The jumper hummed to John in his sleep, a soft buzzy murmur that carried him as gently and as warmly as he would have carried a puppy. He was just awake enough to know where he was, and asleep enough to see the stars blurring past the walls. He'd been traveling a long, long time.
"Your sleep cycle has ended," the jumper said, and John sighed.
"I know," he said, not opening his eyes.
"Do you wish to extend the cycle?"
"No. No, I'm awake." He sighed again and stretched, yawning hugely. "I'm up." He rose and stretched more, then twisted, hearing his back pop.
"Your exercise cycle will begin in four minutes and fifty seconds," the jumper said.
"Just time to wash my face," John said. The head was too tiny to close the door, but there was nobody here but him and the jumper. He pissed, rinsed his face and hands, brushed his teeth, and turned to find the stationary bicycle extruding from the jumper's interior.
"Forty minutes," the jumper said.
John climbed onto the bike and began to cycle. A light breeze blew in his face, but he wasn't fooled; it didn't smell like open air but just of jumper. "Talk to me," he said.
"Status report," the jumper said. "Ambient interior temperature: sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Relative humidity: forty-seven percent. Relativistic speed of travel: three-quarters light. We have been traveling for --"
"I know that part," John interrupted it.
"Should I read to you?"
"Yeah. Select randomly."
The jumper said, "Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird. They sat up in their beds, and then
They lay back down again. In the night wind, the goat's head
Swayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintly
The way the moonlight shone on the train track miles away
Beside which the goat's headless body lay. Some boys
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything."
"Okay, that's enough of that. Jesus. Try something else."
It said, "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue."
John thought that was better and cycled faster as the jumper recited. He imagined the wood near Athens and foolish humans caught in the whims of beings greater and stranger than they could imagine. John wondered if he were Lysander, or more likely Bottom. Bully Bottom! he thought, smiling grimly as he pedaled harder.
"Forty minutes," the jumper said. "Cool down for five."
He ate afterwards, something that looked like pine bark and tasted like shit, and drank the flat-tasting water. That had been his only food and drink for a long time, so long that he'd forbidden himself to think about turkey sandwiches, crispy tacos, or beer. He'd used to dream about food, waking up hungry, but those dreams had grown vague.
He tidied up the interior of the jumper, checking supplies, mending the frayed hem of his jacket and a tiny hole in one of his black tee shirts. "Time, time, time, see what's become of me," he sang under his breath. "While I looked around for my possibilities I was so hard to please."
"Simon and Garfunkel," the jumper said softly. "From 1966. Before you were born."
"Did you download everything?" John asked.
"You need complete records in the case of any eventuality."
"Simon and Garfunkel? What's gonna happen out here that you need to know Simon and Garfunkel?" He knew the jumper wouldn't answer; some questions it seemed to consider rhetorical.
He sat for a while in the pilot's chair, not that he needed to. The auto-pilot had been guiding them for so long. He was mostly a passenger, there just in case. He'd stopped asking how far or how long a long time ago. He just lived as best he could, quietly, tidily, in a puddlejumper far from home.
He did permit himself to remember Atlantis. He even had a picture of her, a photograph someone had taken from a jumper coming from the mainland. Two pictures, if you counted the abstract watercolor that Lorne had done. John had stuck both of them in corners of the windscreen so when he sat in the pilot seat looking out at the almost unchanging field of stars, he could also see why he was out there.
He leaned back, getting comfortable. He had nothing to do for a long, long time. He'd finished War and Peace a long time ago, had read The Killer Angels and Gods and Generals, Stars in their Courses, moved to World War II, and then began dipping into Jane Austen. Everyone in Atlantis had contributed to his library before he'd left, not that there'd been many left in Atlantis by then.
He sighed and looked at the smudged picture in the corner of the windscreen. Light glared off it, and beyond was nowhere any human had ever been. His eyes didn't see the stars, though; he saw Elizabeth saying goodbye, thinner than ever, her collarbones sharp above the neckline of her red blouse. Radek with taped together glasses. Radek had given the jumper its voice, a nice neutral American one that sounded, John guessed, a bit like himself. At the time he was mildly irritated with Radek, but now he was grateful that he hadn't given it the voice of someone they knew. That would have been unbearable.
Ronon had been there as well when John had left, his dreadlocks gone, his head bald and scarred. Chuck, always calm, always in the background; Lorne, looking worried and hunched with the burden of Atlantis that John was leaving him. And all the others, scientists and support staff and military, ragged and thin.
"Should I read to you?" the jumper asked.
"No, I'm fine," he lied, but didn't go back to his book.
"The intelligent life in this region of the galaxy went extinct almost two million Earth years ago," it said. Sometimes it did that, gave him trivia about the region he was passing through.
"The people you call the Ancients had a scale of development; life here would have been at stage three at its most successful."
"What's current Earth development on that scale?"
"Approximately point five."
He raised his eyebrows, and wished he could hear Rodney's response to that. "Not so far along the scale, then."
"No. The scale is logarithmic."
"Hmm. How far along were the Ancients?"
"They considered themselves to be at six point four."
"Not at ten?"
"Who was at ten?" The jumper didn't answer. Sometimes it did that, too, just stopped responding. After all this time, John was used to its idiosyncrasies. He figured Radek had programmed them in to keep John entertained, but who the hell knew. Maybe all he'd done was give voice to the jumper and it had already been weird. After all, it was alien.
But what wasn't alien? he asked himself. Ronon was alien. Teyla. Chaya had been really alien. All the ascended and de-ascended creatures they'd met, both in the Milky Way and in the Pegasus galaxies. The Genii. The Ori. The Goa'uld. Really, John was pretty fucking alien himself, he thought, with such a strong ATA gene. Freak, he told himself, and forced himself to concentrate on the book in his hands.
He kept a twenty-four hour day, sixteen hours of light, eight hours of dark. Not that he knew what an "hour" meant when traveling at these speeds, but still. He wanted the regularity. His body demanded it, still remembering the rise and set of a star so distant it might as well not exist. He remembered surfing at dawn, dinners at midnight, tailgate parties that lasted all day, jumping straight from his bed into a fighter . . . He tried to mimic the quotidian even though he was living the extraordinary.
The jumper said, "It is time for your dinner. Please don't skip it tonight."
John had noticed that varying his regime seemed to agitate the jumper. He wondered if Radek had programmed that in, too, to keep him from forgetting to eat or wash. "Okay, Mom," he said. "Wish we had some beer."
To his surprise, the jumper said, "Look in the last locker on the port side, underneath the seat, behind the rescue gear."
"Are you shittin' me?" he asked, but obeyed. "I'll be goddamned." Someone, and again he thought it had been Radek, had put a bottle of Athosian ale. Lorne had created labels for the different ales; this was what Halling called "Mid-winter," and what Rodney, after one swallow, had called Be Careful or You'll Sleep with Someone You Shouldn't. John laughed and pulled it carefully from its hiding place. "You been holding out on me, Jumper," he said, but the jumper didn't answer.
The ale was very warm, and maybe a bit stale, but it tasted like heaven. "All I had to do was ask?" he asked the jumper. He wondered what else had been hidden that he just had to ask for. "Steak," he tried. "Whiskey? Chocolate?" But if there was any, the jumper wasn't telling.
After so long without, the ale went straight to his head and he fell asleep sitting up, something he was doing too often. As always, his dreams were vivid, flowing like water over him, so gently that he didn't know he was dreaming. And as almost always, Rodney was in his dreams, this time in a kitchen somewhere, the late afternoon sunlight pooling at his feet while he chopped onions and complained. "Is that extra virgin olive oil?" he asked John. "Is it Italian? Portuguese?"
"I didn't know you cooked," John said, handing him the bottle of oil.
Rodney pointed at the counter with his elbow. "Busy here," he said, "and what does it look like I'm doing? Pour a tablespoon into the skillet. Just pour, I'll tell you -- stop! Okay. Let it heat for a moment, just till you can smell the oil." He sniffed deeply. "Mm. Now toss in the garlic. Oh god, doesn't that smell heavenly?"
John nodded, poking at the garlic with a long wooden spoon. "Now what?"
"Now the onions." Rodney scooped up the pieces with his hands and dropped them into the sizzling pan. "Stir, stir!" John stirred. "Okay, a bit of sugar, a bit of salt, and now we let them all kind of melt together."
"What'll this be?"
"The topping for our pizza."
"Pizza. God, that sounds good," John said, licking his lips. Rodney stared at him. "What?"
"Just -- that thing you do, that," and he licked his own lips.
"What about it?" John snapped, embarrassed.
"Nothing. Keep stirring, stir." Rodney continued to watch John's face.
"I thought you were the cook; you should be stirring."
Rodney shook his head and stood back, hands on his hips. "Not here," he said softly. His expression made John turn away, back to the pan of rich smelling onions and garlic.
The jumper woke him by gently vibrating and beeping. "Yeah, what?" he mumbled, rubbing his face.
"We will arrive in twelve hours," it said, shocking him into full wakefulness. "Please prepare."
"Arrive?" he repeated stupidly. He staggered to his feet and back to the head. Feeling compelled and idiotic, he shaved for the first time in months, the jumper hoovering up his whiskers as they fell. "Is that why you gave me the ale?" he asked through a mouthful of toothpaste foam.
"You asked for it," the jumper said.
"I've asked for lots of things."
"I can't give you everything you ask for," it said, and he let it go. He hadn't been dressing really, just a tee shirt and sweat pants, but he felt as though he should put on a uniform today. "Uh, what should I wear?" he finally asked.
"Prepare for an EVA."
"Shit," he said, and sighed. No wonder the jumper was giving him twelve hours to prep. One person getting ready for an EVA was not an easy task, plus he hated the fucking urine containment device. "So where are we?"
"The Ancients called it Aether. The people before them called it Aestus. The people before them called it Turms. The people before them --"
"Okay, thanks. Got it." John went back to the long job of prepping for his EVA on Aether. He'd gotten really good during this flight of focusing on only the task at hand. Zen-like, he supposed, when he let himself think about it, but mostly he didn't because it always led to thinking about Teyla. Her face came into his mind, so he resolutely blocked it out and stared at the LVCG he needed to get on.
Each piece of the suit he handled brought memories to him in a way he hadn't suffered before. He remembered Radek developing the Snoopy cap's communications, lighter-weight than anything used on Earth. Elizabeth herself had glued the Atlantis patch onto the Hard Upper Torso. He tested the suit's regulator, remembering scuba diving off Atlantis. Every piece of equipment said home to him.
He ate lightly before putting the outer equipment on, thinking of all the last meals he'd had in his life and who he'd shared them with. When he'd cleaned up, the jumper said, "Prepare for entry. Near vacuum. Please sit." He sat, clasping his hands and staring out the windscreen.
It was a big pewter colored ball that rapidly filled the windscreen, blotting out the stars beyond it. "How big?" he asked.
"Approximately one-third the size of Earth."
Lower gravity, then. Well, he'd have almost two hundred pounds of equipment on him. He felt himself sink into the calm state he fell into in emergencies, when everything seemed to move more slowly and his thoughts were like crystals, sharp and clear and sequential. "Landing," the jumper said. "Prepare for landing." It settled down gently, better than he could have. Radek had done a brilliant job.
He rose to peer out at the landscape. "Exterior lights," he murmured, and they clicked on. A dead world. "Why Aether," he asked, but the jumper didn't respond. After a moment, he returned to the task of dressing himself for vacuum.
Seventeen layers of shit, he thought, counting them off. The HUT was especially difficult to get into, but he took his time, another kind of meditation, making sure that every seal was secure. Finally, he fit the helmet over the Snoopy cap and pulled on the gloves, which permitted him to pressurize the suit. "Jumper? You there?" he asked, his voice echoing in his head.
"Checking systems," it replied. "You are good to go."
"Roger that," he said. He pulled the lever that opened the hatch. To his surprise, he could hear a sudden hissing. "Jumper?"
"Pressure seal, John," it said. "You may exit."
He stepped outside, and onto the melted silver surface. The hatch closed behind him, and he was alone on another world.
He took a few cautious paces, testing his balance. The ground was firm beneath his boots. He was warm, the oxygen hissing in his ears was fresh, and he was finally here. "Now what," he wondered aloud.
He looked around, but the shortened horizon made him uncomfortable, so he kept his glance only a few feet ahead of his boots. The planetoid was a uniform color, a dull silver. No dust kicked up when he took a step, even when he deliberately dug his heel into the surface. Rings of past meteors covered the surface; it looked like a pool in a fierce rain, but utterly motionless.
The database had pinpointed this planetoid as the source of the Ancient's knowledge. The day the linguists had discovered it had been shocking; somehow everyone, including John, had assumed the Ancients had done all their own research. He remembered Elizabeth explaining at a meeting that this wasn't so. "They built on the shoulders of giants. According to what Doctor Szmodis discovered, there has been intelligent, sophisticated life in this galaxy for millions of years."
Szmodis had nodded enthusiastically. "The Ancients were brilliant magpies who scavenged from other cultures. They built their long-distance ships in part so they could find new technologies. I don't want to take any credit from them, but they're just one of many races to exploit the environmental niche of intelligence."
"Now it is our turn," Radek said, but he'd been serious. "We need this technology if we are ever to repair or replace the ZPM. We need the raw material that the Ancients took."
"Magpies," John had said, and then, "I'll go get it."
Big fuss, he remembered, as he finally stood on what had caused all the fuss. Big, big fuss, but he remained steady and in the end, as he'd known he would, he won the argument. Because what choices did they have? Rodney stuck on Earth, maybe dead; a third of the Atlantis population dead or seriously wounded; no hope of the Daedalus returning. They could stay in Atlantis, migrate off-world, or die, or John could try to bring back the raw materials they needed. "Easy as pie," he'd said.
He kept waiting to hear something: the crunch of the soil beneath his boots, a wind whistling past him, anything, but all he could hear was the regulator softly huffing as he breathed. "Easy as pie," he repeated to himself, except what the hell was he supposed to do now that he was here? It had seemed a lot clearer in the planning stages.
A tiny movement caught his eye and he turned to watch for it. A little ripple in the surface. He walked toward it, slow and clumsy. He realized he was on the shore of an enormous ocean the same color as the land: molten pewter. The ocean was thick and viscous and barely moved, just slow ripples as if the planet were breathing.
Then he did hear a noise, over his headset, and when he turned, he saw the jumper slowly melt into the same viscous liquid, just shiver like mercury and slide away. "Hey," he said, and then "Hey! Jumper! Shit!" He stared around him at the nearly featureless world. There was no sign that the jumper had ever set down here, that it had ever existed.
"John," someone said, and he spun, nearly falling. Rodney stood a few feet from him, looking uncomfortable and nervous.
"Oh, fuck, I'm dead," John said. He wanted to sit down but he knew he'd never get up again if he did. Of course, what did that matter? He couldn't get off this planet now anyway. "The jumper melted," he said to Rodney, who nodded.
"Actually, I'm the jumper," he said, and crossed his arms nervously. "And Atlantis. Mostly Atlantis."
"You're Atlantis. And the jumper."
"Yeah. Kind of. It's hard to explain."
"Thanks for bringing me back here."
"You're welcome. What do you mean, back here?"
Rodney knelt, and dipped a hand into the ocean, letting the silvery liquid run off his fingers, slow thick drops falling impossibly slowly and melding back into the ocean. "This is Atlantis. The Ancients didn't create Atlantis. They grew it, from here."
"Why do you look like McKay?"
Rodney shrugged. "Seemed easiest to do. You see him so clearly. And he's woven into the fabric of the computer system, more than anyone else."
"You can breathe this? Whatever this is?"
"No real atmosphere here, and no, I don't breathe it. I don't need to breathe. I am this." Rodney stood, shaking his hand. "Thank you for bringing me back," he said again. "I have some things to do, and then we'll go home. You'll be able to fix Atlantis." Rodney looked guilty. "First, I'll have to fix you, though. You're close, but not an exact match."
"Why can't you do it? Be Rodney there, too?"
Rodney shook his head. "Don't think of me as Rodney. Sometimes you'd call me Jumper. That would do. I'm not Rodney. Rodney's stuck in another galaxy. I can't hear him at all anymore." He looked sadly at John. "You're all I have now."
John closed his eyes. He was crazy. All these months and months alone in the jumper had driven him crazy. "I'm so tired," he said, without opening his eyes. "I miss everybody so much. And now I've let them down."
"No, no, you haven't," Rodney insisted. He took a step closer to John. His face was exactly how John remembered Rodney's: the same lines at the corners of his eyes, the same sad mouth, the same thinning hair.
"I missed you so much," John whispered. "I didn't know. It was always me leaving, so I didn't know."
"I know," Rodney said, and rested his hand against John's visor. "I know what you did. That's why you're here. It won't hurt, John. I promise. But I can't unmake you when it's over. You'll have this always."
"And it'll save Atlantis? The power supply --"
"I know. I was there, I was with you. It's all programmed in me. Jane Austen and ZPMs. Shelby Foote and Nullpunktsenergie. Neuromancer and Tolstoy and non-relativist field theory. Your personal history, and your life in Atlantis. It's all in me."
John stared into Rodney's face. After a long time, he whispered, "Do it."
"You don't want to know what it is?"
He shook his head, and Rodney's hand slipped from the visor. "Doesn't matter. Just save Atlantis. That's what Rodney would do, the real Rodney. Save Atlantis. I'm just more raw material."
"John," Rodney said earnestly. "You are so much more than that. You're everything."
John smiled ironically. "Oh, yeah. Just everything."
"Close your eyes," Rodney said, leaning nearer. "Close your eyes, John. The way back will be easier, I promise."
"Radek is a brilliant scientist, but even he isn't always right. Close your eyes."
John closed his eyes. He waited, shivering inside the insulated suit. He heard the graceless clunking of the regulator, the slow hiss of air. He was a bit clammy from sweating. He wondered what Jumper-Rodney was doing to him, what it could do to him from outside his spacesuit. Then he felt the cool pressure of Rodney's hand on his face.
"Shhh," Rodney said. "Keep your eyes closed. This doesn't hurt, does it?"
John shook his head.
"Good. Good. It shouldn't. You're so close to them. Close to me, too, though organic. So much has been done to you. Have Rodney look into your heritage. You taste like me, more than the Ancients did. You taste lovely," he said, and John felt a cool touch against his lips, as if this version of Rodney were kissing him. He inhaled deeply, and imagined silver smoke coiling down his throat, into his lungs, through his capillaries.
He couldn't hear the regulator anymore, or feel the press of the spacesuit against his shoulders and hips, or the awkward boots on his feet. He felt light, and graceful in a way he'd never felt before.
After a while, Rodney said, "Okay. Open your eyes." He did. Nothing had changed. He was still dressed in the spacesuit, standing on a pewter-colored ball, in front of a simulacrum of Rodney McKay. "How do you feel?"
He shrugged. "Fine." He cleared his throat. "The same."
"Good. I'll remake the jumper now, but it'll be different. You'll know how to fly it." He grinned at John. "You always say you can fly anything."
"Will you be there?"
Rodney shook his head. "Mostly I'm in you now. You won't need a physical manifestation."
He stepped away from John. "This'll look weird. Maybe you should close your eyes again."
This time John shook his head. "Let me watch you. If I won't see you again."
Rodney raised his eyebrows and smirked at him. "You miss him." Then he shifted, slipping into the atmosphere itself, a light rain of delicate silver drops that fell to the silver ground, rolled and spun like mercury, and then gathered together, growing larger and larger. John took another step back and then another. This wasn't the jumper he'd flown here in; this was something else. Its lines were more graceful, so it looked less like a flying turd; it was slimmer and curved like a bow. In only a few minutes the hatch opened, hissing, and John clambered inside. He pulled the hatch lever and it shut obediently.
He looked around. Like the old jumpers, this was divided into two unequal halves. The back half looked more comfortable, and had more storage space. There were hatches in the floor that he somehow knew would raise into tables or open for more storage. The bunks were wider and softer looking, with netting above them. The ambient light was brighter and closer to the spectrum of Earth's sunlight. He'd have an easier flight home in this.
John hesitated a second more, and then depressurized the suit. He pulled off the helmet and took a deep, gasping breath. The air smelled fresh, and pleasantly warm. "Christ," he murmured, and sat abruptly. He'd been more tense than he'd realized. He started the slow job of getting out of the suit, wondering if he'd have clothes or food or toothpaste.
"Jumper?" he tried, but there was no answer. "Shit." He'd be alone this trip.
Rodney was right, which John supposed he was used to with the original Rodney as well; the trip home would be much faster. John understood why, but knew it would take him a long time to articulate it to Radek. The images that came to him were in more dimensions than he was comfortable with, and the word for the direction he was taking was unknown to him even as he set his course. Ophetto, he thought, and the jumper responded.
John dreamt of ferris wheels and roller coasters, and of snakes whirling in the starry sky, and chalk silting off a blackboard. He dreamt about Rodney and he dreamt about Atlantis. The fragments of his dreams coalesced and suddenly he was sitting in the locker room in Atlantis, changing after a mission, staring at his bare feet with their long toes, and thinking about Rodney.
"Athlete's foot," he murmured, grinning to himself. Rodney was like athlete's foot: inconvenient as hell, annoying as shit, impossible to get rid of. He scratched his foot, then massaged it, moaning a bit because it felt so good to dig his thumbs into the sole, to tug on his toes and hear them pop. McKay as perennial athlete's foot, he thought; he'll never go away, and neither would John's feelings about him. Powerful, tenacious, annoying, and yet familiar and reliable.
When John finally woke, laughing at his dreams, he was starving, and happy to discover that Jumper-Rodney cared as much about food as the real Rodney, and he had a good supply of meals. He refused to speculate about their ingredients. He also found a new heat source that focused its energy intelligently only on the container to be heated, wasting no energy as visible light.
The jumper no longer spoke to him, nor read him poetry, nor reminded him to exercise; he had to do those things for himself. He'd never really imagined himself returning at all, so he had no mental image of what the return trip would be like, but he missed the jumper's calming voice. He continued to speak to it, the way he would to a dog or cat, but no one responded.
But the silence didn't bother him as much as he thought it would, because he slept much more on the return. When awake, and eating voraciously, he wondered if whatever Jumper-Rodney had done to him was making him sleep so much. Maybe his metabolism had changed. He pushed his fears away, though; getting back quickly was worth any sacrifice, and he trusted Jumper-Rodney. It wouldn't have hurt him. Somehow, John knew this to be true.
When he slept, he dreamt of Rodney. He no longer tracked the hours or days; time, he knew, was fundamental and could not be defined by other terms. Time simply was, as he simply was. He'd always been in the puddlejumper, and he would always be in the puddlejumper. He himself, his very John-ness, was fundamental. Rodney had told him so in several dreams.
When he'd wake, starving and so thirsty, he'd gulp the warm water frantically, drops spilling down his chin and onto his throat, cooling him. He ate as quickly as Rodney used to, and remember how he and Ronon had teased Rodney. Maybe Rodney, the real Rodney, had been like this all along, a burning furnace of ideas and imagination.
He wondered if the real Rodney were still alive, or if all Earth was gone by now. They'd had no word when he left, no word from Earth or the Daedalus for nearly a year.
John refused to wonder about Atlantis. He continued to imagine it as it had been: cool and gleaming in the afternoon sun, full of dedicated people doing work they were proud of, science and military alike. No one went to Atlantis and stayed who didn't want to be there, and that made for a kind of dedication and seriousness that John had never found before. Nor had he known he'd been seeking it. Ten years ago, if anyone had asked him, he would have laughed in their faces. He'd known who he was: the fuck up, the slacker that no one took seriously.
But John hadn't been that guy in a long time. Atlantis had changed him. The city itself, its soft undercurrent of affection and occasional charge of pure joy, had changed him, seduced him away from his cynical attempts to separate himself from others. The city needed people, and it needed him in particular, and he'd quickly allowed himself to fall in love with being needed by it and by its inhabitants. Maybe that had been a mistake, especially for someone who'd stood apart for so long, but it was too late now; he needed to be needed the way Atlantis needed him.
And then there had been Rodney, who'd fallen just as hard and been changed just as much as John had. John's irritation with Rodney had rapidly transmuted into confidence and amusement and, finally, trust, that commodity so rare in any galaxy, and now, so far from home, John wasn't surprised that his dreams were full of Rodney and that the jumper had manifested itself as Rodney. Of course it would. Who else would John trust to get him home?
He had been changed on that planetoid, too. Each day he knew this more. His dreams were even more vivid, and he suspected they were more than dreams. He saw Elizabeth weeping into Lorne's arms, high in a tower over Atlantis. He saw Radek, thin and exhausted, sleeping in the lab on a make-shift pallet, his colleagues and Ronon seeing to his needs. He saw the military and support staff and scientists all working together, tempers worn but hearts full, and even so many light years away, he could feel their passion beaming out from Atlantis, a powerful beacon directing him home.
John refused to wonder what Jumper-Rodney had done to him that he needed to sleep so much, that he could guide the modified puddlejumper home so unthinkingly, running impossible vectors with non-Euclidean length through Minkowski space-time. He'd always been good at envisioning spatial dimensions, but something in him had been profoundly changed.
So he slept, ate, dreamt, and occasionally sat in the pilot's seat, staring at the smeared streaks of light that his eyes interpreted as starlight. They were slightly blue, his speed, he knew, shifting them to the blue end of the spectrum as he rushed toward them. The bluer the better, he thought; the bluer the faster, and the sooner he'd be home.
He awoke from a dream about Rodney cooking spaghetti sauce, garlic scenting the air and tomatoes spattering in the olive oil, to discover the jumper had returned to normal space. The stars looked like stars again, crystal shards in a black velvet sky, and he recognized the constellations: he was close to Atlantis. He closed his eyes and saw the most direct route, and the jumper subtly shifted direction. John had flown an An-24 into Tajikistan once, early in his career, something never recorded in his file, and this approach to Atlantis reminded him of that early flight: unsure, unfamiliar with the aircraft, anxious to land.
He kept his eyes shut. Somehow it was easier to fly without seeing the little world grow larger, the pale blue growing deeper, the smudgy clouds becoming clearer. Instead, he felt his approach: the spires of Atlantis like lighthouses calling to him, drawing him nearer, lower, closer, slower. He let go of the wheel; the jumper didn't seem to need mechanical guidance now. This was true seat-of-the-pants flying, he thought. He was as relaxed as he'd been in months; his hands felt heavy, his heartbeat slow, his breathing calm. He was coming home.
When he opened his eyes again, he lay sprawled on the floor of the cockpit. The jumper had landed itself. Gradually, he became aware of voices over the radio. He lifted his head and looked out the windscreen.
He was in the gateroom. He'd set down right there, rather than rising to the jumper bay. Or maybe the jumper had landed itself; John didn't remember landing it. He remembered knowing it would be all right, and that Rodney would be there, irritated and pleased all at once.
But he didn't see Rodney. Elizabeth was there, surrounded by John's men, Lorne at the head, peering back at John through the windscreen. Suddenly all the hatches opened, front and rear, and the Marines brought their weapons up in unison. If John hadn't been so tired, he would have laughed; clearly Lorne had been putting them through their paces in John's absence. More than John would have done, but that's why Evan was his second-in-command. If the SGC were still around, they'd no doubt want Lorne elsewhere, and John knew he was too good for this backwater outpost. But he also knew that, like everyone else left in Atlantis, Lorne considered this home.
The jumper said, "You're home, John. Time to go."
"Now you talk?" But John obediently tried to climb up from the floor, keeping his hands visible to show he was unarmed. To his dismay, he couldn't do much more than roll over. He pushed up to his hands and knees, but his arms trembled. Suddenly he felt warm arms around him, the first human contact in longer than he knew, and then he was upright, held by Ronon. "Your dreadlocks grew back," John murmured, leaning his head against Ronon's shoulder.
"John," Elizabeth cried, her hands clasped in front of her.
"Get him to the infirmary," Lorne said. John closed his eyes and let Ronon half carry him, but his legs wouldn't work, and then Ronon scooped him up.
"Ferike will take care of you," he rumbled. John wondered who Ferike was for a moment and why Carson wouldn't take care of him, but then he remembered, and sighed. Ferike Biro, of course, would be waiting for him, her sad, tired face smiling down at him.
"Welcome home, John," she murmured, and guided Ronon to a gurney where she had him settle John. "We missed you so much." He was shocked to see how grey Biro's hair had become.
"Never thought we'd see you again," Ronon said accusingly.
"Sorry," he breathed, and fell asleep again.
He knew he was dreaming because Jumper-Rodney stood by the gurney. "Hey," John said. "What the hell'd you do to me?"
"Sorry, sorry," the jumper said. "Didn't mean to freak everybody out. I just wanted you to get back as quickly as possible. They need you here, John, and they need what you brought."
"What did I bring?"
"Me." The jumper smiled sadly at him. "When you wake up again, have Radek check the composition of the jumper. I put some information in the computer, too. Quite a lot, actually."
"Will I -- never mind. Just let me wake up."
The jumper leaned over him, resting a hand on John's forehead. "I take it back," it said. "You're not suicidal. Just ridiculously loyal." It kissed John, its mouth cool and slick and tasting slightly metallic. "I'm still here," it whispered in his ear, and kissed his cheeks, left then right. "Always right here." Before John's eyes, it melted away, into the floor of Atlantis, silvery puddles pooling and disappearing, right into the fabric of the city.
"John?" Elizabeth's voice woke him. "John, are you awake?"
"Yeah," he said, but his throat was too dry. She helped him sip lukewarm water. "Yeah, m'wake," he tried again. "What's happening? How long?"
Tears filled her eyes again. "Too long. Over a year. It nearly killed Radek; he thought he'd sent you to your death. We missed you so much."
"It worked," he said, ignoring the rest of the what she'd said. "Tell Radek it worked. He needs to check the composition of the jumper. Also the computer on it." He sighed. "I'm so tired."
"Just rest," she said. "Rest and let us take care of you for once."
He nodded, but didn't open his eyes again until Radek came to him much later. "John," he murmured, shyly touching John's shoulder. "Wake, please." When John looked up, he saw Ronon standing behind Radek, both smiling at him. "What did you do? The information is amazing. And the jumper melted! Right into the floor. There's nothing left but your books and EVA suit."
"Pretty cool," Ronon said.
"Do we worry?" Radek asked.
John struggled to sit up; Ronon gently helped him while Radek stuffed pillows behind his back. "No. It was Atlantis. I mean, Atlantis was in the jumper and was there on that planet. It said it needed something from the planet."
"Yes, that agrees with what the database said. It talks, John!" Radek beamed at him. "The database talks now. I just ask and it tells even me, without the gene."
"It's not the Ancients," John said. "I can't remember exactly, but it said the Ancients had used old technologies, and that it was older." He sighed, and rubbed his forehead.
"The Ancients did built on the shoulders of giants," Radek agreed. "This galaxy is old, John. According to the database, it's much older than we realized. The Ancients tried to hide how much they borrowed from the older races, but the database has given us access to material we'd been blocked from. Elizabeth and the others are working on it now."
"Ancients were liars," Ronon said, looking grim. "We worshiped them, and they were liars."
"Most gods are," John said.
Radek and Ronon exchanged a long look, then Radek said, "I should stay."
"Go," Ronon said. He grasped Radek's shoulder and gently shook him. "This is my task."
John woke up a bit more watching their exchange, and sat up straighter. "Guys?" he asked.
"Both of us," Radek said, and turned to John.
Before Radek or John could say anything, Ronon said, "Remember when you asked me if I was seeing anyone? Now I am." He stared at John, who noticed that Radek was turning pink.
"Uh, good," he said. "Really good." John had always thought that Ronon and Teyla would end up together. Maybe they would have, if things had fallen out differently. But Radek needed someone as much as Ronon had, John knew, and if Ronon and Radek were together, he wouldn't have to think of Teyla's absence each time he saw Ronon. He sighed, and bit his lip.
"So as American military, you are content?" Radek asked.
"As me, I'm content," John said, and smiled at them. "And envious," honesty made him add.
They beamed at him, and then at each other. "I go now," Radek said. "Much to do, time wasting." Ronon kissed the top of Radek's head and Radek rested his hand on Ronon's cheek for a moment before hurrying off.
"You sure?" Ronon asked when Radek had gone.
"Shit, yeah. You won't believe who I hallucinated about while I was gone."
"McKay." John felt his eyes widen in surprise. "Come on, John. It was obvious to all of us how you guys felt about each other."
"It wasn't obvious to me," he protested, but feebly. "I don't think."
Ronon gave him a look but didn't contradict him. "What happened? How'd you get back so soon? Radek said you should have been gone for closer to three years."
John shook his head. "The jumper did something to me. It's sentient. I don't know if they all are, or if it's because we were on that planet. It said that the entire planet was Atlantis. Or maybe Atlantis was made of the planet."
"Radek'll figure it out," Ronon said confidently. "Hey, did you know that Evan's with Elizabeth now?"
"Everybody kind of paired up. Like on Sateda at the end. I guess we all wanted to be with somebody at the end."
"Not the end, Ronon," John said. "It's not the end. Radek and the others'll figure it out. The jumper will help them."
"Radek says your Earth's gone."
John opened his mouth but didn't know what to say. He forced himself to relax and lie back against the pillows. "Maybe," he finally said.
"McKay --" Ronon started, but John held up a hand.
"Not now, buddy. Not now."
"Are you disturbing my patient, Mister Dex?" Biro asked, and John smiled gratefully at her.
"Just going." Ronon left without a backward glance.
"Don't mind him, John," Biro said, holding a thermometer in his ear. "He's very glad to see you. We all are. All right. Your temp is fine, but your pulse is a bit rapid. I want you to stay in bed and rest. Why not here, where I can keep an eye on you? It's quiet, too, I promise."
John nodded. He wasn't ready to face the staleness of his old quarters. He wasn't sure when he would be.
"Just drift off. If you want something to read, or a movie to watch, let me know." She pushed the hair off his forehead. "You'll need to start wearing dreads like Ronon, or a ponytail like Doctor Kavanagh." She smiled at him so kindly, so happy to see him, that his throat closed up, and he looked away.
"John," someone said softly, waking him. "John, dear." He opened his eyes to see a beautiful woman, pale and ethereal, like an illustration from a fairytale, smiling down at him. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he said automatically. "Who are you?
"Don't you know?" She touched his cheek with the back of her hand and he felt the low thrum of Atlantis.
"You're the city," he whispered.
She nodded, smiling even more. "I am. Or rather, we are, for we are many. Thank you for going home for us. We needed that. The Ancients were careless, as you know; more interested in ascension than in maintenance and improvement of this plane of existence. They are young, though, even now."
"Older than we are," John pointed out.
She smiled at him. "Very much. But John, you admit your ignorance and accept your youth. These are strengths most Ancients do not possess. More than that, you welcome our assistance, which they did not. They preferred to pretend that Atlantis was entirely their creation."
"But it isn't?"
"Oh no. Atlantis is old, older than we are. She has been rebuilt many, many times, and will continue to be reimagined. Perhaps by you and your people."
"Rodney --" he began.
"Dear Rodney." She smiled at him. "Fetch him home, John. He belongs here. Radek is a brilliant scientist and a very good man, but we miss Rodney almost as much as you do. He will help."
"But how? He's on Earth, and Radek says Earth is gone."
"You've traveled so far, John; do you really understand so little?"
"You're not saying that Jumper-Rodney can replace the real Rodney," he began hotly.
"No, of course not, dear one. Of course not. We can only be simulacra of your kind. We are entirely alien, more than you can know. But Rodney is still available to you. Ask Radek for help, and Elizabeth."
"Wait, why not you? Why be so mysterious? You're like the Ancients, just hinting at things, pretending you know more than you do, lording it over us pathetic humans."
She shook her head and took his hand. "I will tell you, then. Not all bridges are broken."
"Wait, what? The bridge? Rodney's intergalactic bridge?"
"See? You only need hints." She squeezed his hand; he couldn't believe how warm and vibrant she felt. But even as he watched, the pressure on his hand lessened, and she faded from sight, not melting into the floor the way Jumper-Rodney had, but simply disappearing.
"John? John?" Biro shook him. "You're talking in your sleep. Why don't you try to eat something now. Evan brought you a tray."
"Hey, Colonel," Lorne said, sliding the tray onto a rolling stand and wheeling it near him. "The doc said nothing heavy, so the mess fixed some soup, and the bread's real fresh. There's custard, too."
"Thanks, Lorne." John felt groggy and his head hurt, but he struggled to sit up. "I need some fresh air."
"After you eat," Biro called to him. "Evan, you can take him for a walk afterwards."
"I'm not a dog," John called back to her, but not really irritated. A walk would be good. "So, you and Elizabeth," he said to Lorne, and spooned up a mouthful of soup.
Lorne turned red, his mouth twisting. "Ah, yeah. Just sorta happened."
"Ronon says everybody's pairing up."
Lorne shrugged. "It was hard, John. You know that. Besides," and he grinned, "she's great. Smart, funny, and pretty; what's not to like?"
"How long was I gone?" At Lorne's puzzled look, John added, "I tried to keep track, but towards the end, everything slid together. I slept a lot, too."
"Over a year. Which is less time than Radek said it would take, but a long time to be without you. No word from Earth," he added, anticipating John's next question. "Not a fucking word."
"Atlantis told me to try the bridge."
Lorne looked at him evenly, then nodded. "I thought it was destroyed," he said, more mildly than John knew he could have responded.
"She says not."
"Well, okay. When?"
"When I say he can go," Biro interrupted, crossing her arms. John loved her smile. "And not a minute sooner. But keep eating like that, John, and you'll be up and about in no time."
"Get your strength up," Lorne agreed. "You look like shit."
"Haven't looked in a mirror for a while," John said. "What's wrong?"
Biro tugged at his hair. "Too thin. Malnourished. Dehydrated. Bone density lessened -- not enough gravity for too long. Heart, well, not damaged, but not as strong as it was. Evan's still in charge until I say you're ready to return to full duty."
"Fine with me," John said, clanking his spoon against the ceramic bowl to scoop up the last of the soup. "Shitty job with shitty pay."
"No shit," Lorne said, and handed him the cup of custard.
Biro let Lorne help John to the toilet after his meal, and then to the nearest balcony. Lorne flung open the doors and the cool sea air settled on John's face. He inhaled hugely, holding it in his lungs like good dope before exhaling.
To his surprise, it was late afternoon. The sun was setting behind them, behind Atlantis, and they looked into the deepening twilight. The two brightest stars of the night already gleamed against the deep blue evening. For the first time, he felt at home.
Almost shyly, he rested his hand against the wall, happy to feel the oscillation that he interpreted as the presence of Atlantis. Lorne had the gene, too, so he understood, and nodded at John, helping him lean more comfortably against the railing while keeping one hand on the wall. When Lorne touched him, he felt the connection deeply, and knew Lorne did, too. They were connected, he thought. By their years on Earth and in the military, by their time on Atlantis, by their strange inheritance that permitted them to experience whatever it was that made Atlantis Atlantis.
And now that he knew it wasn't the Ancients, he was even happier to have that ability. The Ancients were prim and prissy hypocrites, and maybe he wasn't related to them at all. Maybe to the even more ancient ancestors who really had created Atlantis, whoever they might have been. The ones that Jumper-Rodney had referred to.
"You said Atlantis told you," Lorne said, and for a moment, John thought he'd read his mind.
"Uh, yeah. Or maybe it was a dream, but I think she's right."
Lorne nodded. "Fine with me. We should check up on the bridge anyway. Maybe there's a message or something."
"Or something," John agreed. Or something.
Biro made him take it slow, and he secretly agreed with her. The artificial gravity of the puddlejumper hadn't been adequate to keep him in good shape, and he hadn't been eating or keeping hydrated for the entire return trip. He grew stronger, and went for walks with Ferike and Elizabeth, then running with Lorne and Cadman, and finally with Ronon. Ronon had gotten a lot chattier in John's time away from the city; John thought Radek was a good influence on him. "Learned some science," he'd told John when he'd found him in the labs.
"He's a natural," Radek had said, grinning up at Ronon, John tried to look disgusted, but he thought they looked cute.
Lorne and Elizabeth were living together, he discovered. "Mom and Dad of Atlantis," Cadman told him during a run. "It's sweet. He's the only one who can change her mind. I wonder what their sex life is like."
"Eww," John had said. "You just said they were like mom and dad, so don't talk about their sex life."
"Jealous because you don't have one?" she teased him. He didn't tease her back; she was one of the few singles left.
When he could run his old route with Ronon and keep up, Biro cleared him. "I'd like to see you put a bit more weight on," she told him at a staff meeting, embarrassing him, "and you're terrible about keeping hydrated, but you're good enough for this flight."
"Just one gate at a time," Elizabeth reminded them. John, Lorne, Ronon, and Cadman were going. "And stay in contact with us."
"At every gate," Lorne promised her, and kissed her cheek. Radek came to say goodbye to Ronon; they stood aside holding hands, talking quietly. Chuck said to Cadman, "Be careful, okay?" and John suddenly realized that Cadman wasn't as alone as he'd thought.
He climbed into the jumper and sat in the pilot's seat. Not the one he'd flown to the other side of the galaxy, of course; that one had never rematerialized after it had been absorbed into Atlantis. But all the jumpers were different now; smarter and more sensitive. Lorne said they really could read minds now, something the people without the gene had said all along. John thought the jumpers were truer to themselves now, that somehow the Ancients' influence had been purged by whatever he had brought back from that planet.
Seventeen gates formed the bridge between Atlantis and Midway Station, John remembered. They weren't using Rodney's macro this time, though. They were going to examine each individual gate, so although the time between gates was minimal, they'd need about an hour at each gate to inspect it. This would be a long trip.
Biro made sure they had about six months of supplies on board, and Radek had loaded the onboard computer with thousands of alternate gate addresses, in case something happened. They had back up plans to their back up plans. It was overkill, but John understood that it was also needed by the people they were leaving behind.
"Come back safely," Elizabeth said to them all, and sitting next to her, Chuck nodded vigorously. "We'll keep the lights on." John remembered feeling Atlantis calling him home, as if she really were a lighthouse, and he smiled at her.
"Let's go," he said, and Ronon shut the hatch.
By the third gate, they'd started to relax. The gates were in good shape; Atlantis or John's dream had been right about that. They functioned perfectly, responding instantly to the DHD that Cadman operated. Radek had figured out a way to send through a small robotic device with a camera prior to the jumper, so they could check the gate visually, make sure the robot got there safely, before they made the jump. It slowed the trip down, but John thought the reassurance was worth the extra time. They'd already lost so much in the last years.
They took a lunch break at the fifth gate, and a longer break at the tenth. John slept soundly as he always did these days; sometimes he thought he'd never get enough sleep. Biro promised him there was nothing to worry about, but he did wonder if Jumper-Rodney had done something irrevocable to him. It had said that he'd changed John so he could get home quicker, and John could still see space in more dimensions than he would ever admit to Radek or Fireke, could feel the way the world moved beneath him, and moved around its star. Now, so far from Atlantis, he knew exactly where it was in the sky. He didn't think he would ever get lost again.
They took another break at the fifteenth gate, and still all was well. When Lorne and Cadman sent the robot through to the sixteenth gate, the jumper grew quiet. No chatting, nor joking; not even Cadman had anything smart to say. Ronon was more like his old self: quiet and brooding as he watched. John felt unmoored, as if the artificial gravity wasn't working at all.
The sixteenth gate worked perfectly. The stargate was as beautiful as the first one John had seen, gleaming in the starlight. John kept the jumper hovering longer there, circling it carefully, letting Cadman take close photos of it using the robot. They had a longer check-in with Atlantis, too, and his three companions each took a moment to speak quietly to someone while the others worked hard not to overhear. At last, Lorne looked at John, who nodded, bit his lip, and pointed at Cadman. She dialed, and sent the robot through to the seventeenth and final gate.
In less than a minute, it had arrived at Midway Gate. For the first time, John let himself remember how proud Rodney had been of this contrivance, and all the trips they'd made hunting unused stargates to collect for the creation of the bridge. "Not all bridges are broken," Atlantis had told him, and apparently she was right. He wondered if Atlantis was aware of all gates everywhere, the way he was now always aware of Atlantis. He wondered if whatever the pewter material that planet had been made of now circulated in him.
And then Ronon asked, "What's that?"
They bumped heads peering at the monitor. "What is that?" Lorne murmured. "The gate isn't broken; the robot went through."
"There's something there," Cadman said, jamming her index finger on the monitor and smudging it. "Look, it's plain as day. It's another ship."
"A jumper?" Lorne asked
"Can't tell," Cadman said. "Let me get the camera . . ." she trailed off, punching buttons on her laptop, guiding the little robot closer.
"It looks like a Winnebago," Lorne said, and John laughed, a harsh barking sound that made the others look at him, but Lorne was right.
"It's a fucking Winnebago in space," John said, and suddenly he knew.
"What's painted on its side?" Ronon asked. "Cadman, get the camera -- can you read that?"
"Sam," John said before the image resolved. "It's named Sam."
"How the hell did you know that?" Lorne asked. "Who names a Winnebago Sam? Who gets a Winnebago in -- holy shit."
"Let's go," John said, grinning so hard his face hurt, and took the jumper through to gate seventeen, Midway Gate, the last unbroken gate in two galaxies.
"Why the hell took you so long?" Rodney shouted at them over the radio. "Do you know how many millennia I've been here? And how small a Winnebago is?"
"What the fuck are you doing in a Winnebago in space?" Lorne shouted back. He, Ronon, and Cadman were all standing as close to the windscreen as they could, crowding John who circled nearer until they were nose-to-nose with the Winnebago. Rodney had his hands on his hips, glaring at them through the windshield.
"It wasn't easy, let me tell you," he said, and wiped his face. John realized that Rodney was crying, and that his sarcasm and anger were his attempt to hide his feelings.
"It's all right now, buddy," he murmured. "We came back for you."
"Sheppard?" he asked, and put both hands on the window above the dashboard. "John?"
"Yeah. I'm here, too."
"Fuck," Rodney said.
"How we gonna get him in here?" Ronon demanded.
"Stand back," Rodney said, and moved away from the window. "Just, hang on." He brought one hand up to his face and poked at his wrist. A light flared like from a lighthouse and he was standing in the back of their jumper, and then falling to the floor. "Shit," he whispered.
John pushed past the others, dropping beside Rodney. "Hey, hey," he tried to say, but his voice wouldn't work.
"Oh, fuck," Rodney said, and seized John, pulling him tightly to him, wrapping his big arms around him and holding on. John practically lay on top of him, holding him back, and they rocked slightly. For the first time since they'd lost contact with Earth, John's head didn't hurt, and his heart felt free. He sighed, and sniffed, and hugged Rodney even tighter.
He wasn't sure how long they lay entangled, murmuring the kinds of things two grown men don't get to say to each other, especially in front of others, when he finally pulled away and sat next to Rodney. "Been a while," he said, clearing his throat.
"Oh, yeah," Rodney said, and looked at the others. "What're you looking at?" he demanded.
Ronon nearly tripped over John to hug Rodney, lifting him to a sitting position. "Glad you're back, buddy," he said, rubbing the back of Rodney's head. "Really glad."
"Me, too," Rodney admitted.
To John's surprise, Lorne hugged Rodney, too, and Cadman kissed him and held his hand. "Dammit, McKay," she said, but girls didn't cry in front of their commanding officers, so that was all she said. John appreciated her restraint.
Eventually, they got Rodney off the floor and into one of the seats in the front of the jumper. Lorne poured him a mug of coffee from a thermos they'd filled at gate fifteen, and Ronon handed him a bag of cookies the mess had sent along with them. "Oh god," Rodney moaned ecstatically, crumbs falling into his coffee. "Bless you all."
"Please, Rodney," Cadman said, putting her hand on his forearm. "Earth?"
He shook his head, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "Gone," he whispered through the cookie. He gulped down more coffee and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Fucking gone. Everyone, everyone. I tried to tell them, tried to get them to come with me, but they just wouldn't believe me. They wouldn't even listen to me."
John put his arm around Rodney's shoulder. "How the hell did you get a Winnebago in space?" he asked.
Rodney beamed at him. "See? See why they should have come? They wouldn't give me the jumper; kept it locked up in a fucking museum at the SGC. The others went out on the Daedalus, the Odyssey, and the Apollo, but they said I'd be a hindrance." He shook his head.
"But what happened? Why did Earth stop answering?" Lorne asked.
"Nobody at home, I guess." He took another bite of cookie. "I don't know, but I can guess." He looked grim. "When I realized that they didn't want me, I knew I had to get home. But nobody would help. They wouldn't send me through the gate, they wouldn't let me use the jumper, nothing. So I rigged up the Sam. It's a converted motor home. Made it so it wouldn't bleed atmosphere in a vacuum, filled it with supplies, a chemical toilet, all the computers I could cram in it, installed a DHD, and basically drove through the stargates. Just up the ramp in the SGC, and then from gate to gate. No need to navigate, you see; the wormhole does that for you."
"You drove here." John couldn't believe it, except it was Rodney, so he could. "You fucking drove to the Pegasus Galaxy!" He started to laugh, everyone laughed, even Rodney though he looked a little offended at first. "Only you, McKay!"
"Well, of course. I told you I was a genius."
"Why not drive all the way to Atlantis?" Lorne asked.
"Goddamn make-shift DHD died on me. If only the SGC had given me access to some real technology, but no, I had to Home Depot my own DHD." Rodney scowled at his coffee, then gulped it down and held out his cup for more. "Plus I couldn't figure out how to signal Atlantis that it was me knocking."
"So you just waited," John said quietly.
After a few seconds of un-Rodney-like silence, he said, "You never leave anyone behind, Colonel."
"No," John said, looking at the Winnebago. "Not if I can help it."
"So it sounds like we need to tow the Sam home," Lorne said when the silence stretched on too long.
"Oh, hell, yeah. It's crammed with stuff I need."
"That an Asgard transporter you got on your wrist?" Cadman asked, and John remembered that she and Lorne had been at the SGC a lot longer than he had. "Why don't we just go back and finish driving the rest of the way to Atlantis. The jumper's DHD works just fine, so it can lead the way."
Rodney looked at John. "Let Cadman and Lorne do it. You stay here," John said.
"I'd like that," Rodney said softly, and took off the heavy wristwatch. "See, it works like this," he said, bending over the dial with Cadman. "I tuned it to go to Ancient technology as well as a beacon in the Winnie." He twisted something, and strapped it onto her wrist. "Major, you'll need to, ah, yeah. That's it."
Lorne said, "May I have this dance, Lieutenant?"
"Why, certainly," she said, grinning at him, and they embraced.
Over Cadman's shoulder, Lorne said to John, "See you in a few, sir," and in another shocking flash, they were gone and waving back at them from the Winnebago.
"No one would ever believe this," John said to Rodney, still staring at the Winnebago.
Rodney shrugged. "You believe it," he said.
"Call Atlantis," Ronon reminded John.
"Shit, yeah," John said, and reached out to dial the gate, then hesitated. "You want the honors?" he asked Rodney.
"Very much," he said, and unhesitatingly dialed the sequence for Atlantis. The blue of the event horizon exploded out and then settled into the familiar rippling pool. "I can't believe I'm going home," Rodney murmured. Then he picked up the mic. "Atlantis? Anybody there?"
After a long pause, Chuck's voice said, "Um, who's that?"
They all burst out laughing, and John could see Cadman and Lorne laughing in the Winnie. "It's me, you idiot, except no, no. Sorry. You're not an idiot, Chuck. It's good to hear your voice."
"Doctor McKay? Doctor Weir, Doctor Zelenka! It's Rodney!"
The joyful noises over the radio made John smile even harder.
"John? Is that you?" Elizabeth's voice said, trembling with emotion.
He tapped his earpiece. "It's me, Elizabeth, but we found somebody at Midway Gate."
"Hello, Elizabeth," Rodney said gently. He was staring into space, as if he could see Elizabeth's face so far away.
"Rodney," she said, her voice fainter, and then Radek began speaking in Czech, no doubt cursing Rodney thoroughly.
"Radek," Rodney said softly. He rested his hand on John's knee, and John could feel him trembling, too.
John took Rodney's hand, turning it over, studying it in the flickering light of the jumper and stars and event horizon. This was the real Rodney, he thought, not something conjured up by distant Atlantis or the missing jumper. This was the hot-tempered, arrogant, brilliant, sensitive man who had haunted John's dreams and kept him company on his measureless journey. He looked up at Ronon, and found him smiling approvingly at them.
"I missed you all so much. When I couldn't get home . . . " Rodney's voice trailed off.
"We missed you," Ronon said roughly. "John nearly died."
Rodney looked at him suddenly. "Not really," John said. "But I did go a little crazy when we couldn't reach Earth and our best scientist. It was your turn to save my life, too."
"I kept seeing you," Rodney said, his voice gentle. "In my dreams, you'd visit and talk to me. Sometimes you'd yell at me."
"I saw you, too," John admitted very quietly.
"Come home, Rodney," Elizabeth's voice interrupted them. "John? Bring him home."
"Yes, ma'am," he said. He squeezed Rodney's hand. "Watch this," John said quietly to him. "Look, ma; no hands," and he closed his eyes. The jumper trembled beneath them, joyous at the opportunity to fly. Home, he thought. Take us home.
He opened his eyes to watch Rodney's face.