“But, but my sister gave it to me.” The shocked denial came from the marine apparently without thought. John watched with some amusement as a red flush slowly started making its way up the marine’s neck and face. “It’s my good luck charm.”
“And it’s bringing us all sorts of luck. It’s getting us a partially charged ZedPM. So hand it over.” McKay was his usual peremptory self. John could sympathize with the marine. It was a bit startling that the native group had demanded that alone as their trade item, but the trade was too good to refuse for sentimental reasons.
He was still rather impressed with the man who, despite being flushed and stuttering, was still not handing over the charm.
“I, I promised her I wouldn’t take it off. She had it made special for me.” By this point he had the charm enclosed in one fist, held tight against his body, as if someone might jump him and wrest it from him by force. Which, John considered both McKay and the native woman, someone might well. “She got into all this new age mysticism stuff before I left and she got her teacher to make it for me. She said that even if I couldn’t write, she would know I was alive as long as I wore it.”
A lot of the other marines were actually looking sympathetic. Most of them had some small trinket that represented Earth and home to them and which they quietly protected more than their lives. It was just bad luck that now it had to be used as a trade item.
“It’s power for the shields for a year.” John reminded him softly.
“Indeed,” the native woman who had made the offer said, “anything less would be an unfair trade, we could not offer that to one who is protected by such a powerful blessing.”
John sighed and wished she had let him deal with this. Telling the marine that his charm was valuable was not the way to go about it.
“It’s just a river rock in a wire cage. It’s okay. Your sister would understand.”
The woman spoke up again, “The red tree of your home land has cast its protection over you. But surely with all your weapons, you can give us that protection instead.”
And just as John was rolling his eyes McKay spoke up from where he had been uncharacteristically quiet.
“Wait, what? Red tree? Are you telling me, you, you idiot of a marine, you have a protective amulet made by Willow Rosenberg herself and you never told us?”
John shut his eyes for a moment and told himself that he couldn’t just kill McKay out of hand. The man was very bit the genius that he constantly claimed to be. Maybe he had a plan. He could always hope that it was even a reasonable plan.
That was echoed by several people, Sheppard was glad to hear. At least he wasn’t the only one who didn’t track the sudden shift.
The marine looked unnerved but when McKay started snapping his fingers at him, he spoke promptly enough, “That’s the name of the woman my sister was studying with, yeah.”
“For crying out loud, no wonder your idiocy hasn’t killed you off yet.” Then speaking to the natives in his peremptory way, “No, we can’t trade the stone. Pick something else. It probably wouldn’t even work for you, anyway.”
“We’ll take the chance.” The native woman gave McKay a rather poisonous look.
That, at least, was familiar territory for John, but he really wished he understood what was going on. As it was, he stared at McKay and repeated himself rather pointedly, “What?”
McKay glared. “The idiot over there,” stabbing a finger at the poor hapless marine, “has been going around with a protection amulet made by this girl generally recognized to be the most powerful witch in centuries, who also just happens to specialize in helping small vigilante groups go out and win against impossibly odds to protect humanity. And he calls it a good luck charm!”
And somehow that explanation didn’t help. John opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, McKay rolled right on.
“Give that to me.” McKay reached over and grabbed the amulet. Or rather, he grabbed the marine’s wrist and pried the amulet from his grip.
Then he blew on it and shook and said, “Willow? Come on, stupid rock. Work. I need to talk to Willow. Come on, Willow, I know you can hear me. Come on, come on, come on. There’s no way you made an amulet that doesn’t connect back… ah hah! Finally!
“Oh come on, I’m in a different freaking galaxy at the moment, how am I supposed to know what the time difference is? Plus, ooh, danger, doesn’t just come during regular business hours. …
“Okay, so not really immediate danger so much as potential future danger. Which is still dangerous. Not having shields is dangerous. …
“These savages think your stone is worth more than any of our other barter goods. …
“Yeah, yeah, no good for anyone else, can’t have people dying for their protective amulets, yes, I got that without your sarcasm. …
“Yes, I noticed the sarcasm. I thought you might like to talk with the crazy savages and pass on some of your mumbo-jumbo practices so that they too can go out, dance naked, and get a stone of their very own.”
It was an amazing one-sided dialogue and John found himself half-convinced McKay had finally gone completely insane and half-convinced that he’d never properly respected the man’s genius. If this helped, he wouldn’t even make fun of him for it. For a whole week. Well, at least a day. Maybe. The grimaces on McKay’s face at the rock’s silent responses were hilarious.
But then McKay stomped over to the head native, plopped the stone into her hand, saying, “Go forth and commune with the spirits. But we want the rock back.”
And the woman must have bought the whole act because her eyes went wide as soon as she touched the stone. “Oh.”
She just stood there with the rock in her hand. “Oh.” She tilted her head to one side as if listening. And then she started talking to the rock, although mostly she was listening and making “mm-hmm” noises.
A few of the other villagers came forward and put their hands over hers, covering the rock. “Oh,” they said. Then, “mm-hmm.”
Sheppard and the other Atlanteans stood waiting awkwardly, looking at each other with questions in their eyes, then shrugging because they sure didn’t know what was going on but they didn’t mind waiting since it didn’t seem to be dangerous.
McKay was, of course, the exception. He kept up a running monologue of melodramatic worry and theory, starting with, “Wait a minute. How did he get a personal protection amulet and I didn’t?”
McKay glowered at Sheppard, sending a quick glare in the one marine’s direction. “Of course, I didn’t tell her that I was going out into danger, so maybe she didn’t know. But she’s all for the protection of humanity. She should have noticed. Or maybe she knows that I am going to survive. Or maybe I’m not. And she’s so used to dealing with people fated for horrible deaths, that she didn’t even notice.”
Sheppard watched with some amazement as McKay’s mood ricocheted back and forth. The man was not bipolar. He had asked Heightmeyer about it and she had laughed at him. On three separate occasions. McKay just took melodrama to the next level.
At it’s best, it was highly entertaining and made up for not having any TV. At it’s worst, it was enough to drive one to homicide. He hadn’t yet decided which way it was right now.
“Of course, I did pay her a small fortune for her to supplement my laptop. In fact all the laptops I could smuggle off the base to her got a special going over, so maybe she snuck in some protection charms. I should surround myself with the laptops.”
“Rodney, you already surround yourself with laptops.”
“Yes! And I’m still alive, so maybe it’s helping.”
“Okay, so the rock is special because it was blessed by someone named Willow Rosenberg?”
Sheppard took a moment to consider the virtues of patience. “So who is she?”
“I told you. A witch.”
Now he was sure that McKay was teasing him. Sheppard glared, but McKay just smirked. Sheppard spoke through gritted teeth, “Other than a witch.”
McKay laughed but did tell him more. “She’d give Sam stiff competition for being the perfect women if she weren’t like twelve or something, flaming gay, and into that pseudo science around computers.”
Sheppard rolled his eyes and wondered if anyone was ever actually identifiable from a McKay description. Although now he wondered if McKay actually knew someone called Willow Rosenberg or if he was making up the whole story as an elaborate practical joke. From past experience with McKay, he guessed if this Willow were an actual person, given the description, she was probably in her twenties, wore a rainbow ribbon on gay-pride day, and was currently refining her working model of artificial intelligence or something equally advanced. There was no hope of getting any sort of unbiased confirmation from McKay, however.
“She says it’s all about connections and everything being one, but I know it’s just another part of her witch mumbo-jumbo. Computer science is all incantations anyway. She says that computer science is a real science. I say, I’ll believe that when she comes up with a grand unified theory of physics. She said she did have working knowledge of the universe for a while but since by all other accounts she was high as a kite at the time, not to mention phosphorescing, I think I can safely discount that.”
John felt compelled to interject, “ah, phosphorescing?”
“Did you not graduate from middle school or something? Phosphorescing, you know, glowing, creating light, that sort of thing?” And McKay actually managed to maintain his normal tone that implied everyone else was an idiot even though it was clearly he who had lost his mind.
“She was glowing.”
“I said that didn’t I? Although I didn’t see if myself, of course.”
“Of course.” McKay had to be making this up.
“I have better things to do than risk my life needlessly on physical violence.”
After learning about the Ancients, going to Atlantis, and spending a year fighting the Wraith, he had thought he had reached his saturation point for being disturbed by what the universe threw at him. Trust McKay to prove his theory wrong.
“You’re trying to tell me you believe in magic.”
“Oh, come on, you have a city who talks to you. You’re saying you don’t believe in magic?”
“Yeah, so is magic. It’s something people do to affect the world. Definition of technology. Did you fail English comprehension? You are a native English speaker, aren’t you?”
“That’s not the same.”
“Sure it’s the same,” then McKay looked like he had just had a wonderful idea. John hated that look. It never boded well. McKay sounded absolutely delighted when he burst out with, “you’re jealous! Willow has a whole planet that likes her and she didn’t even have to give up TV or fast food restaurants to get it. All you have is a single city.”
“Oh come on. That’s ridiculous.”
“Yup. Jealous, jealous, jealous. That stone probably is just a river stone that she held, but it’s connected to everything else so she can make it light up. You still have to work at lighting up the machines here, with a 31% failure rate I might add, and they were made with the intention of lighting up.”
“They’re ten thousand years old and made by aliens. I think I’m allowed to struggle with it sometimes.”
“That rock’s older than ten thousand years and it was made by a combination of earthquakes and water.”
“Oh come on.”
Luckily, before their bickering could descend further, the native group finished communing with the rock, and returned it to the unnerved looking marine along with the ZPM. “Thank you. Your Red Tree has told us much. Our planet will protect its own.”
And then McKay was no longer paying John any attention at all as he snatched the ZPM from the marine, who really seemed just as happy to let it go since at least he had his good-luck charm back.
McKay spent the walk back to the gate and the debriefing session muttering plans for the new ZPM.
Once back in Atlantis, before McKay could make a break for the lab, John grabbed his arm and made one last attempt at sanity. “You were making it up, right?” Because really, after all he’d seen, he supposed a witch back on Earth wouldn’t be the weirdest thing he’d run across.
“If we ever get back to Earth, I’ll introduce you to Willow.” McKay smiled his crooked grin. “Now I’m busy now.”
Which, upon reflection, didn’t really answer the question one way or the other. He’d wait until they got back to Earth to figure it out. He had other things to worry about in the mean time.