had happened. Less than half an hour passed from first alarm to devastation. Something set off a counterstrike somewhere — maybe a deliberately planted weapon, maybe yet another accidentally dropped bomb on the day the USAF's staggering luck ran out, maybe an inadvertent first strike, maybe a bored computer that decided to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War.
Mark Twain is usually cited as the source of the claim that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.
Try panic for lie, and caution for truth, and you probably know all you really need to.
Exact numbers were of course never revealed, but it' s safe to say that the United States had something more than 2,000 armed nuclear weapons pointed at various targets, and Russia had comparable numbers. China, well, who knew. There were countermeasures, of course, but the entire idea of mutually assured destruction was to be able to send so very many weapons that perfect defense was impossible.
Then consider the gap between projected and actual success rates for weaponry — particularly interception weaponry. The Patriot missile system in the Gulf War was initially billed as being remarkably effective against Scud missiles, for example, but later analysis came to rather a different conclusion.
Twenty successful thermonuclear strikes would have devastated any nation, and ultimately, far more than a paltry one percent managed to strike important targets in the United States and Russia, in their allies and their convenient neighbors. Military facilities, major cities, manufacturing hubs, airports, seaports.
Every major port city on the North American west coast, for example, was obliterated. Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán; San Diego, Los Angeles.
San Francisco, and even though they'd had to move Atlantis further out so that they weren't smack in the middle of about a dozen major shipping lanes, those hits were uncomfortably close.
Rodney still has a few things he'd collected over recent years. Pictures, mostly, everyone smiling for the camera. An invitation to a little girl's birthday party, unspeakably gaudy.
He can't bring himself to throw them away.
He only takes them out when he's in a particularly self-loathing mood.
Atlantis had tried. It took them entirely too long to realize just what was happening, to come up with desperate plans, to get someone into the chair. Their systems were still being repaired from their fight against the Wraith super-hive and precipitous landing, and their drone stocks were far lower than proved necessary, but they tried.
At least they had drones, if far too few and with too little ability to target thousands at once. Earth's space ships had weaponry far less suited for being turned towards a planet they meant to defend. And if Atlantis was battered, that was nothing to the condition of the Daedalus-class ships. The Daedalus itself was undergoing massive repairs, with most systems offline, and the Hammond still under construction. The Apollo was still limping its way back between galaxies, the Sun Tzu left behind to be recovered or salvaged at some later time. And the Odyssey was on walkabout.
None of them made much difference, in the end, Atlantis included.
No, they were left with the cleanup. Two ships that could accommodate a few hundred people, plus a city the physical size of Manhattan that still hadn't been fully cleared after five years, and a billion or two people to try to rescue from a planet that was barely habitable and would only go downhill from there.
Rodney had never had to participate in triage of that scope before.
Large swaths of South America and Africa made it through the initial Armageddon initially unscathed, though the fallout and nuclear winter would soon fix that. It was impossible to carry even a fraction away, but by some combination of luck and location, the SGC gate room made it through approximately intact. It wasn't somewhere anyone would want to hang out for long periods, and the only way in or out besides the gate itself was by transporter beam, but it was there.
So once they were able to install or repair their transporters, the ships ferried as many people as they could from borderline regions, and then from more secure ones, to the Stargate. That wasn't in time to save untold numbers from rioting or varied other secondary deaths, and they had serious trouble finding places to send millions of hungry people even with the help of the Jaffa and other allies, but they did what they could, raindrops against an ocean.
Anyone who survived anywhere near the nuclear strikes, though, traded an immediate death for a slow one. The ships and Atlantis simply couldn't exchange the few they could definitely save for the far, far fewer who were scattered, difficult to locate, and likely to die of radiation poisoning even if there were enough resources to try to treat them.
Rodney did eventually work out a schedule in which he would do some work for Atlantis, in exchange for being left alone with his own project the majority of the time. They needed him more than he needed them. All he really needed was a society with electricity.
But working for Atlantis was easier than trading skills to some third-rate planet. There were a few tools he wouldn't want to have to recreate from scratch, and everyone in Atlantis understood why he wasn't exactly Mr. Social. They weren't either, anymore. It was more efficient to stick around.
He just had to make it clear that Atlantis was no longer his top priority.
Some thought the nuclear holocaust was God's judgment. Some thought the transporter beams were God's salvation. A few apparently thought they'd been Raptured, but that particular flavor of religion didn't have many representatives in the survival group.
Not that being transported and then gated away from devastation saved everyone. Fear and blame ran high, and fights were distressingly common. The Milky Way simply didn't have enough planets able to take on vast numbers of dispossessed people, and starvation and dehydration rates were also distressingly high.
No one considered Pegasus at first, because why would anyone volunteer to move somewhere that considered them prey?
But the frontier spirit had never been unique to the United States, and a surprisingly large number of Pegasus planets tended to welcome productive additions to the gene pool. After enough arguments and hang-wringing, after one too many power struggles between former political leaders and former militaries, the expedition formerly known as Atlantis collectively decided they'd had enough. They put out a call, filled the city with volunteers who had skills or strength to trade, and staggered back to Pegasus on tight rations.
The Wraith are still a problem, though the nature of the fight changed once they realized that Earth was no longer the all-you-can-eat buffet of their dreams. Rodney spends entirely too much time working against them, because he has to survive, but he doesn't care in the same way he once did.
Because they don't really matter. And neither do the people they prey on, not really.
Sheppard might have seen it, if he and Rodney were still talking. He was the one who had once explained what Rodney could do in the first place. But he's busy with the new military force, and he's disgusted that Rodney isn't fully committed anymore, and he still seems unhappy about that blame thing. They don't really talk anymore.
Ronon hangs out with Sheppard a lot — Teyla thinks he empathizes — but he stops by every now and then, checking on Rodney. Teyla hangs out with Rodney a lot more than she ever did Before; they share snark and cynicism while meeting for lunch. Both Ronon and Teyla seem to be keeping an eye on Rodney.
Maybe they know what he's up to. He can't tell, and he isn't asking. Maybe, if they know, they even approve.
Rodney always wanted to save the world — to be the person recognized for saving the world, yes, but he had actually saved the world a couple of times without public recognition, and he had been pleased anyway.
He never really asked what he was saving the world for, or if it deserved saving. He and the rest of Atlantis saved the world from a direct Wraith attack, and look how long that lasted.
But the cats and the wee baby turtles deserve better, and so do even a few people.
No one had never worked out what happened to aborted timelines, whether they collapsed in on themselves and winked out of existence or trundled along, never knowing they had grown a spur somewhere further back.
Rodney doesn't much care, because he'll never know the answer to that question. He might never know whether he's successful at all. But either way, the people around him don't matter except for whether they help or hinder him. They are figments, refractions.
He doesn't know yet exactly what method he'll be able to make work. He might be able to send back a ship, or a person; he might only be able to send a machine with some kind of automated message. He might not save the world at all.
But as long as he can save Jeannie, as long as he can find a way of folding time that gets her out ... that will be enough.