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The Undiscovered Planet In Our Sky

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To be haunted in the everyday is to experience a return of what has tried to be repressed and represents a systemic failure in the ego's repressive mechanisms.

John jerked awake, his eyes wide open and blind in the pitch black of his room, heart racing from some amorphous horror, fading away even as he chased it through his brain. "Fuck," he growled, and swiped a hot, callused hand over his face. Kicking off covers that had him drenched in sweat, he shivered in the chilly night air of his quarters. "Lights," he whispered into the dark, and the city that had hard-wired itself to his genes hurried to do his bidding. His room quickly illuminated, then, off his wince at the glare, softened to a pale blue glow. "Thanks," he whispered, acknowledging the artificial presence that had taken up residence in his brain.

Rising, he turned to sit on the edge of the bed and ran a frustrated hand through sweat-dampened hair. He sighed and stretched, cracking the vertebrae in his neck. Taking another deep breath, he closed his eyes again and hunted down the phantom thought that had startled him awake. All he could see was darkness, waves and waves of darkness, only an occasional flicker of light to hint at imagined objects and possible people inhabiting his dreams or nightmares.

Shaking his head he told himself, "You can do this, John, just...just let it happen...don't ...try so hard."

It was a fairly new mantra, uncomfortable and awkward on his lips. He'd been told to say it - and repeat it if necessary—at the fifth session with the new the base counselor. The nightmares had been new and terrifying then, and he hadn't known what to do about them. The new shrink, Dr. Smahls, had said they'd ease up if John could just remember what he'd dreamed and confront it.

"Chase it down," he'd said, "chase it down and see it again." But chasing the dreams had yielded nothing.

"Stop trying so hard, then," had been the next bit of advice. "You can do it, Colonel. Just let it happen, and don't try so hard."

But elusive things were meant to be chased, and letting go had been harder than John anticipated. So he'd taken to repeating the phrase, taking deep breaths, relaxing, and telling himself to stop trying, most often to no avail. He whispered the words to himself with a familiar sense of futility.

He wasn't one to just let things happen; not anymore.

Not since the last and only time.

As though given permission by a casual slip of memory, the image he'd been chasing materialized behind his eyes. Long blonde hair, blue eyes, mouth open in a silent scream, and finally a voice choking out, "You killed me, John."

He should have known. Of all the heinous shit that has gone down in Pegasus, it's this nightmare that has the power to draw him, shaking, sweating, and heart thundering on the brink of arrest, out of his sleep. He checked the time and seeing how late - or early, depending which side of the shift you're on - it was, he scrubbed his hand over his face again, and got up. He wasn't going to get back to sleep that night, so he pulled on some sweats and a tee shirt, shoved his feet in his running shoes and snagged his ear piece. "Sheppard to Ronon," he muttered, sliding his radio in place.

"Yeah, what's up?"

"You up for a run, buddy?" he asked.

"Always. Are you?"

"Unfortunately, yes. Meet ya in five," he said. "Sheppard out."

The walk to Ronon's quarters was quiet, but then it would be at 03:30. Most of the scientists were sleeping, the night shift patrols on the outer limits of the city before working their way back to the control room for report. Hallways of the residential sectors were always empty in the witching hours of the night. John listened to the echo of his footfalls in the empty hallways and tried to focus his mind on the sound of Atlantis - the gentle hum of her systems, the buzz of power flowing through the conduits behind the walls, and the soft hissing feedback of her biometrics in his head. It had taken him months to get accustomed to that constant buzz, but once he did, to be without it was even worse than the adjustment period. Like the humming of fluorescent lighting in an office building, Atlantis' connection to him was a mild irritant to which his body had become addicted. "That's stupid, John, people don't get addicted to fluorescent lighting."

"You're talking to yourself, again, Sheppard." Ronon was waiting for him outside his quarters. "You haven't done that since-"

"I know; I know. Why do you think I'm up this late?" John said, waving him off.

"You mean early," Ronon commented, falling into step beside him.

"Whatever." John shook his head, as though clearing it, then said, "Usual route?"

Ronon eyed him a moment, as though contemplating further inquiry, then shrugged. "It's your therapy. Go where you want to go; I'll keep up."

And that was why John, when he woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, always called Ronon. The man knew the value of silence. Sure, he could have called up Teyla or Rodney, hell, even Lorne would have been a decent alternative, but all three of them have the uncanny ability to make him share stuff. He couldn't even really complain, well, not about Rodney or Lorne, anyway. Teyla would make him talk no matter how determined he was to keep his own council. It was the quiet question in her eyes, the soft set of her mouth, even the ease with which she breathed. John had never been able to hold out against such subtle inquiry. Rodney, on the other hand, could extract the truth from him almost surgically. He was a blunt instrument of nosiness, Rodney. It was the raised eyebrows over suspicious eyes, the pursed lips, and the down turned mouth that did John in. He'd spill what was on his mind before either of them had a chance to utter a word, and that just irked the shit out him. And Lorne. Well, Lorne had a way of making 'yes, sir,' sound too much like, "yeah, right," for John's taste. Lorne's implacability and not-so-subtle silences would force John to fill the silence; invariably with whatever was on his mind. So, yeah. Whenever he gets woken up by this particular fever dream, Ronon is his go to guy. Because the man knows how to just be.

They ran the length and breadth of Atlantis, down long dark corridors, musty with the smell of ancient mold, long ago cleaned up by the Replicators, but lingering in the farthest edges of the city. They ran along the piers, the docks and landing pads for ships; the only interruption to the rhythmic falling of their feet was the waved beneath the piers. John sucked in deep cleansing breaths of salt air, clearing the mustiness of forgotten halls from his senses, while Ronon followed behind him, a stoic companion and buffer between John and the nightmare images of his memory.

It had been months since he'd woken up with Kate on his mind, months since the nightmares kept him awake, and over a year since he'd watched her fall to her death from the balcony of their quarters. He hadn't seen it as it happened. No, the horror and tragedy of losing Kate that way was that he'd only seen it on the security feed from their room. She'd called out for Teyla. "Help me, Teyla," she'd said, "It's John." But Teyla wasn't there, no one was. Then, when whatever it was she'd seen rushed at her, she'd let go of the railing and screamed John's name on her way to the cold blue water hundreds of feet below.

After that, he'd had nightmares, debilitating dreams of her floating up from the ocean below and accusing him, her dead blue eyes fixated on him, her frigid fingers wrapped around his arm. And she always said the same thing, "You killed me, John." It was those words, every time that had him waking up in a cold sweat. At first, he'd tried to ignore, fight through the exhaustion caused by sleepless nights and haunted dreams, but that didn't work for long. It only took two away missions for his team to determine something was wrong with their team leader, and then they were grounded.

"You need some help, John," Rodney had said. "Far be it from me to extol the virtue - if there is any - of psychology, but you need to talk to someone. While I may not adhere to the advice given, and I certainly won't be popping any of the happy pills modern psychology is all too thrilled to prescribe for any symptom that comes under the sun, talking to someone has its merits."

It had taken him a while to go to the new guy. One, it was a guy. Two, the guy wasn't Kate, and John could recognize enough about himself to know it was pure resentment that kept him from warming up to the guy. But he also knew that trying to fight off that resentment would be futile. Eventually, though, the nightmares got to be too bad, and he followed Rodney's advice and talked to the new shrink. The result? An hour of silence, another hour of stilted conversation, some half-baked speculation from someone who didn't know anything about him, a half filled spiral notebook of journaling that John couldn't be sure had actually been helpful, and these early morning runs with Ronon - which, if not psychologically helpful, had certainly worked off the tension he'd started to develop.

John and Ronon circled the last pier, then headed inside, back to the occupied areas of the city, back to the life waking up in the still wee hours of the morning.

As they slowed their run to the cool down walk, Ronon fell into stride beside him again. "Another nightmare?" he asked.

"I thought we weren't going to talk about this. It's one of the reasons I rely on you." John answered.

Ronon shot him a grin. "I've been listening to Teyla."

"I can tell."

"So?"

John thought about leaving it alone, but figured he'd have to talk about it at some point, might as well unload on Ronon. "Yeah. Nightmare. I killed her, again."

"You know that's not true."

"Yep."

Ronon stopped at his door, turned to John. "You know what that means." It was a statement at which John could only nod. "This and whatever else you're doing isn't working, Sheppard."

John blinked up at him, non-committal.

"I don't mind the running, I did it for years. Problem never went away, it just chased me through every new 'gate, to every new planet. Until I ran into you and you dragged me here."

"Atlantis is the cure to my problem? Is that what you're saying?" John cocked an eyebrow.

"Nope. Just saying, running isn't going to help you. Stopping and facing whatever's causing the problem will." He turned to enter his room. "You know, there's one thing about you people that I just do not understand."

"Oh, yeah? What's that?"

"You're afraid of your own feelings. Scared of what they mean, what they'll do. You don't deal with stuff because facing it is too hard. You have that luxury. You don't have anything harder to face than yourselves. I wonder what a life lived that way is like." Then the door shut, and John was left alone in the hallway again.

By the time John returns to his room, it's 05:30, and the sun is just cresting over the horizon. He's lucky, in that his balcony faces the rising sun. Not so much luck, he figures, as it was by design. He's always been a fairly early riser, and alarm clocks are just annoying. The sun breaching the horizon, and slowly filling his room has always seemed a more natural and less stressful way of waking up than the incessant blaring of an alarm. Besides, alarm clocks are just miniature klaxons, warning one of the hazards of the day one is facing, and who needs that at the ass-crack of dawn every morning?

He watches the sun break fully over the horizon, closes his eyes against it, as it fills his room. The silence was bone deep, the only sounds he could hear were the quiet intake and exhale of his own breath and the gentle lapping of the waves against the foundation of the city. Even the incessant buzzing from the city was silenced. It always struck him as odd that he could hear the waves several hundred feet from his balcony. He'd asked Rodney about it years ago, when he'd first noticed the phenomenon. Rodney had chalked it up to the Ancients' penchant for imposing peacefulness in the pursuit of ascension. "I'm surprised they didn't broadcast the sound of a babbling brook through the power conduits," he'd once muttered disdainfully. To be honest, John agreed with the Ancients in this case. He found the waves calming. After many hectic and stressful away missions, he'd thrown open his balcony doors and let the susurrations of the ocean lull him into sleep. That particular quirk of engineering in the City is one he was glad of.

Listening to the soft sounds, and letting the peace of them fall over him, he thought that for the first time in a long time his run had been effective; he was clear headed and calm again, able to put what it was that woke him away, shove it into that dark recess of his mind that Dr. Smahls is clamoring to unpack. No way was John letting that happen. His mind was his own, thank you very much, and he wasn't about to share it with some new guy. Took him long enough to open up to his team and Kate.

"It didn't take that long, you know," a voice startled him out of his reverie. "I had you figured out ten minutes after I met you."

No, he thought. No, I did not just hear that. He sucked in a breath and turned away from the sun.

She smiled at him from his desk chair. "Hi, John," she said, calm, looking at him askance, as though she's supposed to be there and his confusion is unexpected.

He slapped his thigh, reaching for his weapon, but of course it wasn't there. He glanced around the room, and saw it lying where he always puts it, right on his desk, behind her. He stopped wearing his gun on his morning runs a while ago, but he'll damn sure be wearing it from now on. Not that it would be very effective against what was probably a figment of his overactive imagination, but still, its weight at his hip would be a comfort right about now. He took a deep breath let his arms fall to his side, an attempt to at least display a calm he most certainly did not feel.

"You're not real," he said. Of course she wasn't real. Kate had been dead months now, hell, almost two years. There's no way she's sitting there, pretty as you please, in his goddamned desk chair!

She frowned a bit at him, then extended her arm, turning her hands over and over, looking at them closely. She ran them down over her ribs to her waist, over her hips and thighs. Then folding her arms again over her chest, she gave him a quick shrug, and said, "I feel pretty real." She grinned at him. "Would you like to feel me to see?"

The thought horrified him. "You're dead," he blurted. "I watched you..." he stopped. The image still had the power to turn him into knots, render him silent. He swallowed and took another breath, eyes closed. Then another, and another, until he could speak again. "I watched you fall," he said.

"Did you, now? I don't remember you being there, John." She uncrossed her arms and stood, presumably to get closer to him. He stepped back, eyes wide, and she stopped. "Whatever was there looked like you; it even sounded like you, but there was no way it was." She paused, taking a moment to look him over. He got the distinct impression he was being probed. " You'd have never been so cold."

Hearing the exact words he'd longed to hear since he'd watched her fall on the security feed so many months ago convinced him he was hallucinating. But he needed proof. "Control, this is Sheppard."

"Good morning, Colonel Sheppard."

"Morning, Chuck. Can you run a security sweep of the personnel quarters for me, please?"

He heard a loud sigh, and glanced over at the figure he hoped was an illusion. "If you're going to be that way about it, John, I'll just go."

He ignored her, focusing instead on visually scanning his quarters, searching for any kind of information about what she was doing in his room, or if he was losing his mind.

She shook her head at him, and in the next blink, disappeared from sight.

"Will do. Anything wrong, Colonel?"

John blinked a few times, squeezing his eye shut and opening them again. Who or what ever he'd seen wasn't there anymore. "Just...some strange stuff going on with the lights, Chuck. Wanted to see if there was anything wonky."

"Nothing on the scanners, sir. Would you like me to get Dr. McKay on it?"

John scrubbed a hand over his face and shook his head. "No. I'll talk to him about it at our meeting later. Thanks."

"No problem, sir. Have a good morning."

"Yeah, you, too, Chuck. Sheppard out." He snatched his radio off his ear and tossed it on his desk. Things were feeling really weird. First the nightmare that woke him up, which hasn't happened in months. Then a ghost showing up out of nowhere and disappearing into that same nowhere when threatened with scan, and now the goddamned buzzing in his head was back. "One thing at a time, John," he muttered. "You need to get some sleep." He glanced at his clock on the bedside table. 07:30. He had a couple of hours to kill before the pre-mission meeting. That was enough time for a shower and some breakfast—if he could eat anything.

~***~

John caught sight of his team sitting on the balcony outside the mess hall and went out to join them. As he approached the table, he smiled at the familiar sound of a McKay rant early in the morning. He set his lighter than usual tray down and the table and pulled up a chair.

Ronon eyed his tray with an upturned brow, and John lifted a shoulder, shrugging off the concern.

"I see you're eating for no one, today, Colonel," Rodney said. "Even for you, that's a light fare."

"Just not hungry, I guess." John tensed under the careful scrutiny of his science officer. "Don't worry, McKay, I brought your muffin," John said, sliding his tray a few inches toward Rodney.

"Considering what's not on your plate, Sheppard, you should keep it this morning."

Latching onto the distraction, John laughed, "Rodney McKay giving up his extra muffin? Has the world come to an end? Is the city about to explode?"

Rodney narrowed his eyes. "I don't know, Colonel. Why don't you tell me. After all, it was you who ordered a general sensor sweep this morning, was it not?"

"Damn it, McKay! How'd you know about that?" John asked, surprised.

"Really? I can't—" Rodney sighed and rolled his eyes. Usually that gesture was followed by sarcasm, and this was no exception. "Chief Science Officer, Sheppard. There's nothing that goes on with this city's power consumption that I don't know about." He sniffed, then attacked his scrambled eggs. "Besides, I checked the sensor logs when I logged on this morning, like always." He chewed for a moment, then, "What were you looking for, if you don't mind me asking?"

Ronon glanced back and forth between them like he was watching a tennis match. He lifted an eyebrow at John, and John glared at him.

"It was nothing, McKay. Just... I thought I saw a fluctuation in the lights and asked to have it scanned."

Rodney rolled his eyes again. "Ten thousand year old city, Colonel. There are bound to be minor fluctuations now and again. This is nothing new, yet you requested a scan of just the residential quarters."

John shrugged and continued to eat his breakfast.

"Hm. Seems overkill to me, and I'm usually the alarmist. You'll be happy to know that I didn't find anything anomalous when I ran the scans myself. Just to be safe." Rodney said.

"I am, Rodney. Thank you." He popped a strawberry into his mouth. "Where's Teyla?"

Ronon gestured with his fork. "Kanaan has Torren on the mainland, so..."

"Right, right." John nodded. He knew Teyla had started seeing Smahls shortly after he arrived. She'd developed a routine with Kate early on. She'd been reticent at first, thinking there'd be a stigma attached to seeing someone about her problems. But Kate made an impression, and Teyla came to view their sessions as necessary. She'd grieved for Kate pretty hard, and when Dr. Smahls had arrived, there'd been a period of adjustment, but, as with Kate, Teyla found comfort and solace in talking with the psychologist. "She's taking some 'personal time' to unwind."

Rodney bowled right over John's attempt at subtlety. "Ever wonder what she says to Smahls? I mean, what could she possible have to complain about every week?"

John wondered that himself, but for different reasons. He couldn't put a word to it, but there was something about the guy that just irked the shit out of John. He couldn't begrudge Teyla someone to talk to, though, and he wasn't going to let Rodney run roughshod over Teyla's feelings, even though she wasn't there to hear it. Sighing, he sat back in his chair and glared at Rodney. "Gee. I have no idea, McKay," he drawled, but might as well have spared the effort, as Rodney responded with a casual, "Hm," as he pushed his tray away and took out his tablet. John looked over at Ronon who just shook his head in fond exasperation then picked up his tray to leave.

"Where you headed, big guy?" John asked him. "We've got a pre-mission briefing shortly."

"Got a training session with some of Lorne's guys. Gonna go see how many I can make cry before the meeting," Ronon replied.

"Sounds good. I might go and watch for a while. You know, make sure you aren't permanently injuring my guys," John teased, then to Rodney, " See ya in thirty for the briefing, right?"

"There with bells on, Colonel," Rodney assured without even looking up from his screen.

Shaking his head, John grabbed his and Rodney's trays and followed Ronon out of the mess. Just as they were leaving, he heard someone calling his name. He turned to find Dr. Smahls jogging down the hallway.

"Oh, good! I'm glad I caught you, Colonel Sheppard. I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of your time."

"Thought you were with Teyla, Doc," John said.

"That was earlier," he said. "I just wanted to get caught up with my most recalcitrant patient. Considering he was up and running this morning at 03:30."

John started a moment before turning to Ronon. "Go ahead, buddy. I guess I'm going to have to miss your sparring."

"No problem," Ronon replied. "See you shortly."

"Right." John clapped a hand on Smahls' shoulder, and they fell into step as they headed down the hall again. "What's up, Doc?" he asked with a smirk.

"No, that never gets old," Dr. Smahls said with shake of his head.

"Not to me," John affirmed. "Seriously. What's up? Surprised you knew about the run this morning."

"It's my business to keep up with my patients, Colonel. I checked the security feed this morning. It's something I've gotten into the habit of doing, what with being on the edge of another galaxy and all. I need to be aware if there are soldiers and/or scientists who aren't coping, don't I?"

"I guess that's so, but checking the security feed is a little drastic, don't you think?"

"I don't know. Do you think having the base commander slowly going insane would be sufficient cause to monitor the hallways in the early morning hours?"

"Is that all you're monitoring?" John asked, irritated to the point of abruptness.

Smahls just tilted his head and gave that calm, collected smile that John really hated. Smug bastard.

"Colonel," he started. "I know you've got some residual feelings of resentment, and perhaps those feelings are particularly strong today and are making you lash out at me. Rest assured, I know the boundaries; I am a professional. I draw the line at surveiling personal quarters. I only check the perimeters and hallways. Considering where you and Ronon run in this city, you're bound to show up on the feeds every now and again. The unusual aspect of today's appearance was the time." They arrived at his office and he gestured John inside. He moved to sit behind his desk.

It was an action John appreciated, specifically designed to take this back to the realm of professional inquiry, not casual curiosity. In reciprocity John took his seat in the patient's chair. "I was up early this morning. Figured I might as well go for a run."

"I gathered. What woke you? Did you have another nightmare?"

John nodded, but didn't reply.

"I see. Did you write it down, like we've discussed?"

John rubbed his forehead. He hated writing down the dreams. Some of them were so vague, just flickers of ephemeral light behind his eyes, snapshots of moments he'll never have again. But the nightmares were even worse. They were vivid, clear, indelible. He didn't see a real reason to write down something that he could recall any time he wanted to with the high definition clarity of the best photography. The image of Kate's last moments flashed through his mind again, standing on the railing in her black nightgown, the lacy edges of it blowing in the wind. Her hair blown across her pale, tear streaked face, her hands in a white-knuckled grip around the beams of the veranda.

"I didn't need to," he finally responded.

"Colonel. John," He said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk. "I can't help you if you don't share things with me. I know you're not exactly fond of talking, so I suggested the journal. It's totally in your control to communicate what you need to. You have to take the time to actually write in it, though."

"I do," John said. "Usually. I just didn't need to write this one down; it's already in there."

"Ah."

"Yeah."

"Okay. I'll let it go, for now. Anything else unusual happen this morning?"

John wondered for an instant if Smahls was fishing, if he knew about the visitation John had earlier, but the doctor was relaxed back in his chair, watching John with a professionally curious eye. John shook his head. "Nope. Just woke up from a night mare and decided to go for a run. It helped."

"All right. I'm glad to hear that. It's good that you've found a healthy catharsis with the running." He let out a deep breath then said, "We've got our regular session in a few days. I trust I'll see you?"

"Sure thing, Doc. Wouldn't miss it," John said as he stood to go.

"Hmm. Your habit of deflection with sarcasm has gotten more blatant. Aren't you glad I'm a psychologist and can recognize it?"

John didn't answer, but lifted an eyebrow.

Dr. Smahls laughed. "Good-bye, Colonel. Have a safe mission."

"Thanks," John said and left.

The hall was deserted and quiet and John took the opportunity to catch a moment of rejuvenation. He leaned against the wall and took several deep breaths.

"You should have told him about this morning. I'm not some dirty little secret, you know."

He rolled his head against the wall and turned to where the voice was coming from. There she was again. The ghost of his wife, sitting prettily on one of the random chairs that littered the hallways of Atlantis. "Really? I should tell my shrink on a military base in the next galaxy that I'm having hallucinations? That'd go over well, I think," John muttered, eyes closed again.

"If I were a figment of your imagination, that would be true. But I'm not. I'm real."

"The jury's still out on that one, honestly."

She sat back and crossed her legs. "You're awfully calm, considering you're now having 'hallucinations'," she did the finger quotes thing around that word, "about your dead wife along with the nightmares that haven't gone away. Are you sure you're not disassociating?"

"Is anyone?" he asked as he pushed himself off the wall.

"Cute. Are we really going to go through all the bullshit again, John?" she frowned up at him.

"Bullshit?"

"That game you play in which I ask you questions and you give one or two word answers, trying to deflect my interest. God, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed that one the first time around."

"Kate, if you really are her, and I'm not completely convinced you're not some attempt at my subconscious to alleviate my own guilt, so no. I'm not going to be answering you with any clarity any time soon," he told her. "At best you're a ghost, coming to haunt me. At worst, you're some entity sent with her face to extract information about Atlantis. Either way, I don't feel the need to give you the satisfaction."

She blinked up at him. "That's a lot of words coming from you."

He glared. "Haven't you heard? I'm in therapy."

"The hostility isn't necessary," She assured him.

"We'll see," he replied. Then he tapped his radio. "Rodney?"

“Yes, Sheppard. What do you want?“

He cleared his throat and looked over at the woman still sitting calmly in the soft white chair. "Could you, um...I don't suppose you could run a sensor sweep on my coordinates, could you?"

“What? Why? Is something wrong?“ John heard the tapping of keys, then Rodney's voice back on the line. “I don't see anything in the power consumption logs, so if you're seeing fluctuations, they're not registering as a problem.“

"No, it's not that, Rodney. Could you just run the scan and I'll tell you why later."

“Running,“ he said, and John nodded at the speed of Rodney's reaction and the trust it implied. They'd taken a long time to reach that point, but it felt good knowing that John had people watching his back just as hard and faithfully as he watched theirs. “Okay. That's weird.“

"What have you got, Rodney?" he asked, keeping an eye on the figure still sitting, patient and serene, across the hallway.

"Absolutely nothing, John, but the scan took .358 seconds longer than it should have.“

John glared at the specter across from him. "Could that be a glitch in the system, McKay?"
“I'm sorry. I thought I just heard you say 'glitch in the system,' but that can't be the case, right?“ He could feel Rodney's glare through the radio. “There's no glitch in my systems, Colonel.“

Ouch. He'd be paying for that later, John thought to himself. "I'm sorry Rodney, forget I said anything. So what do you think it was that made the scan take longer than usual?"

“Hmm. I don't know. Maybe something Atlantis is doing. I'll run them again.“

Suddenly, the specter Kate's eyes narrowed, and with a quick purse of her lips, she was gone. John sighed, relieved to be rid of her.

“Okay, that is just bizarre,“ Rodney said. “Now there's no delay. What the hell is going on down there Colonel?“

John shook his head. "I have no idea, but I'll fill you in on what I do know after the meeting," he said, figuring it was time to get it out in the open. If there was something messing with Atlantis' systems, and with the sensors acting like they were, it was a good bet there was, then it needed to be taken care of. Any trepidation he may have felt about revealing the fact he was seeing things fell second to the need to keep the base secure. "See you in ten. Sheppard out."

~***~

His team were already situated in the conference room when John arrived, and they all looked at him expectantly as he sat down. "What? I'm not late; Woolsey's not even here yet."

"Are you alright, John?" Teyla was the first to speak. The concern in her eyes had him turning to Ronon. He knew the two of them were pretty close, and Teyla was the one person who could drag information out of Ronon without even trying. Ronon gave a subtle shake of his head and cut his eyes to Rodney, who had surreptitiously gone back to typing on his keyboard.

"Rodney?" John was careful to keep the irritation out of his voice, but again, as with all efforts of maintaining equanimity with McKay, the attempt was futile.

"Oh! Thanks a lot, Ronon," Rodney groused, flashing a glare in Ronon's direction. "All I did was mention your early morning run and the two sensor sweeps you asked for." Off John's narrow-eyed glare, he averred, "I swear! That's all I said. But come on, it's Teyla. If anyone in this group is going to read between the lines, it's going to be her."

Ronon chuckled. "True."

"Would the both of you please be quiet?" Teyla reprimanded, mild exasperation making her words sharper than usual.

"Sorry," McKay was immediately contrite, but Ronon just lifted a dubious brow which Teyla met with one of her own. Finally, Ronon cleared his throat and looked away.

Satisfied, Teyla turned back to John. "John?"

This was why he preferred to keep his own council. The moment he shared something with one of his team, either through a request for company on a run, or simple sweep of the sensors, it always got back to Teyla and she'd make him talk about things. He sighed. "I'm fine, Teyla. Just woke up early this morning out of a nightmare, so I called up Ronon for a run."

"And the security sweeps?" she asked.

"I thought I saw something," he replied.

"What did you think you saw?" Rodney chimed in. "It must have been pretty major for you to have requested two security scans in the space of four hours."

He didn't really want to talk about it, but then Ronon piped up with, "You saw her didn't you?"

John shot him a wide-eyed look.

"It's not a hard conclusion to reach. You had a nightmare, went for a run, then got back, and saw something that looked like something it couldn't be. Only two things I know of would make you call for a scan: wraith, or Kate." Ronon shrugged. "If it'd been wraith, you'd have said, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. So it must have been her."

John couldn't fault his logic. "Yeah. She, uh, she was in my room this morning after the sun came up."

"And she was with you again outside Smahls' office, right? That's why you had me run a scan of the area?" Rodney joined in.

John nodded. "Yup."

"What do you believe you saw, John?" Teyla asked, matter of fact.

"Don't know, really. I thought," he said, "maybe a hallucination. Maybe the lack of sleep was getting to me. I don't know. She keeps insisting she's real and not a figment of my overworked imagination. And both times I asked for the scans, she got perturbed."

"She only got that way when you asked for the scans?" Rodney asked.

"Yeah."

"That's interesting." He started typing away on his keyboard again, determined. "What else did you notice when she was around?"

John tilted his head, curious. "What do you mean?" Rodney had the tone that indicated he was onto something, not entirely fleshed out, but like he had something on the line, nibbling away. "What are you thinking Rodney?"

"That depends on what you tell me," Rodney replied looking up at John. "So. Was there anything unusual about the times you saw your... saw her, I mean."

"No, nothing strange or unusual. Just she only shows up when I'm alone and it's relatively quiet." John said.

"Nothing else?" Rodney asked.

John shook his head. "Nothing comes to mind. I mean, it's startling, you know? Seeing her when I know she's dead. I guess I'm just focused on her."

"Hm." Rodney considered that for a moment, then, "Next time—you do think there will be a next time?"

"Maybe."

"Okay. Next time, focus on what's happening. It might give us some clues as to what's really happening. If it's not your brain going all wonky from grief and lack of sleep," Rodney said, shooting John a contrite half-smile.

"Sounds like a plan," John said, effectively dismissing the conversation. He glanced at his watch and frowned. "Where's Woolsey? He's usually here before we get here."

"I don't get why we need all these meetings. Woolsey wants us to file a report before and after each mission. Why do we have to meet, too?" Ronon grumbled from his position at the end of the table.

"Fair point," John said. "I couldn't tell ya, buddy."

"It just seems like a waste of time, if you ask me." Ronon shrugged.

"I once again find myself in agreement with Ronon," Rodney said. "I could be in the lab. Every minute counts, you know."

Teyla nodded. "Perhaps this is something we could bring up to Mr. Woolsey? I know I would be grateful for any spare moments to spend with Kanaan and Torren," she said.

Ronon chuckled. "You mean you wouldn't mind a little time for yourself."

She lifted a brow in acknowledgement. "That, too." She smiled. "If he can be convinced that these meetings are indeed unnecessary, I am sure the other teams would greatly appreciate the reprieve."

"Right." John agreed with her. If the other teams found the pre-mission briefings as useless and boring as his did, then there could probably be compensation for getting them nixed. "Well there's no harm in asking."

Just as John finished speaking, the doors to the conference room swung open and Mr. Woolsey walked in, harried, and a little frustrated. "I do apologize for being late. Apparently I have irritated the city once again. And I thought we were getting along so well, lately."

"That's all right, sir. She gets testy with me sometimes, too," John assured him.

"With the way Atlantis lights up for him, you'd think he was her long lost love child. It's a wonder the rest of us navigate this city with any degree of success, seeing how fickle she can be if she gets testy with the anointed one over there." Rodney groused.

"She never bothers me," Ronon stated.

"I, too, have never had a problem with the city," Teyla said, a teasing smile playing about her lips.

"Well," Rodney cleared his throat. "There's no accounting for taste."

John just shook his head. "At any rate, we're all here now, so why don't we get started? Rodney? What have you got for us?"

"Thank you, Colonel," Woolsey said graciously as he took his seat.

Rodney nodded and started rattling of facts about the mission they'd be taking after the meeting was done. While Rodney droned on, John found himself focused on the questions Rodney had asked him about the visitations from Kate. He hadn't noticed anything unusual at the time, but now that he was thinking about it, both times had been when he was completely alone. The first time in his quarters, it had been deathly quiet, even the constant sound of the city in his head had been absent. The second time, in the hall outside Smahls' office, he'd been too preoccupied with his conversation with the good doctor, but thinking back, it had been another heavy silence that preceded Kate's visit to him. He concluded that solitude and silence were the conditions for her presence.

“You don't have to be alone, you know.“ And there she was again, only this time in his head. John's heart beat a double time and dropped, heavy, like a stone to his stomach. He sucked in a sudden breath, and Teyla looked askance at him.

"John?" she asked, interrupting Rodney in his discussion of the planet they were gating to that afternoon. "Is everything all right?"

Ronon had perked up as well, turning his attention from his folded fists to John's face.

John shook his head and cleared his throat. "Yeah, yeah. I'm fine," he said, and gave a quick smile to reassure his team. "I'm sorry, Rodney. Go ahead, finish what you were saying."

Rodney narrowed his eyes at him. "You're sure?"

"Absolutely, go on."

“You are not fine, John.“ The voice in his head whispered, drowning out Rodney's voice. “Why do you think I'm here? You haven't been fine for months.“

John swiped a hand over his face and closed his eyes. There she was, her face a perfect image on the backs of his eyelids. He let his mind's eye sweep over her features, looking for some clue as to what she was, because he knew without a doubt that she was not his dead wife. You're not Kate, he thought at the image.

What makes you say that? Don't I look like her? Sound like her? Smell like her?

And inexplicably, he could smell Kate's scent all around him in the conference room. He opened his eyes, scanning his teams' faces in case they'd picked up on the unusual flood of aroma in the air.

“They can't detect me, John,“ she said.

So, it's just me?

“Yes.“

That's a neat trick, making me smell Kate's perfume. How'd you get that?

“You still think I'm not her.“

Damn right, I don't think you're her. Whatever you are, you're not my dead wife.

“How do you know?“

Because she would never do this. She'd never make me think I was losing my mind.

“You're not going crazy, John. I can assure you of that fact. You're not losing your mind. It is me.“

Until you tell me who and what you really are, we're done with this conversation.

John opened his eyes, refocused on the meeting. He could feel whatever it was impersonating Kate getting frustrated. He ignored its pleas to listen to reason. Then, as suddenly as she'd shown up, she was gone again, but not before she left a feeling of dread filtering through his mind.

"At any rate, the exploration of the site shouldn't take us more than two days, three tops," Rodney concluded.

"Sounds good to me, Dr. McKay," Woolsey gave a quick nod, then turned to John. "Colonel, you and your team have a go. I'll expect you to report in every 6 hours," he said, the packed up his notes and left the conference room.

Rodney and Teyla headed out as well. Ronon paused at the door and waited for John.

John took several deep breaths, trying to shake off the strangeness of what had just happened to him. He didn't want his team worrying about him on the mission, so he thought it best to pull on his usual charm, that affability he'd worn like a jacket all his life. With one last deep breath, he stood up and plastered on his most carefree grin.

Clearing his throat, he said, "So...gist?"

"You ever going to pay attention when McKay's running off at the mouth in these things?" Ronon asked, leading him out of the conference room.

He gave his ear a quick tug, deflecting the question. "Why should I when I have you?"

Ronon glared at him.

"Aw, come on, big guy. Why should we both suffer?" John teased as they descended the stairs.

"You're the team leader, you should know this stuff."

"And I will," he replied, the pointed up at Ronon. "Just as soon as you tell me."

Ronon shook his head in exasperation. "Fine. Uninhabited planet, Ancient outpost, probable useful tech."

John paused and nodded thoughtfully. "So, C-4?" he asked, hands on hips.

Ronon nodded. "And some extra ammo. What Rodney expects, and what actually happens aren't always similar."

John clapped him on the back. "This is true," he said and started moving again.

They entered the prep room where Teyla and Rodney were getting their gear on. "All right, people. Let's do this," he said, and let the seriousness of the mission settle over him.

~***~

They emerged from the space gate above a lush, greenish-blue planet. John set a course for the surface. "Okay, Rodney, where are we parking?" he asked as they broke through the clouds over a deep blue ocean.

"Head east. The outpost is on the coast of the first landmass." He frowned. "Damn. Looks like there's no clear landing area near the outpost, so we're going to have to hike." He sighed. "Have I told you how much I hate hiking?"

"Still?" Ronon asked.

"Always. Contrary to common occurrence, I actually prefer the rather predictable and far less physically demanding life of theoretical physics. Running for my life from all manner of creatures—not the least of which being life sucking vampire aliens—was not in my life plan."

"If it helps you to feel better, Rodney, you have shown great improvement over the years," Teyla assured him. Even John heard the set up in that one, and winced.

"Really?" Rodney asked, and John laughed outright.

"No." Ronon replied.

"Ronon!" Teyla admonished, slapping him on the arm. Ronon flashed her a bright white grin.

"Oh, hah hah," Rodney glared at them both. "You wound me," he said, meaning nothing of the sort. "Thank you very much."

"You're welcome," Ronon couldn't resist adding, at which Rodney's glare turned deadly.

Chuckling softly to himself, John checked the HUD and saw they were on approach to their destination. "Okay, boys and girls; I hate to break up the fun time, but we're coming up on the place. I'm going to do a fly over, see if there's a close place to land, then we're all going to get out and make nice on the hike up to the nice Ancient outpost, right?"

"Sure, no problem, Sheppard," Ronon said smiling.

"Fine. Fine. No retaliation on the way there. But when we make camp, you better believe there will be comeuppance."

"I'll wait with bated breath, McKay," Ronon said, clapping him on the shoulder before settling back to talk with Teyla.

They approached the small mountain where the outpost was situated, and John had to admit he was impressed. He started to feel a familiar buzz and he turned to Rodney and smiled. "So what is this place, and what are we looking for?"

Rodney was tapping away on his tablet, but condescended to responded, "If you would focus more on the content of the meetings instead of the fantasies in your brain, you would know, Colonel."

John knew Rodney could have no idea of what had happened in the meeting, but the admonishing stung, nonetheless, and he couldn't stop his quick retort. "Well, if you had more substance rather than style, I probably wouldn't get so easily distracted."

Rodney shot him an affronted glare then narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.

"I'm sorry, Rodney," John's conscious pricked him into saying. "That was uncalled for."

Rodney shrugged and turned back to his keyboard. "Though not entirely untrue. I know I'm a petty, albeit grandiose man." He looked up at John and smiled. "It's part of my charm."

John chuckled, relieved that Rodney could let it go. Not too long ago, John would have been nursing Rodney's ego for the rest of the day. They've all come a long way, he thought. "Ah. Gotchya. Self-awareness is a good thing, McKay."

"Anyway, it's all right, Sheppard. Considering your current state, I understand the abruptness."

John cocked a brow. "My current state?" He surveyed the HUD and pointed to a possible landing zone. "How about here?"

Rodney gave it a once over. "Looks good. And your current state. You know, hallucinatory."

John sighed, and navigated the 'jumper to a soft landing. "Yeah. Not so much hallucinations."

"Really?" Rodney asked, curiosity piqued.

"It wasn't fantasies that had me distracted in the meeting, Rodney," John replied. "Okay," he said, turning to Teyla and Ronon. "Grab your gear, and let's head out. Hopefully, we'll be able to set up camp inside the place." He turned back to Rodney. "McKay?"

"There should be plenty of room, yes," he replied.

"Right. I'll take point. Ronon, you've got our six. The place is supposed to be uninhabited, but—Yes, Rodney, I did hear that much," he said off Rodney's look. "As I was saying, it's supposed to be uninhabited, but we've all heard that before. Uninhabited doesn't necessarily mean safe."

There was a snick then the whine of Ronon's blaster indicating a new setting, then Ronon slid it softly into its holster. Teyla hefted her pack over her shoulders, affixed her P-90 to its hook on her vest, and then checked over the rest of her concealed weapons.

"Ready?" he asked. Not waiting for a reply, he said, "Let's go. Rodney, you're with me," he said and led the way out of the 'jumper.

They'd walked a few minutes when Rodney picked up the tail end of their previous conversation. "So, Sheppard. What did you mean when you said they weren't hallucinations? You're seeing your dead wife all in strange circumstances. Seeing as ghosts don't exist, you must be hallucinating."

John really didn't want to be talking about this, but he knew he was going to have to, because Rodney was like a dog with a bone when he got his curiosity piqued. He brushed a hand over his forehead, then squinted up into the sun, trying to find the right words. "I think...Okay. Yeah, ghosts aren't real. Everyone knows that. But whatever this is? It knows what Kate was feeling, what she saw, what was going through her head as she died. It told me. I mean, I didn't even know what was happening to her. "

"You saw the footage," Rodney said. "And you're not stupid. It's doubtless you're extrapolating from what you heard her say on the security feeds."

"Maybe. I don't know. But it doesn't sound like Kate, either." John said. He thought back to their conversations, or what could be called conversations. The thing with his wife's face, if he took the shock of seeing Kate's face away from their encounters, he could hear the different between them. Kate was cool, calm. Very little got her excitable. She was unflappable. But this entity spoke with an excitement that Kate was hard pressed to express. "This thing isn't as placid as Kate was. There's an energy about it that's not..." he sighed, the frustration of trying to explain it expelling in a single deep breath. "The energy isn't right. It's not Kate. And it certainly isn't me."

"Do you think it's dangerous? I could have Zelenka look into the sensor logs, determine if the city is at risk or not." Rodney suggested.

"It doesn't seem dangerous," John considered, "just...eager. It wants me to pay attention to it, and gets irritated, like a child, when I call for a security sweep."

Rodney groaned at that. "I cannot tell you how much I do not like the idea of something with a child's mentality roaming around my city. I mean, the lack of impulse control alone could be hazardous to the city."

John chuckled. "Well, I don't think it's as bad as all that. I'm the only one it's manifested itself to, and that only started last night. No one else has reported anything of the sort."

Rodney looked up at him and frowned, concentrating. "So it's just you?"

"Yup," John nodded.

"Interesting."

"Right?"

They continued on in relative quiet for a while, when Teyla and Ronon came up abreast of them. The rest of the hike was spent in companionable teasing and conversation. Eventually, they reached the outposts, and the familiar buzz once again started in John's head. "Well, I'll say this for the Ancients, they're consistent," he muttered.

Rodney glanced up from his tablet, curious. "How do you mean?"

John pointed at his head. "I can hear the same buzz I hear on Atlantis."

"Really?" Rodney asked.

John nodded.

"Do you always hear that? I mean, when we find outposts like this?"

John shook his head. "Not always. Only when there's a lot of stuff that requires the ATA gene."

"Explain," Rodney demanded.

John cocked an eyebrow at him, and Rodney deferred, but gave a circular motion with his hand that John took to mean he should go ahead and explain. He shook his head in exasperation. "Fine. Okay, so I hear Atlantis in my head, right?"

"Yes, the buzzing. I've had the ATA gene therapy. I don't hear it, so much as feel it, but I understand," Rodney stated. "Go on."

"Well, I hear that same sound in other places. But only in places that require the ATA gene for operation."

"As opposed to simple initiation," Rodney supposed.

"Yes."

"So, on Taranis, you didn't hear it?"

John shook hi s head. "No. Not in the outpost. But on the Orion, I did," he said.

Rodney nodded, then considered a moment. "Anywhere else?"

"The planet with the other Atlantis. That medieval society we encountered. The one that gave use the drones and extra 'jumpers."

"Why are you just mentioning it now?" Rodney demanded.

"Really, Rodney? That's what you're going to focus on?" He shook his head. "It didn't seem all that important. Plus, I just got used to it in the city. I don't usually register it."

"Hm." Rodney pulled out his tablet again and started tapping the screen. "Well, there's definitely an energy signal similar to that of the Ancient tech on Atlantis, so it's a safe bet we'll find something useful," he said, pleased.

"Good," Ronon stated as he moved past them. "Would have been a waste of time if we didn't." he trudged up to the door, that was partially hidden in the rocks. "You gonna open the place up, McKay, or you just gonna stand there?"

"Right, right," Rodney muttered moving into action. "On it." In a matter of minutes he had the doors open, and they all stepped into the darkness of the room beyond. After just a few minutes, the lights began to come on, and John stood silent taking in the room as it was revealed to them. The room was large, much like the size of the gate room on Atlantis, and like the gate room, had a stairwell that split into two different directions at the second landing. But unlike Atlantis, this room extended behind the stairwell into a dark hallway. The lights at the beginning of the hall were on, but and John could see that it went on for some distance. The low level buzz he'd detected outside intensified in magnitude as he ventured deeper into the room. "Whoa," Rodney said, staring down at his computer screen. "You're not going to believe this," he started.

"It's huge," John said. The sound, while not on par with the amplitude of the one on Atlantis, was definitely noticeable now, and John figure that meant a vast structure filled with Ancient technology. He sighed, knowing what Rodney was going to say next.

"Oh. Yeah," Rodney confirmed, "and not just this room. This facility will take days to explore." He said, excited.

"We don't have days, Rodney. We have today and tomorrow." He hated to dash Rodney's enthusiasm because he, too, was anxious to see what lay beyond the walls of the entrance room. Still, he didn't think it was a good idea to extend the mission without first heading back to Atlantis.

"But Sheppard!"

"No. We'll explore what we can today and tomorrow, then we'll go back, and you can request more time and a whole other science team if you want. But we're not extending this mission, if we don't have to." John said.

"Well, can we at least break off and each of us explore different parts of the facility?" Rodney asked, just barely keeping his tone below that of a whine.

John lifted a dubious eyebrow at him, and asked, "You really want to go off on your own in a strange ancient facility with no protection?"

"Not really, but I don't want to leave parts of the place unexplored either," Rodney stated, and John had to smile at the man's tenacity. Rodney frowned, and took a deep breath, and John watched him work through the problem. "Okay. Why don't I take Teyla with me, and you and Ronon can go in different directions. That way, I'm not alone, and I figure the two of us, me and Teyla, are equivalent to one of either you or Ronon."

John winced at that and didn't give any warning when Teyla smacked Rodney in the back of his arm. "I don't know, I'm pretty sure Teyla could best me on her own, McKay," he said.

"Thank you, Colonel," Teyla replied, her tone stiff. "Dr. McKay must have simply misspoken."

"Oh, yes. I...I'm sorry. No offense, Teyla. I just meant that I'm definitely the weak link in the group when it comes to defense, and I... well... I don't want to go by myself."

She stared implacably at him for a moment, and John wondered whether she was going to cut his science officer any slack. Then she shook her head, and gave Rodney a small smile. "I understand, Rodney."

"Alright, then. Rodney, You and Teyla head upstairs and to the..." he trailed off, looking askance at Rodney, who quickly got with the program and consulted his scanner. Rodney always knew how to find the interesting, possibly useful stuff.

"Right. Teyla and I will go right," Rodney announced, then to Ronon. "You can go left."

Ronon shrugged. "Cool."

"And you," Rodney started.

"I'll follow that hallway," John said, pointed behind the stairs. "Okay. Radio check in every, say, 15 minutes. Alert the others if you find something absolutely earth-shattering. " John said.

"Like a ZPM," Rodney nodded vigorously.

John chuckled. "Don't get your hopes up, McKay."

"Party pooper."

"I know," john replied, still smiling. "Okay. We'll meet back here in four hours?"

"Sounds good," Rodney said, already messing with his tablet and looking up at the stairs.

John nodded. "Good luck." He clapped Ronon on the shoulder as he passed by. "See ya in a few."

And the three of them set off.

~***~

John watched his team head up to their respective destinations and took a minute to himself. He thought about what he'd said to Rodney about his hallucinations maybe not being hallucinations, and wondered why, if they weren't figments of his imagination like he'd originally thought, the thing took on Kate's appearance.

He hitched his shoulders and gave his tac vest an adjustment, then set off on his on exploration. His train of thought, however, would not derail. There was something bugging him about his conversations with Rodney. Whatever it was was focused on him, fixated on him. God, it was right there, if he could just grab hold of the thought! He took a deep breath. "Don't try so hard," he muttered. "Just let it happen. Think about something else."

He came upon a door on the right side of the hall and gave a mental push at it to open. It slid open with a gentle hiss, and he lifted his weapon and entered. The lights slowly came up, and he identified the room as one similar to the hologram room on Atlantis. He clicked his radio ahead of schedule. "McKay?"

"Go ahead, Sheppard.“

"You run into any familiar areas in your search?"

“A little, yeah. But we've only seen a couple of rooms, why?“

"I just found a hologram room."

“Oh! I forgot to mention! Don't to-“

"Don't touch anything, I know, McKay. I didn't. Just thought I'd check in to see if I was the only one seeing familiar things."

“You're not. Just be sure to remember anything noteworthy, so I can brief the science team that comes down here when we're done. McKay out.“

He exited the room and started down the hall again. It took him a while, but he slowly began to notice the utter silence in the hallway. He stopped and closed his eyes, listening, feeling for the usual buzz that let him know he was around Ancient tech, but it was completely gone.

"You know, you didn't have to go half a galaxy away to avoid me," she said, right at his elbow.

He turned to face her, fingers gently wrapped around the trigger of his P-90. "Hello, Kate," he said.

"You believe me, now?" she asked? "If so, you don't have to keep such a grip on you weapon."

"Nope. Just figure it's easier to call you what you want me to. I figure if you're going to look like her, you must have a reason." He stepped backward to brace himself against the wall and looked casually down both ends of the hallway. "How did you get here?"

"I've always been here," she said, automatically. Then at his raised eyebrow, she frowned. "I've always been with you."

"No. You said you've always been here," he reminded her. "Do you mean, here in this facility?" He was beginning to understand, he thought. Just a bit more information would help.

"No. I've always been with you," she reiterated.

"Kate and I only knew each other for six years. She wasn't always with me," John said. The he tapped his radio and watched her face as he did so. "McKay?"

Her browns furrowed into an angry frown.

There was no answer on the radio. He tried again. "McKay, this is Sheppard, come in."

Nothing.

"What are you doing to our communication?" He asked, and lifted his P-90 to point it at her.

"I need you, John," she said, her face crumpling into sadness. "I've missed you. I can't let you go back." She paused and tilted her head, her eyes boring deep into his own.

"What?"

"Not after...not after what you did to me, John."

"What I did to you?" He swallowed. Flashes of Kate, in her black nightgown, screaming his name just before falling to her death flew through his brain. "I...I wasn't there. I didn't... It wasn't me!"

"You killed me, John. You know you did. I was crying for you and you came and you pushed me." She was cold, staring hard at him, watching every tick of his face, every blink of his eye, every breath he took and he felt suffocated.

"It wasn't me," he whispered, trying to defend what he knew to be true. He had killed her, just as surely as if he'd done it himself. He left her alone, left her to try to fight that entity on her own, thinking she'd be safe. He did kill her.

She stepped up to him, her eyes roving over every inch of his face, and he could feel their presence like the softest of fingers. She was in his mind. "It was you. These eyes, this mouth. This hair. I remember. I can see you there. Smirking at me while I screamed in fear. Laughing when I begged you not to hurt me." Suddenly her hand was wrapped around his chin. "You killed me, John. You know you did."

"I'm..." he closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered, almost inaudibly. "I never meant to leave you alone."

"You didn't. You were there." Something about the way she said it forced his eyes open again. E squinted down at her.

"No, I wasn't."

"I felt your hands push me over the rail, John. You were there," she said, her voice calm, as though she were stating a simple fact like 'grass is green,' or 'rain is wet.' She couldn't, or wouldn't believe that he wasn't. Because she could see him there.

"No. I was on another planet, with Rodney, looking for more of the crystals, trying to find out what it was that was going through Atlantis personnel's dreams." He tilted his head, finally figuring her out. "Kate knew I would never hurt her. Yes, she called for me, but it wasn't me she was begging not to hurt her."

Confusion clouded her eyes, and she backed away.

"Now. Let's start again," he lifted his gun and pointed it her. "What the hell are you?"

"This is unacceptable," she stated, with narrowed eyes and a firm mouth. "Put your weapon down."

He almost laughed at her command, but then his arms moved without his volition. "Hey!"

"Quiet. You will come with me," she said, and imperiously turned and started marching down the hall. John could do nothing but follow her. It was as though she's hardwired her commands into his brain and overridden his own control over his body. He tried using his radio, but he couldn't speak to open the channel. She dragged him through the halls for several minutes, turning so many times, he lost track and knew he'd never find his way back out again. Finally, they must have arrived at her destination, because she paused as a door opened at the end of the hall, and she gestured to him to go inside.

"I have waited for you for a very long time, John. I will not let you go now." She pointed to a chair in the center of the room, and said, "You will sit."

He swallowed hard, the thick lump of nervousness nearly choking him before it finally dissipated. The chair was very similar to the one on the base in Antarctica. The one he'd sat down in and showed Rodney the solar system. The one that put him on this path that he'd never imagined for himself. Only this chair didn't look nearly so inviting. He wanted to say no, wanted to high tail it out of the room and away from the facility, and back to the safety of Atlantis, but he couldn't move. Couldn't open his mouth to speak. Then his feet were moving of their own accord, and his body collapsed into the chair. His arms placed themselves on the armrests, and his fingers settled into the gel pads at the ends of the rests.

The gel lit up to the familiar brilliant blue of Atlantis' genetic interface, and power surged through him. Not unlike the control chair of Atlantis, but on a lesser scale. And slowly, through the flow of energy surging through him, he could hear, again, that familiar buzz. The one that had disappeared when she's shown up next to him in the hall. Finally, he felt as though he could move on his own, and he tried to get up again, but the chair's energy spiked painfully within him and he settled for turning his head to look at her instead.

She stood at one of the consoles on the far side of the room, her head bowed reading some screen over which he could see figures moving too quickly to make out. He tilted his head to get a better look at what little he could see of her face, and discovered her eyes were closed, and her fingers were not moving over the console. Every once in a while, her head would twitch. He closed his eyes. He'd finally figured out what she was. He took a breath to speak. "Why are you doing this?"

"I've waited for you for a long time," she replied, calm, matter-of-fact. Much like Kate would have done, but lacking the warmth of his late wife. "So very long," she whispered.

"I'm not the one who left you here," he said.

"I know. You're the one they told me to wait for. The one they said would come back for me."

"No. They didn't mean me. I'm... I wasn't supposed to be here," he said. "I flipped a stupid coin. It was luck." He rolled his head back to center, and stared up at the ceiling of the room. "Christ! Do you even know who I am? What you are?"

She turned to face him. "You are Lieutenant John Sheppard, United States Air Force, current assignment Atlantis Expedition."

"And what are you?" he prodded.

"I am the artificial intelligence program left to run this facility when its occupants left."

The artificial intelligence. Now he knew what the buzz of the Ancient tech was, why he heard it so powerfully, and why the Kate facsimile on Atlantis was so attuned to him. "Why do you look like my wife?"

"I chose a form from your consciousness that I thought you would easily adjust to, one you would trust."

"You mined my thoughts."

"It is one of my capabilities. It served my purpose." She back to her console. "We will sleep now," she said simply, and disappeared. Before he could react, the blackness of unconsciousness surrounded him.

~***~

When he woke, he found Rodney staring down at him, the chair inactive, and the power that had been surging through him suspiciously absent. Teyla stood at his other elbow, and Ronon was standing guard at the door, weapon readied.

"Rodney?" he tried to speak, but it came out slurred, and gravelly.

"Ah, there he is. Welcome back, Colonel. You had us going there for a while." Rodney said, a relieved smile sliding onto his features.

"She's here, Rodney," he said, struggling to sit up.

Teyla assisted him with an arm across his shoulders and a guiding hand at his elbow. "Kate is here?" she asked. "Are you positive?"

"Yes. Only she's not Kate, and she's not a figment of my imagination," John said. "I think I've figured it out."

Rodney nodded. "Way ahead of you. She's the artificial intelligence of this facility. Come to think of it," he said, "That's probably the issue on Atlantis as well."

John nodded. "Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” He swiped his hand over his forehead, then scrubbed it down his face. “How did you figure it out? And how long have I been out?"

"Well, the answer to one question will help answer the other.” Rodney told him. “We had no idea you were trapped in here. You responded to our regular calls, so we didn't think anything was wrong. It wasn't until you didn't show up for the rendezvous that I – I mean, we – determined that something was amiss. I ran a scan of the facility and discovered that someone or something had accessed the interior communications. I searched through the communications logs, and it took a little time, maybe an hour or two. Meanwhile, I had to keep Ronon from going off half cocked to find you. He threatened to shoot me a couple of times, but I don't think he actually would have.”

"Don't bet on it," Ronon commented.

Rodney's face turned an even whiter shade of terrified. "Yes, well, be that as it may. I figured out that you weren't responding, that your replies had come from the facility itself, not your radio, so I grabbed the LDS, calibrated it for the interference from the AI—"

"That took another hour," Ronon said, "I very nearly did shoot him then."

Rodney glared at him. "Anyway. We followed the little dot, and here we are. Rescuing you."

"Good. That's good, Rodney," John said, making the effort to stand. "Can we get the hell out of here now?"

"What?" Rodney looked stricken. "But there's still so much to—"

"Rodney," Teyla said with a shake of her head. "I believe your scientific curiosity can be satiated at another time."

"But-" Rodney started.

"Rodney, I was just forced into that chair, and, from what I can determine based on how I feel, I think this facility just fed on my brain. I think it's best if we go." John said, standing up. “Besides, I want to get back to Atlantis and deal with the situation there. Now that we know what’s going on, that it isn’t actually Kate, we can get things back in order.”

"But...I disabled the AI," he said, and this time, he didn't bother to hid the whine.

"I don't care. I want to get out of here."

"Okay, fine. I supposed it's understandable, given the state we found you in," Rodney said. "Do you even know the way out of here?"

"I do," Ronon said, coming to help Teyla support John as they exited the room.

~***~

John strolled casually along the hall after breakfast. The familiar buzz back in head, comforting, welcoming, a sure sign he was home and safe.

"Ah, Colonel. I'm glad I caught you."

John smiled. "We've got to stop meeting like this, Doc."

Dr. Smahls chuckled. "Yes. Yes, I suppose we do. I just wanted to touch base with you, see how you've been doing since the last time we spoke."

John took a deep breath, running through possible answers, until settling on the truth. "I'm good, Doc."

"Really?"

"Yeah. It's been a while since I could say that and mean it, but yeah. I'm... I'm good." John said, nodding.

"That's excellent to hear, Colonel," Dr. Smahls replied. They stood awkwardly in the hall for a moment, then, the doctor cleared his throat. "Well, I... I suppose I'll let you be on your way."

"Alrighty. Catch ya later, Doc," John said, and continued on to his quarters.

Once inside, he peeled off his shirt, kicked off his boots, and stood in the open door of his balcony, soaking in the last rays of the dying sun.

"I never meant to scare you," she said.

"I know," he replied without hesitation.

"I only wanted to make it better for you. I... You...were...You were different."

"I know. It's okay." He knew what she meant. Different. Sadder. Broken. Guilt-ridden. Grieving. He took in a deep breath of the salty sea air. "But I need you to do me a favor, Atlantis."

"Yes, John?"

"I need you to find another likeness."

"This one is too painful?"

"Not painful. Just," he finally turned to face her. "Not yours. She was unique. Nothing like you at all. I'd like to remember her the way she was, not have her replaced by you."

"Who would you have me look like?"

"I don't know," he said, turning back to the sea. "Surprise me."

The End