January 5, 1967—December 20, 1973
January 5, 1967—December 20, 1973
He'd never seen buildings like them; they looked more like the Saturn V rocket he was clutching than like houses and stores. John craned his neck as his mother towed him through the crowd. The sleek buildings were pretty much all he could see, that and the top of the giant Christmas tree behind them, because there were so many people on the pavement. John had never seen so many people, not ever, not at school, or at his father's office, or even the airport. There were people everywhere; the crowd surrounded them, pushing at them from all sides.
"John!" his mother said, twisting her head back to look at him. "Please stay focused!" except that wasn't fair, because all he could see were coats and people's backs. His eyes drifted skyward again. He couldn't believe how bright it was. It was night time, he'd checked his watch before they left the G.E. building (little hand on the seven, big hand on the eight, five minutes for each number, eight times five equals seven forty) but it was still light outside. The sky was gray and there were no stars, not even Sirius.
John bumped into his mother and muttered, "Sorry," but she wasn't listening. She was saying, "--right down the street!" and his father was saying, "What do you want me to do about it? Drive thirty yards?" John drifted off again. There was smoke nearby, and John remembered seeing metal carts selling roasted nuts and hot dogs and giant pretzels. "Dad," John said without thinking about it. "Can I have a pretzel? Or a--"
He tripped off the curb and nearly fell. His father had taken his mother's arm and pulled her sideways into the street, and his mother dragged him along. "Come on," his father called, hustling them across. "Quick, hurry," and they were nearly on the other side when John realized that his hand was empty. His rocket! He broke his mother's grip and turned back the way they'd come, eyes scanning the black-paved street.
The Saturn V was lying in a pothole. John had just closed his hand around it when he heard the screech. He barely glimpsed the yellow beams bearing down on him before someone was there, yanking him out of the way, swinging him up, into the air.
The man stumbled onto the sidewalk with John in his arms. His breath was coming in ragged gasps. "Oh God," the man said, clutching him tighter. "Oh my God. You're such an idiot," and John was actually a little shocked, because no one had ever spoken to him like that. He squirmed, because the man was crushing him in the hug just like his Aunt Lucy did, though she was worse cause she pinched. The man settled John firmly on one hip. John jerked his head back from the man's scratchy shoulder and--right there, across the street, was the sign, all lit up in pink and blue neon: RADIO CITY. Held high up like this, he could see it.
"Hey," John said, dazzled, "that's--" cool, he'd meant to say, except there was his father, coming at them fast, looking strange and afraid.
"That's my--" His father's hands closed on him, and for a few seconds he was in the middle of a tug-of-war, because the other man didn't let go. "Give me my--" his father said, and then the man muttered, "Sorry. Yes. Okay," and let his father take him. And that was maybe even the weirdest thing, because John's father never held him like this, like he was a baby. They stared at each other awkwardly. John's father let him slide to his feet. His mother said, "Thank you. Thank you so much!" and her voice was getting louder and louder, because the man had turned and was hurrying away into the crowd.
John's father straightened John's wool coat and gripped him by the shoulders. "What did I tell you about staying close? This is New York, people drive like maniacs," and then he took John's hand in his and together they crossed the street and got in line under the giant pink and blue neon sign. John gripped his Saturn V and hopped from foot to foot; all day long he'd waited through his father's stupid meetings at stupid General Electric, even though the secretaries had been nice to him and brought him red and green cookies and let him look out their windows at the ice skating and the tree and all the people. But now, finally, they were out and going to Radio City Music Hall to see the rockets!
The disappointment of figuring out that the rockets had been those women with the kicking legs stayed with John for years.
January 5, 1967—October 4, 1975
Too Briefly Our Gift
January 5, 1967—October 4, 1975
Too Briefly Our Gift
John was focused on his own drive, ball flying high and disappearing into the sun, so he never saw where the man came from. He couldn't even remember his face, just the bright plaid golf pants he was wearing. When he turned, the man was standing next to the bucket of balls he was sharing with poor Simon Pickering, who couldn't hit a ball to save his life. The man was angrily yanking the driver out of Simon's hand. "Watch what you're doing! Are you trying to crack Sheppard's head open?" Simon looked really scared, and John couldn't blame him. "Listen: I am going to save you and your parents thousands of dollars in country club fees," the man said, then stabbed his finger at Simon's face. "You! Are not! Coordinated! You are a lawsuit waiting to happen!" Simon burst into tears, and wow, sometimes instructors came by to correct their stances, but John had never heard them tell anyone to just give up and go home. Mr. Kevin hurried over, saying, "What, what on earth is--" but he was taken aback when the strange man thrust Simon's driver at his face. "This boy's a danger to himself and others," the man announced. "If you're going to let him swing a lethal object, I suggest you at least put him into quarantine," and then the man stalked off angrily toward the clubhouse. Mr. Kevin took Simon away, weeping. John watched them all go, then bent to tee up.
January 5, 1967— April 14, 1977
Taken From Us Too Soon
January 5, 1967— April 14, 1977
Taken From Us Too Soon
"Drive!" the man said, pointing a gun at the chauffeur. John scrabbled for the lock, but the man grabbed him by the hair as the beat-up Mercedes lurched into motion. John howled in pain, and he heard Victor babble, "Please. Don't hurt the boy. Let me stop, call my employer--"
"Keep driving." The man glanced from side to side out each window. "Don't stop." They sped down the long drive and out the stone gates onto St. Christopher's Road. John shrank back against the passenger side door; the man seemed huge in the backseat. He hardly looked at John; he was entirely focused on Victor, and the gun. "Sheppard's got two hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills for exactly this purpose," the man said grimly, "so we'll call him, don't worry."
This was news to John, and it made him feel sick: his father had known this could happen and hadn't managed to stop it. John inched up to get a better view out the window. Maybe he could break it, get somebody's attention when they stopped for the light on Route 6.
Except they didn't stop; Victor sailed right through the intersection, honking his horn, and John was so frustrated he nearly burst into tears. "Stop!" he yelled. "Victor, stop the--"
The gun smashed into his face, and John fell back, shocky with pain. His face was prickling; his ears were ringing. Except no, that was a siren. Maybe even a police car.
The siren got louder, closer. Victor glanced frantically over his shoulder. "What do I-- What should I--?" It was a police car for sure, going to pull them over. The man in the back seat went very still, and then he exhaled noisily and said, "Pull over, but you better do what I say or I'm going to blow this kid's head off. Tell them he broke his nose, and we're taking him to the hospital," and John looked down and saw blood on his white shirt front, on his school tie and the lapels of his blazer.
Victor was breathing fast. "All right." The car slowed gently and pulled onto the shoulder. The man with the gun looked at him and said, "Don't give me trouble," and John sucked raggedly for breath and wanted to kill him, or maybe bite his arm really hard.
The man told John, "One word and I'll kill your chauffeur and the cop."
The trooper came up along the driver's side of the car. Victor rolled the window down. The man slid the gun under his jacket and pasted on a smile. John turned to look out the other window.
There was another man there. He mouthed, "shh!" and gestured frantically for John to get down. John obeyed instantly, sliding off the seat and into the foot well, arms coming up around his head. There was a crash and a flash of light. Broken glass, sharp and heavy, rained onto his back.
Heart pounding, John managed to seize hold of the door latch, though he couldn't open it from this angle. A second later, the door flew open, and John half fell out of the car, then fast-crawled over the metal sill and onto the grassy embankment. Hands landed on his arms and hauled him up to his feet and away. John twisted back to look, and saw the broken passenger side window and one of the gunman's legs, stretched out at a weird angle.
They stopped; his rescuer knelt beside him and fumbled in his jacket for a handkerchief and a roll of medical tape. "Are you all right?" he asked. "I'm sorry," he said, the words blurring a little as he ripped off a piece of tape with his teeth. "I wanted to knock him out fast, so I--"
"That guy," John managed finally; he'd had dreams like this, where something terrible was happening and he hadn't been able to say anything. "He was kidnapping me!"
The man had been pasting the tape high on John's nose, helping him breathe. Now he stopped and looked at John directly. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I know," and John started sobbing, because he was finally safe and under the protection of a responsible grown-up. "Oh god," the man said nervously, as John wept helplessly. "Please? Please don't--" and normally John would have done almost anything not to cry in front of a stranger, except his legs felt rubbery and his face hurt. The man finished smoothing the tape onto John's nose with his thumbs, then awkwardly dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. "There. See? All better," the man said, but he lifted John up when John began to cry on his jacket. The man cradled the back of John's head with his palm, and John was hit with a sense-memory: the absolute certainty that he had been here before.
There was a cough, and the man turned, John still in his arms. The state trooper was standing there with Victor behind him. "You all right, son?" he asked, and John, suddenly shy, just nodded. "Do you know this man?" the trooper asked, and John was going to say no, except that was a lie, wasn't it? He turned to look at the man, but the trooper said, sharp-voiced, "Don't look at him; look at me. Do you know this man?" and this time, John shook his head no.
The trooper's voice changed. "Sir," he said, in a harder voice, "I'm going to ask you to put the boy down." The man held on for another few seconds, then loosened his grip. John slid down till his feet touched the ground. "All right. Now why don't we all go down to the station and..."
The man fumbled in his pocket, muttering, "Where the hell is my--" and then pulled out a strange looking weapon. It fired two bright blasts of light, like a phaser. The trooper and Victor crumpled to the ground, and the man wheeled on him and yelped, "John, just keep your cool, all right?"
John gaped at the bodies sprawled on the pavement. "Are are are they dead?" he asked, jerking backward; there were trees, he could run for the trees.
"What?! Oh, yes, they're dead, because that's what I do, I run around killing people, I--wait, no, no, no, no, no," the man said, waving his phaser wildly as John skittered another few steps back. "I was being ironic! Oh my God, you're five, you don't know what irony is! Irony is like--kidding for adults!"
John zeroed in on the important point. "I'm ten," he corrected, but the man wasn't listening; he was bent over something else he'd pulled from his pocket. It looked like a transistor radio, except it was glowing weirdly. The man frowned down at it, then looked up and exhaled noisily.
"Okay, look, you're clear to survive 1977. Just--" He pulled John another few feet from the car. "Stay here until help arrives, and for God's sake, stay out of traffic!" He raised a warning finger and shot John a reproving look before turning to hurry away.
John took a hesitant step after him and called out, "Mister! Do I know you?"
The man looked back at John. His mouth slanted unhappily. "That's--you don't know the half of it." Another siren began to wail, and the man took off for the trees and--John actually raised his hands to rub his eyes--disappeared before he reached them.
Had he just seen that? John was pretty sure he'd just seen that, but then three Virginia squad cars squealed to a stop--close enough to the Mercedes that John was grateful for the man's warning to stay clear. The police took him to the hospital, where the doctors looked at his nose, and then did it up exactly the same way. The police asked him about the strange man, and John told them the truth: that the guy had a phaser; yes, like on Star Trek; and then he had pulled out a small machine like a tricorder, and then he had simply vanished into thin air, maybe beamed up, right there, near those trees; yes, just like on Star Trek.
When Patrick Sheppard arrived, he put a stop to all the questions. "John's tired," he said, and took him out to the car, a green Jaguar illegally parked in front of the hospital. John had only been in this car once before, and he was fascinated by its glittering dashboard and sculpted leather seats. The car smelled strongly of cigarette smoke. His father let John sit in front.
"Is Victor okay?" John asked.
His father jerked a nod. "He's fine." He cut his eyes toward John and said, "I didn't tell your mother what happened. It would be too much of a shock, and since you're fine..." A frown drew his eyebrows together. "You are fine, aren't you?"
"Yes," John said honestly, and then: "My nose hurts."
"Tell her you broke it playing golf," his father advised. "Tell her someone hit you by accident."
"Okay," John said, feeling unsure. "But won't it be on the news?"
Patrick Sheppard looked grim. "No," he said. "Anyway, your mother's not watching the news."
January 5, 1967— March 21, 1979
Always In Our Hearts
January 5, 1967— March 21, 1979
Always In Our Hearts
John's heart pounded as he escaped Cleland Hall into the cold spring afternoon. Hardass Harden had kept him after class for no good reason, and now John was late for practice and he still had to get there. He dragged his bike out of the metal rack and ran alongside it a few steps before hopping on, his overstuffed backpack making him wobble a little. John pedaled furiously down the path toward Miller Field, bending forward for increased speed, already sure he was going to be benched for being late, and whoever had written the ad copy about how Kellington Boys Academy was situated on twenty three lovely acres of Vermont countryside had never tried to get from one end of the place to the other in a hurry.
The trees were still bare on either side of him. He pedaled past a group of upperclassmen, smoking cigarettes together on a bench. Two teachers stood talking while their toddlers ran in circles on the grass. A boy was staring at a textbook and gnawing on his thumbnail; beyond him, a man reading a newspaper: all John could see was the broadsheet and a pair of legs.
The boy glanced up and John recognized him: Tommy Brooks. Tommy waved, and John turned as he shot past to wave back--and if he hadn't, he wouldn't have seen the man let the newspaper drop. John was braking before he realized it, pushing back with his heels.
The man hastily raised the newspaper again when he saw John grimly wheeling his bike over, deliberately using it as a shield. It rattled in the wind: The Boston Globe.
John gripped the handlebars of his bike and said, "Are you following me?"
The paper was immediately jerked down, and John burst out laughing because--it was the guy, it was totally the guy, except he was wearing a terrible, fake mustache and a hat. He looked like Inspector Clouseau.
"What?" the man demanded; that made him look even funnier. "No!" and when John kept laughing, the man touched the fake mustache to see if it was still glued to his face; wow, worst spy ever. Finding it there, he pretended to stroke it, then waved his hand dismissively. "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know who you are."
"Oh, come on." John rolled his eyes. "That's, like, the worst disguise ever. "
The man made a big show of shaking out and refolding his newspaper. "No idea what you're talking about," he said without looking at John. "Simply haven't a clue."
John stared hard at him, then took his best guess. "Are you a private detective?"
The man snorted, but didn't lift his eyes from the paper. "Uh, no."
"You are, I bet. I bet my dad hired you to protect me." John thought of the two hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills. "Is someone else trying to kidnap me?"
That seemed to get the man's attention; his head jerked up. "No. Of course not!"
"Ah-hah!" John stabbed a finger at him. "How do you know if you're not a detective?"
"I don't have to be a detective. I'm a genius," the man said.
"Well, I think you're a weirdo," John said.
To his surprise, the man looked vaguely hurt. "Hm!" He stared down at his paper again. "Well. What do you know, anyway. You're twelve and a moron."
Now it was John's turn to be hurt. "Hey, I'm more of a genius than you are! I have an I.Q. of 169, and I make straight As, and I'm two grades ahead of my class, and I don't hang around schools wearing a false mustache and talking to twelve-year-olds!"
"Yeah, nice try." The man folded the paper with quick movements and tucked it under his arm. "I.Q. of 185, Ph.Ds in astrophysics and engineering, and I'm a member of Mensa. Also, I could grow my own mustache if I wanted to, unlike some people."
"Fine, then!" John wheeled his bike around. It stuck a little, and he yanked it and pointed it in the right direction. "Enjoy your newspaper; I'm going to--" and he nearly did yell for help as the man leapt up and grabbed him by the arm.
"No, wait. Don't--"
"Let me go!" John twisted out of his grip. His bike crashed to the cobblestones. "Don't touch me! I'll call the Headmaster; I'll call the police; I'll call my dad--"
"Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" The man lifted both hands; all the smugness was gone from his face. "Look, just--don't go. Stay here and insult me for a while longer. Look, I'm wearing a fake mustache," he said, and ripped it off. A moment later his face contorted. "Ow! Fuck, ow, jesus," he moaned. "That really hurt!"
John's smile fell off his face as the implications hit him. "Something's going to happen to me at practice--oh my God, did you make Harden keep me after school?" The man's face twitched sourly, which John thought was pretty much an admission. "What's going to happen to me?"
The man put his hands on John's shoulders, and this time, John didn't shake them off. "Nothing," he said, almost savagely. "Nothing's going to happen to you. Just go back to your room, tell the coach that you're sick. Football's a stupid sport anyway; bone-crunching nonsense. Totally beneath you. I never understood why you liked it."
"Football?" John felt the first real shiver of doubt. "They won't let me play football, I'm not big enough. I play baseball--first base."
"What?" The man blinked in obvious shock. "Really? How the hell do you get yourself killed playing baseball?" He fumbled something out of his pocket; the weird tricorder thing. "I guess I just assumed that--" He looked up, and was stopped cold by whatever he saw on John's face.
It was hard getting the words out. "Am I--cursed?"
"No! No, no, no, of course not!" and the man looked absolutely despairing. "It's not--well, actually," he amended, wincing, "that's not the absolute worst word for it; I mean, aside from the superstitious connotation. Look, it's complicated, but just--none of this is your fault. Well, not exactly. You might want to punch yourself in the face in about twenty-five years but-- Look, it's going to be all right, I promise you." He swallowed. "You just have to trust me, all right? I'm--going to stop talking now."
Everything looked surreal; the blue sky, the twisted branches of the trees, the man standing there in his trench coat and sneakers. Somewhere behind him, some kids were laughing. "I don't feel so good," John said. "I'm...going back to my room."
"Yes, right, exactly." The man looked relieved. "Good job; that's very convincing."
John bent over and hauled his bike upright. "I guess I'll see you, huh?"
"Yes. Absolutely," the man said, and then he muttered, "I think I'm fucking this up," and disappeared.
January 5, 1967— May 12, 1979
Rest In Peace
January 5, 1967— May 12, 1979
Rest In Peace
John was clambering over the slippery granite rocks on the oceanside part of the estate when he heard his name, faintly, on the wind. He turned back toward the reedy shore, then looked the other way and saw a man standing out on the little wooden pier a few yards down. It was him, and he was waving his arms, calling John over--and right then, John's foot slipped. He flailed his arms and righted himself. Slowly, carefully, he began to make his way toward the pier, moving from rock to rock. The man waved encouragingly, then knelt down when he drew close and hauled him up onto the rough planks.
"So, do I drown?" John got up clumsily. "RIP: May 12, 1979, Eastern Shore, Virginia?"
The man didn't answer the question. "You're a long way from home, aren't you? What the hell are you doing out here all by yourself?"
John jammed his hands in his windbreaker pockets and put on his best smirk; the one he used to make the mean housekeepers, cooks, and nannies feel awful. "I am home," he said. "My house is thataway." He pointed, and the man turned, hair ruffling in the wind. There wasn't anything to see; just a long flat expanse of nothing against a dull grey sky. "A couple of miles that way," John added, rocking back on his sneakers. His jacket rattled in the wind. "It's on the bay side, but I like the ocean side better. It's rougher."
He thought he'd get a rise out of the guy, or at least some respect, but the man squinted at him. "And your parents just let you wander around all day unsupervised?"
His mouth trembled, and he turned to watch a gull swoop down over the water. "Don't you know?" he sneered. "I thought you knew everything about me, you and that stupid machine of yours. I thought you were a genius with two Ph.Ds in engineering and rocket science or whatever. I think you're just some sort of creep. I don't even know how you got in here, on to my land: this is private property, you know that? I could call the police, get you thrown out--" His lip trembled worse now, and he shut his mouth.
The man stared at him. "John, what the hell--?"
"My mother died," John said, and swiped at his eyes with his sleeve.
"Oh. Oh. Oh God--okay, look: here, come, sit." The man took him by the shoulders and made him sit on the edge of the pier, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a candy bar in shiny blue and silver wrapping. "Here, eat this," he said, shoving it at John. "It'll stabilize your blood sugar," and John tore it open and ate it. It was chocolatey and kind of chewy.
"I'm sorry about your mother," the man said, his voice snatched away by the wind. He sat next to John on the pier, legs dangling over the side. "I don't know everything about you; in fact, I hardly know anything about you. I just have to keep you alive, that's it, and sometimes I forget that..." He circled his hand. "That you have a life apart from that."
John slowly ate the rest of the candy bar. He had too much to say, so he didn't say anything. The man stared out at the sea. The wind made whitecaps on the water.
"What happened to your mother?" the man asked finally.
John forced a shrug. "Organ failure, they said; I don't know. She was sick for a long time; she took a lot of different--" He hesitated and then said, "The servants say she drank too much, that maybe she took too much of something by mistake."
"Oh god. I'm sorry," the man said quietly. "That just sucks," and John had never heard a grownup say that before.
"Yeah, it--yeah," John said. The man awkwardly put an arm around him, and John turned into it, tucking up against the man's side. It should have been weird, but it wasn't; John felt calmer than he had since the moment he had looked up from his biology book to see the Headmaster standing at the classroom door, a sad expression on his face.
"Are you an angel?" John blurted, and felt stupid the moment he'd said it, because he didn't believe in that sort of stuff, not really. "No, but," he added, backpedaling as the man flailed at him in obvious, wide-eyed horror, "my friend Michael says angels are like soldiers, total badasses--" if anything, the man looked even more horrified, and John, humiliated, pointed at him and yelled: "Don't tell me you're not doing supernatural crap!"
"Supernatural?" The man looked outraged. "Don't tell me you believe in--isn't anyone paying attention to your education? Or is your perfectly serviceable mind being allowed to rot away under the influence of pious and ignorant housemaids? Angels, of all the--!" He snorted. "Haven't you ever heard of Clarke's third law? Please tell me you read."
"What?" John blinked. "You mean, 'For every action, there is an equal and opposite--'" but then his brain jumped the track: Clarke, not Newton. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from...wait, are you saying this is science?"
"Of course it's science! Alien science, but science nonetheless." The man was pressing his fingertips to his temples like he had a terrible headache. "You want to hear a crazy story?"
"Yes?" John's heart pounded.
The man blew out a long breath and stared out at the waves. His hair ruffled in the breeze. "Twenty years from now," he said finally, "you're going to be my best friend."
John squinted up at him, trying to see him against the cloudy gray sky. "Really?"
The man looked at him, solid and familiar; impossibly so. "Really," he said, and John believed him. Their friendship felt like a rock-hard fact; like gravity. "And that isn't even the crazy part," the man added, and then he laughed, a flash of white teeth and a warm, crooked smile. "You and I work in outer space together; another galaxy, in fact," the man said. "With aliens and alien technology." He reached into his inside jacket pocket, pulled out the weird transistor radio, and handed it to John. It began to glow, and John shuffled it nervously, afraid it would get hot. It didn't, and he let his hands close around it. It felt like a smooth stone, baked warm in the sun, and had a glowing screen full of letters--blocky, with lines and dots; unreadable. An alien language.
John stared down at it. "We're--astronauts?"
The man waved an impatient hand. "Astronauts, explorers--colonizers, if you like. That's what they called us on M3D-901, which is how we got into this mess. They put you on trial for--" John's eyes bugged, and the man saw this and gesticulated wildly, like he was trying to erase the words from the air, "--forget that, never mind, not the point! The point is that twenty years from now, aliens have put you in a box that--makes everything go wrong!"
"A--box?" John stammered.
"A box, a box," the man said, and then he was sketching out the shape: long, wide, flat, like a coffin. "They put you in a box, a machine that--" He turned to John, drew one knee up on the pier, and said: "Okay, look: you're bright enough to understand this, so pay attention," and John forced himself to concentrate. "Right now, I look at you and see you in three dimensions," and he moved his hands over and around John's head and shoulders to make the point: height, breadth, depth. "But this isn't all of you; it's only a cross-section: your life actually stretches out behind you and ahead of you, as connected and integral a part of you as your head is to your neck. In time," the man added sharply, "did I say that? The fourth dimension is time."
John nodded; he knew that.
"Now, this box operates in the fifth dimension, which is--well, the curvature of space time, which some people call probabilities and others call alternate realities. It's all the possibilities of your life, all the things that could happen to the long, snaking monster that is fourth-dimensional you." The man was gesturing wildly now, tracing out multidimensional space. John couldn't quite picture it--the long snake of his fourth-dimensional self becoming all the infinite possibilities of the fifth dimension--but he thought he maybe got the idea.
"You're saying," John said slowly, frowning as he tried to think it through, "that if I played soccer instead of baseball, stayed at St. Chris's instead of transferring to Kellington's--"
"--if you'd been run over when you were five, hit on the head with a golf club or been stupid enough to climb wet, slippery rocks by yourself near an ocean with a vicious undertow, which--oh, wait!" he said, and smacked the side of John's head.
"Ow!" John yelled. "Hey!" but the man wasn't listening.
"The box," he said, grabbing John's shoulders, "punishes the user by flipping a few key fifth-dimensional switches. It zeroes in on the weakest bonds: your closest calls and narrowest escapes. It's a death sentence, John, but they're cowards, so they won't kill directly. Instead, they've put you in the box, and it's re-weighing all the probabilities of your--"
"Murphy's law," John blurted. He knew he should be afraid, but he just felt numb. "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong: they're just waiting for something to kill me."
"Yeah. Basically," the man said unhappily. "And we can't get you out, because you're decoherent. Statistically, you're not even in there. You're like Schrödinger's goddamned cat!"
They stared out at the whitecapped water, the cloudy gray skies.
Finally, the man sighed and said, "On the bright side--"
John jerked around to stare at him. "What bright side? Aliens stuck me in a box!"
"Yes, yes. But lucky for you," the man declared, raising a finger, "I'm on the case."
"Yeah." John rolled his eyes. "You and your alien tricorder," he said, handing it back.
"I'll have you know I built this," the man huffed. "With my own hands, from parts scavenged from ten alien worlds, guided by scientific theories complex enough to make Stephen Hawking cry until his wheelchair rusts. I call it Ziggy. You know, from that show where--" His smile faltered. "Oh god, that hasn't aired yet, right? Have you even seen Star Wars?"
"Of course I've seen Star Wars," John scoffed.
"Well, good; I wouldn't know how to talk to you otherwise," the man snorted. "That device," he continued, "is tracking your worst fifth dimensional disruptions. It's not giving me a lot of information, but so far it's been enough for me to counterbalance your increased odds of death. All we have to do is make sure you survive long enough to grow up and be put in the box, and then we can open it and get you out. I think," the man added, frowning. "At least, that's the operating theory. We just have to stay ahead of the curve of what happens next."
"So what happens next?" John asked nervously.
"Beats me," the man sighed. "I guess we'll know when we get there," he said and vanished.
January 5, 1967— June 19, 1979
Sweet Be Thy Rest
January 5, 1967— June 19, 1979
Sweet Be Thy Rest
"I'll give you twenty bucks," the man said, appearing out of nowhere and startling Rocket, "if you skip riding today."
John stared at him, irrationally furious. "Back so soon?" he asked, turning to lead the horse into the paddock. Riding was the only thing keeping him sane this summer, and now all he could picture was being thrown or trampled, lying dead in a ditch somewhere. It wasn't fair; most people only got held to regular U.S. law, where you couldn't be tried for things you hadn't done yet. It was just his luck that he was being tried by the laws of theoretical physics, where you were accountable for everything you did in two galaxies and ten dimensions.
The man trailed him and the horse. "It's not my fault! Yes, I know it's not your fault either," he added when John glared. "Somehow you survived a horse-breeding family once, but now you're due to end the day with a broken neck, so I'm guessing it's the horse! Just take a day off." He held up his stupid glowing radio and added, "And don't shoot the messenger!"
John was halfway onto Rocket's back before he was conscious of making the decision. He heard the man yelp, "John!" as he nudged Rocket into a trot. They did a quick lap of the paddock while the man stood there helplessly, waving his arms. "John!" he shouted. "This isn't funny!" and John bent down low over Rocket's neck and coaxed her to go faster. Faster, much too fast for the enclosed space of the paddock, and without letting himself think about it he raced toward the white rails and jumped the horse over the fence. His name came to him faintly over the rush of speed--"John!"--and he glanced back to see the man awkwardly scrambling over the fence himself. He kicked into Rocket's side and crouched down low on her neck, urging her to speed. His vision sharpened; he could see everything; he had no body; he was everywhere; nowhere. The horse thundered beneath him.
He rode hard to the other side of the estate, then turned and cantered back to the house. The man was sitting on the bench under his mother's apple tree, shoulders hunched, the alien machine in his hands. He glanced up as John approached, and--wow, he looked like he'd aged ten years in the last fifteen minutes. John was sick with guilt. He slid off the mare's back and stumbled over, sneakers crunching on the gravel. "I'm sorry," he said, hasty and heartfelt. "I, I'm really sorry."
The man shook off his apology. He stared down at his tricorder and said, quietly, "You're all right now; it says you're good to go." John would have apologized again, but the man cut him off. "No, don't," he said sharply. "It's fine. You've--out-recklessed your own death or something. I just, I had to see for myself," and he was gone between one blink and the next.
January 5, 1967— July 23, 1979
Ever Remembered, Ever Loved
January 5, 1967— July 23, 1979
Ever Remembered, Ever Loved
"John?" Mrs. Bollinger was gently knocking on the door to the sun porch. John was sprawled across the wicker sofa watching Get Smart on the small black and white television. He turned his head, but didn't get up. Too much effort; it was too hot.
"John." Now there was a note of reproof in Mrs. Bollinger's voice, and John wondered what--he'd made his bed, he'd eaten his lunch, he'd put his laundry in the sack-- "Dr. Meredith is here for your lesson. Come on; find your shoes..."
John blinked at her, because--what? but then a familiar voice said, "It's all right, I'll take it from here," and John scrambled to sit up, because it was him, the guy-- right here in the house! And holy crap, there he was, stepping through the old wood screen door. He had a satchel slung across his shoulder and he was wearing the fakest smile John had ever seen. He said, "Hi, John, good to see you," but his eyes flashed, Hello, shut up and play along.
"Uh..." John stared from the man to Mrs. Bollinger and back again; it was kind of like seeing the Easter Bunny walk in. "Right, my lesson. I, uh... forgot." He bent to fish his sneakers from under the sofa, and all the blood rushed to his head. The man caught him by the arm and hauled him upright. Something else flashed in his eyes, and then he turned to Mrs. Bollinger and said, "Um, excuse me, but I'm terribly thirsty; would you mind getting me some water?"
"Yes, of course," Mrs. Bollinger said, and blushed unexpectedly, and oh my God, she liked him. John rolled his eyes so hard he got dizzy and would have fallen backward onto the couch if the man hadn't been holding him. "In fact, I'll do you one better. I'll put a nice pitcher of lemonade and some tea cookies in the music room."
The man wheeled on her. "No lemonade, no lemon, no citrus! I'm deadly, deadly allergic. Water is fine, thanks," and Mrs. Bollinger looked embarrassed and fled back into the house.
The man wheeled on him and said, "You! Turn around and push your pants down."
"What?" John asked, but the man was already hauling him up and turning him around. John twisted to look over his shoulder and saw the needle. "Wait! What are you--"
"'...eyenalmeninitus," the man mumbled, having uncapped the needle with his teeth. He yanked the elastic waistband of John's shorts down and jabbed the needle into John's butt, which--ow! It burned and stung when he pushed the plunger. "That's an antibiotic," the man said, shoving John away and hastily recapping the needle as John tugged his shorts up. "You've got meningococcal meningitis, which shouldn't surprise me at all." He glared at John as he tucked the needle away in his bag. "Probably making out with some girl, which would be so, so typical. What are you, twelve?"
John face flushed. "I didn't! I wasn't!" and that was true, almost. It had been Pete, the son of their stablemaster, who'd visited his father last week. John had taught him how to flip a half ollie. Pete had taught him that you couldn't suck your own cock, but someone else could, if you dared them.
The man snorted. "Right. Sure. Whatever you say." He drifted over to the television, muttered, "This is a good episode," and switched it off. "Come on," he said, "show me this music room of yours. You probably feel lousy, so I'll go easy on you."
John wormed his feet into his sneakers. "What are you supposed to be teaching me?"
"Piano," the man said, steadying him when he teetered a little. "I figured you'd have one."
John led him through the hallway and the reception room to the main sitting room and then through the French doors into the music room where, lo: the piano. "It's basically a giant coaster," he said, and rolled his eyes. "Nobody ever plays it. I think my dad hired some guy to play it at a party once."
"It's actually..." The man was drifting over to it, apparently genuinely interested. "It's a beautiful instrument, a Bechstein; I assumed you'd have the conventional Steinway." He sat down and opened the lid gently, almost with reverence. "Franz Liszt played on a Bechstein. Dinu Lipatti, most of the great Russian players." He glanced at John, who'd come to stand next to the keyboard. "Leonard Bernstein." John shrugged at him. "The Beatles recorded 'Hey Jude' on one. Elton John. Jesus, you're still such a philistine." The man played some random chords, then trilled a couple of notes with his fingers.
"Can you actually play it?" John asked.
The man sniffed. "Of course I can. I'm very versatile." He laced and flexed his fingers, and then they flew over the keys. The sound was warm and huge. John felt like his whole body was vibrating. The man played for a minute or two, then lifted his hands.
"Liszt," the man said dreamily, staring into space over the curved black body of the Bechstein. "Liebestraum in A flat; I won a competition with that piece in 1983, which, huh, hasn't even happened yet. I was brilliant at Liszt; he was a master of technique, 'transcendental execution' they called it. Nobody told him he was just 'a fine clinical player.' The whole history of music would have been different. Everything would have been different."
"Um." John was pretty sure he'd forgotten John was there. "...Dr. Meredith?"
"Rodney," the man replied absently, and then he jerked to stare at John. "Wait, what?"
"Rodney?" John was grinning stupidly. "Your name's Rodney Meredith?"
"No! No, it's--" He let his arms and head crash down onto the piano. There was a large, discordant chord. "Oh, what's the use?" he moaned. "We're going to meet in twenty years, presuming you're still alive, and it's not like you're likely to forget me in the interim. I'm unforgettable, I can't help it," he said, and then, lifting his head: "Rodney McKay."
John stuck out his hand. Dr. McKay stared down at it, and when he looked up, he was grinning crookedly. "You're a real piece of work, Sheppard," he said, shaking John's hand. "I of course mean that as a compliment," and right then Mrs. B. poked her head around the door and said, "Everything all right? I heard you playing. Can I get you anything?"
"No, no, no; we're fine," Dr. McKay said hastily. "We were just, uh, working on our hand positions." He yanked John down onto the shiny black piano bench beside him and muttered, "Put your hands on the keyboard at least." John immediately did so, holding his fingers the way he remembered from school lessons, years ago. Mrs, B. nodded and withdrew, pulling the doors shut. Dr. McKay adjusted his wrists. "Not bad," he said. "You've had some lessons."
"A few," John admitted. "I hated them," and then he twisted to look at Dr. McKay; it was hard to see him, sitting so close. "I can't believe you're here," he said, lowering his voice against Mrs. Bollinger's lurking. "It's just so weird that you're here."
"Weird? You don't know what weird is. Weird is being in a-- with the-- and the crazy alien--" He stopped, incoherent, hands flailing. "And then your best friend is twelve, and you're his piano teacher. That--now, you're talking weird!"
"Yeah, well, why did you even say that?" John whined. "I would have met you outside!"
"Outside? You're not going outside: you can barely move! We're going to finish this lesson and then you're going straight to bed. You've got meningitis, as I thought I explained, because even though you're only four feet tall you're apparently already Kirking your way across the Virginia countryside. Of course, most kids can make out a couple of times without contracting a potentially fatal illness, but we're living under Sheppard's Law, which means it's sure to kill you unless we beat it back with antibiotics. A few swift, heavy doses should do it, but there aren't too many reasons why a guy three times your age should be here. Best friend from the future; piano teacher. I went with piano teacher. Your housekeeper bought it anyway," Dr. McKay concluded, almost defiantly. "So let's make it look good for whoever else is here."
"What?" John said; he wasn't sure he'd followed all that.
Dr. McKay jerked a nervous look over his shoulder, then began to play scales. "Who else is here?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"No one. I mean, it's just me and Mrs. B. and Mr. Parker: he runs the stables. He has some local guys who work for him, helping with the horses, but they don't live here or anything. Oh, and Marta, she cleans and does the laundry."
"No, but, your father? When will he be--?"
"I don't know. He's in Paris." John shrugged. "He calls sometimes, but I don't think he'll remember that he didn't hire a piano teacher, especially if I tell him how great you are and how much fun I'm having." He rolled his eyes.
Dr. McKay frowned. "Oh. Well. What about nannies, do you have a--I mean, who's taking care of your brother?" and John felt a chill, because up till now he'd believed everything, hook line and sinker, but--
"I don't have a brother." John's heart was pounding. "It's just me."
Dr. McKay stopped playing. "You don't have a brother?"
"No?" John had to fight off the feeling he'd done something wrong.
"Oh, that's bad," Dr. McKay said, almost to himself. "That is just--that's really, really bad."
John was unbearably curious. "What was his name? Was he older or younger?" but Dr. McKay was lost in thought. "Dr. McKay? Was he older or--"
Dr. McKay blinked at him and said, tightly, "Okay, I really need you not to call me that. McKay, or Rodney, but not--" He faltered, looked away, swallowed. "We'll just have to hope it doesn't matter. It might be a random anomaly; I'll run some calculations."
Dr. McKay swiped his satchel off the floor and pulled out a yellow exercise book: Czerny. "Here, work on this," he said, propping the book on the stand. "It's tedious, and it drives some students to despair, but it'll train your hands. Not to mention that it'll keep you in the house, which just might help you live to thirteen." He looked at John, and his eyes were serious and very blue. "If you can survive this summer," he said, "which has obviously been shit for you, you can survive anything. I mean, you can; I've seen you do it. So hang on."
John looked down at his hands, jerked a nod. "Okay," he said.
"Don't look at your hands; look at the music," Dr. McKay chided.
"Okay," John said, and lifted his head, his back straight.
He hid under the open window while Dr. McKay talked to Mrs. Bollinger. "I'll be back tomorrow," Dr. McKay said airily. "John's very bright; I think his days could use a little more structure," and Mrs. B. sighed and began to explain, in a low voice, that it wasn't her decision; that she was simply following her employer's instructions; and yes, of course, it was terrible how he had abandoned the boy, but--and John slipped on the grass, nearly falling into his mother's honeysuckle bushes, but he didn't stop until he'd reached the stables and climbed the ladder into the loft. He lay down in the hay and stared up at the cobwebbed rafters, and after a while, he heard Dr. McKay distantly yelling, "See you tomorrow, John! You'd better be resting!"
He felt terrible the next day, hot and cold and like his body was made of lead, but he forced himself to go down to the sofa in the sunroom. Mrs. B. brought him oatmeal and juice and said she thought it was probably a cold or something. John agreed and said nothing about Sheppard's Law, meningitis, or the fact that he was doomed, doomed, doomed.
He was in a deep hole of despair when Dr. McKay finally stepped into the sunroom; even the Batman reruns weren't doing it. "No, seriously, it's pointless," John said, nearly in tears as Dr. McKay looked him up and down critically and fumbled in his satchel for today's antibiotic kick in the pants. "I could die in a fire, get rabies, a brain tumor, have a meteorite crash down in my--" and Dr. McKay took hold of his arm, hauled him up off the sofa, and shoved his shorts down; the big pervert. "You can't fight statistics," John said, his voice cracking as McKay gave him the shot. "My mom's dead and she was only thirty-four. What chance have I got? Nobody was even out to get her."
Dr. McKay turned John around, touched his forehead. His hand was cool. "You're just, that's just the fever talking," he said uncertainly. "Buck up," but he let John sit next to him on the piano bench and do nothing for an hour. John leaned against his side, listless and weak, and listened to him play. His fingers were mesmerizing. He made it look easy.
Dr. McKay stopped playing; the hour had gone by. "Are you," he began awkwardly, and then stopped. "You should go back to bed," he said finally. "Do you want--should I ask Mrs. Bollinger to send up some sandwiches?" John shook his head; he wasn't hungry. "Fluids at least, you should drink lots of..." Dr. McKay stared down at his hands. "I could stay," he said finally. "Pretend to leave, then sneak upstairs, and--" The pity in Dr. McKay's voice shook John out of his own self-pity the way nothing else could.
"I'm fine," John said, and got up, off the piano bench, breaking into a sweat at the effort. "Mrs. B.'ll look after me fine. I'm just going to sleep anyway, maybe read a little. See you tomorrow, ok?" and he left Dr. McKay sitting there, alone, at the piano.
The next morning he felt more like himself again, so he immediately fled the house, grateful to be out in the warm weather. He went to check on Rocket, brushed her coat and fed her a few horse treats, then dragged his bike out of the shed and lazily pedaled down the driveway. When he reached the iron gate, he turned and kicked up some speed, riding over the rough ground through the trees, just happy to be moving again: so, so happy for the speed.
He was so blissed out that he didn't see Dr. McKay until he almost ran over him, and he swerved so hard he wiped out, scraping his leg. "You--God, you're so--" and Dr. McKay grabbed his arm and tried to disentangle him from the bike, which was upside down, wheels still spinning, "--so you, riding around with no helmet or--"
"Helmet?" John asked, blinking. "For a bike?"
"-- plus you've probably got a fever, and now you're bleeding and--" He'd gotten John onto his feet and was shaking him. "What the hell are you doing out of bed?"
"I feel better," John insisted. "I feel loads better."
"Yeah, well, according to Ziggy you're not out of the woods yet," Dr. McKay said, and glowered at him. He pulled the familiar needle out of his satchel and uncapped it; John groaned and rolled his eyes, but he let Dr. McKay inject him again.
"This is getting old," John complained.
Dr. McKay's response was clipped. "Yes, well, too bad. I need to keep giving you these shots until--" There was a quick, frantic beeping. Dr. McKay pulled the alien device out of his pocket and studied it. John looked up hopefully. "Oh. Well," he said, sounding placated. "Actually you're--you're clear, I think. Probability back to normal levels."
John rocked back on his heels and said, smugly, "Told you I felt better."
Now Dr. McKay rolled his eyes. "Riiight, because you'd never push yourself past the limits of endurance. You're a guy who'll make the safe and prudent choice."
John tried to hold onto his smile, but secretly it unnerved him; this feeling that Dr. McKay knew him better than he knew himself. "Am I tall?" he asked. Dr. McKay shot him a swift, baffled look. "You're always going on about how short I am," he said, defiantly shifting his weight. "So I figure I grow up to be tall."
Dr. McKay looked at him. It was like he was looking through him at someone who wasn't there yet. "Yeah," he said. "You're tall. Tallish. A couple of inches taller than me." Dr. McKay looked away. "I guess I'll see you when I next see you."
Wait. "Wait, but--" It wasn't fair. He felt it as a burning injustice. "The piano lessons?"
"It doesn't work like that," Dr. McKay said, suddenly angry. "I can't come and go as I please; the machine's calibrated to send me to the next danger point in your timeline."
"Oh," John said.
Dr. McKay was thin-lipped. "Which could be tomorrow if you don't start wearing a goddamned bike helmet--"
"There is no such thing as a bike helmet!" John yelled, suddenly furious. "Not here on planet Earth, Spaceman! So just--buzz off, all right? See you at my next death!"
Dr. McKay vanished. John yelled after him: "And the piano's a stupid instrument! And you suck! Jesus! Goddammit!" He kicked at the wheel of his overturned bike.
The sheath slid away, and Rodney blinked up into the harsh lights of the lab. A circle of faces peered down at him. "For the love of--" he muttered, pulling his arm over his eyes, and they at least had the decency to step back and give him some room. Beside him, Sheppard's Ancient sarcophagus was beeping softly, reassuringly, lights glowing.
"How's Colonel Sheppard's condition?" Beckett sounded worried. "If he's not responding to the meropenem I can give him chloramphenicol, or even penicillin--"
Rodney let his arm fall away. "He's responding; he's better. Moving on now--"
"Rodney," and that was Elizabeth, gentle-voiced and concerned. "Maybe you should stop for a while. Take a break. You haven't--"
"Stop?" Rodney bolted upright and swung his legs off the slab. "How can I stop? We have no idea how much time we have before something snaps in his past and he's gone, a newspaper clipping, 'Boy, 12, dies in boating accident off Virginia Shore.'"
Beckett handed him some nutritional beverage with a straw sticking out of it. Rodney sucked it down. Teyla said, "We could take turns, perhaps. Give you a chance to rest."
"I'll go," Ronon said. "I'll go right now."
Rodney could barely contain his sarcasm. "Oh, right, and how exactly are you going to negotiate 20th century America?"
"The same way you negotiate Pegasus." Ronon's smile was terrifying. "Badly."
Rodney was just opening his mouth to argue when Elizabeth raised her hand. "No, Rodney's right; this'll be difficult enough without any cultural misunderstandings. But I would feel better, Rodney, if you had at least a couple of hours sleep."
Rodney made himself take a deep breath. "So would I, believe me, but--" and the world turned over sickeningly, became greasy and strange. Rodney flung out a hand to steady himself and was surprised when Beckett grabbed it and yanked him upright. The warmth of Beckett's hand was reassuring in the sudden unnerving slipperiness of the world.
"Rodney?" They were all crowding in on him again. Their heads seemed huge. Rodney saw them without seeing them; he was too busy trying to figure out what was happening. There was something new in his brain; a hot knife sliding through butter, leaving no mark.
"He called me," Rodney blurted, surprised at his own words. "But that's--how could he have--?" but it was there, in his head, a memory he'd never--didn't remember--did-- He put his head between his knees and stared down at the intricate patterns of the Ancient floor.
"Easy, take it easy," Beckett said, just as Elizabeth said, "Wait, what?"
His head was spinning; the memory burst open around him.
He was twelve, and he'd spent most of that summer in the damp, cool cinderblock basement building a bomb: just a nonworking model. He'd slaved endlessly over the blueprints, and he was probably in the best shape of his life from biking to the hardware store, the pipefitting factory, the Uni's technical library, and his dad's engineering firm, where they patronized him but let him make off with all the scrap parts he could--
The phone rang, and it kept ringing and ringing until finally Mer turned off the welder and shoved his goggles up his forehead. "Could somebody please get that?"
No one did, and the ringing didn't stop, so with a howl of annoyance he hurtled up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and grabbed the receiver off the kitchen wall. "What?"
"Is this--does Rodney McKay live there?" and Meredith McKay hesitated, because it had to be a mistake; nobody ever called him Rodney. He clutched the white plastic receiver and said, finally, with as much authority as he could muster, "Yes, he does. Who's this?"
There was a moment of silence, and then the voice--a kid like himself, Meredith thought, said, "The Rodney McKay I'm looking for is maybe 13? And he's interested in science: astrophysics, engineering." The kitchen wallpaper had little blue birds on it, weaved into the broader pattern of white, green and yellow. Somehow he'd never seen that before.
"Yes." He was surprised by the calmness of his own voice "That's me."
"Really?" The boy lowered his voice and said, "Seriously, are you real?"
Some part of him thought he ought to hang up, that this was a crank call or worse, except someone had called him, the real him, for the first time in his life. "Yeah," he said, instinctively mirroring the boy's conspiratorial whisper: "I'm real. Are you real?"
"I think I'm real," the boy said, and Meredith could hear his smile. "Wow, this is weird. You're the thirty-sixth McKay house I called. You know how many McKays there are?"
"A lot?" Meredith ventured.
"A whole lot; thousands. I can't believe I found you. It's like one in a million."
"Well, no," Meredith corrected. "More like a one in however many thousands of--"
"Five thousand!" the boy interjected. "Five thousand McKays just in Canada alone!"
"You weren't actually going to call five thousand houses!" Meredith was shocked. "Your dad wasn't going to let you call five thousand houses long distance!"
The other boy's voice went hard. "My dad," he said and stopped. "Okay, look: I had two tenths of a percent chance of finding you in Canada, and three point three thousandths of a percent chance of finding you in all of North America, and I found you within the first thirty-six calls, which is really pretty amazing, statistically speaking."
"Hm, yes." Meredith thought over the numbers. "You're right. That's bizarrely lucky."
"Yeah, well, I could use a little luck," the boy said bitterly. "I'm running what you might call a probability experiment, and I just really needed to find out if you existed."
"A probability experiment?" Meredith pulled his goggles off and scratched his forehead. He was torn between demanding more information and clarifying the muddy data he'd already contributed. Honesty won out. "Listen, I guess I should tell you that my real first name is Meredith. Yes, it's also a boy's name," he added quickly, "and it used to be a really popular boys' name. It's Welsh; it means 'Great Lord' in Welsh. I go by Rodney, though," and that wasn't much of a lie; he went by Rodney, except nobody cared. "Does that," and he was almost afraid to hear the answer, "invalidate your data sample?"
Meredith had a sinking feeling when the boy didn't immediately answer. But then he laughed and said, "Uh, no. That pretty much confirms it. See you around, Rodney." There was a click, and Rodney yelled, "Hey, wait! You never told me--" and he depressed the tongue of the wall phone a thousand times, but he couldn't get the boy back on the line.
"Rodney!" and that was Elizabeth's voice, gone sharp. "Carson, take him to the--"
"No," Rodney said, struggling upright again. "No, I'm all right."
"What happened?" Elizabeth asked, as Beckett checked his pupils, his pulse. "Rodney. You looked like you were having a seizure--"
Rodney shoved Beckett's hand away. "He's changing the past. He's changing my past--"
"What?" Elizabeth asked.
"He called me. He called me at home, on the telephone. I just remembered--" and ow, God, his head. He pressed the heel of his hand to his temple. "No," he gritted out. "I didn't just remember that," and just thinking about this made his head throb harder. "It hadn't happened. I didn't remember it because it didn't happen," except he already almost didn't believe that anymore. Of course it had happened; it was one of the most important moments of his life. He thought of it often: how the strange boy had phoned him, had seemed to know all about him. He treasured the memory precisely because it was so strange, like a telegram from another world. It made him feel special, and chosen, and known, and even though his rational mind knew it was nothing--a mistake, a misconnection, some kind of wrong number--Rodney preferred to believe--
It was John. It was John, it was John. Rodney squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make these realities integrate. "Sorry," he muttered. "Sorry, just trying to reconcile..."
"I don't like this," Elizabeth said uneasily. "It's too dangerous; we're in over our heads. We're already in danger of losing him; I can't afford to risk both of you."
"Are you joking?" Rodney's eyes shot open. "If we don't save Sheppard, we're risking everything! He's affecting things outside the box!--he' s just altered my reality, changed my memories. What the hell do you think is going to happen to us if he never makes it here?" He saw Elizabeth's eyes widen, heard Teyla gasp. "This isn't going to be a case of John Sheppard, we hardly knew ye! If Sheppard dies, we're all dead."
They stared at each other in silence. Then Beckett said, hesitantly, "I hate to be the one to mention it, but...it was Colonel Sheppard who woke up the Wraith."
Rodney was so ready to explode with counterarguments that for a moment he could only twitch in incoherent rage. But then Elizabeth said quietly, "If John hadn't been flying that helicopter, I wonder if General O'Neill would have been killed by your drone?"
"Elizabeth," Beckett said, sounding agonized. "You know I don't mean--"
Elizabeth raised her hand. "Yes, Carson. I know," she replied. "But there are too many variables; I don't see how we can do anything but try to get Colonel Sheppard back."
"Right," Rodney interjected. "Can I go now? We're racing a clock that we can't even--"
"Yes. Go," and Rodney instantly slid back and lay down on the slab, folding his hands over his stomach as the sheath closed up over him.
January 5, 1967— June 30, 1981
Gone But Not Forgotten
January 5, 1967— June 30, 1981
Gone But Not Forgotten
He was way out, about half a mile out to sea, swimming from rock to rock. The shore was a hazy white line of limestone. Below him, floating in the water, were great webs of seaweed stretched out between the rocks. He took a deep breath and dived, twisting and opening his eyes to look up through the twisted weeds and the water at the blue sky overhead. He thought it was beautiful, like an alien landscape.
He surfaced, oriented himself toward the next rock, and dived again. The water rushed into his ears, calming him, quieting the inside of his head. He loved the feeling of weightlessness, the way the cold water numbed his arms and legs a little, the burn of air in his lungs. He held his breath as long as he could, then kicked for the surface--
--and it was all over him, green and slimy. The web of seaweed had moved with the current, and he was in the middle of it. He tried to pull the green-black leaves apart, to swim through them. He could see light streaming through the water, and tried to fight his way up to the surface, to the air, but the seaweed was heavy and tight, like a net, and--
The air whooshed out of his lungs, and it was only then that John began to understand he was in real trouble. He tore wildly at the net of seaweed, churning up the water, kicking up, up, up--and goddammit, his hand broke the surface, flailed about in the warm air. He inhaled water and his vision started to gray. He kept fighting, kept...
Down, something was dragging him down, and John began to thrash with all his might. Something squeezed his chest, an arm and then he was taking great gulps of air and staring up at the clear blue sky, the white clouds, the orange--orange--
McKay was treading water in front of a bright orange dinghy. He was panting, hair plastered to his head. "Are you all right? John---say something!"
"Hi," John managed, and McKay breathed out a sigh of relief and practically threw John into the dinghy, lifting him out of the water and letting John push off his shoulders. He expected that McKay would clamber in after him, but instead McKay began to swim for the nearest rock, sculling with one arm and towing the dinghy behind him. When he got there, McKay gracelessly scrambled out of the water, water dripping off his pale back, his blue and orange trunks. He turned and tugged the dinghy onto the rock, beaching it.
By now, John had recovered a little. "Hi, Rodney: good to see you. Anybody ever tell you that you have an awesome sense of timing?"
McKay shot him a scornful look. "Oh, please. You have no idea how good my timing is, but you will, believe me. Anybody ever tell you that it's an incredibly stupid idea to go swimming alone, out in the middle of nowhere, in--where the hell is this, France?"
"Oui. Ma famille a loué une maison à Saint-Malo," John said with disdain.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Je ne suis pas impressionné; langue officiele, tu sais? Geez, why can't you just be a tourist? Go to town, spend some quality time with your--"
"There's no quality to that time." John crossed his arms over his bare chest and shivered; the breeze was coming in off the water and giving him goosebumps. Now that he was out of the water, his calm was evaporating too. He was enraged; overcome; trying to project stone but shaking with anger underneath. "This is the only place I can be alone; they want to do every damn thing together and--" John clamped down on it, felt his jaw twitch, took a breath. This was Rodney. He didn't want to yell at Rodney.
"You were right," John said finally. "I have a brother." There were whitecaps rippling on the water. "His name's David. He's six," he said, and spat out the number. He looked hard at Rodney to see if he got it; he wouldn't be able to say it otherwise.
"Oh," Rodney said, wincing. "Oh boy," and John, who thought he'd never be able to say anything, found himself saying, "I hate grown-up people. I fucking hate them; I do."
"Um," Rodney hedged.
John wasn't having any: "No, they're full of fucking shit, Rodney. They lie, and they pretend to be so smart about everything, and meanwhile, they don't know anything, none of them." He wanted to kick something, but there was only the rock, the bright orange dinghy, Rodney. "I'm smarter than they are; I'm smarter than any of them," John said savagely.
"I--" Rodney opened and closed his mouth, and then he said, "Well, yes! Obviously! You're absolutely smarter than they are, and braver, and generally better than most people, which is why you go on to have adventures in another galaxy and they...well, I don't know what the hell happens to them, but they don't get to go to another galaxy, I'll tell you that."
"I--what do you mean you don't know?" John was taken aback; he now believed that Rodney knew mostly everything about mostly everything. "You knew about Dave--"
"No, I knew you had a brother, since you mentioned having a brother when I told you I had a sister, but you never told me his name, and you never listed any family--no next of kin, nothing--which leads me to believe that you basically stayed pissed off at them for the rest of your life, so I'm not going to waste time talking you out of it. Besides," Rodney snorted, "all families suck; yours just more than most. What's that line about every unhappy family being unhappy in their own way?"
"What?" John asked, bewildered.
Rodney snapped his fingers. "From that novel you like. Or the other one, the Russian one. The other Russian one."
"I like Russian novels?" This was somehow the most surprising thing yet.
"I don't know, you read them. Or you pretend to read them; I can't tell. The point is that while you're certainly no genius, unlike myself, you're definitely of above-average intelligence, and exceptionally intelligent children often do find it difficult to be under the control of sub-intelligent parents even if they aren't lying, adulterous bastards--which reminds me, please do not call me at my own unhappy childhood house ever again, hm? You're messing with my head, not to mention my timeline, and if you do too much of that, I might not be here to help you become yourself!"
John's mouth actually fell open. "How--how do you know I called--?"
"Because I remember!" Rodney bent to shout this into John's face. "God, don't tell me you didn't get the concept, or I'll have to revise my estimate of your intelligence, or conclude you were a late bloomer. I'm him, he's me--hi, hello," Rodney said, and whacked him upside the head. But John had grown a couple of inches since he'd last seen Rodney, and so pushed back, shoving at McKay's pale, freckled shoulders.
"I needed to know you weren't a big stinking liar!" John shouted back.
Rodney frowned, then made a visible and obvious reassessment of him. John looked away, embarrassed. A forelock of black hair had fallen into his eyes, and he pushed it away. Meanwhile, Rodney's face had softened somehow; around the mouth, maybe.
"Well. So now you know," Rodney said finally, and John jerked a nod; it felt weird, suddenly, to be standing with Rodney McKay on this flat, empty rock in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. "For what it's worth," Rodney added, seemingly embarrassed himself, "that call meant a lot to me. You know, at the time. You should go," he said. "Take the dinghy."
"I--yeah, okay," John said, and then he ground out: "He wants us to pretend we're a goddamned family. He wants me to call her 'mom'; I don't have to, right?"
"No. No, you don't," and John loved him so hard, right then: loved him blind.
January 5, 1967— October 3, 1982
He Lives With Us In Memory
January 5, 1967— October 3, 1982
He Lives With Us In Memory
In the back of his mind, John remembered that the key to surviving was not to panic. Don't flail. Keep breathing. Small, steady movements. But really, what kept him calm was the certainty that if there was any real chance of him dying out here, he'd see--
"No, honestly!" Rodney shouted at him from terra firma. "Honestly! Do you have any idea what the most common cause of death is among American males fifteen to nineteen? Car crash! Other popular forms of teen demise? Overdose! Gun accident! Suicide! Falls, drowning, and okay, yes, even the occasional accidental poisoning! Toxic fruit!"
John reached out carefully with one hand. "Hi, Rodney, nice to see you, too."
"Bicycles! Choking! Skiing!--you ski, I know you ski! You ski, you surf, you ride that stupid skateboard. Why the hell haven't you killed yourself skiing?"
"Seriously." John tried to keep still; it was up to his thighs now. "Any time now--"
"Quicksand is--! Quicksand doesn't even rate! It's statistically-- I swear, I'm not even going to bother saving you!" Rodney was red-faced and apparently insane. "Besides, it's a myth that quicksand--"
"Rodneyyyyyy!" John's voice went embarrassingly high as his right leg sank another four inches and the weight of his backpack pulled him dangerously off-balance. It was all he could do not to freak out completely. "Can you please shut up and--" but Rodney was already at work. He unspooled a long, thin cable and wound it around a nearby tree before throwing a loop of it to John, muttering under his breath the whole time. Finally, he anchored himself and began to pull steadily. By the time Rodney finally yanked him out, the muck letting go of him all at once with a loud slurp, Rodney's shirt was soaked with sweat. John fell against him. Rodney gave him a rough hug, then smacked him.
"Give me one good reason," Rodney panted, "why you are out here in the goddamned swamps of--"
"Lake Okeechobee." John let his head thunk onto Rodney's shoulder and closed his eyes.
"--Lake Okeechobee." Rodney sounded angry, but he was holding John tight.
"I'm doing a semester at the Oceanographic Institute." He felt he could fall asleep right here. "It's a special program," he explained. "We study various habitats: intertidal mudflats, barrier reefs, fields of deadly quicksand..." He trailed off, then pulled his head back and looked up at Rodney. "You're not laughing."
"I'm really not, no."
"Sorry," John muttered. "I just, I thought it would help me get into MIT. My dad wants me to go to Harvard, but that's only because he did, and he wants me to follow in his footsteps, take over the business. I mean, Harvard's okay, but for math and science--"
"Wait, wait, wait: what?" Rodney looked absolutely baffled. "You didn't--I mean, as far as I know, you didn't-- You want to go to MIT?"
"Well, I mean: yeah." John felt uncertain. "You know: MIT, CalTech. Somewhere good."
"But--" Rodney was fumbling for words. "But I mean, why--why would you--?"
"Well, right now I want to major in math, but I figure that MIT would be good for practically any of the--" His mouth fell open. "I'm not a social scientist, am I?"
"You're not a scientist at all!" Rodney shouted.
"What?!" John felt like he was literally reeling. "You said I was a scientist--"
"No, I said I was a scientist. You're a pilot! You're in the Air Force--"
"The Air Force? Me? Me? What, was I drafted?"
"No! You're in the military, you're career military!"
"Are you kidding me? Me? I--my father'll flip if I--" and then he stopped and had a second thought about that. "Huh."
"Oh my god. Oh my god, oh my god," Rodney said and sat down on a nearby tree stump.
"The Air Force? I mean, am I really cut out for that? Rodney? Rodney!" but Rodney was staring down at the marshy ground, lost in his own thoughts. "Rodney, for God's sake," John said, desperate to know, "be straight with me. Am I me when you know me? Or do I have to become some other guy, some buzz-cut, macho--"
"Oh, you're you: you're totally you," Rodney said, and waved a hopeless hand at John, taking him in, in totality, "with the stupid hair and the slacker attitude and the antiauthoritarian posturing. It must be some special dispensation; possibly blackmail. Actually," Rodney said, seeming suddenly weary beyond the telling of it, "I've always assumed that it's because it's because you're so very, very good at what you do."
Warmth spread through John at the words. "So where did I go to school?""
"I don't know," Rodney said, biting his lip. "I don't think I should tell you."
"MIT?" John asked hopefully. "Cal Tech? Berkeley?"
Rodney covered his face with his hands. "Maybe. I don't remember."
"Well, can't you look it up?" John asked. "You can tell me next time--"
"I don't think I'm supposed to tell you!" Rodney shouted. "And there may not be a next time! Not before college. This isn't like that hellish summer when you were twelve--"
"I'll jump off a building," John said, and then, rapidly raising his hands and stumbling backwards at Rodney's thunderous expression: "Kidding, I'm kidding, Jesus!"
Rodney shot up, grabbed his shoulders, shook him hard. "You better be," he said darkly, and John realized with a start that he was almost as tall as Rodney, now, though Rodney was a lot bigger and more muscular. "You better be, or I'll kill you myself."
"Rodney," John said desperately: the name scraping out of his throat. "Rodney, I'm sorry," and Rodney seemed to realize that he was hurting John a little. He let go.
"No. I am." Rodney's hands seemed to be working involuntarily, clutching and unclutching the empty air. "You should do what you want. You should go to MIT. Major in math or biology or take over your family's business--" John tried to tell Rodney that he didn't want to take over the family business, but Rodney turned away, looking pained. "Shut up. Do what makes you happy," and then John was alone in the marshlands of Lake Okeechobee, and lonely as all hell.
January 5, 1967— December 4, 1983
In Silence We Remember
January 5, 1967— December 4, 1983
In Silence We Remember
"Okay, now repeat after me: Cui dono lepidum novum libellum--" The bell rang and there was a scraping back of chairs. Mr. Laurence called out, "Sheppard! Can I see you for a minute?" and John stepped out of the stream of departing students and tucked his Catullus under his arm. Mr. Laurence was sitting on the battered wooden desk at the front of the room, watching John while pretending not to. John loitered in the back of the room until the last of the students filed out. Pete Astley shot John a sympathetic look as he went. John shrugged and shut the door behind him, pushing hard, making sure the brass tongue engaged. The frosted glass window rattled in the wood frame. John hesitated for a moment, then turned the lock.
"Hey," Laurence said, smiling nervously; he was the youngest teacher John had ever had at Kellington's: twenty-four and practically straight out of NYU. "So, um," he said, as John walked past graffiti-carved desks, "I think I've got it. Dog-sitting."
"Dog-sitting?" John tried to look cool, but his heart was pounding. "You want me to--"
"Yeah," Mr. Laurence said. "I'm supposed to visit my mother this weekend. You can watch Eva for me, what do you think?" His eyes were fixed on John's mouth, and John licked his lips unselfconsciously, then more deliberately. "It'll um..." He reached out and let his fingers slide down the unbuttoned edge of John's blue blazer. His fingertips brushed the pleated front of John's gray school pants. They were both breathing hard. Laurence's fingertips traced his hard-on, barely touching him. "It's a good excuse to give you my keys."
"Yeah," John said, gasping a little. "Yeah, I want to. Please--" and then he closed his eyes and leaned in fast, missing Laurence's mouth just a little. Their mouths slid against each other's and locked. Laurence was touching him everywhere, feeling him up. John felt erect everywhere, and he whimpered and clumsily groped for Laurence's dick.
"Oh, fuck. John. You're so--" Laurence gently bit along his jawline as John stroked his thighs, dizzy with the intimacy of touch. Laurence grasped John's hips, then slid his hands back and down, over his backside--and John gasped and pushed back hard. Laurence made a low noise in his throat and began to stroke his ass through his pants. John trembled and pressed awkward kisses to Laurence's cheek, his mouth. He hadn't been sure, at first, that he wanted this, but he couldn't ignore the shiver that ran all through his body.
"I--Jesus, please, do it." He wasn't even entirely sure what it was. "Do it now."
Laurence groaned softly, then kissed him. "It doesn't work like that," he said.
"So show--show me how it works--"
"Believe me," Laurence said thickly, unzipping John's pants with shaking fingers, "I want to. You have no idea how I want to. But we can't; not here. You need to come to my house." His hand was on John's dick, clasped around its base, and John lost the thread of their conversation, lost track of everything: "--come early and stay late. Happens all the-- The dog. Monday. I really want to suck you," and Laurence bent low, lips closing around his cockhead, pulling it into his mouth. John grabbed a fist of thick blond hair and--
The doorknob rattled. There was a knock.
"Mr. Laurence?" and Laurence's head jerked up. John gasped desperately for breath. "I'm looking for John Sheppard. Mrs. Ross wants him downstairs," and John hurriedly tucked himself back into his pants as Laurence straightened, wiping his mouth.
"Yeah, okay!" Laurence called back. "One moment please!" and then, lowering his voice, he said worriedly to John, "What do you think she wants?" Mrs. Ross was the head of Student Health and Counseling. "You don't think she suspects anything?"
"No," John whispered back. "I don't think so. I mean, she sometimes--you know, ever since my mom died, she--" and Laurence's face immediately cleared.
"Oh, sure. She takes an interest," Laurence said, and then he called out, "Tell Mrs. Ross I'll send him down straightaway!!" He tugged the wrinkles out of John's shirt, straightened his tie, and kissed him. John bit back a moan, conscious of the shadow on the other side of the frosted glass door. "Later," he whispered. "We're not finished."
"I could come tonight," John said softly.
"Or I could pick you up outside Student Health. You should come meet my dog."
"You have to show me where her food is. All the leashes and everything."
"Exactly." Laurence dragged him in for another kiss by the lapels of his blazer.
The oak-paneled door was open, but he knocked anyway. Mrs. Ross looked up and smiled warmly at him. "Shep," she said. "How are you doing?" She settled back in her desk chair and looked at him appraisingly. "I swear to God, if you don't stop growing soon, we'll have sell you to the Celtics. Are you eating enough? You look like a ghost."
"Everything I can get my hands on." John made a face. "I'm always hungry."
"Chocolate milk," Mrs. Ross advised, and tapped her nose. "Packs on the calories, as I learned to my peril." John grinned; he liked Mrs. Ross. She was funny, and she didn't want to mother him, or smother him. She waved him closer and picked a file off her desk. "Dr. Paterson's on temporary leave; his replacement, Dr. McKay--" and thank God she wasn't looking, because John nearly had a seizure, "-- wanted to review all our files." She showed him a wry smile and added, "He seemed particularly interested in you."
"Oh. Lucky me," John said.
Mrs. Ross bit her lip and put the file down. "You don't have to see him if you don't want to," she said. "He's just filling in, and while I appreciate his diligence--"
"I don't mind," John blurted. It was the wrong thing to say; Mrs. Ross knew him too well. He quickly thought through the various strategies, but he decided he'd be best off barefacing it out. "I mean," he said, shifting awkwardly, "I kind of wouldn't mind talking to somebody. And if he doesn't stick around..." John shrugged.
Mrs. Ross nodded sympathetically. "That's an advantage. I get it." She picked up the file and handed to him. "He's in Dr. Paterson's office, just down the hall."
Maybe it was because of this thing with Laurence, having just had Laurence's hands on his ass, Laurence's mouth on his dick, but for the first time, as he stood in the doorway of Paterson's oak-paneled office, he saw Rodney McKay as--well, a man. Rodney hunched over the desk, staring at a book and gnawing idly at his thumbnail. He was younger than John remembered. He was wearing a sportscoat. He had powerful shoulders--
Rodney glanced up, starting when he saw John. "John!" he said, awkwardly scrambling to his feet. "Come in! Shut the door." John dragged the heavy wood door over the thick pile carpet and pushed it until the lock's tongue snicked into place. There was a key in the lock and, ears flushing hot, he turned it.
"So," John said, turning. "What is it this time? Serial killer? Meteorite? Dog-mauling?"
Rodney slammed the heavy book shut, and John saw it was a medical encyclopedia. "That's just it: I don't know!" Rodney strode out from behind the desk and began pacing the office. "It's not clear, it never is, but this--" He fumbled in his jacket, pulled out Ziggy, and peered down at it. "Ha! Now it's pneumonia!"
"I feel fine," John said, frowning.
"Half an hour ago it was tuberculosis, which--what the hell is this, the 19th century? Before that, leukemia, which is pretty near impossible." Rodney threw Ziggy down onto the desk in apparent disgust. "It doesn't make any damn sense. Maybe it's broken. It's got you dying from a half a dozen opportunistic--" Rodney jerked to a stop in the middle of Paterson's office. He went very still. His eyes grew wide.
"What is it?" He could almost see Rodney's wheels turning. "Rod-ney--"
Rodney didn't answer. He was deep inside his own head, and then he chased his thought back to the medical encyclopedia, shoving away the desk chair and flipping through the pages. "Rodney," John said again, but Rodney was bent over and sliding a finger down a tiny column of the text, apparently searching for something. "Rodney, what?"
Rodney ignored him. He ran his finger down the column of text once, twice, then glanced back at the previous onion-thin page before trying again. John couldn't help himself; he came around the desk and stared down at the book. Agranulocytosis, Aicardi syndrome, Alanine transaminase, Albinism, Albright's hereditary osteodystrophy-- What the hell?
John looked up from the encyclopedia. Rodney was staring into space. "Rodney, what is it?"
"Nothing." Rodney closed the book. "It's nothing," he said, and then: "How--how are you, John? Do you want to get some food? Where do people eat around here?"
"Well, I mean, there's the dining hall," John said. "Or there's the Farmer's Diner in town, but you need a car to--"
"No, no, let's go to the dining hall. I love dining halls." Rodney stuffed Ziggy into his pocket, yanked his coat off the stand, and walked John down to the students' cloakroom, so John could get his bookbag and overcoat. John fumbled in his pockets for his gloves, and came up with a crumpled note: "I'm in the teachers' lounge." It was unsigned. He shoved it back into his pocket and muttered: "I have to make a quick stop on the way out."
"Wait here," John told Rodney. The door to the teachers' lounge was open, so John knocked on the door frame and stepped in. Mr. Laurence was sitting at a table marking papers, a cup of coffee at his elbow. He looked up and smiled as John approached.
"I'm sorry," John said, in a low voice. "I can't make it tonight. Something came up."
Disappointment flickered on Mr. Laurence's face. "Oh," he said. "That's all right. Some other--" and John started as a hand dropped heavily on his shoulder. He turned to glare at Rodney, who apparently didn't know what wait here meant.
"Um," John wasn't sure what to say. "This is--"
Mr. Laurence surprised him by saying, "Dr. McKay, yes; we met this morning. How was your first day?"
"Fine," Rodney said. "Interesting. I wouldn't do your job for all the tea in China."
"Teaching isn't for everybody," Mr. Laurence agreed warily. He sat back in his chair and tilted his head up at Rodney, and John became aware that Rodney still hadn't moved his hand. His arm was slung around John's shoulder. Heat pooled low in his belly. His dick twitched in his pants. "So," Mr. Laurence said, forcing a smile, "you're stealing our John?" and this should have been a joke, but somehow they all knew it wasn't.
Rodney said, "Yes. Yes, I am," and then: "John, wait outside." John couldn't conceal his outrage: this was his life, his school: Kellington, where he'd lived since he was eleven. Rodney couldn't just waltz in here and-- "This is the faculty lounge," Rodney snapped. "I'm faculty, you're not. Wait outside."
John forced his anger down and went to stand in the corridor, his toes lined up against the threshold: obeying the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. He watched Rodney pull out a chair and sit down, his back to John. Rodney began to talk to Mr. Laurence in a maddeningly low voice while gesticulating in short, sharp jerks, like he was trying, and failing, to control his hands. Mr. Laurence looked first confused and then enraged. He tried to rise from his chair, but Rodney dragged him back down and kept a tight grip on his forearm as they talked. Mr. Laurence went still, and then pale, and then white.
Finally Rodney awkwardly patted Mr. Laurence's arm and scraped back his chair. He looked grim as he crossed the lounge toward John, and then he took hold of John's arm without breaking stride and towed him down the hallway: "Come on. Let's go."
"Wait, what did you tell him?" John almost tripped over his own feet as Rodney hustled him toward the red exit sign. "Rodney. What the hell did you say to--"
"I'll tell you over dinner," Rodney said, pushing the door open.
John flinched from the bite of cold December air. "But Rodney, I--"
Rodney stopped to glare at him. "I will tell you over dinner," he said. "I need mashed potatoes and pudding! You need mashed potatoes and pudding: you look like a beanpole or a refugee or a--a supermodel or something." He clutched at John's arm and began to drag him down the cobblestone walkway. John dug his heels in and fought to extricate his arm. "I told you," Rodney said, "first we eat and then--"
John rolled his eyes. "Dining hall's over there," and then he turned Rodney by the shoulders and pointed him at Benford Dining Hall, brightly lit in the early evening light.
Kellington was all-boys, so there were few delicate eaters. John was used to loading up his tray and seeing boys with heaping plates, but he wasn't used to seeing such culinary gusto in an adult. Rodney had two overflowing dinner plates and a bread plate stacked high and had just discovered there was a pasta station. He looked at it longingly, then steeled himself and headed for a table by the window. John paused by the self-serve dairy case to help himself to two pint-sized cartons of chocolate milk. Todd Watford yelled, "Yo! Shep!" and jerked his thumb at an empty chair at the table: Drew Rather and Bobby Pierce were there too. John flashed a grin and waved him off, then flipped him the bird.
Rodney was staring out the window at the string of lampposts that ran down to the lake. His fork was paused halfway to his mouth. "So," John said, sitting down across from him. "What did you tell Mr. Laurence?"
Rodney avoided immediately answering the question by shoving food into his mouth and chewing it thoroughly. Then he swallowed and said, with surprising brusqueness, "I told him to go see a doctor. I told him that if he slept with any of the boys here and they got sick, he'd better hope to be dead, because not only will he be sued to holy heaven, but he also won't be able to live with himself."
John put his fork down, unable to meet Rodney's eyes. Rodney knew everything, Rodney knew all about him. "I don't understand," he said. Rodney lowered his voice and said, with clipped urgency, "He has a disease. A--venereal disease that's going to kill him. He needs to go away from here. More crucially for my purposes, he needs to stay away from you."
John had been planning, in the worst case, to deny everything, but now, angry and frightened, he found he didn't give a shit. "You--you just don't like him!"
"On the contrary, he seems like a perfectly nice kid, for a classicist."
John wasn't listening: couldn't listen. "You don't want me to sleep with anybody."
Rodney looked outraged. "I don't care who you sleep with!" he hissed. "Jesus! If I cared who you slept with, I'd've gone out of my mind years ago. Just not him; he's got a disease, and if you sleep with him, you'll get it too, and you'll die."
"I--" John's heart was hammering his chest. "I never heard of a disease like--"
"--and you won't," Rodney interrupted, "not for another couple of years, by which time--" Rodney reached across the table and grabbed his wrist so tight the bones ground together, and John flinched. "You've got to trust me on this," Rodney said flatly. "This disease killed my first T.A. and two of my favorite professors. It's transmitted sexually and through sharing needles and--you don't use drugs, do you?"
"No," John said through gritted teeth.
"Really? Not even cocaine? You're rich. It's 1983; this school's got to be awash in--"
John wrenched his arm out of Rodney's grip. "It is. But I don't. My mother died of an overdose," he snapped. "So I drink beer. Does beer kill you in the future, too?"
"No." Rodney sighed and sat back in his chair. "No, beer's fine. Look, I'm not trying to piss you off; I'm trying to keep you alive. Secondarily," he added, with a meaningful lift of his eyebrow, "I'm trying to make sure you get into the Air Force, so I'm glad you don't use drugs, and if you could maybe lay off the youthful sexual experimentation--"
"Sure it is. You're not--"
"Yes. I am," John gritted out.
"No, really, you're not. Believe me, I'd know if you--"
"Believe you?" John shouted. "Jesus! Believe me when I tell you--" He bit back the words and looked away. Bad place for an argument. Stupid argument to have anyway. He stared down at his dinner, concentrating: knife and fork, mashed potatoes. He tried not to be afraid that this, even this, would be taken from him: that he didn't know himself at all.
When it felt safe to look at Rodney again, he saw that Rodney looked uncertain. John tilted his head toward the door and stood, and watched as Rodney scrambled to his feet, grabbed for his coat, and snatched up his mug of coffee. John led him out of the dining hall and down the corridor to one of the little reception areas where people parked their parents when they came to visit. It was full of heavy, slightly dusty furniture: glass fronted bookshelves, a grand piano. John's father had never come to visit him here.
Rodney dropped his coat and made a beeline for the piano, still clutching his mug of coffee. He played a few one-handed chords, and winced. Still, the machine's off-key sounds didn't stop him from sliding onto the bench. The pedals creaked loudly as he tried them. He clunked his coffee mug down on the wood, indifferent to coffee rings, and played snatches of melodies in different octaves. John sat down beside him and watched his hands.
The bench felt smaller than the one at home.
"You said I had no next of kin," John said finally.
The music halted briefly, then continued. "Yes. That's right."
"So I guess I'm not married."
Rodney frowned. "I think you were once."
John shot him a sideways glance. "Is that what I told you?"
Rodney played for a little while before answering. "No," he admitted. "You never talk about it."
"So, do I have a girlfriend, then?" John pressed. "You and me, we double date...?"
The music stopped all at once. "Our lives aren't like that. We live in another galaxy. I'm the chief scientist, you're the military leader of our expedition. We live under siege, aliens attacking, weird things happening all the time--like this, hello! It's not a goddamned teen movie--"
"Exactly," John said. "So how can you possibly know--"
"Because I do, I just do. Because I know you. We've lived together for-- Inside each other's-- I know you better than I know myself! Jesus Christ, I would know."
"But I'm in the Air Force. Career military, stationed in another galaxy--"
Rodney looked away, mouth gone tight. "I would know."
"--and apparently the military leader of your expedition, which--" John was still reeling, "wow, you might have mentioned before now. Is there anything else I should know?"
"Everything! Your whole goddamned life!" There was a brief, cacophonous crash; Rodney banging the keys. "You're my team leader. You're brave and reckless and loyal and a moron, and you unwind by failing to beat me at chess or by indulging in one of your stupid rich boy hobbies, like driving golf balls into the ocean. You're a psychopathic loner with a savior complex. You have terrible taste in beer and you kill without blinking. You're the best friend I have, the best friend I've ever..."
Rodney twisted away, hands shaking. John immediately began to play the first thing that came into his head: Czerny exercises, the yellow book. He played them too fast, but that was the only way he could remember the notes: sense memory, one note spilling out over the other.
"You can..." Rodney was staring at him. "You can play now?"
John shrugged. "I kept up with it after you left. I didn't have much else to do that summer."
"You play guitar." Rodney frowned. "You have a guitar in your room, anyway."
"Maybe I play piano too." He hit a wrong note, corrected it. "Maybe you just didn't know."
"You're actually pretty terrible," Rodney told him.
"Yeah. I am. I stink," John said, and burst out laughing.
Later, Rodney walked him to his dorm. It had started to snow faintly. "So, seriously," Rodney said, jamming his hands in his overcoat pockets, "you can't--"
"I know," John said. "I get it."
"And if you do," Rodney said, shifting nervously, "for God's sake, use condoms."
Some of John's friends had had conversations like this with their fathers, or worse yet, their mothers. John had never talked to anyone about sex. "Yeah," he repeated. "I get it."
"But really, it's just better off all around if you don't," Rodney said.
"Uh-hm," John said.
They stopped in front of John's dorm, which was all lit up, warm and inviting. "And Mr. Laurence should be gone tomorrow," Rodney said in a low voice, "if he has an ounce of sense, but if he doesn't, if he isn't--" John turned and clutched Rodney by both biceps.
"Rodney, I get it. I hear you. Loud and clear. Je comprends, all right?" and he was already thinking vaguely, Laurence who?
January 5, 1967— December 24, 1984
His Memory Will Never Grow Old
January 5, 1967— December 24, 1984
His Memory Will Never Grow Old
He dropped his keys in the snow trying to get the driver's side door open. The floodlights outside the pub didn't reach this side of the car. He squatted down and fumbled around for them; the snow stung his fingers. Where the hell were his gloves? Had he left them inside? He tried to picture his abandoned seat at the bar, whether he'd left his gloves beside the remains of his chicken pot pie and his empty beer glass. God, he didn't want to go back inside: McAllister's had gotten crowded with Christmas Eve revelers. Fuck Christmas; if he wanted to feel alone at a Christmas party, he could have stayed home.
Feeling inspired, he put his hands in the pockets of his parka and found his gloves, then felt around in the snow. Triumphant, he stood up, clutching his keys, and--
"Are you out of your mind?" Rodney yelled and John laughed aloud in the cold air, breath puffing white in front of his face, because Rodney was wearing a huge Russian fur hat with the flaps tied around his chin. He looked like a giant squirrel.
"Hey!" John said, delighted. "Rodney!" He hugged him hard, then grabbed his giant, furry head and gave him a noogie. Finally, someone he could stand to have Christmas with.
Rodney broke free and nearly slipped in the snow, gasping and panting with outrage. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Skiing," John said, waggling his eyebrows. "I'm going skiing. Want to go skiing?"
"Are you kidding? You've got a .06 blood alcohol level, and it's snowing, not to mention that visibility is--"
"Aw, come on. That's all part of the fun. Where's your sense of--"
"Winding mountain roads!" Rodney shot out a hand. "Give me the keys."
John immediately held them up over his head. "Nah."
"Oh, fine," Rodney huffed. "Fine, fi--" and he forgot Rodney could move so fast, but Rodney was on him in a flash, seizing his arm and dragging it down, prying his hand open. John burst out into a fit of giggles and tried to pull his arm away. They struggled together in the snow, slipping and sliding, and then went down in a heap, Rodney crushing all the air out of his lungs and oh my God, best Christmas ever. It was only because he was laughing so hard that Rodney was able to get the keys away from him. His ass was cold. He was wheezing.
"This isn't funny!" Rodney shouted, and threw snow in his face. As John sputtered, Rodney hauled himself to his feet. "You stupid, selfish bastard! This death is totally unnecessary," and John sat up, head swimming: he couldn't explain that it had been necessary; it had felt necessary, anyway. Rodney glared down at him. "Where's your house?"
John stared back, inarticulate. "Virginia," he said.
Rodney yanked Ziggy out of his pocket and frowned down at it. "This is Colorado."
John got to his knees, then his feet. "Yeah."
"Fine," Rodney snapped. "Let me reframe the question," and great, now Rodney was mad at him too. John crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the neon sign over McAllister's. He didn't need anyone, not anyone. Not even Rodney McKay. "Where are you supposed to be?" John shrugged uncooperatively. Rodney tried again: "Where's your father?"
His father. John pictured the house, huge and firelit and full of people: his father's many business associates and golf partners, Linda's friends from the club, the museum board, her whole arts crowd. Dave had brought six of his friends home for the holidays, so any space not dominated by horrible socialites was full of screaming eleven-year-olds. Awesome.
John turned, pointed north up the road. "Aspen."
Rodney turned, too, and peered up the road, like if he looked hard enough he could see the chalet, Patrick Sheppard soaking in scotch and eating endless canapés. "You wanted to go skiing so you left Aspen? Where the hell are you going?"
John pivoted, pointed a finger south. "Telluride."
Rodney looked hard at him, and then nodded. "Okay," he said. "Right. Get in the car."
John was almost pathetically grateful. "You'll drive me to Telluride?"
"Well, I can't exactly leave you in the parking lot," Rodney snapped.
Rodney took pity on him in the car, though, turning the heat way up high. John opened his jacket and slouched deep in the passenger seat, staring out at the blowing snow. Rodney drove better on these icy roads than he would have expected. Je suis canadien, he remembered.
"I'm going to the Air Force Academy," John said. "I told my father to go fuck himself."
Rodney shot a quick glance his way, but didn't say anything.
"He's cutting me off, but who cares? I'm in, they'll pay for everything," and then he was feeling the same surge of good spirits that led him to have four beers with dinner. "I'm in," he said again, laughing up at the car's tufted leather ceiling. "I can't believe it."
He'd done the application in secret, and sweated bullets over his nomination letter, trying to choose the member of congress least likely to run into Patrick Sheppard at a cocktail party or to use John's letter as leverage in a deal. In the end, he had gone to the one with the most military service, Representative Thomas P. Allen, and laid it out for him. Allen, white-haired and leather-tough, looked him up and down a couple of times and then asked what his father thought of the idea. "I wouldn't know, sir," John replied. "I don't really know him all that well." The corner of Allen's mouth had curved up. He had sent the letter.
Rodney's eyes were fixed on the snowy road ahead. The windshield wipers shushed rhythmically back and forth. "I keep wondering how everything happened the first time," he said. "Did you drink however much you drank and actually drive in this? Did you wake up the next morning, all hung over and headachy, and think, God, I could have been killed!'" His mouth tightened. "Did you think, 'Boy, was I lucky! I could have drowned, I could have crashed, I could have--'"
John rolled his head so he could see Rodney better. "Did I go to the Air Force Academy?"
Rodney hesitated. "Yes."
John wasn't sure how he felt about that. "Do you think my life is predetermined?"
Rodney's hands tightened on the wheel. "No," he said. "I don't."
"But that's what the math says, right?" John pressed.
"No," Rodney repeated, pointedly. "Or rather, that's a incredibly facile understanding of the math. The overall system is stable, but the equations are crap at predicting any halfway complex series of events. I can't predict the weather, let alone whether you to go to MIT or--"
"Were we lovers?" John asked.
"What?!" Rodney gaped at him for long enough that John had to say, "Uh, the road?" Rodney quickly looked back and eased them into the correct lane.
"It's a reasonable question," John said.
"It is a batshit insane crazy question!" Rodney shot back. "Are you trying to get us both killed?"
"Why is it always you?" John sprawled even deeper into the bucket seat, letting his long legs splay open so his knees didn't hit the dashboard. "Don't I have any other friends?"
"None as smart as me. Besides, we have this thing where we take turns saving each other's lives," Rodney said, and then he added, eyes narrowing, "You're going to owe me big time."
"You know what I think?" John idly rubbed his belly, then slid his thumb under the waistband of his jeans and undid the snap. Rodney's eyes flicked toward him, then moved rapidly between his lap and the road, his lap and the road. "I think I'm gay and never told you. I think you're in love with me and never said."
"You're wrong," Rodney said, but he was still stealing glances across the car.
"Will you sleep with me?" John asked.
Rodney's breath seemed to catch. "No. No! Absolutely not!"
"You wouldn't be my first," John told him. "Or even my second." Rodney let out a soft, low sound, like a moan. "So, you don't have to feel like you're, I don't know, cradle-robbing or--"
"Driving! Jesus Christ! Shut up!" and John turned to hide his smile. He felt warm and woozy and fine. His dick was hard and thrumming in his jeans, and he ran a hand over it to feel the crackle of electricity. He closed his eyes and even the rhythmic bump-bump of their tires on the road was pleasant, jolting pleasure up his spine. He drowsed a little, smiling.
He opened his eyes when Rodney turned off the road, and twisted his neck to see the sign for the Telluride Inn; probably the first reasonable accommodation they had come to. Rodney drove John's car half into a snowbank, then yanked on the emergency brake. "Do you have any money? I don't have any money."
John stretched, smiled, nodded. "Not a problem," he said, then tilted his hips up to fish in his back jeans pocket for his wallet. Rodney flushed beet red and looked away. "I don't turn 18 for two weeks, so this is still on my dad's tab. I think he owes me a vacation, don't you?"
"Zip up," Rodney said, and escaped into the cold night air. John fumbled with the button on his pants, then zipped up his parka before following Rodney into the lobby, which was done in a clichéd, "ski lodge" style: fireplace, plaid sofas, exposed wood beams. Rodney negotiated a room, then snapped his fingers to call John over to pay for it. John gave his Amex to the concierge and slid his arm around Rodney's waist. Rodney went very, very still.
"I'm not staying," Rodney said, the moment the door to Room 301 hushed closed. "I just need to make sure you're--" but John was already unbuttoning Rodney's overcoat and tucking his fingers into the soft corduroy waistband of his pants. Rodney's belly was warm against his knuckles, and John leaned in to touch their mouths together. For a moment, it was just as he'd dreaded, Rodney's mouth cold against his, but then there was a warm hand on the back of his neck, and Rodney was kissing him, pulling him in deep and kissing him.
John had been kissed before--Mr. Laurence was a good kisser, Kevin was, Jamie was; hell, he used to think he was a good kisser--but he'd never been kissed like this. Rodney pulled him back against the wood-panelled wall and kissed him with such passion and intensity that John hardly understood it; it made him feel young and stupid and alone and...and Rodney wasn't kissing him, Rodney was kissing through him. Rodney was kissing the other him, the him in the box. Rodney's lips gentled and slid away from his mouth, and for the first time, John really wanted to be the man who deserved this, who'd earned it.
John wanted to say, Rodney, I love you, except that was wrong; it was true, but Rodney didn't need to hear it. John wanted to say, "He loves you, too," but that was also wrong; he couldn't speak for the man in the box; he wasn't him yet. But he wanted to say something, anything, his heart was bursting with it, and so finally he whispered, "I'm going to make it, Rodney. I'm going to work really hard and get there."
Rodney gripped him by the shoulders and said, "I know. I know you will," and then he seemed to come back to himself. His face went red. "You--" Rodney faltered, jerking back awkwardly and banging painfully into the wall, "Me. This. This can't happen."
"I know," John said quickly.
Rodney's hands went to his head, fingers flexing like they wanted to rip out what was left of his hair. "I mean, this really can't happen," Rodney moaned. "You're not even legal."
"I know." John backed away to give Rodney some space: God, he'd fucked this up so badly. "Just, please don't go yet. I won't--I'll leave you alone, just-- I mean...it's Christmas."
Rodney paced the room, eyeing him nervously. "Okay. Okay. Just--maybe--" He flung a hand at the television. "Maybe there's something...."
John immediately went to the television cabinet. The late late movie was on: It's A Wonderful Life, hardly his favorite, but he shut up about that. Rodney tucked a pillow behind his head and sat stiffly against the headboard. John kept his distance and sprawled across the foot of the bed. As he hoped, Rodney fell asleep by the first commercial, exhausted by driving, mouth open and snoring softly. John crawled up, tucked himself against Rodney's leg and closed his eyes.
Attitude. Attitude. Attitude. John crumpled his third year review; it was boring already. No one could say anything about his GPA, but his overall average was always pulled down by his military grade. Which was unfair, because he was a good soldier, he was: he loved military life much more than he'd ever expected. He loved the way you could disappear in it, like boarding school but better. He loved the physicality of it, and the silent camaraderie of living in a barracks among others but deep in your own head. He ran and swam and did Rifle Team and Flight Team and joined the Emergency MedTechs, figuring he ought to know as much field medicine as possible. He was pretty sure he was going to need it.
What he didn't love was the talking, and for Christ's sake, he was happy to shut up and do what was required, but they'd sensed something in him, some weakness, and they went after him, goading him to talk. John kept his eyes fixed forward and said, "Yes, sir," and "Yes, sir," but occasionally he broke and said, "Yes, sir. Absolutely!" and they weren't fools; they could smell it on him: his essential, fundamental difference. "You think you're special, Sheppard?" and John said, "No, sir. Not at all, sir." There were rumors about his background, his father, the money, but he ate what the other guys ate and shopped where they shopped. Occasionally, someone looked hard at him, and he could see the wheels turning: Is he? Does he? but John would just smile, secure in the knowledge that he wasn't fucking anybody, and besides, he was going to head an expedition to another galaxy someday, so fuck you.
So they gave him high numbers and fucked him over in comments. "Intelligent, but--" "Great physical endurance, but--" "Disciplined, but--" But, but: there was something not quite right about him: he was unreliable, possibly unstable; he didn't quite fit. Of course, someone of his background couldn't possibly have the requisite grit; sooner or later, he'd get sick of being a zoomie and would go back to his father's mansion, and besides, there was something distinctly unmanly in his posture: the curve of his spine, the tilt of his--
He shoved the crumpled review into the pocket of his flight suit. He'd been picked to do Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape this summer with the 336th Training Group in Washington, and now his SERE instructors were going to see this crap. They'd feel obliged to be hard on him. He'd be lucky to get out of Kaniksu National Forest alive.
"Cadet." Sgt. MacKinney was at his desk just inside the hangar, same as he'd been for the last forty years. "You taking a TG-9?"
"Yes, sir," John said. "I want to take her through my program." He was competing in IAC at the end of the month before heading off to Washington state. "Lucky number six, okay?"
MacKinney handed him the clipboard; John signed. "She's already out on the airfield."
Four minutes later he had lift-off, but there was an odd vibration in the left wing, and no sooner had he achieved altitude than there was a wing-drop, and he was spinning, hurtling nose-down toward the ground. John kept his head and fought with the controls, because this was not his day to die; it wasn't; couldn't be. He got the right-rotor to respond. He managed to get his nose up and then--nothing. That was all he remembered.
"Holy shit!" MacKinney was shouting, and there were gray-jumpsuited techs pulling him from the wreckage. "Holy shit!" Somewhere far away, there were sirens.
"S'okay," John's voice sounded slurred to his own ears. "M'okay--" He struggled upward, determined to walk away from the crash, but there were hands on him, voices, a cacophony: "It's okay; you're all right; you're all--" "Keep him talking, keep him talking!" "Did you see what--?" "It's those goddamn TGs! 2-32 fuselage attached to 1-34 wings--" "Don't try to move, Cadet. Don't--" and then he heard MacKinney's voice, cutting through everything: "You are one lucky sonofabitch, John Sheppard. The way that glider came down, you should be dead."
"I...no, I--" John managed; his head was clearing. "I was never in any real danger, Mac."
"He's delirious," someone said.
MacKinney was looking hard at him. "No," he said. "I don't think he is."
"Well, well. Your reputation precedes you, Lieutenant," Major Brady said.
John stood at attention in front of Brady's desk and tried not to let his disappointment show; he'd really wanted this posting. Brady walked around him, sliding in and out of John's peripheral vision. John kept his eyes forward; there were photographs on the far wall. Brady and the President of the United States. Brady and the Air Force Chief of Staff.
"It's quite a reputation, actually. Unique in my experience. You graduated third, which means the USAFA faculty ought to be creaming themselves over you, yet there isn't a single officer willing to give you an unqualified recommendation." Brady stopped somewhere behind his left ear. "I hear there's some debate about whether you ought to be Air Force at all."
John stared ahead and said nothing. Brady circled him, then leaned back against the desk and eyed him speculatively. "On the other hand," he said, "Sergeant MacKinney says you're the most talented airman he's ever loaned a plane to, and luckier than the devil himself." He sighed and said, "Mac tells me I'd be an idiot not to take you, and I respect MacKinney more than any of those gutless wonders on the faculty. You know why they won't write you a decent letter?"
"No, sir," John said; he didn't.
"They're hedging their bets." Brady rubbed at his eyes. "You're a wildcard, Sheppard, and whichever way you go, they don't want to be on record as having been wrong about you. Hence: lukewarm letters. Me, I'm willing to be wrong, so tell me, Lieutenant: am I wrong about you?"
"You know what we do here?"
John tried to keep his excitement in check. "Yes, sir." Brady's division tested experimental aircraft; stealth fighters, bombers, cutting edge helicopters; planes that did Mach 15 or 20.
Brady squinted at him. "You know our mortality rate?"
"Yes, sir," John said, and then, unable to stop himself, he said: "I can beat it, sir. It won't be me, sir," and then Brady nodded slowly and said, "You know what? I believe you."
January 5, 1967— October 3, 1989
Till Angels Wake Thee
January 5, 1967— October 3, 1989
Till Angels Wake Thee
John buckled himself into his harness while the X-30's test engineers broadcast their final reports into his headset. "Fuel gauges and fans--check," "Throttles set, Shep: you're good to go," "Vacuum pressure, hydraulic system pressure: A-OK," and John was just about to radio back, "Thanks, guys; I think I'm good to--" when another voice said, "This thing is a total piece of crap," and John's heart stopped. He flailed for his radio. "McKay?" "Yeah, yeah," the voice said, and it was strangely intimate, having McKay in his ear, like no one else was there. "You know, this plane was always a terrible idea; I didn't think they even got around to making a prototype. I mean, don't get me wrong: single stage to orbit's a good idea, but this thing is some mutant DARPA project that never had a chance. Too heavy, not to mention that the whole thing depends on a fuselage made of highly combustible--"
"Can you fix it?" The tower was giving him a green light. John's fingers flexed nervously on the controls. He could hear faint clanking and banging in his headphones. "Rodney! Can you--"
"Fix it? I'm not going to fix it!" and then the instrument panel sparked and began to emit smoke.
January 5, 1967— January 17, 1991
He Loved His Fellow Man
January 5, 1967— January 17, 1991
He Loved His Fellow Man
They were almost at the overturned Humvee. "Hang on!" John called over his shoulder. "It's gonna get a little bumpy back--" and when he saw the white-hot trail of the first Iraqi missile, he veered sharply, nearly tilting the helicopter sideways. He continued evasive maneuvers, scouting for a safe place to board the wounded. Then he saw a flash of light on the horizon: a full two seconds before he heard the explosion.
He made a split-second decision, then yelled: "Bell! Holden! I'm dropping you here and going over that hill to see what--" and then the radio crackled and a voice broke through, screaming for Medevac. John landed the Blackhawk, kicking up clouds of brown dust and gravel. "Get everybody together!" he shouted over the whup-whup of chopper blades. "We'll swing back for you!" They gave him the high-sign and scrambled out, medikits strapped to their backs. John took off again, flying hellbent toward the black smoke on the horizon.
He knew he could do it; he'd seen the signature on the engineer's report.
Forty minutes later, John half-landed, half-crashed the Blackhawk on the helipad: two tons over her flying weight and crammed with injured soldiers. Both members of his flight crew were already helping the medics, and John threw down his headset and went to lend a hand. He was rubber-limbed with exhaustion by the time the ambulances finally pulled away. He lay back on the muddy ramp that led into the chopper's belly and closed his eyes.
He woke up with a start when Holden kicked him. "Hey!" John protested. "What the--?"
"You're not invincible, you know." Holden braced her helmet on one cocked hip. "I mean, I hate to break it to you, but you're just a lowly human being like the rest of us," and Christ on a crutch, it was the conversation, the one that went, "You think you're special, Sheppard?" He knew what was coming, and Holden didn't disappoint: "You think you're special, but--"
"You know, I am special," John said, propping himself up on his elbows and crossing his boots at the ankles. "Special and invincible. Also I shit ice cream. It says so in my file."
She rolled her eyes at him. "You're actually just pathetic, you know that? You think you're such a rebel, Sheppard, but the crazier you are, the more you risk, the more the brass loves you. In your own fucked-up way," she added, with a tilt to her head, "you're kind of a kiss-ass."
John groaned and let himself fall back on the ramp. "That's not--Jesus Christ, Nancy, you've got me all wrong. I know what I can do, so I have to do it: don't you get that?"
"Oh my God, the ego! Like it all depends on you. You really do think you're special--" and fuck, was he doomed to have this conversation for the rest of his life? "--and I guess maybe you really are," Nancy said finally, throwing a curveball, because the conversation had never gone like this before. Nancy looked down at him and said, softly, "You are to me."
"Nancy," John said, and swallowed; she was leaning close enough that he could smell her hair. "I--I'm not--" It wasn't strictly true. There had been a bridesmaid at a wedding, two years ago; she'd asked him to escort her to her hotel room and, once they were there, she'd unhooked the front of her dress. Her breasts had spilled into his hands. He'd been a little scandalized and a lot turned on, and had pushed through the layers of scratchy petticoats so he could stroke his palms up her thighs, touch her white silk panties. She was experienced enough for both of them, and she'd pushed him onto his back and ridden him, dress hitched around her waist and blue satin pooling everywhere. Nancy had something of the same hunger in her eyes, and he was getting hard, just looking at her. Strange. "I'm--not in any position to--to--" he finally stammered.
Nancy's lips curved into a smile, and then she straightened, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. "Yeah," she said. "I hear there's a war on," and then she walked away, hips swinging.
January 5, 1967— June 15, 1994
Remembrance Keeps Him Near
January 5, 1967— June 15, 1994
Remembrance Keeps Him Near
John kept a smile on his face and one hand on the butt of his gun; the guy sitting across from him was said to be the most ruthless warlord in Afghanistan, and here he was, smiling through his mouthful of rotten teeth. The bastard seemed to want to test his English, so John fixed on his smile and chatted with him about sports, music ("I love American rock and roll," the warlord explained earnestly. "Bonnie Tyler: Total Eclipse of the Heart."), and cars. Every time John made a move to leave, the warlord frowned and ordered another round of drinks. John weighed his chances and relaxed back into his chair.
A series of turban-clad waiters hurried out with clay pitchers of wine and tiny blue pottery bowls full of olives in oil, salted nuts, swirls of thick white yogurt. John reached for his cup, but his hand was knocked away, and another goblet pressed into it. John looked up and saw the same waiter switching Faryadi Zadran's goblet as well. He stared hard, hoping for a glimpse of freckled skin or the slope of familiar shoulders. But the man was swathed in shapeless fabric.
Still, John felt a surge of hope as he drank; his eyes were fixed on Faryadi Zadran. Sure enough, Zadran's smile grew wider, and his eyes started to glaze over, and when he next reached out for an olive, his arm wavered. He knocked over a goblet, listed to one side, righted himself. He muttered something in Arabic, then waved his arms, and his guards came to help him to his feet. John touched his fingertips to his forehead as Zadran stumbled drunkenly toward the door.
Mitch collapsed theatrically on the table once the door closed, but John was up and pushing through the door into the kitchen, looking for McKay. He scrutinized the faces of the various waiters, but they just looked back, puzzled. John explained in his awkward Arabic that he was looking for a man--a white man--a Canadian. They exchanged nervous glances and pointed to a heap of discarded robes by the door.
January 5, 1967— June 18, 1994
He Is Not Dead But Sleepeth
January 5, 1967— June 18, 1994
He Is Not Dead But Sleepeth
John was running through his pre-flight checklist when his headphones clicked. "Captain Sheppard," the ground tech said, "please report to the Op Coordinator's office, ASAP."
John tapped his mike on. "Uh, guys, if you haven't noticed, I'm about to fly a mission, here--"
"Not anymore you're not." The tech's voice was tinny and far away. "The order just came through: they're putting Dexter in the pilot's chair and sending Harmon over to be crew chief."
"Roger that." John sighed, and then he yanked off his headset and looked over at Dex. "Well, there you go. I guess they finally discovered my horrible secret."
"What, that you don't have a pilot's license, you tragic faker?" Dex grinned.
"Hey, I logged at least five hundred hours of FS2 on my Commodore 64," John said. Mitch came in to take Dex's place as co-pilot, and John high-fived him on the way out. "Do me a favor: pay the extra ten bucks and valet park her, ok?"
"Will do," Mitch said. "Save a seat at the bar for me, asshole."
"And don't drink all the goddamned beer!" Dex called after him.
The Op Coordinator told him to report to the infirmary. "What?" John said; he'd assumed it was a paperwork problem, or that they needed him elsewhere.
The infirmary's intake officer, a burly Lieutenant, took one glance at his nametag and said, "Sheppard. Right." John was pushed into a curtained-off area. A nurse came by and took four vials of blood. Then they made him wait. Another nurse checked his vitals. Finally, finally, the doctor on duty came by and asked him a set of truly terrifying questions. Did he have migraines? Muscle spasms? Blood in his urine or stool? Kidney pain? Unusual hair loss? Sexual dysfunction? They were going to have to test--and that's when John demanded to know what the royal hell was going on, because he felt fine. He was fine.
The doctor frowned and flipped through John's file, pulled out a piece of paper. "We received a fax from the hospital at Al Udeid--" John snatched the paper out of his hand and tried to make sense of it. Tests showed exposure to organophosphate pesticides, depleted uranium dust, nerve gas--hell, he wouldn't want to be this poor bastard, but apparently he was. Patient Name: SHEPPARD, JOHN. He glanced down at the attending physician's signature. "R. McKay."
John stared down at it. Then the implication sank in, and he was up and out of the chair and running across their wide corrugated shack of an infirmary. The burly Lieutenant stopped him at the door, and John said, "No! No, no, no--" and punched him hard in the face. There were hands on him, holding him. People said stupid, meaningless things. Then the needles came out. He felt like fighting so he fought, blindly, until his limbs went rubbery and everything began to slow down. Things got blurry around the edges, and they wrestled him onto a bed. Every time he blinked, the world changed in unexpected ways. He let his head roll back and heard them making excuses. He wasn't well. He stared at the exposed ventilation system; it was square: stainless steel. Aggression could have been predicted from the toxicology report--oh, McKay, you bastard. You fucking bastard. John closed his eyes against tears.
It was 17 hours before they told him, and then they made sure that he was doped up on enough diazepam that he would take the news calmly. He would have taken it calmly anyway; he'd had 17 hours to think it through, to picture Jayhawk Three going down outside Khabour. KIA.
Still, they nodded approvingly at him when he didn't try to stab them in the throat, and between that and his test results (the toxins were present in much smaller quantities than first indicated) they let him go to the mortuary. It was just Chaplain Leland and the five guys from Jayhawk Seven, who'd flown beside them and who'd landed to load the bodies--or what was left of them--onto stretchers. Now his team were in bodybags, zipped up and spread across five metal tables: the flight crew and two medics. Dexter. Mitchell. Harmon. Lallybrand. White.
His C.O. didn't put John at ease, or offer any condolences, or congratulate him on his luck: lucky, lucky John Sheppard, the only surviving member of Jayhawk Three. "You're talented, Sheppard," his C.O. said, casually flipping through papers on his desk, "but you'd better get your act together if you want a real career. This is your wake-up call: get stable, start thinking long-term. You're not going to be--" He squinted down at a paper, then tossed it aside, "--twenty-seven forever. Take a few weeks," he added brusquely, "then report to Indian Springs. You can fly back with your team," and John jerked a nod and blinked back tears. That was a gift.
They took a chopper to Kuwait, and then flew in a larger cargo plane back to Dover AFB. John sat as a passenger, strapped in and thinking about commendations he'd won flying with Mitch and Dex. They'd gone in formation over a bridge loaded with enemy tanks; they'd braved enemy fire to deliver water, ammunition and supplies to rebels holed up in the mountains of Pakistan. There were things you could do with a team that you couldn't do alone.
John stared at the bare vibrating metal walls. He had no team now; he had nothing; nobody.
January 5, 1967— June 20, 1994
Rest In Hope, Rise In Glory.
January 5, 1967— June 20, 1994
Rest In Hope, Rise In Glory.
He watched them unload the flag-draped aluminum transfer cases. Mitch was going to be shipped to Oklahoma; Dexter to New Jersey, the rest to their own families and home states. John had no family, no home state: he had a brief, too-vivid image of knocking on his father's door in Virginia, or calling Dave's dorm room at Harvard. Instead he signed out a car and drove to Baltimore, where he checked into a cheap hotel and proceeded to get blind drunk at a bar two blocks down. He stayed there, slumped over the sticky, foul-smelling bar, until they closed, and then he gave all of his cash to the bartender and stumbled back through the empty streets.
He didn't realize what was happening until it was happening, until the man dragged him out of the hotel elevator and put a knife to his throat. John broke up laughing: he'd hadn't survived fucking Afghanistan to die in Baltimore, and besides, he didn't have any goddamned cash. "You," John said and waggled his eyebrows, "have got the wrong guy, buddy."
The mugger dug the point of the knife hard into John's throat. He was wearing a black ski cap. His eyes were wild. "Reach into your pocket," he said in a harsh whisper, "and give me your--"
"Nah." John slouched back against the wall and grinned. "Seriously. There's no point. I--" The man was flung sideways, the mop handle connecting with his skull with a satisfying crack. Rodney hit him again as he went down, then took a few more frantic swings before darting in to grab the knife, though the guy was clearly unconscious.
"What are you, an idiot?" Rodney was sweating and irritated as he wheeled on John. "Where's your key? Get the door--" and he totally didn't see it coming as John launched himself at him and slugged him. Rodney crashed into the wall on the other side of the corridor, arms flying up to protect his face. "You bastard," John gritted out, grabbing him, "you killed my--" Rodney tried to fend him off, flailing his hands wildly and hitting John's shoulders, but John seized him by his shirt-front and punched him twice, hard, in the face. Rodney's knees buckled, and he crashed down on his ass on the worn carpet, his lip split and his eye blackening rapidly.
There was a groan: the asshole mugger, regaining consciousness. John found his key and unlocked his hotel room, then hauled Rodney to his feet and shoved him in. Rodney turned and kicked him in the shins. "Ow!" John yelled, bent double and hopping. "Ow, you bastard!" and then his stomach lurched and he ran past Rodney to throw up his guts in the toilet.
John heard Rodney come in and turn the water on. John clutched the toilet seat and threw up again and again. Finally, sick with the smell, he lay down on the cold tile floor. The dizziness passed after a while. When he opened his eyes, Rodney was sitting against the closed bathroom door, daubing at his split lip with a washcloth and watching him balefully.
"For what it's worth, I didn't kill them. I just saved you." Rodney wiped his mouth, glanced at the bloodstained washcloth, winced. His eye was swelling fast. "Those guys, Mitch and Dex," and it was shocking to hear their names on Rodney's lips, so easy and familiar like that, "They were shot down outside Khabour, and they died, John. They died and you survived. I know that because you told me. I know that because you were fucked up about it."
"I was, yeah." John's voice scraped out of his throat. "I am."
"You go with them, you die. They die anyway, do you understand?"
Rodney was glaring at him with his one good eye. John closed his own eyes and fought down nausea. "Yeah," he said, and then: "I'm really sorry I hit you." Rodney let out a gratified snort. "But I can't do this anymore. I can't. Not if it means-- I'm serious. That's it. I'm out."
"Out? You're not out, you can't just--"
"Yeah, I can. I am." The world was spinning. He tried to hold on to the floor. "Do it to Julia."
"This isn't just about you!" Something disgusting hit John in the face; Rodney's wet washcloth. "This is about a whole galaxy of people who-- Fuck you, this is about me!"
John didn't open his eyes; he couldn't look at Rodney. "It's about me. My life," he said, and then: "I don't want to see you anymore." Rodney was breathing raggedly. "Not ever," he said, rushing on. "And if I find out you're messing with my life, I'll-- I will--" He actually didn't know what he would do. Rodney's silence was deafening, his panic somehow palpable. Too bad: John could feel relief settling over him. The nightmare was over. It would be over.
He woke up on the floor with a killer headache, got up, showered. When he was sure he looked presentable, he got in his car and drove to Langley; he was pretty sure she was still stationed at Langley, in the bedroom of the intelligence community. He stopped at a payphone and called her, so there was a visitor's pass waiting for him at the gate. Nancy was standing at the door to her garden apartment on base when he pulled up, looking surprised and pleased.
"Hey, Shep," she said, as he strode up the walk toward her. "What brings you to..." and then she got a good look at him, and her face changed. "Oh, John," she said softly, and let him in.
The sheath slid away, but Rodney just lay there, staring up at the ornate vaulted ceiling. "Rodney," and that was Teyla's voice; it must be her shift. "Your face: are you all right?"
"No," Rodney told the ceiling. "I'm not. You're not. In fact, we're all totally screwed--"
"I will call Doctor Beckett," Teyla said softly, and Rodney reached out to stop her.
"No," he said. "No, please don't," and then she was bending down and pressing her smooth, warm forehead to his. His swollen eye throbbed; his lip stung. "I've messed it up," he said. "I've messed everything up. He's not John. He isn't coming. He doesn't want any part of us--"
"Rodney." Teyla lifted her head and touched his cheek. "I do not think that can be true."
"It is, it is true," he said, panic spilling out of him. "He isn't our John anymore, he's--"
"If he were not still our John," Teyla said sharply, "we would not be here. He would not be here. But he is," and she looked at the box, which was still glowing softly in the dim light. "As are we. So we must not lose hope, Rodney," and then she shocked him by touching her mouth to his, gently kissing his split lip. Heat flared in his face, then pooled lower, making him unexpectedly hard, but he kissed her back, sweet and soft. She was smiling a little when she pulled away. "He will come back to us, and when he does, he will be very angry to think that we doubted him. So I will not tell him of your little crisis of confidence. It will be our secret."
"Oh, you go ahead and tell him," Rodney said fervently. "Let him get angry, I can't wait for him to be angry. I owe him a black eye and a punch in the mouth," and they were both falling about laughing when Ronon wandered in and said, "Hi, guys, what's funny?"
Nancy dated the end of their marriage from his first black ops mission out of Langley, because it was understood that you didn't pick married guys for those missions; she said the Air Force knew it was over before she did. His brother later told him that it was over the moment their father smiled at her, and there was maybe some truth to that. Nancy had wanted to meet his family, and so he'd sucked it up and brought her to the house on Eastern Shore. John couldn't help feeling that the party would have been about as good with him dead, if he'd gone down with Mitch and Dex and Nancy had come to Eastern Shore a widow, wearing the fattest diamond that years of hazard pay could buy. John had stayed quietly drunk for most of the weekend, drinking beer after beer while staring out at the ocean or pootling hopelessly at the piano. "I didn't know you played the piano," Nancy said, finding him.
"I don't." John shrugged. "I suck," he slurred, and laughed.
Thing was, it was much, much better than he'd ever expected. Nancy was smart and fun to be with, and even their sex life was good. He liked having her on top, or taking her from behind: loved spanning his hands around her waist and holding her as he fucked her. She also gave great blowjobs, and John loved to sprawl on the sofa and stroke her hair while she sucked him, the television flickering in the dark. He also had no problem going down on her when he couldn't get it up for her, and he learned to love the intimacy of kissing the insides her thighs, of tonguing her folds and sucking hard and fast on her clit the way she liked it. He loved how she pulled his hair when she was coming, mashing his face against her so that he could feel her wet against his skin, chin dripping with her juices and his saliva. He was strong enough to hold her down till he was through with her, and he could usually make her come two or three times. Fuck, he loved that, and so did she, by the sound of it: so much so that John sometimes wondered if she were a lesbian. Most of her friends were. Most Air Force women were. He didn't ask. She didn't tell.
His marriage ended one night while he was brushing his teeth. Nancy was in bed already, flipping through channels. John had the bathroom door open; he wandered around sometimes while he was brushing. And then a voice said: "Ziggy says this is still going to be a disaster," and it was like a hand clutched his heart. He spat and rushed into the bedroom, where he was just in time to see a strangely-dressed man bending over a glowing alien electronic device.
"Who...?" He had a lump in his throat. "What the hell is...?"
Nancy gestured vaguely at the screen with the remote control. "Oh, you know. It's that show with what's his name and the other guy: Dean Stockwell."
"No, I don't know," John said, fighting for control of himself. "I was in Afghanistan!"
"It's just a repeat." Nancy yawned and snuggled into her pillow. The remote control fell onto the comforter. "It's about this guy who travels through time. I forget what it's called," and John stood there, aching, and watched until it ended, and then every night after that: they ran reruns on the local affiliate from eleven to midnight. Quantum Leap, it was called.
Three weeks after seeing his first episode, he accepted a black-ops mission to North Korea. A year later, they were in counseling, with Nancy shouting, "I can't take your stupid heroics! You're a mortal man!" It didn't stop him, though; the drug was back in his system, and it was as addictive as it ever was: maybe even more so, now that he wasn't sure whether Rodney was loading the dice. Nancy cried, and he apologized, and they had make-up sex. Then Nancy stopped crying and they stopped having sex entirely. "I love you," she told him, "I do. I probably always will," and John swallowed hard and waited for it. "Just, it turns out there's a limit as to how much I can worry about you," she said. "And I think I passed it." And then Nancy did cry, and John held her, and buried his face in her hair, and cried a little himself. "Some part of me's convinced that you're dead already," she whispered against his neck. "I want to move on, John," and John said yes, okay, all right, and transferred out to Indian Springs two days later.
January 5, 1967— April 4, 2002
Prepare Thyself To Follow Me.
January 5, 1967— April 4, 2002
Prepare Thyself To Follow Me.
He got a shitty on-base apartment, but that was okay: he was never there. He flew missions in North Korea, Zaire, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan again; Iraq. He slept on aircraft carriers, in makeshift lean-tos, the bellies of helicopters: a parachute strapped to his back. He disobeyed an order but saved a battalion, and got promoted to major. He disobeyed another trying to save a friend, and got court-martialed; he hadn't even managed to save anybody. That was when he really got acquainted with his shitty apartment: the drab white walls, television propped on a box, linoleum-topped table and single chair. He learned every crack in the walls, every buckle in the floor, while he waited for the verdict: replaying the crash, reliving Holland's death. He barely got dressed; he drank too much beer; he tried, and failed, to jerk off: sick of himself. Late at night, unable to sleep and shaking with desire so strong that even six beers hadn't dampened it, John had a brilliant and stupid idea: he sat slumped over the kitchen table and dented the inside of his hairy arm with the point of a knife. He waited; moved the knife closer to the blue trace of vein; waited. Rodney didn't turn up. You couldn't game Ziggy, he guessed. There were lots of ways he could die, but apparently in no universe did he take his own life in a shitty Nevada apartment. He let the knife drop to the table and cracked open his seventh beer.
He was hung over to hell when the phone rang, telling him to turn up at the base-commander's office. His body had been bred for generations to process alcohol efficiently, but he looked like shit and he knew it. He saw it on the faces of the leadership when he walked in; the dress uniform didn't disguise it. They looked him up and down, visibly reconsidering their decision.
Then they ripped him a new one. He had a God complex. He was an asshole. He routinely disobeyed orders: exercised poor judgment; lacked discipline. But. They looked at each other. John tried to stop himself from shaking. There were mitigating factors. They needed his black ops experience in the War On Terror. They'd invested millions in his training. He had lost his entire team in Afghanistan. Holland had been a personal friend.
They were willing to give him one more chance; his last chance.
January 5, 1967— November 3, 2002
In Great Deeds, Something Abides.
January 5, 1967— November 3, 2002
In Great Deeds, Something Abides.
He bit his lip, aware that this was it. Sand blew everywhere: great brown swirling clouds of it. John peered through the chaos of the storm, fighting to keep the chopper in the air: there were three servicemen on the other side of that ridge, but they wouldn't be for long.
"Shep?" Brooksie--Captain Jay Brooksfield--was looking at him, pale blond eyebrows raised. A voice was buzzing in John's ear, and in Brooksie's, too: "Cobra Four, please acknowledge; Cobra Four--" "Shep?" Brooksie repeated despairingly; he already knew what John was going to do.
"I'll take responsibility, Brooks; this is my call," and he was already tilting the helicopter sideways, cutting through the sandstorm, deliberately blowing it: this, his last chance.
"Rodney," he said, but they thought he was delirious: too doped up on morphine to be coherent. But Rodney had been there, looking awkward in tan desert camouflage gear and a helmet but oddly sure-handed with a P-90. He had appeared out of nowhere to provide covering fire as John touched down and he and Brooksie dragged the three servicemen, already wounded, up into the belly of the chopper. Then John felt a blast like a punch to the shoulder, and there were hands on him, hauling him into the chopper and dumping him into the pilot's seat.
"Hey. Rodney. I missed you," John blurted.
Rodney ignored this. "You--fly," he snapped. "You," he said, wheeling on Brooksie, who was coming up behind them, "stay back here with the wounded. I'll fly shotgun--"
"Fly shotgun?" John repeated, but such was the command in Rodney's voice that Brooksie never hesitated.
Rodney scrambled through the narrow gap into the copilot's chair but didn't pay any attention to the instrumentation; instead, he was pulling things out of his tac vest: field dressing, syringes, pressure bandage, knife. John darted quick glances at him as he flew the chopper up and away, trying to keep them from taking any hits. "Hey. What are you--?" but Rodney was already in his personal space, slicing open his uniform, and administering first aid with quick, ruthless efficiency. John would have complained except--holy fuck, he'd been shot. The bandage helped, the injections helped. John felt better; sharper; less woozy.
"Thanks," John said as Rodney slid back into the co-pilot's seat. "Good job there."
"Yes, yes." Rodney was staring at the instruments, apparently uninterested in the compliment. "Done it before," and then he looked up at John and yelped, "Don't look at me!--Fly the helicopter! They could still bring us down; they could have shoulder missiles! I saw it on CNN!"
"Yeah, but--" but Rodney shooed him until he looked away. The radar jammer came on and the target acquisition system started up. John stole another glance at Rodney, whose hands were flying over the panel. "You know the Osprey?" John asked doubtfully.
Rodney snorted. "No, but this is a Tinkertoy compared to what we normally fly."
John felt a shiver of excitement, and then his vision grayed out. He blinked rapidly and tried to focus. "I thought you were a scientist. Where the hell'd you learn to shoot like that?"
Rodney spared him a withering look. "Where do you think? God, you tortured me, making me qualify with weapons I was never, ever going to use," Rodney said, and then proceeded to undermine his case by adjusting the laser tracking and blasting the shit out of a convoy of trucks bearing surface-to-air missiles.
It was a bumpy landing; John hadn't realized that his depth perception was off until he felt the jolt, and then suddenly everything was crazy: people swarming everywhere, unloading the wounded and yelling, someone was yelling at him, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" and someone else was shouting, "Medic! I need a medic here," and then he felt the pinch of an injection. It hit immediately: morphine.
"I--wait," John said, blinking; everything was happening too fast. "We went over the--look, I had to--they would have died if--" His eyes drifted to the empty co-pilot's seat. He frowned at it, confused. "Rodney?" he asked, but they were already pulling him from the cockpit and loading him onto a stretcher. "Wait. Stop," he said, trying to grab hold of the medic's surgical scrubs. "Rodney's--I lost--" They were holding him by the wrist, pushing his hands down. "He won't have any papers! He's a hallucination! Somebody's got to..."
He woke up in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, feeling groggy and cotton-mouthed and constipated. He slept a lot. People came and went. Events blurred together.
Brooksie said: "How you doin', Shep? Look, don't worry about anything. Screw the brass."
A man he didn't recognize said: "Major Sheppard, I know you're going to catch hell, but I'm so fucking glad you did what you did. And my wife is. And my boy," and he was putting creased wallet-sized photos on John's blankets. The woman had a blonde ponytail and was wearing a v-neck sweater. The boy was maybe three.
General Erik De Camp said, quietly: "You're really something, Sheppard. I've got one secretary typing up a dishonorable discharge and another filling out the paperwork for your purple heart. Captain Braddon--he's the unit commander for those three Marines you rescued--wants to throw you a party. General Sievald's baying for your blood: he said he made perfectly clear that you were to keep your nose and ass clean from now on. I don't know what we're going to do with you--or to you. But I will tell you this, Major: we do not tolerate breaks in the chain of command in this U.S. Air Force. I don't care what kind of fucking hero you are."
Rodney put a hand over his mouth and said: "Shut up and listen to me, this is important. Our long working relationship that you haven't even experienced aside, I wasn't going to come this time, because hello, Iraq, military ops, helicopters and guns, not exactly playing to my strengths. We were going to send Lorne, Major Lorne," and John frowned, because he knew that name, "who's career Air Force, and was in Iraq, and so would have fit into this whole scene a lot better than me," and did he mean Evan Lorne from the 53rd Air--, "except---ah, ha, ha!" Rodney said, as if he were catching John out at something, "you already know him. Don't deny it!" Rodney added, as if John had any intention of denying it. "He says you and he met at some air force bar in Nevada somewhere. And that you sometimes ran into each other in the officer's mess in Iraq," and okay, yeah, that was probably Evan Lorne of the 53rd Wing.
John shrugged. "Yeah, I know him. So what?"
"So what? I'll tell you so what--the machine wouldn't take him, that's what! The machine rejected him, that's what, so I had to put on combat boots and a bullet proof vest and be in a place where I totally had no business being! But my own personal trauma aside, this is a huge fucking problem, Sheppard, because it means--" Rodney started, turning, and John heard it too, the clatter of a metal tray, "--fuck," Rodney said under his breath, and then: "It means we're really screwed. Tell you more later."
He kept expecting to see Rodney every time the door opened; he woke up in the middle of the night expecting to see him. But Rodney never came: instead, a courier came with a thick sheaf of papers. They'd decided to split the baby: he would be spared another court martial, but they were transferring him to--Jesus Christ. He broke into a sweat and shivered as it rolled down his back. Fine, he thought, blindly groping for defiance. Great. At least he'd get some time to himself; a whole fucking lot of time. He could spend it thinking about how he'd fucked up, because they were sending him to Antarctica to run out the clock, not gearing him up for any super-cool space missions. What the hell was he going to tell Rodney?
They shipped him stateside; first, to Dover, then back to Indian Springs to vacate his apartment; McMurdo was his home now. Rodney was waiting for him outside the terminal, reading a newspaper and leaning back against a parked green sedan. He looked up when John approached.
"Hi," Rodney said, folding up the paper. "How are you feeling? How's your shoulder?"
"Fine. Better," John said, and then, awkwardly: "I thought you'd be gone already."
"I would have been, except they tightened security at the hospital and I couldn't get back in. Well, I could have, actually," Rodney said, reconsidering, "but I might have gotten caught, and then I would have had to dematerialize and God knows when I would have gotten back into your timeline. Or if." His face darkened. "That's what we have to-- I can't leave until we--" Rodney's mouth was a tense line. "We have to talk."
"Yeah," John said, swallowing; he didn't know how he was going to tell Rodney about Antarctica.
"Get in the car; I'll drive you back to your apartment," Rodney said, going around to the driver's side.
"How'd you rent a car?" John asked, getting in.
Rodney quickly started the engine. "Well, I'm not so much renting as--look, they'll get it back!" he yelped in response to John's glare. He pulled away from the curb with a screech of tires, like John was going to jump out or something. "I'm finding not technically existing very liberating," he added defensively.
"I bet," John said. This seemed like a good time to mention his own fuckuppery. "So, uh, the brass wasn't exactly thrilled with our little rescue mission," he said, and licked his lips. "They're not discharging me or putting me into prison, but that's only out of respect for the guys we saved. My career is--" He had to stop and swallow; the words were choking him. "--well, pretty much over. They're transferring me to Antarctica."
Rodney's reaction was not what he expected. "Finally!" he shouted, flinging his hands off the wheel; John resisted the urge to grab it. "That's fantastic! I didn't realize you were there this early; I thought I was going to have to spend another year trying to keep you from getting your stupid head blown off in Iraq!"
"Um," John said.
Rodney was darting quick looks between him and the road. "Just fly your stupid helicopters, all right? Don't take up skiing or ice fishing or anything, and we'll be--" John must have been broadcasting his relief, because Rodney noticed, and Rodney wasn't known for his discernment. "Oh," he said. "You were worried."
"Yeah." John let himself slouch back in the seat of the stolen Ford. "I kind of assumed the end of my career was a bad thing."
"It's not the end of your career," Rodney said firmly, and John let his head fall back and rubbed at his face to hide the fact that his hands were shaking. "You go to Antarctica. We meet in Antarctica. Which is--well, that's what we have to talk about. That's where I think we're going to have a problem."
They abandoned the stolen car up the road from John's apartment complex and walked back through the strong Nevada sun. Rodney was gesticulating as he talked: "So I know you were a little high when we last spoke, but if you remember we were talking about Lorne--"
"Yeah. Who you accused me of knowing," John said.
That stopped Rodney for a second. "Well, you do know him, don't you?"
"Yeah," John said. "Vaguely. We've met a few times."
"Right. Okay. So here's the problem with that. We tried to send Lorne back to help you in Iraq because we figured that he'd be more useful to you in those particular circumstances, but the machine wouldn't send him." Rodney made a sharp, annoying sound like a buzzer: "Bzzzt! Thank you for playing! So I had Lorne briefing me on Air Force protocols and helicopter schematics while Zelenka tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with the machine, and here's the conclusion he came to." Rodney took a breath. "The machine won't work for anyone you've actually crossed paths with. Ziggy won't put a Lorne in the timeline, because you've got a Lorne, and what if Lorne met Lorne? It's kind of like entropic cascade--"
John had stopped at the door to his apartment; now he paused, key in the lock, to arch an eyebrow at Rodney.
"--except you don't even know what that is. Right. Okay. Crap: open the door, open the door, already: I'm going to die of heatstroke," Rodney said.
The apartment was dark and much cooler than the stoop outside. A little light bled around the edges of the heavy window shades, but that was all.
"Entropic cascade--" Rodney began, but he stopped when John flipped on the lights, "God, you're predictable," he said, rolling his eyes at the single bed, the small kitchen table, John's boom box and his poster of Johnny Cash. John didn't think it was that bad. "Entropic cascade--" Rodney began again, before suddenly giving it up as a bad job. "Never mind. Look, the universe doesn't like it when there's more than one thing trying to occupy the same space at the same time. It won't accept multiple versions--Superman, Superman of Earth Two--sooner or later you get Crisis on Infinite Earths and it's all downhill from there." John stared at him blankly, and "Oh my God," Rodney said, interrupting himself. "Crisis on Infinite Earths is--"
"I know what Crisis on Infinite Earths is! I just think you're out of your mind!"
"The universe doesn't want people hanging out with themselves!" Rodney shouted. "It's weird, and it's insular, and it fucks up the mathematics of the universe!" He looked ready to pull out what was left of his hair. "When you go to Antarctica, you're going to meet me," he said, pacing in front of Johnny Cash, "and then I can't help you anymore; Ziggy's not going to let me come back anymore. And worse," Rodney said, mouth trembling, though John couldn't imagine anything worse; he felt panic rising up like bile in his throat, "there isn't going to be anybody we can send. There's only 200 of us on the expedition. Everybody knows everybody; there's no way we can sneak somebody back to help you without them running into themselves."
John sat down on the bed; the closest thing he had to a sofa. "Oh."
"Right now," Rodney said, and then inexplicably looked at his watch, "I'm in Siberia. But at some point, I'll come within a radius that Ziggy finds unacceptable. There'll probably be a small window when we can send Ronon to you, but then, I mean after that...you're on your own."
They stared at each other for a moment, and then John went to the apartment's small fridge. Mustard. Pickles. Open box of baking soda. A single bottle of champagne was lying on its side on the lowest rack, a limp-looking red bow still attached: a gift from god knows who, for god knows what. There were three bottles of beer in the door. John grabbed two of them and the opener. "Here," he said, a little desperately. "Have a beer."
"I don't really drink a lot of--okay," Rodney said, and tipped the bottle up.
"Okay," John said, after he'd chugged his. "Rodney. Listen." He gestured at Rodney with the empty beer bottle. "Everything's going to be all right, all right? Everything is going to be fine."
"Fine. Right. Yes." Rodney hurriedly drank the rest of his beer.
"I mean, first of all," John said, "I'm not, you know, a complete idiot. I can take care of myself. And at this point, I'm what you might call an expert in not getting killed."
"You are extremely good at not getting killed, yes," Rodney agreed.
"And then, it's not like you're not going to be there. You'll be there. The other you will be there."
"Yes, but--" Rodney hesitated. "It'll be just like the first time. I won't know about--"
"Sure," John interrupted, trying to put a brave face on it, "but you'll still be trying to save me, right?"
Rodney looked helpless. "I was always trying to save you," he said, and John stared; he couldn't believe he'd been so stupid. Rodney was looking to him with something like desperation, like he was in charge or something--and of course he was in charge. He was the leader. Rodney was on his team, his team. Rodney had saved his life forty-three times and counting, but John was his commanding officer. Would be. If he could get there.
He covered his shock by ducking into the fridge for the last beer. "I'm--older, aren't I? Older than you." He was already sure it was true. "You know: eventually."
"Yes?" Rodney replied uncertainly. "A year and four months," he added, rolling his eyes, "which I happen to know because you never let me forget it," and Christ, why hadn't he seen it before? His whole life, he'd been trying to follow Rodney's cues, but he was the alpha dog in this relationship. He popped the top of his beer and took a long pull. It tasted like heaven. "Why do you ask?" Rodney demanded.
John licked his lips and tried to stop himself from grinning. "Nothing," he said, and put down his beer. "No reason," but then John grabbed Rodney and kissed him, and Rodney immediately opened his mouth. His lips were firm and a little cracked, and John pushed in deeper: he wanted in, he wanted everything. Rodney's fingers stuttered down John's ribcage. John pushed him toward the bed; the mattress bashed into their knees and they stumbled together. The kiss broke.
Rodney shoved at his shoulders. "Wait, stop," he gasped. "We never-- We don't do this."
"Shut up," John said--and he was absolutely the alpha dog. "This might be our only--" and they fell against each other, kissing. John shoved a hand up Rodney's shirt, finding a sweet erect nipple and, huh, a pair of rubber-silenced dogtags. He twined the beaded metal chain around his fingers as they kissed deeply, all lips and tongues.
Rodney was clumsily trying to unbutton John's shirt, and John groped at Rodney's cock, which was tenting his pants, and they came down like that, half dressed and tangled up together on John's small bed. John slid his hands greedily down over Rodney's belly, rasping his palm against the springy hair there. He was impatient, his hands sliding lower, grasping Rodney's balls and closing one fist around his dick, savoring it; the feel of it, Rodney gasping hot into his mouth.
When Rodney was near to coming. John stilled his hand, tightening it, because Jesus, he wanted more. Rodney sucked hard on John's bare shoulder--he'd gotten John's belt unbuckled, his pants unzipped, and his shirt half-off--and he groaned when John shoved at his collarbone, pressed him back against the mattress, and slid down him.
"You weren't gay before," Rodney said breathlessly, when John stopped to kiss his stomach.
"You've got to stop saying that. You're messing with my head!"
"I didn't think you would ever-- I was looking for a girl, a wife--"
"Whatever," John muttered. "Your problem," and sucked Rodney's cock into his mouth.
"You were," Rodney gasped, after a while, "just kind of weird and repressed."
John slurped off, lifted his head, glared. "Maybe," he said, "because somebody kept telling me I wasn't gay."
"Not me! I wasn't there!" and Rodney's skin was pink everywhere John could see: face, neck, chest, belly. "Not the first time around," he said, and then, more uncertainly, "I don't think," and then he was gasping and moaning so steadily it was almost a whine, and a shiver rippled down John's spine: hearing Rodney's voice break like that. John closed his eyes and went to it with renewed purpose, reveling, drowning in it: the feel of cock, sliding over his lips; the taste and smell of it, musky and male; Rodney's helpless little upward jerks. Hands in his hair.
"John," Rodney gasped. "Please--" but John slid his thumbs over Rodney's hipbones and held on, nearly cruel about it, wanting to push Rodney to the edge, to the crazy place where he was, where he had been living for what felt like years now. And then a wet gasp was ripped from Rodney's throat, and the hands in John's hair tightened and Rodney was thrusting helplessly into his mouth, moaning so desperately that John couldn't help but moan in sympathy, because fuck, yes, that was it, that was--
Rodney came with a full body shudder. John took a couple of swallows, turned his head and let Rodney's come run down his cheek. He clenched his teeth, fighting not to come himself, because Jesus, what he still wanted to do to Rodney. He couldn't even think about it without feeling lust pooling low in his stomach. He pillowed his head on the pale, hair-dusted skin of Rodney's inner thigh and licked and kissed his softening cock.
Finally, Rodney struggled up on his elbows, hair damp at the roots and sticking up in all directions. "Ohhh," he rasped. "Now, it's personal--" and John was laughing before his back hit the mattress.
They barely got out of bed for the next two days; instead they fucked and catnapped. John wrapped himself tight around Rodney when they slept, afraid he would vanish into thin air. When Rodney's stomach started making noises that even John could hear, John dragged Rodney with him to the nearest all-night market, where they bought chili dogs and frozen pizzas, bags of Doritos and Cheetos, a couple of bottles of Gatorade, chocolate-chip muffins, a package of donuts and another six pack of beer. John snagged a giant box of condoms and dropped it, with a grin of defiance, on the counter in front of the stunned-looking clerk, who was all too used to dealing with the military clientele from the base just up the road. The clerk darted a look at Rodney, who was standing with slack-jawed lust in front of fourteen varieties of flavored coffee. John waggled his eyebrows; fuck it, they were sending him to Antarctica.
He bought Rodney a 20 oz. hazelnut and took him back to bed. He wanted to do everything while they could: while there was still time. Rodney made some token protest--they shouldn't, they'd already done too much, because heaven forbid John got decently laid--but he shut up fast when John pushed his fingers into him. He'd meant just to prep him--God, he wanted to fuck him--but there was something about the way Rodney's breath hitched, something about getting to touch inside of him after never quite getting enough of him, that made John wrap his other hand around Rodney's cock to stop him from coming while he fingered him. Slow, slow, and Rodney's head lolled drunkenly, his mouth falling open, his cock full and heavy in John's hand. "Please," Rodney moaned. "Oh God, let me--" and John licked his lips and began to rub inside of him, faster and faster--come on, Rodney, come on, come--until Rodney came, gasping and thrashing: so hard that John was afraid he'd gone too far.
"I can't," Rodney said incoherently. "I. John." He reached up. His hand fell back to the bed.
John immediately bent to kiss him: his mouth, his chin. "I'll stop: do you want me to stop?"
"God, no. You've half-killed me: might as well finish the job." Rodney ran his fingers through the hair on John's chest. "Besides," he added, leaning up to give John the most staggeringly dirty kiss, "even if you do manage to survive the next few years, no way will you still have this kind of stamina," and John took the hint for what it was and fucked him through the floor.
This time, when John stirred back to consciousness, Rodney's arms were tight around him. Hot breath stirred the hairs on the back of his neck. "I don't want to go back," Rodney muttered, low and unhappy. "I wish I could stay, and you could just quit the Air Force, and--"
John broke Rodney's grip and turned around. "So let's," he said. "Why not? Why are we enslaved to--" but Rodney was slouched back on the pillows, mouth grim, shaking his head.
"--to physics? To history? Because we are." Rodney pushed up on his elbows, the sheet falling to his waist: his pale belly. "You still don't get it. We're in a brief, hypothetical place, here. If you don't go on the expedition, I don't live, I don't ever turn up here. And it's not just me: if you don't go on the expedition, people die, lots of them, because you're you, you're a goddamned hero, you're--" His voice got thick and twisted.
John said, past the lump in his throat, "No pressure or anything."
To his surprise, Rodney scoffed. "Don't talk to me about pressure! I know I don't look like much of a hero, but take my word for it: I've saved the expedition hundreds of times. Thousands--"
John laughed aloud. "I know, Rodney," he said. "Believe me. I know." He hooked a finger underneath Rodney's dogtags, then, on impulse, swapped one of Rodney's tags with one of his own. He liked seeing his tag on Rodney's chest. "I know," he said again, and then Rodney pushed him down and sucked him off, mouth sliding up and down his dick in exactly the right rhythm. After that, Rodney said, a little desperately, "John--I really want to fuck you," but before John could say yes, Rodney said, "but I think I need some protein, first," and rolled out of bed. He spread peanut butter on some abandoned bits of pizza crust, and when that was gone, ate a few spoonfuls straight from the jar. John sucked down some Gatorade, then handed it to Rodney, who chugged the rest.
"Come back to bed," John said, feeling antsy. He trailed his fingers down Rodney's chest and over his slightly rounded belly. "Come back and fuck me. I don't want to think about anything; leaving; the rest of it. My flight leaves day after tomorrow. I have to pack."
Rodney wiped pink Gatorade from his mouth with his forearm, then yanked down his Johnny Cash poster, rolled it up, and handed it to him. "There you go," he said. "You're packed."
John kept his eyes closed while Rodney fucked him, even though Rodney was behind him; he was afraid he'd break apart otherwise. God. How had he survived without this? He'd given up--everything; everything--to be here: in the Air Force, on his way to Antarctica. Because Rodney had asked him to, had all but ordered him--Jesus, Rodney was fucking him open. He shuddered through another deep thrust, head braced on his folded arms. Rodney was doing him slow and perfect, alternating long, deep thrusts with rapid shallow ones. Rodney's hands were on him, fingers digging bruises into him, and then Rodney was moaning, "Christ, Sheppard, if you knew how long I've been waiting to--"
"Not--as long--as me," John said, and shoved himself back on Rodney's cock. They both went still and groaned aloud. John reached a flailing, shaking hand back, and Rodney grabbed hold of it and squeezed tightly. His fingers were sweaty. John squeezed back as hard as he could, then pulled his hand away.
Rodney kept touching him, smoothing his hands over John's hips, his ass, the small of his back. "I've wanted to fuck you for so long," Rodney mumbled, "even before we left, you and your stupid hair, slouching in my doorway; but you weren't gay, and then you were five years old, and then you were jailbait--beautiful, beautiful jailbait--and honestly, you should be very impressed with my tremendous moral--"
"Oh my God: shut up and fuck me!" and Rodney did, fucking him until John's ass was spasming uncontrollably and he was coming everywhere: on the bed, on his belly and chest. Rodney groaned and came deep inside him, then flopped down on top of him, buckling John's arms and pushing him down. The bed was a wet mess. John didn't care.
John lounged in bed, naked and come-splattered, while Rodney showered and got dressed; his own form of passive resistance. "Don't go," he said as Rodney roughly toweled what was left of his hair. "Don't go," he said as Rodney buttoned his shirt. "Rodney," he said finally, his voice a hoarse scrape, and then Rodney sat down on the bed and reached for him, kissing him, arms coming around him and clutching him tight. Rodney was warm everywhere they touched; his mouth, his shirt pressed against John's bare chest.
John felt half out of his mind when they broke apart. "Stay another hour," he said. "It could be the last hour we ever--"
"I love you," Rodney said in a tight voice. "You figured that out, right?" and then, before John could say anything: "It's not enough. It's never going to be enough, but you're going to make it through to the other side, and I'll be there, okay? I'll be waiting right there."
John wrapped his fingers in Rodney's shirt. "You better be."
"I will be," Rodney swore. "And you--you had better--"
"I will. I know I will. You'll be there to help me," and then he tugged Rodney closer and kissed him once more.
"So, um...I'll see you," Rodney said. "See you when I see you. Au revoir and all that."
John swallowed. "Yeah."
"You have to let go of my shirt." Rodney looked down at where John was still tightly gripping the fabric.
"Okay," John said, and didn't. Instead, he leaned in and stole another kiss. Rodney's hand slid into his hair. "Okay," John said finally, deliberately unclenching his hand. "See you."
January 5, 1967— August 3, 2003
Beneath This Cold Blanket, He.
January 5, 1967— August 3, 2003
Beneath This Cold Blanket, He.
He was going to die here. He was too cold even to shiver, despite his gear and the shelter of the tiny tent he'd pitched, hobbling on his broken ankle. Antarctica was an endless horizon of ice.
He drifted in and out of consciousness, dreaming of his father, of huge oil tankers gliding through the ice; of Rodney, mostly. He dreamed of Rodney so often and so vividly that it took him a while to realize that Rodney was really here. "Rodney." It came out as a whisper; John tried to get up, to reach for him; couldn't. His fingers were frozen together. "Is that you? Are you really..." Rodney was hovering over him, pulling him upright and unzipping his jacket, and John tried to say no, because God, no, please, no-- His vision blurred.
"You've got to get out of this." Rodney's voice seemed very far away. "You've got to get out of these clothes and into a sleeping bag," and he was dizzy with the pain of the cold. "John," Rodney said softly, "John," and Rodney carefully slid his jacket down his frozen arms before stripping him of his layers and unlacing and removing his boots. "Stay with me, John." Rodney unzipped his own jacket and put his arms around John, and John felt the warmth of his body like a blast of heat. John burrowed in helplessly, pressing his face to the junction of Rodney's neck and shoulder, clumsily shoving his frozen hands at Rodney's chest.
Rodney shivered violently--"Ohhhh, that's cold!"--and jammed John's hands into his armpits. John's fingers burned with pain as they warmed. Rodney guided him back, down into--oh, God, yes: a sleeping bag. John scrabbled at Rodney's rib cage with his tingling fingers, wanting to hold on to him. Rodney murmured, "Shh, yes, of course," and slid into the bag after him, zipping it up before wrapping himself around John, arms and legs both.
Christ, he hurt. As he warmed, he clenched his teeth against the tears stinging his eyes. Rodney tucked his face against the top of John's head. His voice blurred into a jumble of words--stay with me, told you to stay inside, moron, not when we're so fucking close.
John pressed his face against the base of Rodney's throat; he was improbably happy. He flexed his fingers and pursed his lips against Rodney's throat: a weak kiss. Rodney kissed his forehead up near the hairline, and said, "I'm coming to Antartica. I'll be here soon. I'm coming, John. John. John?"
"John? Can you hear me?" He opened his eyes in a helicopter and stared up into the dark almond eyes of the medic; Chinese, maybe. "You're going to be fine. All our patients should have your survival skills--not to mention your unbelievable luck."
He spent his recovery reading his way through the small base library and kept up the habit even after his ankle healed. The collection circulated between McMurdo and Scott Base; it was mostly shit, but there was some good stuff: history and science fiction mostly. Good books disappeared fast though, so John flirted with the sergeant who served as base librarian, asking her to put certain titles aside when they came in. When he returned A History of The Crusades, the librarian smiled and pulled Foundation from under the counter. She pushed the sign-out card and a pen across the desk, and John signed on the first free line, vaguely ashamed of his neat, boarding school penmanship. He glanced up at the list of names and froze, heart thumping. The blocky letters were familiar from the bottom of forged reports. He ran his finger over the name and thought, holy fuck, he's here. He's really here.
January 5, 1967— June 20, 2004
Place No Marker On The Hill
January 5, 1967— June 20, 2004
Place No Marker On The Hill
"What the--" The missile came out of nowhere, unexpected, impossible. His radio crackled--"Rogue drone seeking a target"--and fuck, his bird was the target. "Break right!" his passenger yelled, some General he was ferrying to one of the smaller scientific outposts on the periphery. "Right! I said--" and crap, just his luck; a back-seat driver. John was acutely aware, as he banked hard left, the missile still hot on his tail, that he was alone in this now: no Rodney McKay to put his thumb on the scale. "Pull up!" the General was shouting, miming it like he was trying to steer them by sheer force of will. "I can't see it!" John shouted, craning his neck. "Where is it?" and then he did see it, streaking past before turning around and bullseying them.
"You can land, now!" the General shouted. "Any time, now!"
"Now's good," John said, and landed, but the missile was still coming, so they both dived out of the chopper and into the snow.
This little adventure earned him a pass into a top-secret government facility, a mile under the ice. The place was littered with objects, artifacts. He drifted as close as he dared, itching with curiosity. He-- "Don't touch anything," General O'Neill chided, and of course he wouldn't; he knew better than to touch--
The chair slid back. All around him things were lighting up, and then there was yelling, people running. "Don't move," someone yelled. "Don't --" and then a woman said, "Who is this?" and the General said, "I thought I told you not to--" and then, cutting through everything, Rodney McKay, practically shaking with excitement, standing over him in a bright orange fleece.
"Major," he said, "think about where we are in the solar system," and John obeyed without thinking, stars and planets bursting into life and revolving all around them.
Later, he stopped one of the scientists and said, "Sorry, do you know where I could find Dr. McKay?" She directed him to a lab down the corridor, and he heard Rodney before he saw him, saying, "Oh my God, are you stupid? Get out of my way." The other person protested, and Rodney snapped: "What part of 'get out of my way' don't you understand?"
"Dr. McKay," John said, from the doorway.
Rodney turned, startled, and said, "Yes, hello? Oh," he said a moment later, and snapped his fingers. "Right. Major Sheppard." He arched an eyebrow. "He of the good genes."
"Um." John didn't know quite what to say to that. "Yeah...I guess." He leaned against the door frame, trying to conceal the fact that he was staring at Rodney, cataloging all the ways he was the same, all the ways he was different. This Rodney seemed to be about his own age, give or take a year and four months. He also had a keen, disapproving eye: John saw his attention being drawn, unhappily, to what the other scientists in the room were doing. Rodney lifted a finger and said, to John, "One second," before crossing the room, pushing a tall, blue-shirted scientist out of the way, and quickly reconnecting a series of wires.
"I had it!" the other scientist protested faintly.
"You had it wrong," Rodney snatched up a sheaf of papers and thumped it into the scientist's chest. "Read the specs. Or hey, look," he added with bright sarcasm, "there's a picture!"
The scientist visibly bit back words. Rodney crossed back to John and muttered, "I don't know how Elizabeth expects me to function when the Venn diagram between 'talented' and 'willing to come to Antarctica' is so--" He made a sharp gesture of frustration.
"Dr. Weir invited me to join the expedition," John said, and Rodney looked him up and down, critically; assessing him. John tried to look like he didn't care, but he was watching Rodney closely, searching for anything, some sign of--
Rodney just shrugged and said, "You should accept."
"Oh yeah?" John swallowed. "What makes you say that?"
Rodney's eyes narrowed. "Well," Rodney began, and John knew Rodney well enough to brace himself, "aside from the fact that it's an honor, and an opportunity that anyone who wasn't mentally deficient would cut an arm off for, I might make the pragmatic argument that you happen to possess a totally worthless 'skill'"--John heard quotes around the word--"which might actually be of some use where we're going." His thin, slanting smile was not at all polite.
John was stung. "Flying planes, you mean?"
"Ah, no, sorry; I obviously confused you with the word 'skill'. I just meant your totally accidental genetic cocktail, cool as it is."
"Uh-huh," John drawled, and wow, young master Rodney was kind of a jerk. "Well. Guess I'll think about it."
"You do that," Rodney agreed, and then he caught sight of someone else doing something wrong, and yelped, "No, no, not like that, wait--" and hurried away to micromanage them. John just stood there, numbed by the anticlimax; Rodney had said he was coming, but he still wasn't here.
He fished his mismatched set of dogtags out of his shirt and stared at them for a long time, rubbing his thumb over the raised letters: Sheppard, McKay. Then he pulled a coin out of his pocket and flipped it. Heads. He flipped it again. Heads. Best of five--heads, heads, heads--and John flung the quarter away in the grass and grinned. Sheppard's Law dictated that everything that could go wrong for him , would go wrong for him, but apparently he was done almost getting killed on Earth. He lay back, fingers laced behind his head, to enjoy his last day in the warm Colorado sun. There would be whole new ways to die if they ever reached Atlantis.
January 5, 1967— July 16, 2004
In A Stranger's Grave, 'Neath An Alien Sky
January 5, 1967— July 16, 2004
In A Stranger's Grave, 'Neath An Alien Sky
The next time John saw Rodney, he was sexually harassing Colonel Samantha Carter under the mountain in Colorado Springs. "Seriously," Rodney said, "it's your last chance."
Colonel Carter smirked. "No."
Rodney pressed his body up against her lab bench. His voice grew more desperate. "It could be a one-way trip for me, Sam."
"Oh, I know it could," Colonel Carter replied. "I did most of the calculations."
"I did most of the--" Rodney wrenched himself back to the topic. "One way ticket, Sam," he pleaded. "Right here, right now: no strings attached!"
Colonel Carter rolled her eyes. "Right, Rodney, because it was the strings that--oh, hello, Major," she said, smiling. "I assume you're here to see Dr. McKay. Take him to Pegasus, will you?"
"I can try," John drawled.
"Okay, okay, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait," Rodney said, scrubbing the air with his hands. "Don't tell me you've never even thought about it from a practical point of view."
"No?" Colonel Carter's attention had been momentarily caught by some readings. "I don't know what you're--"
"You. Me. Your genes, my genes. All that talent concentrated in a single superbaby--"
Colonel Carter's head spun around at the word. "What?!"
"You've honestly never thought about it?" Rodney asked.
"No, Rodney, I really never did!"
"You should be more concerned about your legacy," Rodney said seriously. "You're not getting any younger."
"Get out," Colonel Carter said, and John pulled a still-protesting Rodney from the room.
"Her loss," Rodney said, once they were out in the corridor. "Okay, no, it's my loss," he sighed. "I can't believe even a one-way ticket to another galaxy isn't enough to get me laid," and John opened his mouth to say hey, if he wanted to get laid, John would--
Except they didn't do that, not yet. For the first time John got why Rodney had always looked at him funny. He'd been waiting for John to be--John. Now, goddamnit, he had to wait for Rodney to become Rodney, and it was so fucking unfair, because he'd been wanting Rodney for years now. Fifteen years, John thought bitterly. What's another three.
"What's the matter with you?" Rodney asked. "You look--"
John shook his head quick. "Nothing. It's nothing."
Rodney stared at him for a long moment, then snapped his fingers. "I bet you had the chicken. Don't ever eat the chicken."
John sighed. "I didn't eat the chicken, McKay."
"Well, good. Because it's not even real chicken!"
They staged in the SGC gateroom. John wandered around the stacks of equipment, the crates of weapons and ammunition, taking everything in. Here they were, the Atlantis expedition: 120 international scientists, 80 U.S. marines, and 1 Air Force major (slightly used). Colonel Sumner passed him, eyes narrowing into slits. John smirked and ignored him; Rodney'd never mentioned him, so he couldn't mean too much in the scheme of things.
Rodney himself was standing all alone, practically humming with anticipation. John remembered watching him play the piano; he had that same energy, that air of almost-electrical excitement. John sidled close and said, out of the side of his mouth, "Really something, huh?"
Rodney was startled, but relaxed when he saw who it was. "Yes. Yes, it is."
John rested his hands on his P-90. "You know, I think we're going to work great together, you and me."
"Really?" Rodney asked, tilting his chin up. "You think so?"
"Yeah. I've just got a hunch," John said.
January 5, 1967— April 23, 4 A.T.
He Was A Bold & Intrepid Officer
January 5, 1967— April 23, 4 A.T.
He Was A Bold & Intrepid Officer
John let his head thunk back against the cell wall. "You suck."
"Me?" Rodney sat up fast, all outrage. "You're the one who--" John rolled his eyes and chirped his hand. "Uh, excuse me, you were the one who turned the stupid thing on! It wasn't like they weren't going to notice that it was glowing--"
"Well, they might not have noticed if you hadn't started--"
"Enough!" Teyla shot a glare at Rodney, then turned it on him, which was totally unfair. "These recriminations are not helpful."
Ronon was slouched low along the opposite wall. "Fun, though."
"Your crazy genes are indiscriminate!" Rodney said, stabbing a finger at him. "All these machines fall in love with you--"
"That's not a bug, Rodney," John drawled. "It's a feature."
Rodney snorted. "You know, I don't know how anyone ever thought you were cool."
"I do not think you understand the gravity of the situation." Teyla bit her lip. "I think it is likely that the tribunal is going to convict Colonel Sheppard of--" and then Teyla said a word that John had never heard before. It sounded like ikara, or ecara. She began to explain before he could even ask. "It is...blasphemy, I suppose, would be the closest translation." John blinked.
"Blasphemy?" Rodney asked, sounding even more shocked than he was.
Teyla frowned. "Impersonation," she suggested. "A profane imposture: appropriating a position not rightfully yours." John mimed his confusion and Teyla tried again. "They believe you to be passing yourself off as one of the Ancestors."
John began to protest that he was doing no such thing, but Rodney had already leapt in to defend him. "He's not pretending; he's the real thing! Genetically identical to--"
"Yeah, they don't care," Ronon said, shrugging. "These people think the Ancients are gods, McKay. Mystical divine beings."
"Exactly," Teyla agreed. "And by that standard, Colonel Sheppard is of necessity a false god, aspiring to a stature beyond men."
"Oh, great," Rodney fumed. "They think he's--Beelzebub. Then again, they may have a point. Look at the ears."
"We are wasting valuable time," Teyla gritted out, and then the cell door opened and armed guards trooped in. "Get up," one commanded. "It is time to face the tribunal." John looked apologetically at Teyla as the guards escorted them to the judgment chamber.
Seven priests were standing on the altar. Behind them, a giant sphere set into the wall was glowing blue and purple: obviously Ancient. The chamber was full of devoted worshippers, and John heard a spreading hiss of disapproval--Ikari. Ikariani! --as he passed by. They stared at him like he was dangerous.
The guards arranged them in a line and stood behind them. John muttered to Teyla, "If you can get the hell out of here, go get Elizabeth." Teyla jerked a nod. On his other side, Rodney whispered, "It won't come to that. It--"
The High Priest stepped forward and everyone fell silent. "Occupiers! Colonizers!" and John felt a vague stirring of memory. "You come to us under a false banner, Colonizers of Atlantis. You come to us under the leadership of a false God," he said, and glared at John.
"Well, I wouldn't say god exactly," John drawled; he groaned and doubled over when one of the guards kicked him. They wrestled him forward, onto the altar steps and down on his knees, then grabbed him by the hair. Jeez, just what he needed: hair pullers. His eyes watered.
"Ikara! I rebuke you!" The High Priest loomed over him and glared at Rodney and Ronon and Teyla. "Heed me, you deluded followers of the Ikariani!" and Rodney muttered, "I wouldn't heed you if you were the last religious despot in Pegasus."
The high priest pulled a round Ancient device from his robes, narrowed his eyes, and held it out to John. John hesitated; should he switch it on or turn it off? Which would prove he wasn't a false god? He could probably will it not to light up, but was that the right answer? It was like being a witch: swim or drown, you were screwed either way.
The high priest noted his reluctance with a thin smile. "We must make it clear to all that you are not of the Gods. Or perhaps you would prefer to confess it?" and boy oh boy, he wished Elizabeth was here. He'd be more than happy to confess he wasn't one of the Ancients, but Teyla's intense expression told him not to. He sighed and took the device. It lit up in his hand.
There was an outcry from the crowd, and the priest's expression turned thunderous. "He profanes the holy orb!!" and John supposed there was no explaining that their "holy orb" was just an interactive Ancient map; a glorified GPS device.
Rodney made a go of it, though. "It's a machine!" he shouted. "There's nothing holy about it; it's just a piece of technology designed to respond to people of a certain genetic--" He made a strangled sound and swallowed the rest of what he was going to say. Beside him, Teyla was wearing a too-innocent expression. She stepped forward, head bowed.
"We see now that we have been misled," she said earnestly. "We must bring news of this back to our people--"
"I'm not going," Rodney whispered savagely. "I am not--"
"Bring out the cask of the Ancients!" and any hope John had that this meant beer was dashed when the other priests wheeled out--well, a fucking coffin is what it was. Behind him, Rodney was muttering, in an increasingly panicked voice, "Oh, not good! Not good, not good!" and then Ronon was launching himself forward, crazy guy that he was; the only one among them not to be fazed by 300 to 4 odds. Half a dozen guards grabbed hold of John, so he wasn't exactly in a position to help, but Ronon took down maybe 15 guys before one of the priests raised a long, faintly-glowing staff and got off a clear shot, stunning him with it.
The high priest was disheveled and frowning; he shoved back the sleeves of his robes and glared at John. "You have offended the Ancestors. Let them pass judgment upon you." He looked at the cask and said, "Many have gone in. Few have come back again. The Ancestors will test your life and its worth," but John wasn't listening any more; he was remembering a long-ago day on a windy pier. Colonizers. That's what they called us, and: Aliens put you in a box that makes everything go wrong. The wind had made whitecaps in the gray ocean and ruffled Rodney's thin hair--
"--the honor of a farewell," Teyla was saying; she was still implacably calm and tactful. "Surely it is the custom."
The priests looked at each other. Teyla took advantage of their hesitation and came forward, steadily but unthreateningly, until she stood in front of John. The guards backed off, and she put her hands on John's shoulders. He bent till his forehead touched hers.
"I do not believe you are in imminent danger," Teyla murmured. "In the old stories, the casket of the Ancestors is described as a magical cabinet from which the guilty never emerge, but I believe it is merely a coffin in which people slowly suffocate or starve. We will be back with reinforcements before that happens," and John leaned in, feeling the warmth of her skin, and said, "Okay."
Ronon had recovered a bit, and he surprised John by also yanking him into an Athosian style embrace. "I'll break their leader's neck if you create a distraction," he rumbled, but John clutched at his arms and said, "No. Bring back Marines."
Rodney hovered just out of his reach, obviously angry, scared, upset. "I--I'm not letting these savages--" he began, but John dragged him into the embrace, nearly banging their skulls together, and whispered: "Shut up and listen to me. The box is a fifth dimensional disruptor; it tries to break your weakest fifth-dimensional bonds, pushing you into alternate realities in which you died. If you can stay in your original reality, you come out; if you don't, you're dead; in the meantime, you're decoherent--"
"Wait, what?" Rodney jerked away, wild-eyed. "You can't possibly--"
John yanked them together again, actually banging their skulls this time; he winced. "Just make sure you get the box. Whatever else, make sure Elizabeth takes the box back to--"
"I don't know what you're--" Rodney said, but his voice was hoarse and his hands had found their way to John's upper arms, where he was clutching, squeezing, gripping compulsively. "What are you--" But they were coming for him, so John jerked away clumsily, using the movement to camouflage a quick press of his lips to Rodney's forehead. Rodney stared at him, shocked. John averted his eyes.
"I'm ready," he said. He looked at the box and fought down panic: would Rodney be able to open it, or was he condemned to ride the loop of these last 40 years over and over? He stole another quick glance at Rodney, who looked desperate and miserable and uncertain all at once. We don't do this, but this Rodney was his Rodney, or would be, the next time he saw him.
They shut him in and he became nothingness.
"Get it open," Rodney said, sick and jittering inside. "Get it open, get it--" He wanted to shove them all out of the way and work on it himself, but he was afraid he'd slow them down even more. "No, on the--" He clapped his hands together to get their attention, two sharp bangs. "On the hinge! There! Where the two pieces--! Idiots!" and then he was yanking the laser cutter out of Matheson's hands, because the goddamned box had gone dark and if Sheppard was in there and not decoherent, he'd be giving off 0.6 cubic feet of carbon dioxide per hour in only 15 cubic feet of air-space and at 20 parts CO2to 10,000, the air would go toxic and--
The box opened, coming apart into three separate pieces like a puzzle. John sat up, looking dazed. "Hey," he said, voice scratchy, and Beckett pushed past Rodney with an oxygen tank. Two more doctors moved in and Rodney backed off so they could get Sheppard onto a stretcher, only belatedly realizing when Matheson yelped that he was still holding the laser torch and it was still on.
"--m'fine," John was mumbling as Beckett slid the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and they wheeled him out. Elizabeth grabbed Rodney's arm and said: "See? I told you!" Rodney shot a look at Teyla, who said, almost defiantly: "He is still our John. I am sure of it."
Rodney went to the end of the southwest pier to think things through. He kept flexing his fingers; just a few hours ago, he'd been trying to keep Sheppard alive in a tent, his fingers numb from the ice and snow. Now Sheppard was back, but--was he? Was he really?
He felt eyes on his back and turned. John came toward him: unlaced boots, baggy black pants, ratty t-shirt, flannel overshirt, stupid messy black hair. The wind blew in off the water. "Hey," John said, gracefully sliding down to sit beside him.
Rodney stared down at his hands, his knotted fingers. "Hi."
John shifted to dangle his long legs off the end of the pier and leaned back on his hands. The wind blew back his hair. "So, um," he began, glancing uncertainly at Rodney. "That was weird, huh?" and that was such a preposterously colossal understatement that Rodney broke up laughing, hooting and snorting so hard he wiped tears from his eyes.
"Really?" Rodney managed to gasp, finally. "You think?"
John smiled, too, but his eyes were wary. "Yeah. It's pretty--"
"The last time I saw you, you were freezing to death and I was holding you in my arms. No, the last time I saw you, they were putting you in a box; it was ages ago; forty years; forever. I've had a lifetime since I saw you, your whole lifetime--"
"Rodney," John said softly.
"No, shut up," Rodney said. "I don't even know who you are!"
"You know who I am!"
"Sure, I know you!" Rodney shouted. "But are you him? After all this, are you--"
"Rod-ney," and God, he knew that voice: that was John's irritated voice, "the last time I saw you was five minutes ago, and you were calling me Beelzebub and making fun of my ears," and Rodney gaped, because right, right, yes, he remembered that and--holy shit, John had told him that the Ancient box was a fifth dimensional disruptor! John had told him that!
John was nodding rapidly and making faces at him, eyebrows waggling. "Uh-huh. Yeah, you got it. It's me, Rodney. Hell, it was always me," and then he reached into the neck of his shirt and pulled out his mismatched dogtags, the matched set to Rodney's. "I've spent my whole life waiting to be--myself! There's no other me, Rodney! There's just me!"
Rodney stared at his own dogtag around John's neck, dangling from John's fingers: MCKAY. "So it's--" He raised his eyes to John's face: mobile, stupid, with that too-pointy nose and those ridiculous ears. John raised an eyebrow. "You're saying it," Rodney said thickly, "it was always--?" and John's face changed just before he leaned in to kiss him. His lips were dry and a little cracked, but the kiss was sweet, and Rodney closed his hands around John's soft flannel overshirt and tugged him in. The kiss got deep and messy.
Rodney broke away before he totally lost control. "Uh, uh, except this is new, because believe me, I would've remembered! You weren't--"
"Jesus Fucking Christ in the morning!" John shouted. "I was! I always, always was!"
"No, but--" Rodney protested, "if you're you, and you've always been you, you're the human equivalent of a quantum superposition! We're back to Schrödinger's cat; inside the box, anything's possible: it's only outside that things settle back into rational, measurable determinacy. So inside the box, the cat is gay and not gay at the same time--"
John shut him up with a hand over his mouth. "This cat is out, Rodney," he said, and then he pushed him down onto the pier and proved it.