The rogue comet had been traveling for thousands of years, eventually entering the Western arm of the Milky Way comparatively close to Earth's Solar System. Astronomers had tried to plot its course backwards, trying to find its origin, and most now believed it had been ejected from the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, a satellite galaxy that was slowly being torn apart by the Milky Way. Despite its fiery tail the comet had been missed by all the major radio and telescopes until spotted by an amateur astronomer on a field trip. Sasha Helena took great pleasure in having the comet named after her and Doctor Bill Lee, much to Rodney’s annoyance as he'd yet to have anything named after him despite his amazing accomplishments in the field of astrophysics.
Having ordered his staff to point the dish towards Helena-Lee, Rodney pored over the data set displaying speed and trajectory.
"Oh, this is not good," he mumbled under his breath after working complicated calculations in his head that most mathematicians would find difficult even with a computer - if they could figure out the math at all.
He ran the numbers once more, double and then triple checking his calculations, before sending them to Jeannie for final confirmation, but the figures came out the same each time. In two hundred and fifty-three days, six hours, and nineteen minutes, comet Helena-Lee would pass close enough to Earth to adversely affect the tidal pull of the oceans in the best case scenario, or pull the Earth out of the Sun's orbit in the worst.
Both scenarios would be catastrophic, causing an extinction level event that would wipe out most, if not all life on the planet.
"You don't seem to understand," Rodney stated tersely to the emergency conference consisting of both scientists and politicians from around the world, desperately trying to refrain from calling them all idiots. "No," he sneered. "The Helena-Lee Comet is not going to hit the planet and, yes, the meteor that hit 65 million years ago only wiped out the dinosaurs, but that was a... a pebble compared to this comet."
"If it's that big then why wasn't it spotted earlier?" Kavanagh sneered before leaning back smugly.
Rodney ground his teeth, wondering how an imbecile like Kavanagh could become the Science Advisor to the President of the United States. Before he could launch into an explanation of the sheer immensity of the night sky and how difficult it was to pick out one tiny dot out of billions, some Eastern European scientist with wild hair and big glasses spoke up.
"Question is irrelevant. I have looked at Doctor McKay's calculations and they are frighteningly accurate. This comet is immense. It has a dense core, and it is heading in our direction. Worst case scenario, we all die. Best case scenario... We all die."
The room erupted into shouts with various amounts of finger pointing and in one unbelievable case the science advisor for one country started a slapping fight with the advisor for another. It was bedlam and for one moment Rodney felt like walking away because he wasn't sure if the human race deserved to survive if these people were supposedly some of its best and brightest. Rodney could hear the conference organizer trying to bring everyone to order but his voice was drowned out even using the state of the art speaker system. Somehow the Eastern European scientist caught Rodney's eye and indicated towards the exit. As it looked as though no one was going to calm down any time soon, Rodney rolled his eyes and left the podium to join him.
"My name is Doctor Radek Zelenka. I looked over your calculations and verified them against the data we have collected. You have doctorates in astrophysics and mechanical engineering. I too am engineer. Perhaps we can work together to find solution?"
Rodney had expected to come back from this conference with more than just one ally but it was a start.
Mauna Kea Observatories, Hawaii
What surprised Rodney was the sudden influx of military scientific personnel into the Mauna Kea Observatories on Hawaii just a couple of days later. When he was refused entry to his own observatory, he stormed across the quadrant to where the military had set up a makeshift camp, pushing past the soldier on guard duty.
"You!" he bellowed, pointing a finger at the messy-haired and far too handsome colonel, but refused to allow that to put him off his tirade. "I want-."
"Doctor McKay. I see you got my message." Sheppard smiled brightly.
"If the message was that I'm no longer allowed inside my own observatory then yes, I got your message, and you-."
Sheppard frowned. "Actually, the message is for you to accompany me to the Deep Space Telemetry facility at Cheyenne Mountain to assist in-."
Rodney blinked in confusion before interrupting, spluttering, "Why would I want to go there when I have a better facility-?"
"Just trust me on this, McKay." Sheppard tapped a comm link. "I have McKay. Heading out now."
Rodney was still in a state of confusion when Sheppard manhandled him to a helicopter waiting just beyond. He was even more confused when the pilot got out, handing the controls over to Sheppard, who didn't waste anytime prepping the helicopter.
"What do you think...?" Rodney could barely hear himself speak and Sheppard pointed towards the headset before pulling on his own. "What do you think you're doing? I don't have-."
"Everything you require is being packed up as we speak, Doc."
Sheppard's lips twitched as if he knew more than he was saying, which didn't improve Rodney's temperament at all, but as the helicopter began to lift off the ground, Rodney scrambled to comply. Sheppard flew them to Hickam air force base on Oahu where a private jet was waiting but disappeared as soon as they were on-board. Rodney was not completely surprised when Sheppard's laconic voice came over the speaker from the cockpit, sounding like a typical, commercial pilot.
"We will be taking off shortly. Please fasten your seat belt and ensure your seat and tray is locked in the upright position."
Rodney rolled his eyes as it seemed he was the only passenger on-board, right until a few more people were hustled inside and directed to seats. One was a small, timid-looking Japanese woman with thick, black-rimmed glasses and the other his wild-haired Czech engineer who had followed him back to Hawaii after the conference. They had been working together since then and, for once, Rodney had to admit he had found a colleague who wasn't a total idiot. Not that he wanted to admit that to Zelenka.
The jet took off and Rodney found air travel a far different and infinitely more pleasant experience than usual, as normally he had to fly economy, surrounded by brightly clad tourists and squawking children. When the jet reached cruising altitude and the seat belt sign went off, Rodney was horrified when Sheppard appeared in the doorway to the cockpit.
"Who's flying the plane?" He squawked.
Sheppard rolled his eyes slightly but smiled sweetly. "That would be my copilot, Major Lorne." Sheppard's glance around caught the eye of everyone present. "We have a few hours before we reach our destination so let's put them to good use."
Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado
Rodney had never been fond of closed-in spaces, so the labyrinth of tunnels under Cheyenne Mountain soon left him feeling claustrophobic. He closed his eyes, screwing them shut tightly.
"McKay? You okay there, buddy?"
Rodney opened one eye to peek at a worried-looking Colonel Sheppard. "What could possibly give you the impression I'm okay with any of this?"
He grabbed Rodney's flailing hands, and his slightly cynical voice was overlaid with tones of commiseration. "If it helps, I feel the same way down here... sometimes. Try this." Sheppard forced Rodney to sit down "Close your eyes again... just not so tightly. Relax," he drawled the word, stretching it out luxuriously. "Now repeat after me, clear blue skies... and let the image form in your mind."
"Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies. Clear... blue skies." The image washed over him, of the clear skies at Mauna Kea, a deep azure blue that stretched high above him. "Huh! It's working."
He opened his eyes and found Sheppard's amazing hazel eyes only inches away, locking onto his for a few seconds longer than was considered appropriate. He saw pupils dilate with arousal but before Rodney could move forward to test out a new and exciting theory on those soft lips, Sheppard pulled back.
"I have to go now... do military stuff," he stated, rubbing the back of his head nervously, making his messy, dark hair stick up even more weirdly in places.
He was gone before Rodney could stop him but he'd seen the interest in Sheppard's eyes and had experienced a powerful desire for the handsome Colonel in return. His heart was hammering in his chest, the blue skies replaced by a vision of bright, intelligent hazel eyes glinting gold and green in the lights of his new cramped quarters. Rodney smiled crookedly as he sat back and stared at the door through which Sheppard had disappeared. He wasn't best known for his patience but Rodney knew he could be stubborn and relentless in his pursuit of science, and he knew this same strength of will could be applied to this new and intriguing theory concerning John Sheppard, a theory that was just waiting to be proved.
The next few months were filled with frantic activity as the clock started ticking down to the end of the world.
News of the comet had leaked despite the closed session and secret status of the conference. Once the rest of the planet realized it wasn't a hoax there was widespread panic with some nations falling into violence and chaos for the first few weeks.
Rodney was not surprised when the US government implemented Martial Law. The majority of other countries enforced their own version of Martial Law, dealing with those who broke the law swiftly in order to protect everyone else, and though those measures were at time Draconian, Rodney could see the necessity if they were to avoid a state of anarchy. Eventually, the majority of people settled back down into their lives, putting all their faith in the politicians, who made promises that their best and brightest scientists were working towards a solution.
Best and brightest, he thought sarcastically.
Rodney sighed as he stared at the series of whiteboards in the large underground laboratory. Yet another simulation had failed, and he was tired of seeing failure after failure. He was tired of watching hope dying in the eyes of those surrounding him, silently wondering why they had placed the heavy burden of saving the whole world on his shoulders.
Behind him Radek had slumped, head bowed, thick-lens glasses in his hands to momentarily ease the strain on his tired eyes.
"Out!" Rodney yelled, not bothering to turn around. "All of you. Out. Now."
Rodney remained staring at the whiteboards, ignoring the clatter of chairs screeching back, laptop cases snapping shut, and rapid footsteps on concrete floors. When he finally turned around he was not surprised to find Radek still slumped at his desk, having disobeyed his order. Radek merely raised his eyebrows defiantly before wiping the lenses of his glasses with a clean handkerchief. He waited patiently for Rodney to say something, anything, but all Rodney could do was stare back at him impotently. He had nothing. On a comet this size, even their largest weapon was useless, barely powerful enough to make a small crater on its surface, and certainly not enough to deflect the comet from its current destructive course.
Rodney slumped down onto the chair beside Radek, glancing over his shoulder when he heard the familiar footfall of military boots on concrete to find John standing on the threshold, leaning against the metal door frame. About the only good thing to come out of this disaster was the man who now moved forward to sit down beside him.
During these past hectic months Rodney hadn't exactly had the time to pursue John with the same passion he applied to his work, but he hadn't let go of that early theory either. Circumstances had forced him to take it slow, building a friendship that he hoped might one day blossom into something deeper, something passionate. There was no regulation that prevented him and John getting together, and with the end of the world imminent, no one would have given a damn even if there had been some archaic military law, yet John still held back, stopping Rodney from taking that final step.
They were friends though, and at a time like this Rodney needed a good friend. Not that he discounted Radek, but theirs was a different kind of friendship to the one he shared with John.
He watched as John's eyes worked along the lines of scrawled equations on the whiteboards, fully aware of John's ability to understand most of it even though he hid his intelligence beneath a laconic, flyboy attitude. John screwed up his face when he reached the end.
"I guess that's not a big enough explosion. We're gonna need a bigger bomb," he quipped, parodying a line from an old movie about a shark.
Rodney dropped his face into the palms of his hands, rubbing tired eyes. "Or at least a dozen with the same yield all targeting the same point on the comet at the exact same time."
"A cluster-bomb rocket."
Rodney snorted but then froze as the image popped into his mind. A cluster bomb. He looked across as Radek tensed too.
"Cluster bomb," Radek repeated.
"It could work. We could use the International Space Station..."
"To assemble a cluster bomb from the individual rockets..."
"Ferried up by the Space Shuttle."
Rodney turned back to John, who was looking both intrigued and confused as Rodney and Radek went back and forth. Without thinking, Rodney grabbed John's face in both hands and kissed him soundly on the lips.
He wasn't even aware of what he'd done until hours later, after he and Radek had turned the initial idea into a more solid plan.
"I kissed him!" The shock of what he had done rolled over Rodney but Radek merely rolled his eyes.
"Yes, Rodney. You kissed hot, American Colonel. Now, if you have finished with freak out then we have work to do."
Rodney opened his mouth to protest but then realized the futility of it. He had kissed John and John hadn't punched him for taking such a liberty. If anything, Rodney was certain he had felt the slightest pressure from John kissing him back, if only momentarily.
He blinked rapidly as the man uppermost in his thoughts seemed to appear magically right in front of him.
"Rodney?" John smiled indulgently at him with a sweet twist of his perfect lips, enough to get Rodney's heart racing once more, but all Rodney could do was stand and stare at him stupidly.
"O...kay." John drew out the word. "Time for bed."
"With you?" Rodney blurted out.
Both of John's eyebrows climbed towards his messy hair, the color rising in his cheeks. His eyes skittered sideways towards Radek, embarrassed, but Rodney could tell he was most definitely interested.
John grabbed Rodney's arm and tugged at him until Rodney got the message and followed him from the laboratory back to his quarters. Unfortunately, he was asleep within seconds of his head hitting the pillow, and when he awoke he was disappointed to find himself half undressed but wholly alone.
International Space Station (ISS)
Despite becoming a world renowned astrophysicist, Rodney had never expected to travel into space, and quite frankly, it was an honor he could have done without, he thought as he listened to the countdown. He was strapped tightly into a seat behind the pilot but the pilot wasn't John and, strangely, that made Rodney feel even more nervous. Instead John was occupying the Mission Commander's seat, reeling off confirmations as he and the pilot finished the pre-launch checks on the Space Shuttle.
This was it; the final countdown, and Rodney felt the vibrations strengthen as the engines came online, cursing his memory of all the disastrous events in NASA's spaceflight history. He heard John's voice over the Shuttle's private channel.
"You doing okay there, buddy?"
"If I said no, would you stop the launch?"
John pretended to think about it for a moment. "No."
The pilot, someone called Miller, snorted softly while Kusanagi lost her look of wild-eyed terror for a moment, blinking owlishly at him from behind her thick-rimmed glasses. Rodney couldn't see the other scientists making up the seven-man crew as they were seated on the mid-deck just below the flight deck.
He had worked with Peter Grodin, a British weapons specialist, and Radek had spoken highly of the German scientist whose name Rodney couldn't recall, but she was supposedly an expert in her field. The other seat was reserved for an aerospace medical expert, someone who had become a friend over the past weeks and yet who was just as reluctant to be aboard as Rodney: Dr. Carson Beckett.
Radek was already on-board the International Space Station, having gone up in the Russian Soyuz rocket along with another engineer two weeks earlier. Even the Soyuz captain had been chosen for his mechanical engineering skills. In addition to the 3-man crew already on the ISS, this brought the total of personnel on-board the ISS to its maximum capacity of 13, a number that was sustainable for only a few weeks.
Rodney had tried to convince the US government that Radek was fully capable of constructing the Salvation rocket alone, using his and Rodney's designs, but for some inexplicable reason the Media had latched onto him and John Sheppard as the saviors of the human race. They wanted both of them up there to transmit daily updates that could be edited and sent around the world.
At least that new celebrity status and his piloting skills, which extended to practically anything that could fly, had guaranteed John a seat on the Shuttle with him. Otherwise they would have had to drag Rodney onto the Shuttle kicking and screaming all the way, or more likely, heavily sedated.
There was a very good reason why he was an astrophysicist and not an astronaut, after all.
"Three. Two. One. We have liftoff."
Rodney scrunched his eyes closed and murmured over and over his favorite litany, "Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies," until even that was impossible due to the tremendous forces pushing him hard into his seat. He tried to carry on the litany inside his mind but flashes of John appeared instead. Their first meeting, slices of moments since then - laughter, frustration, anger, triumph... that single, brief kiss and the promise it seemed to hold in John's beautiful eyes.
The tremendous pressure seemed to go on for an eternity until, suddenly, it was gone, leaving Rodney feeling almost euphoric with relief. They had made it, reaching escape velocity to hurl themselves beyond the gravitational pull of the Earth. From here they would match the orbit and speed of the International Space Station and dock with it in just a few hours. It would be crowded as rockets and shuttles had been going back and forth from every country with a space program for the past month, bringing up all the equipment needed to build Salvation, the cluster rocket they would aim towards Helena-Lee comet in the hope of deflecting it off its present course.
Rodney was fully aware that time was a major factor. As the comet got closer to Earth, a greater angle of deflection would be needed. Currently, just a fraction of a degree would be enough to send it on a new course, passing harmlessly through the Solar System. However, with each passing day the required angle grew larger, and with it the force of the explosion needed to deflect it. He had already estimated the critical point beyond which all their efforts would be in vain, and it was frighteningly close.
The existence of the ISS was the only reason he had not given up all hope already.
A single missile built on Earth and carrying the massive yield required to deflect the comet would never have escaped the Earth's atmosphere. Every test scenario had it falling back to Earth and causing an extinction level event on impact.
Bringing fifty individual missiles to the ISS, supplied from countries around the world, and then building a framework to hold them together and launch them at Helena-Lee was still a monumental task. But at least the lack of gravity balanced out in their favor against the risk of building the cluster rocket while wearing bulky spacesuits.
And that was something else Rodney was not looking forward to: space walks... and space sickness.
Perhaps it was fortunate they had Carson on-board after all as Rodney had a feeling he would be needing his medical expertise on a daily basis.
Rodney didn't waste anytime once he was free to move about, using the hours until they reached the ISS to work on his calculations and blueprints. As soon as they docked successfully, he got out of the bulky flight suit and headed straight into a conference with Radek. There would be time to stop and admire the incredible view of Earth spinning majestically below them eventually, but not now. There was still too much work to be done.
On Earth it would have taken months to construct Salvation using triple the number of crew, but they did not have the luxury of time or human resources up here, working around the clock in shifts.
Dimenhydrinate patches kept the motion sickness at bay until he acclimatized after a few days, but Rodney found he needed sleeping pills due to the change in illumination and varying light and dark cycles, and the noise level from constantly operating fans and equipment. Without the sleeping drugs he was too tired to concentrate but he could tell Carson was concerned about him.
On the fifth day, Rodney headed for his favorite bunk in the quietest section, surprised when he found John waiting for him instead of Carson.
"He's been... detained so I figured, maybe I could offer an alternative to sleeping pills."
Too fatigued to argue, Rodney floated towards the bunk, but looked back in confusion when John sealed the hatch behind them, cutting them off from the rest of the station. John ushered him onto the bunk, face down, and then floated to sit beside him, anchoring himself. The strong hands that dug into the muscles of his neck and shoulders had him groaning in relief. Although being weightless had taken most of the strain off his body, tension had him knotted up in places.
He could still feel the vibrations of the station transmitted through the bunk, and the sound of the air and water filtration and recycling systems was still annoyingly loud, but it all dulled to a manageable level as he focused on those strong, talented fingers digging into muscle. He felt a feather-light brush against his hair and realized John was leaning over him. It took a moment and a bit of maneuvering to turn onto his back but it was worth it for the hands that cupped his face.
John stared hard at him for a moment before leaning in to kiss him.
As far as first times went it wasn't the best experience but it was exactly what Rodney needed right then, plus it was John, and that made it perfect. He was asleep within seconds and when he awoke hours later he felt refreshed for the first time in months.
Launch day came twelve days later, and Rodney double-checked his calculations with Radek and several other trusted mathematicians, including Jeannie. This was Earth's one and only chance. It would take weeks for Salvation to reach Helena-Lee, and if the rocket's trajectory was off by even a fraction then it might miss the comet altogether.
He looked around at the now familiar faces of the ISS Salvation crew, who had crowded into the single module, seeing hope mingled with stoic acceptance. A slight nod from each was all he needed, and once John - as Mission Commander - gave his final approval, Rodney hit the ENTER button.
Rodney had placed the laptop beneath the view-port looking out over the massive cluster rocket. His eyes moved from the screen to the rocket and back again as the remote controlled thrusters maneuvered it a safe distance away from the ISS.
He swallowed hard because this was the moment of truth. If it failed now then their window of opportunity would be lost – and Earth along with it.
"Salvation is in position."
"Fire main propulsion," John ordered, and Rodney tapped in the launch code, hitting ENTER one last time.
A collective sigh of relief filled the module as the engines fired, followed by cheers as Salvation was launched. Now all that was left to do was return to Earth... and wait.
Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado
Two hundred and fourteen days earlier, Rodney had been just another astrophysicist studying the stars above their heads, until he realized the newly discovered Helena-Lee comet was heading straight for Earth. Just seven months and a handful of days ago his revelation had sent the world spinning into chaos as the human race faced annihilation, but it also brought John Sheppard into his life.
His friend and now, also his lover.
Twenty-three days ago, he had launched Salvation, and in just a few minutes time the whole world would learn if the cluster rocket had lived up to its name - or not. If all had gone according to his calculations then Salvation had already impacted on the surface of Helena-Lee, and all they needed now was confirmation that it had made enough of a difference in the comet's trajectory for it to miss Earth.
All of those who had played an integral part of the mission were present as Rodney and Radek waited for the figures to start scrolling across the main screen.
"YES," Radek exclaimed. "Salvation has impacted on surface."
Rodney closed his eyes in relief. They'd had only minimal remote control once Salvation launched, able to make only minor course corrections, trusting mostly in Rodney's calculations, but even he could not account for all variables, especially over such a great distance. Knowing Salvation had hit its target was the first major hurdle overcome. Now they were waiting to see if it had made enough of a difference.
"Comet trajectory is being processed," Radek stated.
Minutes passed in tense silence as the view screen was replaced with a two dimensional representation of the Solar System and the path of the approaching comet.
Several screams and triumphant shouts went up, drowning out Radek's voice as the image plotted the comet's new course. The deflection angle was sufficient to send it passing beyond any critical influence on Earth, where it would eventually be caught in Jupiter's massive gravity field and destroyed.
Hugs, handshakes, and back slaps had Rodney tottering as he was congratulated but he was too ecstatic to care, looking to the one person who truly mattered to him. For once John abandoned his reticence for public displays of affection, and Rodney hugged him tightly, pulling back only enough to kiss him soundly while the cheers went on around them.
The Earth was saved.
Mauna Kea Observatories, Hawaii
For once Rodney abandoned his telescope and stood with his arm wrapped tightly around John's waist as they looked up into the clear night sky from a viewing platform set up beneath the main dish. Radek and several others from the Salvation mission stood close by with their loved ones, gazing up with equal awe.
Far above them Rodney watched as comet Helena-Lee passed overhead, close enough for him to make out her fiery tail with his own eyes yet far enough away to cause only minimal disruption on Earth. There would be high tides and storms over the next few days, but nothing the authorities couldn't handle.
Quite a few others had joined them this night. They had laid out blankets on the grass that surrounded the observatory and every now and then Rodney could hear the sound of a Champagne cork popping. Despite the clarity of the night sky this high up, Rodney wasn't really sure why any of them had chosen to make this journey but John simply shrugged.
"Perhaps they simply want to share this historic moment with some of the people who'd had made it possible."
Rodney considered that for a moment. "Huh!"
Another Champagne cork popped right beside him, surprising him, and Rodney accepted the glass that was thrust into his hand.
"To Salvation," Radek stated.
Rodney and John raised their glasses, repeating the toast softly.
As he sipped at his Champagne Rodney filtered out the rest of the world, leaning his head on John's shoulder as Helena-Lee passed them by. Two hundred and fifty-three days ago he was all alone and facing the possible end of all life on Earth. Now he was looking forward to a bright and promising future, with the man he loved by his side.