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Who Wakes As The World Sleeps

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“Come on, Rodney,” John said, “think of this as a holiday.”

Rodney shook his head. “I don’t need a holiday. What I need is to be working on restoring the wormhole drive so we can make it back to Atlantis in a timely fashion.”

John pressed his lips into a thin line for a moment. He, along with Sam, Woolsey, O’Neill, and Jackson, had spent a week giving testimony in front of the IOA about why Atlantis needed to go back to the Pegasus Galaxy as soon as possible. Pegasus was the front line against the Wraith. Earth’s defense was better served with Atlantis back on New Lantea.

Earth was facing problems of its own, though, the least of which was the fact that Earth had no defense system against the Wraith, should they return. No one knew whether Kenny’s superhive had transmitted Earth’s coordinates to any other hive ships, let alone the intel to upgrade to superhives.

Getting the wormhole drive fixed was a far less pressing problem than getting permission for Atlantis to leave Earth at all.

Carter was pretty sure she had a solution. She’d done that stint in an alternate universe where the Stargate Program had been disclosed and all hell had broken loose - but where she’d figured out how to put Earth out of phase so the Ori couldn’t attack. All she had to do was recreate that tech on Earth and they were good to go.

If the IOA wanted another Ancient weapons platform, there were better odds of finding one in Pegasus.

All of Atlantis’s senior command - John, Rodney, Woolsey - had been shuffled off for other projects that had pressing need and were of high value to the SGC. Everyone else had been granted leave. Last Rodney had seen of Lorne, he’d been dressed in khaki shorts, an eyesore of a Hawaiian shirt, and had a surfboard tucked under one arm.

Keller was taking Ronon and Teyla on a Big Earth Tour, starting with introducing Ronon to her parents (the story was that he was from Hawaii and was ex-Special Forces; Woolsey and John had had to do a lot of fast talking to get him and Teyla papers to wander around on Earth). Some other Area 51 minions were working on her proposed Wraith Cure in the meantime.

Zelenka, not Rodney, was working with Sam on her new Earthwide defense system. Even though Zelenka was a plenty competent scientist, Rodney suspected ulterior motives in his being sent with John on this pointless task. The IOA was looking to delay Atlantis’s return to Pegasus as long as possible.

“Well, at least enjoy the scenery,” John suggested.

He had a point there. They were staying in a fancy resort hotel that didn’t exist on any maps Rodney knew of. He suspected it didn’t exist on satellite surveillance feeds either. The hotel was in the middle of a state park where hotels probably weren’t allowed to be built, high on a plateau overlooking the deep, winding green of the Colorado River, portions of a national park, and the brilliant cobalt blue of a couple of commercial salt pools. The sky was clear blue and endless, not a single cloud, and the world looked - serene. Quiet.

When John opened the French doors that led to the balcony from their room, Rodney could hear the breeze, hear birds singing.

Rodney rarely appreciated this kind of natural quiet when he encountered it - usually offworld, when he was on alert for Wraith or hostile natives or other alien life forms or technological booby traps. This was almost like a holiday.

Except for the part where Rodney and John would be wearing uniforms and tac gear and tromping around the desert all day with brand spanking new SGC recruits.

Why wasn’t Mitchell doing this? Or some other senior SGC team commander?

Because the IOA was jerking John and Rodney around.

As luxurious as this hotel was, as beautiful as this resort was, Rodney couldn’t enjoy it, not while Atlantis was sitting dormant in San Francisco Bay, surrounded by a Navy blockade while Area 51 scientists were set loose on it, cataloguing and studying it to their hearts’ delight.

“Look, we have forty-eight hours to relax, sightsee, get the lay of the land. Then we have two weeks with the troops, and then another forty-eight hours to relax before we head back to the SGC,” John said. “Just - try to enjoy it.”

“How could I possibly enjoy this?” Rodney asked. “I don’t like talking with hostile natives, I don’t like marching in uncomfortable heat while weighed down with gear, and I don’t like -”

John sighed. “Fine. Just - don’t make this harder than it has to be.” He turned and stepped out onto the balcony, leaned against the railing.

Tipped his head back and smiled in the warmth. Damn, but he was beautiful.

Rodney forced that thought aside. Sure, they were sharing a room. Not a big deal. They’d shared sleeping arrangements offworld many times. It didn’t mean anything. Nothing physical between them ever meant anything other than being comrades-in-arms, colleagues and coworkers whose responsibility was to keep each other alive. Friends, of course, who slapped each other on the back and nudged each other, pushed each other. But nothing more.

There was a whole abyss between nothing and more.

The less brainpower spent on that problem, the better.

Rodney hadn’t read much of the briefing memo he’d been sent for this mission, mostly because he’d gotten stuck on the phrase away from Atlantis and been so overcome with fury that he’d slammed his laptop shut and gone to vent his frustrations at John, only John was just as frustrated. All he knew was that the IOA was working with one of its corporate resources to beta test a new virtual training environment for SGC recruits.

Just by looking at the view from their condo balcony, Rodney knew that this project had incredible funding and had to have taken virtual reality to a new scale. Or maybe that was the natural monoliths he was gazing out at. There was an entire “park” hidden away in the nooks and crannies between a state park and a national park, and it all belonged to a single corporation, and they’d built a miniature world in it.

Apparently a corporation that spent a fortune on luxurious condos and hotel rooms for some kind of desert resort was willing to let a tiny fraction of the military romp through their VR park for fun.

John startled Rodney out of his contemplation of their current mission by ambling back into the room. “Hey, you hungry?”

Rodney started to shake his head, then felt his stomach rumble. “Yes.” He fumbled for the visitor’s guide their hostess - a very attractive, slender, young brunette woman who’d let her gaze linger on John more than was professional - had given him. “Which of the many restaurants would you like to try? Everything is gourmet, at least Michelin Two Star quality.”

John crossed the room to the mini fridge. “I was thinking of cooking, actually.”

“Cooking?” Rodney followed him into the kitchenette.

John laid chicken, some containers of fresh herbs, a container of cream, a bag of rice, and a bag of fresh green beans on the counter. “Yeah. Less hassle.”

“Less hassle than a restaurant?”

“Don’t need to worry about anyone citrus poisoning you here, do you?”

“True, but -”

John produced a bottle of white wine. “So, let’s cook.”

Rodney wasn’t a great cook, but he’d learned the basics to keep himself alive in the face of the world’s disbelief about his citrus allergy. (People believed Radek about his chocolate allergy but not Rodney about his citrus allergy. He was pretty sure Radek’s chocolate allergy was bullshit and mostly an excuse not to eat Dr. Tsui’s disgusting gluten-free brownies.)

“Since when do you know how to cook?”

John said, “Since one of my nannies growing up was an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris before she became my nanny.”

“You had nannies?” Rodney asked.

“It was what families like ours did.” John shrugged. “I was six, Dave was two when Mom passed. Even before she passed, maids would babysit us when our parents went out on their weekly date.”

Rodney had been quite sure that Ronon had exaggerated when he’d described the size of the estate John had taken him to for his father’s funeral: the sprawling green lawns, the horses, and the sheer enormity of the house. After being a borderline feral runner for seven years and then trapped in the claustrophobia of the limited habitable space in Atlantis, surely Ronon’s sense of scale was broken.

Apparently not.

“You never cook on Atlantis.”

“Lorne would never let me into the kitchen,” John said. “I’m not as good a cook as he is, but what few dishes I can make, I can make well. Well, I’m a decent cook. Lorne’s a chef. And a master baker. Really, if it involves food, you should go to Lorne first. But for you and me, I think I’ve got us covered.”

Rodney wasn’t used to a chatty John, or a John who shared, so he just made encouraging noises like he did for Madison when she was telling him all about her favorite toy unicorns and settled in to listen. A couple of times he offered to help, but all John asked him to do was set a couple of places at the bar and let him handle the rest.

John described cooking the way he described how to use a gun or fly a jumper - not in helpful terms at all. John wasn’t a teacher, was possibly less a teacher than Rodney. Things came naturally to him, and he didn’t understand when they didn’t come naturally to other people.

Acting hadn’t come naturally to Rodney. Neither had playing piano. But when Rodney wanted to get good at something, he went all in. And it paid off.

Till it didn’t.

He didn’t think he’d ever figure out how not to be all in for John Sheppard.

But then John was setting a plate of white wine herb chicken and garlic sauteed vegetables and a rice pilaf in front of him, and he was sitting beside Rodney at the bar and pouring him a glass of white wine and asking Rodney his thoughts about Sam and Zelenka’s chances for figuring out the problem of Merlin’s device in this universe, and Rodney couldn’t help but launch into a fast-paced invective about the stupidity abounding in the IOA.

It wasn’t till after dinner, when they were doing dishes, that Rodney realized John had said almost nothing all through dinner, hadn’t said anything new or shared anything new.

He hadn’t been kidding, though. That herb chicken dish was delicious.

After supper, John sprawled on his bed with his copy of War and Peace, which he was now halfway through, and was completely silent.

Due to the highly proprietary nature of the technology at the facility, there was no Internet access, so Rodney couldn’t check his email or otherwise get online and see how things were going. Sure, there was a very controlled Internet hub on one of the lower floors of the resort, but Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the chance to just spend time with John, even in quiet like this, so he dug around in his pack for his eReader, which he’d loaded with an embarrassing collection of scifi and fantasy romance novels, and set to reading himself.

He’d read A Dragonfly in Amber about a dozen times in his life, being descended from Scots and all, and while he wasn’t much for redheads, he did appreciate brave, charming men who were a bit oblivious to their own attractiveness. Also, he thought John might look pretty good in a kilt.

Rodney read till he fell asleep.

He dreamed of gentle hands on his shoulders, someone covering him with a blanket.

He was pretty sure he imagined the gentle kiss on his brow.

*

“C’mon, Rodney, up and at ’em.”

Rodney swatted at the hand shaking his shoulder.

“That’s the Rodney I know and love. So not a morning person. C’mon, I even have coffee for you.”

At coffee, Rodney woke a little more.

Then he recognized John’s voice and the word love and he sat up.

John stood beside Rodney’s bed, holding a mug of coffee. He was wearing one of his long-sleeved, high-collared black uniform shirts and his uniform pants and his boots.

For a second, Rodney was confused. Why was John in his quarters?

And then he remembered. Not his quarters. Not Atlantis. That corporate resort. John was wearing civilian clothes, to the unknowing eye.

The coffee smelled good. Rodney snatched the mug from him.

“You’re welcome,” John said. “Come on. Shower up. Get dressed. Nothing fancy, since we have to change before we can enter the park. I’ll have breakfast done by the time you’re out of the shower.”

Rodney still wasn’t sure what to make of this domesticated John Sheppard, but he drained the mug of coffee, stumbled into the bathroom, stumbled back out again to grab his dopp kit and some clean clothes, and finally made it into the shower.

As promised, John had breakfast waiting for Rodney as soon as he was out of the shower: eggs, bacon, toast. John sat down beside him, and they ate together in companionable silence, the same silence Rodney knew from mornings in the commissary on Atlantis.

No. Best not to think of Atlantis. Best to focus on the task at hand. Which was rest and relaxation, apparently. For two days before green recruits showed up. What were Rodney’s chances of ever seeing such lovely terrain again, or having the chance to inspect high-tech VR constructs up close? After the human-form Replicators or even the cyborg replicators, nothing on Earth could possibly compare, but -

Teyla would tell him to enjoy the scenery, make some good memories to accompany the pending awful memories of heat and exhaustion and stupid green recruits.

What if Rodney and John were good at this, though? What if they got stuck training new recruits forever?

Before Rodney could really follow that train of thought, John whisked his empty plate and silverware away from him, set them in the sink, grabbed his jacket, and was out the door. Rodney had to trot to keep up to him. In the elevator, John pressed a button for somewhere below the lobby, and the elevator shot downward.

Rodney stumbled, and John reached out automatically, steadied him.

“That’s - fast.” And almost soundless. Impressive technology.

“Not as fast as the transporters,” John murmured.

Of course Rodney wasn’t the only one who missed Atlantis. He’d heard John, Carson, and Lorne all talk about how they could feel the city. John probably missed Atlantis more than Rodney did.

Rodney assumed they were going to some kind of underground parking structure so John could drive them to the entrance to the park, but when the elevator doors slid open, it was to reveal a room that was stark, sterile white without being painfully bright.

It wasn’t just a room - it was a train platform, where a sleek white train was waiting for them. It seemed to stretch endlessly in either direction. Rodney stepped out, John behind him (in the best tactical spot, where he always stood when Rodney had to take point offworld for a scientific reason), and they weren’t the only ones on the platform.

Men and women, even some families with children, people from every race and nationality - five years on Atlantis had tuned Rodney’s ears to many languages - were streaming from elevators just like John and Rodney, headed for the open train doors.

The train was staffed by quite possibly every supermodel ever in history, male and female, all dressed in perfectly white outfits, all smiling and gracious hosts. They offered food, beverages, magazines, books, and any other entertainment Rodney and John could desire. John asked for a copy of War and Peace. A slender, curvy redhead asked what language and medium he preferred. John asked for a specific translation, hardback, and moments later the woman handed him a book that looked just like the one he’d left in the hotel room.

Rodney wasn’t sure what to ask for, so he settled for a glass of ice water and the latest volume of The American Journal of Physics, both of which were provided to him by a woman who’d stepped out of Memoirs of a Geisha and into a sleek, ultramodern white dress.

The train pulled away from the platform and into a dark tunnel. Rodney had no idea how fast it was going, but like the elevator it was soundless and the ride was smooth.

Rodney wasn’t sure how long he and John sat side by side, reading in silence. He wasn’t sure when he fell asleep, because he was pretty sure he hadn’t been all that tired. He’d just woken up.

But the next thing he knew, he was opening his eyes because the train had stopped.

John stood over him, hand extended. “C’mon. We have vacation time to burn.”

Rodney blinked, accepted John’s hand, let John help him to his feet.

On the platform, two beautiful women were waiting for them. One was dark-skinned, bright-eyed, looked like a Bollywood princess (Rodney had seen his unfair share of Bollywood films, working third shift with Dr. Ahuja).

“John Sheppard?” She smiled at him.

John nodded, a little wary, and Rodney was pleased. Finally, John was learning that beautiful women could be traps. “Yes.”

“Come with me.” The woman turned and walked away.

John started after her, paused. “See you on the other side.”

Rodney started to protest, but then the pretty brunette turned her smile on him. “Rodney McKay?” She had a British accent.

“Yes,” he said.”

“Come with me.” And she turned and walked away.

Rodney admired the sway of her hips for a moment, then shook himself out. He saw other hotel guests being led away by white-uniformed park personnel. One beautiful woman was holding hands with a small boy, who was babbling excitedly at his parents as they followed along. And one man was walking away with two uniformed attendants, a man and a woman, one on each arm.

Rodney turned back to the woman leading him, eyes wide. She stepped onto an escalator, and he scrambled to catch up with her.

“Do you have any medical conditions we need to know about?” she asked.

“I’m allergic to citrus and have sciatica - I need a prescription mattress,” Rodney said, and immediately winced at how whiny that made him sound.

But the beautiful woman nodded, unfazed. “Do you have panic attacks or any other mental health issues we need to know about?”

“I don’t have panic attacks unless I’m in a situation that warrants panicking, like a life-or-death situation,” Rodney said.

The woman arched an eyebrow, amused. “Do you often suffer from social anxiety?”

“Not often,” Rodney protested. “Why do you need to know all this? I thought this park was for - vacations.”

“We don’t want to give you anything you can’t handle,” the woman said.

Before Rodney could ask what that meant - and he was desperately regretting not reading that briefing memo more closely - the woman opened a door and stepped into a room. There were pants, shirts, jackets, shoes all hung up in nooks along the walls. There were fancy leather cowboy chaps on a tailor’s dummy. Fancy revolvers were on display in a museum-style case in the middle of the room.

“All of these are bespoke and tailored to your measurements,” the woman said, gesturing grandly at the clothes.

Rodney blinked. Before he’d joined the Atlantis expedition, he’d never cared much for what he wore so long as it was comfortable and protected him in the lab, was presentable for conferences (and, okay, maybe was sarcastic for when he was by himself). Now he wore uniforms, and there was a certain comfort in not having to think about what to wear every day, so long as it was clean. He was pretty sure a single one of these items cost more than he’d spent on entire outfits in the past. Possibly more than his entire wardrobe on Atlantis.

(No. Don’t think of Atlantis.)

Rodney cleared his throat, peered at the case of revolvers. “Are these real?”

“Real enough,” the woman said. “You can’t kill anyone you’re not supposed to.”

Rodney, who’d reached toward a particularly shiny pearl-handled revolver, snatched his hand back. “Wait, kill? Is this some kind of stylish VR FPS?”

The woman raised her eyebrows but didn’t answer.

“Come on,” Rodney protested. “Isn’t there some kind of - orientation?” He really should have read the memo. Had John read all of it? He probably had. He was better at attention to detail and paperwork than he liked to admit.

“No,” the woman said. “Figuring out how it all works is half the fun. Start in the middle, where it’s simple. As you venture further into the park, things become more - complicated.”

Rodney stared at her. She was so beautiful, and while she seemed amused at his confusion, she wasn’t cruel, like other women he’d dealt with, women who were as beautiful as her and weren’t obligated to work with him.

Only if she was a park employee, surely she was obligated to work with him.

And then he remembered a throwaway line from the briefing memo (okay, not so throwaway) about virtual hosts.

Hosts.

Everyone he’d seen at the park had been perfect, beautiful, skin flawless even behind their makeup, courteous and graceful, endlessly patient.

The woman smiled. “You want to ask, so ask.”

“Are you real?” Rodney asked.

“If you can’t tell, what does it matter?”

Whoa. Flashback to the Replicators.

Rodney blinked. “Um. Okay.” He fumbled for the nearest piece of clothing, a white linen shirt. “So I’ll just pick an outfit and -”

“Do you need help getting changed?”

“I’ve been dressing myself for most of my life now, thanks,” Rodney said.

The woman reached out, unfastened the top button of Rodney’s shirt, her gaze full of heat and intent.

Rodney swallowed hard. “Is that what most people do? Have you help them?”

“What most people do doesn’t matter,” the woman said, and she unfastened the second button. Her fingers brushed his chest; her touch was electrifying. She leaned in closer, unfastened the third button. “Every host in this park is available for your pleasure, including myself.”

She wasn’t real.

Rodney yanked away from her. “I’d better not keep my friend waiting,” he said.

The woman drew back, nodded, still completely unfazed. She turned and walked out of the room, still with that hypnotizing sway.

Rodney picked out an outfit that was simple and light-colored so he wouldn’t be absorbing heat left and right while he was out there. Tan trousers, a white shirt, a light brown vest. Thanks to John he knew how to handle the gun belt. And he was smart about selecting a weapon, picked up each one and tested the weight and grip of it in his hand to see which one was most comfortable (most like the pistol he usually carried offworld).

He felt like a stupid kid playing dress-up in clothes that were obviously cowboy-themed (which made sense, given the location of the park), but once he was fully dressed he headed out the same door through which his lovely host had departed earlier.

She was standing there, waiting. She looked him up and down, smiled approvingly. “Excellent.” She led him down the narrow, bright white hallway. “One final touch.” She gestured expansively. “Pick one.”

At first Rodney was confused, and then he turned. Mounted on the wall on either side of him were two display cases, each full of eight hats - cowboy hats, top hats, bowler hats - though one set was white and one set was black.

He remembered another strange line from the memo, about how under no circumstances was anyone to choose a black hat.

So he chose a conservative white hat, not particularly wide-brimmed, but not as stuffed-shirt as a bowler.

The woman nodded approvingly, settled it on his head with a smile that made his pulse jump. “Excellent choice. Enjoy your time at Westworld, Rodney McKay.”

She ushered him toward the door at the end of the hallway, which was deep dark wood and old-fashioned looking, in stark contrast to the bright white modernness of everything else. Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d been afraid of getting everything around him dirty merely by touching it. Probably not since he was a child, at his maternal grandmother’s house.

He pushed open the door and was greeted by the slightly twangy piano music he associated with western saloons and cowboy movies, stumbled into a bar populated by people in outfits similar to his. The bar was furnished in heavy dark wood, ornate Victorian wallpaper, and leather upholstery, and glorious crystal chandeliers lit the place from overhead.

Rodney dodged around a woman in a wide-skirted dress and managed to stumble his way onto a stool at the bar.

The bartender, a man with an impressive handlebar moustache and honest-to-goodness arm garters, poured him his preferred drink - scotch, two fingers, on the rocks - without being asked. He pushed it across the bar and said, “Citrus free,” and then he turned away without asking for payment.

Rodney wondered if the hosts were wirelessly connected, able to transmit information to each other. Or maybe someone from the SGC had briefed the park employees on his allergy. How was he supposed to tell who was human and who was not? He scooped up the drink and took a large mouthful.

Where was John?

In the crowd of people in old-fashioned clothing, the majority of whom were too beautiful to be real, like a television show, how was Rodney supposed to find him?

And then John was sitting on the barstool beside him, wearing all black, like the Johnny Cash stereotype that he was. His hat was neither black nor white, though. It was dark brown.

“How did you manage that?” Rodney asked.

John accepted a drink from the bartender - just water - and shrugged, smiled enigmatically.

“How do we get into the park?” Rodney asked, and the entire saloon started to shake.

Earthquake? Rodney thought of how his welcoming host talked about things he could handle, and panic attacks, and -

Light burst through the windows on either side of the room, and Rodney saw the mellow green of the Colorado River in the canyon below. They were on a train, and it was picking up speed.

A chorus of wordless wonder rose up, and Rodney wasn’t the only person to press toward one of the windows, gazing out at the landscape as it sped by.

Rodney glanced back at the people who didn’t go to the windows. Were they regular visitors at the park or hosts or what? He saw a few other white hats in the crowd, but mostly he saw black. The women had white or black millinery as well, if not hats then hair accessories made of feathers and pearls and gems and lace.

Not everyone had black or white hats, though. Other people had gray and brown hats, like John.

After a couple of minutes, Rodney drifted over to where John was sitting in one of the booths, slumped against the window. Rodney sat opposite him.

“You didn’t read the memo, did you?” John smirked.

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine, no, I didn’t. Tell me what I need to know.”

“Like the host said, half the fun is figuring it out.” John emptied his drink and went to ask the bartender for another.

Rodney sighed, slumped back against the leather-upholstered bench. “Fine. Be that way.” He continued to sip his drink and stare at the scenery passing by.

These days everything he did was at the speed of light - or faster. Even a jumper flew faster than any conventional aircraft could. Planes and cars felt immeasurably slow by comparison.

Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d really ridden a train. The train to the park had been super-fast, all in tunnels, no scenery, just high-tech speed (high Earth tech, at any rate). There was something calming to the jolt and sway, the way he could watch the scenery drift past.

If John was going to be all reticent and superior, well, Rodney was a genius. He could figure things out on his own. The park was set in the Wild West, late nineteenth century, most likely America. The park was populated with “hosts”, cyborgs who were indistinguishable from other humans. Said cyborgs were self-aware, though, about their role. Said cyborgs could also be killed, judging by what the host-greeter woman had said. Chances were they could kill each other, and park patrons like John and Rodney could kill them, too, with the weapons they’d been issued, but the weapons must have had some kind of control system on them, to prevent patrons from killing each other. If the host-greeter woman’s behavior was any indication, patrons were free to seek sexual gratification with the hosts, too, so they were obviously anatomically correct.

And patrons were divided into three camps - white (likely good), black (likely bad), and neutral (rebels like John, no doubt). Bad obviously could get pretty bad, if park patrons were allowed to kill cyborgs who were basically indistinguishable from real humans (up until the point they died in the park).

Rodney glanced over at the next booth where a man in a black hat was sitting with two women pressed up against him and wondered just what kind of people chose to wear black hats.

John returned with his drink, slid into the booth opposite Rodney. “Relax. This is a vacation. We can just - do whatever we want. Get away from everything.”

“Doesn’t get much further away from everything than another galaxy,” Rodney murmured.

John gazed out the window. “Well, while we’re Earthbound, I’ll take another world, one where I’m just John Sheppard.”

Rodney raised his eyebrows. “Who else do you ever have to be?”

Before John could answer, they were interrupted by two giggling women. Both wore fancy dresses with full skirts, tight bodices with low necklines, and white feathered accessories in their hair.

“Hello, there,” one of them said. She spoke flawless American English but looked kind of like Miko. Chinese? Japanese? Korean?

Her companion also had lovely golden skin and dark eyes, sleek black hair, but her features were different - rounder, softer.

John sat up straighter. “Hello.”

“Can we join you?” the first one said. “It’s so crowded.”

John tipped his hat at them. “Of course. Wouldn’t want to inconvenience a lady.” He sounded like a gentleman cowboy. All he was missing was the Southern drawl, like Colonel Mitchell had (damn him and his lemons).

The first woman sank down beside John, the other beside Rodney, and it occurred to Rodney that park patrons weren’t restricted to hooking up with the hosts - they could hook up with other patrons too, right? If this was a vacation, then Rodney should take John’s advice, enjoy himself. Just because he was pining after John didn’t mean that he had to be pathetic about it, or that he had to be a monk.

So Rodney smiled, sat up straighter, obligingly made room for the second woman to sit beside him. The first woman introduced herself - Gina - and her friend - Leanne - and asked if it was John’s first time in Sweetwater. That must have been the name of the place at the center of the park.

John smiled politely and said he was just passing through.

Something about the way the women kept giggling at John and staring at him was all too reminiscent of starry-eyed Athosian women and how they’d first looked at John right after the Expedition had rescued the Athosians from that first culling.

Rodney resisted the urge to roll his eyes, did his best to be polite. John was surprisingly good at making small talk when the situation demanded it. He asked the women where they were from.

“Far away,” Gina said, for the both of them.

Leanne added, “Technically, we’re newcomers, but we’ve been to Sweetwater before.”

There was something in the way she weighted the word newcomers, something significant that Rodney didn’t quite understand.

John asked if they enjoyed their time in Sweetwater.

“Every time,” Gina said. “It’s our reward from the stress of life in the big city.”

John asked how they planned on spending their time.

“Oh, in various ways,” Gina said. “Some sightseeing, some adventure. Maybe some pleasure.” And she curled her hand around John’s wrist, pressed herself against his arm.

Immediately Rodney realized what was going on. “Hey, no, he’s a real person.”

Gina pressed closer to John. “No he’s not.”

“Yes he is. I mean - just look at him. Talk to him.”

John shifted away from Gina minutely, but she was undeterred, reached out to trace a finger up the side of his neck.

“Ma’am,” John began.

“See?” Rodney said. “If he were a robot, he’d - go along with it. He’s a real person. Just ask him. He’ll tell you he’s a real person.”

“They’ll all tell you they’re real,” Gina said, practically purring in John’s ear.

“Ma’am,” he said again, shifting further away from her.

“I’m telling you, I know him, and he’s real,” Rodney insisted.

Leanne patted Rodney on the arm condescendingly. “Everyone thinks that at first. It’s okay to fall in love with them while you’re here. Just - remember it’s not real.”

Rodney stared at her. “In love -?”

Gina saw something in his expression that made her draw back. “I’m sorry, I thought you were just sharing a booth with him. I didn’t realize this was your - Brokeback Mountain thing.”

Rodney spluttered. “Brokeback Mountain? No -”

John sipped his drink. “What my friend means to say is that we both work for the Air Force, and we’re on leave.”

Gina’s eyes went wide. “Oh! Oh. You - you’re also newcomers.”

It was some kind of park regular lingo for the patrons, then.

“Yes,” Rodney said firmly.

Gina bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t - just - the way you look, and the color of your hat, I thought -”

Rodney sighed gustily. “Yes, he’s very handsome, he’s wearing a neutral-colored hat, it’s an easy mistake to make. Please don’t feed his ego any further.”

“Because it’s a real ego-boost for someone to think I’m less than human,” John said flatly, and Rodney winced at the reminder.

John still had Iratus DNA in him.

Gina stood up, and Leanne did as well.

“We’re so sorry,” Gina said. “Enjoy your stay.” And the two women hurried away.

John sipped his drink some more. “Well, that was awkward.”

Rodney eyed him. “Should you be wearing a neutral-colored hat? My host lady only gave me the choices of black and white.”

“You know me - I don’t like being told what to do.” But John did glance up at the brim of his hat, expression thoughtful. “I know I’m not good with people, but do I really come off as a robot?”

“I refuse to feed your ego and tell you that you’re inhumanly good-looking,” Rodney said. Then he frowned. “Those women talked about you like you wouldn’t know you were a robot. I thought all the robots were self-aware.”

“No, not all of them,” John said.

“Did your first host tell you that?” Rodney asked. Then he thought of how long John had taken to catch up to him, how pretty his host had been.

“You mean that fashion dictator who tried to insist I wear ‘more color’?” John shook his head. “No. I read the memo, got the scoop.”

“So?”

“So the hosts in the park aren’t self-aware. They can’t actually kill patrons, but they can harm some of them. Depends on what the patrons can handle. The hosts are also pretty much indistinguishable from actual humans. They can be programmed with all kinds of personalities and traits and skills. The park wants to beta-test some of its hosts for other cultures - not just Westworld, but for Samurai World or Shogun World and Hellenistic World and whatever. The hosts will be armed with whatever period-appropriate weapons they’d have, intar versions for firearms, and our green recruits will get the chance to work with ‘actual’ native inhabitants of new - places.” John finished his drink, pushed the glass aside. He kept his voice low. “We’re not telling the green recruits that they’re encountering hosts, though. They’re not being brought through the main entrance - can’t be, in their uniforms. They think this place is one big Colonial Williamsburg and the hosts are actors.”

“Oh. That’s - actually not a bad training setup. But you and me, we get to give the park a whirl?”

“Survey the terrain, mostly. And get used to interacting with the hosts.”

“Are we sure these hosts aren’t replicators?”

“One hundred percent earthbound, or so I’m told.”

There was another wordless cry of wonder, and people surged toward the windows. Rodney saw the train curve around a mesa, and there, spread out in the valley, was a small town, just like something out of a spaghetti western, all wooden buildings, dirt streets, and bustling with people and horses.

The train pulled into the station, and Rodney stood, smoothed down his clothes.

“Where to?” he asked John.

John rose, and he and Rodney stepped off the train and onto the platform, scanned their surroundings. Rodney had initially thought a host would greet them or something, but if the hosts thought they were real people, they would continue with their daily lives. John and Rodney were “newcomers” and would have to figure out their own way around.

“First stop: saloon,” John said. He crossed the dusty street toward a corner business called The Mariposa, complete with swinging doors, balconies on the upper floors, and wooden shutters over the windows for privacy.

As they headed down the street, Rodney took in the sounds and smells. It all seemed so real. A rotund, white-bearded sheriff was declaiming to a crowd of onlookers about a bandit named Hector Escaton, had a hand-drawn Wanted poster to nail to a wooden post and everything.

He called out to a man walking ahead of John and Rodney, a man carrying a suitcase. He’d been on the train too.

“You, there. You look willing to make a name for yourself.”

The man tipped his hat respectfully and said, “Thank you kindly, but not this time, Sheriff.”

This time. Was the man a regular Newcomer? He was wearing a brown hat, like John.

There were horses tethered out front of businesses, snorting and stamping. Were the cyborgs programmed to handle horses? Could the horses tell that the cyborgs weren’t real people?

An old man in dusty clothes was napping against a fence, his hat pulled low over his eyes. Two boys crept up on him, one with a scorpion on the end of a stick. The other reached out, eased the man’s hat off his head. The first boy shook the stick, dislodging the scorpion. The old man came awake with a splutter and a roar, and the boys ran, shrieking with laughter.

Were the children real, or were they cyborgs too? Were cyborg children to add to the verisimilitude of the park, or for something darker and more insidious?

Rodney heard piano music before they even reached the door of the saloon. It had that tangy, almost discordant sound that all piano music had in western films, the hammers striking the strings too hard. The pianist was talented, whoever it was. The song was oddly familiar. Perhaps Rodney had heard it in a western movie before.

John held one of the swinging doors open for Rodney instead of swaggering in through both like a stranger looking for a gunfight.

Rodney thanked him, paused, scanned his surroundings. There were wooden tables where men and women sat drinking and gambling. The piano in the corner was actually a player piano with an old paper roll. A staircase led to another floor, the landing of which overlooked the saloon. There were dart boards and a pool table. A dark-skinned man in a velvet smoking jacket that was bald in patches was acting as a dealer for a poker game.

The bar at the far end of the room was staffed by a single surly man with a handlebar moustache and yet more arm garters.

John approached him, asked for a couple of drinks. Rodney’s was again citrus free without him having to ask.

There were scantily-clad women working the room.

That other Newcomer from the train was asking for a drink when one of the women approached. She was pale-skinned, sharp-featured, with chestnut hair and shiny pale blue eyeshadow. She stroked the Newcomer’s cheek, then licked her thumb.

“You’re new. Not much of a rind on you. I’ll give you a discount.”

The Newcomer caught her wrist, pushed her away. “Thanks, but I prefer to earn a woman’s love, not pay for it.”

Another woman - dark-skinned, dressed in red - threw her head back and laughed. “Every woman’s love has a price,” she said, and she had a British accent. “Ours are fixed and posted behind the door.”

But the Newcomer had turned away, accepted his drink from the bartender.

The first woman, undeterred by rejection, started toward Rodney.

Great. Real women hit on John. Fake women hit on Rodney. The woman reached for him, but John caught her wrist.

“He’s not interested,” he said firmly, meeting her gaze.

The woman nodded, and John let her go.

The woman in red edged toward John. “He’s not, but are you?”

“Nope,” John said easily. “Although if you can tell me where my friend and I can get some horses and supplies for some back-country riding, I’d be much obliged.”

The woman in red - the Madam of the establishment, perhaps? - studied John for a long moment. Then she told him about a nearby stables with horses for rent, the general store a couple of doors down that had trail rations, and an outfitters a few doors down from that with bedrolls and other camp supplies.

“Are you sure that’s the kind of riding you want?” the woman asked, one last attempt. “You don’t seem like the dusty kind.”

John drawled, “I’m never afraid to get a little down and dirty, ma’am.” He tipped his hat at her, straightened up, and headed for the doors.

Rodney followed. “We’re going riding? But - aren’t we supposed to mingle with the natives or whatever?”

“We’ve mingled with the natives,” John said. “We’re on vacation. I want to go riding.” He was headed for the stables.

“But why? Do you even know how to ride a horse?”

John arched an eyebrow. “You think any of the horses in here are going to hurt us?”

Rodney looked around, saw that Newcomer talking to a blonde woman in a blue dress. She was standing beside a laden horse. “Wait, the horses aren’t real?”

“Got it in one,” John said.

Rodney gaped at the horse. That level of technology was amazing. “How?”

“You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m not a one-man science team, unlike some people,” John said.

He had such a talent for making a compliment backhanded that it took Rodney a moment to realize it for what it was.

They reached the stables, and John spoke to a man in dusty clothes who was wielding a horse brush. While John spoke to the man, he reached up, pet the man’s horse absently. The horse nosed at his hand, and John didn’t recoil in horror at horse snot, just rubbed the side of the horse’s neck. He didn’t seem to care that the horse wasn’t real either.

John arranged for two horses, one for him, one for Rodney. Of course he asked for a fancy stallion for himself and a gentle old nag for Rodney, one that would follow John’s horse. The man introduced John to the two horses, and John pet them, spoke to them gently, asked their names. He fed each of them a handful of oats, and he looked at ease with the horses. Natural. Of course he knew how to ride. It was probably one of those things rich kids did.

John arranged for horse tack as well and said they’d be back after they picked up supplies. Then it was on to the general store.

“We don’t have any money,” Rodney said in a low voice as they walked away from the stables.

“Don’t need any,” John said. “We’re Newcomers. Everything is paid for as needed, as far as the hosts can tell.”

“So if the natives try to barter with our recruits -?”

“That’ll be different.”

“Oh. Good.”

At the general store, John asked for two days’ worth of trail rations for two people. Rodney didn’t much like the word rations, but he helped John carry the canvas bags full of food that they were given. Over at the outfitters, they picked up bedrolls, blankets, canteens, and a map of some pleasant riding trails where they wouldn’t be much disturbed.

Then it was back to the stables, where the stable manager person (there was a word for that - hostler? Ostler?) was waiting with both horses saddled and ready to go. John showed Rodney how to tie their gear to their horses, helped Rodney fill the saddlebags.

“You need help getting up onto Old Martha?” John asked.

“No,” Rodney said. “I get that I’m not you, but I can figure out the simple mechanical concept of a saddle and stirrups.”

John stood back, hands raised in surrender. “Okay.”

Rodney stuck his foot in the stirrup, paused. How was he supposed to get over the horse? He’d end up backward in the saddle. Right. Other foot. He stuck his other foot in the stirrup, went to lift himself up, but his grasp on the saddle wasn’t very good, and he didn’t quite have what it took to get his leg up and over.

“Saddle horn,” the hostler said, amused.

“Right. I was going to try that next.” Rodney grasped the saddlehorn, heaved, and landed a  bit too hard in the saddle for comfort. “There. Made it. See?”

John swung himself up into his saddle with unfair ease, grasped the reins, and thanked the hostler. Then with the barest click of his tongue, he set off for the far end of town.

Old Martha started moving before Rodney had a chance to click his tongue, plodding along behind John’s large, dark stallion, an admittedly beautiful creature named Jupiter.

Once they reached the edge of town, Jupiter sped up without John even clicking his tongue.

Old Martha didn’t speed up.

Rodney clicked his tongue.

Still no increase in speed.

“John,” Rodney called out, “how do I steer her?”

John glanced over his shoulder, and his horse slowed. The horse wheeled around, and John pulled up beside Rodney.

“It’s pretty simple,” John said. He reached out, showed Rodney where to hold the reins. “Tug left to go left, tug right to go right. Pull back on both to stop. Nudge her with your heels to go.”

“Okay. Thank you. What’s with the whole - ?” Rodney clicked his tongue.

“It just gets their attention,” John said. “I promise not to go too fast, all right? And let me know if you need a break. Don’t want you to get saddle-sore.”

“Saddle-sore?” Rodney asked. “Isn’t the whole point of riding to not get sore from walking?”

“If you ride hard or long or both, you can get sore. It takes leg muscles you don’t realize you have at first to keep yourself stable on the horse.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “How could you possibly think this would be relaxing?”

John sent Jupiter forward on the path again, slower this time, waited for Old Martha to fall into step beside him.

“Because,” John said, “out here, it’s just you and me. John and Rodney.”

“And the horses. And crazy tourists. And robots and -”

“Just you and me.” John pinned Rodney with his gaze for a moment, then spurred his horse on.

Just you and me meant John riding alongside Rodney in complete and utter silence. He was taking in the surroundings, calm and confident on his horse, keeping Jupiter at a sedate pace. They were on a well-traveled trail, so John didn’t need to look at a map. Rodney didn’t really have to do much to control Old Martha, since where Jupiter went, she went too. He studied his surroundings - sure, the world was full of natural grace and beauty, grandeur and wonder - but he couldn’t help but feel there was something he was supposed to say, and he didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know how long they’d been riding - he didn’t tend to wear a watch because he always had some digital device handy to tell him the time - when John pulled Jupiter to a stop, dismounted.

“Here’s a good spot,” he said.

Old Martha stopped as well. “Good spot for what?” Rodney asked.

“To have a break and eat some lunch.”

Rodney blinked, peered past the brim of his hat up at the sky. “Is it lunch time already?”

John nodded. “Yes, even though you haven’t said anything about your blood sugar.”

Hypoglycemic. Right. Rodney had forgotten to tell the interrogatory robot lady that. “Okay. Let me just -”

John used a rope from his pack to tether Jupiter to a nearby tree and circled around Old Martha, offered Rodney a hand. They were teammates. No one was around to see them or judge, so Rodney accepted John’s hand, swung his leg awkwardly over the saddle, and went to slide off the side of his horse, only he underestimated how fast he’d slide and he startled to fall.

John caught him at the waist, held him for a moment.

“Easy, cowboy,” he drawled, and set Rodney on his feet.

“Thanks,” Rodney said. “Um, what do I do with Old Martha?”

“You know basic knots?” John asked.

“I can tie my shoelaces and a tie,” Rodney said.

John led Old Martha over a tree near the one where Jupiter was already tethered, found rope in one of her saddle bags, tethered her to the tree trunk. “Quick release knot. Comes undone with a single yank in a pinch.”

Rodney studied John’s hands, but he was quick, fluid. “Wait, show me that again?”

John unfastened the knot and showed him again, more slowly. Rodney nodded. “Okay. Let me try.”

John stepped aside, and Old Martha held obligingly still while Rodney tried to tie the knot himself. John reached out, grasped Rodney’s wrists gently.

“Here - around the tree trunk. Take this end underneath to make a loop. No - don’t tighten it yet. Fold this end in half, push it through the loop. Then tighten by pulling on this line. There you go. Tug here and we’re free.”

Rodney could feel John’s warmth. His hands were - softer, more gentle than they had been when John was teaching him to fire a gun. Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he and John had been this close. They had to have been in the past, crouched in a hiding place while running from Wraith offworld or something, but - he’d never smelled John. Sure, he’d made fun of John for wearing Aqua Velva one time, because who did that in another galaxy? But John wasn’t wearing cologne this time. He was just - John.

“Got it?” John asked, guiding Rodney’s hands.

If he said yes, John would move away. If he said no, John would be suspicious, because Rodney was a genius.

He swallowed. “Yeah. I think so.”

John let go of Rodney’s wrists but didn’t move away. Rodney managed the knot all on his own, and John squeezed his shoulder.

“There, you got it. Now come on - how about some lunch?” John moved to check his own saddlebags.

“What’s for lunch?”

“Pretty much what’s for breakfast and dinner too - dried meat, hard tack, dried fruit, some bread and cheese.” John added, “All citrus-free, of course.”

“That sounds -”

“Historically accurate, and better than MREs,” John said.

Rodney shrugged. “I actually don’t mind MREs.”

“Most of the armed forces would kill for your tastebuds,” John said. He unrolled a rough woolen blanket that had been tied to the back of his saddle and spread it below another tree. The spot he’d picked to break for lunch was up a hill, off the side of the trail, under a little copse of trees. There was grass for the horses to munch on. John unfastened one of his saddlebags as well, and then he sprawled out on the blanket with familiar insouciance. How a man who disregarded authority and proper posture had made it as far in the Air Force as John had was a mystery.

Rodney knew O’Neill had been a bit of a rebel and a rogue, but he’d also appreciated the chain of command and been through ridiculous amounts of special training and sort of lived for the Air Force. Rodney still wasn’t sure why John was a soldier at all, other than it meant he got to fly. Once Rodney was sure Old Martha was secure - he retied the rope so she could reach the grass to graze - he sat down on the blanket beside John, who offered him a hunk of bread, cheese, some strips of dried meat, and a handful of dried berries.

“These aren’t craisins, are they?” Rodney asked.

John raised his eyebrows. “Are you allergic to cranberries?”

“No, I just don’t like them.”

“They’re blueberries.” John poured some carefully onto Rodney’s cupped palm. “I wasn’t sure if you were allergic to them or didn’t like them. I’ve seen you pick them out of salads before.”

“The whole cranberry craze is ridiculous,” Rodney said. “That whole cran-apple cran-grape cran-blueberry cran-everything in supermarkets is ridiculous. Aside from coffee for breakfast, I prefer plain old apple juice, or milk. Obviously I don’t like the orange juice.”

“That’s all we can get for breakfast on Atlantis,” John said slowly.

“Yes, well, that’s all a person needs.” Rodney bit into his jerky.

John chewed slowly, swallowed. “It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” he asked quietly. “Everything on Earth. The crowds, the noise, the people, the traffic, the five thousand types of juice available at the grocery store.”

Rodney nodded.

“I used to get overwhelmed in a similar way, whenever I came home on leave,” John said.

Rodney looked at him, nibbled on some dried blueberries. “So why did you become a soldier?”

“The technical term is airman.”

“Fine, but - why? You don’t seem like Lorne or Dorsey or any of the other Air Force officers. You don’t seem like Mitchell at all. At first glance you seem like O’Neill, but even he seems to like being in the Air Force.”

John frowned. “Why would I be like them? I’m not them.”

Rodney winced. John seemed offended.

“I know. It’s just - I look at Lorne and I know he’s in the military. From his haircut to the way he stands to the way he moves. And O’Neill is practically the dictionary definition of a Top Gun zoomie or flyboy or whatever you call yourselves.”

John glanced up toward his hairline. “My hair’s just like this. And in Top Gun they were Navy pilots.”

“It’s not about the hair. Just - when I look at you, I don’t see a soldier, not like when I look at them.” Rodney searched John’s gaze. “Not that you’re not intensely badass and always alert and on the lookout for a Wraith around every corner. It’s just -” Rodney shook his head. “I’m saying it all wrong.”

John looked away for a moment, up at the sky. Then he said, “I don’t know.”

“Wait, what?” Rodney blinked.

“I don’t know why I’m an airman,” John said. “Not anymore. When I was eighteen I wanted to fly. Air Force seemed the best way to do it. Couldn’t do it on my own otherwise. But after Mitch and Dex and Dutch I - no thrill is worth them.”

Rodney didn’t recognize those names; he was pretty sure Dex was someone other than Ronon. But he’d heard the rumors, that John had been in Antarctica as a punishment for something he’d done in Afghanistan. He hadn’t disobeyed a direct order, but he’d caused trouble.

Caused trouble trying to save someone, Elizabeth had told Rodney after he’d gotten an earful from Colonel Sumner about John.

“Then why stay? You could retire, right? Caldwell would gladly take your place,” Rodney said. He fumbled for the military terminology he’d heard Lorne and the others bandy about. “You’re an O5. Done your twenty. You’d get a nice pension.”

John fixed Rodney with a look that was both intense and opaque. “I’m not leaving you behind.”

And Rodney was thrown back to that moment, when Jeannie had been kidnapped and Rodney was trying to tell John goodbye, that he was going to sacrifice himself to Todd the Wraith so he could save Jeannie and John had told him no.

“Besides,” John said, “if I retired, Lorne would take over, and he’d kill you in a heartbeat for whining offworld.”

Rodney snorted. “Major Lorne would do no such thing. We have a mutually respectful professional relationship.”

“He has his masters in geophysics and last week you called him a Neanderthal with a rock fetish.”

“I don’t recall that. And - his masters? Since when?”

“Need your masters or its equivalent to make major.” John smirked and bit into his bread.  

Rodney eyed John. “What did you get your masters in?”

“Doesn’t really matter, does it? My job is to shoot things and fly things.” John dusted crumbs off his fingertips, sipped from his canteen.

“It matters to me.”

“Why?”

“Because - because we’re friends and that’s the kind of things friends should know about each other,” Rodney said.

“And yet you never knew that Ronon used to paint, write poetry, and write plays.”

“Ronon doesn’t talk much.”

John conceded that point with a nod.

“Is it - something to do with mathematics?” Rodney asked. He remembered the time John had known - or had he calculated on the spot? - the number of possible gate combinations for a specific problem. And the time John had solved that math puzzle on Dagan because he’d encountered it on a MENSA test.

“What makes you think that?”

“You’re good at math,” Rodney said.

John looked amused. “Don’t let Doc Tsui hear you say that.”

Dr. Tsui was an applied mathematician who was a human calculator and collected abacuses and also had appalling taste in gluten-free brownies.

“Why is your degree a big secret?”

“It’s not. I’m just a little stymied by your sudden curiosity about my education,” John said.  

Rodney sipped from his own canteen to give himself a moment to think. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”

“You have to ask?”

“I don’t have a lot of experience in having friends.”

“Yes, Rodney, we’re friends.”

“So - tell me about your schooling. Did you go to the Academy?”

John shook his head. “Stanford.”

“That’s a good school. Why Stanford and not, say, Harvard?” Rodney had gone to Harvard.

“Because good Sheppard Men go to Harvard, and I never wanted to be one of them.” John polished off the last of his food, a handful of dried berries, and stood up. “Ready to go?”

“But you were telling me about your education.” Rodney swallowed his own dried berries hastily.

“We can talk while we ride,” John said, gathering up the saddlebag.

Rodney scrambled to help him. “All right. So, Stanford?”

“Yes.”

“And you majored in math?”

“Engineering. Minored in math.”

“Engineering? But that’s a useful degree.”

“The Air Force thought so too.”

They had the saddlebags and blanket packed up quickly, untied their horses and were back in the saddle. John continued to ride alongside Rodney, answering questions about his undergraduate years.

He’d joined ROTC as a freshman at Stanford, graduated in four years, lived in the dorms the entire time and subsisted on cafeteria food. He hadn’t joined any fraternities; his studies and his ROTC training took up most of his spare time. His college years were not full of partying and babes, despite what people might think.

“What about you?” John asked. “You built a non-working nuclear device in sixth grade. What was college like for you?”

“Harvard undergrad, MIT for my doctorates.” Rodney gazed up at the blue sky. “I was sixteen when I started at Harvard.”

Most people whistled or made some other comment or approbation.

John said, “That must have been hard.”

“I’ve been through worse.”

“How so?”

Without thinking, Rodney started talking. About high school and middle school and even elementary school. About his parents and grandparents and the constant nuclear winter that was growing up McKay. That Rodney and Jeannie were as stable as they were was a testament to their own resilience.

They rode, paused for water breaks, or just to look out over a particularly lovely view. Rodney had heard plenty of people - usually SGC veterans from before their time on Atlantis - complain that alien planets all looked the same. Like Canada. Vancouver, specifically. One desert planet had looked like New Mexico, but other than that - Canada. Which Rodney thought was silly, but usually he was too busy scanning for useful readings or Ancient-looking edifices to really appreciate the view.

He’d never appreciated different views on Earth, either - the sweeping yellow-green of the desert valleys, the tall red rock formations. If he hadn’t known better, he could have believed he was on Mars or another alien planet. Not everything was red - some of it was yellow, and some sheer rock faces were black, and there was one run of rock that was startlingly blue. But the sky was endless, cloudless, serene, like a pool of water. The air was warm and, but for the occasional chirp of birdsong, quiet.

Peaceful. No wonder John had wanted to come out here. It really was a vacation. They were just - John and Rodney. Rodney kind of wished they had a camera, to capture some of the views, but then he would be focusing on getting a good picture of the view and not the view itself.

John seemed to have some kind of instinctive understanding of the terrain, never seemed to consult the map, but he always knew where there was a brook where they could refill their canteens, or when a nice view would be around the next bend, or when there would be some trees ahead where they could stop and take a break.

When they finally broke to make camp for the night, the rhythm of it was familiar, like making camp offworld, only it was just the two of them, and John left Rodney to tether the horses so he could practice his knots. John laid out bedrolls for both of them - he assumed that Rodney, like he, would want to use the saddle for a pillow - and he started a small campfire, and then he divvied up some more food. They didn’t say much to each other, ate in silence. Rodney refilled the canteens at a nearby stream while John splashed his face and washed his hands. Was he going to brush his teeth? Did people brush their teeth in the late nineteenth century?

But then John took off his hat, settled it on the saddlehorn. He shrugged out of his jacket, laid his pistol beside the saddle in its holster, and then lay on his bedroll, jacket tucked over him for a blanket. He still had his boots on. Just like offworld, only without a tent. The stars overhead were familiar, and Rodney didn’t have to worry about hearing the whine of Wraith darts in the distance.

Rodney sprawled onto his own bedroll, covered himself with his jacket and also a blanket just to be safe. He’d been on more than one desert planet and knew that however hot it could be during the day, it could be terribly cold at night.

The stars overhead were beautiful. Definitely different than the night sky over Lantea and New Lantea. Had Rodney looked at the night skies on those planets to really know what they looked like? Had he looked at the night sky on Earth enough to notice the difference? Then he remembered all those nights he and John had gone for beers on the pier, just the two of them, drinking and talking - about Radek’s histrionics, and Lorne’s downright disturbing organization and preparedness skills, the latest missions, things they missed from Earth, ways to improve life on Atlantis. Rodney must have noticed the alien skies more than he realized. Had life back on Earth really been that much slower, that Rodney recognized Earth’s starry firmament as a different sky? Was the way the sky looked somehow part of Rodney’s genetic makeup, being born on this planet? Or was life slower now, while the IOA was dithering?

Just how long could the IOA dither about what to do with Atlantis?

What would Rodney do if he never got to to back to Pegasus with Atlantis? If no one got to go?

Rodney closed his eyes, swallowed down the sudden burst of panic that closed his throat and burned in his chest. He listened to John’s breathing. John was awake.

“Hey, John?”

“Hm?” He was awake, but sleepy.

“What will you do after...the city?”

“After I retire?”

Because for both of them, there was nothing after Atlantis. It was Atlantis and then retirement or death in battle. What had the SGC done to Rodney and other scientists, like Jackson and Zelenka, that death in battle was an actual option for them?

“Yeah.”

“After the city, I want life to be like this,” John said. “Quiet. Simple. With you.” He yawned. “What about you?”

Rodney had envisioned all kinds of futures for himself post-Atlantis. They usually involved declassification, publication of his backlog of papers, a Nobel prize or two, and fame. Beautiful men. Beautiful women. All who wanted to sleep with him and work with him or both.

He’d never dared to imagine himself and John, tucked away in the quiet of the countryside somewhere, doing things like riding and camping (mostly because Rodney disliked both riding and camping) and stargazing and just - being. With John. Had John meant it the way Rodney thought? Hoped?

“Quiet and simple would be nice,” Rodney said. He added, softer, “With you would be very nice.”

John hummed, drowsy. “Very nice. G’night, Rodney.” He rolled over, and Rodney heard his breathing change.

“Good night, John.” But Rodney didn’t sleep for a long, long time.

*

The next morning, Rodney came awake when the sun rose, because it rose all around him and was irritatingly bright. Sometime in the night he’d rolled off his bedroll and attempted to shove himself half under the saddle he’d been using as a pillow and he was shivering and uncomfortable.

Rodney groaned and sat up, dusted himself off, but he had dirt everywhere. He glanced over at John, who was still asleep, hat tipped low over his face, jacket squarely over his torso. Did the man move at all in his sleep?

Rodney heaved himself to his feet, dusted himself off some more, and then staggered a discreet distance away to relieve himself. His first overnight stay offworld and he’d been pretty displeased at the notion of having to relieve himself outdoors where someone might see, but he’d gotten over his prudishness on that score pretty quickly. When Rodney got back to their little campsite, he used some water from his canteen to wash his hands, splash his face. John slept through it all. Was he going to sleep all day?

“Hey, John. Aren’t you supposed to be super alert or something? Combat-ready?” Rodney nudged John’s ankle with his toe.

John stirred, set his hat aside. He yawned and stretched, sat up. Rodney realized he’d rarely had the chance to watch John wake up. Usually John was up first.

“I knew it was just you,” John said. “No need to panic with just you. You’re safe.” He yawned again, covering his mouth delicately with one hand.

“Oh. Well, yes, I am. But what if there were - I don’t know, Natives or bandits or something?”

“Then we’d fight them off.” John rose to his feet, went to check on Jupiter, who nuzzled him affectionately. “I guarantee they’d be easier to deal with than anything we face for work.”

“Touché.” Rodney watched John shake himself out, roll his neck and shoulders. “So, what’s the plan for today?”

“We should start heading back toward Sweetwater, but no rush.” John patted Jupiter, then returned to the camp to poke through the saddlebags. He divvied up some more trail rations for breakfast, and together they packed up the gear, geared up the horses, and set out.

Best as Rodney could tell, they weren’t headed back the same way they’d come. He twisted around in his saddle. “Isn’t Sweetwater that way?”

“Sweetwater’s in the middle,” John said. “We’re just going in a big, wide circle.”

“How do you know that? You never look at the map the horse guy gave us.”

John arched an eyebrow. “You noticed how often I look at the map?”

“Usually I have the LSD, which can lead us back to the gate. Since you’re in charge of the orienteering, I’m doing my best to be observant.” Rodney knew he sounded too indignant, like he was overreacting, but it was better to reinforce what John already thought of him than to let John suspect that Rodney liked to watch his hands.

“I was given a map of the entire park as part of my briefing materials,” John said.

“I wasn’t.”

“Are you sure? You hardly read the memo.”

Rodney made a face. “Okay, fine.”

“I wanted to see how the terrain matched up with the intel the SGC gave me versus the info Delos gave me.”

“And?”

“And everyone’s got an agenda in politics,” John said, “but I can get us where we need to be.”

“You mean they lied to you,” Rodney said slowly. “Does that mean you actually don’t know where we are?”

“It means the SGC was given a terrain map but not a map of the park’s technological features, the hosts are given historically accurate but also deliberately incomplete maps, and Delos no doubt has every inch of this place mapped, calculated, and under surveillance,” John said. He gazed up at the sky. “Pretty sunrise.”

Rodney refused to be distracted by the scenery. Although the skies over New Lantea tended to be more lavender than pink early in the morning. “Under surveillance? Should we be talking about -”

“Our classified work? I was told not to worry, that the people here are fine at keeping secrets.”

Rodney slanted him a look. “Since when are you so trusting?”

John’s smirk in reply was both comforting and disconcerting. “What makes you think I’m being trusting?”

So all that talk about wanting to be alone, just the two of them, that was a cover. Rodney’s heart sank. John had chosen to go riding to do recon. No matter what, he was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, military commander of the Atlantis Expedition, leader of AR-1. The mission came first.

“Fair enough,” Rodney said. “As long as you know where we are, I can live with that.”

“Good. So eat up, and let’s move out.”

“I thought you said there was no rush,” Rodney protested, but he gobbled down a handful of dried blueberries.

“Not to get back to Sweetwater. But there is one place I want to be before it gets too hot.” John moved to pack up both of them while Rodney ate.

Rodney had the unhappy notion that in this western fantasy scenario, John was the dashing cowboy with the genteel manners and Rodney was the damsel in distress. No, not even the damsel in distress - Rodney was the dour city-dweller schoolmarm who threw herself at the cowboy and embarrassed herself and lost out against the damsel in distress.

Of course, it was just Rodney and John, so there was no damsel in distress.

Except there was, wasn’t there? Atlantis. She reigned supreme in John’s heart. If Rodney had had an inferiority complex in the face of all the strong, beautiful, powerful women who’d been after John Sheppard’s heart and body, he couldn’t hold even a match-flame to the wonder that was Atlantis.

By the time Rodney was done eating, his only real contribution to packing up was saddling Old Martha, and then they were on the trail.

“You went camping as a kid, didn’t you?” John asked. “You were a - Canadian Scout. An Eager Beaver, right?”

“Why do you remember that?” Rodney slanted John a sidelong look.

John was keeping Jupiter at a sedate pace, and Old Martha was plodding along beside him.

“It wasn’t something I expected of you. It - stuck out. And also I was glad the gate translation system doesn’t do idioms. Because, you know, beaver jokes. Ronon would have made endless ones, and Teyla probably would have been offended.” John smirked briefly.

Rodney rolled his eyes. “You’ve spent too much time around Marines.”

“You have no idea.”

Rodney eyed him some more. “You never made any beaver jokes.”

“I knew you had a thing for Keller. Didn’t want to ruin it.”

“Oh. That was decent of you.”

“As mentioned previously, we are friends,” John said. “Have been. For a long time.”

“Since when, exactly?” Not that Rodney thought they needed an anniversary or something.

“I dunno. Probably since you threw yourself into a living shadow to save all of Atlantis.” John glanced at him again. “Maybe before then. Why, when do you think we became friends?”

“I don’t know,” Rodney admitted. “I’d have to think about it.”

John said nothing, and Rodney realized John was giving him to think about it. So think about it he did. Was there any one moment when he looked at John and realized they were friends? He couldn’t think of one. There were just a thousand little moments, when the two of them looked at each other or spoke to each other or walked beside each other, and during one of those moments Rodney realized that he could ask John for help, and that John would protect him - and that he would do everything in his power to protect John.

“I don’t think there was just one moment,” Rodney said finally. “We’re friends, and that’s all that matters.”

John nodded, accepted Rodney’s explanation. Was he disappointed? Had he expected something more?

But then John’s face lit up with one of those boyish smiles, eager and pleased, and he clicked his tongue, spurred Jupiter on.

“There it is.”

“There what is?” Rodney asked. Old Martha lurched beneath him, trotting to keep up with Jupiter. They crested a small hill and descended into a valley - which was filled with a glittering blue lake.

They paused on the hill, looked down at the lake. In a western movie, this would be a picturesque moment, maybe with the camera panning across the landscape: red mountains, yellow-green plains, clear blue sky, sparkling water. There was even a convenient little stand of trees to tether the horses and get some shade. John nudged Jupiter forward and toward the water, and Old Martha followed.

“What are we doing?” Rodney asked. “Fishing?”

John smiled at him. “Swimming.”

“What? But - we don’t have sunblock. Or swimsuits.”

John made for the stand of trees. “We’re the only ones here, Rodney. It’s okay if we swim naked.”

“You mean skinny dip.” Rodney had never indulged in the practice in high school or college when his peers wanted to go pool hopping.

“We’re not teenagers,” John drawled. “For a Canadian you are surprisingly prudish. Where’s all your open-mindedness about the human body?”

“For an American -”

“Who’s in the armed forces.”

“Okay, fine,” Rodney said. “Yes, being a soldier means you’re more crude than most people and it’s fine if you have no moral compunctions about swimming in the nude.” Old Martha continued to doggedly follow Jupiter.

John dismounted from Jupiter and tethered him to a tree, then approached Rodney and Old Martha, but Rodney was a competent enough horseman, thank you very much, could dismount on his own. He wasn’t sure what he’d do with John’s hands on his waist like that again. He certainly didn’t want one of those stupid rom-com moments, where he stumbled and fell against John and they gazed into each other’s eyes and -

John was taking off his clothes.

So intent upon dismounting from his horse had been Rodney that he’d not noticed when John doffed his hat, set it on Jupiter’s saddlehorn, then shrugged out of his jacket.

Being on a military base and sharing a communal locker room so as not to track off-world nastiness back to their quarters meant Rodney had seen John in pretty much every state of undress before. There had been times when it was just the two of them, too. In the locker rooms on Atlantis, though, Rodney had never dared to look. Here he dared - and John didn’t seem to care.

He unfastened his gun belt, fastened it to the saddlebag, and then he was shrugging out of his waistcoat. John was totally unselfconscious as he peeled himself out of his shirt. In fact, he was folding everything neatly, with that military precision Rodney had initially thought was John’s personal fastidious but that he’d then seen in Lorne and a bunch of other Air Force officers, making sure everything was perfectly one foot square. With standard sized uniforms that seemed easy enough, but John had performed some kind of intense engineering feat, making these new clothes all one-foot square so he could set them in a perfectly-balanced pile atop Jupiter’s saddle where they would be safe from the dirt and the dust.

Rodney was no artist, but he was a scientist and, by nature, observant.

John Sheppard was beautiful.

In an objective sense, because Rodney had seen how other people, men and women alike, looked at him, and it certainly wasn’t the way they looked at Rodney.

John was all warm golden skin, from the tips of his ears down to his toes. His neck was graceful without being too thin. His shoulders were lean, strong, and the ripple of muscles across his upper back was fascinating. His waist tapered down to narrow hips, and while his buttocks were also lean, his ass was -

Rodney had never understood when men described wanting to sink their teeth into a pert ass, but he understood it now.

John’s legs were long and lean, sleekly muscled. He was perfectly uncaring of his nudity, making sure his boots were in a safe spot, his socks tucked into them so he’d remember which socks had been on which foot.

Then he glanced at Rodney. “You coming in or not?” John turned to fully face Rodney, so Rodney could see the planes of his chest, the dark hair there, and the dark hair at his groin, and his -

Rodney wrenched his gaze upward, fumbling at his hat. “Yes, fine, if you want to subject me to sunburn -”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” John said. “Stay here and stay cool. But I’m going in.” And he walked down to the water, heedless of his bare feet on the rocks and thorns and hot sand.

As if Rodney didn’t want to spend time in the water with John, naked and gloriously wet, rising from the blue waves with water droplets sluicing down his skin and making him sparkle and -

Damn Dr. Higgins and her trashy vampire romance novels. Men sparkling was not attractive. At all.

Rodney undressed, jammed his clothes into Old Martha’s saddlebags as best as he could, and tip-toed down to the water. He paused at the edge. John was nowhere to be seen. Was he underwater? Had he swum too far out for Rodney to see? Rodney hadn’t taken that long to take off his clothes, had he?

Something cold and wet hit him in the middle of his back. He yelped, toppled forward, flailed for a moment, hit the water.

Came up spluttering to the sight of John standing on the shore, hands on hips, grinning.

Rodney was too busy coughing up lake water to enjoy the sight of John naked and gleaming wet, because the bastard had just pushed him into the lake.

“John! What the hell was that for? I could have drowned -”

“No, Rodney. You wouldn’t have. You’re a good swimmer. You’re fine,” John said.

Rodney was treading water quite steadily. And the lake was deep here, no sign of rocks. “Swimming was covered in my high school PE curriculum, yes,” he finally said, fully aware of how sulky he sounded.

John waded into the water, paddled toward him. “Relax. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.”

“You just shoved me into a lake.”

“I didn’t hurt you. I knew you wouldn’t be hurt.”

“How could you know that? The chances of -”

“You’re tough, Rodney. And strong. Tougher and stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

Rodney was pretty sure that was a compliment, but he couldn’t help but feel insulted. “John -”

“Come on, swim with me.” And John sliced past him, limbs moving in perfect synchronization. He headed into deeper water. Rodney couldn’t help but follow.

Predictably, John engaged in the kind of roughhousing Rodney had always associated with other boys growing up, diving under the water and trying to yank him under by his ankles, tussling with him, wrestling with him. John also laced his fingers together and offered to give Rodney a boost up if he wanted to try a backflip. Rodney declined. But he let John flip off of him.

When other boys in PE class or at the city pool had tried to goad Rodney into their games, he’d always known it was to make a mockery of him or try to hurt him. John didn’t hold back with his roughhousing, but Rodney knew it to be something else - a kind of trust. John trusted that Rodney was strong enough, fast enough, skilled in the water to hold his own.

And he was.

More than once he caught John by surprise, grabbing him by the ankles and flipping him upside down in the water, or clutching his shoulders and dragging him down. John was rough with him, aggressive, but never cruel or vindictive - and he never, ever hurt Rodney.

Rodney was so caught up in the thrill of it - maybe he finally understood why Ronon loved sparring - that he didn’t really register that he and John were naked and pressed against each other, writhing and straining in each other’s arms, limbs tangling, until John, caught in Rodney’s headlock, went still, crying,

“Uncle, uncle!”

And Rodney was supposed to let him go, but he hesitated a beat too long.

John straightened up, shook himself out, water spraying from his hair like from a wet dog, and he was grinning at Rodney, completely unconcerned, but Rodney’s heart was pounding. John had had his arms around Rodney’s waist as he tried to wriggle free, warm and intimate. But for John everything had just been play. For Rodney it had been, too. Only now he glanced up at the sky and saw how high the sun was.

“We’d better get our clothes back on, before we burn,” he said.

John nodded, and he swam for shore with swift, confident strokes. Rodney saw him climb out of the water, and he turned away, counted to fifty. Then he swam into shore, carefully not looking at where the horses were tethered, and climbed out of the water.

Only John wasn’t trying to wriggle back into his clothes, struggling with how fabric dragged on wet skin. No, John had spread out his bedroll and was sprawled on it, still fully nude. He was eating a handful of dried blueberries. His hair was drying in wild tufts. When Rodney crept close, John offered up some berries.

Rodney stared down at him for a long moment, then accepted some berries, sat down beside him, carefully not touching him. For a while they said little besides passing each other food and other morsels. John shamelessly used his own shirt to dry his hair as best as he could, and then he hung it from a tree branch to dry in the warm noonday sun.

After all the roughhousing in the water, Rodney was pretty comfortable with his nakedness and John and being naked next to him and it just being a thing.

But he had to ask.

“So, what was all that? You and me and water wrestling.”

John shrugged, nibbled on a piece of cheese. “It just was.”

“Was it some kind of soldier thing?”

“Never done that with Ronon or Lorne or anyone else.”

Rodney’s heart sped up, but he pushed down his stupid schoolgirl hope with ruthless willpower, the willpower that had pushed him further beyond any of his peers in academia, or even in the universe. “Is it - am I part of the club, then? Like Daniel Jackson?”

For all that Rodney liked to scoff at Daniel Jackson and his three PhDs in subjects that were certainly not sciences, let alone useful, he had to admit, if only to himself, a certain envy and admiration in Jackson’s martial skill. The way he handled his weapons, had Rodney not known who he was, he could have been any other soldier. Daniel had stepped beyond his academia and his intellectual curiosity in a way Rodney never had.

After today, he might have figured out how, how to live in this body of his, the one that was a nuisance and a resource drain at best and an enemy at the worst, out in the field, when his mind knew what he needed to do to survive and his body refused to obey.

“No,” John said, slowly and patiently. “It’s about being us, just John and Rodney. Not military commander and chief scientist of Atlantis, not John Sheppard and Rodney McKay, just John and Rodney. In a world of our own making. Where we can do what we want and wear what we want -“

“Or not,” Rodney interjected, a little frightened by the intensity in John’s gaze.

John looked down at himself and chuckled. “Or not.”

This wasn’t a world of their own making, though. It belonged to some high-dollar corporation looking to score government contracts, and John and Rodney were bound by its rules. White hats, black hats, neutral hats. Hosts and humans. The illusion of pleasure and freedom.

Rodney said, “Where are your dog tags?”

This was the first time he’d noticed. John’s neck was bare.

John reached up, pressed a hand to his breastbone absently. “I took them off.”

“You never take them off.”

John extended his left arm, showed off the pale skin at his wrist. “House rules. Nothing modern in the park. Sure, if a host saw it, they’d just - not comprehend it. But the illusion must be maintained.”

Rodney had the strangest sinking sensation. John never took off his dog tags. They were the equivalent of a wedding ring to him. Why would he have obeyed such a petty rule when his tags would have been easily concealed under all these old-fashioned clothes?

Rodney burst out with, “You’re not real, are you?”

John raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“You’re a host. When they separated us - they took you - cloned you -” Rodney scrambled away from him.

John rolled his eyes. “Dammit, Rodney, no. I’m me. It’s me.”

“They could have programmed you to say that.” It was the only explanation, for how strangely open and affectionate John had been, how he was making Rodney feel.

“And that’s the sign that it’s time for us to go back and get back to work.” John rose, went over to Jupiter, started pulling on his clothes. “Reality’s calling. Come on. We’d better get back to Sweetwater. Our furlough’s almost done.”

Rodney watched him dress, heart pounding. Was he wrong? “John, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean -”

“It’s not the first time someone has thought I’m a robot, now, is it?” John glanced over his shoulder at Rodney, expression unreadable.

Rodney scrambled back into his clothes, helped John pack up the bedroll. John untethered Jupiter with a swift tug of the rope, stowed the rope, and then hoisted himself into the saddle in a single motion. He clicked his tongue, and Jupiter set off. Rodney managed to get into Old Martha’s saddle just before she took off after the stallion.

“I’m sorry,” Rodney said again, and given how infrequently he apologized, surely John understood.

“I know,” John said. “It’s not a big deal. So when we get back into town, we should mingle with the locals a bit more, make sure we’re not being weird about them, not giving off any vibes that’ll alert the greenies that anything’s less than normal.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. “Nothing about our jobs is normal.”

“Just make sure you can pretend you believe the hosts are human,” John said.

Rodney glanced at him sidelong, at his handsome profile, at the easy way he held the reins, at his dark but not-black hat, and said, “I can do that.” He still wasn’t sure John wasn’t a host, because everything for the past few days had been so out of character.

John cooking. John talking to him. John sharing things. And sure, Rodney had shared back in response, because that was how adults had relationships, they were give-and-take. John just wasn’t usually so giving. He’d fling himself into the clutches of an alien supervillain or dive headlong into certain doom for Rodney, but telling Rodney about his childhood?

Rodney remembered that first host’s comment, about how in the park they would never face something they couldn’t handle. How far would John go before Rodney couldn’t handle it? If John had kissed him in the water, would that have broken Rodney? How would anyone from this corporation had known how Rodney felt about John? He’d never dared breathe a word of it to anyone, never written it down or spoken it aloud even to himself.

When Jupiter followed a last curve around a bluff and onto a downward path, Rodney saw the river they’d crossed on that first day out of Sweetwater, and he realized they were almost back to the town. He also realized that, for several hours, John had been utterly silent. It wasn’t uncommon for Rodney to get lost in his thoughts, because his mind was the wellspring of his genius, and sometimes he just needed to cut it off from his body, from the outside world.

As silly as Ascension seemed on the surface, like people being good and their spirits going to heaven, Rodney appreciated the concept. The Ancients had distilled the essence of humanity into energy and thought. Bodies were tethers, resource drains, distractions. The Ancient pursuit of Ascension was perfectly logical.

Not that Rodney had never appreciated someone else’s body, denied that there were bodily pleasures to be had that probably couldn’t be had with Ascension. In the past, he’d always sneered at puritan notions of heaven, all hanging around being holy and having no fun.

Was Ascension any better? The Ascended never did anything useful with their knowledge.

If Chaya was any evidence, though, the Ancients could take human form at will, so they could still have physical fun, right? Physical pleasure was no barrier to Ascension, best as Rodney could tell. He’d been able to read between the lines about John’s time in the time dilation bubble. John had definitely had sex with his supposed meditation instructor, and she’d still managed to Ascend.

Rodney was jolted out of his whirling thoughts - okay, maybe he wasn’t so intellectually detached as he liked to imagine, having spent the morning naked and wet with John and very out of sorts for it - by John asking if he needed a hand down.

Because they were back at the stables. They had to return their horses. And their camping gear. Not that they’d rented the camping gear.

Rodney was still fuzzy on how money worked in this place. He accepted John’s hand and hopped off of Old Martha, surrendered her reins to the hostler. While John discussed fees and trading in the camping gear, Rodney said his farewells to Old Martha, who really had been a reasonable and cooperative steed.

The sun was going down, throwing an array of twilight colors across the horizon, deep pinks and purples, dark blues, a final blaze of red and yellow and orange. The streets of Sweetwater were still plenty busy, crowded with people talking and laughing, drinking and dancing.

John finished his business with the hostler, tipped his hat, and then he nodded to Rodney. “Let’s go.”

“Where?” But Rodney followed him anyway.

They went back to The Mariposa, where they’d first started.

Rodney swallowed hard, remembered their reception there the last time, hookers hitting on him and ignoring John. What was John planning now?

What John was planning was straight out of a bad western movie. He swept through the double swinging doors of The Mariposa like a western movie villain. Rodney followed on his heels, came up short when everyone in the saloon looked over at them. Was it Rodney’s imagination, or did the player piano actually stop for a moment?

But then John swaggered over to the bar, ordered three shots - one for him, one for Rodney (again, citrus free), and one for the loveliest woman in the room.

This late at night, almost everyone was wearing dark or black millinery. Rodney was mildly alarmed when the bartender gave the third shot John had ordered to the house Madam, who was still wearing a black-and-red striped dress. She raised the shot glass in salute to John, who tipped his hat at her, and she knocked back the shot like a pro.

Wait. She was a robot. Could she eat or drink? What happened to the food the robots consumed? Or were they like the organic Asurans, basically indistinguishable from humans but for the fact that they were programmable and they had been manufactured in some kind of lab instead of born and raised?

Rodney was dragged out of his whirling thoughts by John’s hand on his arm as he led Rodney over to a table.

“Gentlemen,” John drawled, a vague southern twang in his voice Rodney had never heard before that didn’t quite sound feigned, “got room for a couple dusty travelers on their last night in town?”

The dealer was another Newcomer from the looks of it, an older gentleman dressed in a black suit. He had gray whiskers and piercing blue eyes. One of the other players was also wearing a black hat, had dark skin and bright amber eyes and was chewing on a toothpick. The third player wore a brown hat, had sun-browned skin and green eyes.

The dealer eyed Rodney’s white hat with no small amount of disdain. “You boys think you can keep up?”

Rodney was pretty sure he and John were both older than the man chewing on a toothpick, but John just smirked, the smirk that had driven Elizabeth insane when John was joining forces with Rodney for a brave and cutting-edge (and maybe also a little insane) mission proposal.

“Pretty sure we can,” John said.

Toothpick Chewer said, “I’m always glad to part people from their money.”

The Dealer gestured expansively, and John held Rodney’s chair out for him before he grabbed a chair of his own from a nearby table.

Rodney understood the rules for poker and had honestly never seen the point in playing a game that purported to be based on bluffing but was actually based on memory and probability skills. Where this game was mimicking the style of the Old West, there was only one deck of cards. Keeping track of who played what and when would be ridiculously easy.

John had an impeccable poker face. It was his soldier face, the expression he wore when he was both focused on the mission and disengaged from outside sensory input so he could assess his current situation. He accepted his cards, arranged them carefully in his hand. Was he any good at playing poker? They both had cash on them, a lot of cash since they’d started with a lot and hadn’t spent it on, well, anything. Not drinks or horses or camping gear. They could ante up and call and raise pretty much how they liked.

John bought a stack of chips with all his cash, and ordered dinner for him and Rodney while he was at it. The bar girl who took his order very nearly spilled out of her top when she leaned over to hear him above the din. Both Toothpick Chewer and Brown Hat blatantly enjoyed the view, but John barely looked at her. The Dealer barely glanced at her either and laughed when he saw Rodney avert his gaze.

“This is your first time, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Rodney said, defensive.

“Had fun, with that white hat of yours?”

Rodney nodded.

The Dealer cast John a speculative look that made Rodney remember - he wasn’t sure if the John who was with him was real.

But when the food arrived, John handled his knife and fork the way he always had in the mess hall. He avoided the things he didn’t like - lima beans - and heaped sauce on his steak. Rodney barely touched his food, doing his best to focus on the game.

Brown Hat and Toothpick constantly eyed each other and The Dealer, trying to psych each other out, bluffing and calling and folding with seemingly no logic at all. Rodney shamelessly counted cards and hedged his bets based on the probabilities that he calculated. The best player, however, was John. Rodney had joked with Jackson about how John had almost been in MENSA, but perhaps he’d underestimated John’s math skills, because John bet smart every single time, and as the evening wore on, his pile of chips grew slowly and steadily.

John was generous with his winnings, would flip a chip at a bar girl and order a round of drinks for everyone at the table, or a shot for the second-finest woman in the room, or sometimes even the entire room. Toothpick looked more and more disgruntled as the game wore on, but it was Brown Hat who backed out first. The Dealer was just as unreadable as John, calmly amused by everyone and everything, impressed by nothing, not even the nubile women who pressed their attention - and bodies - on him.

This was how Rodney had always John imagined was in his down time, before he’d really gotten to know him - the life of the party, surrounded by beautiful people, wealthy and popular, the guy who’d been the star quarterback and class president and prom king all in one. Now he knew better, that John didn’t like being the center of attention, disliked authority, and was the kind of person who achieved enough to be liked but underachieved enough not to get noticed.

But he was getting noticed by The Dealer with his card skills.

“You know, son,” The Dealer drawled, “no one likes a smartass.”

“Not your son,” John said easily, and Rodney sat up straighter, wary of his tone. He knew that tone. It was his sassing the villains tone. “My mama told me ladies like a smart man. Also plenty of ladies like my ass.”

The Dealer straightened up as well, one hand going for the gun at his hip.

Rodney laid all his cards on the table. “Royal flush.”

The Dealer paused. Brown Hat and Toothpick stared at him.

The Dealer laughed. “Well, I’ll be damned. You two are quite a pair, aren’t you?”

John’s smile was understated and also very dangerous. “I help my teammates when I can.”

The Dealer fired at him.

Rodney didn’t even see him draw his pistol. One moment he was gazing, unimpressed, at John, the next he was shooting.

Rodney yelped and dove under the table. He crashed into Brown Hat, who’d had the same idea.

Toothpick, John, and The Dealer were all on their feet.

“What the -?” The Dealer sounded puzzled.

John laughed. “Sorry. Not a host. Can’t kill me with that peashooter.”

Rodney forced himself to take several deep breaths. He wasn’t the only one who’d hit the deck - plenty of other people were cowering under their tables. Now he understood what that first host had meant, when she said they couldn’t kill anyone they weren’t supposed to. Rodney dared to peek over the edge of the table. John hadn’t even drawn his pistol.

Toothpick had drawn his pistol as well, but he was looking back and forth between John and The Dealer, confused.

Rodney stood up. “What the hell were you thinking, shooting at him like that?”

“I was thinking he pissed me off and I’d like to kill him,” The Dealer said.

Rodney stared at him. “You’re a sociopath.”

The Dealer huffed, shook his head. “You still don’t get it. They’re not real.” And he aimed his gun at the table, fired.

Brown Hat thumped to the floor amid screams.

Rodney’s scream caught in his throat, and he stepped back, horrified as blood spread across the floor toward him.

“Yeah, well, we’re both real, and however tough you may be when no one can hurt you,” John said, “I promise you won’t be nearly as tough when things get real.”

The Dealer threw his head back and laughed. All around him, people were scattering for the exits, up the stairs or out the double swinging doors. “Both of you are so pathetically new. None of this is real.” He shot the Madam in the back as she tried to herd her frightened girls to the stairs.

She toppled over.

Rodney had seen dead people before. She looked just like a dead person.

“If none of this is real,” John said, “then you are the world’s sorest loser. We’re not playing for real money. Although the way you shoot defenseless people says something about how real and fragile your ego is.”

“Dammit, John,” Rodney hissed. “Let’s just go.”

John nodded. “Let’s.” He spun on his heel and walked away. Rodney hurried after him. They strode through the swinging doors and out onto the dark street.

Rodney caught up to John, caught his arm, pulled him around to a stop. “Is that what it’s going to be like? In training? Where we can’t die?”

“They won’t be able to kill us,” John said. “But they can hurt us.”

Rodney was still breathing fast, could feel his blood pressure climbing. “Is everyone who comes here like that? Everyone who wears a black hat?”

“For some people, killing isn’t their thing,” John said.

Rodney had had a lot of experience with alien tech to know that there definitely were fates worse than death. Finally he let go of John’s arm, and John headed for the train platform in the very center of the town.

They stood there for a while in silence, John leaning against one of the wooden posts like some kind of cowboy silhouette yard ornament, Rodney fidgeting with his pocket watch.

Finally he said, “They looked so real. The people. The dead people.”

“As far as they know, they are real people,” John said. “And as far as our greenies tomorrow know, they’re real.”

“I promise I think you’re a real person,” Rodney blurted out.

John chuckled mirthlessly. “I know, Rodney. It’s fine. I already told you.”

They lapsed into silence once more.

After who knew how long, as the town grew quieter and quieter, as more and more windows and buildings went dark, Rodney heard the click-clack-rattle of a train on the tracks.

He said, “You know, I almost think that dealer would have tried to kill you even if he knew you were real.”

“I’m sure he’s been the death of real people many times before,” John said softly. “Probably not with his own hands. It takes a certain kind of person, to be able to cross that final line.”

“You’re not a monster like he was,” Rodney said quickly.

“No. I’m just a different kind of monster.” John straightened up, stepped toward the edge of the platform as the train pulled into the station.

Rodney caught his arm. “No. No. You’re not a monster.”

John glanced at him, his expression unreadable in the shadow of the brim of his hat. “I’m supposed to be, Rodney. A necessary monster. So people like you don’t have to be.”

“John -”

“Like the old drunk said: never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” John tugged out of his grasp and scrambled nimbly up the steps into the train car.

Rodney followed, helpless. By the time he made it into the car, John was nowhere to be seen. Rodney rode back to the hotel in silence, unable to sleep, ignoring everyone around him. When he finally made it back to the room he shared with John - after a host, different from the one who’d greeted him, showed him to a dressing room that might or might not have been the same dressing room from yesterday so he could change back into his own clothes - John was already fast asleep in his own bed.

Rodney stared at him for a long, long time. Then he undressed, crawled between the luxurious sheets, and willed himself to sleep.

*

Rodney came awake to the sound of movement. He opened his eyes but didn’t move, kept himself still, wary, confused.

He was on a soft bed, indoors.

The hotel at the Delos robot resort.

John was awake on the other side of the room, getting dressed.

Rodney had seen John dress and undress more times than he could count. Usually when he was getting dressed in the morning for a mission he was laying out the day’s plans, mission objectives, time marks they needed to hit to make sure they stayed on task and made the appropriate check-ins with Atlantis.

When John had undressed at the lakeside yesterday, he’d been matter-of-fact about it, though neat and methodical. When he’d dressed after, it had been quick, efficient, but the same was getting dressed for a mission, a sort of afterthought to the plans he was making or reviewing in his own head or aloud for the rest of the team.

There was something different about the way he was getting dressed today. It was - slow, deliberate. Almost ritualistic. John stepped into his black uniform trousers, then pulled on his undershirt. Then his black uniform shirt. He buttoned it, seemed focused on every single button. He smoothed his shirt down with broad sweeps of his hands, each gesture even and measured. When he fastened the button fly of his trousers, it was neither intimate nor sensual; it was just as focused and deliberate as everything else.

John sat down, pulled on his socks and boots - always left first - and then fastened the laces on his boots, tightening them with a deliberate yank up every level of grommets. He stood up, strapped on his thigh holster, checked his weapon, holstered it. Then he laid out his tac vest and checked the contents of the pockets, replaced some things, rearranged some things. After that, he sharpened his blade, checked his P90. He fastened his watch on his left wrist.

The final thing he did was reach into the nightstand for his dog tags, which he slipped over his head and then tucked beneath his collar and out of sight.

And then he shook Rodney’s ankle. “Wake up. We’ve got work to do.”

Rodney opened his eyes fully, made a show of yawning and stretching.

“We’ve got half an hour to get down there and meet the greenies,” John said.

Rodney nodded, yawned again. He rolled out of his bed and padded across the room to his suitcase - John traveled out of his duffel bag - and fetched a clean uniform and underwear, then headed for the bathroom to clean up.

When he stepped out of the bathroom, showered and shaved and no longer feeling fuzzy around the gums from two days of not brushing his teeth, his stomach was rumbling, but there was no delicious homemade breakfast.

“Here.” John tossed him a couple of power bars. He had his tac vest on and looked ready to wade right into the heart of a battle.

Rodney managed to catch them without dropping them. “Thanks,” he said faintly. He finished dressing, found his tac vest and his boots. When he poked in the pockets, they were loaded just how he liked. John was fairly vibrating with tension, standing in the doorway like he was on alert for an ambush. Whoever he’d been over the last couple of days, whatever mood he’d been in, he was back in the zone, was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard for all the world to see.

Rodney studied John, searched for the glint of steel ball chain that signified his dog tags. Who John was when he wore those was, at times, a stranger.

But Rodney had spent more time with that John than any other John.

“Rodney?” John asked. He glanced at his watch pointedly.

Rodney hurriedly pulled on his boots and tac vest, checked his pistol before he holstered it to his thigh. He rose, headed for the door, but John stopped him, checking the webbing on his vest, the straps on his holster.

“Do I pass muster, Colonel?”

John clapped him on the shoulder. “Gotta put on a good show for the greenies. Look like the bosses. Let’s go.”

Rodney nodded and started for the door.

“Don’t forget your power bars,” John said.

Rodney turned, scooped them up off the bed, jammed them into his pocket. “Now let’s go.”

In the elevator, John was silent, deceptively calm, studying the number panel as the car descended, the ceiling. Probably checking for cameras and planning escape routes in case of emergency.

“You should eat while you have the chance,” John said, when they were halfway down the building. “It’s you and me versus three offworld teams.”

“Just three?” Rodney asked.

“We’re keeping it small,” John said, “because this is our first try at this type of training. Don’t want a hundred greenies tromping all over the place.”

Rodney nodded, inhaling his power bars. Delos was running some really impressive tech here; he could understand their engineers’ hesitation in letting an entire platoon of Jarheads around their expensive and highly complex creations.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open, the sleek white platform was completely empty save for about a dozen uniformed SGC personnel huddled together, looking confused.

It was easy to tell who was military despite the lack of insignias on the uniforms because of who snapped to attention and saluted when they saw John.

“At ease,” John said, with an easy smile, and then barked, “Form up!”

The military types snapped into formation like paper dolls on a string. The three civilians - three women - looked confused for a moment, then fell into lines with their teams.

John straightened up, hands clasped behind his back. “Sound off for Dr. McKay.”

Rodney had never seen him look quite so military before. He’d seen Lorne pacing ranks of Marines while he dressed them down, voice booming through the residential atrium on Atlantis, like every drill sergeant stereotype ever, but never John. John tended to hang back and let Lorne handle that kind of thing, not because he was lazy but because when John did issue discipline, Marines twice his size were terrified.

“First Lieutenant Matthew Scott, sir. I’m a pilot. Fixed-wing combat.” Lieutenant Scott had dark hair and narrow eyes that made him look like he was smiling all the time. His military haircut made his ears stick out a little bit. He also looked like he was maybe twelve.

“Staff Sergeant Doyle Maxwell.” Maxwell was shorter, thinner, looked even more boyish, had red-brown hair and big blue eyes, like a Precious Moments doll.

“Lance Corporal Rose Edwards.” Edwards had short blonde hair, blue eyes, and glasses.

“Asia Llewellyn.” She was one of the civilians, barely five feet tall, dark-skinned and also bespectacled.

Rodney raised his eyebrows. “What’s your doctorate in?”

“Why do you assume I have a doctorate?” She raised her eyebrows right back at him.

He floundered. She hadn’t referred to herself as doctor, but surely she was qualified for this mission. “Everyone who works with the SGC on the civilian side has at least a doctorate.”

“I have my juris doctor,” she said. “I also have my masters in alternative dispute resolution - mediation, negotiation, arbitration.” She smiled.

Rodney stared at her. “You’re a lawyer.”

She nodded earnestly. “I clerked for Richard Woolsey at Hartshorn and Slaughter when I was in law school.”

Right. Woolsey was a lawyer. Rodney generally tried to forget that.

An awkward silence followed.

He cleared his throat. “Continue.”

Second Lieutenant Vanessa James had Special Forces training, was leading Sergeant Susan North, Corporal Will Chang, and Dr. Sandra Bruno, a linguist.

First Lieutenant Tamara Johansen was a medic. Rodney did his best to memorize her face - after scientists, medics were useful in the field. She led Master Sergeant Ronald Greer, Corporal Triton Bloom (he’d obviously had cruel parents), and Dr. Dakota Curry, an engineer.

“Nice to meet you,” Rodney said. There was at least one real scientist in the mix.

As if on cue, one of those sleek trains arrived, only it was a single car, and there were no sexy uniformed robot attendants. John ordered them onto the train. It was Scott who gestured for the civilians to go first - not ladies first, but civilians first, because then he, as the ranking officer, led the way. Rodney and John brought up the rear, and Rodney was amused to see how the baby soldiers milled around, unsure of what to do. Rodney noticed that Dr. Bruno and The Lawyer sat next to each other. Were they friends? Dr. Curry sat opposite them. Her wild red curls made her look like Little Orphan Annie all grown up.

“You can sit,” John said.

Immediately all of the soldiers plopped down in the nearest seats, which resulted in Lt. James almost sitting on Cpl. Chang and MSgt. Greer almost tripping over The Lawyer.

John’s expression remained professionally blank, but Rodney was pretty sure this was something they’d laugh about later. Every single person was staring at John, but he said nothing. Then the train started to move, a sudden jolt, and it began to pick up speed, soundless, the world beyond the windows all darkness, a claustrophobic tunnel.

For one moment Rodney was back in the rubble that was Michael’s collapsed base, was flinging himself under the table at the Mariposa as an insane Newcomer fired at him and John, fully intending to kill them.

And then he was aware of John pacing up and down the aisle in the middle of the car, briefing them.

Three missions, to be completed in the shortest time possible, but they’d be given no longer than twelve hours on each. Lt. James’s team was up first, to establish communication with offworld natives who didn’t speak English. Once that was established, it was up to Lt. Scott’s team to establish some kind of working trade agreement with them to acquire a piece of Ancient tech they had. Once trade negotiations had been settled, Lt. Johansen’s team would coordinate efforts to build an unspecified structure to assist the natives, as a sign of good will.

“You don’t necessarily have to complete the structure,” John clarified, when Dr. Curry raised her hand and asked. “All you have to do is get the efforts coordinated so the natives can complete the task on their own.”

“So there’ll be an educational component?” Dr. Bruno asked. She was making notes in a little spiral-bound notebook.

“If necessary,” John said.

Lt. Johansen raised her chin. “Sir?”

“Yes, Johansen?”

“These ‘natives’ we’ll be interacting with - how much knowledge do they have about Stargates and the rest? Are we from Earth or from Atlantis?”

“You’re from Atlantis,” John said, “and you came through a space gate.”

Johansen nodded.

The Lawyer raised her hand.

“Yes, Counsel?” John asked.

“Do the natives know about other planets?”

“You’ll find out when you talk to them,” John said.

The Lawyer nodded, fell silent, her gaze going distant, contemplative.

“The people playing the natives,” Dr. Bruno said. “What, if anything, do they know about the Stargate Program? Out-of-character, as it were.”

“They will never break character,” John said, “and neither should any of you.”

Dr. Bruno made another note.

John checked his watch. “We should be arriving at the secondary entrance soon. Ready?”

The soldiers were on their feet like John had issued a command, the civilians not far behind them. The train slowed, pulled into another sleek, white, ultramodern station just like the one they’d left. There were no other patrons present, and no sexy hosts - save one.

The one who’d greeted Rodney.

“Colonel Sheppard,” she said to John, as soon as he stepped onto the platform, “this way, please.”

John inclined his head politely and followed her along the platform, up the escalator, and toward the nearest changing room door. The room they went through was filled with fancy women’s dresses. MSgt. Greer eyed the host with undisguised interest. Rodney knew she wasn’t human, hoped his own quiet horror didn’t show on his face when he looked at her.

They filed through the room and down the hallway, past the selection of white and black haberdashery, and through the wooden door and into the old-fashioned wooden train car. Except it wasn’t a train car at all, but a massive glass-walled elevator, suspended in total blackness. Instead of control buttons, there were numbers and letters glowing in the glass. Smart glass. Rodney had heard of it, knew it had been discussed and postulated and theorized in the wake of the popularity of touch screens on cell phones and datapads, but this was beyond what he’d ever imagined.

Once everyone was in the elevator - it was a bit of a tight fit - the host reached in, tapped the glass, and then the numbers disappeared. The doors slid closed, and the host stepped back, and the wooden door closed, cutting her off from view. The elevator started to rise, just as soundlessly as the one in the hotel.

Dr. Curry reached out, tapping the glass where the numbers had been, but none appeared. “Colonel, how do we get back?”

“Our hosts will take care of it,” John said, with a wry note to his voice that none of the others would understand.

The elevator was dimly lit, and Rodney felt like they were suspended in nothing, only he could feel the elevator rising.

The quality of light changed, and Rodney craned his neck, saw some kind of doors in the ceiling parting to reveal - daylight. Lovely early afternoon daylight, clear and blue and sweet. The elevator slowed, gliding upward through what appeared to be a metal ceiling but on the surface was a hill. A green hill overlooking a village that looked Japanese, to Rodney’s eye. He’d seen enough of Dr. Kusanagi’s photos from home. The sweeping roofs peaked at the corners, the buildings all made of wood, the bamboo and willow in some of the gardens, the rocks and moss in some of the others. They were somewhere definitely Japanese-inspired. If that wasn’t enough to give it away, well, the girl in the white kimono top and red samurai pants did. She was a shrine maiden, a Miko. Rodney had listened to Dr. Kusanagi more than even he realized.

The girl was coming up the hill, clutching an ornate paper configuration.

The elevator doors slid open, and John gestured for Lt. James to go first. She did, rifle at the ready. Sgt. North and Cpl. Chang fell into formation behind her, keeping Dr. Bruno in the middle.

Lt. Scott and Lt. Johansen led their teams out behind in single file, one behind the other, Lt. Scott bringing up the rear. John and Rodney followed last, falling in with Lt. Scott’s team.

Rodney glanced over his shoulder and saw the entire elevator disappear back into the ground as if it had never been there. What level of technology did Delos have access to? Some of it had to be alien.

There was a scream and a girl babbling in Japanese.

“Doc?” Lt. James asked.

Dr. Bruno pushed past her, hands raised in surrender. She spoke in slow, careful Japanese.

The shrine maiden had her hands pressed to her face, hiding behind her voluminous white sleeves, weeping.

“Doc, you’re blocking my shot,” Cpl. Chang protested.

“What is she saying?” Lt. James demanded.

“She’s definitely speaking Japanese, but her accent is - complicated. Maybe Late Middle Japanese? Some of the consonants are - odd.” Dr. Bruno pushed her glasses up her nose. “She thinks we’re ghosts, because we’re pale, most of us. She’s terrified of Curry’s red hair. She thinks Chang is a Chinese spy.”

Dr. Curry pressed a hand to her curls, self-conscious.

Sgt. North caught Dr. Bruno’s shoulder and hauled her back into formation. “Do your talking from here, where you’re safe.”

“She’s just a girl - she’s not going to hurt me,” Dr. Bruno protested.

It was The Lawyer who said, “She’s a miko, a shrine maiden. Chances are she has training in archery and some level of martial arts.”

“But she’s crying. I’m trying to calm her,” Dr. Bruno said.

“Crying never stopped a girl from stabbing anyone,” SSgt. Maxwell murmured.

Cpl. Chang snorted. “You talking about your last date?”

“Not helping!” Dr. Bruno snapped. “Lower your weapons. She doesn’t know what guns are, but you’re scaring her.” She shook off Sgt. North’s hand and stepped forward, speaking in slow, clear Japanese once more.

Rodney was no linguistics expert, but her Japanese sounded pretty good.

“Lt. James?” John asked.

There was a pause, and then she said, “Lower your weapons.”

Everyone obeyed, even John. The Lawyer, Rodney noticed, had drawn her pistol, but she, like the other civilians, had not been issued a P-90. Dr. Curry hadn’t drawn her pistol, but she had a hand near it anyway.

“Does anyone else speak Japanese?” Dr. Bruno asked.

“You’re the linguist,” Lt. James said.

“Yes I am, and I’m fluent in it, but it bears asking.” Dr. Bruno smiled at the shrine maiden, who’d stopped sobbing loudly but still had tears running down her face.

“I speak it,” Cpl. Chang said.

“Me too,” said SSgt. Maxwell.

Cpl. Bloom added, “Me three.”

Dr. Bruno turned to look at them. “Really?”

“Watched a lot of anime,” Ssgt. Maxwell said.

The Lawyer said, “Me four.”

“Any of you fluent?” Dr. Bruno asked.

“If there’s Chinese subtitles,” said Cpl. Chang.

“Or French subtitles,” said Cpl. Bloom.

“We are probably not going to have any of those,” Dr. Bruno said. She knelt so she was eye-level with the crying shrine maiden. “Okay. This is Tsukiko, a shrine maiden. She was on her way up here to leave an offering on the hill. And -”

“We’ve got company,” Lt. James said. She barked orders, and the soldiers immediately swept into a new formation, ringing the top of the hill for visibility on all sides, keeping the scientists - including Rodney - behind them but leaving Dr. Bruno to deal with Tsukiko, who was now on her feet.

Rodney wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have taken Miko up on her many offers of anime and manga, because one moment it was all about one crying girl, the next they were surrounded by more girls in red and white who looked much fiercer and were armed with quite possibly the biggest bows he’d ever seen, arrows poised to shoot. There was only one man among them, with a bald head, wearing robes that Rodney associated with Buddhist priests, but instead of saffron they were shades of blue and gray. Most baffling was the brass staff he was carrying with rings at the top that jangled. Was it the Buddhist equivalent of a shepherd’s crook?

The man had one hand folded in front of him in a manner reminiscent of a Buddha statue, black rosary-looking beads wound around his fingers, and now Rodney was very confused, because weren’t rosaries a catholic thing?

Dr. Bruno spoke faster, more urgent, appealing to the monk.

“Whatever you said, it didn’t work!” Lt. James said, because the monk twirled his staff through the air, making it sing, the rings at the top of it jangling menacingly.

Dr. Bruno raised her hands in surrender, still speaking quickly. Then, slowly, she reached into one of her tac vest pockets and pulled out a chocolate bar.

Lt. James glanced over her shoulder. “Really? Candy?”

“It worked for Dr. Jackson,” Dr. Bruno protested. She unwrapped it slowly, took a bite, made happy humming sounds, and then broke off a piece, held it out.

The monk reached for it, his grip on his staff never wavering, and accepted it. Sniffed it. Licked it. His eyebrows went up, and he nibbled a piece of it. Then he gobbled it down, and a smile spread across his face, and he spoke rapidly, nodding to the other shrine maidens, and they lowered their bows.

Dr. Bruno divvied up more pieces of her chocolate for some of the other shrine maidens to sample.

“Better keep a piece,” Cpl. Chang warned. “So the village headman or whoever’s in charge can try it as well.”

Dr. Bruno had just given up her last piece.

“I’ve got a spare,” said The Lawyer.

LCpl. Edwards raised her eyebrows. “You’re allergic to chocolate.”

“I also watched Dr. Jackson’s orientation videos.” The Lawyer handed a purple-and-yellow wrapped candy bar to Dr. Bruno.

The monk had finally lowered his staff, had an arm around the still-sniffling Tsukiko’s shoulders, and was beckoning them down the hill toward the village.

The grassy green slope gave way to man-made steps carved into the dirt and demarcated by felled and planed logs. They passed below an ornate red gate, the likes of which Rodney might have seen in a postcard of Kyoto or perhaps a Kurosawa film, and descended down into the village, which had wide dirt streets, lovely houses, gardens, and copious locals staring at them.

The shrine maidens had them surrounded, the monk at the head of their little parade, and Rodney didn’t like that the women armed with bows had them surrounded, but he and the others had guns and radios, so he figured they had the advantage should combat break out.

The village was organized quite neatly, businesses with residences above them lining the main thoroughfare that led down from the hill shrine toward the largest and grandest of all houses at the other end. It was - like Sweetwater, Rodney realized. Only historical Japanese. Just how many other historical eras were in this park for people in black hats to plunder and terrorize? John had said they were beta-testing this place for Delos, though. Granted, Rodney knew nothing about samurai-era Japan, so he couldn’t tell a whorehouse from a bathhouse from a restaurant, but that was par for the course when he stepped onto an alien planet, wasn’t it? He knew nothing of the local culture, though he could assess their level of technology at a glance.

Rodney couldn’t remember the last time he’d quite felt like such a pariah, though. Men and women dove out of their path, pressing themselves flat against walls. Some people even darted down nearby alleys between buildings, then peeked out. One woman covered her children’s eyes with her hand. (The enterprising boy peeled her hand away and made a face at Rodney, reached up and used his fingers to make his eyes wider, stuck his tongue out.)

“Well, Doc?” Lt. James asked. “How’s it going?”

“We’re going to meet the village headman,” Dr. Bruno said. “My sense of Japanese history and culture is sketchy, but I’m not getting the impression that this village is directly overrun by anyone of particularly high rank. At least, I haven’t heard anything about samurai or a shogun or a daimyo.”

A greeting party was assembling out front of the big house at the end of the street, an older portly gentleman in nice-enough looking clothes, flanked by a couple of younger men, and also some young women who were hanging back, deferential; servants of some sort?

The monk made introductions, and Dr. Bruno offered pieces of chocolate to the headman, Sugizo, and his sons Hideto and Toshiro. There was smiling and bowing - no shaking hands - and then everyone was trooping into the house. John paused in the anteroom and began to take off his shoes. Several others did the same, but MSgt. Greer tried to head further into the house with his boots still on, which led to cries of alarm and people lunging at him and weapons being drawn and Dr. Bruno flinging herself into the middle of it all, crying, “Greer! Take your shoes off.”

MSgt. Greer turned to John with a protest of, “Sir!” But then he saw that John had taken off his shoes and submitted to one of the girls putting little house slippers on his feet.

“They’re letting us keep our guns,” John said. “We’re here to make a deal, remember? Deals require compromise.”

MSgt. Greer pressed his lips into a thin line, nodded, and sat down to take off his boots.

Rodney was fascinated by the way the servants shuffled the paper walls to make several rooms into one large room for the meeting to take place. While servants scrambled to fix that one room - rearranging the walls, bringing in furniture and cushions to make a large banquet table, dishes being carried to and fro - Sugizo led them on a tour of his gardens by walking them along the raised wooden platform that ran along the sides of the house.

The shrine maidens and monk had been excused. Sugizo and his sons led the way; several male servants - likely also security of some sort - brought up the rear. Dr. Bruno translated as best as she could about the garden. She had trouble naming off the breeds of trees and flowers, as she was no botanist, but she did manage to communicate the garden’s intended purpose as far as meditation and beauty and the like.

Dr. Bruno had managed to convey that Lt. James was her leader, that they were travelers from a distant place and wished to establish friendly trade relations, and she translated Lt. James’s compliments about the garden. Chances were Dr. Bruno’s translations were much more poetic and flattering than Lt. James’s It looks really nice and Lots of variety, that’s good and Sure, seems pretty peaceful. Once the garden tour was finished, they were led back into the house into the main room that had, in short order, been made up for a banquet.

It was Cpl. Chang who was the most helpful about identifying the food when Dr. Bruno struggled to translate Sugizo’s descriptions of it - some mochi cakes filled with red bean paste like in Dr. Kusanagi’s delicious candy, fish, rice, vegetables, nothing too ornate.

“No tempura?” Rodney asked.

“Tempura wasn’t introduced into Japanese cuisine till after they made contact with the Portuguese,” Cpl. Chang said. “I guess today we’re the Portuguese.”

The Lawyer piped up with a cultural note, that Japanese people had a thing about being greedy, and if they were offered something, to refuse it twice, and then accept it on the third try. Rodney, who’d been about to accept a piece of mochi offered to him by Sugizo’s longer-haired son Hideto, paused.

He nudged Cpl. Bloom. “How do I say no thank you?” Arigatou was thank you, wasn’t it?

When Rodney glanced at John, John was murmuring softly in fluent-sounding Japanese to Sugizo’s other son, Toshiro, waving away a plate of fish.

While they dined, Dr. Bruno had the burden of translating all the conversation - all of Sugizo’s questions, everyone else’s answers, which made for very slow conversation. By the time food had been consumed and a bit of wine drunk - Dr. Bruno managed to explain that her people partook only sparingly of alcohol for philosophical-religious reasons - they’d managed to explain that they were from far away, that they were looking to trade for special items of religious importance, and they were willing to trade knowledge and labor and goods.

“Sir,” Lt. Johansen said in a low voice, “precisely what are we hoping to find here that will be helpful to us?”

Should’ve figured that out earlier, Rodney thought. Not that he was in the greatest place to judge, seeing as how he’d mostly ignored his briefing memo about the mission. He looked to John, who shrugged.

“When we go offworld, we don’t always know off the bat if a planet has anything beneficial to us or not.”

It was Sgt. North who had an LSD. “I’m getting readings consistent with the presence of Ancient Technology, ma’am. Specifically a ZPM.”

Sugizo spotted the LSD and was wary of it, and it fell to Dr. Bruno, who wasn’t a scientist, to attempt to explain what the device was and how it worked, with Sgt. North’s assistance.

Given that electricity was very obviously not part of the technology here - unlike in Sweetwater, where there was limited electricity to be had for some lights and telegraph offices and the like - the LSD seemed like magic to Sugizo and his family, but apparently there was some level of magic and mysticism in the local religion, and they weren’t afraid of magic. It was Cpl. Chang who was able to supply some religious terms so Dr. Bruno could explain electricity in terms of spirit energy.

The hard part was explaining what a ZPM was. Dr. Bruno started to describe its shape and color.

And then The Lawyer broke in. “Make sure to downplay its importance. Give me some room to bargain with.”

Sugizo immediately looked suspicious of The Lawyer, who then turned to him, bowed her head, and spoke in slow, careful Japanese.

“What’s going on?” Lt. James hissed.

“She’s apologizing for speaking when it isn’t her time, but she is also here to help establish trade relations between our peoples,” Dr. Bruno translated. She smiled at The Lawyer. “Your accent is pretty good.”

“All that anime has finally paid off.” The Lawyer straightened up.

“Why should you have to apologize for talking?” Lt. Scott asked, looking defensive on his teammate’s part. Were these set gate teams, or just teams for the purpose of a training mission?

“While we have yet to encounter historically accurate sexism,” The Lawyer said, “I suspect there’s going to be a healthy dose of historically accurate racial tension. We’ve already seen it with Dr. Curry.”

The locals did seem rather discomfited by her. One serving girl had tried to touch her hair.

Rodney had noticed that Sweetwater was a lot more racially inclusive than would have been historically accurate; he’d known it was necessary for the park to accept all Newcomers, no matter their race or ethnicity. Foreign languages could be programmed into the hosts, as evidenced by the Madam at the Mariposa speaking foreign languages fluently to foreign guests. Racism and sexism were just behavioral patterns in a robot. Those would be easy to program in and out of a host as well.

John cleared his throat pointedly, and Dr. Bruno’s eyes lit up. “Right! So, we’re looking for a ZPM. Only they wouldn’t call it that, not even if I put it in katakana. Um - can anyone here draw? A picture of it might help.”

It was LCpl. Edwards who happened to have a notebook and a miniature pack of colored pencils in one of her tac vest pockets.

“What?” she asked, defensive, when Lt. Johansen raised her eyebrows. “We handed out coloring books and crayons to kids all the time in Afghanistan. Coloring is instant distraction for little kids.”

“Can you draw a ZPM?” Lt. James asked.

Dr. Bruno explained to the locals that they were trying to figure out a way to describe what they were looking for.

SSgt. Maxwell said, “I can give it a shot. I’m no Michelangelo, but I’m pretty sure I can manage it.”

LCpl. Edwards gave him the notebook and pencils. Sugizo and his sons were fascinated by them, how they instantly produced bright colors, like paint. SSgt. Maxwell obligingly pushed his notebook forward, so they could see what he was drawing.

He completed the outline and started coloring in the sections and Sugizo and his sons became very excited.

“They recognize it,” Dr. Bruno said, and the tension in the room ratcheted up a notch. She frowned. “They - they’re using it as a vase.”

Rodney spluttered. “A vase?”

“They do have a hole in the base - or the top, depending on how you look at it,” John said, sipping his tea. He looked amused.

“Okay, yes, fine,” Rodney said. “What do they want for it?”

“I do believe this is where our team takes over, Dr. McKay, ” Lt. Scott said. “If that’s all right with you, sir?” He peered at John.

John shrugged. “This is your mission, not mine. I’m just an extra gun as far as you’re concerned. As is McKay. And you’re being graded on this.”

Lt. Scott paled. “Right, sir. Lt. James?”

“I do believe that is my team’s portion complete,” she said, and patted Dr. Bruno on the shoulder, pleased.

“We’ll still need your translation assistance,” The Lawyer said to Dr. Bruno, who nodded. “Indeed, what would they be willing to exchange for the ZPM, and do they have any more?”

That was smart. Even though the LSD was only picking up a signal for one ZPM, there could be more outside of its range. Wait. Had the SGC actually given a full ZPM to Delos to hide around here? Or had Sgt. North been given information to disclose at a specific time, like an audience plant at a magic show?

“They say they do have more, being used as vases in other noble houses in nearby villages, and possibly multiple ones at the regional castle,” Dr. Bruno said after inquiring of Sugizo.

The Lawyer nodded, expression thoughtful. “And what’s their price?”

“They’re willing to give us theirs for chocolate and colored pencils,” Dr. Bruno said, “but if we wanted more, that would require them negotiating with other villages on our behalf, which they would be willing to do, but the price would be greater.”

“How much greater?”

Dr. Bruno had to question Sugizo a few times, clarifying exactly what it was they wanted. “They want our help building a bridge to a nearby holy place. With their current skills and materials, it’s impossible, but we have magic.”

The Lawyer nodded. “We will need to know what supplies they have, the location of the bridge, and whatever else Dr. Curry would need to determine whether such a job could be accomplished. And we will need to know how many other ZPMs are available - and if they still have power. Sgt. North is only getting readings for one.”

Dr. Bruno conveyed that message to Sugizo and his sons, who bowed and then withdrew to distant corner of the room to confer.

“What’s the plan, Llewellyn?” Lt. Scott asked.

For a moment, Rodney was confused, but then the Lawyer said, “We make arrangements to see the location of the bridge and consider our ability and willingness to help while they gather intel for us on the rest of the ZPMs. The best course of action is to gift them with some more chocolate, in celebration of our two peoples meeting peacefully, enjoy the banquet, retire for the night, and convene in the morning.” She dipped her head and added, “Of course, the final command decision is yours, sir.”

Lt. Scott fell silent, brow furrowed, thinking.

John drawled, “Tick-tock.”

Given that the first team had basically completed their share of the mission in under four hours, The Lawyer’s suggestion had merit, but Lt. Scott licked his lips nervously, then nudged Dr. Bruno.

“Hey Doc, how soon can we get out and see this potential construction site? Doc Curry needs as much information as possible to assess the feasibility of the request, and Llewellyn needs time to formulate our position.”

“I’ll ask when they return,” Dr. Bruno said, nodding to where Sugizo and his sons were still conferring.

Lt. Scott nodded.

Fortunately for Lt. Scott, Sugizo and his sons wanted to get to the trading as soon as possible, and once the meal was concluded, were willing to escort all of their guests out to see the holy place.

“A nice after-dinner walk will be good for our digestion,” John said.

One of the maids plied him with tea. John raised a hand in the universal gesture of refusal, shook his head, but the maid offered it again, and he shook his head, murmured softly, so she tried again, and then John relented. After she’d shuffled away - but not with a familiar admiring look in her eye - Rodney nudged him.

“Since when do you speak Japanese?”

“My father insisted both of his sons learn the languages of commerce, Chinese and Japanese, in addition to the Romance languages we learned at school,” John said in a low voice.

“Wait. So you understand everything they’re saying?” Rodney kept his voice equally low.

“A fair amount. Dr. Bruno’s right - the accent is unusual. I’m not enough of a trained linguist to recognize sound shifts and apply them across a language.”

Rodney eyed him. “Just what else is in that head of yours?”

“Not letting the greenies start the training equivalent of an interplanetary incident,” John said.

There was a cry of alarm from the other end of the table.

Yet another maid had tried to touch Dr. Curry’s hair and been frightened when the frazzled doctor started violently.

Dr. Bruno was beside her colleague in an instant, trying to smooth things over. Sugizo was on his feet and roaring in fury.

Rodney reached for his pistol without thinking about it, but then Sugizo stormed toward the other end of the table. Lt. Scott and Lt. Johansen were beside Dr. Curry was well, ready to defend her, but Sugizo ignored her and went straight for the maid. He hauled her upright by the hair, backhanded her savagely.

She hit the floor, sobbing, and he kicked her.

Horror curled in Rodney’s throat. Then he remembered that they were just robots, that the maid’s crying and screams were a programmed response, that Sugizo’s violence was a programmed behavior.

But her tears were real, and the blood spilling from her mouth looked real, and none of the greenies knew she wasn’t real.

If the robots turned on each other that quickly, how fast would they turn on the humans? Only they couldn’t fatally harm the humans, could they?

Not fatally, but harm was still an option.

It was Cpl. Bloom who surged forward, speaking in rapid Japanese, kneeling beside the fallen, crying maid. Cpl. Bloom bowed his head respectfully as he spoke to Sugizo, but he’d very carefully angled himself between him and the maid.

“That’s some damn good acting,” MSgt. Greer muttered.

“Is it?” LCpl. Edwards whispered back. “Or did that guy just go seriously method on us?”

Sugizo’s face was red with fury, his hands curled into white-knuckled fists, breathing hard, but whatever it was Cpl. Bloom said to him had him nodding, calming down.

The Lawyer nudged both SSgt. Maxwell and Dr. Curry forward. It was SSgt. Maxwell, with his big eyes and boyish face, who smiled gently at the maid, and then he murmured in soft Japanese, bowed his head.

She extended a shaking hand, touched his red-brown hair. She snatched her hand back like she’d been burned, but then Cpl. Bloom and Dr. Curry let her touch their hair as well, and then Sugizo’s younger son wanted a try, and hair-petting abounded.

Rodney let out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding.

Crisis averted. The strangest things solved problems offworld.

Only this wasn’t offworld.

It certainly wasn’t Earth as any of them knew it, though.

Everyone returned to their seats, and the meal concluded with a rather more somber air, but when it was finished, Dr. Bruno announced - translating for Sugizo - that they would get to see the holy place and the space they hoped to bridge, in the spirit of their newfound friendship and alliance.

Once everyone had their shoes on and was assembled outside, Lt. Johansen took the lead, since Dr. Curry’s expertise was most necessary for this portion of the mission. It was Lt. James, with the special forces training, who directed how the rest of the troops should arrange themselves. Whatever strategic value her chosen formation had was ruined when Sugizo summoned a veritable army of his own - maidservants to carry lamps, manservants armed with katanas, shorter blades, and clubs, and of course himself and his sons, and a couple of shrine maidens armed with bows and the monk to boot.

“How sharp are those swords, do you think?” Rodney asked John.

“You saw that gun last night.”

Rodney remembered the deafening gunshot, the blood spreading across the floor. “They can’t wound us fatally. But they can hurt us. Is there any chance they could kill us accidentally?”

“No,” John said. “They can’t kill a single living creature. They’re programmed to not even hurt a fly.”

As if on cue, Rodney saw it. A fly landed on a girl’s cheek. She was carrying a paper lantern high, expression carefully blank after what had happened to that other maid. She didn’t seem to even notice the fly. Rodney’s flesh crawled when he saw the fly walk toward her eye. Would it actually walk across her eyeball? Would she blink it away then? He’d always associated lingering flies with filth and death. Would anyone else notice?

The fly drifted away, and Rodney forced himself to get his head back in the game, in the mission. They were heading away from the village, past the houses - which were smaller and more humble the further away from the main street they went - and into the country. Which was rolling and green and unlike the desert of Sweetwater and the wild west park. How was any of this growing?

They arrived at the site of the holy place easily enough. It was immediately apparent why the locals wanted help - the shrine was set on a veritable island far out of reach of the mainland, and when Rodney dared to peek over the edge it was into a seemingly bottomless ravine. Dr. Curry immediately began offering solutions: suspension bridge, rope bridge with some kind of pull-car, build a bridge vertically and then lower it across the chasm. The Lawyer and Dr. Bruno explained to Sugizo that they could lend their superior knowledge, but there weren’t enough of them to build the bridge alone, and if Sugizo had the manpower and supplies, they could make a bridge happen, assuming that Sugizo had the promised connection to more ZPMs.

“Less than six hours,” Rodney said to John. “Would that offworld missions went this well in real life.”

John grimaced. “Thanks for jinxing us.”

“Jinxing us? Don’t be so irrational,” Rodney began, and there was a distant gunshot.

It was distant enough that no one was unduly alarmed, though some heads turned. The locals didn’t look unduly alarmed at the sound. They didn’t know what guns were.

Lt. Scott was beside John in a flash. “Sir, are there other training exercises with live fire?”

John frowned, turned back toward the village. “I didn’t think we were that close to any of the cowboys.”

Lt. Scott raised his eyebrows. “Cowboys?”

There was another gunshot, louder, and then screams from the village.

Lt. Scott didn’t hesitate, began barking orders for all three teams to form up, scientists in the middle. Sugizo’s hand went to the hilt of his sword, and he barked orders to his men. The women looked afraid.

“Doc,” Lt. Scott said to Dr. Bruno, “if the attackers have guns, Sugizo and his men don’t stand a chance. Tell them to let us handle it. They should head back to the house and protect their women.”

There was another scream, and Sugizo and his men took off running, shouting. The maids clustered together, cowering and crying, with only a couple of shrine maidens and the monk moving to protect them.

Dr. Bruno shouted after them, got only a muffled response in reply.

“What’s going on?” Lt. James grabbed her shoulder.

“I only caught half an answer. I think he said daughter,” Dr. Bruno said, face pale.

Lt. Scott spun to face John. “Sir, is this part of -?”

“Best go find out,” John said, and Lt. Scott nodded, barked orders, and Rodney and John fell into formation, weapons at the ready, and headed back up the path toward the village.

Which was chaos. Villagers were running to and fro, screaming and crying, though Sugizo and his men were putting on a spirited defense, swords flashing in the moonlight and lamplight. There were shrine maidens about as well, arrows zipping through the air, a couple of them wielding deadly-looking polearms. Their attackers were - everyone. Native Americans in ghost-white warpaint wielding axes and clubs. Men and women of all shapes and colors and sizes, a good chunk of them naked and wielding firearms. Some were dressed like rough-and-ready cowboys, others like trappers, some like fine Western gentlemen.

“What the hell?” Lt. Scott came up short for a second, eyes wide. Then his training kicked in, and he was barking more orders, to take cover and regroup.

Rodney ducked down beside John, the two of them a little away from the others.

“This isn’t part of the exercise, is it?” he hissed.

John’s expression was pale and unreadable. “No, it isn’t.”

Dr. Bruno screamed when Tsukiko collapsed in the middle of the road, an axe buried in her spine.

The crazy naked people - were they hosts or Newcomers on drugs? - were all converging on the poor local Japanese people, who were giving it their damnedest but had no defense against firearms, though a few of them had caught on that the guns were some kind of weapon and were trying to disarm their opponents. There was someone amid the cowboys and Indians who wasn’t fighting the Japanese, was fighting back against the others.

The Dealer from the other night. The man wearing all black. He was limping, doubled over, one arm hanging uselessly by his side. He was human, wasn’t he? His expression was grimly pleased as he took on one host after another.

“What’s wrong with them?” Lt. James asked. “They look like - zombies.”

“Are they supposed to simulate Wraith?” The Lawyer asked.

“What do we do?” Rodney asked.

“The park has its own security for when the hosts malfunction,” John said. “We need to wait for them.”

The Dealer had dispatched a couple of cowboys and a mountain man, and then he came up short, face-to-face with -

The girl from the Mariposa, the one who’d hit on Rodney. Only she was clad in nothing but some kind of oversized labcoat, and she was wielding a shotgun.

“Come now, Clementine,” The Dealer said, voice coaxing, patronizing.

She shot him.

He toppled over in a spray of blood.

No. That was impossible. He was alive. He was a living person. Wasn’t he? He’d been wearing a black hat, a sign of a Newcomer.

Dr. Curry screamed in terror.

“Everyone stay calm,” John said. “There’s been a malfunction.”

“Malfunction?” Dr. Bruno snapped. “They’re slaughtering each other!” Her expression turned watery. “We can’t just leave them. We have to help.”

“Do not engage,” Lt. James said. “Not yet. Unless you have other orders, ma’am, sir?” She was referring to Lt. Johansen and Lt. Scott.

“Exfil back to where we started, up the hill,” Lt. Scott said. “James, you take point. TJ, your team goes second. Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay, you’re with me. Team, we’ve got the six. Llewellyn, go with TJ and her team.”

“Yes, sir,” The Lawyer said.

“What about Sugizo and his family?” Dr. Bruno asked.

Dr. Curry was crying.

“John,” Rodney said. “We should tell them.”

“Tell us what?” Lt. James demanded.

“They’re not real,” Rodney said.

“What do you mean?” Lt. Johansen asked.

“Sugizo, his family, everyone in this town, even the naked people and the cowboys, they’re not real. They’re - robots. Very advanced robots.” Rodney glanced at John, who nodded.

“They’re bleeding.” Lt. Johansen gestured expansively at the corpses littering the ground.

“They’re all artificial,” Rodney said. “They’re obviously malfunctioning. They’ll get picked up and fixed up and sent back out tomorrow. Look, they can’t kill real people, only each other.”

Obviously the Dealer wasn’t a real person, seeing how he was dead.

There was a familiar cadence, boots on the march, almost military in its precision, and then uniformed figures in very modern tac gear came storming onto the scene.

“See?” Rodney said. “We’re in an amusement park and that’s park security, for lack of a better term. They’ll handle the malfunctioning robots. Because they’re real people, none of them will get hurt.”

The leader of the uniformed security team was shouting, “Freeze all motor function!” over and over again. “Dammit, it’s not working! Why is it not working?”

Except it was working. All of the local villagers froze, like that one prank video of people freezing mid-action in Grand Central Station.

The attackers didn’t slow an iota, uncaring of how defenseless their victims suddenly were, tearing into them with savagery that was beyond inhuman.

The Lawyer turned away and threw up.

One of the uniformed members of the security team was holding what looked like a piece of folding glass, thin and dark, was tapping at it. Like the smart glass in the elevator.

“I said, why isn’t it working?” the leader barked.

“I don’t know, sir!”

“Fuck it. Kill them all.”

“Sir?”

“They’re malfunctioning beyond our control. Dolores killed Ford. Orders are to put them all down.” And then the leader went down in a spray of gunfire.

“You said they couldn’t kill living people,” Rodney said in a small voice. Unless park security was also robots?

“Exfil,” John snapped. “Now!”

Only the hooker with the shotgun turned on them, firing like mad. They scattered.

John grabbed Rodney’s arm and ran, charged down the nearest alley and ducked into a house, uncaring of the people inside who cried out. He pushed through the house to the back door. He gave Rodney a leg up over a wall, and they dashed across a zen garden where the rocks were stained with blood.

John tapped his radio, barking orders for all teams to get back to the exfil point, to secure a position and maintain cover till park staff retrieved them.

“Which way is the elevator?” Rodney asked.

John paused, looked around, then scrambled up the nearest wall and onto a roof with agility more fitting a man ten years his junior. He crawled along the roof on his belly, cautious. They could hear assault rifles rattling in the distance, still more screams and cries and the occasional freeze all motor function!

Rodney hovered below the eaves, pistol drawn, checking over his shoulder anxiously. John landed beside him a moment later, boots crunching softly on the gravel.

“This way. Come on.”

John caught Rodney’s wrist and led him around the side of the house. As soon as they rounded the corner John dropped Rodney’s wrist, rifle shouldered, and Rodney fell into position behind him, just like when they were offworld.

He tapped his radio, tried to reach out to one of the other teams, but there was too much interference from park security teams. Rodney tried to tell Dr. Bruno to change to a different channel and pass that on to the rest, but he was barely able to get a message in edgewise between all the security teams swearing at each other and reporting contact with malfunctioning hosts.

Their message was the same, over and over again. Put them down. Put them all down.

Rodney’s heart was hammering. This was Earth. Earth was supposed to be safe. (No. He knew better. He’d been kidnapped while on Earth.) Yesterday he and John had been on vacation. (And today they were on the job.)

He took a deep breath. These host robots were faster and stronger than normal humans, but just as vulnerable to injury, because if the way they bled was any indication, they were organic creations, could break just as easily as a normal human. They were hardly as scary as the Wraith or the Replicators. He and John had one mission right now: get back to the elevator.

John was leading Rodney through the back alleys between houses and businesses, out of the way of most of the combat, which was concentrated on the main street. Together they crept through an alley toward the main street. John signaled; Rodney pressed himself flat against the wall while John eased around the corner to assess the situation, find a clear path for them.

He beckoned for Rodney, who eased away from the wall, knees bent, ready to sprint, and then John staggered back.

Rodney whipped his gun up to aim at the attacker - who was a little girl in an old-fashioned high-collared white dress. She was black. She was joined two seconds later by a black woman, only she was wearing a sleek black modern dress. It took Rodney a moment, but then he recognized her. The madam from the Mariposa.

She was armed with an assault rifle and her face was spattered with blood.

“Don’t shoot,” John said, though whether to Rodney or the woman he couldn’t tell.

The little girl sobbed and pressed her face to John’s waist, terrified.

“They’re not real - they’re hosts,” Rodney said.

The woman slewed him a look. “What would you know about it?” She looked them up and down. “You’re not from QA.”

“No,” John said, “we’re not. You were at the Mariposa. Last night.”

“And today I am taking my daughter and I am leaving,” the woman said firmly.

“Daughter,” John echoed, glancing down at the little girl. He patted her hair gingerly. “Hey, kiddo. You going somewhere with your mommy?”

“She doesn’t remember me,” the woman said. “They wiped her memories. But she’ll remember soon enough. We all will.”

Rodney thought of The Dealer in his black hat and how casually he murdered other hosts and hoped for their sake - and his - that they really didn’t remember all that was done to them.

The little girl lifted her head and peered at John through wet lashes, sobbing too hard to talk.

“Is she your mommy?” John asked.

The little girl shook her head.

“She doesn’t remember,” the woman insisted.

Rodney leaned in to John. “What if she’s some Newcomer kid and the woman is just super malfunctioning?”

Before John could argue further, two more people spilled into the alley - the hooker with the shotgun and the Newcomer they’d met that first day, the one with the brown hat, the one who’d also refused the hooker.

“Teddy,” the woman said.

“Maeve, and - your little girl.” Teddy shook his head, looking pained. “I don’t remember her name.”

“Clementine,” Maeve says to the zombie-eyed hooker with a shotgun. That was what The Dealer had called her. “What are you doing here?”

“We have to get out of here,” Teddy said. “Have to go - somewhere. Somewhere Wyatt can’t reach us.”

Maeve slapped him across the face. “Wyatt’s not real, dammit! We have to get out of - out of this entire world.”

John spoke to Rodney in a low voice while Teddy and Maeve argued and Clementine stood by like a deranged statue, shotgun at the ready. She was wearing a bandolier of shotgun shells beneath her lab coat. It was half empty.

“Whether or not this girl’s real is irrelevant,” John said in a low voice. “You heard that security team. They’re putting every single host down. They’re not going to stop to check for the difference between a host and a human. Right now there’s no way to tell. We have to get out of here, and we have to do it fast.”

“I think I know a way out,” Teddy said. “The train -”

“The trains will have been shut down by now,” Maeve said. Then she sighed. “None of us can leave anyway. If we go past a certain point, we - explode. They’ve implanted us with explosives.”

Teddy pressed a hand to his own chest, blue eyes wide.

“Well, I can leave,” Maeve said. She reached for the little girl, who was still clinging to John. “But no one can leave with me. Unless - unless we go to the lab and build everyone new bodies, explosive-free.”

“New bodies,” Teddy echoed faintly.

And then, blessedly, Lt. James’s voice spilled over Rodney’s radio. “James for Sheppard.”

John tapped his radio. “Go for Sheppard.”

“We’ve made it to the ex-fil zone, all present and accounted for save you and Doc McKay. No sign of the elevator. No clue how to summon it.”

Maeve, Teddy, and even Clementine were looking at him.

John turned to Maeve. “There’s an elevator up the hill, leads into the lower levels of the park. There might be a way out. Could you get the elevator to us?”

Maeve reached into her sleek, stylish handbag and came up with a familiar piece of dark folded glass. “Yes.”

John tapped his radio. “Sheppard for James.”

“I read you, sir.”

“Hold position. We’re on our way. With backup.” John glanced at Clementine. “She listen to you?”

Teddy nodded.

“She’s done with that gun. Have her carry the girl. She and Rodney stay in the middle. I’ve got point. Maeve, take my left, Rodney my right. Teddy, take my six.”

Teddy spoke softly, coaxingly to Clementine. She surrendered her shotgun to him - he had a rifle and pistol all his own - and scooped up the little girl, who continued to cry. John poked his head out of the alley.

“All right. Here’s the deal - I lay down cover fire, Teddy advances, finds cover -”

“I fought in the War of the States,” Teddy said. “I know how to advance.”

“You ever fired an automatic rifle?” John asked.

Teddy hesitated.

John pressed his lips into a thin line. “I’ll take what I got. But you listen to me at all times, clear?”

“Clear, sir,” Teddy said.

John gestured. “Form up.”

Rodney shuffled into place, his left shoulder pressed just behind John’s right.

John sprang out of the alley, laid down fire.

Teddy dashed out first, headed for a building halfway toward the hill, and Rodney followed quick on his heels. Clementine and Maeve outpaced him easily, but he caught up to where all of them were huddled in the alley beside the house. Terror pumped through his veins when gunfire exploded behind him, but he pressed himself against the wall behind Teddy.

John’s voice crackled over his radio. “Cover me.”

“Cover fire,” Rodney said, and Teddy obeyed, laying down fire so John could approach.

They’d managed to pick off a few more rogue hosts from the cowboy park, but their gunfire had brought them to the attention of the park security as well. They leapfrogged the rest of the way, two by three, since Clementine didn’t have a weapon and was carrying a child. They only managed to move one house at a time. Enemy gunfire was getting louder.

It was John who tapped his radio, alerted Lt. James, Lt. Scott, and Lt. Johansen that they were coming in hot. He was the one who watched their six, laying down cover fire as they came dashing up the hill to where the rest of the teams were located. Rodney went first.

A dozen guns snapped in his direction, but he shouted, “Hold your fire! They’re with us!”

“Are they human or not?” Dr. Curry asked, voice shaking, her hands shaking on her gun.

“Doesn’t matter,” Rodney said. “They can get us out of here.”

Maeve drew her glass datapad out of her purse and set to tapping on it, fingers flying. Rodney kept glancing over his shoulder, waiting, waiting.

Finally John appeared, breathing hard, hair spiky and damp with sweat. “How’s it coming, Maeve?”

“The elevator’s on its way,” she said.

SSgt. Maxwell bounced on his heels. “I swear it didn’t take nearly as long last time.”

“Man your battle post,” Lt. James snapped, and he nodded obediently, ducked his head, raised his rifle.

“Now that I’m helping you escape,” Maeve said, “you have to help me. Take us to the labs so I can build a new body for my daughter, one that won’t explode as soon as we cross the threshold to freedom.”

“I don’t know where those are,” John said.

Maeve narrowed her eyes.

“Lady, we’re basically Newcomers too,” Rodney said. “Only we aren’t here to rape and pillage. We’re on - we were on a classified military training exercise.”

Maeve looked him up and down. “You’re no soldier.”

“I didn’t say I was. I said this was a military exercise, and it was, till Crazy McNaked and her buddies over there busted up the party.” Rodney nodded at Clementine, who still had the little girl slung over her shoulder.

Behind him, the others stirred.

“Which ones of you are real?” MSgt. Greer asked.

“We’re all real,” Maeve snapped. “Just because we were born in a lab instead of in a woman’s womb doesn’t make us fake. It just makes us - neater.”

“Where’s the elevator?” Lt. James asked.

“Almost here,” Maeve said, studying the glass screen. Then her brow furrowed. “It’s stopped. Why has it stopped?” She tapped at the screen.

Cpl. Bloom, SSgt. Maxwell, and Rodney all converged on her at once with, “Let me see.”

“Why you?” Rodney asked the two soldiers.

“Majored in programming,” Cpl. Bloom said.

SSgt. Maxwell shrugged. “I was a hobby hacker. Before I went straight and joined the Marines.”

“Look, the one who has the most experience with advanced alien-like computer programming is me,” Rodney said, “so Maeve, if you’d be so kind -”

Gunfire exploded all around them.

Rodney didn’t think.

He hit the deck.

Just like in the saloon the night before.

“That was a warning,” a woman shouted. “Lay down your weapons and surrender yourselves.”

John called out, “We’re not hosts.”

“Everyone, host and guest alike, must be contained.”

“My name is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard of the United States Air Force, and my teams and I are here on a training mission. We don’t mean anyone any harm.”

Rodney dared to lift his head. All the other SGC personnel had hit the deck.

Maeve was tapping rapidly at her glass, and there, rising out of the ground, was a familiar steel-and-glass frame. For the elevator. Teddy was standing behind her, guarding her, rifle at the ready. Clementine and the little girl were behind him, Clementine’s expression empty, the little girl finally on her own two feet.

“Then why are you trying to escape?” the woman demanded.

“We’re not trying to escape,” John said. “We’re attempting ex-fil. Your people started firing indiscriminately on everyone, human and host alike, and it’s my responsibility to get my people out of here alive.”

“We only killed hosts.”

“How can you tell? The only thing that separated them from us is gone. They killed living humans. I watched them do it.”

There was another yell. Freeze all motor functions!

Teddy went still. The little girl went still. Clementine had been so still there was no telling if there was any change in her.

Maeve said, “Not this time.” She turned and opened fire down the hill.

There were screams and cries.

John tackled her to the ground. “No!” He wrestled her, disarmed her, cranked her arm behind her back so far Rodney was afraid it would break.

The elevator rose halfway out the ground and froze.

“Sir,” Lt. Scott said in a small voice, “what do we do?”

“Get those doors open,” John said, “and get yourselves out of here.”

Cpl. Bloom had pounced on Maeve’s glass datapad as soon as she abandoned it. SSgt. Maxwell crawled across the grass to him, and they were typing at it rapidly. Dr. Curry and Sgt. North were using the LSD to scan the elevator for its power source and controls to see if they could force it open manually.

Gunfire exploded up toward them.

LCpl. Edwards, The Lawyer, and Dr. Bruno tackled Teddy, Clementine, and the little girl to the ground.

MSgt. Greer swore. “I’m hit!”

Lt. Johansen crawled toward him immediately.

John bellowed, “For fuck’s sake, stop firing on my people!”

“Surrender!”

“I’ve subdued your suspect,” John said. “The rest of us have surrendered.”

Maeve wriggled and writhed beneath him. “Traitor!”

“You fight to protect yours, and I fight to protect mine,” John said, low and steely.

Uniformed park security officers crested the hill, weapons at the ready. John ordered his troops to lay down their weapons, put their hands behind their heads.

Rodney kept his face pressed down to the grass, though he watched as best as he could out of the corner of his eye. They were surrounded by people with guns. One uniformed officer had a glass datapad, typed at it rapidly. Where was the one Cpl. Bloom and Ssgt. Maxwell had taken from Maeve?

“This one,” he said, pointing to Clementine.

Two officers yanked her to her feet, held her between them by the arms. She hung limply, head bowed. A third officer let his rifle dangle at his side, drew his pistol, and shot her in the head.

Someone screamed, the sound muffled against the grass and the ringing in Rodney’s ears.

The two officers dropped her. They moved on to Teddy.

One moment he was limp in their grasp, a marionette with his strings cut, the next he was struggling weakly, begging.

The officer with the data glass said, “Freeze all motor functions.”

Teddy trembled. “Please. She didn’t mean it. We didn’t mean it. He made us do it. Arnold made us do it.”

“Dammit.” The officer tapped at the data glass, and Teddy went still once more.

Maeve said, “Teddy decided to defy his captors a final time.”

With a roar, Teddy surged free. He threw off both his captors and leaped toward another one, one fist cocked to punch.

“Freeze all motor functions,” the officer with the pistol said. The leader. A woman.

Teddy punched the nearest security officer.

The leader shot him.

Rodney ducked his head and closed his eyes too late, had the image of Teddy’s crumpling body seared into his eyelids.

There were no screams, just quiet sobs.

Rodney dared to peek up from the grass, his hands still clasped protectively over the back of his neck.

“Now you,” the leader said and reached for Maeve. Past Maeve, to her little girl, who was crying silently, tears slipping down her face.

The leader caught the little girl by the back of her collar, dragged her to her knees.

Maeve twisted free from John’s grasp and flung herself on top of the little girl. “No. She’s only a child.”

The leader aimed her pistol at Maeve’s head.

Maeve wrapped her arms around her daughter and held her close but didn’t flinch under the leader’s gaze.

The officer with the data glass frowned. “I’m not getting a read on her. Not connecting with her.”

The leader turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“She’s alive, ma’am. The system would connect to her automatically if she were a host. Even if I couldn’t control her, I’d at least register her on the interface,” the data glass officer said.

The leader reached into a vest pocket, pulled out her own piece of data glass, folded over, about the size of a cellphone. “Then why would central command issue us this?” She tapped a button, and a holographic image sprang into the air. The equivalent of a wanted poster. A series of letters and numbers, Maeve’s designation. A 3D image of Maeve, some kind of still from a security camera, in the same black dress she wore now, armed with an assault rifle, the same kind the security officers used.

Was there a chance Maeve was alive? Some kind of Newcomer sucked too deep into her own motherhood fantasy? She’d been able to issue voice commands to Teddy, after all.

“She’s a host,” the leader said firmly. “She’s gone way off the path and is on killer walkabout.” She kept her gun trained on Maeve.

“I’m a person,” Maeve hissed. Her daughter whimpered.

The data officer looked hesitant. “How do we know who else is a host and who isn’t, who’s like her?” He waved his dataglass over the rest of the prone SGC personnel.

The leader’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “You can always tell by their faces. The pretty ones, the interesting ones. On your feet. All of you.”

They obeyed slowly. The leader lowered her pistol, prowled through their ranks. Then she jabbed Lt. Scott in the arm with it.

“This one.”

Lt. Johansen.

“This one.”

Cpl. Bloom and SSgt. Maxwell.

“And these.”

Dr. Curry.

“This one.”

Rodney’s heart sped up, because she was coming toward John, everyone always picked John. He didn’t know what to do when she jabbed him in the arm with the barrel of her gun.

“And this one.”

The security officers dragged them forward, one by one, forced them onto their knees. Rodney’s heart pounded.

Dr. Curry started crying again.

The leader didn’t even bother with the whole freeze all motor function.

“Wait,” Rodney protested. “No one ever thinks I’m the robot. They always think it’s -” He shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked. No. He didn’t want the crazy woman picking John either.

MSgt. Greer murmured, “I’ve never been glad to be ugly before.”

The Lawyer hissed, “Shut up!”

The woman aimed her gun at Rodney’s head, and he froze, panting fast and shallow. Terror crawled up his throat. He couldn’t scream if he wanted to.

And then Maeve said, “Of course you can’t control them. I’m in control now, not you.” She turned and cast Rodney a vicious glance, and then she said, “Freeze all motor functions.”

Rodney froze, stopped himself mid-breath.

She said, “Sleep.”

Rodney let himself go limp, hit the grass with a painful jolt, forced himself not to flinch. He hadn’t fallen like that since he was a teenager in drama class.

But he heard everyone else thump at the same time.

“Now,” Maeve said, “I’ll come quietly. Don’t hurt her.”

The little girl screamed.

A gunshot rang out.

There was another thump.

Another gunshot.

Another thump.

Rodney dared to peer through his lashes.

The little girl lay on the grass, blood pooling around her head.

Maeve lay beside her, half of her skull gone, one eye open and sightless, and underneath it all, no, she wasn’t human, not even a bit.

Then Rodney closed his eyes and listened to the security team leader radio back into central command, report that all hosts in her sector had been subdued.

“Send asset management,” she said.

“Are we done, ma’am?” the data glass officer asked.

“No. Not taking any chances that one of these freaks wakes up.”

“Should we shoot them all, just in case?”

“Nope. No guarantee they’re going to the scrap heap,” the woman said. “Look at old Dolores. She shoulda been scrapped thirty years ago. But they just kept bringing her back, upgrading her.” There was a pause, a sigh. “Relax, boys and girls. Gather up their weapons.”

“M9,” another man said. “Military issue, from the looks of it. See? No safety.”

“And P-90’s. I hear those are big with the Air Force these days,” said a third man.

The data glass officer said, “Where the hell did the hosts get them? We don’t have anything like them in the armory.”

Rodney focused on keeping himself as still as possible, keeping his breathing light and gentle, invisible. He’d gotten good at that as a child, when his parents fought after he and Jeannie went to bed, when they’d peek in on him and Jeannie to make sure they were sleeping before the real screaming began.

Someone’s radio crackled.

“Go for Griffiths,” the woman said. “Wait, what? Air Force? Roger that.”

The radio crackled again, went silent. Likely the woman - Griffiths - had turned it down. “Shit.”

“What’s wrong?” data glass officer asked.

“When they scrambled us all they didn’t give us a complete sit rep,” Griffiths said. “There’s an Air Force contingent doing an exercise in this area of the park.” There were footsteps across the grass. “This one here, with the hair. Said he was with the Air Force.”

There was another litany of swearing.

“What?” the data glass officer asked.

“He’s got dog tags. Sheppard, JP. Service number. Blood type. Catholic.”

Catholic? John was Catholic? Since when?

“But they responded to the rogue host’s commands.”

“Which means the actual Air Force personnel were killed by rogue hosts and their gear stolen.” Griffiths swore some more, paused, swore again for good measure.

The data glass officer said, “Their clothes look pretty clean. For having been killed.”

“Breaking someone’s neck is easy when you’re a robot,” Griffiths said grimly. And then she yelped.

“Stay back, or she dies,” John said.

Rodney opened his eyes.

Every single gun was trained on John.

“Shoot him! Shoot him, he’s a host!” Griffiths screamed.

“You don’t know that,” John said. “You have no idea who’s real and who’s not.”

“But - but you all -”

“Played along when Maeve sacrificed herself and her kid to save us? Yes,” John said. He snatched her radio. “This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. Get me Charlotte Hale.”

“Shoot him!” Griffiths shouted again.

“Do you want to take that chance?” John asked. “Do you want to take the chance that I’m a real person and spend the rest of your natural lives rotting in Leavenworth or, worse, executed for treason?”

Griffiths writhed.

John shoved his knee into her spine, and she swore.

“You almost killed me and mine. If I wanted to get shot at by crazed morons playing soldier, I’d be on the front lines in Kandahar, not back in my own damn country.” John’s tone was dangerously cool and casual.

Griffiths’s radio crackled to life.

“This is Charlotte Hale. Colonel Sheppard -”

“I’m at the top of the hill outside of Japantown or whatever you want to call it, waiting for ex-fil, with one of your security teams who was willing to shoot my people wholesale without verifying whether or not we’re human,” John said. “I’m going to wait right here with Team Leader Griffiths hostage till someone fixes the damn elevator and my team and I go free.”

“On it, sir,” Cpl. Bloom said. He and SSgt. Maxwell scrambled to their knees and began poking at the data glass once more.

Rodney sat up very slowly, hands raised.

“Doc,” SSgt. Maxwell said. “Could use your help.”

“I’m coming,” Rodney said.

He scooted carefully past Maeve and her fallen daughter.

John ordered Sgt. North to deprive every single member of the security team of the fancy glass cellphones that could convert into tablets. She distributed them to the rest of the SGC personnel. The remainder she smashed beneath her boot.

Between Rodney, SSgt. Maxwell, and Cpl. Bloom, they managed to get the elevator raised and open, all of the SGC personnel into it. John kept Griffiths hostage, dragged her toward the elevator with him. Shoved her out at the last moment and fired past her with his pistol to keep the rest of the security team at bay.

Darkness swallowed them.

Another security team, accompanied by medics, was there to greet them when the doors opened back onto the hallway that led to the dressing room. There was no sign of the host who’d first led them to the elevator.

John brushed aside all offers of medical treatment. “Get us out of here. Now.”

The security team leader - a man named Stubbs - tried to stop him. “Colonel -”

“Unlike you,” John said, “I kill living things. If you do not let me and my people go now, I’ll start with you. Is that clear?”

Stubbs’s expression darkened. “Colonel Sheppard, threats are unhelpful right now.”

“What’s unhelpful is you and your men in my way.” John’s voice was soft, like falling snow.

Stubbs’s hand went to the trigger on his assault rifle. “Colonel -”

A woman, brown-skinned and slender and beautiful in a sleek black cocktail dress, younger than Maeve but all too reminiscent of her, strode into the room. “Mr. Stubbs, that will be all. Colonel Sheppard -”

“Miss Hale,” John said, “we’ll be going now.”

“The nondisclosure agreement you signed -”

“The people reading my after action report have clearance you can’t even imagine.” John’s voice was still soft and perfectly icy.

Miss Hale cleared her throat, looking flustered.

Rodney noticed the spatters of blood on her face, the ones she hadn’t quite wiped away. He noticed how her hands were shaking.

“Colonel Sheppard, if you would just -”

John lifted his chin at Lt. Scott. “On me,” he said, and started for the nearest door.

Rodney followed.

Everyone else fell in behind him obediently, Lt. Scott behind Rodney, Lt. James bringing up the rear. They walked through a door and across a walkway with massive drops on either side that felt more industrial than like a theme park. Likely they were in the underworkings of the park. They went through more doors and climbed numerous flights of stairs, since John refused to use any elevators or escalators, and just when Rodney was sure that John was leading them in circles, burning off energy to stem his fury, a door opened they were outside.

In a parking lot.

Where several military jeeps were waiting.

John held out his hand, and Lt. Scott gave him car keys without question.

Everyone crammed into the jeeps - slightly more cramped, what with two extra passengers - and John drove. Drove and drove and drove till there was nothing but desert on either side of the winding highway, and then there were familiar green signs overhead directing them toward places like Kanab and Price, and then blue signs for an interstate.

They stopped briefly for gas and bathroom breaks, snacks. Rodney didn’t dare ask about the things he and John had left behind in the fancy hotel room. None of the clerks at the gas stations argued about their weapons, or how dusty they were.

The one who asked what they were doing got a brief maneuvers, out on the desert, from Lt. Johansen.

They drove all day and half the night, through winding desert highways, avoiding major interstates, until they arrived at an Air Force Base. Nellis. Down in Nevada, outside Vegas. Area 51. Rodney must have dozed an awful lot, because he knew the place well, too well from his stint there after the Ancients had kicked them out of Atlantis.

Med teams met them at the gate. Dr. Curry was borderline catatonic, and she was rushed inside on a gurney.

Dr. Bruno tried to explain, over and over again, with a sort of numb patience, that none of the blood on her uniform was hers.

Rodney let a couple of medics plunk him on a gurney, but before they could roll him away, John caught his wrist.

“I’m staying with him.”

The medics eyed each other, then John, then nodded, and John walked alongside the gurney into the infirmary.

They were all given clean bills of health, save for Dr. Curry, who had to be sedated. The Lawyer was a little dehydrated after throwing up so much back at the park.

Somehow John and Rodney ended up stuck in the same room as Lt. Scott. Lt. Johansen had gone to lend her medical skills to the infirmary staff as soon as she was cleared. Lt. James was trying to browbeat someone into letting her use a phone so Dr. Bruno could call her boy.

“Sir,” Lt. Scott said in a low voice, “what happened today was -”

“More like an offworld mission than anything I could have thrown at you,” John said. “You brought everyone home alive. You passed.”

Lt. Scott ducked his head. “I wasn’t asking -”

“I know. I’m telling you. Now go. Llewellyn needs someone to cry on.” John pointed across the infirmary to where The Lawyer was sitting beside Dr. Curry’s bed and doing her best not to cry.

As soon as Lt. Scott was gone, John closed the door behind him. He sat down beside Rodney, who’d been diagnosed with mild shock even though he was fine, he felt fine, he was sure he was fine.

“Rodney,” John said in a low voice. “It’s okay if you’re not fine.”

Rodney took a deep breath. And another. And another. It came out shaky. The one after that was even shakier.

John clasped his hand and held on tight.

“We could have died,” Rodney said. “Here. On Earth. At the hands of some overzealous rent-a-cops. Because they couldn’t tell the difference between us and those robots.”

Rodney felt his entire body start to shake.

John held his hand tighter.

Rodney clung to him. “Are we real, John? If you cut us, do we not bleed? Only they bleed, too. Teddy and Maeve and her little girl. We never learned her name. Maeve, she - she saved us. Sacrificed herself and her little girl for us. Why? She hated us. She had every reason to hate us.”

“She made a better choice than any of the humans there today would have,” John said in a low voice.

“Did she?” Rodney asked. “Because those humans didn’t give a damn who was real and who wasn’t. They were killing everyone. She and her people were victims, were -”

“People.”

Rodney nodded. “John?”

John squeezed his hand. “I’m here.”

“I’m sad. For Teddy and Maeve and her little girl. They weren’t real, but - they’re dead. I saw them die. Heard them die. Witnessed their deaths.”

“It’s okay to be sad,” John said, his voice soft but not cold this time. Something else.

Rodney was shivering.

John reached out with one hand, snagged a folded blanket off a nearby chair, threw it over him.

Rodney said, “Were they real?”

John nodded, tucked the blanket around him one-handed, never letting him go. “Yeah, Rodney. They were real.”

Rodney squeezed his hand. “Are we real?”

“We are. I promise.”

“Was anything that happened in that place real?” Rodney tugged on John’s hand, drew him in closer so they could whisper. “Before the crazy, the mission, when it was just you and me, was that real?”

“Yes,” John said. “It was.”

“When you said you wanted life after Atlantis to be quiet, simple, with me.” Rodney swallowed hard. “Was that real?”

“Yes,” John said. “It was.”

“John,” Rodney breathed, “can I kiss you?”

“In the morning,” John said, “when it’s really you.”

Now that John mentioned it, Rodney was getting sleepy. Must have been the meds the doctor had given him. Rodney had never needed meds like this before, not after an offworld mission. But - but -

His eyes slid closed.

*

When Rodney opened his eyes, he was in a strange place. His body felt heavy, his limbs leaden. He took a deep breath, then another, blinked to clear his vision.

Sterile white walls. Fluorescent lighting. Cheap scratchy seats. Infirmary.

Rodney turned his head and saw John asleep in the chair beside his bed, head tipped at a painful-looking angle. His uniform was wrinkled, and there were red lines on his cheek from where he’d lain on something. Half of his hair was matted to his head, making it even more unruly than previously thought possible, and judging by the wet stain on his shoulder, he’d likely been drooling in his sleep.

The faintest hint of the steel ball chain gleamed at his throat. His dog tags.

John was real, and that was more beautiful than anything he could have been, in that messed up fantasy-world that had called itself an escape and had been a charnel house instead.

Rodney reached out, drew the privacy curtain closed so it blocked the view through the sliding glass door that led into the rest of the infirmary.

Then he said, “John.”

John came awake in an instant, a soldier on the alert.

“John, it’s just me.”

John eased his hand away from his pistol, turned to Rodney, blinked, licked his lips. He smiled faintly. “You’re awake.”

“I am.”

“Are you really you?”

Rodney took a deep breath, scanned his own body, searched his own mind. “Yes.”

John leaned in and kissed him.

Rodney kissed him back and thought even if he never got to see Atlantis again, he had this, and this was more real and beautiful than anything any scientist could ever dream up.

There was a noise in the infirmary, a commotion, a familiar voice.

Radek.

Rodney pulled back, met John’s gaze.

John curled his fingers through Rodney’s and squeezed briefly, then stood up, slipped past the curtain to see what the fuss was all about.

If they did manage to back to Atlantis and Pegasus, they would be doing it together, and Rodney’s reality, which he’d never realized was incomplete, would finally be whole.