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The Brain Machine

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It starts out as a dream, a fragment of something. John feels it flutter behind his eyelids, elusive and blurry. His dream self stretches out a hand and finds nothing but smoke or water. When he opens his eyes, it's to a darkened room, his darkened room, and midnight and nothing.

***

John feels haunted, feels hollow, carved out and empty. Feels the air whistle through him and howl past his shoulders. He prowls the corridors at night, to escape the nightmares. Nightmares where he is alone, trapped, underwater or in a room or both, where he can't breath, where he suffocates slowly and until the water is everywhere, in him and around him and it fills him up and then he is the water.

Nightmares where he can't escape.

***

Blue white, electric water. Fabric or weeds, clinging, binding, a hand white as bone. His ankle. His neck. His wrists.

Scream, scream- bubbles. Silence.

Water. Water.

Darkness.

***

A hand on his shoulder, suddenly. He grabs it, twists, hears a wounded animal howl as he hauls the body over his shoulder, breath coming quick, his heart rattling like seashells. Like bones.

"What the- OW!" His vision breaks like the surface of the ocean, lungs at their limit it seems, darkness around the edges.

But it's only McKay. Only-

"WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM?!" McKay writhes on the floor, hands on his back, wincing. "You don't go around throwing people!" Sheppard tries to breathe, tries to, tries to slow down the adrenaline in his body. The fear still fills him, roiling hot and prickly under his skin.

When McKay finally stands up, John is gone. Footsteps echo down the hallway like drums.

***

John paces like a caged animal, slams his palm into the wall. He is jittery, strung-out on coffee and sleepless nights.

A week. A week where if he so much as drifts off to sleep, the nightmares catch hold of him. A week where he drinks coffee after coffee and jogs around the halls between cups, trains with the marines until all he can feel and think and see when he closes his eyes is action and fighting and the ache in his feet and in his head.

He kicks his bed until his foot throbs and focuses on that, on that pain. He limps to his bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror, splashes water in his face, bites his lip until it bleeds. He needs this, needs this pain to stay awake and alive. Or else he'll blink too long and slip away back into that underwater chamber, where all he breathes is stale salt water and darkness...

***

He spins slowly, flails about, can't find up, can't find air. The water impedes his movements. His hands, chilled and too soft, too white, skate across the wall, searching for something, feels a pattern carved on the wall. His nails are too bright.

His skin is the color of moonlight, almost translucent. Water burns his lungs and eyes. He can't hold out any longer.

He kicks once more to stay afloat, clothes dragging him downward to the darkest water.

A hand grabs his ankle.

Bubbles rise from his mouth, the last of his air and he tries to see, to kick off the ice grip around his ankle, to free himself, but his vision darkens and water fills his mouth, burns salt-sharp down his throat and he can't help but breathe it in and sink like a stone, eyes slowly closing and everything falling away.

***

John wakes up gasping. Air won't fill his lungs, he can't breathe. He scrabbles at his throat and feels hands on his face, hands that aren't his. His eyes shoot open as he tries to push away whoever it is that's escaped his dream, who ever has a hold on him. His vision is darkening again, he's unable to force oxygen into his lungs, drowning.

"John, John! Calm down, it's just me!" He relaxes instantly at the voice. McKay. Slowly, he is able to draw a rattling breath into his lungs, the air so sweet it hurts. He feels tears in his eyes. He blinks and sees that he's on his floor. His head throbs.

"What..." His voice scratches his throat. He has to swallow several times to work his voice properly. "What happened?" He touches his forehead and his fingertips come away bloodied.

McKay doesn't answer. He gently pries open John's eyes, leans in to check his pupils as he presses a wad of gauze to John's forehead.

"Rodney. What. Happened." John grabs McKay's wrist, tries to sit up and fails, head spinning.

McKay sighs.

"I came here to ask why you threw me across the hallway and found you curled up unconscious on the floor. Nearest I can tell, you slipped and banged your head on the corner of the sink. Do you remember anything?" John looks up and sees a smear of blood on the sharp corner of the sink. He didn't slip. He fell asleep. He swallows and looks away, drops McKay's hand.

"No. Nothing. I can take care of myself, you should leave." He tries again, to sit up, slower, and manages. His head is light, airy, and he's almost too dizzy to rise. McKay doesn't look at him. He stares at the floor, hands gripping the gauze in his lap.

"Look, there's...there's something else." He sighs and looks tentatively up at John. "While you were out. You were mumbling. And choking." His eyes pin John to the wall. "You said 'Help me', John. You practically screamed it."

"I was just dreaming, McKay." John looks away, tries to make his tone sound light. He fails, his voice cracking halfway through McKay.

"John. You were choking in your sleep. And gurgling. You were practically having a seizure."

"I SAID I WAS OKAY. Just drop it, McKay." John pulls himself to a stand and just leaves.

***

McKay watches him leave with a lump in his throat. His worry is a sharp burr in his chest. Watching his best friend writhe and choke to death in his sleep while he was helpless to wake him up, make him breathe?

He shudders. John most definitely does not have 'it' under control. He's also not the one to ever ask for help.

If McKay is good at one thing, it's taking control of a situation. It's saving the day.

He stands up and leaves John's quarters, his steps taking him in the direction of the infirmary.

***

John's so tired he wants to scratch his eyes out. He feels his eyelids slipping slowly closed, against his will. He has to bite his tongue to keep himself awake.

After he left his quarters, left McKay, he ran the long way to the West Pier. Now he stands, staring into the sun, trying not to think about everything, about the nightmares, McKay, how he feels like a wild animal all the time, restless and feral.

He can't go back to his quarters- McKay might still be there. He can't go to the mess- they're starting to get suspicious about his caffeine intake. There's only one place he can go.

He runs towards the jumper bay.

***

He wakes to metallic shouting and a long, animal-like keening. Something cold and sharp digs into his forehead and his first thought is that he can't breathe. Everything beyond his eyelids is blue and cold. His second thought is that he's drowning, still, vestiges of his nightmares colder than ice water.

And then he remembers and breathes.

He was flying the jumper. He must have-

The shouting morphs into "SHEPPARD. SHEPPARD, DO YOU READ?!" in his ear. His radio. He switches it on, his limbs moving sluggishly.

"This is Sheppard." His throat is raw. And the recognition comes to him: the keening, the wailing, it was him.

"OHMYGOD, DON'T DO THAT." Definitely Rodney. "DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU'VE PUT US THROUGH?!" He can't open his eyes entirely yet. He lets Rodney's shouting wash over him as he gains strength.

"I'm...not entirely sure what's happened." He hears cloth rustling.

"John?" Carson. "What is the last thing you remember?"

The sky, empty and endless. Peaceful, calming. Relaxing.

"I was flying the jumper."

"And?"

"And then Rodney was shouting in my ear. I'm sorry, doc, that's all I can remember."

But he knows. He fell asleep.

He's still bone tired. His eyes are still closed. In a panic, he opens his eyes.

He's still in the jumper, head on the console and throbbing. He lifts his head and nearly has a heart attack.

The jumper is underwater.

All his nightmares rush back, pump through his body with adrenaline and fear. He's trapped, underwater. He's going to run out of air.

His throat practically closes up and he stands up, wheezing. It's all he can see, the water. Dark blue and endless. Suffocatingly dark. He feels like there's a hand on his chest, pushing down.

"John?" He can't respond, can't close his eyes, can't tear his eyes away from the endless dark ahead of him. He hears rustling again.

"John!" Rodney's voice is taut with tension. "John, answer me!"

"I'm...underwater." John's voice is small and tinny and fragile. He starts panting into the radio.

"Yes, yes you are. Your jumper went down unexpectedly about an hour ago."

John blinks and sees that room, dark and filled with water, feels a bone-chilling hand around his ankle.

"John?!"

"How much...air do I have?" His vision darkens around the edges. He can't stop panting.

"John, are you all right?" Carson. "You sound like you're running a marathon, lad. Relax, you will be-"

"HOW MUCH TIME?" John can't think, can't focus, his heart rapidly thrumming in his chest. There is a temporary silence on the other end.

"John, what the hell? The jumper's not even damaged, you need to get a hold of yourself and fly it out of there!"

But he can't, he can't. He can't look at the emptiness in front of him.

"Not again," he moans, "I can't do this again."

"Do what?"

"Drown," he rasps. He imagines the water filling his lungs, burning, every inhale a step closer to his death. His clothes will become waterlogged; his tac vest will drag him down and he will struggle to free himself and fail as he loses oxygen to his brain, to his muscles. He will sink.

He starts to shiver violently.

"John, get a hold of yourself. John! It's just a dream."

"No-" He traces his fingertips over a design in the wall, a design so familiar, concentric circles and a wavy line. The design, the carving, glows blue faintly in the darkness as he slips downward, as his eyes close slowly...

"I know how scared you are. It happened to me once, remember?"

He almost remembers: Rodney, trapped in a cracked Puddlejumper at the bottom of the ocean, life support failing.

"It happened to me but worse and I'm still here." Yes, yes he is. He survived. He had cold water and no air and he's alive.

"Rodney-" He sees, still, the dark waters, the cold weight of his clothes as they drag him slowly down.

"Fly the jumper, John."

John maneuvers himself into the Pilot's chair, closes his eyes and feels the jumper's controls pulse gently blue beneath his hands.

He takes a shuddering breath. He's alive. It's not real. He never drowned, he could do this.

"Fly it." The dark-water-vision evaporates. He opens his eyes slowly. The control panel lights up and he feels it waiting for command. He thinks, up.

***

As soon as John lands the jumper in the bay, he falls out of the chair into a little ball on the floor. Every muscle is weak. He is still shaking. His exhaustion overwhelms him.

The jumper hatchback opens and Rodney McKay rushes aboard, followed by Carson's medical crew.

Rodney kneels beside John and puts his hand on his cheek. His skin is cold and clammy. He slowly brushes his thumb across John's bottom lip and jerks his hand away when Carson's crew pushes past him to hoist John onto the stretcher they finished setting up.

John doesn't feel or see any of this. He is trapped in a dark room, drowning and drowning and drowning.