Montreal, QC, July 2004
The courtyard of the Jardin Nelson restaurant was vaulted with late sunlight, lined with trees and flowering plants, filled with mellow jazz. As a single, English-speaking diner, John got a spot in the corner where he couldn't really see the jutting balcony that held the trio of musicians. He could hear them, though, the piano tinkling out over the bass foundation and the hum of conversation. He nodded at the maître-d' and settled to squint at the menu.
He took his time with the meal, despite the waiter pointedly checking every few minutes. The sky had gone dark and he was on his third coffee by the time the music wound down. He emptied his cup, tucked the receipt into his jeans, and ambled toward the restrooms. His timing was perfect; they actually bumped into each other in the hall.
"Hey, Rodney," John drawled. "Nice suit."
Rodney glanced down at his dark jacket and then back up, gaping. "J-John?"
"In the flesh. I'm here to offer you a job."
And wasn't that a blast from the past?
Princeton, NJ, March 1992
Classrooms at the Department of Thaumaturgy were numbered according to some bizarre system, so John found the place a little late and his dress blues stood out like a sore thumb when he slipped into the lecture in progress. Dr. McKay glared at him over the heads of a couple dozen students, most of them turned to gape at the man in uniform. John crept into a desk at the back, trying to be inconspicuous but not really succeeding.
Certainly the students didn't look like the types to spend much time in or around uniforms. The woman just in front of him was wearing layered skirts and scarves in earth tones. Her bracelets jangled as she doodled giant eyes in the margin of her notebook. A meditation crystal was prominently placed on the desk in front of her, and John could smell the incense from where he sat -- jasmine and patchouli. The guy three seats over in the back row wasn't bothering to take notes, and the lingering smoke that clung to his clothes definitely wasn't from incense. Those two described the range of most of the students, typical Thaum majors except for a couple of earnest nerds in the front row taking notes carefully from the blackboard.
The stuff on the board wasn't much like what John remembered from magic club back in school or the low-level Thaumaturgy classes he'd taken in college. There were no spirals or mantras or doggerel spells, but instead a bunch of equations. Newton's law of gravity -- okay, yeah, John had learned about the link between telekinesis and gravitation in college. But the simple F = GMm/r2 had a big X through it and a series of other equations written below. John squinted at the writing, vague memories tickling his brain. Was that the weird tensor notation Einstein used to combine four equations into one expression? Over there were Maxwell's Equations for the behavior of electric and magnetic fields. And wait, were those Feynman diagrams? Was this guy talking about magic or physics, here?
Both, apparently. John had read the dossier, so he knew the man standing at the front of the class -- just a couple of years older than the upperclassmen he was haranguing -- actually had two PhDs, in Thaumaturgy and Physics. Dr. McKay (should it be Dr. Dr. McKay?) had been one of those prodigies as a child, showing amazing early abilities in the three M's -- Math, Music, and Magic. He'd won every award in Canada and more than a few in the States. His education was fast-tracked, all his professors predicted a glowing future for him (at least, when they weren't predicting he would be strangled by his colleagues), and now here he was, talking at a bunch of bored undergraduates who clearly didn't understand or care what he said.
John had been chosen for this job because he supposedly knew the basics, but the stuff on the blackboard was beyond him and coming to the lecture ten minutes late hadn't helped. Even the nerds in the front row seemed more confused than enlightened. Bracelet Girl jingled as she turned a page in her notebook and started drawing an elaborate mandala.
McKay ran a hand through his wavy hair (revealing the first signs of a receding hairline, and no, John wasn't smug about that at all) and set down his chalk, trying a new approach. "Okay, look. You all learned in school how to light and extinguish candles, right?"
A woman who could be Bracelet Girl's soul sister snorted. "Before school, more like."
"Right, right, there's a reason why putting out fires is part of a kindergarten curriculum. Fire is the first magic most children learn, often without being deliberately taught. And the fire comes from which of these fundamental forces?" McKay waved at the other side of the board, where large letters declaimed 'Electro/Magnetic, Gravitational, Weak Nuclear, Strong Nuclear' down the board.
No one answered.
"Come on, this is basic stuff!" McKay exclaimed. "Fire is caused by...?"
"An exothermic chemical reaction?" ventured one of the front-row nerds.
"Yes yes, ignited by simple heat. Heat!" McKay waved at the list of forces again.
Everyone looked confused. John thought he saw where this was going, but McKay had skipped several steps that the students just weren't getting.
"Heat is... the agitation of atoms and molecules?" Front-Row tried again.
"But agitated by energy from what?" McKay's voice was rising. "Okay, okay, look, maybe fire isn't the simplest example. What other magic do children learn early?"
The students stirred and muttered. "Warm up the blankets," said one, at the same moment Bracelet Girl offered, "I used to cool down my soup."
"Right, more heat transport. What else?"
The students just weren't picking up McKay's lead, so John took it. "Night lights," he said, his voice making heads turn. "I always liked the finger flashlight," he added with a wink and a pointed index finger at Bracelet Girl.
McKay scowled at the intruder, but took the offered thread anyway. "Light! And light is..." Another emphatic wave at the list of forces.
"Electro-magnetic radiation!" said the front-row kid, relieved.
"Exactly." McKay underlined Electro/Magnetic. "Which, at infrared or certain microwave frequencies, can easily translate into molecular agitation, i.e. heat. The electromagnetic force is the first one we all learn to manipulate by magic. Candles, fire suppression, warming and cooling, night lights... leading up to the kind of light shows and illusions done in high school magic clubs or stage performances, fancy fireworks -- all of that magic is based upon electromagnetic forces. This is why, in the nineteenth century, early experimenters with electricity believed it actually was magic, until... well, you've covered that in other classes. My point here is that magic can also manipulate the other fundamental forces, but it doesn't come quite as easily."
McKay pointed a chalky hand at the crossed-out equation for Newton's law of gravity. "Historically, it wasn't until the time of Isaac Newton -- or, for each of us as modern individuals, at the high school or college level -- that we learned how to manipulate gravity reliably, therefore producing the effects of levitation, telekinesis, anything that affects objects with mass."
John had heard this part before, but the students murmured uneasily. The marijuana smoker in the back row objected, "But telekinesis goes back to Aristotle."
"Further than that!" said Bracelet Girl. "The ancient Egyptians recorded cases --"
"Yes yes, I'm sure that's all very exciting," scoffed McKay, "but it wasn't reliable. Each court magician would have one or two parlor tricks in his repertoire to please the Pharaoh or Emperor or whoever, but it was hard to pass the knowledge on. The magician's guilds knew a few more spells, but even they couldn't readily adapt to new circumstances. Newton's comprehension and mathematical description of the behavior of gravity provided a foundation that allowed multiple people to manipulate massive objects in a reliable, repeatable way according to simple, sensible rules."
The nerds were nodding and scribbling in their notes, but the more stereotypical Thaumaturgy students looked rebellious.
"Listen to me," said McKay intensely. "If you're going to pursue a career or just a degree in Thaumaturgy, this is the single most important thing for you to understand. Write it down. Underline it. Sleep with it under your pillow at night."
Scowling, Bracelet Girl flipped to a fresh page of her notebook and waited with pen poised skeptically.
"Magic works by manipulating fundamental physical forces," said McKay with emphatic stabs of his chalk at the board. "And magic comes from here -- " He pointed a finger just above his ear, in the direction of the tiny brain organ associated with magic use. "So it follows that understanding the underlying physics will help you get your brain into the right configuration to produce the desired magic."
Students stirred, and McKay held up a hand at them. "I know what you're going to say! Yes, you can do magic without understanding exactly how it works. Children do it every day. Adults did it for thousands of years before Newton, before Einstein. There are cantrips and meditations and visualization exercises and whatnot, all to achieve the same effect: to put your brain into the right state. But I guarantee you -- I guarantee! -- your mastery of magic will be faster, and easier, and more reliable, and stronger if you take the time to learn the physics behind it. Case in point. How many here can levitate objects?" McKay held up his left hand in demonstration.
All but two of the students raised their hands. John, with a smile tugging at his lips, put his hand up as well.
"Can you levitate more than ten pounds?"
A couple of hands went down.
"More than thirty? More than one hundred?"
Most of the hands were down now. John lowered his own to half-mast. Once, just once, he had levitated himself -- and it was very cool, for a couple of minutes. But afterward he was panting and headachy, and his muscles were trembling as if they'd done the work instead of his brain. It was more exhausting than chin-ups for pretty much the same effect -- and a lot more exhausting than stair-climbing, which lifted his body far higher. That was about the point where John decided magic wasn't worth the effort, and he changed his concentration.
McKay nodded. "So that's what a few hours of meditation will get you. Here's what a thorough understanding of General Relativity gets me."
A couple of students exclaimed in surprise, on opposite ends of the room. A big muscular jock on the left and a less-than-svelte woman on the right clutched at their desks as they rose several feet in the air, notebooks and backpacks and all. While most of the students were craning around to one side or the other, John noticed that Dr. McKay, in the front of the room, was floating on a comfortable cushion of air himself with arms crossed and a triumphant smirk. He had a little frown of concentration between his brows, but no visible sign of great effort.
John leaned forward for a closer look. He was pretty sure that one of the front-row nerds was between McKay and the jock, or had been before the jock's chair rose up. So the dossier was correct and McKay really could get around the famous Line of Sight Rule; he could exert a magical effect on something (or someone) without also affecting everything along the path between himself and his subject. It was a simple but impressive demonstration, more so for anyone who knew a little about magic and its limitations.
The two students and their desks settled down with hardly a sound, and then there was another series of murmurs as the students finally noticed that McKay himself was levitating. He stepped down as if from an invisible floating cushion and summoned a glass of water from his desk to his hand. John could just see a faint sheen of sweat on the man's forehead, but it still wasn't much given the amount of mass McKay had just lifted.
"Go ahead, practice meditation so you can control your emotions," McKay said. "But if you really want to get better at magic, study physics. Now, I'm going summarize the kinds of physics you need to learn."
From there, the lecture got into some esoteric stuff that flew well above John's head and he suspected completely beyond most of the students. Grand Unified Theories, thaumons turning into photons and gravitons and bosons and gluons, the many unverified reports of alchemy as possible manipulations of the nuclear forces -- John's attention was piqued at that, but the discussion quickly devolved into whether any of the historical alchemists did what they claimed, or even understood what they claimed. None of the rest of the lecture was really important to John; he had the answer to his question, so he just sat there and enjoyed the show. McKay was an energetic speaker, waving his hands around and sometimes shouting, and when he turned and lifted the chalk to the blackboard, his loose shirt rose up to give John a view of a shapely ass caressed by soft khaki fabric.
No homework was assigned, since this talk was a one-off in a lecture series rather than a regular class. McKay did pass around a list of suggested readings, which interested John, but there were exactly enough printouts for the students and none for the unannounced visitor. The marijuana smoker in the back row gave John a grin and flipped the last copy across the intervening desks at him.
When the lecture was done, John waited politely while the two front-row nerds, Bracelet Girl's soul sister, and the levitated woman paused at the front to ask McKay some questions. Only when the students had all left did John stroll down the side aisle to meet his assignment in person.
McKay snapped his shiny new briefcase closed and faced John with his chin raised in challenge. "Well?"
"Dr. McKay, I'm Lieutenant John Sheppard with the NID. I'm here to --"
"NID? That's an Air Force uniform."
Point to McKay. John had expected the guy to be one of those clueless foreign geeks who didn't know anything about the American military. "Yes, I'm an Air Force lieutenant, but I'm assigned to the NID just now. I'm here to --"
"Yes, I know, offer me a job, what else is new?" McKay circled a hand impatiently. "The CIA has been trying to recruit me since grade six."
"Since you built an atomic bomb for the science fair."
"A model of a bomb, yes. I said no to them then, and I said no to the FBI, CSIS, RCMP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. This isn't even my country. Why should I be interested in what you have to say?"
John blinked. He was supposed to string the target along, butter him up a little, get him feeling good about himself and the job before even mentioning an offer. But clearly that wasn't going to work now, so John decided to cut to the chase. "One: you get to save the world. Two: opening offer is three times what you're making right now. Three: no students."
McKay successfully maintained his bored expression until the third point in the list. He glanced around the slightly shabby lecture room, and John knew this wasn't what the man had envisioned when he won all those awards as a kid and started MIT at the age of fourteen. "Well. You might have a point there."
John brought out his best friendly grin. Now it was time for the buttering up. "Shall we talk over lunch? My dime."
McKay's stomach growled. "It had better be more than a dime. Magic uses energy, you know, and I'm hypoglycemic."
John knew the bait was taken before the appetizers arrived.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
Rodney just stared.
"You're on break now, right?" John pressed. "We can talk?"
"You -- you're dead!" Rodney gasped. "I thought you were dead!"
John grimaced. "Yeah, um, sorry about that."
"Sorry?!" Rodney's voice was rising, turning heads in the front hall of the restaurant. "You knew -- you knew -- and you let me go on thinking..."
John had been prepared for a negative reaction, but not this early in the game. "Look, uh, maybe we should take this somewhere more private." He reached for Rodney's elbow to guide him to the door.
Rodney pulled free sharply, and when John turned to look at him a fist appeared out of nowhere, staggering John into the wall.
"M'sieur McKay!" thundered the maître-d', hurrying toward them. "Qu'est-ce que vous faîtes? C'est un client!"
Rodney, shaking out his fist, looked as surprised as John. "Uh, sorry -- désolé -- I just --"
"It's okay," John said quickly, bringing his hand down from his face. "I'm fine, it's just a misunderstanding."
The maître-d' wasn't pacified. "Allez!" he snapped at Rodney. "Out, get out! Don't come back."
Rodney blinked. "Wait, I have -- my bag, my music --"
"We'll send it."
"No, no, I need it! I need --" Rodney shot John a weird look, almost... frightened? "My, my wallet is in there. I can't leave without it."
John frowned; he thought he'd seen a wallet when Rodney's jacket flapped open during that punch. He'd noticed because looking for a weapon was an automatic reflex these days.
Rodney tried to push past the maître-d', but the man held him back and snapped out a torrent of rapid French, pointing at a busboy who ran off.
"Look," said John reasonably, "it really isn't a big deal. It was just a little love tap." Okay, that wasn't what he'd meant to say at all.
Rodney shot him a poisonous glare, and the maître-d' looked unconvinced. Then the busboy came panting back with Rodney's bag and pushed it into his chest.
"There is your bag," said the maître-d'. "Now, go. Go! Or I call the police." He crossed his arms and glared as John dragged Rodney out the door.
Washington, DC, April 1992
Lieutenant Colonel Maybourne smiled across the conference table in that way that always made John feel like he needed a shower. "It's good to meet you, Dr. McKay. I understand you're a very accomplished wizard. Is that the right term?"
"Yes yes, wizard, mage, sorcerer, whatever." McKay's chin was high, his lips tight.
"We can use whichever you prefer." Maybourne was trying to look friendly, and it creeped John out since he knew the guy didn't really give a shit.
But the act seemed to be working to relax McKay, at least. His chin came down and he said, "Wizard is fine with me."
"I always thought those were like different ranks or something," said John. "Like, a wizard can do more than a sorcerer, and a mage knows more than a wizard, and all that."
McKay huffed. "Ranks are for stage performers. The rest of us prefer to be defined by our real accomplishments."
"Yes, and speaking of those," said Maybourne. "I understand you claim to be able to manipulate all four fundamental forces -- even at a quantum level -- in addition to more common forms of magic."
"That's right. It takes a very fine control and understanding of the processes involved, which --" he smirked "-- most wizards lack. I'm not the first to explore this area, although it wouldn't be boasting to say I'm probably the best in the world right now."
Yes, McKay, it is boasting, thought John, but with Maybourne present he resisted to the urge to needle.
"And what does that imply?" Maybourne led him along. "What can you do with those skills?"
After just a few days of working with the man, John could easily see that McKay was torn between deriding Maybourne as an idiot and playing up to the man's admiration. Of course, the admiration was just a show, but McKay apparently hadn't figured that out yet.
Chest puffing a little, McKay explained, "Well, manipulation of quantum electrodynamic interactions enables me to alter molecular chemistry, restructure crystals and solids, change the reflection spectra of most substances, and induce phase changes without adding or removing as much heat as would otherwise be required. It does require an extensive understanding of molecular chemistry and solid state physics, which aren't my particular specialties, but I've picked up a few things over the years."
Maybourne considered all that. "Could you give us an example?"
"Or a demonstration?" John suggested, knowing McKay enjoyed that sort of thing.
"I just did," said McKay smugly, pointing at Maybourne's coffee cup.
John could only see part of it from where he sat, but apparently Maybourne's dark blue mug had acquired a Canadian flag on the side of it. Maybourne picked it up for a better look. "Impressive," he said mildly.
"You'll notice I also froze the coffee."
Maybourne tilted the mug and tried to restrain a frown as the coffee failed to slosh.
John slouched in his chair and drawled, "Gotta hand it to you, McKay, you're a real whiz of a wiz."
McKay glared at him. "Except that I'm the real thing, not a fake behind a curtain. I thought people in your line of work weren't supposed to, ah, quote show tunes?"
John suppressed a grin. "Well... not in public, anyway."
Maybourne gave John a cold look (he slouched harder in response) and returned to the topic. "I notice that this flag --" he rotated the cup to face the other side of the table "-- appeared on my side of the cup. Out of your line of sight."
"That's right. Of course, I had to assume that the cup was the same color all over -- otherwise, my adjustments would have come out differently. But since the other mugs are all solid-colored, I thought it was a safe assumption." McKay pointed at the little coffee service tray at the end of the table, and the mug right in front of him.
"I see. So you're not restricted by the Line of Sight rule?"
Rodney scoffed. "That so-called 'rule' is not as absolute as people believe. The movies get it all wrong -- emotions are a much bigger impediment to magic than the line of sight. All you need is the right mental state." McKay waved at his head. "If you can't see it, you have to be able to picture it very accurately. If the picture is wrong, the magic won't work."
They were getting close to the important stuff, and John knew Maybourne would be choosing his words carefully.
Maybourne led in slowly. "It really is impressive what you can do on a quantum level -- and I noticed you did it while you were talking, too. What can you do with the other fundamental forces? Say, the strong and weak nuclear forces."
McKay blinked, as if it was obvious. "Well, elemental transmutation, of course."
McKay snorted. "If you want to use an ignorant and outdated word for it."
"So, let me just make sure I have this right. You can cause nuclear fusion and fission?"
"Exactly." McKay beamed. "The strong force for nuclear fusion and the weak force for fission. That's an extreme oversimplification, of course. The processes are incredibly complex, and --"
"What? No, of course there has to be radiation. Both particle radiation and electromagnetic. These are natural forces I'm working with, after all. The reaction equation has to balance."
Maybourne frowned. John's hands clenched into fists under the table.
McKay looked between the two others in bewilderment, sensing the change in mood but not understanding it. "However, I can induce forms of fusion and fission which wouldn't occur naturally. Energy- and particle-absorbing reactions instead of energy-releasing ones. Low-energy X-rays instead of gamma rays. That sort of thing."
Maybourne glanced questioningly at John. John raised an eyebrow and shrugged, though he doubted the colonel really cared about his opinion one way or the other.
McKay continued, "You see, I'm essentially changing the laws of physics -- in a specific way, in a small volume of space -- to make the reaction I want more likely, where it would be extremely unlikely to happen by itself. Changing the rules is easier than brute force, but there's still a price to pay. The more radical the changes I make, the more energy it takes. And by the laws of thermodynamics, most of that energy has to come from me."
Maybourne nodded. "I think you can help us, Dr. McKay."
McKay's lips thinned. "So now we come to it. What asinine task did you have in mind for me?"
"Not asinine at all, I promise you. Unless you consider saving the world from potential nuclear cataclysm to be beneath you?"
McKay's eyes darted between the two of them as if waiting for a punchline. "That's a pretty hard sell, Colonel. Maybe you haven't heard, but the Cold War is over now. The Berlin Wall is gone."
"Unfortunately, that brings in a whole new category of threat." Maybourne leaned forward, hands clasped on the table to display his urgency. "With the Soviet Union dissolved, nuclear missiles which were once under the control of one umbrella government -- admittedly a hostile one -- are now distributed under the authority of a dozen different nations, most of them too poor to support the full costs of decommissioning. Poor enough, in fact, to be tempted to sell their assets to a different country, or to leave security lax so that terrorists might come in and steal fissile material for their own uses."
McKay blinked slowly. "Okay, I'll grant that's an important problem. I don't see how I can do anything to change it, though."
"Alone, you can't. Working together, we can make a difference." Maybourne pulled some papers from his briefcase, setting a page of notes in front of him and pushing a map across to McKay. "Nearly half the Soviet nukes were actually located in Ukraine. The new Ukrainian government agreed to send most of those back to Russia for decommissioning, but just last month they had a falling out and stopped shipping their tactical nukes across the border. Of course, what we're really worried about isn't the small fry, but the ICBMs. Stiletto missiles with up to six warheads each, Scalpels with ten apiece -- and each warhead has a half-megaton yield."
McKay looked at the number of missiles targeted against North America, and swallowed hard.
"The transport and decommissioning is proceeding too slowly, especially for the larger Scalpel missiles. We're concerned that politics or economics could interrupt the process before it's complete."
"Still not seeing a job for me, here," said McKay.
"The UN is sending a team of diplomats and scientists to Ukraine to review the process, offer advice and support and so on. They will be visiting a large number of these missile sites, including some which are not currently on the schedule for decommissioning. We want you to accompany them."
"And do what?"
"A little unilateral decommissioning of our own. With your abilities, Dr. McKay, you could convert the fuel in those warheads to something harmless, and no one would ever suspect what you were doing."
"I... I don't know if I can do that. I've never tried anything like it."
Maybourne nodded. "Fair enough. Let's find out. Lieutenant?"
John stood and went to the side of the room, picking up a metal box that waited on the table there. It wasn't much bigger than a couple of stacked paperbacks, but it weighed nearly twenty pounds. He stretched carefully to put it in the center of the conference table between Maybourne and McKay.
"In this box," said the colonel, "is a hundred grams of weapons-grade Plutonium-239."
"What?" McKay pushed his chair back sharply, staring at the box as if it would bite him.
"Relax, it's perfectly safe. There's plenty of lead shielding there, and a hundred grams is nowhere near a critical mass."
"You could have told me this was sitting over there the whole time!" McKay objected.
"Why? Sheppard and I knew it was there, and we weren't worried."
"That says more about your intelligence than your containment protocols!"
"All right." Maybourne reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a box with a long nozzle on it. "Here's a Geiger counter; see for yourself. I assure you it hasn't been tampered with."
Still looking doubtful, McKay took the instrument, fussed over the settings, and pointed it at himself, John, and the table before finally aiming for the lead box. The rate of clicks definitely increased, but not all that much.
"See?" said John. "If that was popcorn, I'd almost be getting ready to open the microwave door."
"Fine." McKay set the Geiger counter down, although John noticed he didn't turn it off. "So the Plutonium is adequately shielded. What do you expect me to do about it?"
"Well, you're not restricted by the Line of Sight rule, and I understand the shielding won't affect your ability to do magic inside the box?"
"No, unconverted thaumons have a cross section almost as low as neutrinos." McKay looked at the two of them. "That means shielding isn't a problem."
"I understand the concept of cross section, Dr. McKay," Maybourne said blandly. He glanced down at his notes. "In fact, what I want you to do is simply to increase the neutron-capture cross section of the Plutonium so it will pick up lower-energy neutrons from the environment. Convert ten percent of the Plutonium-239 to Plutonium-240 and it will no longer be weapons grade, but just reactor grade."
McKay's jaw dropped. "That's a terrible idea!"
It had sounded pretty good when it was first explained to John. "What's terrible about it? If it works, it could be excused as errors in the purification process. Nobody would suspect tampering."
"The problem is that Plutonium-240 is unstable. They're planning to transport and disassemble these warheads eventually, right? Enough contamination with Plutonium-240 and you could get fizzles -- small explosions during handling." He scowled at the box as if worried it would react badly to handling, as well.
Maybourne just shrugged. "Maybe terrorists would think twice about trying to steal it, then."
McKay gave him a withering look. "Terrorists are crazy. It's the responsible people we have to think about. You blow up one crane operator, and you could derail the decommissioning process entirely. You already think it's going too slowly -- why bring it to a screeching halt?"
John worked to keep his expression neutral while he thought about that.
Maybourne's eyes narrowed. "How would you propose to render this Plutonium harmless, then?"
McKay snorted. "Harmless? Not going to happen. Less explosive, maybe. Hmmm..." He snapped his fingers. "I need something to write with."
John pushed over his own notepad. There were only a few doodles of F-16s and one sketch of Maybourne (probably not recognizable) with horns and a pitchfork cluttering the paper so far. McKay glanced at the pictures, then at John, then started scribbling chemical transformations on the page.
"I have to figure out the energy profile that would be required," he said as he continued to write, "but I think I can... yes! I can convert the Plutonium to Uranium-238."
"Another radioactive material? How's that going to help?" John asked.
"There aren't very many elements at that end of the periodic table that aren't radioactive in one way or another. U-238 occurs naturally, has a higher critical mass, and decays very slowly so it produces less radiation -- that's good enough for me. Also, if the conversion is incomplete, the Uranium could absorb neutrons instead of emitting them, preventing a critical chain reaction in the remaining Plutonium. So no half-megaton explosion even if the warhead is detonated."
Maybourne was frowning. "I'm no expert in this stuff, but doesn't U-238 get turned into Plutonium in breeder reactors? Can you really reverse that process?"
McKay grinned exuberantly, and something squeezed in John's chest. "Of course! It only has to emit one positron and one proton. The proton will be absorbed by the lead shielding. The tricky part is preventing the positron from annihilating to produce high-energy gamma rays. But all I have to do is change the speed of light, and we get lower energy X-rays that will be stopped by the shielding. No problem."
"Change the speed of light..." John said slowly.
"In a small volume of space, yes. All I have to do is adjust the emissivity and resistivity of free space -- simple!"
John shrugged. "Okay, so I can see why we need a real physicist for this."
But Maybourne was shaking his head. "The problem with this plan is that it couldn't be concealed as mistakes in quality control," he pointed out. "It's an impossible reaction under normal circumstances. They would figure out there had been tampering."
"Make up your mind," McKay snapped. "Do you want the Plutonium neutralized, or not? Making it impossible to detonate the warhead sounds pretty effective to me."
Maybourne's mouth tightened at the scientist's tone, but he only said mildly, "See if you can do it in a controlled environment, first."
McKay glanced at the lead box. "I need to know exactly where the Plutonium is in there."
Maybourne pushed a schematic across the table, then picked up the Geiger counter. "Warn me before you start the conversion."
"You realize the change in radioactivity will be slight? I'm not converting the entire sample."
"Convert half of it -- one third, even -- and we should be able to tell the difference. We'll send it out for a more thorough analysis later. Just do it, already!"
McKay licked his lips nervously, glanced over his calculations one last time, then glared at the box and said, "Here goes. I'm -- I'm starting now."
Within about a minute, the sputtering from the Geiger counter had slowed noticeably. John felt his eyebrows climbing. "Time to open the microwave," he commented.
McKay startled. "What? No, don't open it!"
"We're not going to." Maybourne reached out to push the box aside, then grunted as it took more effort than he'd anticipated. "The lab will check it out. If it worked as you predicted --"
"Of course it did!"
"Then this plan is feasible."
McKay wiped sweat from his forehead. "You really want to send me to Ukraine? This --" he waved at the box "-- was nothing. But I can't convert hundreds -- thousands! -- of nuclear warheads. Is it really going to make a difference, in the end?"
"It's a start," said Maybourne. "Think of it as a proof of concept. You make this work, and others could be trained to do the same thing."
McKay looked offended. "Not as well as I do. Not without being very, very obvious about it."
"So that's why we want you to go first and prove it can be done. Among other sites, the advisory group will be visiting a number of Scalpel silos that aren't scheduled for decommissioning at all. Neutralize those and I assure you, you will be making a very real difference to the security of this country. This continent."
McKay ran a hand through his hair, disarranging the golden-brown waves. But he wasn't saying no.
"If you were American, I would use the line about 'your country needs you.' But the truth is, Dr. McKay, this is bigger than countries. This is about making the whole world safer from the specter of nuclear terror."
"I..." McKay swallowed. "I suppose I can try."
Maybourne pulled out a sheaf of stapled papers. "Here's the itinerary, and a list of others on the team. Due to your youth --" He gave what he probably imagined was a kindly smile, but it just made John shudder. "You will appear to be a very junior member of the group. Only you and Lieutenant Sheppard will know that you're actually the most important one in the party."
John stiffened and gave the colonel a sharp look. He pursed his lips slightly and shook his head. John subsided with a grimace.
McKay reached up to wipe his forehead again, and John realized his hands were shaking.
"Are you all right?"
"I need food. And water -- ice water. Elevated body temperature is a common effect of magical work."
"There's some water right here." John poured a glass from the sweating pitcher on the sideboard. McKay gulped at it thirstily.
Maybourne stood up and smiled again. "Think about our proposal. You can give Sheppard your answer over lunch."
"Just a moment, sir," said John as Maybourne was about to leave. "Could I have a word?"
Maybourne's face tightened as he nodded towards the door. The hall beyond was deserted, but John knew enough to keep his voice down.
"You're sending me with him?"
"You'll be his bodyguard, ostensibly. In addition to making sure he comes to no harm, you're going to ensure that he doesn't step out of line. McKay isn't committed to our objectives; you are. Make sure he doesn't ruin everything."
John shook his head in bewilderment. "You said if I got this job done --"
"That I would make sure you got back to active flight status. And I will. But 'this job' means more than just persuading one reluctant scientist to accept our offer. You need to make sure he follows through, all the way."
John was angry -- not just at Maybourne for the bait and switch, but at himself for falling for it. He should have known the man would demand more, more, more. It was taking all his willpower to keep from saying something that could get him in big trouble. Bigger trouble.
Maybourne put on his 'reasonable' voice. "Come on, Lieutenant, surely you didn't think reading a few files and making a quick trip up to New Jersey would be enough to get you off the top brass's shit list? You buzzed a no-fly zone and caused an international diplomatic incident, just for the sake of a bet."
"It wasn't a bet!" John protested. "I mean, there was a bet but I didn't take it. I saw a bogey -- it was hot pursuit." He still didn't know what the thing was that he'd seen, but no one believed him anyway. He wasn't stupid enough to claim it was an alien spaceship even if he was thinking that; he just said he hadn't seen it clearly.
"It was a no-fly zone and you ignored a direct order to return to base. That means a few more months of boot-licking to go before you can even think about getting back in a cockpit again. Do a good job on this mission, and you'll be in the air again soonest. Mess it up, and you can kiss your wings goodbye. Am I being clear, Lieutenant?"
John gulped. "Yes, sir."
Maybourne eyed him sharply. "Can I rely on you, John?"
"Yes, sir." It was the only answer possible.
McKay stuck his head out from the conference room. "Is it time for lunch now?"
"Of course, Dr. McKay," said the colonel smoothly. "Lieutenant Sheppard will take good care of you. Lieutenant." He nodded, waited for John's salute, and headed away down the hall.
"Got your bag?" asked John, and led off in the other direction when he saw McKay was ready. "How do you feel about Mexican? Big meals, hearty fare, no questions asked."
"Right, and lime in the most unexpected dishes."
"Uh... Italian, then?"
"Lemon, in pretty much everything."
John's head was whirling. "Okay, there's an English pub just down the street. Cold wet country, not known for their citrus groves?"
"They're called Limeys for a reason!"
John laughed. "Just avoid the fish and chips, and you'll be safe."
"All right, all right," McKay grumbled. "Whatever, just so long as the service is fast."
"I guess it's a dangerous world for you, McKay."
The wizard glanced across at him. "Call me Rodney."
John felt a smile stretching his face. "Rodney. I'm John."
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"You just cost me a job," Rodney growled when they were out on the street. He glanced down at John's hand on his arm and shrugged free once again.
"Yeah, and such a great job, too," John said, following Rodney along the sidewalk.
"Hey! It pays the bills. Some of them."
"A part-time gig playing jazz? Come on, Rodney, you can do better than that!"
"I switched to music because it's safe."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"If I'm just a musician, no one gets hurt by my work." Rodney's quick steps slowed and he swallowed hard. "No one gets killed."
They walked in silence for a while, then John cleared his throat. "Look, I'm staying right around the corner from here. We can talk in my room."
"Assuming I want to talk," Rodney muttered, but he didn't say no.
"It's the Hotel St. Denis." John waited for Rodney to mock his pronunciation.
"Ooh, swanky. Didn't know the NID's budget had increased -- but then I wouldn't, would I, since they don't make it public."
John bit back his first and second responses. "I sprang for it myself, actually." He was here in a not entirely official capacity, but he was sure if he convinced Rodney to take the job he could also persuade the brass to hire him.
"So just a personal budget increase, then?"
"I'm a major now," John said, still proud of the accomplishment even though it had been a couple of years.
"Huh. That means a higher degree, doesn't it?"
John nodded. "Masters in Aeronautics. I considered Thaumaturgy, actually, but no one teaches it like you do."
"Like I did," Rodney corrected.
And then they had reached the hotel and John couldn't safely say any of the things that wanted to come out of his mouth. Entering a hotel lobby with Rodney, ascending the elevator and unlocking the door, all brought back memories so powerful that John almost went into the room first to make sure there were no threats. Instead he stood back with a smile and waved Rodney in.
Near Pervomaysk, Ukraine, May 1992
As usual, Rodney was at the front of the group of dignitaries before they even entered the missile bunker. John, being a supposed bodyguard, was really supposed to enter rooms and buildings before Rodney did, but sometimes it was hard to keep up with him.
John's real job, to keep Rodney from doing or saying the wrong thing, had also turned out to be kind of a non-starter. Rodney talked nonstop and he almost always said the wrong thing, but never by revealing their secret mission. He simply offended everyone, everywhere, until they got angry and stopped listening to anything he said. It was surprisingly effective cover.
"Yes, yes," Rodney was snapping now, "I'm sure the decades-old technology in your control room is very impressive, but I'm more interested in seeing the missile itself."
Dr. Ulyshenko, whose real title John had promptly replaced in his mind with 'tour guide,' had learned by now how to smooth over some of Rodney's gaffes. Fortunately, few of the people working at these silos had English fluent enough to keep up with the details of Rodney's high-speed diatribes.
"And what good is a blast door that's propped open?" Rodney demanded as they moved from the control area toward the silo.
The officer in charge at this particular site was flustered. "The ventilation fans do not work -- we wait for the part to come. We must breathe."
"Yes, apparently you must breathe toxic fumes. Didn't anyone tell the designers of these things that the fuel lines should run separately? You get one little leak here and you're going to be very sick."
"Yes, we know," the officer was saying, "Russian design, what can Ukrainians do?" He shrugged apologetically, but Rodney had already moved on.
They were standing at the top of the deep well which housed the missile; the nose cone was slightly below their level.
"And how many warheads are in this particular missile?" Rodney demanded.
Dr. Ulyshenko stepped in before the local officer could speak. "The RT-23 or 'Scalpel' as you call it can accommodate up to ten warheads."
"I know that, but how many are loaded in this one right now?"
"That information is classified," Dr. Ulyshenko said impassively.
John suppressed a sigh -- it wasn't a surprise, but not knowing how many actual warheads were in place meant that Rodney would have to work his conversion on all ten cavities that might hold fissile material. It was a lot of magic to work, especially without revealing the effort he was exerting.
"I hope for your sake that the real number is zero, because you have some serious problems here. Look at the corrosion over on the -- yes, here, if you could just step out of my way, thank you --" Rodney casually ducked around a hulking Ukrainian soldier, who looked in bafflement at his commanding officer. They had probably been told to be polite to the visiting dignitaries, but they weren't expecting someone like Rodney.
Rodney was climbing down the ladder to the service platform, talking constantly and occasionally twisting around to wave at something on the body of the missile. The local officer and Dr. Ulyshenko followed more slowly, as did a couple of other scientists from the advisory group. John stayed up at the top level with Rodney's briefcase, fading into the background like the other bodyguards.
"He certainly is... energetic," said a voice at his shoulder. Dr. Elizabeth Weir quirked an eyebrow at John. As one of the diplomats in the group and the youngest member of the delegation besides Rodney, she had proved very helpful in smoothing some of the ruffled feathers he left in his wake.
"But must he do this at every silo that we visit?" chimed in Dr. Trinh, one of the more senior members.
Dr. Weir smiled. "He does seem to be finding different things to comment on at each site."
"Primarily variations on a common theme," said Dr. Pappathanapoulos, who was leading the delegation. "I think we have established the essential steps required for successful decommissioning."
Weir tilted her head thoughtfully. "Dr. McKay does have a point -- each case offers unique challenges, and they may find that a single strategy doesn't suit them all."
Rodney's voice floated up from the service platform: "And you'll want to be sure to drill at least one hole in the nose cone -- after the warheads are shipped away, of course --" as he pointed at the top section of the missile. No one would guess that he was performing magic as he spoke.
But even as good as Rodney was at hiding it, the magic still had its price. When John saw him panting up the ladder, he stepped forward to offer Rodney a hand up to the top level.
"Rodney?" Elizabeth Weir came toward them. "Are you all right? You seem rather flushed." She laid the back of her hand against his forehead. "And you're burning up!"
"I'm okay," Rodney gasped. "Just, uh, overdid it a little."
"Maybe it was something you ate?" John suggested quickly. Some of the delegates had expressed surprise at how much food Rodney packed away at each meal, especially since none of it showed on his slender frame.
"Yes, uh, I guess that could be it," Rodney murmured. He swayed a little, and John tucked a hand under his elbow.
"We're done with official business for the day," said Weir, watching Rodney with concern. "Maybe you should skip dinner and just head back to the hotel? Dr. Pappathanapoulos can make your excuses to the mayor of Pervomaysk."
"Yes, of course, this will not be a problem," Pappathanapoulos agreed at once. He wasn't a big fan of Rodney's conversational style.
"That sounds good, but can you spare a car and driver just for the two of us?" John asked.
"We will make it work," said Pappathanapoulos, apparently eager to get rid of Rodney.
It was nice having a car to themselves for a change. With a barrier between the compartments and a driver whose English was suspect at best, they had a kind of privacy. John opened his own briefcase and handed over one of the water bottles he had taken to carrying. "Headache?" he asked.
Rodney moaned. "Awful." He was slumped back against the seat, eyes closed and face glistening with sweat as he gulped blindly at the water. "Food?"
John had already unwrapped the leftover sandwich from lunch. "What's the matter, forty warheads in one day too much for you?" The final two Scalpel silos had been squeezed into their tour at short notice, on top of the Stilettos they had anticipated.
"It's crazy," Rodney mumbled around the sandwich. "Even with the tricks I figured out to maximize efficiency, that's pushing it." He opened his eyes cautiously, squinted at the light, and closed them again.
John grimaced. "I'm sorry about the change in itinerary. If I'd known they were considering it, I would have --"
Rodney flapped a hand weakly. "Nothing you could do about it. The fever and headache will pass in an hour or two. What else do you have in that briefcase?"
John handed over the candy bar he'd been saving, and it disappeared in a couple of bites. "We'll get a proper meal back at the hotel."
"Better be a big one. Wake me when we get there." Rodney tipped his head back against the seat and drowsed the rest of the trip while John sat in thought, reflecting on the missile commander's offhand comment about Russians.
The short nap and a dinner big enough for three people perked Rodney up, and he brought out the travel chess set they'd been exercising off and on.
"I'm curious about something," John said once the game had gotten started.
"What would happen if the Plutonium in the warheads was contaminated with Pu-240?"
"It already is. Up to seven percent -- that's about the best anyone can do. Isotope separation is very inefficient."
"But what if it were more, like fifteen or twenty percent?"
Rodney looked up. "Like Maybourne wanted me to do?"
"Basically what I said. I mentioned a crane operator getting killed? That really happened -- Japan, I think. As much transport and handling as these things are scheduled to go through, an explosion would be almost inevitable."
"Oh, not like Chernobyl or anything. Enough to kill a few people, possibly contaminate the plant or train depot or whatever."
John sat back and thought about what that might do to the decommissioning process.
"The colonel was right in that they would probably assume it was bad quality control, and never connect it to us."
The missiles came from Russia and would be going back there for decommissioning, so that sounded potentially bad for the troubled relationship between Russia and Ukraine. "But it would work, right? I mean, it would make the warheads unusable?"
Rodney opened both eyes this time. "Not necessarily. The critical mass would be higher -- maybe higher than the mass of the warhead. But it's risky. Depending on the exact concentration and location of pockets of Pu-240, the chain reaction might still take off."
John bit his lip and decided that was enough of that topic for now. "Checkmate."
"I -- what? You did that on purpose! You distracted me!"
"Shouldn't play chess when you're exhausted, McKay," John said smugly.
"Best two out of three?"
"Maybe tomorrow. Right now I think you should get some sleep."
Rodney's breathing had deepened into half-snuffles, half-snores when there was a soft tap at the door. There was no peephole, so John called softly, "Who is it?" through the heavy wooden door.
John cracked the door open.
Elizabeth looked past his shoulder at the dim lights in the room. "Is Rodney all right? He looked pretty rough earlier."
John smiled easily. "Yeah, he started feeling better after a nap."
"Good, I'm glad to hear it." She glanced down at the white paper bag she was holding. "I suppose, if his stomach is bothering him, he won't want this. I brought some leftovers from dinner."
"Oh hey, that's really thoughtful," John said. He figured Rodney would appreciate the food in the morning, or if he woke up in the night.
She handed the bag over. "John, could you tell me..."
"Why does Rodney need a bodyguard? Most of us on the team don't have one."
"Ah." John grimaced. It was true; none of the other scientists had bodyguards, only Dr. Trinh and Dr. Pappathanapoulos who were both high-powered diplomats. Those were private contracts, but Elizabeth thought John was a private hire as well, since he hadn't mentioned his NID employment and Rodney never addressed him by rank. "It isn't so much about this trip, as some of Rodney's other work," John said in a confiding tone. "And I'm afraid I can't really talk about that."
"I see. But... is he in danger?"
John swallowed. "He might be."
"You don't think his illness today is --?"
"Oh, no." John tried to think of the right thing to say to allay her suspicion but not make himself look either stupid or unneeded. "Actually, I did consider that at first, but it passed off quickly. I think he's just tired. I'll keep a closer eye on what he eats from now on." His hand clenched in the paper of the bag.
Her mobile lips pursed thoughtfully. "Take good care of him, then. I'll see you both tomorrow."
The conversation left John feeling nervous enough that he took a small taste of each of Elizabeth's offerings. He could always tell Rodney he was checking for citrus.
He was sprawled on his own bed and a couple of chapters into his latest book when his suitcase rang. Cursing and hoping Rodney wouldn't wake, John pulled out the briefcase-sized satellite phone and carried it into the bathroom before answering.
"How's it going?" Maybourne's voice crackled. The signal was scrambled and supposedly secure, but as an extra precaution they never used names or ranks in these conversations.
"Pretty smoothly," John said. He started the water running in the sink, just in case. The elderly plumbing had a habit of banging; that noise in addition to the sound of the water itself should thoroughly foil anyone trying to listen in. "There have been some changes to the itinerary, nothing major. We're about halfway done."
"Good. We've checked at this end and found no sign of the plans. He must have the papers with him."
John winced at the thought of what Rodney would find when he got back to his lab in Princeton.
"I need you to get copies of those plans."
"That wasn't part of the job, sir," John protested, but he remembered the small camera he'd been issued. Apparently someone had had this possibility in mind all along.
"The job -- the mission is whatever it takes. You know how important this is. Get the plans." Maybourne hung up.
John turned off the water and closed the phone's case again. He sat on the closed toilet for a moment, thinking. 'Spy' wasn't a job he'd ever signed up for. That was supposed to be for the guys who asked to go to NID, not someone who was assigned to NID as punishment. John just wanted to fly. Anything -- jets, props, choppers -- anything was better than being stuck on the ground. But apparently he needed to play the spy for now if he ever wanted to get back in the air.
With a sigh, he carried the phone case into the bedroom. He would replace it inside his suitcase, get the camera, casually pick up the scientist's case instead, carry that into the bathroom -- and then he'd have to figure out how to get past the lock somehow.
The lights were up in the main room, and Rodney was seated at the table humming happily over the contents of Elizabeth's bag.
"You're awake," John said in surprise.
"I could hardly sleep through that phone ringing and then the stupid pipes banging. You do know you're not supposed to take the phone in the shower with you, right?"
"Ha ha." John slipped the bulky phone into his case and hesitated a moment, reaching into a side pocket.
"I guess I slept what, two hours? I feel pretty good, though. How about a rematch at chess?"
John unclenched his fist from around the camera. "Sure, sounds great."
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"Um, feel free to... have a seat." John hastily grabbed his bag from the chair and dumped it on the floor.
"Traveling light, hmm?" Rodney sat in the chair but didn't put his music bag down. His knuckles were white where he gripped it.
"Uh, yeah. Just out here for a couple of days."
"To talk to me."
"That's right." After so much waiting and preparing for this moment, John felt unaccountably at a loss for words. He rubbed the back of his neck. "You want something to eat? I have a -- no, well, I could order --"
"I'm fine," Rodney said quickly. One hand relaxed from the music bag to rest self-consciously on his stomach. "I don't eat so much these days. Don't need to."
"Because you're not doing magic."
"You look, ah, you look good. You've filled out."
"By which you mean, fat."
"No! Really, you were way too skinny before. Not that I thought -- I mean -- um. You look good."
Rodney looked up. "I notice you're not commenting on my hair."
John gulped, his palms itching with the memory of the soft golden waves from a decade ago. "Definitely not commenting on the hair. Well, it does, um, show off your eyes better."
Rodney's mouth quirked. It seemed more slanted than it used to be, and John wasn't sure if that was from age or unhappiness. He felt a sudden urge to kiss that frown away, see if it evened Rodney's mouth out, see if he still tasted the same.
Chernivtsi, Ukraine, May 1992
Rodney flipped on the room light. "Oh no! They gave us one bed again!"
John lowered his suitcase and took in the room. "At least this one is bigger."
"I'm going down to the front desk and --"
"They don't have any more rooms, Rodney. Relax, I promise to be a perfect gentleman." John put a hand over his heart.
Rodney snorted and tossed his own case onto the bed. "I can't wait for this trip to be over."
"Today wasn't so bad, I thought. We got done early, anyway." John yanked off his tie and scratched under his collar, envying Rodney his less formal clothes.
"It still wasn't a day off! Haven't had one of those in over two weeks."
"Three more days and we'll be done."
Rodney rummaged through his suitcase. "That's a good thing, because I'm almost out of clean clothes."
"And by 'clean' you mean 'worn less than ten times since last washing?'"
"Hey, it's not like I've had time to go to a laundromat, you know!" Rodney tossed his sports jacket over the back of a chair and frowned. "Do they have laundromats in Ukraine?"
"You can get the hotel staff to clean your clothes. You just have to pay them."
"Oh, I'm sorry I neglected to include a budget item for bribes in my grant proposal!" Rodney clicked the switch for the desk lamp, frowned when it didn't come on, and reached into the top to check that the bulb was screwed in properly.
"It's not a bribe, McKay --" John had just pulled his own jacket off, but a sharp gesture from Rodney made him pause in the act of twisting out of his shoulder holster. "What is it?"
Rodney made an odd sound of annoyance. "Here, take this." He turned and deposited something small in John's palm.
"It's okay, I deactivated it," said Rodney.
"Are you sure?" John asked, just as the faint odor of burnt electronics reached his nose.
"Of course I'm sure! I fixed the lamp, too -- bad switch." Rodney clicked it on defiantly. "You would think, if they're going to plant bugs in lights, they would at least make sure the light is, oh, working? So it doesn't draw attention?"
John hmmed and set the bug on the table while he went for his briefcase.
Rodney looked around the room. "Do you think there are others?"
"There might be." John got the signal detector out of his case and extended the antenna. "Can you deactivate them all?"
"Sure, if you'll find them for me."
John arched an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't need to see something to be able to affect it."
"I need to know where it is, though!"
"Well, I'm not finding anything," John said, eyes never straying from the needle on the detector. "Let me check the bathroom... no, nothing in there either. I guess we're clear."
"Who was it, anyway?" Rodney asked. "Who bugged us?"
"Could be anyone. GRU, CIA, Interpol, Ukrainian police, half a dozen intelligence agencies."
"Can't you tell from the, the design?"
"I can't. They didn't really cover this sort of thing in flight school, you know. But maybe someone else can; that's why I'm saving it." John frowned down at the dead bug on the table. "I guess I should put it in something. Um..."
Rodney made an impatient sound and grabbed his own briefcase. He pulled out a small three by four inch manila envelope (John was briefly diverted, wondering why he was carrying it around), stuffed the bug inside, fastened it shut, and handed it to John.
"Thanks." John put the envelope and signal detector away, hyper-aware that Rodney's briefcase with all his notebooks and papers was still sitting open on the table. He searched for something casual to talk about. "So, um, I'm still confused about what you can and can't do."
If Rodney thought the change of topic was odd, he didn't hesitate to follow -- probably because magic was his favorite subject. "I still can't detect things with magic. Can't read minds or sense the astral plane or whatever crap they like to spout in New Age tea parlors. Or find bugs, case in point."
"But you can affect things you can't even see, right? Even the books and movies usually stick to line of sight."
"It's a common misconception, and the belief perpetuates itself because mental state is so important to magic. But really, you just have to know exactly where the thing is that you want to focus on."
"So you couldn't deactivate a bug if you didn't know it was there."
"Right. It's -- I tell my students magic is a lot like music. Everyone can sing, if they have ears and voices. Everyone can press a key on a piano. But very, very few people do it well enough to make a living at it. Magic is like that. Someone with limited talent can improve a lot through proper training. But no amount of training is going to turn Pee-wee Herman into Luciano Pavarotti."
"So natural talent does matter, but almost anyone can learn to get around the line of sight. That so-called rule is much less important than, say, emotional limitations on magic. Movies always get that part wrong, too; they make it seem if you want something badly enough, the magic will just work. In fact, it's almost the opposite."
John nodded. "I think I read about that. Something about the blood supply in the brain?"
"Exactly. The phaba, the organ that produces and directs thaumons, is located down in the lower parts of the brain, far from the cortex -- that's partly why it takes so much work to achieve the right mental state for certain kinds of magic. The other reason, of course, is that the phaba is right next door to the hypothalamus, which is involved in strong emotions, especially anger. When the hypothalamus is stimulated, the blood flow to the phaba is reduced. And that means no one can work magic when their emotions are strongly engaged."
"But that's a good thing, right? I mean, otherwise there'd be a lot more cases of magic getting used in domestic violence, or road rage, or murder, right?" There were still the odd sensational stories of magical serial killers, but those were psychopaths with messed up emotional responses.
"Yes yes, that's probably why the phaba evolved that way. Toddlers who kill their parents during a tantrum have a poor survival record. However, it also means that someone whose house is burning down can't suppress the fire with magic. Someone whose spouse has a heart attack can't send a jolt of electricity to restart the heart. Someone being stalked in an alley, or even just bullied on a playground, has no recourse to magic for defense!" Rodney's voice shook with feeling. "You have to be calm to work magic, and that means it's not there when it's needed the most!"
"Whoa, Rodney, I had no idea you cared about this kind of thing so much." John's eyes strayed to the papers in Rodney's briefcase.
"Yes, well. It's a . . . thing, I suppose. Something I've been working with, trying to find a way around it."
"And did you?"
"Maybe. Maybe." Rodney stood up and stretched his back, wincing. "Hey, is it okay with you if I get the shower first?"
"Sure, no problem." John tried to look casual, pulling his paperback out while Rodney moved his suitcase to the floor and headed for the bathroom with his toiletries. The last few days had made John acutely aware of how often Rodney tended to change his mind, reverse directions, pop back out of the bathroom for a last word or to write a note on an idea that had just come to him. So John waited until he heard the shower actually running before he reached for the briefcase Rodney had left on the table.
It didn't take him long to find a notebook with exactly what he needed -- a series of closely-spaced notes and diagrams about Rodney's biggest breakthrough. Some of the notes were mixed in with other material, so John wasn't exactly sure how much of it was important; he had to assume all of it was. He set the desk lamp to shine on the pages and grabbed his camera. It took longer than he'd expected from spy movies. He was only three-quarters of the way through the written pages when the shower cut off -- and he still hadn't even glanced at the loose papers in the briefcase.
Rodney showered and dried as fast as he talked; John had time for a couple more pages, but he couldn't finish them all before his internal alarm told him to start cleaning up after himself. He put the notebook back in the briefcase again, moved the desk lamp further away, stuffed his camera in his pocket and grabbed his book to lounge innocently on the bed.
Then he waited. Apparently this time Rodney had decided to linger after his shower, unlike every other time since Maybourne had told John to copy the plans. After five minutes John couldn't stand it anymore. He should at least look at the other papers in the briefcase and figure out if they were important too. So of course he was standing there with Rodney's papers in his hand when the bathroom door opened.
"Hey there," John said. "I knocked your stuff off the table, sorry. I'm not sure if I put everything back in the right order."
"It's not a problem," said Rodney, but his mouth was slanted uncertainly.
John set the papers and notebook back inside and closed the briefcase, hoping Rodney wouldn't notice it was still unlocked.
Rodney wasn't paying attention; he was bent low over his suitcase, sorting through the clothes. John stared at the line of his spine and the rounded ass below, barely covered by one of the hotel's skimpy towels. The towel came loose and Rodney reached back to grab it before it fell, but he didn't bother wrapping it around his waist again. John swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
"So, not such a perfect gentleman, after all?"
"Huh?" John realized Rodney had turned around, and he was still staring. He tried to drag his eyes up to Rodney's face, but the hand holding the towel moved and drew his gaze again.
Rodney tossed the towel aside. "I guess the quoting show tunes thing wasn't just a fluke, huh?"
John gulped. "Rodney, look, I..." He had no idea what he was about to say.
Rodney stepped forward -- did his hips normally swing like that? -- until he was directly in front of John. His interest was unmistakable. "That's okay. This is a lot more fun than chess." Then he took John's face between broad palms and leaned in for a kiss.
Rodney's mouth was hot and minty, his narrow lips surprisingly soft. For a moment John felt self-conscious about his unbrushed teeth, but then Rodney made a small sound of appreciation and plastered himself against John's body, and everything else became very unimportant.
John's hands roamed hungrily across smooth, heated skin. Rodney had a broad frame, though there wasn't much meat on it. John's fingers mapped every dip and swell, the rise of muscles and the hollows of joints. Rodney's chest hair was more abundant than it looked, the blond wisps nearly invisible against pale skin. Below the navel the hairs grew coarser and redder, curling around heavy brown balls that swung whenever Rodney moved. His cock was average-sized but looked bigger jutting between his slender hips. Even fully erect, it pointed straight out from Rodney's body instead of up along his belly the way John's did.
While John was looking his fill, Rodney was ready to start some exploration of his own. He had the bottom two buttons of John's white shirt undone and was reaching up underneath it with eager hands. Startled to realize he was still dressed while Rodney was naked, John started to shrug off his shoulder holster.
Rodney caught an arm to stop him. "Leave it on," he breathed huskily.
"I -- uh, I can't..." John couldn't form the words to explain that it was too dangerous, that he didn't mix guns and sex, that the possibility of accidental injury left him cold.
Rodney seemed to get it, anyway. "You can take the gun out, but leave the holster on."
"Uh... okay." John pulled out his gun, checked the safety, and set it on the bedside table. "You like the holster?"
"Oh yeah," Rodney murmured. He undid the top button on John's shirt and leaned in to lick at the hollow of his throat. "Makes you look dangerous." He sank to his knees and pressed his mouth to the bare skin just above John's waistband where the shirt was gaping open.
"I am dangerous," John managed. He was half-leaning against the bed for support, his hands on Rodney's shoulders, resisting the temptation to push him down further.
Rodney looked up at him, eyes glinting. "So am I." He popped the button on John's black pants and pulled the zipper down in one motion. Then he was mouthing John through the cotton of his boxers, mapping his length and position. As usual, John's erection was trying to grow up past the waistband; Rodney discovered he could dip his tongue just past the elastic and tickle the head of John's cock.
John closed his eyes and tipped his head back, fingers twisting through silky hair. "Rodney..."
Rodney hummed interrogatively, the vibration going right through the cotton to John's skin.
John groaned. "Rodney, please!"
"Please what?" Rodney murmured, pulling the elastic down an inch and giving John's cock another swipe of his tongue.
John swallowed hard. He'd done this before, of course, but not with a lot of different people. He could never quite guess how someone might react. He tried to keep his hands from fisting in Rodney's hair. "Suck me?"
Rodney grinned broadly and pulled John's boxers down until the elastic pressed firmly on the base of his cock. "Okay." And then he slurped John into his mouth.
That was definitely John's preferred reaction.
Rodney was eager and confident enough that this couldn't be his first time, but not perfectly skilled. His technique felt damn good to John, but he kept pausing to adjust the angle of his head or John's cock. After a moment he half-rose off his knees, but that didn't seem to work either. With a frustrated growl, Rodney pushed John back against the bed until he overbalanced and fell, sprawling across the coverlet. Rodney grabbed John by the legs and pulled until his hips were nearly hanging off the bed; then, with a small noise of satisfaction, Rodney squirmed between John's knees and bent to suck him in again.
This was good. Rodney's mouth was hot and deep, and John could just lie back and groan. Rodney swirled his tongue expertly on the upstrokes and took him a little bit deeper with each downstroke. Then, just as John was starting to get lost in the sensation, Rodney went a little bit too deep and his throat fluttered oddly around John's cock.
Rodney pulled back and swallowed hard, his lips swollen and wet, one hand curled loosely around the base of John's erection. "Sorry! I always wanted to do that, but I, I never have time to practice. You know I'm a really busy person, and --"
"Shhh," John breathed. "It's okay. You don't have to swallow me." It was fun to think of, but John really didn't want to risk being puked on. "Just stick to sucking. That was good. That was awesome."
"Oh, right. Okay." Rodney bent to it again, this time with more tongue work, teasing the slit while his hands massaged John's balls and the base of the shaft. When Rodney's jaw got tired, he licked his palm and jacked John hard, squeezing and twisting, his hand moving in a sort of circular motion so it was never still, never pausing between strokes. There was always slick skin moving over John's hot flesh, and it was glorious. The sensation kept him right on the edge for an agonizing few minutes that felt more like a couple of hours, until Rodney bent and started sucking again. That was too much, and John exploded so fast and hard he didn't have time to give any warning beyond a startled shout.
Rodney eased off the suction but kept his mouth in place until John started to get too sensitive. He swallowed, but didn't quite manage to suppress a little grimace at the taste. John liked knowing that Rodney would do that for him even if it wasn't the most delicious thing he'd ever eaten.
"I didn't mean to finish you off so fast," Rodney said a little regretfully.
"Then you shouldn't be so damn good at that," John huffed. He stretched a little on the bed, feeling the glow of satisfaction spread through his muscles.
Rodney looked a little smug. "Like I said, I don't get as much chance to practice as I'd like. But I was hoping to try, um, some other stuff." He looked down at his erection, flushed and eager and pointing straight at John.
"You could fuck me."
Rodney's cock twitched. "Oh! Um. I don't know if I -- that is, I wouldn't want you to -- I mean, if you're not going to get anything out of it..."
"Oh, I will," John promised warmly. "I'll probably get hard again." He glanced down, realizing he must look debauched with his shirt half-undone and his nice pants creased and his hair probably defying regulations -- not to mention his softened dick hanging out in the air. He stood up slowly and undid his remaining buttons, making a little tease out of shrugging off first the holster and then the shirt. His pants and boxers were barely clinging to his hips; a little shimmy and they fell, so he could step out of them. It was no elaborate performance, but Rodney seemed half-mesmerized anyway. John crawled onto the bed and lay on his stomach, hitching one leg to the side appealingly. "Come on. You got any stuff?"
"Hmm? Yes! Yes, I do," Rodney breathed and dove for his toiletries bag. He came up with a small bottle of AstroGlide and a strip of condoms, which he dumped on the bed. Then he started petting John's back, easy sweeps up and down with a tantalizingly light touch.
It was John's big secret, his sensitive back. He considered it his biggest and most neglected erogenous zone. Only a couple of lovers had ever realized how much he loved to have his back stroked, and even they had rarely used just the right touch -- light enough to tease and stimulate, firm enough not to tickle. If he hadn't known it was impossible, John would have suspected Rodney was reading his mind, because he did it perfectly. Soon John was panting and twitching like a puppet under Rodney's skilled hands, his cock lengthening all over again.
The hands strayed lower, caressing John's cheeks and exploring the cleft between. "Are you... um, have you --?"
"Yes, Rodney, I've done this before and I know I like it," John drawled. "Get ready and get in me."
Rodney made a strangled sound and fumbled around behind John, tearing and squirting and shifting his weight. "How, uh, how do you want to do it?"
"This is good." John lifted himself up to hands and knees. Rodney palmed his ass cheeks almost reverently, and then blunt fingers were at his hole, spreading slickness and checking how loose he was. John wasn't exactly promiscuous, but he knew how to relax those muscles at will, so he didn't need a lot of preparation. "Fuck me already."
Rodney edged forward, his knees pressing John's wider apart, and then he was pushing inside. He felt bigger than he looked. It took a moment to find the right angle, John canting his hips up and down while Rodney paused and shifted and pushed again. Then he was sinking in, sinking deep, and John felt the burn, that peculiar satisfaction of being filled.
"Yeah," John moaned. "Hard. I like it hard." He thought about Rodney's heavy balls swinging, bumping up behind his own, and that brought him back to full hardness.
Rodney pulled back slowly and then pushed in fast. His hips smacked against John's cheeks, and their nested thighs flexed together. He did this a few more times, slow and then fast, but pretty soon he was speeding up.
John gasped and moaned and squirmed, trying to get his prostate into the act. There! With his elbows braced straight and knees spread wide, John got the benefit of every hard thrust straight on his pleasure point. The bed squeaked with Rodney's steady rhythm. The GRU wouldn't need bugs inside the room to know what the two of them were doing; the thought made John laugh out loud.
"What--" Rodney gasped, "What's funny? Oh -- oh, god, never mind, I don't care, just -- oh, yeah, like that --" as John distracted him with some well-timed squeezes. His fingers spasmed across John's back, his breath hitched, and he was really leaning into it now, hips pumping hard. Belatedly he started to reach around John's hip to give him a hand, but it was too late; Rodney's fist clenched around John's cock and stayed there as if clinging to an anchor while he rocked and groaned into John's shoulder.
"Sorry, sorry," Rodney breathed, pulling out and leaving an ache behind. "Should've... touched you earlier." He was still breathing hard, collapsed on his side on the bed, flushed and sweaty, his hair plastered in curls to his forehead.
"It's okay," said John, drinking in the vision while he jacked himself slowly. "I can take care of it."
Rodney's eyes popped open. "No, no, I want you to fuck me." He stripped off the condom and tossed it in the general direction of the trash.
John hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! It's what I had in mind earlier, but I was too, um, with the blowjob."
"Have you done it before?"
Rodney nodded. "Not... not a lot. I might need more, ah, stretching than you did. But I want it. I've been thinking about it since the first time I met you."
John remembered Professor McKay in the classroom, and how the khakis had clung to his backside. "So have I." He propped himself up on an elbow and stroked a hand along Rodney's chest. He wanted to find the other man's hot spots, the way Rodney had discovered his sensitive back. But it turned out most of Rodney's torso was acutely ticklish, and what should have been a makeout session quickly became playful wrestling instead.
Either because of the laughter or the recent orgasm, Rodney seemed pretty relaxed when John started to explore with a finger. He left just that one finger inside, unmoving, while he stroked Rodney's half-hard cock and licked at his sensitive nipples. The tease worked; Rodney was soon squirming in search of more sensation and making little sounds in his throat that were something like whimpers.
John sat up and let his free hand roam across Rodney's chest. Sure enough, several of the spots that had triggered laughter earlier made Rodney whimper even more now. "Something you want?" he breathed.
"More. Need... more!"
"Like this?" John brought a second finger up to tease the edge of Rodney's hole, twisting the one that was already inside.
"Yes, no. Want..."
"What do you want, Rodney?" John had the second finger inside now, scissoring carefully. A little bit further -- yes, there was the sweet spot.
Rodney gave a lush groan and apparently lost the power of speech.
"Tell me what you want," John urged, enjoying the sensation of having a powerful, mouthy wizard completely helpless under his touch.
Rodney gulped. "You. Want you. Inside -- oh!" as the fingers twisted again.
"What part of me?" John insisted, partly out of perversity and partly to buy a few more seconds of stretching. Rodney was pretty tight.
"Your, your -- oh, god, yes, right there! Um, your penis."
John raised a brow at the choice of word. Either Rodney wasn't used to dirty talk, or he really was bordering on non-verbal. Whichever it was, it was sort of sexy in a backwards way. John liked the thought that no one had made Rodney feel like this before, no one had made him beg for it.
John got a third finger into play while he tore a condom package open with his teeth. Rodney was hard again, dick pointing up at the ceiling as he twitched his hips back and forth.
John felt pretty clever about getting the condom on left-handed, but then he dropped the lube off the side of the bed. Rodney groaned with disappointment when John pulled his fingers free to go get it. Slicking himself up hastily, John used the opportunity to get Rodney positioned just the right way, with knees lifted up and spread wide.
"I thought, um, I thought," Rodney babbled as John leaned over him. "I thought face-to-face was supposed to be harder? For, um, people with less practice."
It confirmed what John had suspected; if this wasn't the first time Rodney had ever been fucked, it was pretty close to it. Maybe he'd never felt just how good it could be. "I've had practice," John promised, "and for the way I'm built, this works better." With his cock trying to curl up against his belly, John could hit his partner's prostate every time by fucking face to face. "And I want to see your eyes. Open your eyes for me, Rodney."
Rodney's eyes obligingly went wide as John pushed in. He was almost painfully tight, but after a moment he took a deep breath and the muscles relaxed enough for John to ease forward carefully. "Oh!"
"This all right?" John choked out, holding himself still against the sweet, hot grip of Rodney's body.
"Um, it's... yeah?" Rodney sounded uncertain.
John groped for Rodney's cock with his dry left hand and found it still hard. A few gentle strokes, and he could feel Rodney's muscles shift as his focus went from inside to outside.
"Oh! That's... okay, that works," Rodney gasped.
John looked down at the cock in his fist, still pointing right up at the ceiling. As a teenager, John had succeeded a few times in sucking himself, just barely getting his lips around the head. He wasn't quite so flexible now, but their relative positions brought Rodney up higher by several inches. Maybe... John pulled his knees forward. "Here, can you push up with your hips?"
"What are you -- mm! Oh." Rodney pushed up, and John got his knees under Rodney's butt, and he had the feeling his dick was pressing right up against Rodney's prostate now.
"Let me try something, okay? I'm not sure if I can do it, but --" John curled his spine down. He could almost make it -- the tip of his tongue grazed Rodney's slit. John let out his breath and pressed down harder, and he was able to get his lips on the head and give a proper suck.
Rodney cried out and bucked his hips involuntarily, throwing John off. He was staring as if John were some kind of god. Catching his breath, John grinned down at him and gave it another try. This time Rodney managed to hold still, though John could feel the pulse leaping in the shaft under his hands and tongue.
"How can you --" Rodney choked.
John straightened. "Like I said, practice." He gave an experimental thrust and found Rodney had relaxed from too tight to just very tight. "I can't really move properly while I'm doing that, though." He jacked Rodney consolingly while he started to move his hips.
"You're incredible. I've never heard of -- oh! Oh my god, do that ag-- uh!"
"There we go," John murmured, starting a proper rhythm that would hit Rodney's prostate each time. It was just as well they hadn't done this first, because John would have gone off within seconds of getting his dick into that tight slick flesh. As it was, he could feel the potential orgasm starting to lick at the base of his spine as he pistoned in and out.
Rodney had gone completely non-verbal, his head tossing from side to side and his hips lifting to meet each thrust. He was beautiful like this, with his hair mussed and curling, his eyes thin rims of blue around wide pupils, his sweet crooked lips swollen with desire, parted and panting.
John tucked one hand under Rodney to massage his butt while the other stroked his cock. Remembering the trick of the unceasing circular motion, John tried adding a twist of the wrist, and Rodney's cries turned up a notch. John hitched his knees further forward and started pushing harder into each thrust, shaking the bed with his force.
"That's it, buddy," John grated. "Give it up for me, come on..."
Rodney went still and silent, his eyes fixed on John's with a stunned expression as if he'd never felt anything like this before. Then the lids drooped closed and his face squeezed up and the shaft in John's hand pulsed hard, hot spunk spilling out over his wrist. John put his head down and drove his hips faster, the rhythm going wild and uncoordinated as he felt his body seize up, everything concentrated down to one central point of perfection.
John swayed and had to let go of Rodney's softening dick to catch himself. He stared down at the man under him for a few seconds, suspecting that they wore matching dopey expressions. Then, with a sigh, John pulled free to let himself flop over beside Rodney, one hand trailing across his chest.
"Well, that was, uh..." said John. It had turned out a little more intense than he'd expected.
"Wow," said Rodney.
"Yeah," John breathed. He felt a grin stretching his face. "I knew we'd be good together."
Under John's hand, Rodney's stomach growled, and both of them burst into laughter.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"You remember Elizabeth, right? Dr. Weir?"
"Of course. She saved my life."
John swallowed at the images that flashed through his memory. "Right. Well, she works -- we both work at a place called the SGC. You might have heard, um, rumors about them?"
"No," said Rodney blankly. And that was a pretty good sign that he really had done what he said, gone cold turkey on the physics and the magic and turned himself into an unassuming musician.
"Okay, well, she sent me a letter to give to you. It's --"
"Wait, wait. You're saying Elizabeth knows about you being alive? She's been lying to me too?"
John winced. "No, she thought I was dead, and she was almost as angry as you when she found out. She didn't punch me, though," he reflected, rubbing his jaw. "That was about a month ago when I, uh, bumped into her in Antarctica."
Rodney squeaked. "You want me to work in Antarctica?! I'll stick with the music gigs, thanks."
"No, no, the Antarctica thing was sort of a side project. The SGC is based in Colorado. But we're planning a trip -- we -- it's complicated." John ran a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose you'd agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement before I tell you about this?"
Rodney snorted. "So when someone comes out of nowhere and kills me, no one will know you had anything to do with it?"
"It isn't like that, Rodney!" John scowled. "Okay, look, I'm going to tell you anyway because you deserve to know. And we need you, even Elizabeth admits that. Just, uh... hear me out, all right? It's a long story and it sounds kind of crazy right around the middle. And the beginning. And the -- um. Just, it's all true, okay?"
Kiev, Ukraine, May 1992
John hadn't indulged in wine, but he was feeling pretty mellow anyway. They had finished their mission and disabled an impressive number of warheads without anyone guessing what Rodney was doing. This morning, finally off the clock, they had slept in and eaten a big breakfast, then Rodney had spent the better part of an hour stroking and teasing all over John's back before fucking him long and slow. Now they were refueling with a delicious lunch, with more sex likely to follow, and tomorrow they would be heading back to the States. John had told Maybourne the plans were copied, and the colonel sounded pleased enough that John might actually be getting back in a cockpit sometime this century.
Elizabeth had recommended this restaurant, Pantagruel, saying it was for people with big appetites but fortunately more cultured than its namesake, whatever that meant -- Rodney seemed to understand it. Maybe it was the warm glow of good humor that prompted John to let Rodney babble on about things he really shouldn't discuss in public. They were sitting on the terrace with a fountain nearby and the babble of other diners all around, and if Rodney's voice sometimes rose above the hubbub, probably no one would figure out what he was talking about anyway.
"It's the fundamental problem of our time," Rodney was saying around a half-chewed mouthful of pasta. John didn't look too closely. "Of any time, really. Magic could do so much, but it's limited to parlor tricks and stage shows -- why?" Rodney took another bite and this time, mercifully, chewed and swallowed it instead of talking.
Busy with his own steak, John didn't bother responding. He knew Rodney would continue without a prompt.
"Because they can't count on magic when it's really needed," Rodney said with an emphatic fork-stab. "When you're really desperate, when the chips are down, suddenly you discover you can't concentrate and the magic just isn't there. We need a way to change that."
John hesitated as he realized where this conversation was headed. "And you're the man to do it?" he asked.
"Yes. Yes, I am. I've already published a proof of concept, and I'm working on building a thaumatron."
John choked on his steak. "A whatathon?"
"A device that can do magic."
John frowned. "That's a dumb name. But don't they make those already? Firestarters, things like that?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Right, so you can shell out a couple hundred bucks for something that replicates the function of a match. Or a flashlight, or a battery. I'm not talking about something that can perform one simple spell that most schoolchildren already know. I've figured out the secret to controlling what particles the thaumons turn into. You control that plus the intensity, spread, and rate of conversion, and you can reproduce any kind of magic, every time, reliably and repeatably. No emotions involved."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" John said slowly. He wasn't supposed to discuss this with Rodney -- in fact, he'd been specifically ordered not to. But if he could make Rodney see what he was really doing here and what the risks were, the rest of Maybourne's plans would be unnecessary.
"Come on, have you listened to anything I've been saying for the last hour?" Rodney said. "I'm talking about overcoming the single biggest limitation that keeps magic from its full potential."
"You're talking about overturning our society and putting superweapons in the hands of anyone who can afford one."
Rodney blinked. "What?"
"Don't you get it, Rodney? What prevents people from using magic for violence? Because anger prevents magic. All those kings and generals throughout history who tried to get magicians to win battles for them -- it never worked, not in a useful way, because of the emotional limitation. Your machine would change all that."
Rodney's brow was furrowing up. It would have been cute if the subject matter weren't so serious. "But... this could be a huge benefit to, to everyone!"
"Like nuclear power?" John asked. "You just spent three weeks disabling a fraction of the warheads that could destroy our planet. Still think it was worth it for the sake of not-clean, not-safe, not-cheap energy?"
"The thaumatron could be used for defense as well as attack!" Rodney protested.
John snorted. "Even I know magic shields are just a legend. At best, your thing could be used for counteroffense, and that just leads to another arms race. We just finished one Cold War and now you want to start another -- only this time it would be on a personal scale."
"No, no, it wouldn't be like that!" Rodney protested. "This is to help people."
"Don't be so naive, McKay. Look, you're a Canadian living in New Jersey. What do you think about America's gun control policies, huh?"
"They're a joke, but what does that have to do with --"
"It's the same thing. People claim they need guns to 'defend' themselves, but by nature a gun is not a defensive weapon. So what happens when the guy down the street has a device that can kill you or set your house on fire, or fry the electronics in your car, all without leaving a trace? What can you do except buy a bigger, better device and threaten him back? You make this thing, it will give a whole new meaning to keeping up with the Joneses."
"Hang on here, you're military. Aren't you supposed to love guns and the latest powerful weapons and all that?"
"Because I'm military, I have a pretty good idea of just how bad it can get. You realize, they don't even teach us about dealing with magic in combat? Because it hardly ever happens. But you're planning to change all that."
Rodney's mouth was tight and slanted, his eyes blazing blue. "So that's why you copied my notes, is it?"
"That was what you were doing when you 'accidentally' dropped my papers, right?"
"It's all right. I was expecting it. Well, at least half expecting it. I'm not surprised, anyway. Maybe a little disappointed. Was it all just an act?"
"The sex, I mean. Are you even attracted to me, really? Obviously, you've been with men before -- is that why you got this assignment? You were supposed to seduce me and distract me and copy all my work?"
"No, wait, Rodney --"
"So, how does copying the plans for the thaumatron fit into your little theory about an arms race? Oh, I get it! You want to make sure the military -- the American military -- will get their hands on it first!"
John quoted the official explanation: "We need to know about it so we can have an effective defense ready in advance. If that's not possible, at least laws to prevent large-scale production or sale to minors. That sort of thing."
Rodney's glare was withering. "Is that what Maybourne told you? And you believed him?"
John bit his lip, because he'd worried Maybourne might be lying. But he could hardly tell Rodney about the real plan, the one he actually believed in -- the plan to discredit Rodney's research and sabotage his prototype so that no one would ever agree to manufacture the device. It wasn't a nice scheme, but John had figured it was better than the alternatives.
He sat frozen, unsure what to say. The appearance of a friendly face just at that moment was perfect timing. "Elizabeth!" He half-rose in greeting.
Rodney's face twisted in annoyance.
She came to their table, an uncertain smile on her lips. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. It looked like you were discussing something important."
"No, no, just a little, um, political debate," John managed. "Here, sit down, join us." He looked around for an empty chair, but the restaurant was crowded.
"Oh, no, I'm here with Dr. Pappathanapoulos; I wouldn't want to abandon him. I just came to see if you were enjoying your meal." She looked at the congealing food on their plates with a puzzled frown.
"It's great!" John popped a piece of broccoli in his mouth to demonstrate. "Rodney loves it, right Rodney?" He blinked. "Rodney?"
Rodney was hunched over in his chair, gray-faced and shaking.
Elizabeth reached for him. "Are you choking?"
But John could see he was panting for air, a fist curled against his chest. "I think it's... my heart?" Rodney gasped out.
"You're not even twenty-four!" John objected, pushing his chair back with a squeak. "Do you have a heart problem?"
"No. Checkup... before coming here." Rodney groaned in pain.
"It's an attack," John realized, and straightened from where he had bent over Rodney. He started looking around at the other diners, mostly tourist types staring back in alarm. "A magical attack. Can you block it?"
Rodney blinked at him, dazed. "What?"
"Someone is disrupting the electrical signals to your heart." At least that was how it usually worked in spy novels.
"Are you sure?" Elizabeth asked. Now she was looking around as well.
"Rodney, can you stop it, counter it?"
"Fear, upset... emotion," Rodney ground out.
Waiters were converging on their table, about to block them in.
"Line of sight," John muttered. "Come on, let's get out of here." He caught Rodney by the arm and hauled him out of his seat.
"What? Wait, ow..."
Elizabeth was reaching out, either to help John or stop him.
"Elizabeth, deal with them," John snapped with a jerk of his head at the waiters. "Come on, Rodney. We need to get you out of sight." He pulled Rodney's arm over his shoulder and started plowing through the crowd of bystanders: a sour-faced woman, a man in an expensive suit, an older couple in garish clothes.
"Line of sight... doesn't work," Rodney protested weakly.
"It works if they're not sure where you are." John half-carried Rodney up the steps to the restaurant proper and down the little hall to the restroom. With the door locked behind them he propped Rodney against the sink and quickly checked to make sure no one else was in the room.
Rodney's breathing was still fast but deeper now, his face less pinched. Color was flooding back into his cheeks.
"Better?" John guessed.
Rodney nodded. "The pain just stopped. What was that?"
John swallowed. "Someone was trying to kill you."
"But -- violence and magic don't mix!"
Someone knocked on the door.
John considered. "In books, there are psychopathic assassins with no emotions."
"Those are stories, not real!"
"Well, yeah, that's what I always thought. But I guess sometimes it is real."
The knocking turned into thumping.
Rodney was definitely looking better now. "See, this is why we need thaumatrons -- to be able to fight things like this!"
John shook his head. "You make your invention, and it doesn't matter what stupid name you give it -- an attack like that could come from anyone, not just one-in-a-million weirdos with defective brains."
"Of course you would say that. You probably called in the hit!"
"What? I'm trying to protect you, here!"
"Sure, that's what you want me to think. You phoned Colonel Maybourne, didn't you? Told him you copied the plans?"
"Um." John had done that when Rodney was in the shower this morning.
"They don't need me any more, so they sent an assassin."
"No, it isn't... he wouldn't..." It was horribly plausible. It would save Maybourne all the effort of his complex plan to discredit Rodney.
Rodney stabbed a finger into John's chest. "You call the colonel back. Tell him the plans are useless. The photos didn't come out. Tell him he needs me alive, and to call off his fucking assassin!"
"Rodney, I didn't have anything to do with this! I don't control Maybourne or this killer, whoever it is!"
Rodney glared. "That would be a lot more believable if you hadn't been lying to me since day one, Lieutenant. Now, I'm getting out of here." He flipped the lock on the door and pushed it open to reveal a mob of people. "I'll go back to the hotel with Elizabeth. You stay away from me. If you really want to help, make that phone call." Rodney pushed his way into the crowd.
John followed only to be swamped by people jabbering at him in multiple languages. From the clothes, one was a restaurant manager and two were police, and many others were bystanders. If any of them were speaking English, John couldn't make it out through the noise.
"Rodney, wait!" John reached for him, jacket flapping open.
A woman in the crowd screamed something and pointed at John. At his shoulder holster, he realized, a moment before the policemen spun him around and pinned him up against the wall. By the time they removed his weapon and hauled him away, Rodney was gone.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
Rodney's grip on the music bag had eased. He stared at John over the top and closed his mouth slowly. "Aliens."
"Sort of, yeah. They looked human, but --"
"Aliens built a device for instantaneous interplanetary transport thousands of years ago. And no one has known about it until recently."
"Well, it was buried --"
"And these same aliens experimented on our brains?"
"Hey, that part actually makes sense to me. Haven't scientists been wondering for years why we're the only animals on Earth with a phaba in our brains letting us do magic? And there's no evidence that humans had phabas before about ten thousand years ago?"
"This is crazy!"
John grimaced. "Yeah, it sounds that way at first. I just heard all this stuff for the first time about a month ago, you know. But I've seen the Stargate. It's real. And it looks alien, all right."
"So why are you telling me all this? You thought I should work with this Ancient alien technology stuff?"
John took a deep breath. "We're mounting an expedition to go through the Stargate to another galaxy. The place the Ancients came from. We don't know exactly what we'll find. And because it takes a lot of power to travel between galaxies, we, um... might not be able to return. Right away."
Rodney was clutching his bag tightly again.
"The expedition needs people with the Ancient gene, like I have. That's why I got roped into this. But we're also going to need scientists. People who know almost everything about almost everything. And really powerful wizards."
"I don't do that stuff anymore."
"But you could. You still know how. Rodney, we need you. I know how good you are in a pinch. We need what you can do."
Kiev, Ukraine, May 1992
It took a couple of hours and almost all of John's cash in bribes for the police to admit that his carry permit was probably genuine, and they still hadn't given him back the gun. His face was aching where it had been 'accidentally' slammed into a door frame -- three times. So he was already in a bad mood when he got back to the hotel to find that Rodney and Elizabeth had never returned.
He tried calling Maybourne on the satellite phone, but there was no answer on the line where the colonel was supposedly always available. It wasn't likely that Maybourne could do anything helpful at a distance anyway, or that John could get him to admit a connection with the assassin, if there was one.
Stymied, he grabbed his backup Beretta from the suitcase and some extra ammunition clips, then went to the front desk to ask them to let him into Elizabeth's room so he could look for clues there. He was still trying to explain the situation to the clerk when Elizabeth staggered into the lobby, flushed and panting, her hair in disarray.
"John!" she gasped. "Thank god you're here!"
"Elizabeth? What happened?"
"I was kidnapped! We both were, Rodney and I. Two men grabbed us as we were leaving the restaurant and took us in a car. They stopped at a train crossing and Rodney -- he kicked the door open and we both ran. But somehow we ended up on opposite sides of a moving train. Rodney yelled at me to keep going. I -- I think they must have caught him again."
"Where?" John demanded urgently. "Where was this? And how long ago?"
"Nearly an hour -- it took me a while to catch a cab. I can show you the train tracks where I last saw him, but I'm not certain where they were planning to take him. Look, shouldn't we call the police?"
"Oh, no. I've just had an object lesson on how ineffective and corrupt the police are here," John growled.
"The army, then," Elizabeth urged. "I heard the kidnappers talking -- I think they're Transnistrian separatists."
John boggled. "Trans-whosiwhatsis?"
"Transnistria -- it's a breakaway republic on the border between Ukraine and Moldova. They've been at war for nearly three months now; I'm sure the army would react quickly to the news that Transnistrians had kidnapped two prominent foreigners here on a diplomatic mission."
"I just bet they would," John said. "But why do these guys want Rodney, for chrissakes? It doesn't make any sense."
"Ransom. They think all Americans are rich."
"I doubt they can tell the difference."
"This is going to be a hell of a big splashy international incident, isn't it?" John said slowly. "What if... what if that's exactly what they want?"
"To draw attention to their cause?" Elizabeth said doubtfully. "I suppose that's possible, but they were talking about money."
"Not the Transwhovians," John corrected. "I'm guessing those guys are just flunkies, with no idea what they were really getting into. The real culprit is probably the same person behind the attack at the restaurant."
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "There was a woman in the car with them. Giving the orders."
"She's the one, then."
"She was speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian, with a terrible accent."
"I... couldn't tell. She didn't speak English where I could hear, and I didn't let them know I understood what they were saying."
"Good thinking. So she's a foreigner, anyway. She must have hired or manipulated these Transylvanian guys to do the dirty work. Look, I think a diplomatic incident is exactly what they want. Let's not give it to them."
"But -- what about Rodney? We have to help him!"
"We will. I will. Tell me where you saw him last."
"You can't go by yourself!"
"Call in anyone else and we're giving them what they want, CNN on a platter."
She crossed her arms. "I'm going with you."
"Do you want my help finding him, or not?"
"All right, all right! But you stay out of the way. If I can't get Rodney out of there, then you go get the army or the cops or whoever will listen to you."
They caught a cab from the stand outside the hotel, one of the nearly identical fleet of black vehicles that crawled Kiev's streets. Elizabeth started to explain something in halting Ukrainian, but the driver just sighed and said, "Stick to English, lady, I'm from New York."
John was diverted momentarily. "What's a New Yorker doing in Kiev?"
"Gee, you know, no one's asked me that before," the man retorted sarcastically. "My wife's from around here, okay? She's got family, and the cost of living is a hell of a lot lower here. At least rent is -- you never really know about food prices these days."
"Well, uh, good. That will make things easier. Elizabeth, can you tell him where we need to go?"
"I don't know the name of the road," she said. "It's south of the main part of town and it crosses the train tracks, heading towards the Dnieper."
"Oh, that's helpful," said the cabbie, but he pulled out into the street anyway.
"I'm sorry -- I'll know it when I see it!"
"Did they say anything about where they were taking him?" John asked.
"I think I heard the word for factory," Elizabeth said, "but I didn't catch a name or anything specific."
"A factory?" John mused. "It would have to be empty."
"There's a bunch of those between the river and the train tracks," the cabbie offered.
"This would be someplace isolated, probably," John pressed. "They wouldn't want any witnesses."
"Wait a second, buddy, are you talking about something illegal here?"
"Our friend's been kidnapped," said Elizabeth before John could stop her.
"Geeze, why didn't you call the police, then?" After a beat, the cabbie went on, "Okay, yeah, so I guess you know they're not totally reliable."
"If we can find out where our friend is being held, then we'll call for help," John temporized. "We think we can work faster without a lot of questions being asked. Especially if you'll help us."
"Okay, tell me what you got."
Elizabeth described what she could and the cabbie pressed her for extra details -- how many tracks running together, freight trains or passenger trains, how far from the river. After fifteen minutes or so they started driving parallel to the railroad, the cabbie pausing at each cross street so Elizabeth could see if she recognized it.
"Wait, up there!" she said after a long series of negatives. "I think I recognize that church. Keep going. Yes, that's right, this is the area where I caught a ride back to the hotel. I walked up from --" She pointed. "Head that way."
Five minutes later, they found the crossing where Rodney and Elizabeth had escaped their captors. There was no one there now, no trains moving -- just late afternoon sunlight baking the trees and the pavement.
"They were going east, right?" the cabbie asked. "And headed for some kind of abandoned factory?"
"We think so," Elizabeth confirmed.
"So unless they crossed the river there's not too many places they could be going. Let's see what we got here." Once across the tracks the cabbie turned south again. The view was uninspiring, as they passed several brick buildings with faded signs and weeds growing in the lots. One larger multi-winged factory was still active, with people and cars around and smoke rising from the chimneys, but there were too many others that showed no signs of life.
"Okay, maybe I was wrong about not too many places," admitted the cabbie. "Man, I knew the economy was tanking but I didn't realize it was this bad!"
"We're looking for a place with just one or two cars parked outside," John said.
"Unless they parked out of sight from the road," the cabbie pointed out.
"Elizabeth, what kind of car did they have?"
"Well... it was black."
"There's a surprise," John murmured.
"A little bit older, dusty and banged up. Oh -- the front bumper was crooked!"
"Like that one?" the cabbie pointed. They were passing an abandoned building, smaller than some of the others, with a boxy Lada sedan tucked in close to the wall. It was only really visible after they'd gone past the building.
"I think so," Elizabeth murmured. "Yes, that has to be it!"
"Pull into the next lot," John urged. He was already picking out a line of approach that avoided most of the windows. One car was definitely a good sign -- he might only be facing the two Transi-guys and the woman in charge.
The woman who might be a highly trained, ruthless assassin-wizard. But John would worry about that when the time came. John pulled out his gun to check the clip.
"Hey, no guns in my cab!"
"I have a permit for it." John jacked a round into the chamber. "What do we need to pay you to wait here?"
"Wait? I'll do that for free so long as no one comes shooting. But I'm not going with you."
"I am," said Elizabeth, but her chin was quivering.
"No, you're not," John snapped. "You're going to stay here and call for help if it gets bad. You see Rodney, you get him to safety, got that? Don't worry about me."
"Dammit, Elizabeth, I'm supposed to be a fucking bodyguard! It's about time I did some guarding." John omitted the part where the bodyguard role was just a cover. He was piecing some things together and realizing Rodney was right about Maybourne. "Look, Rodney thinks I betrayed him. Lied to him."
"He mentioned something about that," she admitted. "At the restaurant."
"I need him to know it wasn't all a lie. I need to do this for him. It's important -- in more ways than one." If Maybourne wanted an international diplomatic incident, John wasn't going to give it to him.
"Just be careful," she said, her dark eyes shining. "I want both of you back safely, okay?"
John couldn't think of anything to say so he just nodded at her, slipped out of the cab, and headed around the building.
There was a stretch of bushes and grass between the two abandoned lots, but they were too sparse for real cover. John was counting more on the design of the factory, which had windows only on the sides and not on the end facing him. He paused in the shadow of the last bush, checking all the vantage points he could see.
He had to be fast, and smart, and stealthy. He'd been pretty good at this kind of stuff during training, but when he realized that being too good might get him assigned to ground duty he had bombed the final test. He wondered if Maybourne had seen those test grades and chosen a disgraced Lieutenant on purpose to be a lousy bodyguard. But the truth was, acing the course wouldn't really have prepared him. This wasn't like training, and not like anything John had done in real life. It felt like there was a hummingbird lodged at the base of his throat.
He ran across the open space before the building and flattened himself against the wall.
No shots, no yells.
John edged along the wall to the factory entrance near the black car. Fresh scrapes were visible in the paint around the lock. He hesitated a moment over the possibility of squeaky hinges, then gritted his teeth and pulled the door open.
It wasn't squeaky, but it wasn't completely silent either, especially the clunk when it closed. John glanced around quickly -- he was at the edge of a big, dusty room with bulky machines arrayed across the floor -- and darted into the shadow under a staircase.
Footsteps and cigarette smoke announced the approach of a guard. John crouched deeper, breathing open-mouthed for silence. A stocky man descended the stairs, AK-47 held out in front of him. He went to the door first and opened it to check outside, then yelled something up the stairs. Another voice responded after a moment, in the tone of a command. Sighing, the man headed out into the shadowy room, checking around each piece of machinery.
Wishing he had a silencer, John flicked on the safety, reversed his grip on the gun, and sprang, using the weapon as a club. The guy went down with a groan, but he was still moving; John had to hit him again and this time he felt something crunch. Swallowing hard, he moved back a step. But he knew the next thing he had to do and there was no point in wasting time; he bent and rolled the man over to pull free the strap of the Kalashnikov, slinging it around his own neck. He checked the ammo; a full clip. Slipping his handgun back into the holster, John started up the stairs. After the first few steps, he toed off his shoes and continued in sock feet.
He thought the guard had only come down one flight, but he wasn't certain, so he paused to listen on the landing. There was a dark hallway with doors into what seemed to be offices, and a woman's voice murmuring from one of them. Suddenly someone yelled, and John knew this voice intimately. The pain in Rodney's cry drew him halfway to the door before he thought about whether it was a good idea.
The woman laughed. "Amazing what the nervous system can do, isn't it? No need for high voltage. Just a tiny jolt of electricity causes the most exquisite pain." Her English was smooth, but the accent wasn't quite native. Possibly Scandinavian, John thought -- not that it mattered.
"How can you --" Rodney gasped out brokenly. "Shouldn't be possible --"
"Oh, I'm not bound by ordinary human limitations," the woman cooed. "When I was little they thought there was something wrong with me. But later I found my calling in life. This is what I was made for, do you see?"
"But killing's such a waste," Rodney protested, his voice ragged and slurring. "Especially killing me! I could -- I could be doing great things, helping people! Wouldn't you rather do something constructive with your magic?"
"You want to study me, Dr. McKay?" she said. "Take me apart and see why I don't tick? I doubt I would find that enjoyable."
"No, no -- AAAH!" Rodney yelled again.
Once again John was pulled forward by Rodney's pain, peeking around the edge of the doorframe. Rodney was tied to a chair, facing away from the door. Over by the window lounged another guy with a Kalashnikov, and leering at Rodney was a woman -- it was the sour-faced blonde from the restaurant, the one who had blocked their path and pointed at John's gun.
Her eyes glittered coldly as she smirked at Rodney. "I assure you, I find much creative satisfaction in my work. For example, the goal here is not merely to kill you but to do so in a way that will accomplish a particular goal. A goal which Andrei and Yevgeni will help me reach."
She was standing too close to Rodney for the uncertain spread of the AK-47. John let the big gun hang from his chest and eased out his Beretta instead.
"I gather they don't know you're setting them up?" Rodney spat.
"Not at all. They are very simple boys, and they speak no English."
Andrei -- or Yevgeni, whichever it was -- stirred and spoke to the woman. She glanced back at him and they exchanged a couple of phrases, then the woman gestured toward the doorway -- and looked straight into John's eyes.
He fired from not more than twenty feet away. She didn't duck or scream, merely narrowed her eyes. The first shot missed. So did the second and third. Then a spray of bullets from Andrei's Kalashnikov made John duck back out of the way.
He knew he'd had her dead in his sights, but he'd missed. Either the gun had been messed up when he used it as a club, or the woman was using magic to deflect the bullets somehow.
Andrei's heavy footsteps were heading for the doorway; John poked his gun around the corner and fired once, blindly. He wasn't trying to hit the guy, just make him hesitate. The woman snapped at Andrei, and John used the distraction to roll across the doorway and get a new line of fire, not so close to Rodney's back. He came up with the stolen AK-47 in hand and sprayed.
Apparently magic didn't work so well at ten rounds per second, or maybe the woman just wasn't bothering to protect Andrei. He went down hard and ugly, and John ducked back into the hallway, breathing hard.
There was silence for a moment, then the woman said, "Come out. Or I kill him."
"You're planning to kill him anyway!" John yelled back, his voice higher than usual.
A pause. "Come out, or I hurt him."
"Don't do it, John!" Rodney yelled. "I'm -- AAAH!"
Without conscious will, John found himself stepping into the open, his hands lifted free of the Kalashnikov.
Rodney stopped yelling, slumped over and panting.
"Good boy," the woman said with a quirk to her mouth. "You have interfered with my plans. But I think I can compensate." She held out her hand, and John's gun -- the Beretta he had dropped in the doorway -- flew to her. It floated in the air just in front of her, then spun around to face John. He could see straight down the barrel.
The muzzle flashed.
John waited for the pain, but there was nothing.
Frowning, the woman triggered the gun again. This time, John heard the bullet pass his ear.
She looked down at Rodney. "How did you --"
"Guess I learned something," Rodney growled, and lunged out of his chair as the ropes crumbled away. He hit her in a flying tackle and she went down with a grunt. But a moment later Rodney was flying through the air to tumble at John's feet.
John leveled the Kalashnikov and strafed a two-second burst right across her torso. The bullets splintered the wooden floor on either side of her. She smiled and the gun jammed. He snatched up the fallen Beretta and it twisted in his hand, turning in spite of everything he could do to stop it. Once again he saw the muzzle foreshorten --
Rodney's hand clamped on John's arm and hauled him through the door. "Run!" he gasped. "I can't -- I don't know how to stop her!"
"You can do what she does!"
"But I can't -- I can't kill! I don't -- I wouldn't --"
"Fine. You distract her and I'll kill her. Just keep her from turning my gun against me."
"But I don't know how to do that!" Rodney glanced back down the hall. "Oh god, she's coming!" He pulled John through a door and slammed it behind them.
"No, wait, this is a dead end -- oh shit, she's between us and the stairs!" John realized.
Rodney hunted around frantically -- for a weapon or a place to hide, John wasn't sure. The room was empty, with only one door.
"I really don't know how I was able to do that," Rodney babbled at high speed. "It shouldn't be possible, actually. I think maybe I went numb, sort of overloaded on fear, or went through and came out the other side, something like that. But I'm not sure I can do it again."
The door handle turned slowly. John aimed the Kalashnikov at the wooden door, but the moving handle didn't guarantee she was standing on the other side.
"You have to do it again, Rodney," John snapped. He tried to think of something encouraging to say. "I know you can. I trust you."
Rodney gulped. "Come on, then." He grabbed John with one hand and with the other made a throwing motion. The window shattered, and a moment later John and Rodney went flying through after the falling glass.
John yelled. It felt like freefall to his gut, so it took him a moment to notice they weren't moving very fast. And then they landed on their feet, so lightly the glass shards didn't even cut through John's socks.
"Jesus, Rodney!" he choked out.
"Sorry. There wasn't time to warn you."
"Okay, come on, we have a few seconds here." John hustled Rodney around the corner of the building, back to where he had entered. "How can we stop her? What are her weaknesses? Line of sight -- what else?"
"I don't know!"
"Fine, think of it the other way -- what do you know that she can do? Telekinesis..."
"Electricity," Rodney said miserably.
"Chemistry? That quantum stuff you do?"
"I don't think so."
"So she's not as good as you."
Rodney found the energy for a derisive snort.
"I noticed she hasn't levitated out of the window, either. She must be taking the stairs --" John whirled and pointed. "Can you lock that door? Hold it closed?"
Rodney stared at the door. "I -- I don't know the mechanism of the lock. But maybe I can..." He frowned, and the door handle suddenly drooped, elongated, dripped onto the ground. The lock melted into slag, then a moment later hardened again.
"Good," said John. "She won't get through that. Is there another door?"
"I'm not sure. Other end of the building?" Rodney guessed.
"All right, that buys us a couple minutes." John turned in place, assessing his resources. He had two guns, but she could deflect bullets. What else could he use?
"Rodney, can you hotwire a car?" John pointed at the black Lada.
"If she can't levitate her own mass, I'm betting she can't stop a car." John ran to the driver's side and tried the door, pleased to find it unlocked. He slid into the driver's seat. "Okay, start this baby for me."
"I need to see the ignition." Rodney leaned in through the door.
"I thought line of sight was --"
"I need to know where the ignition is," Rodney snapped. "Steering column?"
"No, dash." John pointed.
The car rumbled to life as if his finger had awakened it.
"Perfect." John caught Rodney leaning across his lap and pressed a hard kiss to his lips. "You were right about Maybourne. I swear I didn't know." Then he pushed Rodney away, out of the car. "Now get out of here. There's Elizabeth over there waving -- go with her."
"Wait, John --"
John slammed the car door and hit the gas. Rodney probably knew some tricks that could stop a car, but John was betting he wouldn't use them.
He circled around the building, looking for doors, looking for -- there she was, stalking the brick perimeter unhurriedly as if she knew there was nothing they could do to stop her. John's lips pulled back from his teeth as he swung the car through a wide arc.
She stopped, watching him come. Her eyes widened a moment as she realized what John was doing; then that same steely look came into her gaze that she had worn when John had fired at her. The car had too much momentum for her to divert, though -- the steering wheel didn't even twitch in John's grip. Was she trying something else?
He recognized the smell of smoke a moment before he wrenched the door open and bailed out.
The gas tank blew in a roil of flame the instant before the car crunched into the woman and the brick wall.
The second explosion was brighter, whiter, and the whump tumbled John across the curb at the edge of the pavement and into the weeds. Blearily, he thought he should have guessed that a terrorist's car would be packed with Semtex. His ears were ringing from the blast, or maybe that was a concussion.
Dimly, through veils of drifting smoke, he saw Rodney yelling and crying, and Elizabeth drawing him back away from the flames. "Thanks, Elizabeth," John muttered as he let his head fall into the overgrown grasses.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"I don't think I can," Rodney said. "Magic, physics -- I've left it all behind me."
"Really?" said John gently. "So tell me, what are you hiding in that bag?"
Rodney froze. Slowly, he said, "This place you're going -- is it dangerous?"
"We don't know. It might be."
"The aliens they've found so far, do they do magic?"
"Some do, some don't." John dredged his memory for the reports he'd read. "A lot of them were humans transplanted from Earth, you know. So it depends if they were moved before or after the Ancients did their little genetic experiment on us."
"Then... maybe this will help." Rodney unsnapped the top of his bag and reached inside. The object he handed John was about the size of a cell phone, with a sliding switch along the side.
"What is it?"
"It's a prototype. I've been working on it since..." Rodney swallowed. "You wear it on your belt or carry it in your pocket. It creates a sort of a buffer zone, about one meter in every direction. It prevents thaumons from converting, so magic won't work inside that volume."
John started to smile. "It's a magic shield?"
"I wasn't sure I should call it a shield. It only works against magic, not against bullets or, or rocks or whatever. I... I didn't want to give it a stupid name."
"It's a defensive weapon," John mused.
"That's the idea, yes. It burns through batteries pretty fast, though -- I still have to work on that part." Rodney paused. "I left magic because of you, you know. Abandoned my career, destroyed the plans for the thaumatron because of you. Because you died rescuing me from the consequences of my discovery."
"Maybourne threatened you," John blurted suddenly. "That's why I let you keep thinking I was dead. It was to keep you safe."
Rodney closed his eyes, lines springing up on his forehead.
"I didn't give him the plans," John husked. "I destroyed the film."
Rodney blinked. "You destroyed the film?"
"Exposed it to light."
"But... I destroyed the film!"
"I fried it while it was still in the camera. While you were sleeping, the night after you took the pictures. I messed up the unexposed film too, in case you took more."
John stared. Then he started to laugh. A moment later, Rodney joined him.
Washington, DC, June 1992
Lieutenant Colonel Maybourne smiled at John across his desk. "Lieutenant Sheppard. It seems reports of your death have been exaggerated."
"I'm fine, sir," said John, standing at parade rest. "Ready to fly again."
"I'm afraid I can't allow that, Lieutenant, since you failed in your assigned mission."
"We completed the mission. Nearly three hundred nuclear warheads disabled, and no one knows we did it."
"Except Dr. McKay. Who is still the only one with the secret to his magic machine. The film you gave me was useless."
"Sorry, sir," John muttered insincerely.
"I ordered you to get copies of those plans, and you failed. How am I supposed to recommend you for flight status if you can't carry out a simple job like that?"
John took a breath. "Because if you don't, sir, I'll spread the word about what you tried to do. Trying to stir up political unrest in the former Soviet bloc -- I guess that peace dividend hasn't been working so well for you? And then there's the kidnapping and attempted assassination of a Canadian citizen."
Maybourne stared at John, lizard-like. "You can't prove any of that."
"Prove it to the standard of a court-martial, no. But I have enough evidence to make some generals pretty suspicious of you. Enough to make sure your career doesn't go anywhere from here." John let those words hang for a moment. "Or, I could go back to active flight status, and Dr. McKay could go on peacefully with his life, and no one would have to hear about all this."
Maybourne leaned back in his chair, considering the offer. "Dr. McKay believes you're dead."
John bit his lip.
"He resigned from Princeton and withdrew several of his papers from press. He's gone to live with his sister in Canada." Maybourne leaned forward suddenly. "So long as you stay away from Dr. McKay -- and he leaves his mad scientists' inventions alone -- you've got a deal. That way we can all have a little peace of mind."
John thought his heart might be breaking, but it was no more than he deserved, after all. If he hadn't had the good sense to die rescuing Rodney, the least he could do was stay out of the way and ensure the safety of the man he'd come to love.
Stiffly, John saluted.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"Maybourne's gone, you know," John offered. "Apparently he was involved with the SGC too, for a while, but finally he fell into one of his own traps."
"That's good to know," said Rodney.
"I'm sorry you turned your life upside-down because of -- what happened. But here's a chance to turn it back."
Rodney shook his head. "It wasn't just because I thought you were dead. You were right about the thaumatron. Too vulnerable to abuse."
"But you can't leave it all behind you, can you?" John held up the little box Rodney had given him. "This proves you still have what it takes. The magic, the physics -- you can't stay away from it. It's time to get back in the game, Rodney."
"I don't want to be the Oppenheimer of magic."
"What about using your abilities and inventions to fight aliens? To save the Earth? From what I've heard, they could really have used a thaumatron or something like it these last few years since they found the Stargate."
Rodney swallowed. "It sounds pretty dangerous out there."
"Uh, yeah. It might be." John recalled how reluctant he had been to join the program when he first found out about it. It seemed strange to be pushing Rodney to do something he'd been so unsure about himself. Maybe it was time to take another approach. "Look... Elizabeth didn't send me here. I asked to come. I'm the one that persuaded her to offer you the job."
Rodney's mouth tipped down at the side. "You mean, she doesn't really want me on the expedition?"
"No, that's not what I meant -- she thought you wouldn't want it. She was sure you'd say no. For all the reasons you just gave me -- you're rusty, you don't do magic or physics any more, all of that. She said we should respect your decision."
"Then why --?"
"She did say that you would be a real asset, if you agreed to come. But I think the reason she sent me here -- let me come here -- was to let you know I'm still alive. She was almost as angry as you about that, and she insisted you should know the truth."
"She was right about that. Obviously, she has more sense than some people," Rodney said with a lift of his chin.
John ran a harried hand through his hair. "You're still not getting it. Elizabeth will be very glad if you come. I'm sure she thinks I should be pitching this to you as your duty to humanity and the future of scientific discovery and all that. But I want you -- need you -- to come with us. For me. I don't know if I can do this without you."
"You've lasted twelve years without me!"
John supposed mentioning his occasional secret surveillance wouldn't help his case any. "But I always knew you were there. I knew you were safe. Now... I'm going to another galaxy, Rodney. It might be a one-way trip. And I can do that, I can say goodbye to all of this -- pizza, football, a family that never talks to me -- no problem. I can even take the chance I'm giving up flying. But I can't leave you. I can't..." It sounded sappy even before it came out of his mouth, but John pushed it out anyway. "I can't live in a world that doesn't have you in it."
Rodney's expression had softened as he listened, but then he went grim again. "That's exactly what I've had to do for over a decade. What you made me do."
"I know. I thought it was better than the alternative."
"Me mourning you was better than you mourning me?"
John swallowed. Having one person believe the other was dead was surely better than having one person really dead, wasn't it? "I'm not as strong as you are, Rodney. Not... not that way."
Rodney sighed and looked at the envelope John had given him, still unopened. "Save the world?"
"Good chance of it. And the pay is definitely more than triple what you're making now."
"No, but plenty of other scientists for you to rant at."
Rodney's lips quirked. "Well... I suppose it couldn't hurt to read Elizabeth's offer, at least."
It was just like their first meeting; Rodney might play hard to get, but John could tell when the bait had been taken. He felt a grin trying to come out. "For Elizabeth? Not even a little bit for me?"
Rodney tried to look stern, but after a moment he relented. "Maybe a little. Oh, all right, come here already!"
He still tasted the same -- like home, like flying. John could go anywhere if he had this with him.
"This make-up sex had better be good," Rodney growled into John's mouth. "I've been waiting twelve years."