He set out that evening around his usual time, when wide strips of alizarin spanned the already low sky and seemed to dip to finger the dull, lifeless grass and weed-pocked concrete. This time of evening resuscitated the dreary landscape with a honey-peach glow and seduced him with the promise of a cool breeze. No hint at all written in the air that this would be one of his last opportunities to enjoy it.
On this particular evening - it could have been late Spring or early Fall, it was hard to tell anymore and nobody seemed to care about season changes anyway - he struck out in a different direction from his normal route. It was best to do that, to mix it up - not that they could tell much anymore, as he'd taken to wearing the pair of silicone-soled shoes he'd found in that abandoned house over on Rycroft. That way, he could complete a circuit and make it safely back home without even arousing the dogs.
The thing he liked most about his neighborhood was that many of the houses were still standing, some still inhabited, though usually not by their original owners. Oh, and the trees. Many other neighborhoods had lost their trees or had voluntarily excised the remaining skeletal specters. Some people, though, left the petrified sentinels standing as monuments to their defiance. A lot of good that was. Just for show. They weren't like him. In fact, most people weren't like him. Most people never left their houses anymore, especially at night.
As the sky deepened around him, he lifted his head and really concentrated on what he was doing. One foot in front of the other, propelling himself forward using only the power of his own muscles. It was heavenly, the heel-ball-toe of each step, hips and shoulders straight, the little tug on his hamstrings when he hit an incline.
It was amazing. The lengths to which people had gone to save themselves from such a marvelous activity. FlashTransit stations still existed in parts of the city - the fastest way from point a to point b - but out here where he lived, there was only LocaTransit and even a few of the relic automobiles powered by lithium and quartz. Of course, that only did you good if you could find an open charging station.
And then there were the patrol squads. They utilized the very latest in personal auto-mobilization technology, although out this far, there were only one or two of them left, even in the city. Up north - where crime was still a problem, and home to one of the major Human Intergalactic Portals in that territory - was where the real police forces were located, and that was certainly all right with him. He'd never been a fan of the routine home invasions or of the monthly round-ups.
Out here, there was very little trouble. Why? Because most of the houses in the neighborhoods in this part of town were fitted with the three signature roof panels. That meant the house had a SensaVu screen wired to the National Network. It also meant that the people inside, when not at their day jobs or education centers, were firmly affixed in front of it. Anything and everything a person could possibly desire to see or wish to experience was at their fingertips with a touch of the screen or the SensaPads worn on the hands and at the temples. It was a five-foot window onto the world... as the Network wanted a person to see it. He shook his head slightly; he preferred his escape to take a more tangible form.
As he looked up into the night sky, a breeze blew up and walked with him a ways. It whispered over his ears and curved down to rustle through the dry, dead grasses at his feet, scratching like a stray at the back door. A tangle of clouds parted to reveal a dazzling moon and Mars burning bright. For years, the sky had been quite dull, with only muted gray light from the moon able to cut through the mess men had made. There was, however, one saving grace: the wind wasn't coming from the northern part of town.
After so many years of intense concern, lobbying, and legislation, and after such major investments in technology, there was still little else to be done with the refuse and petty consumables used up by humans. The bigger cities had recycling and regular garbage pickup, but in the outlying and less populated areas, recycling was voluntary and often the piles of stench waited for weeks at the local waste transfer stations for removal.
No, the breeze that tempted him was coming from the west. He was sure, because sometimes he could taste the mineral-laden scent of the ocean, even across all those arid miles, or maybe it was just a freak storm riding the night air from another town. He took in a deep breath. He rather liked to imagine it was from the ocean.
He was trying to recall the occasion of the last rainfall as he crossed O'Meara - all the streets in his neighborhood were named after the Journeyman Galactic Explorers for God only knew what reason - and headed back toward home, when he was suddenly bathed in a cone of crystal-white light. Shit!
He stood facing the fortified car as it rolled to a stop in front of him. Convinced the patrol squad vehicles had been designed by color-blind refugees from the defunct film industry's CGI brain trusts, he scowled in the general direction of the gunmetal and cerulean hulk. He didn't even have to see the yellow letters emblazoned along the sides to know that they formed the brand of the Federation of States: the new government for the people; the by and the of having been discarded after the end of the last civil war.
While he worked to clear his mind, a small beam of blue light shot forth and traveled over him, head to toe and back, ending with a piercing white stab into his left eye.
The vehicle settled with a few clicks, then emitted a klaxon-like metallic voice. "Mister McKay?" He fought the urge to roll his eyes. Authority never missed an opportunity to rub that in. "Mister M. Rodney McKay?"
His face warmed even in the breeze and a hollow knot formed in the pit of his stomach. Even though he knew this was one of the automated patrol cars, operated by some poor sod in the control room of one of those tiny barricaded fortresses that dotted the apocalypse nouveau landscape, there was always the possibility it was carrying dogs.
"Your address is 1542 Bancroft Road, is it not?"
Instead of acknowledging the empty vehicle, he folded his arms in front of him. He was sure the patrol vehicles had access to his LifeScan ID files and this one probably knew what he'd eaten for breakfast. Despite his cool manner, his insides were on high alert, ready in case the door opened to unleash one of those damned animals.
He'd just shifted his weight when a loud clunk filled the air followed by the hiss of the rear door swinging open. "Oh you have got to be kidding me…"
The grating metallic voice answered him, "Get in, please."
It wasn't the first time he'd been picked up and he was so not fond of the process. "This is ridiculous. I'm not hurting anyone, I'm just walking for God's sake. Walking, remember that?" He stood his ground. Damn, just a few more minutes and he would have been off the main streets and on his way safely home. "We've been all through this, every time you morons stop me--"
He registered the high-pitched whine mere seconds before the bright red stunner stream hit him, filling his body with a cold fire that seized every muscle at once. Half a second later, it was over.
"Fuck!" He shook off the effects of the beam, but shuffled toward the vehicle. He knew all too well the next zap wouldn't be so generous. Climbing into the small compartment in back, he sat down on one of the two facing leather covered benches.
"Just strap in back there, will ya?"
The voice startled him, not so much that it was a voice, but that it sounded… human. Rodney looked up, perplexed. He hadn't seen a flesh and blood person on the squads in, God, how long had it been? Hell, even the dogs were a form of cybernetic mutation. "Huh," he said, peering past the thick, Plexiglas barrier, "I thought all the real cops were north of here. I mean there you've got murders and robberies and bombings, it must have been a difficult choice between some tribal anarchist plotting to blow up the capital and some old geezer out walking."
The cop said nothing, just kept his eyes forward as he pulled away. Rodney figured his age to be around his own, maybe a few years younger, although all he had to go on was head and shoulders, and the guy's voice. It was too dark to see any reflection from the mirrors. A slim build judging by the shoulders and the fact that his hair was dark helped to reinforce his assessment. And while mid-forties was still considered quite youthful, Rodney was astonished for no other reason than there were so few young people willing to go into service for the Federation.
He shrugged and sat back. Surrounded by hot leather and gray steel, darkness filled the windows, but from what he could see, it didn't look like they were heading in the direction of the freeway access. He leaned in toward the row of neat, cylindrical openings in the plexiglass separating himself from the cop. "Where are you taking me? You can't get to the Center for Regressive Behavior this way. You have to--"
"Just sit back and relax. Not taking you to the Center."
"Then where?" he asked, ignoring the cop's instruction. His answer was a slow-building hum from somewhere in the vehicle. "Okay, okay, sitting back." He thought he saw the corner of the cop's cheek rise a notch. "But I'm not going to relax until I know where you're taking me."
"Suit yourself," came the cop's reply, delivered in a cool drawl.
McKay huffed and crossed his chest with his arms. It had been almost a year since he was last picked up. Was there a new place they took miscreants like him? Christ, was there somewhere worse that the Center? He wasn't sure that was even possible. Intracranial Selective Memory Therapy, endless hours with a Regression Specialist and forced medication - it had taken him weeks to recover the last time. And all because he preferred to go for a walk in the night air instead of remaining indoors to be coddled and comforted, stimulated and programmed by the goddamn SensaVu.
The vehicle slowed and he peered through the heavy, dark glass. Lights. The door gave a deep sigh and swung wide. There, a few steps away, was his house, lit up like the sex centers further out in the desert, a lone beacon among the other darkened homes around him, that only had a faint, multicolored glow leaking from some of their windows.
He looked back to the cop, who'd turned around with his arm casually thrown over the back of the seat. Wow, the guy was young, but when he smiled, there were a few creases around his eyes and a few flecks of silver at the temples. Not that he didn't have streaks of silver himself, but somehow it looked much better on the other man.
McKay cocked his head. "So you're, uh, you're just going to let me go?" He still wasn't sure why the cop had stopped him only to bring him back home. Was this some kind of test?
"I'm surprised you're not picked up more often," the cop replied. "All that wattage has to alert the Company."
Rodney's throat suddenly went dry, but he managed to swallow past it. "Well, the main grid only reads the area… they can't tell it's all coming from me, well, they could if they did some digging, but for a neighborhood block, this isn't much of flag on the grid, and as you can see…" he said, nodding in the direction of the open door, "…nobody else around here really uses it."
The cop looked past him out the door. "So why do you do it? The walking? Don't you own a Vu screen?"
"Yeah, but I only turn it on a couple times a week, mainly to avoid suspicion."
Surprise shadowed the cop's face, but he just nodded and looked into Rodney's eyes. "And I don't suppose you're gonna stop either."
Rodney's chin rose proportionately to the timbre of his voice. "Certainly not, and I don't apologize for it. Here," he said, holding out his hands. "Go ahead, restrain me, take me in, because that's the only thing that'll stop me." He pulled back as the thick glass began to lower itself into the bowels of the vehicle. Shit, he should have kept his mouth shut.
The cop turned all the way around. "Don't tempt me, McKay." The color of his eyes morphed like quicksilver, and there was something in his voice that made Rodney want to squirm in his seat. "You're free to go," the cop finally said, both eyebrows raised.
Another week passed before McKay encountered the patrol vehicle again. Another week of blissful anonymity where he'd savored each of his nocturnal journeys. He paid close attention to the scents on the occasional breeze as well as the stagnant ones around him. He drank in the colors of the night sky as, first, it painted his eyes with beauty and then enfolded itself around him in a dark, protective embrace. He listened as he walked. Barely aware of his soft footsteps, the low incessant thrum of energy from the receptor poles hung in the air. Goddamn Network wasn't satisfied with raping their minds, it had to rape their space too. He carefully tuned that out, preferring instead the chirps, squeaks and other miscellaneous rustlings of the small creatures, who, like himself, reigned the night.
It was just as he'd stepped onto Lucerne that he first heard it: a drone louder than the poles and coming closer. Seconds later, he was awash in light again as a patrol car turned onto the street. He kept walking, even as his heart began to race. What if it wasn't the cop from last time? It was likely he'd been rotated away; they didn't need human patrols in this area anyway. It might be dogs this time, or worse. It took days to recover from a full stunner blast. The car slowed and then stopped as if it was waiting for him. His stride faltered with indecision. Possibilities slotted through his mind as he cut his eyes to the side; he could take off over the lawn, run between the houses and maybe make it back home, or at least find a place to hide until morning.
But his thoughts took too long. As he took another halting step nearer the vehicle, the front passenger door swung open. "McKay? That you?"
His stomach dissolved into a pool of relief at the familiar voice. Coming around the open door, he bent to look inside. There, dressed in the dark blue Federation uniform, sleeves rolled to the elbows, one arm across the seat back, was the same officer.
"Well, of course it's me," Rodney said, somewhat irritated. "How many other people do you find out walking? Give me their names, we'll start a club."
The cop diffused any further agitation by offering McKay a blazing smile. "Just you, McKay, just you. Get in."
He felt a quick stab of apprehension. "What? No, listen, I'll head back home, I--"
The cop patted the seat next to him. "C'mon, get in. I've got a few more hours on duty… keep me company?" Rodney sighed. Just the tone of the cop's not-so-annoying voice was inviting enough. Having someone to talk to would be nice and, what the hell, if he ended up at the Center, it wouldn't be the first time. Besides, he didn't think he could say no to those eyes.
They drove past areas of the city Rodney hadn't seen in years, only what he'd glimpsed on the occasional news report. Somehow, they didn't seem so ugly at night, or from his position in the patrol car. Unimpeded by traffic, they swept onto the freeway access and neared the outskirts of the city proper. "Wow, you've got a large beat," he remarked.
The cop shifted in his seat. "It's like you say, there's no one out at night. Sometimes I just like to drive." He glanced over to McKay. "Nice to have someone to talk to for a change."
Rodney found himself smiling back at the man. "Yes, it is actually." Before he could say anything else, he realized where they were and spun around to look at the array of buildings off to his right. They stood as misshapen sentinels in the dark, hundreds of tiny lighted eyes twinkling from the occupied rooms.
"Something wrong?" the cop asked.
McKay gripped his seat. "Nothing… I--it's the--I used to work there."
"I know," was the cop's soft reply.
He couldn't seem to drag his eyes away as they left the complex behind. "Can you--would you--drive a little closer?" Rodney asked, a touch of wistfulness in his voice. Then he turned sharply. "What do you mean you know? How could--"
The cop pointed to the computer module connected to the dashboard interface. "I know everything about you, McKay. So does every other official in the city with access."
Of course. He was right. Depending on one's level of clearance, every citizen's entire history was encapsulated into digital bytes. Basic LifeScan ID files would be accessible by the patrol squads and those would include employment history. "Would you?" he asked again.
The man smiled, but didn't look at him. "Sure," he said, his handsome face shadowed in the light from the interface.
~~The Night Sky
It was the silence he noticed first as he stepped out of the patrol car. An almost palpable stillness surrounded the deserted field, only the occasional whisper of the wind able to break through. It had only taken the cop two days to find him this time and they were far enough away from the city that the sky was alive with a light all its own. The moon was large and full and seemed to undulate as it hung in front of them. Soon, it would change; the entire sky would darken. It would swallow the light until the moon glowed faint crimson and then darkened again. He smiled and turned his head. Thanks to his benefactor, he was actually going to see it. Not experience it in a time loop through the SensaVu, but actually witness it. Strange, he thought there'd be more people at such a perfect vantage point. Didn't anyone want to experience the first clearly visible lunar eclipse in years?
He walked around to the front of the vehicle and leaned against the still-warm hood. The graying of one corner of the moon had already begun, but that didn't take away from the incredible detail of the craters. Rodney had fallen under the spell of a night sky just like this one long years ago, and the awed voice of his father lay just on the edge of his consciousness. Alone in his memory, he barely felt the dip of the car beneath him.
"Nice spot, huh?"
It was, and Rodney found himself wondering about the cop's sudden attention, how the cop knew about this place, if he came here often, and if he'd ever brought anyone else up here. Then again - and here was the hopeful part - maybe this was someone just as lonely as he was.
"I come up here sometimes. Working graveyard, it's pretty easy, there's usually no one venturing out - not out this far anyway. I'll come up here and watch the sky. Seems like a different world here."
"It does," McKay agreed. The heat from the vehicle was already warming him, even though the air was cooler. Having the cop so near, their shoulders almost touching, was a bit disconcerting, and Rodney wanted to tell himself perhaps that was just because he wasn't used to people.
He couldn't remember when he'd spoken to Radek or Peter last. They'd all worked for Carter Labs and both men had stayed on for a while after McKay had left. He used to meet them after work in one of the more decent bars that still operated inside the city, where they'd talk over the latest gossip and, if McKay was lucky, one of them might slip a digital file reader into his pocket.
On those nights, he couldn't wait to get home and unwrap his gift. He'd sit in his bright living room, boot up his notebook and pore over the latest technology, modifications, and applications - not to mention Grodin's latest research and development news - or a real prize, a privately published article.
"How long have you, uhm, been on the patrols?" Rodney asked, breaking the silence. "I haven't seen an actual person on the squads in… I can't remember." His voice sounded uneven and out of practice to him, and his attempt at small talk, lame.
"Not long. Couple of months. I requested a transfer… prefer doing this to working during the day."
"Oh, so no family?" Where the hell had that come from? He watched the corner of the cop's mouth rise.
"No, just me. I'm not much of what you'd call a social butterfly."
"Yeah," McKay said. "Me too." The glowing ember of moon was just about to give way to another sleeve of darkness and the cop's eyes sparkled in the shadows of his features as he turned to Rodney. Eyes that met Rodney's head on and, unless he was imagining it, connected in some way with his. Then the cop smiled. It started out as a slow, lazy grin, but ended up brightening his entire face and the force of it nearly took Rodney's breath. At the same time, an errant wind swept around their feet and spiraled its way up and around them, making Rodney shiver.
"I should have taken you back for a jacket," the cop was saying as the gust blew itself out and passed them by. He slipped out of his own and hung it over McKay's shoulders. Another shiver threatened to overtake him as the captive body heat covered Rodney in waves. He breathed deeply at the cop's scent held hostage within the lining, letting it caress his sensitive nose. "C'mon, let's get you home. I should get going myself."
Despite himself, Rodney trembled, then shook himself back into the moment. "Ah, thanks, and thank you for this," he said, extending his arm out over the small patch of green. His eyes rounded as the cop playfully patted his thigh and slid off the hood.
The ride back seemed to take no time at all. Such a strange phenomenon - they weren't driving any faster or going any less distance than when they'd started out, yet it seemed it had taken much longer to arrive. There had to be some spatial law for that, but Rodney didn't want to take the time to think. Whatever it was, it put them back at his door much too fast. They were already in the neighborhood before he even thought to ask the cop what he did when he wasn't working, where he lived, if he had any hobbies.
The car pulled up into the drive, in front of the only lighted house on the street. "What's up, McKay? You on a conservation kick?" Again, the cop's face was lit by a smile and the glow from the interface.
Rodney looked back at his house. Since their last meeting, he'd kept the wattage down a bit. "Maybe. No sense in asking for trouble, right?"
"Just enough to be militant, huh?"
Odd thing to say. The cop had mentioned the Resistance a few times. What was he after? Rodney frowned, the crease between his brows deepening.
"That was a joke."
Rodney's ears burned as he forced a lopsided smile. "Yes, yes… of course." The door swung wide for him and he stepped out. "Thanks again," he said, shrugging out of the jacket. As he handed it over, he realized… "I don't… I mean, I never asked your name." He felt his face color but hoped it wasn't noticeable.
The cop's gaze lingered a moment, then he replied, "John." He reached out for the jacket. It hung there between them one, two beats before McKay let go.
"Well, thank you again, John, and it's Rodney," he said, pointing to himself.
With another grin, John waved. "See you around, Rodney."
The sky was just as nice the next night. John had found him over on Slayton, and Rodney had to explain the need for varying his routes from time to time. The stars were even brighter and the air was a heady mixture of the dry heat of the day, the night breeze, and what he now knew to be John's scent.
Sitting on the hood of the cruiser, Rodney felt that same sense of contentment he got from his walks, amazed that he'd become so comfortable with John so quickly.
"Do you mind talking about your work, McKay? Not what you do now, the work you did for Carter."
He looked over at John. "My ID files contain everything there is to know about my work with Carter." He narrowed his eyes. "Or are you just interested in why they kicked me out?"
John smiled. It was the smile of a little boy who'd been caught in a fib. "Okay, why?"
Rodney's words were very deliberate. "I was a cybernetic engineer. I turned down dozens of offers to work with Carter, but my artificial intelligence project, my Novus Humanus, didn't fit the Federation's needs, and Carter didn't want it to fit anyone else's needs either."
"What was the government's interest?"
Rodney looked at him like even a five-year old should know the answer to that. "Carter was, is, a big contractor to the Federation, the Network. They retained my designs, my research, my production notes, and quite unceremoniously kicked me to the curb, taking my credentials and thus my ability to work in the field--legally."
John shifted beside Rodney and ended up much closer. "What didn't fit?"
"There was a flaw… their word, not mine. I didn't perceive it as a flaw, I'd spent my life developing a direct neural mesh interface for the Novans that could allow them to develop cognitive ability… Anyway, at first, they just told us to fix it. Radek and I tried--my partner, Radek Zelenka--you see, the first production of Novans began to exhibit individualized behavior, developing past the military's "blind devotion" loyalty. When this began to happen frequently, Carter had to recall them. We were asked to develop a governor of sorts, something to dampen or stunt that developmental process and I emphatically refused. That's when the Network smear campaign started. I was stripped of my titles, forbidden to work, ostracized." He took a sideways glance John's way. "What? You think I like being on my own out here?"
"Yes," John answered softly, "What happened to Zelenka?"
"He eventually left. He works for a group heavily connected to the Resistance. Most of the friends I had at Carter the same." Radek had stayed with Carter just long enough to wrap things up as far as their work - pretending to develop the restrictor while he archived most of the data and intel from Carter before it was destroyed. "Truthfully, even I don't know where he is--it's best for everyone that way. All I have is an email address--he usually contacts me."
"But why was that bad for the Federation? Wasn't loyalty a desired cognitive function?"
He gave John a thoughtful appraisal. "Yes and no. The Federation requires loyalty of a different kind… unswerving devotion to the programming. Super Armies can't exist and function properly without that. The government has enough free thinkers to deal with as it is and regressive behavior centers are everywhere. The Federation can't afford agitators, especially from within." Rodney smirked. "It doesn't fit with their ultimate plan for global dominance and control."
"But can't you do this on your own? Aren't there private--"
"Don't you see… my work isn't wanted. Not then, not now. My Novans were as close to human as anyone had developed before… just a step down from Adam himself. At one time, we had scientists and researchers from all over subscribing to our publications and Radek and I, along with a group of European scientists, did two to three conferences a month. Now… you'd be hard pressed to find any of it… nothing remains publicly.
"And I know what you're going to say, but we never saw our work as the age-old quest for immortality, we looked at it as more of an enlightenment. A new Renaissance." Rodney shook his head. "Thus, the irony. The early stages of transhuman research started as a way for humans to become more than human--corneal and cochlear implants, to give the blind a chance to see, the deaf a chance to hear--but with the development of more and more bionic implements and finally my perfection of the neural mesh implant, we ended up with a means of making machines more human." He took a deep breath and rubbed his palms over his thighs. "Oh Jesus, now I've bored you to death… or are you just ready to cart me off to the Center?" He turned and smiled at the man next to him.
John turned into him and slid a hand up the outside of Rodney's arm, making Rodney shiver. "Just the opposite, McKay." The look in his eye was determined, and whether it was the memories flooding Rodney or just that John was so goddamned hot, he leaned over and lightly brushed their lips together then drew back and waited. Oh God, he hadn't even thought this through, hadn't thought that John might not... it just… and then Rodney found himself caught in a tangle of arms and lips and hands: his and John's, seeking, finding, and nothing for quite some time had felt so right.
He'd gone years without anyone's touch but his own. John's hand was warm, his touch new, and Rodney could already feel the storm building inside him. When, after stealing his way down Rodney's body, John added the wet heat of his mouth, there wasn't even time for a warning. No time for anything except blazes of white in the darkness, and wave upon wave of indescribable pleasure pulsing through him while John stayed down on him, taking everything he had.
Rodney gasped for breath as the last of the spasms pried his shoulders from the hood of the car. He couldn't recall anything like this feeling and it was embarrassing how he didn't seem to be able to form words. At all.
John pulled off him with a last bit of suction and looked up, smiling. His face was a bit out of focus and Rodney panicked for a moment thinking he might pass out. Then John reached for him and helped Rodney up. Helped him right up close, arms around Rodney, and just then another of those wild breezes blew over them, carrying that scent of the ocean again. Rodney closed his eyes and thought how it would be if the two of them just got in the cruiser and started driving in the direction of that scent.
He knew exactly how long they'd have to travel to reach it. He'd mapped and remapped the route most likely to offer the least confrontation; knew the names of most of the major cities along the way. Quixotic plans, hatched years ago when they still meant something. He looked into John's eyes and felt arms tighten around him. Perhaps they could mean something again.
In keeping with Rodney's varied routes, John would find him on a different street each time. The door would open and Rodney would leave the quiet solitude of his walk for the warmth of John's smile and the comfort of his voice - though to be fair, Rodney usually did most of the talking.
Some nights they'd find their way back up to the bluff and the stars, or just drive through the ghostly streets. Rodney learned that John loved to drive, that he'd been a vehicle specialist in the military and had even flown 602s. At that, Rodney had admitted he was impressed.
John slowed the cruiser and rolled to a stop several blocks from Rodney's house. He gave John a quizzical look, his hand automatically reaching for the door, waiting - more for an explanation than the door.
"Thought you might like to walk the rest of the way," John said in an apologetic tone. "I've kind of monopolized your nights lately, and…"
"Oh, and now you're willing to risk me being stopped by the dogs?" John's eyes widened, but Rodney touched his arm to calm him. "Kidding… and really, I haven't minded being monopolized. But it will feel good to walk, thanks." He heard the metallic chink of the door and the hydraulic swish of it opening. Giving John's arm a squeeze, he considered then rejected a kiss before he turned and stepped out.
"I'll follow at a respectable distance then," John called back, "just in case."
Rodney slid his thumb over the button on the brewpot and padded to the corner of the living area he considered his study. A riot of articles, reports, and empty digital file covers seemed a natural outgrowth of what was actually his desk. Huddled among the printed stalagmites sat his notebook computer. The paper, like some postmodern feng shui, formed a cascade to the wooden floor where it was joined by stacks and stacks of outlawed electronic book files and a leaning tower of old Cybernetics Today journals going back years.
His walk had been a short one. Not having run into John, Rodney didn't have the heart for much distance. He had just fished an old set of schematics from the pile when the door chime rang. At least he thought it was the door; hell, nobody had come to his door in… Then a quiet knock and a muffled 'McKay'. Rodney smiled as he opened the door.
They stood in the small foyer like mismatched bookends struggling to find a way to fit together. Breaking the awkward silence somewhat, Rodney pointed the way.
"Sure you aren't worried about having that ugly hulk out in front of your house?" John asked, stepping the living room. "I didn't see you out, so I thought I'd come by and check on you."
"Hmm, it'll only give credence to the neighbors' suspicions that I'm a freak, and I took a short walk this evening…" he glanced over at this desk, "…was going to do a bit of work. Anyway, you're the one most likely to be in trouble. Aren't the squads monitored?"
John shrugged. "Well, we get a certain amount of downtime, meals, breaks, you know, and the monitoring is done on a rotation basis. So, you feeling okay, nothing wrong?"
Rodney stood and watched John fidget and rush through his sentences, trying to catch his eyes as they darted around the room. Hands in his pockets, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he was definitely jumpy about something. "Yes, I'm fine," Rodney answered. Carter Labs had provided the house and generously offered to let him stay on to "show there were no hard feelings"; however, Rodney suspected they were only looking out for their own interests by knowing where he was. He should have moved for that reason alone, but he loved this house, and it showed.
One side of the space was spotless. Modern appointments: a circular sectional sofa surrounding a rectangular coffee table, a few chairs constructed completely of recycled materials, a pair of Lorne abstract prints and the SensaVu, which was dark now and showed a barely-visible layer of dust. He motioned for John to sit on the sofa and took a seat in one of the faux leather chairs opposite. That way John wouldn't have to look at the other side of the living space; urban esthetics or no, Rodney suspected it might simply look like a mess to anyone else.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked, feeling suddenly at odds with what to do with his hands. For God's sake, they'd had sex already… well, sort of. "I just made coffee, if you--"
John waved him off before looking around the room. "Doesn't look this big from the outside… it's nice, I like it." He looked over his shoulder then back at Rodney with a smile. "That side looks more like you," he said, cocking his head in the direction of the desk, sitting there on Rodney's couch, so easy and comfortable, like it was his own. "I guess your research keeps you pretty busy… don't you do anything that's fun?" He eyed Rodney. "Besides walking."
Rodney's swallow went down like lead. Now there was a concept he wasn't sure he was fully qualified to discuss. Fun to Rodney McKay and fun to just about everyone else on the planet were as opposite as the poles.
John seemed to take Rodney's hesitance for his answer. "There has to be something you do just for you… something you like. If you haven't figured it out yet, McKay, I'm trying to get to know you a little better."
Rodney flushed hot, but got up and went over to the antique credenza spread out beneath the abstract prints. It was the only thing he had left that had belonged to his parents. He'd given his sister the rest, right before she'd moved North. He'd insisted on the move. They'd fought like always, but in the end, Jeannie had done as he'd asked. Took everything and left. He hadn't heard from her since she'd sent him a digital PhotoPod of her daughter on her second birthday. God, that had been three years ago. She'd written that she was happy and that she loved him and hoped one day soon to see him again.
He cleared his throat and bent down to open one of the cabinet doors. John had moved over on the sofa, closer to the credenza. Rodney fussed around in a few boxes and brought out a small, brushed steel square the size of his palm. Hanging from it was a wired set of earphones. He set it on the coffee table in front of John and reached back into the cabinet for a lithium charging pack, the kind once used for personal electronics and e-books, when those items were still allowed.
John looked at the square then at Rodney. "It's a personal listening device," Rodney offered. "A bit clunky, but the sound quality is phenomenal. Here, try it." He sat down next to John and curled the small plastic pieces over John's ears ignoring, for the moment, the warmth of John's skin and the urge to tangle his fingers in John's hair.
Personal listening devices had long since been banned by the Federation, replaced by hundreds of channels of concert-hall quality music through the SensaVu and the pre-recorded intra-aural devices that were readily available. It was probably no more than a misdemeanor to possess one, any number of junk shops had them sitting around collecting dust, but Rodney had rigged the lithium pack so that it would charge the device. That might get him a night at the Center, but he trusted John and really wanted to share this with him. He spun the dial on the square with his finger and pressed the button in the center.
He watched John lean back and close his eyes, letting his own eyes roam in a way he wouldn't dare if John could see him. He studied the lines of John's face, the curves and dips, the shadow of the stubble he always seemed to have, the slope and curve of those lips. He thought of the way they'd fit around his cockhead perfectly, the way they'd teased him until John had taken him almost all the way.
Rodney turned his thoughts to the music, imagining what John was hearing while considering the tuft of silky black hair peeking from the open uniform top, and the way John's chest rose and fell. He tried to imagine John naked and in his bed, wondering what kind of contortions he could elicit from this man who had just waltzed into his life and changed everything.
Then Rodney's gaze fell to the easy spread of John's thighs, open and inviting, and it teased a little twitch from his cock. He wanted to undo John's belt and take those pants down, get on his knees between John's thighs and suck him off, make him come into next week. Jesus, if he was honest, he wanted all that and more, but he didn't have the first idea of how to ask, or even if he should.
He looked back up the long line of the man next to him. Again, trying to imagine that dark uniform tossed off and crumpled on the floor.
John hummed. "Did you know that some of Beethoven's music was forbidden to be performed in mixed company?" he asked, eyes still closed and, Rodney thought, not really expecting an answer. "It was said to incite sexual urges."
Rodney leaned back and turned so he was facing John's profile. He was fully hard as he slid a hand over John's thigh. "Good thing it's just you and me then," he whispered, knowing John couldn't hear him. He leaned in and kissed his way across the tight jawline until John turned into him and met his mouth, losing one of the earphones in the process.
The surge and swell of the music poured from the tiny speaker resting precariously on John's shoulder. That, along with the heat of John's mouth and the tempting flick of his tongue, had Rodney breathing hard in no time, his pulse crashing the time of his heartbeat in his ears.
Rodney didn't hesitate when John pulled him over to straddle his lap. Feeling his way to the back of John's neck, Rodney slid his hands into John's hair, dislodging the other earplug as John unbuttoned Rodney's shirt. John's hands were warm and precise, finding the most sensitive spots and then settling on his nipples; fingers teasing, then more demanding as John's hips arched beneath Rodney. He mimicked the movement, trying to find some friction. "Want to see you…" he husked between kisses and tugging at John's shirt, "…please."
John sat forward with Rodney balanced over his thighs and slid off the outer shirt, then pulled the black undershirt over his head. Rodney had already moved on to John's belt and the fly of his pants. The next moment, John's fingers were beneath Rodney's chin, tipping it up into one of John's smiles. His heart thundering, Rodney stood and dropped his shirt to the floor. John stood and helped Rodney off with his pants before lowering his own. Looking into John's eyes, Rodney began to stroke him, so hard already. The silky shaft felt good in Rodney's hand and while John's breath remained even, he had a strange look, an intense look of being lost that Rodney took as a good sign. "Want to taste you… now." He pushed John back down and knelt between his legs.
Rodney was too turned on to think or to worry how long it had been. Turned out, it was like riding a bicycle. John felt too good, his quiet little sighs and moans spurring Rodney on. When John threaded his fingers through Rodney's hair, gripping just enough to sting, Rodney lost all sense of propriety and modesty, and the hell with etiquette. He pulled off John, replacing mouth with hand, watching John's eyelids flutter and his mouth fall open. "I know this is probably terribly unexpected, but God, I really want you to fuck me."
John sat forward again and pulled Rodney to him, hands bracketing Rodney's face. John kissed him, deep and hard, and Rodney could sense his urgency by the quickening of his breath and the way John held him. Still… Rodney pulled back gently. "Have you ever had sex with a man?"
John shook his head. "I know what goes where and why," he whispered against Rodney's trembling lips. "I'm sure you can help me fill in the blanks."
Rodney felt those words all the way to his groin and then his next thought ground everything to a halt: "Oh, fuck… I haven't, it's been… I don't have condoms, or…" He stopped, eyes widening, wondering what John found so amusing about the situation. Couldn't John see he was wound tighter than a Tolkien metaphor and he really, really wanted more than a blowjob. John reached for his pants and pulled a small tube and several foil packets from the pocket, smile still on his face. "So you just normally carry lube and condoms around with you on the off chance--"
"No," John answered, his smile losing some of its brilliance. "I got these special… I was hoping--"
"And you were going to mention this when?"
John leaned in and kissed him again, nibbling gently on Rodney's lower lip as he drew back. "Mentioning it now, McKay… you want me to fuck you or not?"
He was expecting to turn over into a hard, warm body as he blinked awake, but Rodney could tell John had already gone. He reached out anyway and found nothing but cool, empty linen. He raised himself up on his elbows and cradled his head in his hands. Oh, God. Parts of his body he didn't even think he had anymore hurt. And what didn't hurt, he knew was going to as soon as he got out of bed. He rolled over on his back, letting the cool air circulate between his legs and ran a casual hand over his balls. When he clenched his cheeks together, he knew that was one sensation he wasn't going to mind for a day or two.
He could still feel John grinding into him, fingers digging into the fleshy points of his hips. There were bruises there, he was sure of it.
Damn, he couldn't wait to do that again.
Sitting up, he saw the slip of paper lying on John's pillow. Hmmm, that had a nice sound to it - John's pillow. The dark, bold scrawl read: the brewpot is all set… you just have to start it… later. Later. Rodney laid the note on the dresser as he walked by. He snatched his khakis from the back of the chair and padded into the kitchen to make his coffee - really wishing he had some way to contact John.
The banging at his door woke him immediately. He threw the covers off as he became more aware and stumbled out of the bed, heart racing and chest aflame at the sudden intrusion of his sleep. Just as he reached the bedroom door, he heard a crash and heavy footsteps coming toward the hallway. Jesus, surely they hadn't started home invasions again. A flash of fear joined the emotional soup - he had all his work laid out on his desk, the file readers, and what if someone had found out about…
The dark figure entering the hallway rooted McKay where he stood, but the voice made him relax. "Rodney, we've got to get out of here." It was John.
"What?" McKay rubbed his eyes. "What do you mean we have to get out of here… I don't see or hear from you in three days and… then you barge in here in the middle of the night. What's going on?" His stomach tied itself in knots and he didn't know what was worse, that or the squeezing in his chest. Something was up; he could see it on John's face.
"We have to go. Now. They've been watching me… us. They'll be here any minute."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. John, I--" Rodney pulled a tee shirt over his head. "Watching you?" The implication hit him hard - the patrol cruiser at his house all night, not seeing John for days.
"You don't have time, Rodney. You don't have time for anything," he said, grabbing Rodney's pants from the chair near the bed and shoving them into Rodney's hands. He then took Rodney's elbow and dragged him down the hall.
"John," he spluttered. "My computer…"
But John was shaking his head. "No! You know they can track that. You have to leave everything. I'll explain on the way."
Rodney pulled up short and wrenched himself from John's death grip. "On the way to where?"
John looked at Rodney, then at the floor. "I--I don't know. Away from here."
He started to open his mouth to argue, but there was something in John's manner, his urgency, that made Rodney decide to trust him. "Okay, let's go," he said, crossing the threshold and waiting for John. He took a long look around and closed the door behind him.
The cruiser doors opened as they neared the vehicle. Rodney scrambled inside and struggled inelegantly into his pants. They were down the drive and out into the neighborhood in seconds.
John was silent, face intent in the glow from the dashboard interface, his jaw set.
"You realize," Rodney said, in a tone he didn't mean to sound so deprecating, "they can track this vehicle, too. If they've been keeping tabs on us, when they find I'm gone, they'll just bring your car up on the grid and surround us."
John looked over at him coolly. "Can't you fix that? Disable the interface?"
Rodney snorted. "I don't know anything about this upgraded technology. Novans, yes, I mean I've read things, but ah… ah…" His eyes sparked indignantly. "If I had my computer, maybe I could dock with the interface and figure it out, but--"
"Well, you don't!" John snapped. "We'll just have to take our chances."
Adrenaline chased John's words to burn through Rodney; it didn't sound like John at all. He tried to keep thoughts of being caught at bay. After all, what could they do to him? He hadn't committed any crime, unless being friends with a cop on the squad was against the rules. Maybe John was just worried. If they'd found out John had been looking the other way and not bringing Rodney in when he should have… or maybe this had nothing to do with regressive tendencies.
The car took the on ramp at a dangerous speed and Rodney had to hold on to keep from tipping over onto John. It only took him a few seconds to realize that they'd taken the ramp into town. "Hey. You've--we're headed--"
John looked at him quickly before turning back to the road. "There's something I have to take care of first," he said, his voice deadly calm.
Cold sweat began to bead along Rodney's neck, a nice complement to his churning insides as he kept his eyes on John. "What do you have to do?" he asked, careful not to let panic slip into his voice.
John's lips curled. "You'll see."
The Center for Regressive Behavior loomed ahead of them. Even knowing they were there only on some ill-timed errand sent chills down Rodney's back. Seeing the building itself - the ugly institutional design with it's dark brick and square, lifeless windows - was enough to spark that twitch in the corner of his eye.
"What? Why do I need to go?" Rodney asked as they stopped in front of the MediPort door. "You go in, take care of whatever, I'll be right here."
"I'm not leaving you here, McKay. This won't take long."
The whoosh of the port doors sent another shiver through Rodney. Funny how something so insignificant could stir so many memories. "I've just got to make sure someone I brought in earlier has been checked in," John said. He stopped at the desk as Rodney continued on to the elevators. Incoming was on the second floor if he remembered correctly. "Just one last bit of paperwork, and we're outta here." John took Rodney's elbow and steered him toward the stairway. "Elevator's too slow, besides, we can stay out of sight on the stairs. Don't worry, Rodney. I'm right here."
The updraft hit him with a full nose of stale urine and cheap, industrial disinfectant as John flung the metal stairwell door open. He choked back a gag and followed John up one flight. When they reached the next landing, Rodney stepped to the door, but John caught his arm. "One more."
"But the Commitment desk in on this floor. Trust me, I know, I--"
John's grip tightened. "One more flight, McKay. I've got to check with a duty nurse." Rodney shrugged past his uneasiness. "You go ahead so I can watch our back."
Rodney had taken three steps up when he heard another door open and close above them. "John, someone's coming."
"Just keep moving. There's nothing unusual about a Federation Patrol bringing in a patient."
Rodney's feet were slow to obey, but obey they did. Only he thought it odd he hadn't heard any footsteps or voices. When he reached the next landing, he understood why. "John?" Bile hit the back of his throat and burned as he swallowed it down.
"Long time, Doctor McKay." Rodney's blood turned icy. Fucking Kavanagh! He hated that voice; hated the man standing in front of him, and where was John, why wasn't he…
Rodney turned around to face John's energy weapon. "Where did you--what is this--you're…" Rodney started to back step his way into the corner of the landing. "I don't understand."
"Don't you?" John asked. "AI with the capacity to feel… more human than humans… your grand contribution to society." John smirked and his next words were like cement poured into Rodney's heart. "I was so sure you'd be able to spot your own design, I actually thought this was a lost cause."
The cramped stairwell began to close in on him; he could barely feel his feet. "B--But the N700 program was scrapped, the data, the Novans in production were des--" Rodney looked to Kavanagh, cheeks flaring at just the sight of him. "I was stripped of my degrees because of that. Banned from the industry. How did--"
"Because your work was flawed, McKay. Your design was flawed and you refused to alter it. That's the reason you were banned. Why am I not surprised you still don't get that?"
"I was assured Carter would destroy that data. That work is mine!"
"Check your termination documents again--your work for Carter Labs does and always has belonged to us. You really didn't think I'd just abandon all your base programming, research and calculations, did you? The neural cortex mesh and Zelenka's RepliSkin? Jesus, McKay, that was the brilliant part. Of course, I developed the inhibitor you and Zelenka couldn't. That was the easy part."
Rodney balled his hands into fists and looked to John for comfort from Kavanagh's reptilian smile. His heart sank; there was nothing there in those eyes for him at all.
"I told Sam she should have taken care of you then. You're hopeless… you think there's no other view but your own. Out walking at night, conducting illegal research. Hell, you're probably working with the Resistance."
Rodney's mouth went dry and he refused to look at John. Everything made sense now. "Brilliant fucking plan, I'll give you that." He cleared his throat and continued. "So, what do you intend to do with me? Lock me up… shut me up?"
"I intend to do what should have been done years ago. Your work with the Resistance may well be treasonous, though I can't prove any of it. No, I think a nice long stay here at the Center is best. Somewhere you can get the therapy you so obviously need. And as your referring physician and friend, I'll be sure not to let them skimp on the Selective Memory sessions."
"You're no physician." Rodney spat the word like a curse.
Kavanagh scrunched his face in a mock pout and fingered the tag dangling from his neck. "Gee, it says here, Calvin T. Kavanagh, M.D., Ph.D., and Licensed Regressive Therapist. Now, let's go, McKay. We need to get you checked in. I've got a date out in the desert." He nodded to John, who took a step toward Rodney. Weapon still raised, he cocked his head and flashed a sickening smile that didn't belong to…
A blinding flash of electric blue lit the stairwell with the loud hum of a proton weapon. Rodney shielded himself against the fallout and the stinging bits of concrete from an errant blast. When he could focus again, he looked in the direction he thought the flash had come.
It was… John.
But that was impossible, because John was… bent and crumpled, oozing green regulator fluid all over the floor. Stupefied, Rodney looked at the other John, his brain working overtime to process - two Johns. "What--what did you--John? Is he… Kavanagh, is he--"
"It's all right, Rodney, it's me. I only stunned Dr. Kavanagh. Now, c'mon, I'm gonna get you out of here."
"No, no, no… what do you mean it's you… how do I know it's you?" He pointed to the smoldering heap, his voice rising as rapidly as his heartbeat. "I thought that was you."
John lowered his weapon and smiled, that sheepish grin that made Rodney's heart skip. "If I wasn't me, would I know about the birthmark on your shoulder, just below your collar? Just at the right height to--"
Rodney shivered where he stood, but a streak of defiance barreled its way to the surface, dragging with it not just a little hurt. "I'm sure my anatomical markings are recorded in every digital LifeScan file in the system," he said, backing up slowly as John advanced on him. When he hit the wall behind him, he felt trapped, helpless, angry, betrayed.
"That's true, but I don't think this is recorded anywhere," John said, bending to nose Rodney's shirt aside and swirl his tongue across the tan, v-shaped mark.
Rodney groaned in response, then pushed John away. "You're a… you're a Novan?" The words were hard to say and even though he knew the answer, Rodney had some hope the answer would be no.
John looked him in the eye. "Let's go, McKay." The urgency was back in his voice, and it did sound like John's voice, but the other one, that had sounded like John too and…
Rodney twisted away from him. "I'm not going anywhere with you… even if it is you… you gave me up. How do I know what you'll do next? I'd rather take my chances here, with Kavanagh when he wakes up… if he wakes up."
"Let's get one thing straight. I'm here to save your ass and you had better be glad this is the first place I thought of when I didn't find you at home." The crook of his elbow ached where John gripped him and for a moment, Rodney thought he saw real anger in those eyes, but he knew better. John was a Novan. "Okay, let me put it another way, we need to get out of here. You can go conscious or unconscious, your choice."
Rodney wrenched away. "Go where!? We'll never get away, not now," he said pointing to the floor.
"We can at least get a good head start… don't you have confidence in me, Rodney?"
Rodney was frozen with indecision, anger, fear, the slush of blood interminably loud in his ears. Damn those eyes. Goddamn those eyes. John's eyes. A Novan's eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but John just pulled him back down the stairs.
"I trust I don't have to tell you to stay behind me."
"All we need to do is get to the sub-basement--that's where the car is."
"And if someone comes from the other direction?"
"I'll know it before you do, McKay."
They'd reached the ground floor landing when John's hand blocked Rodney from going further.
John angled his head, finger to his lips just before the stair door to the front lobby opened. Rodney tripped over his own feet as John pushed him back; the drone and whine of energy weapons filled his ears as he closed his eyes. The next sound was the clatter of metal on the floor and a dull thud, and then someone was pulling him up. He turned to find an identical Novan crumpled on the floor and looked at the one holding onto him. "Are you…"
"Yes, it's me. Now, keep quiet, we're almost there."
They stalked their way back down one more flight without incident. When John pushed the parkway door open, Rodney felt the warm blast of freedom across his face. John stepped out first and, after checking, gave him the all clear.
Rodney hesitated. What was he doing? Maybe Kavanagh was right after all… maybe he belonged here… maybe with enough therapy…
John got back to him just as the sound of boots on concrete echoed above them. "Rodney, you've got about five seconds to decide if you're going to trust me."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Not if you want to live the rest of your life as a free man."
He took a deep breath and ran for it. The passenger side door opened as he approached. Once inside, they headed out of the garage, down the main road and out to the freeway, rapidly leaving the lights of the city behind them.
They drove long minutes in silence before a strange feeling of déjà vu crept over Rodney. He swallowed hard and looked over at the… man beside him. "They'll be able to track the car, you know…"
John twisted to reach behind the seat back while Rodney was talking.
"…like I told the other you, I could probably figure out how to deactivate the interface if I had--" His words trickled to a stop as John handed him his notebook and hauled a satchel from behind the seat, dropping it between them.
Rodney said nothing; not even thank you. He was angry, damn it, really fucking pissed, and it wasn't so much that John was a Novan, it was that he'd hidden it, had deliberately not told him. John's half-smile tugged at him, but not nearly enough to change anything. A cursory sift through the satchel revealed it was crammed with his notes, data file readers, schematic drawings and a small stack of the old journals.
He looked up at John, but he'd already turned back to the road. Why was it so hard to accept he'd been fooled by his own creation, and who was he most angry with, John, or himself for believing in the first place? Rodney decided not to acknowledge the obvious peace offering. There was a tiny part of him that still wasn't sure John was exclusively on his side. But, hadn't John responded to him, he'd felt so… God damn it, he should have known something that good could never happen to him.
"We'll have to go as far as we can while we've got the cover of night," John said. Rodney checked the universal time on the interface. That would be about two more hours. They might cover some ground, but if he couldn't disconnect the interface, it wouldn't matter how far they went.
From Grodin, he remembered that all common interfaces responded to a central locator beacon, which, courtesy of Dr. Grodin, Rodney just happened to have. It was as if his fingers knew the way as he began to hack his way into the bowels of the Network basecode. He scrolled through miles of coding until he found the blinking stream responding to the beacon - he hoped it was the interface right in front of him. After several failed attempts, he was finally able to string enough of the old language together to make a successful dock. His jubilant cry and fist pumping brought a chuckle from his companion. And for a moment, Rodney almost forgot his resentment. Almost.
He stared at the screen; from there, the task looked easy enough: Frame - Maintenance - Offline. He held his breath as he swiped his thumb over the select function and let it out in a rush as the lights on the dashboard blinked into total darkness. "Oh, thank God." He sank back against the unyielding leather seat. "Of course, you're flying blind, but at least they can't track us."
The small auxiliary lamp on the dash and the brilliance of the summer moon were quite sufficient though to see John's smile. "I knew you could do it," he said softly, reaching out to take McKay's hand.
Rodney pulled away. He kept his eyes straight ahead as they swept around the cloverleaf ramp onto the freeway. Watching the lights fade, he realized they really were heading away from the city this time, away from his home, on a roadway that would be filled with LocaTransit shells and cars in a few hours.
"I'm sorry, Rodney."
Rodney sighed and tried to block the warm feeling he got at the sound of John's voice. "Sorry for what? Sorry for almost getting me killed, sorry for failing to mention that you're a Novan, or sorry for ruining my life… what little of one I had left to me." He turned to John as he spoke. His words were harsh and delivered as such.
John's face seemed to absorb the harshness. "Sorry for not telling you what I was… what I am, of course. I was going to…" His voice regained its balance. "What do you mean ruin your life… I just saved--"
"Do you want a list? You've uprooted me from my home… everything that was mine, except this computer and what you managed to stuff into that bag, is back there… they'll go through it all, they'll handle my things… take what they want, burn the rest and in a few months time, someone else will be living in my house." His voice lowered. "I can't access the Network without sending a fucking homing beacon, and who knows where we'll be safe. Hell, they can probably track you. There's no way Sam would fail to put protocols into place. If a Novan goes berserk, you can bet she'd have a plan for location and retrieval."
The sound of John's hands gripping the steering wheel made Rodney turn to him. He watched John's jaw work, though he said nothing. And how could he? John certainly had no cause for anger. This was all on him.
"Not to mention I'm going to starve to death," Rodney continued. So what if he rubbed it in. "The first thing they'll do is cancel my consumer card. I use it, they have our location. I can't buy food or anything without that."
He glanced again at John. His lips were drawn tight, eyes forward. "But if we crossed the borders… if we went north…" When he spoke, John's voice was small and quiet compared to Rodney's ranting.
"Excuse me? Carter Labs has a major connection with the Network--Sam and that partner of hers, Caldwell. She won't just let me go. Not this time. Besides, there are no borders anymore, only territorial lines."
John's sigh was heavy. "We could do it. People do it every day. They aren't as strict now and even if they were, anyone can 'buy' themselves a ticket to the northern territory."
John was right about that. If someone got as far as the north lines, the Network's grip lessened. "Well, unfortunately, I have nothing to trade." He thought about Jeannie and her family. More and more of the Resistance had begun moving there so they could operate freely. The Network held no great influence once you crossed that imaginary line. People lived in a freedom there something like they had in the early 21st Century.
"You have knowledge, McKay. What you know about transhumans alone would be worth that and more."
Rodney almost considered it for a moment. Then he thought about the ocean he'd never get to see. "Even so, I'd still starve before we could get there. We'll only be able to travel at night, we'll have to hide during the day. Oh yeah, what a great life."
John continued to stare straight ahead. "I was going to tell you about me," he began.
"That night, the eclipse. But you seemed so… happy. I didn't want to… why does it matter anyway? The sole purpose of the N100 is to--"
Rodney snorted. "Oh please. Companions for the elderly and other people who can't find a--"
"I didn't mean it that way," John snapped. "Just that they're given permission to marry… it's acceptable. And there are the Ero-Novans. They were created specifically for the pleasure trade."
Rodney turned to him. "You are seriously not putting yourself in that category, are you? That must have been Kavanagh's brainchild… probably the only way he could ever get…" Rodney stopped and thought of what he was saying.
He and Zelenka, with Carter's backing, had spared no scientific expense on the Novans, even fitting them with a sensory array that branched out over the entire body to give them the ability to function as involved sexual partners. They'd devised an elaborate system to make them orgasmic based on the phases of human sexual response; the males able to produce the chemical equivalent of semen. Rodney's face grew hot and his pulse quickened thinking of that first night with John and how it had been after years of being alone. "…oh, never mind."
But it made Rodney think as he watched John drive. As a Novan, John could also speak fluently in a dozen languages thanks to the knowledge modules available to Carter at the time. Novans could discourse on a wide range of subjects - though Rodney didn't really think 'discourse' was the right term for John. Come to think of it, there might actually be a flaw in his communication module. But the real kicker, the thing that made Rodney's insides ache, was that John had learned what pleased him. Not just sexually, but how he liked his coffee, what music was his favorite, where to touch him that just made him feel… good. Complicated didn't begin to describe the situation.
"I just meant that the 700s were created with all of those features. Your research on the RepliSkin cultivation and harvesting, engineering the neural cortex mesh to work with the tactile centers of our bodies. Rodney, you designed me this way--to be as near human as possible."
"Yes, I did, and I was thrown out on my ass when you showed you were exactly that. That's when Kavanagh and the others took my plans, my designs, my R&D and bastardized it all into those… things. And allowing for the Network sanctioned upgrades, don't think you aren't some hodgepodge of all of them."
It was a while before John spoke again. "Is there something wrong with me this way, Rodney?"
Rodney blew out a long, weary breath. "This way there's nothing but taking… and look, I realize I'm probably not the most altruistic soul on the planet, but… a relationship between two people should be shared equally. I'm not a taker… not in this. I'd want you to…" Rodney ran a hand through his hair and took a breath. "There is just no way you can understand."
"Oh, I think I do." Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw John start to reach for him then draw back. "Why don't you get some sleep? I'll wake you when we stop, okay?"
A sinking feeling filled him suddenly as the chaos and fear of the past few hours slammed into him. Deep, into his bones. The weight of it forced his eyelids closed. His last conscious thought was of tomorrow… he'd deal with everything then, he was just too tired to fight anymore now.
Things couldn't possibly get any worse.
Heavy. And wet. His head was much too heavy as he worked his eyes open. And that knocking… what the hell was that knocking? Cool. Cool and damp against the side of his face, the side of his face smashed into the window, no doubt from the weight of his head. His eyelids fluttered in his struggle to lift them. As he became more and more aware, the knocking only got louder, joined now by an incessant thumping that he could feel as well as hear.
As he fought for consciousness, it all rushed back to him. John… Kavanagh… running. Daylight! John!
His eyes snapped open and he winced as he turned his head to the side. God. Oh, God. John. Flailing against the door. Glassy eyed. Shirt undone. Skin and casing ripped away allowing a tangle of components and chipboards to spill out from the gaping hole that last night had been John's chest.
"Jesus fucking Christ… John?" The force of Rodney's pulse shook his hands as he reached for the body. "John!?" He held him close and looked around frantically, trying to determine where the hell they were. A garage, or abandoned barn, at least they were out of sight. Beyond that, he just had to trust that John had stopped somewhere safe. He started the vehicle and searched for the door controls but everything he tried failed. Everything but the plexiglass divider to open up the rear compartment.
When it had lowered all the way, he cut power to the car, grabbed his computer tablet and scrambled through the opening. He then struggled to drag John into the rear compartment, not an easy task with him still in spasms. For the love of Christ, why would John do this? Rodney shook off that little demon; the one that knew why and kept whispering in his ear. Rodney didn't need that. Rodney needed to focus.
Or did he? He dropped the body onto one of the benches. "I don't owe you anything. There's no way Kavanagh could have known those things unless you'd sold me out. Granted, you may not have known what you were doing, but that's not the point--no, right now the point is that somewhere inside Carter labs an alarm is broadcasting the location of a deranged Novan--that's the fucking point. I should just leave you here--only I can't find a way out--" He looked around, there were no handles on the doors.
Getting back into the forward section, he searched for any compartment that might hold documents or the schematics of the car. "God, will you stop that noise!?" Rodney pressed the heels of his hands to his temples and tried to slow his breathing. If he let this get the best of him, he'd be useless. He caught his foot on the satchel in the floorboard and idly lifted it onto the seat. Whatever else he did, he needed to stop that goddamn flailing and shut John down. Now.
He crawled back through and strapped John to the bench. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do. Getting his first good look at the electronic innards, Rodney thought he recognized the main power module. "Idiot," he mumbled. John must have dislodged some other component first. "If you'd had a sure hand, you'd have deactivated yourself properly, but now I have to do it--either that or actually… fix you. And I'm not saying I'm going to do that, mind you." He carefully avoided John's eyes. If he could see this as a typical mechanical deactivation, he'd get through it. On second thought, there was nothing typical about John.
God, how much variation was there in these 700s? Would the old protocols still work? "You can't be much different from the original design. Kavanagh, that lazy fuck, he said there was no way he'd let my base coding go to waste."
The first thing he needed to do was to stop the spasms. He searched for anything familiar, digging carefully into the chest cavity, picking his way gingerly through the chipboards until he found something else he recognized. "Jesus." Kavanagh had kept more than the coding. Rodney stared at the circular logo emblazoned on the main power module. Two words: Carpe Diem, and a printed serial number beneath. An original? John was… then he saw the problem, the motor control board had come loose from the main wiring, probably when John had reached inside to strip the main power module.
Well that would be simple enough. All he needed to do was secure the board again. He searched through the compartments beneath the benches but, of course, there was nothing that could be of any use. Climbing back up front, all he found was a first aid kit and a small repair tool stash, but again… nothing that would produce enough heat to secure the wiring.
Scrambling back through the divider, he tripped, almost falling on top of John. His eyes widened as he pulled John's energy weapon from the holster. If he could charge it, but not release the charge, that just might produce enough heat, at least enough to hold until he could deactivate John. He flipped the safety catch and set the weapon, letting it build, praying it wouldn't discharge on its own. As he waited, he deftly secured the wiring with a small pliers and John immediately stopped moving.
Another second, two, three, and when he was satisfied, he touched the barrel of the weapon to the board. He watched the metal fuse and bubble before pulling it away quickly. He carefully stowed the weapon in one of the compartments out of his way. With John motionless, he could finally focus on figuring out the main module. Swiping his sleeve across his face, he grabbed his laptop and found the compartmented files he needed. His hands were still shaking. God, it had been such a long time. He hadn't accessed these files in years, hadn't even thought of them. Finally reaching the correct schematics, he loaded the file. His heart sank. It looked nothing like the main module John had stripped out. Fuck!
"Think, McKay. Think!"
Okay, maybe it was a modification. He snatched the satchel from the front seat hoping John had gathered all the schematics. Something Grodin had given him had to be the key, so he dumped the contents of the bag onto the floor in front of him. A small metal object along with the lithium charger pack fell with a thump onto the stack of papers. It took a few moments for Rodney to fully comprehend what he was seeing.
"Jesus, John," he whispered, looking up into John's face. The cloudy eyes brought a lump to Rodney's throat that he couldn't swallow away. John possessed the original design. Even with Kavanagh's inhibitor, somehow John had managed to… He stared at the metal square and the earphones. Of all the things John could have stuffed in that bag… Rodney took a deep breath and checked his watch. "Right, okay, I'm fucked for time, and I have a half-assed idea of what I'm doing here, but I'll fix this, John." He reached up for John's hand. "I'll fix it."
He sifted through the paper until he found a schematic that looked similar to the module. Sweat stung his eyes as he followed each connection and double-checked it against his own original coding. He ran a hand through his hair, his stomach tight with knots as he tried to correlate some of the language he'd remembered from the interface and then… like a clearing sky, he had his answer. "I just need to mask Carter's revisions with the original coding. Of course, I'll have to hack back into the Network to do it." He turned to John. "Oh, you are really going to owe me for this."
Taking a deep breath, he pushed on, setting the parameters and updating the module coding on his computer. All that remained was the upload. He carefully replaced the chipboards and secured the torn casing with some adhesive tape he found in the first aid kit, calculating in his head how much time he'd need.
It was a huge risk - the wireless docking was like a big, red, flashing X on the roof of the cruiser - but not one he really needed to think about. There was no way he was not doing this. What could they do to him anyway? Lock him away? Kill him? Locked up would be the same thing and life without John… well, that didn't make much sense anymore either.
He checked a few files on the notebook to make sure everything was ready. He took a deep breath and proceeded to hack his way into the Network again. His fingers flew as he located John from the list by the matching serial number. He applied the copied file and pressed the select function to start the upload. Sweat slid down the back of his neck while he watched the status bar. Fuck, fuck, fuck… hurry!
Two steps ahead of himself; he grabbed his tablet and crawled back into the front seat. They couldn't stay there. He needed to put some serious miles behind them. His computer beeped and he quickly switched to another program to initiate John's reboot. Before cutting his connection, he checked their location with the Network GPS and plotted his direction. Then he severed the thread. The last time, he hoped. Ever.
The status bar crawled on the restart as McKay backed the vehicle out of the garage, then he slammed off in the direction of the next town. He fiddled as he drove, finally able to get the front windows down. The air began to cool around him, giving him room to think. It was mid-day by the look of the sun and he knew he couldn't drive for long. He was starting to come up on more and more traffic. What if there had been a news report? Of course, there'd be a news report. God only knew what the story would be. Half the territory could be looking for them. The trouble was, they were in the middle of nowhere. Next town, he promised himself. Next town.
The car swerved as McKay jerked the wheel, almost losing control. "Jesus, scare the shit out of me, why don't--" He glanced at his computer. "Son of a bitch--it worked--are you--?" The reboot complete, he slammed the lid shut.
"What did you do?" John asked softly.
McKay whipped his head around; the sight of John's eyes clear and focused again chased some of his panic away. "I might ask you the same thing." He turned back around. "Christ, John, what a mess. I almost didn't--I didn't think I'd be able to fix--"
"You shouldn't have. You were safe."
Rodney swallowed hard. God. He suddenly felt like he wanted to throw up.
Neither of them said anything for a moment, not until John's arm slid across his chest, then his mouth was at Rodney's ear. "You had to hack the Network again to fix me." It wasn't a question.
Rodney kept his eyes on the road and leaned into John's touch.
"They can track me, Rodney. You said--"
"No, not anymore. I bypassed the Network upgrades before I uploaded the repair." John's lips moved to Rodney's neck and Rodney shifted as he felt himself stir. "I devised a work-around and reloaded the original module files."
"That was a big chance, McKay."
He reached up to touch John. "Yeah, well… promise me you'll never do that…" John's tongue circling the mark below his collar derailed the rest of Rodney's thought and he almost missed the sign as they blew past: Ridgeway, 20 miles. "Next town," he groaned. "Have to stop… need to get off the road until night." John nodded against him. "We should be able to find a place to spend the night, there's always abandoned houses, and we can--"
"Need to ditch this car and get you something to eat."
The house had been abandoned for some time by the looks, the décor a mix of ethereal vacancy and eclectic post-apocalypse. Dingy broken lace webs hung in the corners and from fixtures while a slick coat of disuse lay about everything. On the other hand, it looked as if the occupants had just gone out for a day trip: tins of food in the pantry along with a colorful assortment of crawling things, dishes in the cupboards, clothes in the closets and toothbrushes in the bathroom. But for the look of abandonment those items possessed, Rodney would have said squatters had already discovered the place.
They'd chosen it because of other occupied houses on the street and the likelihood that their presence wouldn't be as suspicious. That and it had a garage where they could hide the cruiser.
Not sure if it was hunger gnawing a hole in his stomach or the sound of a door slamming somewhere that woke him, Rodney attempted to pry his eyes open and keep them there. He was sure he'd heard a door and if it wasn't… "John?" The light was graying in the windows and whether from grime or the lateness of the hour, Rodney knew he'd been asleep for a while. He called again and the gnawing skated on the rim of fear when he didn't get a response right away.
The bed felt much too good to leave, but Rodney scrambled out just as John came into the room. "Oh, thank God. I thought you wer--" Rodney's eyes registered the paper bag in John's hand at precisely the same time his nose clued into FOOD. Words failed him as he stepped over and took the bag. He looked at John as if the bag contained a Federation sanctioned Galactic Journeyman Pass and, for Rodney's money, it might as well have. Most of the tinned food was inedible, though he'd made do with what little had been.
"It's a fried egg-substitute and ham sandwich with hashbrowns-starch free, and…" he held out his other hand, "…coffee, no sugar, extra cream."
Rodney took the coffee, staring at the satisfied look on John's face. He wanted to kiss him, but kissing he could do later - who knew when he'd get to eat again. He tore into the sandwich and finally asked around his mouthful, "How the hell did you get food?" Rodney cocked his head. "Did you sweet talk some waitress… wait a minute… what exactly did you have to do to--"
John held up a blue and gold Federation issue consumer card. Rodney took another bite of sandwich and snatched it from him, turning it over and examining it carefully. "This card belongs to a Herbert Washman. Where did you find this?" His eyes widened as John turned away. As hungry as Rodney was, his stomach instigated an immediate blockade. "John?"
"The guy I got it from wasn't going to need it anymore."
Rodney forced the bite of ham and tasteless egg down. His gaze fell to John's belt, the weapon back in the holster at his side. Rodney knew of John's prior conditioning and while he didn't approve, he understood. John finally met his eyes. They stared at each other a moment. "Well, we better make use of it fast before someone discovers why he won't be needing it anymore. Then what'll we do? Did you think of that? Someone is going to--"
"Can't you… fix it?"
"Fix what? Fix the card? Are you serious? I know artificial intelligence, not the ins and outs of cyber-theft technology. Now, if you want it to walk and talk and think, then I'm you man, but…" Rodney suddenly felt the walls closing in on him, he was on an upward spiral and started to pace, hands flailing around, his coffee threatening a mutiny any second. "No, someone is going to find out and they'll trace the use of that card… Hell, I'm already screwed no matter what I do, so what difference does it make really?" He glared at John, and without missing a beat, "How could you have thought this was a good idea?" John lowered his head. "And don't you dare pout… you want to help, help me figure out what to do."
"Rodney, I was just trying to take care of you… you needed to eat."
He took a sip of his coffee and ran a hand through his hair to keep his fingers from twitching. "What I need is to--" He stopped at the sound of the door again, eyes widening with each footfall across the front room floor. His stomach churned at the low drone of John's weapon charging, but this time he was reserving judgment.
The footsteps gained speed and force and the next few seconds were a blur of shouting voices and blue fire. Coffee splattered his shoes and pants as the cup hit the floor. "The fuck, John, do they all look like you?" This one lay in a heap just like the one at the Center, bile green fluid beginning to stain the smelly, tan carpet. "I don't know how the hell we're going to get anywhere… all anyone needs to do is to follow the dead bodies for crying out loud."
"You want to get caught? How about I just let them have you next time. I could just take you in myself."
Rodney glared at him, thinking just how easy that would be. Damn, they didall look alike. "No, of course not, but this trail of breadcrumbs thing isn't exactly helping. And we need a fucking plan… where are we going, what are we--"
John crossed the room from the window. "I don't know, Rodney, but whatever, we're just gonna have to do it on the fly… it's dark enough now, we need to get out of here."
"No shit." He snatched up the bag of food and stepped lightly over the oversized breadcrumb.
"Just trying to keep you safe." It was the first time either of them had spoken. "And no, they don't all look like me." The road stretched out in front of them, a glow-in-the-dark ribbon leading the way to…
"Are we going west?" Rodney asked, trying to recall the last sign they'd passed.
"For now. Listen, Rodney, I-"
"Save it. I know what you were doing and it's not that I don't appreciate it, I do, it's just…"
"You'll be safe wherever we are, as long as I'm functioning."
"Yes, yes, that's easy for you to say. You do realize that might not always be possible. If things keep up at this pace, I might have a heart attack. Last time I checked, your standard issue energy weapons don't stand a chance against the Grim Reaper. What will you do then?"
John said nothing.
"Wait a minute, you said for now… we're heading west for now… what does that mean?"
"Means I wanted to get off the roads I figured they'd be watching. We can turn back north when--"
"You and this north thing--so that's it then, you've decided for both of us."
Ahead, a halo of chartreuse light rose into the sky and as they got closer, Rodney saw the shadowed outlines of several small buildings: a charging station, perhaps an old motel and the one lighted by a garish neon sign - Jack's - a restaurant and bar. Jesus, what he wouldn't give for a drink. He looked over at John as the car slowed. "You're stopping?"
John nodded. "May as well make use of that card while we can, then dump it," he said, the words cold and lifeless and not like John at all. The car stopped. "Rodney, I didn't--"
Rodney grabbed him before he could open the door and held onto him until John looked up. "I'm sorry," he told John. "I know I'm a little gruff but I, I feel trapped and backed into a corner, and I have to tell you, I hate that. I tend to get very defensive when that happens and I'm still not sure how I feel about all of this, but--"
"As long as I'm functioning, no harm will come to you, Rodney." John slid over and tried to pull Rodney to him, but Rodney kept him back.
"No. Look, we need to deal with this and the sooner we--"
"Is it because I'm not human?"
Rodney closed his eyes and thought about it. "Not really. Honestly, you're more human than most humans I know, er, knew."
"I think that I love you."
Somehow, John dropping such a bombshell didn't surprise Rodney, but it did stop him cold. "That's nonsense. Love is an emotion you are incapable of understanding much less actually having."
"Because I'm a Novan? Isn't that why you created us?"
"Yes, but you're not… I mean you're of the original design, but what about the inhibitor? Don't tell me you--"
"I've always sensed I was different. I do feel. You had love for your work, isn't that the same thing? You destroyed your work rather than let the Federation use it for their purposes. You loved us enough to destroy us, didn't you?"
Rodney blinked. "That is not the sa… how did you know that?"
John smiled. "I didn't. Look, Rodney, you created us to learn, to feel, I haven't forgotten that."
"But you don't understand what you feel, you don't know what it means… you can't just pick an emotion and say you have it. You don't know how that emotion… feels. Just because you're able to process conditioning protocols and make a decision based on data extrapolated from the results does not mean you can--"
"I think I can. I have a different point of reference now. You." The tips of John's fingers skimmed lightly over Rodney's jaw, sounding like static against the stubble and making Rodney wonder what he must look like, not to mention how he must smell. "This is something I want," John said softly, before closing his lips over Rodney's.
Rodney closed his eyes and surrendered to that warm, fullness, letting a little groan slip through. The kiss was sweet and certainly didn't feel artificial. When they parted, Rodney shook his head. "But you do it because you know that I like it… that it will make me feel good. John, I can't give you the same thing, don't you see?"
John looked puzzled. "I like it when you kiss me. I like it when you fall asleep in my arms and I can hold you and protect you. That makes me… feel good. I'm human in every way but one." He stared at Rodney.
Rodney sighed. "Cheeseburger," he finally said, smiling. "And I don't want to know what it's made from, and no-starch fries, a double order, and for the love of God, some coffee. I don't care how long it's been sitting there."
John kissed him again as the door opened.
Rodney stopped him. "One more thing. When we get back on the road, get me to a National Access kiosk, I've got an idea." John slid over to get out. "Oh… and pie," Rodney called before the door closed. "A place like this has to be, like, pie heaven."
The F-5 was the main artery leading to the northern territory and the only one on which infrastructure maintenance was kept current. Side roads and scenic routes abounded, but having to pick your way around rock or mudslides could only be accomplished by properly equipped vehicles. Still, some thought the risk was worth it. John said that the F-5 would be easier to "get lost" on and Rodney had agreed. He checked the paper map John had picked up at the diner; they were just outside of Bluffton Falls.
They'd spent close to an hour parked at the Access kiosk waiting for a reply to Rodney's email. He knew the response wasn't from Radek; the clinical preciseness was definitely Miko. Flawless instructions delivered in such a way that wouldn't readily be suspect if the mails were being scanned. The last major non-civil conflict was to thank for that bit of annoying technology. Certain keywords were guarantied to be caught in the sweeps and God help those who didn't have a viable excuse for using them. They were close to their destination now and the coil of anticipation in the bottom of his stomach began to flare at the thought of seeing his old friends again.
His thoughts and his body were jostled sideways as the car suddenly jerked; John's hold on, Rodney too little too late as they swerved back and forth through the lanes of traffic. "Are you insane?" Rodney yelled, groping for a hold on both John's shoulder and the metal grab bar on the door. "What the hell are you--"
John's intent gaze was divided between the cruiser's mirrors and the road straight ahead. "I noticed it a few klicks back. There's a big AT behind us, staying the same rate of speed, just following."
"Following… you mean following us? A what?" Rodney turned around, but the way John was weaving back and forth he couldn't see anything out of the back compartment.
"AT, All-Terrain. It's what we called them on the bases… anyway, not many civilians drive those anymore. Except people who don't have to care about cost and conservation. And whoever it is, they're starting to get a little too close for comfort." He glanced at Rodney. "Trust me?" Rodney nodded, his heart beginning to hammer. "Hang on."
He let go of John's arm and wrapped the strap of the satchel over his head, digging in for whatever was going to happen. His face paled as John drove, convinced John was pulling maneuvers right out of his ass. His anticipation sat like a hard lump in his throat as they neared the skyscraper-dotted city. The traffic lanes began to narrow and like disjointed arms, the off ramps flailed right and left as they flew by. "You do realize we have to get off at--"
"Carlton Street, A8 exit," John gritted, and Rodney watched, horrified, as they closed on a LocaTransit shell that was traveling slower. Much slower.
"Watch this." And Rodney swore a smile flashed across John's face before he swerved hard to the right, missing the corner of the shell by an eyelash and a skipped heartbeat.
Slammed forward as John braked to the speed of the shell, Rodney struggled to catch his breath from the nearly imbedded seat harness. "Jesus, a little warning would be nice," he choked out as John reached over to him.
"You okay?" he asked, pulling even with the front of the shell.
"Noooo, I--" Then Rodney saw it, a big, black behemoth of a vehicle pass them on the other side of the shell. Neither one spoke for a few moments, the slower speed giving Rodney a chance to rein in his galloping heart.
John squeezed Rodney's shoulder and gave him a big smile. "A8 straight ahead, McKay."
Despite himself, Rodney managed a crooked grin. "I'm not speaking to you," he said, sitting back in his seat, trying to loosen the harness.
The Marrester-Cullen Complex was a group of tall buildings nestled right alongside one another in an arc across a vast concrete landscape. They were all nondescript and utilitarian and from that, Rodney surmised they were postwar constructions.
Industrially Spartan, the lobby of Building E could have been Heaven's own waiting room: a sea of brushed steel, dark mahogany, glass and very few people. A pleasant young woman Rodney recognized immediately as a C-class service Novan rang Dr. Zelenka and smiled brilliantly when she told Rodney, in an annoyingly perky voice, that he could wait by the elevators.
Radek greeted Rodney with an excited smile and a somewhat awkward hug as John held the elevator for them. "Good to see you, Rodney." He clapped Rodney on the back as they stepped in behind John. "You are all Elizabeth has talked about since she heard."
Rodney eyed him. "Weir? Elizabeth is--"
Radek's features gathered in a quick cloud before his smile returned. "Yes, she has been welcome addition to our team… and she is very glad to see you again."
Rodney made the introductions quick, glancing at John with a smile that seemed to ease the pinched look on his face. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
The last time Rodney had been hugged so many times was the night he'd left Renfield's after his dismissal from Carter. He even hugged Elizabeth back. God, it was good to see her, and he felt better than ever about his and John's choice knowing Liz was there to stay. "I can't wait to see Peter, is he here?"
Elizabeth's face lost some of its brightness then, except in the corners of her eyes. Oh God, he'd put his foot in it; he didn't even think that they might have… "Rodney," she took a deep stuttering breath, "Peter is dead."
John moved a step closer and Rodney felt his protective stance. He tried to make his mouth form the words, but Elizabeth continued without him having to ask.
"An accident if you believe the official version," she said with that edge in her voice. "He was out of town at the time, making a delivery… he'd promised and there was no one else… you know how he was about that kind of thing." She folded her hands in front of her and lowered her head. "Normally, he would have taken public transport, but he was in a hurry. Up here, it's easier to…"
Her voice faltered and Rodney pulled her into another hug. He suddenly felt very lucky to be standing there. His compassion was for Elizabeth, but his words and his eyes were for Radek. "We ran into a bit of trouble ourselves just now."
Elizabeth pulled back and looked from Rodney to John. She immediately drew on her game face and extended her hand. "I'm sorry. Elizabeth Weir. Believe it or not, I once coordinated all these brilliant minds."
John stepped forward and took her hand. "John--"
Rodney panicked, eyes casting around the room for anything, finally coming to rest on a carton of office supplies. "Sheppard…" he blurted, "…this is my… partner, John Sheppard." Damn it, he could hear the smug in the smile he knew was on John's face.
All eyes, including Elizabeth's, were on Rodney. "I didn't know you were working again," she said, sounding interested.
"I'm not," he replied. "John and I are… we're together. Life partners." Rodney took a breath only to be besieged with hugs again. He glanced at John - the smile was even bigger than he thought and right then and there, Rodney knew he'd always be helpless in the face of it.
The coffee tasted like a long lost treasure, thank God. He sat back against the small dusty couch in the room Elizabeth had arranged for them. She kept the room for those nights it got too late to bother with going home. Rodney gulped his coffee and recalled spending many a night at Carter Labs, too tired even to undress and too wired to sleep. At least Radek's lab was nearby.
He stared at the cold, but comforting, pearl-colored walls. Of all the thoughts going through his mind as they were being followed, Rodney never once suspected Caldwell as their stalker. He'd always seemed more or less a silent partner to Sam's brashness and militaristic machinations. But they'd all seen it with their own eyes.
He still couldn't believe John had seen, much less remembered, the registration plate on the vehicle as it sped past them. Zelenka and Miko had jumped right in and worked their computer magic. So many memories flooded him: good and bad. He hadn't been surprised to learn that, among their many activities for the Resistance, the group still kept tabs on Carter. It had been nothing to run down the registration number and confirm the vehicle belonged to the lab and then to whom it had been assigned.
And if that wasn't proof enough, Miko had been able to access the citywide TraffiCam system and get a fix on the route of the car from the time it had crossed the first Camspot beam into the city until it had stopped at a charging station. There was no doubt the man who got out of the vehicle was Caldwell. He made a cell call and as Rodney sat there with his coffee, Miko was attempting to run down the logs from the nearest tower.
The knock at the door was soft. Radek stepped inside quickly when Rodney opened the door. "Everything is fine," Zelenka assured him. "We just need to give the skin a few more hours under the accelerator to graft properly. It should be as if it had never been disturbed." He paused a moment. "It was self inflicted?"
Rodney nodded, looking at his former colleague. The coffee suddenly sat sour in his stomach and he was thankful Radek didn't seem to require an explanation.
The flaw was something they were never able to predict or troubleshoot. It was as if the intelligence evolved individually by the choice of the Novan. As terrifying as it was wondrous, it was just that 'choice' that they'd worked for, that humanness. It was the consistency that had eluded them, and now Rodney understood why.
Radek smiled. "Can I ask what in hell you used to secure the motor control module?" He stepped over and poured his own cup of coffee.
Rodney grinned after him, shaking his head. "You don't even want to know."
"Well, all the modules have been replaced now by closed access components and the data reloaded exactly as it was. This way, John can do minimal damage if he should ever--You can see him, by the way, if you like. There was no need for deactivation. It's something--"
Rodney spun around. "Wait a minute, you reloaded…"
"Relax, Rodney. John told me of your repair." Radek's eyes sparkled behind his wire rims. "In fact, that's what I'd like to talk to you about."
"Dumais is still there?" Rodney's grin widened. There had always been something about Dumais - she had spunk and Rodney couldn't imagine a better plant within the Carter facility. He touched John's elbow and John turned to him and smiled.
"It's a perfect set up," Radek said. "Even more so now, now that you've found a way to bypass the Network protocols. Elizabeth has authorized me to first, ask you to stay, to help us get the fix in a more stable form… "
"You mean like a Trojan?"
"Yes, something like that. Or in the alternative, to equip you with what you'll need to get across into the northern territories - in exchange for your files, of course."
John grabbed Rodney's arm. His voice was clear, but soft as he called Rodney's name.
"Shhh, talking business here. If we're lucky, we could be out of here tomorrow." He turned to Radek. "Equipped how exactly?"
"With a revolving Commercial Consumer Card and a hacked laptop. The card alters itself - the encryption in the magnetic strip - each time it's swiped." Radek pushed his glasses high on his nose and grinned. "Rather ingenious, if I do say so. We program legitimate consumer information into the encryption packets on the strip, only we add code to drop name and shuffle to next one after use."
"As long as one of them isn't Herbert Washman," Rodney mused, trying not to look awed. He waved off Zelenka's puzzled look and ignored the little grunt from John. "And the laptop?"
"User information is scrambled using whatever microwave signals are available in the area, confusing the NT addresses and sending a scrambled signal when accessing any Network sanctioned site or hacking into Carter's system."
"What about locations? Do we get to pick?"
Radek shrugged. "Depends. If you choose to take the Human Intergalactic Portal - to go to another galaxy - we don't have control over the passes we receive. If you stay, we can assure you a place north of the borders, and an unimpeded link to us here. There might be occasions when you would need to travel… if you chose to work with us, of course."
Rodney scratched his chin thoughtfully. He looked at John, then back to Radek. "If we choose another galaxy, can you arrange for me to see Jeannie first, maybe spend some time with her?"
Radek shrugged. "We would do our best to accommodate you."
"Rodney?" John's grip tightened. "Don't you think we should talk about this?"
"We did, remember…" Rodney replied, peeling John's hand from his arm and holding onto it. "You said you wanted to keep me safe and we decided the best way for you to do that was to put as much distance between us and Carter and the Federation--and now Caldwell--as we could. Personally, I think another galaxy is just the ticket."
John glanced at Zelenka, then back to Rodney. He smiled but somehow the smile didn't make it all the way to his eyes. Radek made a fuss about having to check on something more important than the two of them apparently and excused himself.
"Life partners?" John's eyebrows were almost to his annoyingly low hairline.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I couldn't hear you complaining earlier, oh, that's right you couldn't what with that big-ass smile on your face." John tried to sit up, but Rodney caught him quickly. "Whoa, just sit tight there. You've got a good hour or so in this thing." Satisfied John was going to behave, Rodney pulled over one of the lab stools and sat down.
"Why didn't you tell everyone about me?" John asked after a moment.
"Because they'd have had you locked up here for days… scanned, poked, prodded, recorded, and questioned. Zelenka practically pitched a tent when I told him. I don't want that for you… I won't let you be a guinea pig."
"But Rodney, I don't mind. If it would be--"
"Yes, yes. I know. That's just it, you wouldn't mind… you'd just let them dissect you, glean your data and analyze you." He reached over and stroked John's arm.
"But if it would help you figure out what makes me different, wouldn't that be worth it?"
"I don't want to know why you're different, okay, and I don't want them to know either. Let them get their own thinking Novan and figure it out."
John smiled at him. "Bullshit, McKay. You're a scientist."
"Maybe… one day." He ran his fingers over the new hair sprouting from John's chest. "I'd like to keep you to myself just a little longer if you don't mind."
"I don't," John replied, taking Rodney's hand in his. "But if we go to another galaxy…"
Rodney sighed. "I'm not saying it's a permanent relocation… who knows, we may get there and never want to come back."
John was looking at him like he didn't believe a word of it.
Rodney McKay was man enough to admit he was disappointed when Elizabeth didn't say goodbye in person, even if her actions were understandable. She naturally thought he would stay and having to say goodbye would be something like losing Peter all over again.
Resting his head against John's, they stood in the FlashTransit queue waiting to be whisked away to the HIP. John held their passes to freedom and Rodney had the satchel slung over his shoulder. All they had in the world between them, along with the bon voyage gift from Zelenka - an encrypted hand-held stowed away in Rodney's pocket. A microprocessor that would allow him viewing access to the data stored on it. The data included just about everything Zelenka could cram onto the drive - their research, projects planned by the group, publications by group members world wide, even information about the galaxy that would be his and John's new home.
Was he being selfish? He didn't think he was being selfish. He'd done his part, had given them everything he had; all given over to capable hands. They could do with it as they wished; he'd signed everything away. Of course, that hadn't stopped Radek from trying to persuade him. Really, all Rodney wanted now was a new home, preferably with an ocean, and John. They'd get jobs and have a real life, out in the open, with no pretenses and nothing to hide. It was true that the Federation had a small sphere of influence with other galactic governing bodies, but Rodney didn't think even Caldwell had the muscle or the will to follow him to another galaxy. He was more than ready to leave this rock with no… with few regrets.
Unfortunately, the timing of the HIP passes had only allowed a video conference with Jeannie. He shifted uncomfortably in line, thinking about the way his sister kept sweeping her fingers under her eyes and how his niece Madison kept asking who he was and why he was making her Mom cry. With a deep breath, he convinced himself again that Jeannie was happy and well taken care of. She and her family were away from influence of the Network and he prayed that would remain the case. Radek had promised him the group would do all they could to see to that.
"We're next." John's voice vibrated through Rodney's thoughts and he gathered himself just in time to step through the dull gray, undulating veil of the portal.
On the other side - and he always hated how the FlashTransit seemed to suck every bit of air from his lungs - they were just across the street from the large, deco-style building that housed the Human Intergalactic Portal in this region. The streets were crowded, but that only offered him a sweet feeling of anonymity, something he hadn't felt since his nightly walks. Jesus, that seemed like years ago; was it even possible that only weeks had passed?
The population from the street seemed to be tripled inside the building. This hub was one of only four HIPs in the area once known as the continent of North America. Rodney looked past John, past the lines of people waiting to purchase their way to a new life, past the teeming humanity, to the portal at the far end of the vast hangar-like enclosure. The iris was closed now, a spiral reptilian shell that guarded the opening to new destinies. The ring itself stood at least two stories high, the width enough to accommodate vehicles and cargo as well as people.
At one time, the portals were used only by the military when a new galaxy had been readied for colonization. Not many people knew that. The Network had carefully manipulated the news of its past mercenary designs and revealed the portals only as a service to humanity. It could be argued the portals worked to help weed out would-be troublemakers before the Federation had to deal with them. Prisons were too costly and their somewhat more humane counterparts, the behavior centers, were constant revolving doors of the perverse, flawed and confused.
The imperturbable, the pragmatic, those who refused to be led, brainwashed and programmed; those were the ones who populated the lines in front of him. The kind the new Federation was happy to let go.
"We're Pegasus, this way," Rodney said, trying not to look impressed and failing miserably. John put his hand on the small of Rodney's back and kept it there as they threaded their way to the platform. The scent of really cheap coffee drifted on the stale, lifeless air and Rodney actually looked around to see if there was a kiosk nearby. But John's hand was firm. As they walked, snatches of conversations flitted by Rodney's ears like lazy insects, only a word here and there sinking in. Particularly disturbing were the people who seemed to be conversing either with themselves or with persons unseen.
"Damn, we're delayed," he said when they arrived at the platform. He'd been looking at one of the floating departure screens and turned around when John didn't respond. The eyes he met were the same ones that had been filled with concern in Zelenka's lab. He slipped the handheld from his pocket. "What?"
"What if they don't have my kind where we're going?" John asked. "Are you sure Dr. Zelenka loaded the data including all the upgrades? What happens if there's no way to--"
"We just gave you a full repair. You should be fine as long as you don't pull any more boneheaded stunts. In fact, let's see what type of technological development we're looking at in the Pegasus galaxy." Rodney scrolled his finger across the viewpad.
"I just mean, are we doing the right thing?"
"Rodney," he took Rodney's arm. "Look at these people."
He didn't want to. It was hard enough standing there trying to ignore the varying degrees of body odor, the exanimate eyes and disheartened faces. Not all, but most were desperate, some with fear, others with relief that showed in nervous, crimped smiles.
"They're running," John said quietly.
Something tweaked Rodney's gut; something in John's tone that switched on Rodney's this-is-not-good radar. "So they're running," he replied. "Maybe they think anywhere is better than here. Maybe some don't even know the difference. Not everyone is cut out to be part of the Resistance, you know. If you don't run, your only other choice is to be like…" He thought about all the people in his neighborhood, all the houses he'd walked past countless times, having no idea if there were families inside, children, or even what their names were. And that was just one neighborhood. God, such a waste. He shuddered even in the warm air. "Besides, I can't do anything about them now."
"What about the ones who do try, the ones who care about doing something? Doctor Zelenka, Doctor Weir and the others. Things won't ever change as long as people run away."
"Well, there's nothing left for those that aren't hopelessly progr… whoa, whoa, whoa… what are you saying? Are you saying you want to stay? You'd rather have to hide forever?"
John shrugged. "I watched them, Rodney. They believe in what they're doing. It may not seem like much, but think of people just like them, all over, in other territories. It just seems like something worth fighting for…"
"I agree and that's why I gave them everything. They're fighting--I'm letting them fight."
"But they need me. This is a different kind of war, McKay… maybe they need a different kind of soldier. If everyone capable of resisting runs instead… it is hopeless."
Oh yeah, John had pushed the bad news alarm real hard. Rodney looked around again at the people waiting, sighing as John's arm circled his waist.
When he turned back, John was right there. "I want to kiss you."
"What? We were just talking about--"
"I just want to kiss you." He moved closer. "No reason other than--"
"Well, then, in that case, you just do it, you don't announce it, it's not a topic for deb--"
John leaned in. His lips were soft and warm, but demanding, pulling Rodney in and making him forget for a moment all about the Network, Carter, where they were, even where they'd been. Rodney pressed in harder and let John's tongue play across his lower lip, groaning a little as John caught it between his teeth, another one of those things he'd learned. It was just him and John and the kiss and…
Attention-Atención-Achtung - all travelers holding passes for Pegasus Galaxy, please move to the portal platform, transport will begin in five minutes…
Rodney pulled back slowly and narrowed his eyes. "Are you trying to manipulate me? Did you think reasoning with me was useless, that we couldn't have a perfectly rational discussion about this? Using your… your wiles, that's what you come up with?"
John's grin was much too shy before it faded all together.
"Oh, give me those," Rodney grumped, snatching the portal passes from John's hand.
~~The New Day
The house sat back on a bit of a rise, a short, staggered walk away from the cove, where brilliant rock formations grew like statues from the sand. Like snowflakes, the waves crashing into them never struck the rocks the same way twice. They rolled to the cove and fell across the shore with the stumbled grace of an oblivious drunkard, and the music they made rivaled the most complex crescendos. Night and day, a fitting ambience, always there to soothe or to arouse.
He and John had recently returned from Bluffton Falls. Only the satisfaction of perfecting the "fix" and watching the virus-like command worm it's way through the Novan database could have taken him away from his ocean. It had been a remarkable sight - dozens of grids of serial numbers deactivating and then accepting the data upload. There had been a collective cheer in the lab once the upload completion had been confirmed and the operation complete. People glad-handing, hugging, and a few happy tears. John had even kissed him in front of everyone without asking first.
Rodney looked away from the window to where John was poking into the stone fireplace, sending thousands of tiny firefly sparks up the chimney. "You need another log," he said softly and turned back to the waves. He heard the whump and crackle of fresh wood on the fire and waited. He smiled when strong arms circled his waist from behind, John bringing the warmth of the fire with him. Rodney tilted his head back to rest against John's and tried not to purr. "We should be all set for next weekend," he said, wrapping his arms around those at his middle.
"What if your sister doesn't like me?"
"What's not to like?" Rodney replied. "I'm the one in trouble. My niece doesn't even know me and already she hates me. Don't worry, they'll all love you."
They stood that way for a moment, listening to the steady roar and crash of the water and the popping of the fire. Rodney thought of how far they'd come in a few short weeks and the difference they'd made - to each other and hopefully for mankind.
John dug his chin affectionately into Rodney's shoulder. "So, are they all like me now?" he asked, as if he could read Rodney's thoughts.
He turned in John's arms. "No," he said, tracing his fingertips along the angle of John's jaw. "Wait, I take that back… they're like you, yes, but just as you've shown, they're free now to develop their individuality according to their own unique circumstances, and if some of our preliminary calculations are correct, perhaps forty percent of them will be successful. It's possible they'll even change their physical appearance, shave or grow a beard, wear their hair differently. That's the way it was intended." He thumbed across John's lower lip and looked into eyes that constantly seemed to waffle between green and brown. "Even so, there's no one else like you." John's mouth was warm and sweet when it met his, but something else called to Rodney.
"You just keep that fire going while I'm gone. Short one tonight," he promised with a wink, giving John another quick kiss before heading out the door.
"Yeah, you say that every night," John called back. But Rodney was already out the front door. He'd take the rickety boardwalk to the beach, the quiet slurp of the wet sand just as good as silicone soles. Only it didn't matter anymore if someone heard him. It would never matter again. He had the sting and the scent of the sea to keep him company, and if anyone ever stopped to ask his business, they usually ended up walking together.
After bringing in more wood, John poked the fire a bit more and thought about later: how he and Rodney would stretch out in front of it; how Rodney would curl into him, too tired and warm to do anything but watch the flames. He'd massage the soreness from Rodney's shoulders and neck and hold him as he drifted.
John preferred the waves to the beach and so left the walking to Rodney. A long-forgotten relic, they'd found the surfboard stored among other treasures in a shack behind the house. Rodney snidely accused him of having a "death wish" but he never discouraged John, which John accepted as a sign of respect, in spite of the concerned looks he'd get from time to time.
Another thing Rodney respected was John's need to be useful. At John's insistence, Rodney and Radek were going to start working again and John had volunteered himself as their first guinea pig. Of course, he was still unsure if it was because of his urging or because of Elizabeth's involvement.
Everyone had been shocked to learn just who it was that Caldwell had made the cell call to that day in Bluffton Falls. From what he knew of the information passed back and forth, Caldwell had been working with Elizabeth for some time, setting the wheels in motion for a new scientific venture and Caldwell hadn't been stalking them that day so much as he'd been shepherding, reporting to Elizabeth that Rodney had arrived safely. No one was sure, but the word seemed to be that the new venture would involve the Novan designs.
John walked over to the window and looked out to where the end of the sky met the horizon, out where it resembled the color of Rodney's eyes. Rodney had said a certain percentage of Novans would develop just as he had. To think and learn and make their own choices. He had to wonder how this civilization would take that news. If they would even know of the strides being made or care. Wars could be won, even diverse ones. Even ones fought for liberties that had nothing to do with geographic boundaries or oppression.
Just beyond the rocks, and true to his word this time, Rodney was walking back up the beach alone. Would the new Novans know hate as well as love? Would they experience it, perpetrate it? And if they did, would they be lucky enough to find someone like Rodney who could show them a different way? Would they, too, find a full heart and the humanity of acceptance?
Rodney waved from the beach and John smiled back, his skin tingling in anticipation.
If this was happiness, then Rodney's intentions had been true all along…
John was more than human.