“Jack, most of the video file has nothing on it.”
Jack looked up from the paper file on his desk. Daniel stood in the doorway to his home office. “I kept it on the whole time,” he said. The video and audio recorders had been built into the ribbons for the dress blues he’d worn to Meropis, the anniversary of the official opening of the university there. Or something. Two years or so by Earth standards, and who knew what Pegasus was measuring as important times. “Audio?”
“Got that. Still wish you’d let me come with you. Sending only one representative may have been seen as insulting.”
“They didn’t seem to mind. Lots of other folks from other planets. Couldn’t risk you not coming back.”
“They wouldn’t have kidnapped me.” Daniel ran his hand through his hair in a familiar gesture, one left over from when it had fallen floppy on his forehead. Daniel looked back up at Jack, eyebrows up in a slight question, waiting for him to argue or agree.
“It wasn’t them I was worried about,” Jack said tilting his head slightly toward Daniel, not dropping the eye contact. Jack felt his lips twitch toward a smile. Floppy-haired Daniel would have embedded himself in Meropis in a heartbeat and called it an ethnographic study. Not that Jack would ever let Daniel know he knew what an ethnographic study actually was.
“Jack, it’s the foundations of a new culture. We’ll see how they blend Ancient and Tau’ri and all the planets across Pegasus.”
“Not all of them,” Jack said, glancing back down at the paper file. “The Genii and the rest of those suicidal virus Huffmans--‘
“Hoffans,” Daniel corrected, as Jack had expected him to.
“Well they’re not invited.”
“Right. Specifically because the Meropans don’t want those cultural elements included in the mix. No militarism. No fanaticism.” Daniel nodded, then seemed to come to some decision. “Jack, it’s the chance of a lifetime.”
“Corrigan is sending you reports, isn’t he?”
“Not so much lately. And I have nothing visual but his sketches. Digital video doesn’t work. I’ve never seen this Machina. Any of Meropis. The people and the uniforms and the writing they’re developing.”
“Looks like Atlantis with more wall hangings.”
“Which I want to see. Can I go, Jack?”
“Aren’t you supposed to be following Machina’s lead and getting that weapon for our next invasion.” He raised his eyebrows. "The mythical Ori to be defeated by a weapon from Merlin?"
Daniel finally stepped into the office and sat down in Jack’s reading chair, ignoring the teasing and sinking into the winged sides, only his nose and a glint of light from his glasses visible from Jack’s desk. “They don’t need me for that. From what you learned on Meropis, any archeology and Ancient interpretation you might need from me won’t be necessary. Apparently the other me had quite the scavenger hunt to find Merlin’s weapon.” Jack heard a deep sigh emerge from the chair. “We have plenty of people capable of following the maps you brought back.”
Jack leaned back. “Danny, are you trying to tell me you’re bored?”
“Well,” Daniel started, then trailed off. Jack head him snort. “Don’t want to invite trouble.”
Jack let himself grimace slightly. “Don’t worry. Trouble is inviting you.”
Daniel leaned forward suddenly, out of his chair and walking toward Jack’s desk with his hand out. They’d worked together too long for Daniel not to know that whatever was in that folder must be the trouble.
“Yeah,” Jack said, handing it up. “I didn’t invite you out to DC just to report to the Pentagon.” He watched Daniel flip open the folder, his eyes back and forth across the pages. “Something’s weird in Atlantis.”
“Weird,” Daniel said flatly, not looking up. “What am I looking for?”
“Nothing.” Jack snorted and sat back in his chair, picking up the stress ball on his desk and tossing it hand to hand, the long-practiced affect of casualness. Daniel wouldn’t be fooled. He’d read the fidgeting for what it really was when he looked up from paging carefully through the file.
“They’re hiding something.” Daniel squinted at the file, twisting his lips. “Everything seems utterly normal.”
“Like that ever happens,” Jack said, watching the squeeze toy arc overheard. “No weird artifacts, no Wraith ambushes. Suddenly they have a charmed life.”
“No new personnel requests.”
“And no one requesting a transfer home.“
“That’s not normal,” Daniel said, dropping the file back on Jack’s desk. “You sending me in?”
Jack caught the toy and set it on the desk. “What if you turn into one of the pod people?”
Daniel considered the file, tapping his fingers on the manilla folder. “Sheppard?”
“Is still in Meropis, far as we know. Been two years now. Lorne rotated out after a year, his request you recall. He was replaced by a guy named Stillwater.”
“When did Altantis go Stepford?”
“Gradually after Stillwater came in. When people are rotated off, they come back to the Mountain as ordered, but sometimes they request to stay, and no one asks for transfer out any more.”
Daniel furrowed his brow. “If it weren’t the wrong galaxy, I’d worry about nishta.”
“Didn’t they have their own version of that a while back? Someone with a roofie love me drug?”
“His name was Lucius,” Daniel said, glancing up briefly, the lamp from Jack’s desk reflecting on the glasses and obscuring his eye. “Also by inhalation, that one. Sheppard having a cold was enough to protect him.”
Daniel’s memory for disjointed facts was what Jack was relying on here. He put patterns together like no one Jack had ever known before, and years of exposure to it hadn’t dulled Jack’s appreciation.
“It says here that Sam didn’t notice anything on her last visit.”
“Yeah, I sent her in supposedly to confer with Zelenka and McKay, but mostly I just wanted her bead on the place. She didn’t see anything wrong.”
“Sam’s not exactly a people person,” Daniel said, looking apologetically at Jack. “She’s just not as observant there as elsewhere.”
“She’s good enough to be a good commander,” Jack defended, but he knew what Daniel meant. Sam had military structures to rely on, valued intellect over emotion. “But you’re right. She could see that the personnel patterns are weird, but not why.”
“What do we know about Stillwater?” Daniel asked. “I’m not familiar with him other than as a name. Ah,” he interrupted himself, clearly having landed on the summary of Stillwater’s service jacket, and muttering, “Helped set up what became Bondsteel in Kosovo. Iraq after that. Spent longer than normal as a Major. Black mark for an incident in Basra.” He looked up. “Usually something that delayed promotion like that would disqualify someone from commanding a base.”
Jack shrugged. “Not my call, and he’s tight with Landry. Also, the incident was technically disobedience, but I think someone threw him under the bus.”
“So you think he’s okay?”
Jack shrugged. “One way to find out.”
“So you’re sending me in?” Daniel looked hopeful, but he kept his eyes on the file he was paging through. “But you want me on Atlantis, right?”
“You get your wish, Danny. You’re going to Meropis,” Jack said, leaning back and watching Daniel, who snapped the file closed.
“Why not Atlantis?”
“Don’t want to risk you. But you’ll be checking in every day. Relay through the Atlantis gate.”
Daniel stared at him for a few seconds. “You’re going to use the daily check-ins to spy on Atlantis’s systems somehow.”
Jack gave himself a wolf smile. “Sam’s got something cooked up. And they’ve got plenty of ZPMs for phoning home.”
“And I get to do what I want on Meropis?”
“That, and,” Jack said.
“Well, spy, of course. Report back to us what you learn about what’s going on with Atlantis. Make friends with Sheppard and Mitchell. That Emmagen woman, too.”
“What if whatever is going on is in Meropis, too? What if I get compromised?”
“Danny, have you met John Sheppard?”
Daniel considered for a minute and came to the same conclusion as Jack. “Right.”
“So we’re going to set up our own reporting codes and you get to study the emergence of a new culture,” Jack said, dragging out the last two words, teasing Daniel a bit. Then he leaned forward, reached into another drawer on his desk, and said, “Let’s review comms and options, target information and sideways interrogation.”
“Spy stuff. Right,” Daniel said, taking the chair across the desk from Jack.
Jack breathed in, pulled up his Black Ops self, and nodded.
“Welcome to Atlantis, Dr. Jackson,” Mr. Woolsey said, stepping forward with a hand extended.
Daniel held up a hand, trying to look apologetic and waved. “If you’ll excuse me, I don’t…” He let the words trail off, and gave a sheepish grin. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Woolsey. I’m sorry I won’t be staying.”
Woolsey dropped his hand, not appearing to be offended. “Of course.” He nodded over to the technician, someone Daniel didn’t recognize. “Dial site Mu.”
“Mu?” Daniel asked.
“Meropis only has one gate that can connect to it now. We call the planet Mu, like M, for Meropis, but calling it the Mu site made everyone make cow jokes.”
“And Mu was an alternative name for Atlantis or Lemuria,” Daniel said, almost reflexively. He gave Woolsey another brief smile and looked around the Atlantis gate room. Nothing seemed off. It just all seemed calm in a way that Daniel rarely saw at any SGC facility, maybe somewhat fewer people. “Do I have to ship out right away? I’d like to at least say hello to Dr. McKay.”
“Ah, Dr. McKay will meet you on Meropis,” Woolsey said. “He has an extended project with the AI there. Two years in, and they haven’t been able to repair the file structures for Atlantis.”
“And the records wouldn’t be the same, so just copying Meropis to Atlantis wouldn’t work,” Daniel said, still gazing around the room. “And I guess you wouldn’t want a working AI here.”
“No,” Woolsey said, his voice so mild that Daniel looked back at him. But there was nothing to see. A lot of nothing. Woolsey’s diplomat face was firmly in place. “We’re content for Meropis to be the one thinking city. Atlantis has enough for us.”
“Except a functioning filing system, still.” Daniel shifted his pack on his shoulder, trying not to think about what was in it.
Woolsey’s expression shifted slightly and Daniel didn’t quite know what to think of it. Woolsey said, “Atlantis has enough for us.” His brief smile was close lipped. “Dial site Mu,” he said, louder, turning toward the technician. Back to Daniel he said, “We’ll be ready for your daily check-ins to relay back to Earth.” Again that half smile and unfamiliar expression. “Good luck on Meropis.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said, turning to watch the Atlantis gate dial, the technology more advanced than any of the Milky Way gates. He missed the drama of the spinning naquaddah and the calling of the chevrons. Here, the technician was quiet. The near-silence felt almost awkward, Woolsey standing wordlessly next to him, and everyone in the room barely glancing up at the eventual splash of the wormhole. Daniel turned to Woolsey. “We’ll be in touch soon.”
“Of course.” He still had that same odd expression, one Daniel had never seen on the man’s face. As he stepped through the event horizon, he realized what it had been. Pity.
He had no time to process what that might mean as he traversed the wormhole. There was no thinking in that liminal space of demolecularization, and the fact that humans retained any awareness in transit would forever bother Sam and the other physicists. Daniel came through the worm hole, the realization hitting him that something hadn’t been right on Atlantis beyond the quiet. “Oh!” Daniel said, turning as if he might see through the event horizon back to gate room.
He turned back, to see the guards around the gate, but they were barely paying attention and no one pointed a weapon at him. The gate was inside a large structure, typical of American military temporary bases, the roof a white plastic. It was big enough to house the gate and a few smaller buildings, like sheds or built rooms within a large warehouse. A Marine with ginger hair, what there was to see under his cap was brilliant orange, smiled in greeting and said, “Step aside and we’ll dial you in.” Daniel moved aside, wanting to ask questions, but there was no one near but the corporal at the DHD and he was already inputting the chevrons. Daniel hesitated after the splash, but the Marine made a shooing gesture. “Tell Dr. Mitchell that Corporal Barnes says hi.”
Daniel stepped through the other side into the half-light of early dawn or late evening, surrounded by soldiers with handguns of some kind, pointed at him. The weapons all had the red glow of the pistol Ronon Dex carried. He whirled back around to look at the wormhole again, as if to see back through it, a this isn’t right clawing at the back of his mind. No one had been armed in the Atlantis gate room. There had been no guards there, and the ones on site Mu were relaxed. Daniel turned to face the Meropis guards, part of his brain cataloging their dark uniforms, differences in insignia. Some of them had their eyebrows scrunched in apparent confusion. There was a long pause while Daniel blinked at them, seeing them, but his head back in the Atlantis gate room, trying to make sense of pity from Woolsey, of the lack of apparent military presence in the most sensitive area of the city. Realizing Stillwater hadn’t been there to greet him. So many things that were wrong.
Daniel shook his head to clear it. This seemed all right, the security he would expect. He looked at the guards, the care on the faces of the ones that were not wearing a military stone face or the still confused scrunch of brows at the way he'd spun around as soon as he came through, probably looking like he’d never traversed a gate before. He looked for the speaker and found a young man dressed slightly differently, in a bright blue uniform with yellow piping. It looked like an officer uniform, but the person wearing it couldn’t be more than 19 by Earth standards. Daniel cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“We were told to expect you. I’m Lieutenant Jinto Hallingson.”
“Son of Halling,” Daniel said. “You’re Athosian, but I don’t remember your culture using that kind of patronymic structure. Is it always the father? Do women use the mother’s name?” He stopped himself. “Sorry. Anthropologist.” He took a breath, slotting away the concerns about Atlantis’s personnel, curiosity at this new society, everything else.
The young lieutenant raised his eyebrows. “We were advised both to expect you and what to expect. Just not when to expect you. Interviews will be arranged over the next few days for you to get your larger questions answered.” At a gesture from Hallingson, the guards holstered their weapons. “I’m to take you to Meropis and Commander Sheppard. Dr. McKay will wish to greet you as well.”
Daniel felt his eyebrows go up of their own accord. “Somehow I doubt that,” he muttered. McKay had never had much patience for the soft sciences. Louder he said, “Is it far to the city?”
“We’ll take a sled,” Hallingson answered, gesturing for Daniel to follow him. Just out of view from the gate hovered a vehicle like something out of Star Wars.
“You have anti-grav?” Why didn’t he know this? Why didn’t Sam know this? If they were keeping secrets, why were they showing him? Did this mean he’d never leave?
“Indeed,” Hallingson said, impassive like a smaller, paler Teal’c.
Daniel stepped up into the sled and took a seat, settling his pack between his feet.
“We will have to search that, you understand,” Hallingson said, taking the controls. “Dr. McKay will meet us at the check-point.”
Daniel glanced down and swallowed, wondering if they’d take his film camera, if they’d recognize the other devices Jack had given him to try recording. “Sure.” Then he said, “McKay? Is he here permanently?”
Hallingson started the sled, the motion smooth along the wide trail lined by trees. He didn’t answer, and the wind in Daniel’s ears as they accelrated would have made it impossible to hear anyway.
Daniel spent the ride glancing around at the arching trees, the neat brown braid tailing out from under Hallingson’s uniform cap, the spartan interior of the sled they rode. The sled slowed as it rounded a bend in the manicured trail, coming to a stop at what was clearly a guard house. It looked like anyone could drive right through. Daniel wouldn’t have tried it, though, given the technology of the sled and the hand weapons. There was nothing visible barring the trail, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something there. A guard wearing the darker uniform stepped out, greeting Lieutenant Hallingson by name, adding, “Dr. McKay is on his way from the city. He should be here in 10 minutes.”
“Thank you, Fourth Wex.”
Daniel decided not to stop himself. “Fourth sounds like a title. Are these gradations of rank?”
“Why, yes.” Hallingson got off the sled, putting a hand up to offer Daniel help in stepping down. He didn’t take the assistance, but stepped off the sled with a hop, reaching back in for his pack. Hallingson didn’t seem to take offense, continuing, “We combined several traditions. Some rank names come from Satedan culture, some from the Tau’ri, some from the Travelers.”
“You have Travelers here? I didn’t think they liked to leave space.”
“They don’t, but they send Engineers here for training, a few for teaching.”
“What do they teach?”
Hallingson gave him a polite expression, his face too young to have that And we are done with questions I will answer expression Daniel mostly knew from senior diplomats and military. He accepted it and didn’t push, thinking about why Hallingson seemed so wise beyond his years. Daniel had made the mistake of comparing him to a young man from Earth, but Jinto son of Halling of Athos had seen the waking of the Wraith, the destruction of his people, and was likely in the inner circle of Meropis, despite only ranking as a lieutenant. Sheppard had met Jinto, son of Halling, on his first gate mission in Pegasus, Daniel remembered, as kid of about 12.
Hallingson said, “I recommend you unpack everything for inspection. It will save time.”
Jack had expected they would require this, and the one thing they didn’t want found was a miniaturized microfiche camera built into the heavily padded straps of Daniel’s pack. It used film, and Daniel intended to take two sets of notes, one in a journal the Meropans could read, and one he would photograph in miniature and then destroy. He hoped McKay wouldn’t find it, but he wasn’t sure.
There was a long and deep shelf built into the wall of the guardhouse, and Hallingson gestured for Daniel to place everything there. Daniel stacked his spare clothing, amused at himself for making sure his underwear was hidden in the middle. He laid out a film camera, digital audio recorder, empty hard- and spiral-bound notebooks, flashlights, a headlamp, allergy pills, power bars. He was supposed to stay for ten days, and if he’d packed for a little more than that, no one with gate experience would question his instincts.
Rodney loved driving the hover cars. Everyone else followed Sheppard’s lead and called them sleds. Rodney admitted the name fit, but wouldn’t use it, just to spite Sheppard. He’d been on Meropis for two weeks or so, and the fresh air and sunshine must be getting to him because an underlying discontent was building. Why would he have to come out to inspect Jackson’s pack? He had important work to do and Meropis had only become more interesting over the last few days.
Mitchell and Sheppard had ganged up on him about it, Mitchell with logic and Sheppard with what Sheppard would deny was a pout. Yes, Jackson was coming from Earth. Yes, Meropis was trying to keep some of its secrets, still, although letting Jackson know about the hover cars wasn’t exactly subtle. Yes, Rodney had a better chance than anyone from Pegasus at spotting something.
They came around the curve to the guard shed. Rodney knew it looked antiquated, but he also knew about the net of sensors. Most of Meropis was buried, but Rodney had figured out just how much of the city had been brought on line in the last two years. The city’s life signs detectors had been repurposed to watch for intruders, and the nodes that made up a fascinating stunner net were placed all around the periphery. Rodney wasn’t sure if he wasn’t supposed to know about those, or if the Meropans knew that he knew and pretended they didn’t. Any place where security was organized by John Sheppard and Cameron Mitchell, freed from American military mindsets, was going to have so many layers and twists.
Rodney had asked Machina if it wanted to come along. He could have used the company and Jackson could have started his anthropology-gasm on someone else instead of Rodney. But the AI had said no, and smiled at Rodney’s grousing.
Rodney hit the brakes. Well, they weren’t brakes, really, because there was no physical contact for slowing down, and shut up brain. Layers and twists. They wanted him alone with Jackson before Jackson came to the city. Jackson hadn’t stayed on Atlantis at all. Rodney hadn’t been on Atlantis in weeks, and there was always something more to do here, no crises on Atlantis to call him back. It was weirdly quiet. Meropis was determined to be quiet, but Atlantis rarely was for long. Come to think of it, Zelenka hadn’t been hounding him for results and information they could apply to Atlantis’s systems.
There was a slight hum from the stopped car, a gentle bounce as Rodney shifted in the driver’s seat. He took a breath. Why did they want him alone with Jackson? Why not meet him or have a Meropan meet him? They probably wanted Jackson to suss out Rodney with no distractions. Why would they need that? Rodney sat back in the car. The discontent under his skin was familiar, was what drove him. Where had it gone so that he would notice it coming back? Why wasn’t Zelenka curious about what he found? Rodney tried to think back on his arrival to Meropis. It had been … nice. The people had been … nice. He’d gone for long walks, enjoying being on land instead of ocean. Eventually he’d gotten to the job at hand with the AI.
Holy crap, he’d been in rehab. But for what?
To my utter delight, mific stepped up to provide beta before I post. They gave me comments and corrections on the previous chapters, and this one will have so many fewer errors, thanks to mific!
Daniel didn’t restrain himself from running his fingers over the thick straps of his pack where the microfiche camera was hidden, but he continued over everything else, picking up one of the blank notebooks. The best way to keep others from focusing attention on something was not to ignore the thing but to treat it like everything else, to misdirect toward something else. Jack had taught him that years ago.
He did restrain himself from snorting, though, when it hit him just how much black ops training Jack had given him over the years, doled out as circumstances warranted. It came up in mission planning, briefing, and mostly in debrief discussions of what to do differently next time. That night in Jack’s office had been the first time Jack had been explicit about it, and Daniel had felt more like he was being reminded than being tutored. And all of it had felt like applied anthropology.
A low whine preceded the arrival of another one of the hover car things, McKay at the controls, his face full of thunder. He looked about the same, hair a little thinner, the aging lines more pronounced because of the expression on his face. Daniel braced himself for a McKay rant about the waste of his time, but when he parked the sled and stepped out, he simply nodded in Daniel’s direction. “Dr. Jackson. It’s been a while.”
Daniel blinked and stepped toward McKay, his hand out. “Dr. McKay. Colonel Carter sends her regards.”
“Does she?” McKay said absently, shaking Daniel’s hand as if by rote, but not dropping his hand in the usual time, his mind clearly elsewhere.
Daniel withdrew and stepped toward the shelf attached to the guard shack. “My things for inspection.”
McKay seemed to pull himself out of his distraction. “Right. Excellent use of my valuable time,” he said, but Daniel heard only a trace of the usual arrogance and irritation. McKay left the clothing alone at first, snorting in humor at the film camera, leafing through the notebooks. Then he stopped, shook his head, and walked back to the hover car to retrieve some gadget. He went over everything with the machine. Daniel felt a point of tension hit his gut and start to spread as McKay moved down the line of his possessions. He paused over the straps of the backpack where the microfiche camera was hidden. “Nice. Why did you hide it?” he asked, glancing up at Daniel.
Daniel swallowed back the knot that had risen from his gut to his throat. He went for truth, or at least enough of it. “No electronic video has ever worked in Meropis. We figured it had something to do with Sheppard’s security paranoia.”
McKay nodded, pointing the machine he held at the bag that held Daniel’s toiletries and allergy medications. “Mitchell, too. He seems like a simple guy, but he’s really not.”
Daniel schooled his face. That was such a non-McKay thing to say. “So, are they going to take it from me?”
“No idea,” McKay said, “but I’ll tell them it’s there and let them decide.” He looked over at Hallingson, who stood within earshot, clearly listening. “What do you think, Jinto?”
“Mostly concerned that he concealed it, like those cameras in the General’s decorations,” Hallingson said. “That doesn’t seem very friendly.”
“They don’t want pictures of Machina getting out, or the hologram me from the future. Or some of the other work they’re doing here,” McKay said, and Hallingson nodded.
Daniel went for more of the truth and added some diplomacy. “Most of what I’m interested in is the culture you’re developing, and only how the technology impacts it. Meropis has been more than generous in sharing technology with the Milky Way. If there are specific no-go areas or things you don’t want me to record, I can agree to that.”
Hallingson answered. “You’ll have to work that out with the Commander and the Director. And with Liaison Emmagen.”
“Understood,” Daniel said.
“Everything else pass, Dr. McKay?” Hallingson asked, and when McKay nodded he turned to Daniel. “Please show me where the hidden camera is.”
“Here,” McKay said, running his finger along the lines of the section of strap.
Hallingson snapped out a knife and Daniel’s gut clenched as he cut the strap from the bag. McKay picked it up and felt down the strap, nodding as he apparently felt some of the machinery. He took one end of the strap and slapped the other palm with it, making a thunking sound, and then looked at Daniel. “You knew we would find this.”
Daniel took a breath. “I had kind of hoped you wouldn’t,” he said, which was the truth, but not all of it.
McKay just nodded. “Let’s go.” He turned toward the hover car.
Daniel hesitated, feeling like there was something he should say to Hallingson, like Thank you or Nice to meet you or Nice job slicing up my gear, so he settled on, “Thank you for the lift.”
Hallingson gave him a nod worthy of Teal’c, but Daniel was sure he saw something in his expression that combined humor and distrust. He deserved the distrust, given the hidden equipment, so he gave back a smile that seemed wan even from the inside, and followed McKay into the hover car. He was comfortably seated, his pack at his feet, when McKay hit the accelerator, Daniel’s head jerked back with the sudden motion, and he looked at McKay, who had a fairly blank face.
“So,” Danial ventured, “how are things?”
“In what way?” McKay answered.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said. “Maybe that’s just a general opening for potential conversation?”
McKay visibly took a breath. “How did you find things on Atlantis?”
Daniel considered for a moment. “Fine,” he said, but he put a lilt of question at the end.
“Right,” McKay said, full sarcasm in bloom. “Vaunted anthropologist notices nothing odd in human behavior. What did you think of the Mu site?”
“Site Mu?” Daniel says, repeating what Woolsey had called it. “Seemed a little, I don’t know, laid back?” McKay nodded, as if Daniel had confirmed something. Then a thought struck Daniel. “Mr. Woolsey said that it was the only way to reach Meropis, that they had locked their gate. But really, it’s the only way for Atlantis to reach Meropis, isn’t it?”
“Not as dumb as you look,” McKay said, the old insulting tone seeming to come more from habit than anything else.
“So, yes, Atlantis did seem less tense than a typical SGC site, but they haven’t had any real crises for a while, right?” Daniel said, speaking as if he believed the reports, but more to see how McKay responded.
It took a while for McKay to speak, and when he did it was a straightfoward question. “Are you here to spy on Meropis or Atlantis?”
“Spy?” Daniel asked, stalling for time.
“Spy,” Rodney said, taking one hand of the controls of the hover car to grab the strap Jinto had cut from Daniel’s pack. “This isn’t exactly subtle.” He slapped it down on the bench between them. “And Jack O’Neill doesn’t let you out of his sight without a very good reason.”
“Want to tell me what you’re thinking?” Daniel asked. “How long have you been gone from Atlantis? Woolsey said it was an extended project.”
“Did he?” McKay said. “I thought it was just a couple of weeks, but now I’m not so sure.” McKay glanced over, his expression pinched, the tight-lipped slant of his mouth like a pencil line.
“Rodney,” Daniel said, the idea that McKay had lost time felt like someone had pulled a Jenga stick out of his model of Rodney McKay. “What’s going on?”
McKay tilted his head.
“How long were you on Atlantis?”
“Literally minutes. I gated from Earth, asked after you, got told you were here, and gated to the Mu site. Someone named Barnes told me to say hello to Mitchell and they dialed the gate here. That was it.”
“So whatever’s going on there, you probably weren’t affected.”
Daniel sat up a bit straighter, then tried not to show it. “Affected by what?”
“Whatever ridiculous thing is going on there that made me take hikes when I first got here because it was pretty,” McKay said, spitting out the last word.
“Whoa, Rodney,” Daniel said, seeing what might be underneath the vehemence. This was more than losing time and McKay hated the idea of anything impacting his intellect. “You think there’s something influencing everyone on Atlantis, but that time away clears it up?”
“See. Not as dumb as you look.”
“You just figured this out yourself.” Daniel was sure of that, but then he realized what he had responded to. "I mean, not about me not being dumb, but that something's influencing Atlantis personnel."
McKay snorted. “On the ride over, it hit me. Anyone could have scanned your stuff. They wanted me alone with you.”
“Stop the car,” Daniel said. He wanted to finish this conversation before they got to the city.
McKay slowed the car, pulling it off the green trail. When it stopped, he hit some control and then turned in his seat to face Daniel. “What are you thinking?” he asked, his expression as blank as Daniel had ever seen it.
“My guess is they don’t trust you and they don’t trust me.”
“So why not keep their eyes on us both? Oh,” McKay said, not waiting. “It’s Sheppard. He figured you would see if I was different, and if I was no longer compromised by whatever is going on in Atlantis…”
“You would see if I was, and if we were both still compromised…”
“We’d say everything was hunky dory,” McKay said.
Daniel raised his eyebrows. “If you’re saying hunky dory, I’m gonna have to say I’m still not sure about you.”
McKay rolled his eyes and turned back to the controls. “So what do we do?”
“Compare notes the rest of the drive, and tell Sheppard everything.”
McKay looked at him sidelong, barely turning his head. “Including why O’Neill sent you here?”
“Especially that,” Daniel said, Jack’s advice ringing in his ears. If they think they’ve found out your secret, they won’t go looking for another one.
The secret mountain opening was like something out of a movie, and Rodney would never not love it. He still felt a visceral fear, the body not catching up to what the brain knew, every time he pointed the hover car at that one particular not-an-aspen that marked the center of the hangar door and the hologram illusion. The hover car’s telemetry panel affirmed that the Barn door—Mitchell’s name—was open to the big hover car space, named by Mitchell . When the door was closed, there were three not-aspens.
The conversation with Jackson had both reassured and unsettled him at the same time. There was clearly something influencing those on Atlantis. He had no idea how long he’d been on Meropis and he had no idea how long Atlantis had been compromised. His head felt clearer, but he planned to look at some of the Ancient systems to see how much he still understood, maybe ask Zelenka to send the latest physics journals. He needed to benchmark his intellect.
He heard Jackson take a breath as they crossed the threshold. “I heard there was a cloak over the whole city. Why shield this, too?”
“I’m not sure,” Rodney said. He thought about what the reason might be as he guided the car up. There were cradles for the hover cars, about ten per level and three levels so far. About a third of the cradles were empty right now, and Rodney hit the control for the automatic docking program, which slid them into a cradle on the second level. The area reminded him of the puddle jumper bay in Atlantis, but bigger, half of it devoted to manufacturing and repair. Each docking station was bordered by a thin ramp leading to a wide catwalk that ran across the back wall. He stepped out holding the loose strap, waited for Jackson to get his pack, slinging it over one shoulder with the remaining strap. “I’m supposed to take you straight to Sheppard and Mitchell,” he said, turning to head down the stairs toward the main floor, not looking to see if Jackson followed. There really wasn’t anywhere else to go.
Jackson wasn’t behind him when he reached the floor. Rodney looked up to find him squatting at the end of the ramp by the hover car, his pack open on the car seat and a notebook balanced on his knee. He was looking around the docking bay, sketching and making notes. Rodney looked up to see what he saw, trying to imagine what Jackson found so fascinating about what was essentially a garage. They could see through the holo-illusion out to the low valley, and muted natural light hit the shiny and matte surfaces, and Rodney’s brain served up classic Feynman diagrams of photons interacting with matter, and he knew, with a fizzing in his marrow that moved from bone to heart, that he wasn’t seeing the same scene as Jackson, not in any way at all.
Jackson would see the people, the activity, the physical structure as an artifact with form and function, maybe even meaning. He would see all the overt and subtle cues of the cultures the technicians had left behind to be part of Meropis. It was all the things that were immaterial to Rodney. Literally not material. But looking with a sense of Jackson’s eyes, he imagined the different cultures like wave forms, coming together and creating new harmonics, the Ancient technology like a fundamental frequency. Maybe physics and anthropology weren’t that far apart. Maybe engineering approaches had cultural referents. And that hillside, visible outside the Barn doors, really was pretty.
Rodney shook his head hard to clear that thought. He called up to Jackson, “We’ll let you come back. Let’s go.”
Jackson closed the notebook with a snap and tucked it inside his shirt. A few moments later he clattered down the stairs, pack over one shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, grinning at Rodney. “There’s so much going on there!” He gestured at the working hover car garage.
“Yes, mechanics building and repairing,” Rodney said, shooting for dry and ending up somehow choked on his own recent musings. He really had to get himself together. “Sheppard and Mitchell, the Commander and the computer geek. Maybe Teyla. Liaison Emmagen.” He turned and strode toward the hallway that led to the transporter for this floor.
“That’s a translation of her real title, though, right?” Jackson asked. “In English liaison means communication or cooperation, except when the connotation is for illicit sexual relationships. Which,” Jackson held up a hand as Rodney glared at him over his shoulder, “would not be the context here. So I assume that means she’s the main broker for cooperation among the various Pegasus societies participating in Meropis?”
“I would think that’s obvious,” Rodney said. He remembered a bit about the early days of Meropis, back when he still thought maybe Sheppard and Mitchell would come back. They had joked about Teyla as queen of Meropis, but she refused any notion that she was a monarch, someone who could lead by fiat. But lead she did, from behind and beside, not from berating and bullying like Rodney had always done.
Rodney stopped short. Was he a bully? He was brutally honest. It’s not like he made people wear their underwear on their head to the mess hall.
“McKay. Rodney!” Jackson’s voice pulled him out of his train of thought. “Are you okay?”
Rodney looked at him for a long moment, considering. “I can’t tell. Probably not. I keep thinking things I’m not used to thinking about, like pretty trees and how you see the world and whether or not I’m--” He cut himself off, taking a breath.
“You’re what, Rodney?”
He thought, Whether I’m mean, but he said, “We have a game plan, remember? Sheppard now.” Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed down the hall. “Now.” He started walking quickly, not looking at Jackson when they reached the transporter, setting the controls for the Great Hall, what would have been the gate room if the gate hadn’t been moved out ages ago. When the door opened, he started to stride out, but Jackson put a hand on his arm.
“McKay, we know something is in the air on Atlantis, and you said you’ve lost time and are just coming out from whatever it is. Give yourself a break. It’s going to be weird. Is there anyone you can talk to?”
Rodney shook his head. He didn’t want to talk with anyone, and squeezing the strap he still held reminded him that Jackson likely wasn't to be trusted. And the feelings kind of talking wasn’t going to help him. He wanted to talk about work and science. He just wanted his brain back.
Cam rolled in to the room where John was waiting for McKay to come back with Jackson. Jinto had radioed ahead about finding hidden film equipment in Jackson’s pack, and from the glance John spared him, he wasn’t pleased at all. Cam took a moment to think about what Jackson would see when he walked in. John leaned on the desk he rarely sat behind in a fairly large office in the military wing of the city. His mouth was a hard line under his trimmed beard, wearing his full uniform. Cam wasn’t sure if anyone but him and some of the people back on Atlantis would recognize an Amestris uniform, right out of Fullmetal Alchemist, but Cam had got John to agree with it for officers, right down to the butt cape for formal occasions. Teyla had approved because it looked like nothing else she had seen in Pegasus, and John had gone along with it even as he ribbed Cam for watching cartoons. And then he’d insisted on seeing the whole series from Cam’s Server of Geek Media, as they called it, and ended up liking the story even more than Cam did. Cam kind of loved his husband for going with it, and damn if he didn’t look dashing in that getup.
“You ready?” John looked over and nodded. “Not happy about this,” Cam said, and John shook his head no. “If it weren’t for the weirdness in Atlantis,” Cam started and trailed off. John’s eyebrows twitched and his mouth became even thinner. Good thing Cam was versed in Sheppard not-speak. “Yeah. You want me to handle Jackson?” John didn’t answer, just looked away toward the door where Jackson and McKay would come in. “You’re right. If he’s trying to sneak tech into the city, we need to put a bit of the fear of the Commander into him.” John raised both eyebrows a fraction, glancing at Cam and then back to the door. “Right,” Cam answered. “Jackson’s not afraid of anything.” He let out a sigh, heard John snort softly in response. It was good to know they were in agreement.
They heard the arrival in the anteroom, Jackson putting down his pack and McKay blustering at Silno, a Geldaran man who had come to Meropis in the early days. The noise didn’t resolve into words, but Cam glanced at John before rolling to the door and palming it open. McKay’s rant stopped immediately, and he hung back to let Jackson enter first.
He hadn’t known Jackson much in his days in the mountain. The man had visited Cam to pay his respects, but there had been something aloof about him even then. Maybe distracted was a better word. He’d sent his report on the modularity of Ancient computer systems and hardware back to anthropology with his observations about how that might tie into some cultural need for a lack of permanence. Someone other than Jackson had thanked him for his insights. And here was the man himself, thrice dead, looking around as if trying to memorize the decor. He probably was.
McKay came in behind him, quieter than Cam expected. He’d been through some changes since coming from Atlantis, and something in his expression told Cam he’d made some progress even since this morning.
“Artoo,” McKay said, greeting Cam first.
Cam felt John freeze. McKay hadn’t made any reference to Star Wars or other Earth pop culture since he’d arrived, shown no interest in Cam’s cache of movies and series from Earth. He’d gone for walks, placid and admiring the landscape. It had been so weird. “Dr. McKay,” Cam answered, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice, “thanks for scanning Dr. Jackson.” He wanted to ask McKay how he was, but with Jackson in the room, he wasn’t going there. Time to just watch.
John said, “Dr. Jackson.” He didn’t put out a hand.
Jackson didn’t either, smiling slightly and nodding his head. “Commander Sheppard. Thank you for letting me visit Meropis. I’ve already seen some fascinating culture blends, just in the walk from the hover car bay. This is such an amazing natural laboratory. I can’t wait to get started.”
“He already did,” McKay grumbled. “I kept having to pull him away from wall hangings to get him here.” He held out a strap, clearly cut from a pack made on earth. “I’m sure Jinto radioed to tell you about this.”
Cam rolled over to take it from McKay. Tech was his realm. John said, “This does complicate things.”
“It’s just a film camera, microfiche. Digital video doesn’t work here, and I really want to be able to document the city, the people.”
“Corrigan drew a lot,” John said.
Jackson pulled out a notebook from his jacket. “Me, too, but it helps to have a more accurate record.”
McKay burst in. “Yes, yes, we will deal with the new, improved spy version of Jackson, but can we please talk about Atlantis?”
Cam glanced at John. His eyes had widened and he’d straightened a fraction. Yep, McKay was almost back to normal. All John said was, “What’s wrong with Atlantis?”
McKay snorted and then crumpled. “I don’t know.”
Jackson reached out as if to put his hand on McKay’s shoulder, and then pulled it back. “What do you remember?”
“I didn’t want to come here, but I couldn’t say no to Sheppard. I mean, it’s Sheppard, and even in the fog I was in, I knew he mattered.”
“Was it like the Second Childhood?” John asked.
Cam remembered that story, the parasite in McKay’s brain, but McKay was shaking his head. “That? No. More like everyone was on the good drugs.”
Everyone looked at Jackson. “Reference?” Cam asked.
“Greek, the Lotus Eaters. There’s part of the Odessy that no one remembers because there are no monsters or beautiful women involved. Odysseus lands on an island and some of the crew eat a plant the locals give them. Scholars assume it’s the opium poppy. Tennyson wrote about it. There is no joy but calm! Why should we toil…” He trailed off. “In my brief moment on Atlantis, I was trying to figure out why Woolsey seemed to pity me.”
“In the story,” John said, his eyes on Jackson in that way Cam knew meant he was carefully not looking at McKay, “Odysseus had to haul the men back to the ship and chain them to their oars.”
Jackson nodded, saying, “They had decided to stay on the island, keep eating the lotus.”
“So what’s the lotus on Atlantis?” John asked, finally looking at McKay.
McKay was flushed, a blush of embarrassment moving up his neck. “I don’t know. I must have looked like such an idiot when I got here.”
Cam kept his thoughts to himself, but John let himself smirk. “Oh, yeah. If I had to hear about another pretty sunset, I was gonna go send you to work on the farms.”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
Jackson interrupted the rant McKay was building to. “So what caused it? Is causing it? I came through the Alpha site, and it’s just as bad there.”
“They rotate through on a short schedule,” John said. Cam knew it was three days, but John must have a reason for not telling Jackson. “It took McKay over three weeks to get clear.”
“Welcome back, McKay,” Cam said.
McKay gestured at his head. “I don’t know that I’m all the way back yet.”
“Drugs?” Jackson asked.
Cam answered, glancing first at John to see how far he could go. John raised his chin slightly. Okay, so the short version. “We couldn’t find anything off in his blood work other than unusually low levels of markers for stress. Brain scans showed lower blood flow to the neocortex. But we don’t really have as much medical expertise here. The Hoffans are the best in Pegasus, but…”
“Not welcome here, as I understand it,” Jackson finished for him.
“Right," Cam said, thinking that Jackson had done his homework. "So there may be drugs we can’t detect because we don’t know what to look for.”
“And you can’t send anyone into the city to find out,” Jackson said, nodding.
“Because they’ll be affected,” McKay said. “Even I was.”
“What can you remember?” John asked.
McKay scrunched up his face as if with effort. “It’s a haze. Everything was just fine. Nothing was urgent. I took naps.” He looked up, shock on his face. “Naps! I never have time for that. I repaired systems if I had to, but… Nothing. No work, no crisis, no nothing.” He looked at Jackson. “We talked about it on the way here. They’ve noticed, back at the SGC.”
“And that’s why you’re really here? To find out what's wrong on Atlantis?” John asked, looking at Jackson with his eyebrows at half mast. Cam knew he was expecting a lie. It was John’s pre-emptive oh really? face.
Jackson gave him a wan half-smile. “It’s the reason Jack finally let me come.”
Rodney walked through the corridors, heading for the transporter that would take him to the hologram room. He really hated seeing the older version of himself in the dumpy sweater, lines on his face and liver spots on the holographic hands. He didn’t understand why it wouldn’t update itself, or just look like Machina, the mobile version of the AI. And even though it and Machina were coming off the same platform, they talked differently. Machina was more diffident than the hologram of the great Dr. Rodney McKay.
When he reached the room, he paused and took a breath, searching in his head for what he might know or think. Something to tell him he was himself again, not that placid, stupid thing he had been for so long. How long? He shook his head to clear it, opened the door, and stepped inside. The hologram did not instantly activate, so he walked over to a console, found the controls, and summoned his doppelganger.
It didn’t say anything when it appeared, not his usual greeting and the whole great Dr. Rodney McKay crap. It wasn’t even looking at him. Rodney cleared his throat. “Hello.”
The figure turned toward him. “Hello, Dr. McKay.” The expression stayed flat, very unlike its usual demeanor.
“What’s wrong?” Rodney asked.
“How could anything be wrong with a hologram representing an artificial intelligence?” it said, voice mild.
“You know something,” Rodney said, “don’t you? You knew what was going on when I got here. That first conversation.”
“I knew you were not yourself. I had been warned, but the reality of the great—“
“Yeah, yeah, cut that part. What did you see?”
The face gave a twitch of an eyebrow, a quirk of the slanted mouth. Finally some expression! The hologram said, “You were gentle. Placid. Not the fierce intellect on which I am based and who Machina had come to know.”
“And did you know why?” Rodney said, rolling a chair around to sit in front of the figure of his older self, crossing his arms and staring it down.
The figure frowned toward the wall, head cocked, as if thinking, processing. “Perhaps.”
“And you said nothing because?” It didn’t answer, lips tightening as if to keep the words in. It was a strangely human expression, but the hologram had more tells than Machina. Rodney felt heat rising in his chest, a familiar emotion he hadn’t felt in far too long. Anger. He kept his voice low, not giving in to his desire to shout, but he couldn’t stop the tight snap. “Out with it. It was my brain it affected. It’s affecting everyone on Atlantis. I have a right to know.”
The figure shook his head. “The Meropans shouldn’t know about this.”
“Well they already know something’s wrong on Atlantis!” he snapped.
“The potential for misuse—“
“It’s already being misused!” Rodney shouted and threw up his hands, pushing the chair back on its wheels. The hologram blinked, a parody of surprise. Rodney took a breath to calm himself, dissatisfaction skating under his skin, the need to know. “What is it?”
“No one should know about it. The Ancients forgot it.”
Rodney crossed his arms again and glared at the hologram. “But you know what it is because you have access to all the city’s systems. Stop dragging it out.”
A softer voice answered, “It was made for children.” Rodney turned to see Machina walking in, the robot, mobile version of Meropis’s AI. It looked up at the hologram with its serene face, a hologram in the otherwise empty front of its head-piece, the strange joints showing through the open shoulders of the uniform shirt. It stepped into the room, gait mechanical but smooth, never taking its eyes off the hologram, which was looking down with its mouth twisted.
Rodney looked away, feeling his own mouth twisting down. He hating seeing the expressions he knew were modeled on his own. Then he processed what Machina had said. “What do you mean, children?”
“I disabled the one on Meropis on my way here,” Machina said, still looking at the hologram, which had crossed its own arms. After a pause, the hologram untucked one hand and waved a gesture to continue. Machina nodded, then turned to Rodney. “As part of their desire to reach ascension, the Alterrans taught their children to meditate. The machine was only ever meant to be used for short periods to help the young ones.”
Rodney felt himself grit his teeth. “Of course it’s about ascension.” He glanced between the hologram and Machina. “Why haven’t you told anyone?”
The hologram huffed. “We weren’t asked.”
“And we didn’t know to look for something until just now,” Machina said. “We searched the database as you were speaking.”
“We,” Rodney said. “Aren’t you the same AI?”
The hologram held out a hand and wagged it back and forth. “Eh.”
Rodney sat back in his chair, torn. This was one of the fundamental questions he’d wanted to explore on Meropis, and for the first time that he knew, an avatar of the AI had admitted they might not be identical. But the bigger problem was Atlantis, specifically whatever this stupid machine was that had made him like sunsets and long walks on the beach, for crying out loud, and who the hell had turned it on. “Can it be activated by accident?”
Two voices said, “No.”
“So someone on Atlantis did it on purpose.”
“Likely,” the hologram said, “but it could have been some moron who didn’t know what they were doing, thought it didn’t work, and left it running.”
“We only know about it from Meropis’s files,” Machina added.
Rodney shook his head, disbelieving, except yes, this was so like the Ancients. “So it’s a baby-calming device?”
Machina smiled with a small curve of its mobile lips and said, “That would somewhat understate the purpose.”
The hologram gestured, its voice matching the dismissive move. “It’s almost like the Ancients wanted their children to work toward ascension before they could even walk.”
“But as they had fewer children, they did not need the machine,” Machina said. “It’s called a meditor.”
“And you know where it is in Atlantis?”
“If it hasn’t been moved,” the hologram grumbled.
Rodney caught a look between the robot and the hologram, something his brain knew was superfluous, so presumably for his benefit. “What?”
“While we have been talking,” Machina said soothingly, but who it was trying to soothe, Rodney or the hologram, he couldn’t tell, “we have searched in Meropis’s files. The meditor should only affect a room, not the whole city.”
“Which means,” said the hologram, still tetchy, “it's probably been moved and modified. Someone’s doing this on purpose.”
A thought struck Rodney. “Why are you just searching your databases now? Why not when I first arrived all…" He gestured at his head. "You must have noticed I was different.”
Machina walked closer to Rodney, glancing once at the hologram. “We have not been focused on Atlantis. We have been very busy with Meropis.”
“It’s not just the city operations, you know,” the hologram said, a lilt of superiority in its voice. “We help with farming operations, mining, the sh—“
“The shops where the hover cars are built,” Machina concluded. “Meropis is independent. Our main goal is to protect ourselves.”
“That’s why you restricted the gate to one site for Atlantis, site Mu,” Rodney said. “You’re protecting Meropis.”
“And no one on Atlantis is coming to harm,” Machina said, its voice almost serene.
“Or so we thought,” said the hologram. Turning to Machina it said, “How can it not be harm if the great Dr. Rodney McKay spent months as a moron?”
Rodney resented the word, but he was more fascinated by the apparent disagreement between the two avatars of the AI. His alternate future self had built the AI in the hologram, but since joining with Meropis it had all the city systems to build complexity. But the city had built the body for Machina, and the robot was integrated completely with the city. Slightly different nature, slightly different nurture, somewhat different conclusions. This meant a lot, and he wondered how much Mitchell had thought about it – he was the computer scientist, after all. Rodney felt himself twitch, torn between learning more about this meditor thing and going to talk with Mitchell about his findings on the AI. Or was it AIs, plural?
“Dr. McKay?” Machina’s smooth voice interrupted his thoughts. “Were you harmed?”
Rodney blinked, processing the question, then drew in a breath as the answer pulled anger from his core. They had violated his mind. “Of course I was!” He heard the twist of emotion in his voice, something more than anger. Fear. “I can’t go back there.” Recognizing fear made his chest even tighter. Zelenka, all of them, eating the lotus as Jackson had said. “We have to save them.”
“If humans go to Atlantis,” the hologram said, “They’ll be affected.”
Machina's head turned to the hologram so fast Rodney's neck tensed in sympathy. Then it looked away, stood very still, and its holographic face faded, leaving an empty blankness, Its smooth voice said, “No."
To be continued