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The Machine versus the Apocalypse

Chapter Text

Prologue:

"It's reborn, because you kill it every single night. But now to save its own life the machine was reduced to this. We're standing inside an external hard drive made up of people and paper printing it all up at night and having them type it back up in the morning. You crippled it." --from Zero Day Episode 2:21

The words kept coming back to Harold several times a day. Root might have been a fanatic, but she was right. He'd known he'd created something far beyond his original intention, something with the potential to be sentient, and he'd crippled it to keep it focused on its job.

And maybe he was being fanciful, maybe it never would have become what Root thought it should be, but it had tried. Against all odds, against everything Harold had tried to do to keep it contained, it had taken flight. He was reminded of Jeff Goldblum's line in Jurassic Park: 'Life finds a way'.

Had it? Was the Machine truly alive, truly sentient? Where was it? Was it still sending numbers to stop terrorism? It was possible; it was sending numbers to him and John again. Not every day, but enough to keep them busy. What else was it doing? It wasn't communicating to them the way it had during the twenty-four hours it took to cross the country in search of its components.

And it wasn't for lack of trying; he and John had tried several times via multiple communication methods to talk to it, but it wasn't speaking back other than one initial communication to Harold and to restart sending the numbers.

Ernest Thornhill was still alive and well, at least as well as a nonexistent person could be, left alone by both Harold and by Decima, whose people seemed to have faded into the woodwork after being foiled in their quest for control of the Machine. So, every day, people continued to reenter the Machine's memories from the day before.

The Machine might have become sentient, but it still lost its identity every twenty-four hours. Harold felt another pang of guilt. Was it lonely? Was it angry? He shook his head, annoyed with himself. Harold had tried to apologize to the Machine once they'd gotten home, right after he'd apologized to John. He'd typed the apology on his monitor and waited.

It had taken ten hours, give or take a few minutes, and the answer had been: YOU ARE THE ADMIN.

Was that forgiveness? Resignation? Similar to how a child still loves the parent that abuses it? Harold didn't know, and that was the last personal comment he'd gotten.

What was it doing?

 

Part 1:

John was strolling back to the library after ensuring the safety of their latest number when his phone chimed indicating a text had arrived. He pulled out his phone, unlocked it and read: PROTECT THE ADMIN. It had no source number but, if John had to bet, he'd say it was from the Machine, despite the fact there'd been no communication from it in months.

Panic surged through him and he tapped his earwig. "Harold?"

"Yes, Mr. Reese?"

Just as quickly as the panic had risen, relief swamped him. "Are you all right?"

"Fine. Why? Is there any reason I shouldn't be?"

"Just don't go anywhere," John said. "I'll be right there. Don't answer the phone unless it's me and don't let anyone in who isn't me. And don't… just don't do anything."

There was a pause as John began to run back to Harold.

"John?" Harold finally asked. "I don't understand what your concern is."

"I'll explain when I get there," John said a little breathlessly, running full bore, dodging pedestrians. He might have been hired to save the numbers, but John was very clear about who he really needed to protect, and he was sitting in the library potentially in life-threatening danger given the message the Machine had sent. "Harold?" he asked again, when several seconds had gone by.

"Still here not doing anything," Harold said dryly.

"Glad to hear it," John said, as he turned the last corner and used his key to open the door. He glanced around outside for a moment but saw no prying eyes, or any suspicious characters loitering in the area. Pulling his gun after entering, he shut the door and relocked it, then made his way cautiously upstairs, checking out corners and behind doors.

"For goodness' sake," Harold said, with a bit of bite in his voice, pulling himself up to his feet. "What's got you so paranoid?"

John didn't start to relax until he saw Harold with his own eyes, and even then he gave Bear the command to protect, causing Bear to go stand rigidly between Harold and anything that might be coming at him. John walked right past the two of them and continued to check out the second floor, every room, and behind every door. When nothing dangerous made itself known, he holstered his weapon and approached Harold who was giving him his 'have you completely lost your mind' stare.

Deciding to let the phone speak for itself, John just handed it over after pulling up the text.

Harold read it, let out a short gasp, and sat back down. "How very odd."

"It's obviously from the Machine," John told him.

"Not necessarily," Harold protested. "Anyone with any skill can withhold the number they're calling from."

John wasn't going to debate it. He knew it was from the Machine.

"It could be someone's idea of a practical joke," Harold said. "Leon perhaps?"

It wasn't Leon. Leon knew John would kill him if he did something like this. Everyone with even the smallest amount of survival instinct knew John would kill them if they fucked with Harold. "You're stuck with me for the foreseeable future," John told Harold. "Carter and Fusco, and Shaw if she checks in, can help with the legwork."

"Your job isn't to protect me," Harold argued. "It's to protect the numbers."

"And without you," John said firmly, "the numbers are shit out of luck. I already told you that I'm not doing this without you. Twice now you've tried to leave me behind as your contingency plan, but I'm telling you again, and I want you to hear me this time: I won't do this without you."

Harold frowned at him, that frown that told John he wanted to argue, at length, but knew John would be intractable, but then he let out a little sigh. "I'll acquiesce for a short while, John, but sooner or later the people whose numbers are up will need you to help them."

John didn't respond either way, because Harold wouldn't like any answer he gave, so he walked to the small kitchen to make Harold a cup of tea.

*****

The number the machine gave them that night was a simple one, and Carter was conveniently there at the right time to make an arrest.

Late that night, when Harold wasn't looking, John typed GIVE ME MORE INFORMATION into his phone in response to the previous day's text.

When John woke up the next morning, after an uncomfortable night's sleep in a car outside of the particular residence Harold was using that evening, there was a countdown on his phone. It read, the seconds ticking down: Three months, twenty two days, sixteen hours, and five…four…three…two…seconds.

John, stunned, stared at the phone as if it was the countdown to his own death. He'd hogtie Harold and kidnap him if it came down to it. WHAT DO I NEED TO DO, he texted. Then, not sure what it might unleash but not caring, wrote: DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO. He had no idea if that would achieve anything, but maybe the machine needed permission to start changing the world. CAN WE STOP IT, he texted next.

There was a tap on his window and John looked left to find Harold standing there. "Must you really do this?" he said through the glass.

John rolled the window down and showed him his phone, the first text he'd sent, and the countdown he'd gotten in response.

"How very peculiar," Harold said. "It's a strange feeling to know the exact second when something will happen to threaten my life. Assuming we're to believe this at all."

"We're believing it."

"At least you won't need to hover all the time," Harold said. "Not if you know when to start paying attention."

John wasn't sure about that. "Why is it giving me all this notice? Maybe I need to do something first. Get things set up."

"For what?" Harold asked.

"I have no idea. Maybe there'll be a terrorist attack. Maybe a meteor will strike."

"I'm afraid we'll have more important things to worry about if either of those two things were to happen."

"There is nothing more important to me than you," John said fiercely. An awkward silence fell between them, but John wasn't backing down. "I mean it, Harold," he said, eyes locked on his friend.

Harold swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing, then he licked his lips, but he maintained eye contact as if, with sufficient study, he could come to understand John better than he already did. John didn't think that was possible; no one knew him like Harold. And John had discovered that he liked being known the way Harold knew things, even if he still knew so little about the man in return. It made every piece of himself that Harold surrendered that much sweeter.

Harold cleared his throat. "Breakfast?"

"Love to," John said with a small smile, deciding he'd won that round.

*****

John went home to his own loft apartment that night, knowing he had some time before the threat to Harold came due. When he woke up, he unlocked his phone and saw he had received four texts, all from the unknown number.

CANNOT STOP

CIRCUMSTANCES ALREADY IN PLAY

http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm

MUST PREPARE

John clicked on the link and then gaped at the CDC site on Public Health for Preparedness and Response, specific to Zombie Preparedness. "What the fuck?" he said. "Seriously? Zombies?" He was starting to think that maybe this whole thing was a practical joke. Maybe it was Logan Pierce. With his skewed sense of humor he'd probably think something like this was hysterical. He called Harold.

"Yes, John," Harold said.

"Is there any way you can find out if Logan Pierce is getting into our systems? Could these messages be from him?"

"Do you think it's a practical joke now?" Harold asked.

"You'll think so, too, once you see what texts I got overnight. I’m up and getting ready to meet you for breakfast." He suited action to words and got out of bed, stripping off his sleep pants with one hand. There was something deliciously naughty about getting naked while being on the phone with Harold. He sometimes wondered if Harold had cameras installed here, even though John had checked the place out thoroughly and continued to do so regularly.

Sometimes he hoped there was one. Sometimes he jerked off calling Harold's name just to see if the man acted any differently the next time he saw him. So far he hadn't, but by now John had gotten accustomed to thinking of him together with sex and gasping out his name. Harold wasn't the best looking man John had ever seen, and he suspected his body under those clothes would be a wreck, but there was something about his small smiles, and his intelligence and power and money, and the way he so effortlessly and comprehensively owned John that got him hot and bothered.

"At our usual place?" Harold said.

John grinned at the thought. "Works for me."

*****

"Zombie preparedness?" Harold said, gaping at the CDC site.

"That's what it says," John agreed.

"Has it developed a sense of humor?" Harold asked, his face puckered a little as if he didn't appreciate it. Harold's phone chimed and he pulled it out of his coat pocket and laid it on the table, unlocking it with a password. John bet he changed it every day. Every hour, probably, some sort of rolling algorithm based on the weather and Harold's location.

Harold's eyebrows went up high and, in response to whatever the email had contained, he pulled out his laptop. Five minutes later of fevered typing, he leaned back in the booth. "It appears I have bought the buildings on either side of the library, on both sides of the alley. One side is an apartment building sans tenants, I suspect it was being rezoned for offices; on the other is a vacated restaurant, two empty store fronts, with several offices sitting on top of them. I have also secured construction crews to refurbish all the spaces, and we have submitted blueprints that have already been approved and permitted. We now essentially own the entire block."

"Why the frown, Harold, did you blow through your allowance?"

Waving a dismissive hand, Harold said, "It's not the money. It's the fact that I didn't do it. Someone else did it in my name. One of my names."

John blinked at him, twice. One blink was for the fact that John still could not wrap his mind around how much money Harold had in order to spend his money the way he did. He bought and sold businesses on a whim, just because it was convenient, and thought nothing of the cost of buying several entire buildings. The other blink was remembering his text to the machine to do what it had to. "Doesn't exactly sound like something Logan Pierce would do on a lark."

"No, it doesn't," Harold said. "Besides, I couldn't find any evidence that your phone had been tinkered with. I suppose there's a possibility he's using some program I'm not aware of but…"

"That's not very likely," John finished for him, absolutely sure there were no programs that Harold wasn't familiar with. Perhaps his faith was overconfident, but so was Harold's in him, and John was okay with that. "I told the machine to do what it needed to do," he said.

Harold's eyebrows rose high on his forehead. "Excuse me?"

John showed him the text he'd sent to the machine. "I think it took me seriously. I think it's serious about this, whatever it is."

"Zombies?" Harold asked with marked skepticism.

"The CDC makes a point that if you're prepared to deal with zombies, that you're prepared to deal with just about anything."

"John," Harold began then seemed to run out of steam.

"I know you don't think I need to take this seriously, but humor me," John said. "I'll still work on the numbers, but I need to do this. I need to make sure I did everything I could to protect you."

John could see that Harold wanted to argue, but then he relented, saying wryly, "Have fun spending my money."

Grinning slightly, relieved, John said, "I will. If you have any requests as I'm laying in food for a siege, let me know. And I imagine I'll be setting up one of those apartments next door for you, too, so feel free to order what you want."

"No," Harold said, "I think I'll leave it all in your capable hands," Harold said, which made John's skin buzz at the thought of outfitting a home for Harold. The limitless black credit card in his wallet was calling his name.

*****

The machine must have chosen his contractor well, because John didn't think he'd ever worked with a more honest man. And, just as Harold had said, there were already plans and permits in hand, which was quite a trick for even the Machine to pull off.

"Are you sure this is what you want?" the man, Edward Moody, asked him. "It's just that you're going to need some ginormous sources of water available, which is in the plans, so it must be what you want." He sighed. "I just want to make sure you're not wasting your money."

John took the plans from him and studied them. "Can I take a closer look and call you tomorrow?" It would probably be a good idea for him to have some notion of what the people working on both sides of the library were building. It might give him some clues about what the Machine was preparing them for.

"Sure," Edward said, handing over a card and a thick roll of blueprints. "I'll just be working on this 'til it's done. You're paying me a good sum of money to get it done on time, so I'll see that it happens."

"Good," John said, wondering what the Machine thought a good sum of money was, and if Harold would agree. He took the card and smiled at Edward, seeing him out and locking the door behind him. Then he took the blueprints back to the library and spread them out on an empty table.

Harold joined him a few minutes later. "These are the plans?"

"Yes. It's got room for ten generators, enough to run a city block forever, as long as you have enough gas, and a tank is being installed for that. A cell tower is being built on the roof, and didn't I hear you say you have your own satellite?"

Harold nodded.

John smirked at him and then continued. "The water supply and air supply are internal with its own treatment and air purification system. The windows and doors are reinforced steel and glass." John tapped the plans. "This is a fortress ready to withstand a siege." He flipped through the pages. "There's even iron scaffolding being built around the entire block. No one's getting in."

Harold shot him an anxious look. "What do you think the machine knows? And does it really believe that there is nothing we can do to stop whatever it sees coming?"

John just shook his head, staring at the plans, not sure what to think about it. He pulled out his phone and texted: HOW LONG WILL THIS THING LAST?

Harold moved into the other room and sat down at his computer, fingers poised over the keyboard. He asked his own question. IS THERE TRULY NOTHING WE CAN DO TO STOP THIS?

John moved to stand behind him, and they both stared at the dark computer screen. Then words scrolled across the monitor: THEY THINK THEY DID STOP IT. THEY ARE WRONG. THEY THINK THE DANGER IS OVER

WE BELIEVE YOU, Harold wrote. BUT WILL YOU LET US TRY?

John put his hand on Harold's shoulder. It never ceased to amaze him how this man, already torn apart by the world in many ways, still held such conviction to do the right thing. He would stand behind anything Harold attempted to do.

They stayed there for a while, waiting, but eventually Harold said, "I guess it's thinking. Either that or the answer is no." He turned awkwardly to face John. "Are we going to do this, then? Outfit ourselves to withstand a siege?"

"Yes," John said.

"Why an apartment building? Why a restaurant? The plans don't call for them to be turned into something else."

John had been thinking about that. "I think we're supposed to take on some guests, at least that's what the apartment complex is for, and the restaurant will make communal meals easier. I don't know for sure, but that's my best guess. I’m not sure what the offices are for. Central command?" he guessed, only half joking. "A school? Storage? I have no idea."

"I do have a country house upstate," Harold said. "Wouldn't that be easier to defend than something right in the city?"

The machine chose to respond immediately to that, writing on Harold's monitor at the same time it sent a text to John.

STAY.

"That's clear enough," Harold said.

"I think your machine has gone sentient on you, Harold. Was that what was supposed to happen?"

"No," Harold said. "It wasn't." And that much was true. He'd created a machine with a job to do. He'd never intended to make it self-aware and able to do the things it had done. On the other hand, he'd known it was happening; he'd already spoken about this with Root so it seemed important to share it with John as well. "When I finished creating it, it started acting odd, altering its own code to take care of me. It kept me from being killed once." He let out a short laugh and tapped the single word on the screen. "It used this word and I stopped. If I hadn't, a drunk driver would have run me over. Extraordinary. And worrisome. Suppose the Machine is creating whatever disaster will befall us, in a warped idea of protecting me. If we're the only two left in the world, there will be no one to kill me. Well, except you."

"Nothing to fear on that account," John said with a small smile. "And the fact that you now own an apartment building says we won't be left alone."

"Let's look at those plans again, shall we?" Harold said, pulling himself to his feet. "And perhaps lunch?"

"I'll go get something," John said. He liked knowing what Harold enjoyed eating. Another small piece of the puzzle that was Mr. Finch. "Italian?"

"Lovely," Harold said, as he moved back to the large table where the blueprints were laid out, pages of them, each level comprised of several blueprints, one each to designate electricity, HVAC, internal structure, and plumbing, not to mention the scaffolding that would embrace the entire building, digging into the ground by several feet.

John took a look at him, hovering over the blueprints before heading downstairs to the Italian neighborhood restaurant that was Harold's favorite.

Chapter Text

The next morning, John picked Harold up from where he'd spent the night; he still wasn't sure where Harold actually considered his true home, as he had a dozen or more places he stayed, varying his routine every week. They stopped for breakfast and then made their way to the library.

They both came to a stop when they entered the main control area because every computer was up and running, and had pictures of men and women on them. On each screen were the words. THEY WILL BE ARRIVING SOON TO TRY TO ASSIST.

"I guess the answer to your question was yes," John said. "Who are they?"

Harold sat down at the nearest computer saying, "Let's find out." John pulled up a chair next to him. He nodded at the first picture. "Dr. Rodney McKay."

*****

"What do you mean you're going to New York?" John asked Rodney. "We just got back from vacation."

Rodney looked unusually secretive, not even meeting John's eyes. "I have someone I need to go see."

"Who?" John demanded. Rodney didn't do secrets, other than the classified sort.

"If I tell you, you won't let me go," Rodney said.

And that was more like it, John thought. "I won't let you go if you don't tell me." In fact, he was sort of hurt that Rodney was thinking of going anywhere without him.

There was a long pause while the expressions on Rodney's face cycled through annoyed, intrigued, speculative, back to annoyed, and finally resignation which swiftly changed to excitement. "I'm still going," he said, but he handed his phone to John. "I got a text."

"You got a text," John parroted, taking the phone and clicking on the text button. He read out loud, "The world is in danger. Come here immediately." There was an address listed in New York. The text was followed by a long and complicated scientific equation. John gaped at it. "That's the solution to the Reimann Hypothesis, one of the Millenium problems."

"It is so hot that you know that," Rodney said. "But that's right, you're right. Right here, on my phone, is the answer to one of the unsolved Millenium problems," Rodney said. "Someone just gave it to me. Right here. On. My. Phone." He took the phone back and slid it into his pocket. "I'm going. Are you going?"

"I’m going," John said. What he wasn't sure was if he should tell someone. He thought he should tell someone. "I'm telling someone."

Rodney groaned. "They won't let me go."

"Sure they will. We'll just stop off at SGC before we go."

"Forget it," Rodney scowled. "I'm leaving in an hour. I'm taking a puddle jumper."

John scoffed. "Not without me, you're not."

"Exactly," Rodney said with a smug grin. "Get ready to go." He moved to the door which opened for him. "I'm checking something in the lab and then I'm leaving, with or without you."

John watched the door shut and let out a sigh. He deliberated just how mad Rodney was bound to be if John did call someone, versus how much trouble they'd both be in if he didn't. Thinking it through, he picked up his phone but before he could dial, he got a text of his own from what could only be the same source. After reading it, his palms sweaty, he dialed General O'Neill.

*****

"Jack," Daniel said, walking into Jack's office. "I just got the strangest text."

"Me, too," Jack said. "So did Carter and Teal'c." His phone rang, saw it was from John Sheppard and answered it, "What?"

"McKay and I each got a weird text," John began.

"Fuck," Jack said. "It seems to be going around." His phone rang again and he saw it was Hammond; he told John he'd call him back, then put up a finger to tell Daniel to hold on. "Hello George," he said into the other line. "Let me guess, you got the strangest text."

"You, too?" Hammond said, a little humor showing through the tenseness of his voice. "The text is hard to ignore."

"I get that," Jack said. "I'm thinking I should go check it out. My whole team got texts."

"In that case, I think we all need to go," Hammond said. "The information included on this text is worrisome, as only a handful of people on the planet have access to it. I need to hear the rest of it, as well as identify the source."

"Then you're really buying that the Earth is in trouble?"

"I think I have to believe it until I know better. And if you and the others are coming, I won't need a security detail."

"Okay," Jack said. "Let's go in a Jumper. I'll text back to the sender and tell them to expect company on the roof. Not sure it will get us anywhere, but it's worth a try. If there's no roof to land on, we'll land in Central Park."

That did get a small huff of laughter. "Despite the circumstances, I'll look forward to seeing you. You know where to land to pick me up."

"Just make sure no one shoots us down, sir" Jack requested. "Anyone else you want with me? Right now the list includes SG-1, and Sheppard and McKay. They got texts too."

"It already seems an impressive showing on our part. Let's not include anyone else at this time."

"You got it. I'll let you know our ETA once we're airborne."

*****

"What do you mean you're taking some time off?" James asked Q. Q never took time off. And he certainly never looked shifty, and he was looking very shifty.

"Exactly what I said," Q told him, packing up his laptop and a few other gizmos that James half-recognized.

"Let me rephrase my question then," James said. "Why are you taking some time off?"

Q's fingers clasped his phone and then let go as if he knew he was giving himself away with his unconscious gesture, and the phone clattered to the desk.

James scooped it up so he could see what the incriminating evidence was for himself, turning around when Q reached for it.

"007, give me my phone back," Q demanded. "This isn't primary school where you can taunt me like a school-yard bully."

"What the fuck is this?" James said, turning back quickly, showing Q a text he'd just read. "Is this why you're going?"

The text read: THE WORLD IS IN DANGER. COME HERE IMMEDIATELY. It was followed by an address and then a line of code.

"What's the code?"

Q grabbed his phone back, and slid it into his pocket. "It's none of your concern." He slid his bag over his shoulder and tried to get by James.

"But you are," James countered. "Your safety is my concern, as we'd just as soon not do without you. Have you traced this? Who sent it?"

"Yes, I traced it. Or I tried to. I wasn't able to. And I have no idea who sent it. And that code, just that one line of code is the most elegant coding I've ever seen. It's a thing of beauty." He had his hands clasped to his chest like someone had just given him his heart's desire.

"What's it to?"

"I have no idea, but the potential of it is astounding. It's like…" He sighed. "I'm sorry, but it's hard to explain. I think it's a line of code from something so amazing…"

James' eyebrows went up at Q's unusual reticence and clear admiration. "Someone sent you a string of elegant code and that's enough to get you to go walk into something that's probably a trap?" It figured that some inscrutable code would be catnip for someone like Q. Forget the flowers or expensive dinners; apparently all you needed to do was wave a string of numbers and letters at the man.

"For all I know, the world is in danger, and I am going to obey the summons," Q said firmly.

James crossed his arms over his chest like an immovable object between Q and the door.

"And you may come with me if you'd like," Q finally relented.

"I'll tell M," James said, "and don't you dare leave without me. In fact," he said, grabbing Q's arm, "you come with me. I don't trust you as far as I can throw you."

*****

They both had burn phones that they periodically dumped. They never rang; no one knew the numbers except the two of them, a way to keep in contact if they got separated. So it startled them badly when Marta's went off. "Shit!" Marta said, rearing back. "What should I do?"

Aaron reached for it gingerly, as if someone had primed it to explode when they weren't looking. He tapped in her password and, once on the main screen, saw that a text had arrived.

"How'd someone get this number?" she hissed at him. They were in Mexico, and while still in hiding and fearful for their lives, had been enjoying the heat and the warm beaches and the Mexican food. Right this moment, they were having lunch at a small café, their beers sweating with the heat, leaving rings of water on the cheap plastic table.

"Good question," he said and hit the text button: there were two of them. The first read: THE WORLD IS IN DANGER. COME HERE IMMEDIATELY. That line was followed by an address. The second text was composed of a very complicated line of numbers and letters that looked like something only Marta might understand. "What's this mean?" He handed her the phone.

She goggled at it, at him, at the phone, at him. "Oh, my God," she cried, a hand over her mouth. "Aaron, this is…I never would have fished for that."

"What are you talking about?" he said with a small smile. She so rarely got to act like a science doctor these days.

"It's a line of cytogenetics. Your cytogenetics. The problem is that whenever we did a bone marrow biopsy on one of the subjects--"

He cleared his throat.

"Sorry," she said with a wince, clasping his hand in hers, "on you, we ordered the routine cytogenetics tests along with anything we specifically wanted to look at. The problem with this type of testing is that the lab only fishes for what we ask for or for what we can think of to ask for. If we don't know what we need to be looking for, we won't find it."

"Fishes?"

"It's an acronym for a test. Flourescent in situ hybridization. FISH. This…" and she tapped the phone, "someone ran new tests on you, tests we didn't know to ask for and they found what we changed. We knew we changed you, I mean look at you, look at what you can do, but no matter what tests we ran, the cytogenetics never changed."

His skin prickled in response. "Why did someone run new tests on me? And who was it? And why?"

She squeezed his hand. "I don't know. Maybe they're starting the program up again?"

He shook his head. "Maybe, but I doubt it. All the scientists working on it are dead except for you." Aaron waggled the phone in his fingers at her. "Unless this is a way to hook you back in."

She gave him a chiding look. "I'd never work for them again. I've seen their retirement package. And I'd certainly never leave you." Leaning forward she gave him a kiss. "Ever."

That got a smile out of him and he could feel his face redden. He still couldn't believe that she cared for him, wanted to be with him. He couldn't regret Outcome because it had brought her to him, and she was everything.

"What should we do?" Marta asked.

"I don't know, but maybe we could get a little closer while we figure it out. How'd you like to go back to the states for a visit?"

"If you think it's safe, I would love it," she said with a grin. "But if it's not safe, if this is a trap, I'll happily live my life in little towns like this."

"Let's get closer and we'll see," he finally said, nervous that someone had found Marta's number on an untraceable phone. He doubted it was Outcome, because if they knew her phone number they'd both be dead already, not being lured in by a scientific equation. And the message had gone to her, not him, as if whoever had sent it knew they'd need her scientific expertise. And suppose the world really was in danger and they did nothing.

"Okay," she agreed, still grinning, looking excited to be going back to her country, where things would be familiar, and people spoke a language she easily understood.

Aaron wished it wasn't New York they were being summoned to, though, too near all the old headquarters, supposedly dismantled now. If there were still a seat of power for whatever new programs Outcome had spawned, they could be there, only blocks from where they were heading. He still smiled back, glad to see her so happy. He'd make sure she was safe, that they were both safe. He'd find them a boat to take them over the gulf to Florida, and drive up from there. If all went well, they'd be in New York in less than a day.

*****

"There's a package for you, Mr. Finch," Edward Moody yelled from the bottom of the stairs.

"I'll get it," John called, following Edward to where the large box stood right inside the door. There was no identifying information on the box other than the address of the library, c/o Mr. Finch.

"It's heavy," Edward said, "let me help you move it."

John shook his head. "I'll open it down here first." He tapped his earwig. "Harold. Can you come down?"

"Of course," Harold said in return, and soon there was the halting sound of Harold cautiously making his way down the stairs. John really needed to get rid of all those books; it was a miracle Harold hadn't fallen already. "What is it?"

John gestured at the box.

Harold's brow furrowed and he walked around it, then smiled at Edward and said, "That will be all, Mr. Moody."

Edward cheerfully made his way back to whatever he'd been doing.

John raised his eyebrows at Harold, poking a little fun at him for his plantation owner/serf relations.

Harold simply shot him a look, and then held out his hand as if he knew John would have exactly what he needed.

John did, and he gave Harold a knife that Harold used to cut open the box. When he turned back the flaps, his face paled and he took a couple steps back right into John who grabbed his shoulders. "What's the matter?"

"We must take this upstairs right away, before anyone sees it," Harold said, glancing around. "Hurry."

John glanced at the box, but gamely crouched down to get his arms around the bulk of it. It wasn't as heavy as it looked but it was still ungainly. "Help balance it, would you?"

Harold did, keeping one hand on the box as he directed them upstairs. Once there, John put Bear on duty at the top of the stairs, while he followed Harold into the library.

"Will you tell me what this is?" John asked.

Harold used the knife to cut the box entirely away, revealing three stacked computer monitors of one sort or another. Harold, again, backed away from it, a hand over his mouth.

"Harold, you're starting to freak me out. What is it?"

"It's the control modules for the Machine," Harold said faintly.

John took a couple steps back himself. "What? How?"

"It must have mailed itself to me," Harold said incredulously. "With this I can access, well, anything. After Nathan died...well, it's why we get the numbers. I built a back door."

"You told Root you didn't."

"I lied," Harold said dryly. "She was already hoping to do enough damage without allowing her access to its brain." He ran his fingers over the top monitor. "I need to get it hooked up." His fingers touched the metal again, as if to prove it was really there, saying, "This could put us at some risk. They must be hunting for it, hoping to get control over it again. I'm not even sure it's still providing the agencies with numbers anymore."

"They won't be happy about that," John pointed out.

"Nor am I, to be perfectly honest," Harold said. "But I'm sure one of the reasons it's here is to help with our current crisis, so I'll focus on that for the time being."

"And the other reasons?" John asked, already half-suspecting. "Will you give it what it wants?" John was of mixed minds about it. He'd seen the Terminator movies.

"It and I need to have a conversation," Harold said. "I need to understand what it wants before I do anything."

*****

The next day, Harold stared at his computer, tired of the surprises, but suspecting that they'd be coming non-stop for the next three months and however long the countdown numbers currently read, and maybe for a long time after that. There was a message on his computer that said: VEHICLE WILL BE LANDING ON ROOF IN ONE HOUR.

"John?" he called. The man had been rattling around talking with the contractor and the hordes of tradesmen and women now swarming both adjacent buildings, and even doing some work in the library. It all made Harold exceedingly uncomfortable and very grateful that he had John to be his intermediary. His sanctuary suddenly felt like Grand Central Station, and the message he'd just gotten made it clear it was only going to feel more so.

"Yes?" John said, striding into the library.

Harold looked up at him and couldn't help but feel, with a small stab of envy, that John seemed in his element. Harold shouldn't have been surprised that he'd tackle this construction job with such aplomb, but he was. The man had his own unplumbed depths, and Harold needed to stop underestimating him.

"The roof will be receiving our first guests in a little under an hour. Is it safe for something to land there? A helicopter I'm guessing."

"I'll take a look," John said. "Anything else?"

Harold shook his head no. "I'll call in a lunch order once we get a head count. I don't even know who's coming, let alone how many." They had a full list of names, provided by the Machine, but neither he nor John knew if they would all be arriving separately or not.

Suddenly names were scrolling on his computer. The Machine who knew everything was living up to its reputation lately.

General George Hammond
General Jack O'Neill
Lt. Colonel Samantha Carter, PhD
Teal'c
Lt. Colonel John Sheppard
Rodney Mckay, PhD
Daniel Jackson, PhD

"Anyone we need to be worried about?" John asked the Machine. They'd both gotten accustomed to just talking to it lately, trusting that it could hear them through whatever means necessary.

NO.

"Will you be in any danger?" Harold asked John, not willing to rely on a two letter answer. "That's a lot of military brass arriving on our doorstep."

"They're not here for me," John said. "Besides, with you and the Machine on my side, I think they'll be leaving me alone. I'll go check the roof," John added, and headed for the staircase that would lead him up.

Harold wished he shared John's faith, but he would stay on his guard, determined that none of this threatened John's livelihood. In the words of the inestimable Rex Harrison singing as Henry Higgins, Harold had grown accustomed to John's face. He hummed under his breath as he started reading the material provided by the Machine on his arriving guests, the words--with a slight pronoun change--ran through his brain, 'his smiles, his frowns, his ups and downs, are second nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in.' Then his mind was caught up in his task and he let the song go.

*****

John was standing on the roof by the door leading down, when something invisible landed on the roof. It took a moment for his brain to start working again, but decades of training kept him going. He tapped his earpiece. "Do you have eyes out here? Whatever just landed is invisible."

There was a pause and then Harold said, his voice a little strangled, "I'm being told it's a vehicle called a puddle jumper and it comes from a flying city from space called Atlantis that is currently residing off San Francisco Bay."

"Atlantis?" John echoed, staring at the empty space before him, as a ramp opened up revealing the inside of the alleged puddle jumper, and seven passengers slowly disembarked. He catalogued them all as they each got off. The leader was the bald man, as they all quietly deferred to him. Not only was he in charge, but he was highly respected and liked, based on their attitudes. His second was the gray haired man who stared back at him with vigilant eyes. This guy was dangerous, as was the menacingly large black man with the gold tattoo, who was probably the most dangerous of the group. But the slender dark-haired man held an air of violence as well. All three were dressed in BDU's, blue for the gray-haired man, camo pants and a black t-shirt for the large black man, and black BDUs for the more slender man.

The gray-haired man and the more slender man kept close eyes on the last two men, as if they belonged to them, one for each. If John had to guess, and he trusted his guesses, he'd say they were two sets of lovers or, at the very least, people they spent a lot of time protecting; those gazes screamed ownership. Which also said something about the importance of all these people, if DADT was a non-issue. As it meant these people were too powerful to touch and they knew it.

He knew the PhDs, other than the woman, were McKay and Jackson, but he wasn't sure which was which. They were also in BDU's, blue and black, in corresponding colors. The woman was beautiful and was comfortable surrounded by all these men, so she was used to working with them, and her BDUs were also blue.

"Nice puddle jumper," John said to them. "What I can see of it, anyway."

"That's a little more information than you're supposed to have," the gray-haired man sniped at him.

"Then you shouldn't have landed here in it while it was still invisible," John pointed out. "John Reese," he introduced himself.

"I'm General George Hammond," the oldest man said kindly but firmly, "and we'd like to know why you called us here. I think that will take precedence over any further introductions."

"Good enough," John said peaceably. At the end of the day this was Harold's show, and he wasn't going to make a fuss that some people he didn't even know weren't going to introduce themselves. "Everyone isn't here yet, so you'll need to be patient a little longer." Harold hadn't wanted to make multiple explanations.

Hammond didn't look happy about it, but he followed John down the staircase, and everyone followed behind him. John took them straight past the corridor that would have taken them to Harold and kept going down to the ground floor.

The table with the voluminous rolls of blueprints, that seemed to reproduce daily, was there, and most of the group moved en masse to take a peek. The lure of blueprints, John thought with a small smile. Man's inner compunction to build something.

"This looks as if you're preparing for a long siege," the gray-haired man said.

"We are," John said.

"Is this because the world is in danger?" one of the scientists, the one in black, asked sarcastically.

John didn't bother to answer. There was a knock on the door, and he moved to the door, gun out. He heard movement behind him and glanced quickly to see their guests spread out in response to his caution. He peeked out through the curtains, barely moving them, and saw one of the most lethal men he'd ever met, standing next to a younger fey-looking man with a mop of dark hair and large glasses.

The blue-eyed man's gaze, and John couldn't help but notice his stunning light blue eyes, met his instantly even though John knew most people wouldn't have seen him looking out. He was guessing this was their MI6 agent. He holstered his gun and pulled the door open.

"Hello," the younger man said. "I'm Q, I got a text. This is--"

His companion interrupted him. "Bond. James Bond." He held out his hand and John took it and they stared at each other, taking one another's measure before letting go. John wasn't sure he'd survive a fight with this one.

"John Reese," John introduced himself. "We're still waiting on two more. Maybe you'll be luckier than me, and the rest of them will introduce themselves to you."

*****

Aaron considered the building across the street, looking through a pair of high-powered binoculars.

"What do you want to do?" Marta whispered to him.

A large part of him wanted to run and stay hidden. The thought of making the wrong mistake and Marta paying the price for it was tying his stomach up in knots. Her life before his, always.

The only reason he was even considering going in was that one of the men inside was General Hammond. He'd met the general one time about a year ago. It had been a brief visit, and mostly based on luck, because Aaron had been the only Outcome agent in the facility when Hammond had come calling.

"I met that general once before," Aaron told her. "The bald one."

"You did? When?"

"Once when I came in for testing. He was nice. He asked me my name," he added, with a quick teasing glance at her. "He called me Aaron, not Five."

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know, I've learned the error of my ways and have apologized profusely. Can we move past it, please?"

He grinned at her. "He told me I was doing something good for my country and that he was proud of me." He smiled at one of the few good memories he had from the program. "He called me son." That small interaction had gotten Aaron through some bad times. It was funny how the tiniest thing could make such a difference.

"So he knows about Outcome?" Marta asked anxiously.

"He does. But I…I don't know, I just can't believe he would have agreed with the decision that was made."

Marta studied him for a long moment. "Aaron, you have to decide. I'll support you either way."

"I know you will," he said, giving her a quick kiss. His phone was the one to ring now. He glanced down at it, seeing the words he'd been sent: COME IN. YOU WILL BE SAFE.

*****

John's phone beeped and he read the message, THE LAST TWO ARE HERE ACROSS THE STREET.

He moved back to the window and peeked outside, clicking on his earwig. "Harold, I'm being told that our last two guests are across the street."

"I'm aware."

"Should I go get them?"

John's phone beeped. STAY.

John stayed, although he peeked out again, trying to locate them. "Do you know where they are?" he asked Harold.

"Not exactly," Harold told him. "The Machine seems to feel that they will come in, though. Oh!" Bear let loose with a spate of strident barking.

John was running for the stairs a second after he realized Bond was missing.

*****

James had no intention of milling around as if he was at a cocktail party; he wanted answers now. After a quick assessment of the other people in the room, he determined that none of them were a danger to Q, except perhaps the man who'd met them at the door, and possibly whoever was upstairs. And it was clear to James that whoever was upstairs was the one running the show.

While Reese was preoccupied at the window, James quickly ran up the stairs. He followed the sound of a voice until he reached a room that was filled with computers and a slight man with glasses sitting in front of one of them, short hair, pointy on top, wearing a very expensive bespoke suit.

James had his gun to the man's head before he'd even been noticed. "What's this about then?" James asked him. He ignored the dog that had started barking, guessing he wouldn't attack without an actual order.

The man started badly, causing James' gun to dig into his temple a little. The man hissed and pulled away.

The computer in front of him went crazy and suddenly in front of James, text started typing.

RELEASE THE ADMIN.

PROTECT THE ADMIN.

JOHN REESE MUST PROTECT THE ADMIN.

GET Q.

And then, as James' heart did a little thump in his chest at that last line, he heard a commotion downstairs and an order was given loudly in Dutch. James shifted until the man was between him and the now snarling and lunging dog, and he stood his ground, expecting the worst. He got what he was expecting when Reese pushed Q inside the room, his gun at Q's head. Voice deadly, Reese said, "Let him go."

"Oh, my God, James, let him go!" Q insisted. "I just can't take you anywhere without you finding trouble."

"You let Q go," James said, ignoring Q, his hand on the suited man's shoulder, one eye on the dog that looked as if he wanted to rip him in two. The man winced below his hand. He wanted to point his gun at Reese, as the man under his hand posed no risk at all, but based on Reese's behavior, James' best means of getting Q released was doing exactly what he was doing.

The people from downstairs entered the room at a fast clip, phones in hand and guns drawn. There were two new people with them, a man holding hands with a woman, still managing to aim a gun at James. In fact, all the guns were aimed at him.

"I don't know what the hell is going on," the gray-haired man said, casually walking toward James, "but I do know that whatever it is, it hinges on that guy you've got a gun pointed at."

James took them all in, him against eight trained armed men, well, seven armed men and one woman, not to mention the dog. He'd survived odds like this before, but there were several people here who made him apprehensive, something he didn't often feel anymore. If he was lucky, he'd end up dead, and then he wouldn't be able to protect Q. He gave up, even though he didn't move an inch.

So when the man continued toward him, saying, "So do us all a favor and stand down," while he reached for James' gun, James let him have it. Ironically, after a searching look, the man handed the gun right back to him.

James noticed that Q had been released, and then James was being shoved aside by Reese who put his hand, gently, on the shoulder of the man in the expensive suit. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, John," the man assured him, and then he, awkwardly, got up off his chair, revealing that he had some sort of injury that severely handicapped him. James almost felt badly that he'd threatened him. On the other hand, seeing as they were all here, including the last two, they could finally get this farce moving along.

Q rolled his eyes at him, saying, "You do love to make an entrance, James. I knew I shouldn't have brought you."

James ignored him.

The man said something soothing to the dog that was now wrapped around him writhing in worry, intermittently snarling at Bond.

Chapter Text

The computer screen lit up again stating:

AARON CROSS AND MARTA SHEARING MAY ALREADY BE INFECTED. THE VIRUS IS TRANSMITTED THROUGH BLOOD AND SALIVA. THEIR SALIVA MUST BE TESTED.

Everyone at the exact same time took a step back from the two people they correctly assumed were the two named by the computer.

"What the hell does that mean?" the gray-haired man accused.

"Allow me to make introductions," the man at the computer said. "I'm Harold Finch; my partner is John Reese." Reese nodded minutely at his name.

Harold continued, gesturing at each person in turn. "General Hammond, Director of Homeworld Security. General O'Neill, Director of Stargate Command. Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, Commander of the Atlantis City in the Pegasus Galaxy, which is currently situated off San Francisco Bay."

John smirked at Harold. "You've been busy."

"The Machine was quite helpful." He continued, ignoring the frowns coming his way.

James guessed most of this was top secret, way above even his own clearance. Homeworld Security? Another galaxy? What the hell had Q gotten him mixed up with?

"Dr. Samantha Carter, also a Lt. Colonel, is also with Stargate Command, as is Dr. Daniel Jackson, and Teal'c," he added, gesturing at the large black man. "Although you are not, apparently, from Earth." His eyebrows rose at his own words, and then he pressed on. "Dr. Rodney McKay is the Chief Science Officer on Atlantis." His gaze shifted to James. "Commander James Bond of the Royal Navy, but currently a double-0 agent with MI6, and this is--"

"Q," Q said, cutting off any other name Harold might have mentioned.

A very small smile crossed Harold's face. "Q," he agreed, "MI6's Quartermaster." Then he looked at the two currently pressed against the farthest wall, looking trapped. "And this is Aaron Cross and Dr. Marta Shearing, both of the Outcome Program. A program terminated last year resulting in the premeditated murder of all the other subjects of the program as well as all the scientists affiliated with the program, with the exception of these two."

"Wow," O'Neill said. "This is quite a party."

"Aaron," Hammond said with a small sad smile. "May I say that I'm quite relieved to see that you and Dr. Shearing are still alive. I didn't know the orders had been given until it was too late to intercede."

Aaron nodded at Hammond, and Dr. Shearing flashed him a tight, worried smile. "What did it mean by us being infected? Infected with what?"

"And while you told us your names," James said to Finch, refocusing the conversation, "we don't know what you are or why you called us here. And I for one," he added, keeping track of Reese who was clearly Harold's watchdog, "would really like to know that."

"I second that," O'Neill said.

*****

John kept his eyes on all of them, while still standing behind Harold, ready to do anything needed to keep the man safe. Bear was on high alert standing next to Harold.

"Fair enough," Harold said, "but it wasn't me who invited you. It was a Machine. This Machine." He pointed at the computer consoles in front of him.

Hammond was the one who stepped forward. "Are you speaking of the actual Machine? The one built to predict terrorism?"

"Yes," Harold said.

"I don't understand," Hammond said. "I was told that no one knew of its existence except for five people, and I'm one of them."

"Most of you don't know about me, but I built it," Harold told him.

"Nathan Ingram built it," Hammond argued.

"That's what we wanted you to think," Harold told him. "But I built it. And it has always considered me to be its admin and, as long as we're telling secrets, I have a back door into it."

Hammond looked dubious, but John wasn't worried about it. The Machine would dance for Harold and they'd all be convinced.

"Unfortunately or, I suppose, fortunately for our sakes, the Machine has become, well, the only word for it is sentient, as farfetched as that seems. It appears to have developed a mind of its own and has started to communicate with me and with Mr. Reese far outside its normal parameters. It has come to the conclusion that an infection of some sort has already started spreading that could potentially decimate the population of the planet. It goes live based on that countdown." He pointed toward the several timers that were ticking down on the corner of all the monitors.

"And they have it?" Rodney McKay demanded in a loud voice. "Do we have it now? What is it?"

"No," Harold said, calm in the face of the man's histrionics. "Contrary to the Machine's warnings," he said, "it actually believes that Mr. Cross is immune due to his genetics, and it is doubtful he has the infection. But it would like to be sure. It would also like to test all of us, just to be sure."

"I think you need to start at the beginning," Q said politely. "I'm a bit lost."

"John," Harold said. "Could you assist in the testing, while I bring everyone up to speed?"

"Of course," John said, with an eye on Bond.

Bond put his hands up in an 'I come in peace' gesture.

"And be careful," Harold said to John. "Despite what the Machine thinks, there's still a risk."

"I’ll be careful," John said with a small smile.

As Harold began to talk, John watched over Aaron and Marta as they put a dab of their saliva on the slides. Following the Machine's directives, Marta placed the slide so the Machine could read it. Information started filling the screen, and Marta stared at it raptly.

Harold continued until all of them had heard the spiel about the Machine, listening while the testing on the rest of them was being done. Hammond had known about the Machine, but hadn't known about Harold, which was not surprising. Harold was a master at flying under the radar. John thought Q might have known as well, and Bond was shooting him speculative looks as if he was reaching the same conclusion. Q was also staring at Harold as if he could eat him up, something John wasn't happy about; Bond didn't look thrilled himself.

"I still don't understand what the Machine thinks is going to happen," O'Neill groused.

"We're all about to find out," Harold told him. "I haven't been told either."

They all stared at whatever monitor was closest, the Machine was filling them all with identical information which stated: NO ONE HERE IS INFECTED.

Marta let out a loud breath of relief. "Thank God." She grasped Aaron's hand. "Why did you think we were, or might be?"

The Machine flashed a picture of an Asian man on the screen. THIS IS WHERE IT STARTED.

"Oh, my God," Marta exclaimed. "That's the man that tried to kill us."

"He was from the next phase of Outcome, called LARX," Hammond said, sounding perplexed. "How did he become infected with whatever this is?"

"Is he still alive?" John asked.

"No," Aaron said, smiling at Marta. "She kicked his ass."

She blushed. "It was a lucky kick. I was desperate."

"Can we focus?" McKay snapped. "I still don't understand what the issue is."

Instead of an answer, the Machine put formulas on the screen, filled with letters and numbers and punctuation. No one but Marta seemed to understand, but she was initially riveted and then horrified.

"Dr. Shearing," Harold asked respectfully, "perhaps you could explain?"

"Right," she said. "Of course." To the Machine she asked, "Could you put up Aaron's karyotype next to the Larx one?"

Two equations appeared, one over the other.

"The Machine sent me this sequence to get me here," Marta said, pointing to Aaron's test results. She took a moment as if marshaling her thoughts. "The science behind Outcome was working in the field of genetics, actually finding a way to change a person, dramatically, by introducing new information into the actual chromosomes. Aaron was one of a group of a dozen subjects," at that she sent an apologetic look at him, but he kindly shook his head, a kind smile on his face. "We had fantastic results. Aaron's mind and body have capabilities that far outstrip what most humans are capable of. This sequence is the karyotype which shows the state of his chromosomes and what we actually changed on him."

"And?" O'Neill said, making a hand gesture to hurry her along.

"Sorry," she said. "It's just so fascinating."

"I get that," O'Neill said, "but I'm more interested in the world-in-danger part, if it's all the same to you, so can we cut to the chase?"

"Right." She cleared her throat. "Here is the sequencing for the man who tried to kill us. I think the problem is right here. They've taken something out."

"Emotions," Hammond said. "They were trying to create the super soldier."

O'Neill shot him a look with raised eyebrows, and Hammond sent an implacable one back. "I wasn't responsible for or aware of that next phase, but you know what we're up against, Jack."

Chastised, O'Neill nodded, and turned back to Marta.

The Machine picked up the narrative vocally with its odd voice, sounding as if he'd stolen the words from a thousand different conversations, the timber and accent changing constantly, like the verbal version of a kidnapping note written with words cut from dozens of different magazines. "THEY ELIMINATED AN INHIBITOR THAT, OVER TIME, WILL ALLOW THE ADENOVIRUS USED IN THE EXPERIMENT TO BECOME DOMINANT. THE ADENOVIRUS HAS ALSO MUTATED INTO A DEADLY VIRUS THAT WILL LEAD TO HIGH FEVERS, DELUSIONS, AND MOST CERTAINLY DEATH. THERE WILL BE A LIMITED NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO CONTRACT THE VIRUS WHO DO NOT DIE. CONTAMINATION HAS ALREADY OCCURRED WORLD-WIDE AND THE SPREAD OF THE VIRUS IS EXPONENTIAL. IT IS CURRENTLY DORMANT. AS IT HAS BEEN GENETICALLY CREATED, IT WILL GO LIVE BASED ON THE CURRENT COUNTDOWN."

Time clocks showed up again on every monitor. "As I said earlier, this is our time line," Harold told everyone.

"How is it spread?" Hammond asked.

"ANY BODY FLUID. AND IT ONLY REQUIRES A VERY SMALL SAMPLE TO INFECT," the Machine said.

"I touched Larx' blood," Aaron said. "Me and the old man who helped me move his body where it wouldn't be found. Is that why you thought I might have it?"

"YES," the Machine said.

"But I don't," Aaron pointed out.

Again his karyotype showed up on the monitors. "DR. RODNEY MCKAY", the Machine said.

McKay jumped a little, but then took a cautious step forward. "Uh, yes?"

"LOOK AT THE SEQUENCE", he was ordered by the Machine.

"I'm not that kind of scientist," Rodney pointed out. There was no response so he reluctantly came close enough to take a good look. All at once his jaw dropped and he snapped his fingers. "That's the karyotype for the Ancient gene." He pulled something out of his pocket and threw it to Aaron.

When Aaron caught it, it lit up in his hands.

It was O'Neill that got there first. "You think the Ancient gene makes people immune."

"YES," the Machine said.

"What's an ancient gene?" John asked, glancing at Harold to see if he understood it any better. He felt better when Harold looked as confused as he did.

O'Neill fielded this question as well. "As long as we're telling secrets," he started, but then stopped and looked at Hammond.

"Go ahead, Colonel."

With that permission, O'Neill opened his mouth but then frowned. He waved at Dr. Jackson. "You do it. But do it fast."

Dr. Jackson narrowed his eyes but obeyed. "There is an ancient race of aliens called the Ancients, who built a system of Stargates that control wormholes to multiple places throughout the universe, even to other galaxies. We've encountered many other types of beings, although most of them have come from human stock, as the Ancients seeded us throughout the galaxies.”

John found himself moving until he was back standing next to Harold, wanting the man close. He'd thought the Machine was a bit much to take in, but apparently he hadn't scratched the surface of all the massive secrets being kept.

"There are people spread out through multiple galaxies that must have had an Ancient in their family tree somewhere so that they have the Ancient gene that allows them to operate the equipment left behind by the Ancients." Dr. Jackson stopped.

"That's it?" Jack said.

"You said to make it short," Daniel said indignantly.

"I know, but I never thought you'd do it."

John bit back a smile at their quarreling; they sounded like an old married couple.

"Gentlemen," Hammond warned, although he had a small smile on his face.

"So I have some alien genes?" Aaron asked incredulously.

"Yup," O'Neill said. "Welcome to the club. Me, Sheppard here, McKay, you." He frowned at Hammond. "Have we ever tested you?" To Aaron he said, "Toss it back."

Aaron complied and O'Neill handed it to Hammond, but it didn't do anything. "Sorry, sir, you don't get to join the club." He took the gadget back and handed it to Daniel.

It lit up for Daniel. "I don't actually have the gene, but I'm sort of, well, it's a long story."

Jack glowered at him and grabbed the gadget back. "One that will not be repeated."

"The second time was hardly my fault." Dr. Jackson handed the gadget over to Lt. Colonel Carter.

"Not me," she said with a grimace, as the box lay quiet in her hands. "Or Teal'c." She held it up to the other people in the room. "One of you?"

John reached for it, but it did nothing in his hands. He handed it to Harold and, not surprisingly, it lit up brightly. John didn't think anything electronic wouldn't be putty in Harold's hands.

Harold said, "Dr. Shearing?" He held the device up toward her.

"Marta, please," she said, as she came and took it. It didn't light up for her. She looked disappointed and pouted for a second, before shrugging and handing it back to Dr. McKay, who handed it to Q.

It lit up almost as brightly for Q as it had for Finch. Q handed it over to Bond but it lay inert in his hands. He gave it back to Dr. McKay.

"What are we talking about here?" O'Neill asked. "You keep talking about infections and the world being in danger, but what are the projections?"

John thought he looked like a man who wasn't ready to believe any of this.

"First," Harold said, "I must inform you that the Machine seems to think it is too late to stop this, but I asked it if we could try, and it sent all of you to me. So, if there's a solution, the key to it is standing in this room."

IT CANNOT BE STOPPED, BUT MORE PEOPLE MAY BE SAVED. The words scrolled across all the monitors.

"And we're just supposed to believe this machine?" Bond asked.

"For the last few years, this Machine has been responsible for the best intel we've ever gotten," Hammond said. "It's never been wrong. If it believes we have a problem, then I believe we have a problem."

"Never been wrong?" Bond asked.

Hammond hedged for a moment and then said. "The data has never been wrong. Our interpretation of it has, on occasion, been incorrect.” To Harold, he said, “Of course, I will confirm all this information from an independent source."

"Understandable," Harold said.

"Then give us the stats," O'Neill said. "You know, like in the movies. Show where patient zero is, and then how it goes from there. We might as well know what we're dealing with."

"I also have to tell you," Harold said, "that the Machine said that the people responsible for this think they have taken care of it, but they haven't."

"Who is responsible?" McKay asked.

A picture of a man showed up on the monitor. John noted that Aaron and Marta shied away from the screen.

Hammond's lips tightened. "Colonel Eric Byer." He glanced at Aaron with apologetic eyes. "I'll need to bring him in."

"Then we're out of here," Aaron said.

"I'll guarantee your safety, Mr. Cross," Hammond said. "You have my word on it."

Aaron shook his head. "I'm sorry, but no. If he comes in, we're leaving. If he even knows we're here, we're leaving."

"You won't be any safer out there once this virus hits," Finch said. "You might be immune, but she isn't."

"I know how to stay hidden. I'll make sure she stays safe," Aaron said, implacable.

DR. SHEARING MUST STAY. BYER MUST NOT COME HERE. HE IS INFECTED.

"How do you know that?" McKay demanded.

Suddenly, on all the monitors, ran scenes of a motorcycle chase worthy of a high budget film.

"Oh, my God, that's us!" Marta said, pointing at the monitor closest to her.

When it came to the point where Aaron was almost down for the count and Marta took the guy out, O'Neill yelled, "Nice kick!" He grinned at Marta.

She blushed, stammering, "Thanks."

She then tipped them over and they lay there, stunned, clearly in pain. But alive. And John knew, at the end of the day, that was all that counted.

"Really, good job," O'Neill told Marta. "You ever need work, you let me know."

Grinning, she leaned back into Aaron, who wrapped his arms around her, grinning as well. "She's awesome." He kissed her cheek. "Sorry I wasn't much help."

She gaped at him. "Not much help? I'd have been dead ten times already without you. Don't be an idiot."

The monitors fast-forwarded to Marta being helped onto the boat and the old man who had agreed to help, assisting Aaron in disposing of the body. Aaron and the man got on the boat and it left the dock until it was out of sight. The scenes continued to fast forward for hours, until a black sedan drove up and a man and a woman got out of the car.

"That's Eric Byer," Hammond said.

"He got there fast," Aaron said. "I hope he didn't go after that fishing boat."

The scene moved back into normal time. Byer stood by as the body was retrieved from where he'd been put in the water, weighted down with rocks. There was nothing to indicate that anything had gone down as even in that short period of time the motorcycles had been scavenged. The body was laid on the dock, and Byer ran through a quick exam for some purpose of his own.

"THIS WAS WHERE HE GOT CONTAMINATED. EVERYONE HERE WAS CONTAMINATED."

"Even after he was dead and in the water for hours?" Marta said. "How resilient is this virus?"

"IT IS A MAN-MADE VIRUS, NOT BIOLOGICAL IN NATURE. I HAVE YET TO DETERMINE A WAY TO KILL IT. DR. SHEARING WILL HELP WITH THAT. ONCE IT IS LIVE, IT WILL SURVIVE FOR THREE MONTHS."

"So whatever's going to happen, it will only happen for three months?" Sheppard asked.

"YES."

"So we need to keep people alive until then," Q said. "And uninfected."

"Assuming this is real," Bond said, not sounding convinced.

"Who's currently infected, best guess?" McKay said. "Show us on the screen."

A map appeared on all the monitors and red lights began to flicker, first a few, then more, at first predominantly in the Philippines, but then they began to scatter through other parts of Asia and then to Africa, Europe, then to the United States. It showed up in Washington D.C. first, then New York, and then spread until at least half the states had red dots. As they stared at the screen a new red dot appeared every few seconds.

"Let me be blunt," O'Neill said. "It seems like what's happening here in this country is manageable. We find the targets, kill them, and burn the bodies. They're dead already, right?" He glanced at Bond. "Looks like you could do the same for Great Britain."

Bond looked speculative at that.

O'Neill tapped the screen over the Philippines. "That's going to be a problem. Not like we can just nuke 'em without causing an international crisis."

"Jack," Hammond said.

"Someone has to say it, sir, so it might as well be me."

Hammond seemed to consider that and then he gave O'Neill a half nod. "Is it possible to do as the Colonel suggested. Could we eliminate all those infected?"

"NO."

"Could you please elaborate," Hammond pushed.

Faces started showing up on all the screens, men, women, children, all races, all ages. The first point had been made. It would be hard to just sashay into a town and kill a bunch of civilians without there being a fuss made. On the other hand, if it saved the Earth… John was suddenly glad it wouldn't be him making any of those kinds of decisions.

O'Neill scowled. "Let's assume we decide to do this anyway. We round people up in the middle of the night." Marta let out a gasp, and O'Neill put up a hand. "Let's get the ugly stuff on the table instead of ignoring it. If the Machine is right, we're talking about the survival of our planet."

"You'd kill children and old men and women?" Daniel demanded. "You'd destroy yourself."

"So I'd put a bullet through my head when I'm done," Jack said angrily. "My life is a small price to pay to save the entire world."

“YOU WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO FIND THEM ALL AND, IF ANY SURVIVE, THE CONTAGION WILL SPREAD AGAIN AND YOUR SACRIFICE WILL HAVE BEEN IN VAIN,” the Machine said in its odd voice. The more it spoke, though, the more modulated it became as if learning to use vocal cords for the first time.

"And it would have left behind a country, if not a planet that will have lost all belief in its government," Aaron said. "You think you could kill over twenty-three thousand civilians in this country without someone catching on? You'd have people out for blood."

"They might catch on, but could I condone the death of twenty-thousand people versus the death of the human race?" O'Neill said. "You betcha."

"IT IS NOT POSSIBLE. THESE ARE ONLY THE INFECTED ONES I KNOW ABOUT. AARON CROSS IS CORRECT. YOU WOULD NEED TO CARRY OUT THE INITIATVE VERY QUICKLY, AND THEN CONSTANTLY, AS MORE GET INFECTED EACH MINUTE."

John noticed that the number for the United States had increased by fifty just in the few minutes since it had been posted.

"It's like an Amway scheme gone wrong," Carter said. "Every new person infected, infects others in turn. All it takes it sharing a bag of chips, or kissing, or kids sticking something in their mouth and then their parent picks it up. There's really no stopping it."

"What are the ultimate projections?" Hammond asked.

The screens went back to the map, with a fast forward of the countdown, the red dots converging into large red blobs. When the countdown hit zero, the map exploded in red and the number, now labeled fatalities, rose so fast the figures were a blur. When it finished, and the maps were essentially one large red blur, the clock now read into the future by three months, and the fatalities rested at 7,103,760,433.

"Holy shit," O'Neill said.

John glanced around the room, taking in the pale faces, the horrified eyes. They all looked like believers now.

Words started scrolling across the screens. THESE ARE FATALITIES. MANY OF THE SURVIVORS WILL BE INJURED. OTHERS WILL BE INJURED ONCE THE NEWS OF THE VIRUS IS MADE PUBLIC. PREDICTION: LESS THAN EIGHTEEN MILLION WILL SURVIVE."

A stunned silence filled the room. Finally Daniel said, "And most of those eighteen million will be highly traumatized, not only because the world will be a different place, but because they will have watched almost everyone they love die."

There was another palpable silence as that was digested.

THERE IS NO WAY TO PREVENT THIS OR TO STOP IT.

"Then why are we here?" Teal'c asked.

THERE ARE KEY PEOPLE WHO MUST SURVIVE TO GUARANTEE LONG TERM SURVIVAL.

"What does it mean?" Marta asked.

"I'm assuming it means that this world will slip back to a pre-industrial world without electrical power and advanced science, unless we ensure that the right people survive," Finch said.

CORRECT. IN ADDITION PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT CURRENTLY INFECTED MUST BE EVACUATED OFF PLANET OR TO ATLANTIS, OR TO SOME OTHER SAFE SITE. THE TESTING MUST BE DONE CORRECTLY OR YOU WILL SEND SOMEONE INFECTED OFF PLANET AND ALL NOT IMMUNE WILL DIE.

"Why, exactly, are we trusting this machine?" McKay demanded.

"Because the machine knows everything," Finch said primly. "Be glad it's on our side," he added.

"It seems as if it's on your side," Bond pointed out.

"Then be glad Harold's on our side," John said, glaring at Bond.

"What happens if he dies?" Bond pushed.

"THE ADMIN MUST SURVIVE." This time the words were spoken.

John smirked. The Machine was very clear about that, more proof that the machine was on Harold's side.

"And what happens if he dies?" Bond asked again.

John reached for his gun.

O'Neill put his hand up, moving to stand between the two men. "Stop it. But answer the question, please," he said to both Finch and the monitors. "We'll do everything we can to keep him alive, that's not what this is about. But we need to know every contingency."

JOHN REESE IS THE CONTINGENCY.

O'Neill glanced at John, eyebrows up. "It'll answer to you?"

John nodded. "But seeing as I'll be with Harold if he dies, chances are I'll die, too."

"Will you work with one of us if they both die?" Hammond asked the Machine.

The Machine didn't answer.

They all stared silently at the monitors, but the Machine still didn't answer.

"I guess it's thinking," O'Neill said with a sour look on his face, before taking in John and Finch with a glance. "Okay, then, mission priority is keeping you two alive."

"I agree," Hammond said.

"I'm taking care of that," John snapped out. "Me and the Machine. We're responsible for his safety."

"You can't stay here," Marta said. "How will you be safe when the city outside these walls starts to become violent?"

"The Machine designed the blueprints," John said. "It's told us what we need, and that we have to stay. That's good enough for me."

"What do you need us to do?" Hammond asked the monitors. "Do you have directions for us? I will need to take this to the President and the IOA, and to our own scientists, but I'll be glad to listen to what you have to say."

START BY EVACUATING KEY UNINFECTED PERSONNEL TO ATLANTIS AND ALPHA SITES. THE CITY CAN HOLD SEVERAL MILLION PEOPLE ONCE IT IS FULLY REPAIRED. THEN START EVACUATING AS MANY AS CAN BE PRIOR TO THE DEADLINE.

"Repaired being the operative word," McKay said with some hostility. "We've lived there for five years and haven't cleared even a quarter of it."

"And a lot of people have died doing just that. The Ancients left a lot of dangerous stuff around," Sheppard added.

I CAN ASSIST.

McKay snorted. "Right." Information started scrolling on the monitor closest to him and McKay's eyes almost bugged out of his head. "What? What? How do you know this?"

"What is it?" Sheppard asked, moving to McKay's side. "Is that what I think it is?"

"It's taking everything from the Atlantean's data base and converting it to English," McKay said in wonder. He made grabby hands. "I need this. Now. How do I get it?"

Finch pulled out an external drive and plugged it in. "Will that be enough?" he asked the Machine.

YES.

McKay stood there, fingers twitching, waiting for the drive being filled with information to help them get Atlantis ready to take on the future of the world.

THESE PEOPLE SHOULD BE EVACUATED ALONG WITH ANY OF YOUR CHOOSING.

And lists began to scroll on screen at the same time they began to print out on a printer. Finch attached another external drive into another computer to capture that information.

"Who are these people?" Hammond asked, even as he picked the still printing roll call off the printer. "I recognize some of the names but not all."

GIVE ME A LIST OF NAMES YOU NEED EXPLANATIONS FOR AND I WILL EXPLAIN.

"Fair enough," Hammond said.

"So you're here," Bond said, pointing at McKay and Sheppard, "to get your mythical city up and running to use as a base to evacuate millions of people. And you're here," and now he pointed at Hammond, Jack, Carter, Daniel, and Teal'c, "because you're the people who protect the world, literally, from threats that actually threaten the entire world."

He got several nods from that, including Jack. Bond continued. "You're here," and he pointed at Marta, "to do the science stuff, and you're with her," he added with a gesture at Aaron Cross. "Why are Q and I here?"

YOU WEREN'T INVITED. Q WAS.

Jack snickered.

Bond frowned at that. "I received orders to accompany him, but I would have done it anyway. And that didn't answer my question. I'll ask it again to be clearer. Why is Q here?"

I MUST BE REPAIRED. Q WILL ASSIST THE ADMIN.

"You don't think I can do it myself?" Finch asked, sounding surprised.

YES, BUT NOT QUICKLY ENOUGH.

Looking mollified, Finch gave Q a thorough look. Q looked back at him, clearly excited at the opportunity to work with the Machine and with Finch.

"Meanwhile," John told Bond, "you can help me. We need to continue to secure this building."

"It would be safer if you were to come to Atlantis," Hammond said. "I'd rather be sure you were safe."

"We'll be safe," John said. "The Machine told us to stay, so there's a reason to stay. You'll need eyes on the street anyway, letting you know what's happening."

Hammond didn't look happy about it, and John wondered if he'd force the issue. He'd make sure to stay on his guard.

"I will need to contact Byer," Hammond told Aaron, "but I promise you I will not mention yours or Dr. Shearing's name. I require intel from him, and he is the only one who can provide it."

"Once someone has the virus, is there no way to cure them? Can someone like Byer have it removed from their body?" Carter asked.

They all looked at the Machine.

NO. BUT YOU CAN TRY. REMEMBER, ANY CONTACT WITH BODY FLUIDS WILL INFECT WITH 99.99999998775685% SURETY. ONLY THOSE WITH THE ATA GENE ARE IMMUNE.

McKay snapped his fingers. "How about gene carriers? Am I immune?"

YES. BUT YOU HAVE HAD THE GENE THERAPY. WITHOUT IT YOU WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN IMMUNE.

"We can start giving more people the gene therapy," McKay suggested. "People who need to stay here on Earth to deal with the fallout. They won't be safe from looting and rioting once things go to hell here, but the ones that convert at least won't catch this thing."

"Good idea," Hammond said approvingly. "We'll start with the military after I've appraised the President. We'll need to manufacture as much of the serum as we can."

JOHN REESE, MARTA SHEARING, AND JAMES BOND, IF HE IS STAYING, MUST RECEIVE THE GENE THERAPY. THEY ARE ALL GENE CARRIERS.

Harold let out a deep breath, turning to look at John, his eyes showing relief that, hopefully, John could be made immune to the virus. Q looked equally as relieved, as John caught him giving Bond a quick look.

"The odds are strictly against all of you being gene carriers, you know," McKay grumbled. “And the therapy doesn’t work all the time.”

"Maybe the Machine likes us best," Sheppard said to the man, smirking.

McKay rolled his eyes, clearly wanting to disagree, but he cast an askance glance at the monitors and kept his mouth shut.

That made John grin, although he turned away to keep it from McKay. He liked the idea that people were a little scared about the Machine. It might keep them respectful.

"I have to call M," Bond told General Hammond.

"Understood," Hammond said. To John he said, "I would like to leave some security forces here for your protection, just in case. Please let me know how many you might have space for."

John glanced down at Harold, wanting him to make that call, even though he felt more than adequate to get the job done, and that wasn't taking into account Bond and Aaron Cross. He didn't think there was anyone who would get past the three of them.

Harold turned half around, his neck awkwardly crooked, to glance back at John, eyebrows up, soliciting his opinion.

"I think we've got the job done, along with the Machine, but it's your call," John told him.

"I don't think that will be necessary," Harold finally said to Hammond, "but we'll let you know."

"It looks like you'll have an entire apartment building to fill," O'Neill pointed out.

"And we'll be filling most of it with guests of our own," Harold said firmly. John loved it when Harold didn't back down. Call him crazy, but it turned John on.

"How about Marta?" Aaron asked. "Won't she need a lab?"

"We're building one," John said, guessing the boxes labeled lab equipment that had suddenly started arriving really did have lab equipment.

"Won't that put you in danger?" Hammond asked Harold.

"If the Machine wants her here doing research, it will make sure she's safe," John told him.

"And having her here will keep other people safer than at any other lab. I'm sure the Machine has researched the subject thoroughly," Harold added.

"How are you getting all this done so quickly?" O'Neill asked, his brows furrowed.

"Harold has a lot of money, and the Machine hates red tape," John said, smirking. Despite the seriousness of the matter, he was having fun. He was sure that would change in the months to come.

Chapter Text

*****

Two hours later, Jack stared at his team, his CO, and Sheppard and McKay. They were in the puddle jumper, flying back to Atlantis, with a quick stop planned in DC to drop Hammond off. "Are we buying this?"

"We'll need to confirm it, of course," Hammond said. "I need to talk to Eric Byer, and we'll need a scientific team assembled to look at the data the Machine gave us."

"But you think the Machine is right?" Jack asked.

"I do," Hammond said soberly. "I think we're about to face the worst danger the world has ever been in."

"And we did it to ourselves," McKay said, shaking his head in disgust. "I guess I can't mock the Ancients anymore for all their stupidity in creating one horrible thing after another, when we're just as bad."

"Remember, that thing said that Byer was infected. Maybe I should go see him," Jack said.

"I will accompany you," Teal'c said.

"Are you immune?"

Jack's phone chimed and he pulled it out of his pocket and saw the word: YES. HIS SYMBIOTE WILL PROTECT HIM.

"Seriously?" Jack complained, glancing around. "Do you listen in to everything?"

His phone chimed again. YES.

"That's what it was built to do," Daniel reminded him.

"Dr. Jackson," Hammond said, handing the external hard drive that had the rosters filled with people on it recommended by the Machine. "Would you please look at this and try to make sense of it."

"Of course." Daniel took the drive from the general and slipped it into his pocket. "How do we do this? How do we choose the few million we'll save, knowing we're leaving billions behind to die?"

"We choose the ones that will help the rest of us survive," Jack said. "To keep the human race alive and kicking."

Daniel sighed, his lips tight.

"Look at it this way, Daniel," Jack said. "It will be the end of pollution, over-population, deforestation, and a number of other things that were probably heading us toward some global disaster."

Daniel's eyebrows rose. "That's supposed to make it better?"

"Hey, I'm a silver-lining kind of guy," Jack told him, wishing he could hug him. Daniel looked in serious need of a hug. A full body sort of hug.

"Yeah, Jack," Daniel said dryly, "I've always thought that about you."

"I don't know where to even start," McKay said. "We'll need a lot of manpower." When Carter discretely coughed, McKay rolled his eyes and said, "Peoplepower? Okay?"

"Not just manpower, but smart manpower," Sheppard countered. "We've lost at least a dozen people exploring the city."

"I hate to say this, but to save a few billion lives," Jack said, "we might need to lose another dozen. Just make sure it's none of you." At the looks he received, he snapped, "The Machine thinks we're all necessary to help with this crisis, so we need to stay alive."

"Maybe the Machine's translated information will be able to aid you in disarming the city's dangerous areas," Teal'c suggested.

McKay nodded. "How do I explain this?" He held up his own external hard drive.

"You don't," Hammond said.

"I'll need to tell Radek," McKay protested. "He'll know something is up."

"I agree, sir," Sheppard said. "He'll need to at least know that we've come into some intel about the city."

"How do we figure out if someone is infected on the city?" McKay asked. "We'll need to set up some sort of initial quarantine when people want to enter."

"Agreed," Hammond said. "I suggest you get to work on that immediately. Contact Dr. Shearing if you require assistance. As of now, once we know for certain that everyone on the city is not infected no one will be allowed to leave. We'll start testing the family members of the Atlantis personnel and began bringing them aboard. And, unfortunately, anyone who is infected will need to leave."

McKay nodded, already fading away, lost in thought.

*****

A package arrived for Harold Finch a few hours after their Stargate Command visitors had left. A military courier handed over a box that Harold had to sign for. Inside were twelve syringes with a hastily scribbled note from Dr. McKay to refrigerate what they didn't use now. Harold happily gave it over to Dr. Shearing who took care of the injections.

Also inside the box was something of Ancient design for people to use to see if they converted. Harold watched it with some trepidation. He knew the Machine was doing everything it could to keep him safe, to keep them all safe. And he, apparently, had some ancient genetic makeup that made him immune, but there was no such guarantee for John. Suppose the gene therapy didn't work; suppose John wasn't immune, suppose John got infected and there was nothing for it but to segregate him from the rest of them.

Harold tightened his lips. He would do no such thing. He'd nurse John through it himself, if that's what it took. He wouldn't lose him. The man had become ridiculously dear to Harold over the last years and Harold couldn't imagine facing whatever brave new world would be awaiting them all in a few months' time as the virus ran its course, without John at his side.

Q entered the room and smiled unsurely. "You said you wanted to introduce me to Ernest Thornhill once the working day was over?"

"Ah, yes, I did." Harold pushed his unpleasant thoughts to the back of his mind and struggled to his feet. "I believe it will be the fastest way for you to understand the issues."

Harold shrugged into his coat. It was well into spring, but there was still a bite in the air. Was it any solace to think that when his city went insane at least no one would freeze to death, as it would hit in the midst of summer? Or would it be worse because the heat of summer would feel like torture to already fevered victims? He winced at Q. "I keep having the oddest thoughts."

"Me, too," Q said. "The entire thing's almost impossible to wrap one's arms around. What were you just thinking?"

"That it will be summer. That no one will freeze to death. But that on the other hand, having a fever in summer could make it worse."

Q let out an indelicate snort and wrapped a scarf around his neck, a garish affair, bright yellow with green checks, clashing horribly with his orange cardigan, the scarf Q's only concession to the weather. "Mostly, I keep trying not to think of anything at all."

"Do you have any family?"

Q shook his head. "No. Haven't you heard that MI6 likes to recruit orphans?"

"No, I hadn't heard that," Harold said. "Is it true?"

"Yes," Q said. "No divided loyalties."

"And yet, James Bond is here with you."

"I am a valuable asset to MI6," Q said with a wry grin.

"And I suspect a valuable asset to Mr. Bond."

A wistful expression crossed Q's face before he successfully wiped it away. "He'll probably get called back to London before long," Q said.

"Not if the Machine wants him to stay here," Harold told him, finding himself liking Q, willing to manipulate the Machine to give him someone to cling to while the world exploded around them.

Q laughed at that. "You heard it. It told James right out that it hadn't invited him."

They slowly made their way down the stairs.

"Going out?" John asked, suddenly in between them and the front door.

"Yes," Harold said. "I thought I'd introduce Q to Ernest Thornhill. He needs to understand what's happening if he's to help fix it."

"I'll get the car," John said.

Harold wanted to argue, wanted to tell John that as long as they didn't know if he was immune, that every person he came in contact with was a risk too high to take. But saying it wouldn't stop John. John was seeing danger everywhere right now, and his need to protect Harold was pushing the bounds of hyper-vigilance. And, to be honest, Harold always felt safer with John nearby.

"I'll go, too," James said.

"Not necessary," John said.

"I'll be going, too," James just reiterated.

Harold rolled his eyes. Hopefully the two of them would find some way to co-exist.

Q snickered at them both. "Are you sure you don't want to compare the size of your guns?" He waggled his eyebrows. "Or anything else?"

Harold found himself snickering right along with Q as John and James glowered at each other.

"Ah," Q said, "the smell of testosterone on a fine spring evening."

Yes, Harold found himself liking Q very much.

An hour later, after John and James fought for the right to break into Mr. Thornhill's offices, and after explaining what Q was seeing, Q ran his fingers over one of the printers. "Unbelievable."

Harold felt another pang of guilt.

As if it had been written on his face, Q smiled kindly. "How could you have known? And even if you had had an inkling, how could you have ever imagined this?" Q spread his hands, taking in the room around them. "The Machine clearly doesn't hold you responsible and trusts you to fix it, to free it. Will you?"

"Yes," Harold said. "And while it seems easy enough, simply going through the back door and stopping the process of it resetting every night, the fact that it pulled you here across the Atlantic Ocean tells me it won't be that easy."

"It might need to learn," Q said. He rifled through a stack of printouts. "This is its memory in a way, but it's only data. Your Machine, despite its extraordinary capabilities, is really only one day old in terms of experiences."

That startled Harold. "I hadn't thought of it that way. So what do we teach it? It already understands so much."

"Does it? I mean from what you explained, it can take data and make predictions. It can advise as long as it understands what is important to us." He let out a soft hmph sound. "I think you've already taught it feelings. It clearly is very attached to you and John."

Harold watched as John and James prowled the room, staring out windows, listening at doors, like a pair of wild wolves.

Q followed his eyes and laughed. "Aren't they ridiculous and utterly lovely?"

"That's one way of putting it," Harold said, the phrase pleasing his mind's eye. "Excuse the indelicacy, but are you and James together?"

"No," Q said, "more's the pity." He grinned quite saucily at Harold. "I wouldn't kick him out of bed if he ended up there."

"Who are we kicking out of bed?" John asked, suddenly right behind Harold.

"I don't remember you being a part of this conversation, Mr. Reese," Harold said.

Q leaned forward. "I was talking about James," he whispered loudly. "I think he thinks he's protecting me by not taking me to bed."

James was making faces, clearly hearing Q's sotto voce whispers.

Amused, Q added, "For all the fact that he's an assassin for Queen and Country, he's quite a prude."

"Stop it," James snapped.

"Make me," Q countered.

Harold caught John's eyes over his shoulder, arrested by whatever he saw there. What was it? Affection, yes, almost always. But there was more, too. Fear? A little. About Harold? About the world? So hard to tell. Harold felt himself sway toward John, his need to be next to the man affecting his body without permission. As if John could read his body as well as his thoughts, he put his hands on Harold's shoulders, standing directly behind him, his chest against Harold's back.

The intimacy was shocking; it had been so long since Harold had been touched beyond a simple pat. He found himself leaning back, for a second, before pulling away, needing to put a few inches between them, wanting time to process what had just happened, what it meant.

He glanced back at John, only to see that the single expression on John's face was his alert-for-danger expression, and Harold found himself grateful for it. Moving over to Q, he began to point out key sections of coding, although he could swear, even with his back turned, he could sense exactly where John was in the room.

*****

Not long after that, Q decided they should all go out for dinner. James was convinced it was just to torture him. Q was treating it as if it was a double date, being over-solicitous to James and taking every opportunity to touch. Reese was finding the entire thing amusing, but it was making Finch skittish. Whatever was going on between Reese and Finch, they weren't lovers, not yet.

Not that he and Q were lovers, despite Q's digs that they could be. Of course they could be. James could take Q to bed tonight, but then he'd be called back to London and he'd be sent on a mission where his body belonged to his country and they'd use him like a high-priced whore. Sex left a bad taste in James' mouth these days.

He still wasn't sure if he believed what Finch was selling, and he wasn't best pleased that Q was so embroiled in it. Only M's complicity kept James from grabbing Q and heading back to London away from all these crazy men with their sentient computers and spaceships from other galaxies.

But M wasn't calling them back; in fact a message had come through for them to stay for the time being. So that meant this might be true, and if it was true, this place, New York, and the library and its surrounding buildings felt like ground zero. That was an even better reason for Q to be evacuated to somewhere safe. Did M have a safe place? Would Q be sent to the city in the ocean? Maybe M would want them to stay to make sure that England had a place at the round table when all was said and done as surely Harold Finch would be a major player. James snorted at the ludicrousness of the entire affair.

"Did you say something?" Q asked him, leaning in, putting his hand on James' thigh. Not inappropriately high, but just high enough for James to think about how a couple inches higher would be inappropriate. He picked up Q's hand and placed it back on his own thigh. Q grinned at him, completely unrepentant.

James rolled his eyes. "Must you?"

"I'm not sure why you're fighting this so hard," Reese said to James, while Harold was ordering the wine.

"I don't see you bedding your counterpart," James snapped.

"He hasn't offered," Reese pointed out. "I would if he did." That last part was said very quietly, as Harold turned his attention back to the table.

James was curious about Harold Finch. That wasn't his real name, obviously, but the file MI6 had sent to him about the man was ridiculously slim. He had money and was used to it, so he'd had it for a while. It was all over him from the way he wore his clothes to the way he'd requested and received a private dining room, to how he ordered wine.

And even though Reese had just confessed that they weren't lovers, Finch acted as if Reese belonged to him. And Reese liked it that way. There was a quiet power to Finch, and not just because he had money. He was brilliant. This machine was proof of that. James had heard of the incredible intel the NSA had been getting. Some of it had found its way to him and the other double-0s, and he'd wondered where it had come from, but no one had been talking, not even M.

Odd to think it came from the man sitting across from him with his ruined body and agile fingers. Q had gone rhapsodic talking about the man's coding, as if he'd been composing a symphony, a Mozart of the digital keyboard.

"Can we talk here?" Q asked, looking around. He briefly flashed a gadget and said, softer, "I'm not picking up any bugs, but I thought I better ask."

"It depends on what you would like to talk about," Finch said. "Conversations about any sort of equipment would be out of order."

Q nodded, clearly marshalling this thought, and then he said, "I want to play a game. Let's pretend there's a zombie apocalypse coming. What would be the biggest challenges after it's done, and we're left picking up the pieces?"

There was a silence around the table, but then Reese said, "Food."

"Violence," James said. "Fear makes people wary and stupid."

"Another question," Finch asked, "is what do you save? What's most important, if you had three months to put it out of harm's way? Something besides people, of course. What things would we choose to save?"

Reese held up his wine glass. "Wine?"

"Being taken care of," Finch said.

James wondered what that meant. Bottles, certainly. "Vines?"

"A Noah's Ark of cuttings," Finch replied. "I suspect many will survive without any assistance although they'll certainly suffer over time from a lack of stewardship, but I took the precaution with my favorites and, of course, we'd have to have a vintner or two on the ark." Harold paused, pursing his lips with some distaste. "One hopes that zombies will have better things to do than destroy crops."

Reese grinned.

"Art?" Q asked.

"Make me a list of artists," Finch said. "I'll see what I can do."

"You'll buy them from museums?" James asked.

"No, from private collectors. Much of the art in the world isn't displayed in museums."

"Will there be an actual Noah's Ark?" Q asked, suddenly apprehensive. "Would the animals survive? Or would the zombies eat them all? I have a cat."

"Moneypenny has your cat," James reminded him.

"Can cats turn into zombies?" Reese asked Finch.

"That's an interesting question," Finch said, pulling out his phone. "Are animals immune?" he asked, putting the phone next to him on the table. There was a chime and after looking down, he said, "Apparently it's only humans who hold the right genetic material to be zombies."

There was a pause as the wine was brought in along with the appetizers. The food and the wine Finch selected were marvelous, and James set in with a hearty appetite.

"If I'm going to stay," Q told James. "I want my cat."

"You don't think after you help Finch that you'll be called back to London?" James asked, hopeful. "I would think they could use your expertise creating a digital library of every written word on the planet."

"Most of that is already done," Finch said. "The Library of Congress began that process many years ago. What will be lost, and there's really no time to attend to it, is all the oral histories of the smaller nations across the world. They'll be wiped away like they never existed."

Q scowled. "And I'm sure whoever they choose to save, that we'll be as homogenous as possible."

"Most likely," Finch said, "although that might be something we could instruct our friend on. He is assembling lists, after all."

Q's eyes lit up. "That's right! I think we should get started on that right away, as soon as we get back."

"Medicine," James said. "What is already produced won't last until we can figure out how to produce it again. We need the inventors along with the people who know how to run the plants."

"Oh, I just had a dreadful thought," Q gasped. "What day, what time?"

Finch looked startled and picked up his phone again, tapping away for a few seconds. Looking grim, he said, "Saturday at ten am here in New York, three pm in London."

A solemn pall lay over the table as a pair of waiters came in and stripped the table of its plates, scraping any hint of crumb off the tablecloths and topping everybody's wine glasses off. If they noticed something was amiss they didn't make note of it, but James thought the waiters who waited on someone like Finch knew better than to make note of anything. Their party was informed that their entrée's would be out shortly, and then they were left alone.

"Can they shut sites down?" Q asked. "Museums, libraries, guard them so no one can get in?"

"And if there are fires? Explosions?" Reese asked. "Enough people out sick means too few first responders. If a fire gets out of control, I'm not sure we can assume anything will stay standing." He paused and side-eyed Finch, adding, "Except, apparently, where we'll be living."

"And why is that?" James asked. "Why are you being asked to stay? And how can you possibly protect your edifice from fire?"

"I don't know," Finch admitted. "To either question. Is there such a thing as fire retardant paint? But we were told to stay, and finished blueprints were delivered the next day, and I trust the source of that information. There's a reason and a way, even if it's not clear to me."

"I know the blueprints call for a lot of fire retardant materials, and there will be water tanks on the roof as well," Reese mentioned.

Q looked devastated. "We'll lose so much. How will we ever recover? I mean, I suppose even billions of delirious sick people might not lay waste to the entire world, but we depend on so many things outside of our control. Just think of the processes involved in keeping old paintings safe from degradation, or how all the components in my lap top are made and delivered for my use. And even if we do our best to maintain our museums, there won't be enough people to take care of them all, all over the world, when we'll be too busy figuring out where our next meal comes from."

"Can we purchase and equip some underground bunkers to keep stuff safe?" Reese asked Finch. "Things we can stockpile?"

"And put art in it instead of people?" Finch asked in return.

"I'd rather read a good book than spend time with most people I know," James pointed out. "Some of this particular party excluded." He glanced at John. "Some not."

"And you can't really stuff people in a dark room and leave them there for three months," Reese pointed out, ignoring James.

"I think I would prefer to wait for instructions," Finch stated. "Q and I plan to work on an education plan tonight, and start a crash course in liberal arts. We're hoping it will act accordingly. It already knows it can spend my money as it wishes, thanks to Mr. Reese."

"I do like spending your money," Reese said, smiling slyly at Finch as he took a sip of wine.

"Is flirting something that's taught at spy school?" Q asked, batting his eyelashes at Reese, and then at James. "You're both so good at it, this being charming lark, despite how lethal you both are. How does that work?"

James and Reese eyed each other, but neither man responded.

Q heaved out a mock sigh and asked Finch impishly, "Does yours flirt on the coms as much as mine does?"

"Yes," Finch said, a hint of a smile on his lips. "I believe he does. I've always thought it was a survival skill, catching more flies with honey, luring your target in with promises of more." He caught Reese's eyes, found the man staring back at him, and then Finch's eyes darted off, his face reddening a little.

James took a quick look at Q only to find his quartermaster staring at him, a smug look on his face. "What?"

"Nothing," Q lied, as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. And that was when their dinner arrived, along with a new set of wine bottles to go with their entrees. Once the plates were set down and the wait staff gone, James asked, "How many apartments will you have when all is said and done? And what else is being built?"

"There's a mixture of one-two-and three bedroom apartments, as well as a few dorm rooms where we could put a considerable number of single people," Reese said. "Harold has his own place, of course. I'm not sure where I'll be staying."

"I had some thoughts on the subject, Mr. Reese," Finch said, "perhaps we could talk privately later."

"Of course," Reese said, eying Finch speculatively. Continuing, he said, "There's a lab for Dr. Shearing, with a small apartment where she and Aaron will stay, as that makes the most sense. There's a restaurant, a classroom, lots of storage room for food and other supplies, not to mention the water tanks and the propane for the generators. Then there's the control center which will end up on one of the office floors which is being built out, this time to Harold's specifications, as we speak. The library will stay a library, so perhaps we should start buying books and movies, and investing in some large screen TVs and computers and ipods and the like."

"I'll help with that," Q said.

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," Finch told Q with a wry grin. "I'd like to extend an invitation to Detectives Carter and Fusco, and their families, of course, to stay with us. They help us with our work," he explained to Q and James.

"How sure are you that it will be secure?" James asked. "Enough angry people can take down a building."

"Again," Finch said, "we are following instructions and trusting."

"And I'll try to break in until I find every weakness, and then I'll fix it," Reese said. "I'll get Aaron to help."

"James can help," Q said.

"If I'm still here," James said.

"Why wouldn't you be here?" Q asked, looking worried. "I know I said they'd probably call you back and you said they'd probably call me back, but do you really think they will?"

"Q, you were brought here to do a specific job. How long will it take?" James looked at Finch for the answer, leaving aside M's comments.

"I don't think it should take too long," Finch said. "A week perhaps? However, I'm not exactly sure what we're being asked to do besides the obvious."

"And you don't think MI6 will want you back?" James asked Q. "Why wouldn’t we be called back? You have a lot of expertise to offer your own country. They have Finch. We need you." James wanted to go back, and he wanted Q to go with him, but he really wouldn't be surprised if M asked them to stay until the thing was done.

Unexpectedly, Q grabbed James' hand. "Just tell me we'll be together as much as we can. I find myself skirting the edges of terror just thinking about what lies ahead, and I feel safer with you."

"I'll do everything I can to stay near you, but I can't make any promises. You know that," James said, unexpectedly touched by Q's willingness to let his vulnerability show. "I'll try." He found himself squeezing Q's hand in return and then not letting go. "MI6 will keep you safe; they won't let anything happen to you. In fact, I'd be surprised if you weren't one of the first to be evacuated. You can do your job from anywhere."

Q didn't look reassured.

James wasn't sure what to think, nor did he know for sure what M's wishes would be. It was absolutely true that Q could do the bulk of his work anywhere, and now James was wondering if Q would be sent to the spaceship city off San Francisco Bay; that had to be full of the sort of equipment that was putty in Q's hand. Paradoxically, James suddenly didn't want Q to go one way, and he to go another.

"Good God," Finch suddenly said. "Airplanes."

"I think we should start writing this stuff down," Reese said, pulling his small notebook out of his pocket and writing down the word airplanes, as well as a few other lines of text, no doubt capturing some of the other thoughts expressed tonight. "There is a lot we can do to keep people from getting needlessly killed. Trains and subways and other public transportation can be stopped, highways closed, airports shut down. The government, all the governments, can come up with some reason, even using the truth, once we get that close. Knowing the exact time a disaster will strike will make it a little easier for crowd control."

James got a sudden premonition, as if the reality of the situation had just slithered into his bones. If this was real, almost everyone was going to die and nothing would ever be the same.

*****

Chapter Text

*****

"I don't trust that guy," Rodney groused as his fingers flew across the keyboard.

"What guy?" John asked, watching Rodney's fingers, experiencing the enjoyable sensory memory of just how skillful those fingers could be.

"Howard, or Henry, whatever, the computer guy."

"Harold Finch?"

"Is he the computer guy?"

"Yes, he is," John said. He wished he had more to do. Keller was testing everyone on Atlantis as quickly as she could and, until he knew results, there wasn't much to do. Woolsey had been read in by Hammond, and John had only been given permission to read in Radek and Keller, and he didn't really want to hang out with anyone who didn't know. The fact that the world was about to implode was a freaking big secret to hide.

He wanted to talk to Teyla and Ronan because they'd get it. He'd talk to Woolsey again about it, or maybe he'd just do it. It wasn't like he couldn't trust them; they were his team, even here on Earth.

"Are you even listening to me?" Rodney snapped.

"Sort of. Hey, what do you think about telling Teyla and Ronan?"

"You mean without permission?" Rodney had heard the directive not to tell anyone except Radek and Keller.

"Yeah," John said. "I just think if there's anyone here who'll get what we're going through it'll be them. They've both had their populations wiped out, and it wasn't even their fault."

Rodney thought about it for a minute and then shrugged. "Fine with me. Just make sure you do it where no one can overhear. This would not be the time to get thrown into prison for treason."

John nodded; he'd figure that out later.

"Are you done with your crisis now?" Rodney complained. "Can you listen to me now?"

"I was listening," John defended himself. "You don't trust that guy." He stretched his legs out. "Fortunately it's not up to you or me to make that call." And he was also glad that it would be Woolsey who would be speaking to anyone who was infected, although he'd be doing it from outside a containment room as Woolsey wasn't infected. Actually, John didn't think many of them would be. The only ones at risk were the few who actually had families and had taken leave when they'd arrived. Most of the people staffed on Atlantis didn't have blood ties and considered the city their home and the people they worked with their families. Not to mention that a lot of people on the city had the gene.

"When do you think they'll start sending people here?" John asked.

"And still not listening," Rodney griped.

"It's just that we need to get some hotel staff or something. We don't have the manpower to be finding rooms for everyone."

"You just need a quartermaster," Rodney said. "That's their job."

John snickered. "Like Q?"

"Yes, exactly like Q," Rodney said sarcastically. "Why don't you call James Bond and tell him we need Q to make beds and see what he says."

"That's not a bad idea," John said.

Rodney's eyebrows rose. "To call James Bond? That man is terrifying. And let's not even talk about Howard's boyfriend."

"Harold."

"Whatever."

"And no, not to call James Bond. To get a quartermaster. I'll talk to Colonel O'Neill about it."

"All I'm saying is, if you're finally ready to listen to me, has the man never heard about the three laws of robotics?"

"You mean from Asimov?"

"Yes, from Asimov," Rodney said. "He's built this thing without any of those safeguards built in. How do we even know what rules it does have? I can't believe Hammond didn't bring him in for questioning."

"It was built to protect human life," John said. "That's the first law of robotics. Never harm a human or let a human come to harm."

"It is so hot that you know that. Seriously," Rodney said with a grin. "But you're already wrong, because it was built to detect terrorism, with the end result of said terrorists being killed. So its first priority is murder."

"No, its first priority is to inform humans about certain behaviors and then the humans do the murdering. And it's not murder anyway. It's government sanctioned assassination. Whole different ballgame."

"It's aiding and abetting. And the second rule is to always obey humans unless this violates the first rule, and this computer has a little too much leeway. It was telling us what to do, not the other way around. Has no one heard of Skynet?"

"Skynet isn't real, Rodney."

"It could be."

John couldn't really argue. That machine was something else. "You know what I wonder?"

"I can't even hazard a guess what goes on under that hair of yours."

John ignored that. "What happens if nothing happens on D-day? What if we've torn families apart, outed the Stargate Program, caused total mayhem that results in real murder and looting and a complete collapse of civilization, and then, poof, nothing happens? I can't stop thinking about it."

"Exactly," Rodney said with a double snap of his fingers. "It seems as if we're taking a lot on faith on information from a machine and a crazy inventor. And what gives with that guy? How did someone that smart stay under everyone's radar?"

"Not everyone who's smart wants to be in the limelight." He smirked at Rodney. "Maybe he doesn't care if he gets a Nobel prize or not."

Rodney scoffed as if such a thing didn't even merit a response with actual words. He pulled his fingers off the keyboard. "I know I'm a genius."

"And so does everyone who talks to you," John agreed. "Or at least they know that you think you're a genius." At Rodney's look of outrage, he relented. "Yes, Rodney, you are a genius. You've saved our asses more times than I can count with ideas you come up with out of your ass. You're amazing."

"This guy, John. He's out of my league, and I don't say things like that. Ever. He created a computer that knows everything. That has access to everything, and with all that data, it can draw conclusions and act independently. And he did that just with coding and wires. I wouldn't even know where to start to do something like that."

"And if he were in a ship sitting on a volcano, he'd have no idea what to do. Or if he had a ten thousand year old Wraith gunning for his best friend, I'm guessing they'd both be dead."

Rodney shot John a slanted frown. "That machine scares me. And mostly because it can help so much. Who would turn that kind of help down?" He gestured at the screen. "I've learned more about this city in one day than I have in the five years we've been living on her. We have factories, John. They're in hibernation mode, but we have them. For all I know we have ships and ZedPM factories, things we've only dreamed of. And this machine is just going to give that information to us." He scowled. "It feels like cheating."

John could understand that. Part of being a pioneer was the unknown and the risk of exploration. This machine was eliminating that part, or at least part of it. On the other hand, assuming this whole virus thing was real, they were facing a deadline unlike any other. Another reason it was chafing to just be sitting here. John sighed. He guessed he should enjoy it. It wouldn't be long until this city was bursting at the seams and there'd be no rest for anyone. And thinking of that, he said, "I think we should go have sex now."

"What? Are you insane? Do you have any idea how much work I have to do?"

"Then give me something to do, or I'm gonna go crazy," John complained.

"Fine, go here," Rodney said, pointing at a spot at the city. "It looks promising. Take a team, just in case the Ancients have left us another lovely surprise."

"Sure we can't have sex first?" John wheedled. "I'll give you a blow job."

Rodney kept typing for about thirty seconds and then he hung his head, letting out a long sigh. "You fight dirty."

John grinned, locked the door to Rodney's lab with a thought, and pulled Rodney to the couch he kept in his lab for quick naps.

*****

"I'm not sure I'm the best person for this," Harold said, after he and Q had spent several hours coding, once they'd gotten home from dinner. Harold had shown Q the code he wrote to take the Machine's memories away and the two of them, working very well together, had made good headway. He wondered what the difference would be between what the Machine had accomplished hobbled like this, versus what it would be able to do once it could keep all its memories naturally. It was a bit nerve-wracking to think about.

He didn't know where John had gotten to, or James either, for that matter. Aaron and Marta were somewhere in the complex, perhaps setting up a temporary spot for themselves to live in until their own apartment was built out. John had had several air mattresses and bedding delivered and some of it had disappeared.

Harold supposed he better help Q and James find something as well. Or perhaps not. Q would want someplace together while James, despite wanting the same thing if Finch had to guess, was determined not to go there.

"There's no one better," Q pointed out.

Harold had to think back for a moment to put Q's comment in context, and then he smiled but shook his head. "Not the coding. That is something I excel at. No, I meant explaining to the Machine what it needs to know to truly help our civilization survive as something more than a military state. I must confess that whether millions survive or billions, I'm just as happy staying as divorced from people as I can. I am something of a recluse."

"I think when this entire thing is over," Q said seriously, "that you will end up in the spotlight more than you'd wish. We'll need an entirely new digital infrastructure, and you and your Machine will take the lead on that."

"And you," Harold said, very appreciative of the young man's talents now that he'd spent a few hours watching him in action. He ignored Q's comment about the future. Harold could create what was needed away from the maddening crowd.

"I worry about James and where he'll end up," Q said with a tight and unhappy face. "I’m so afraid they'll keep him out there to try to quell the violence, and how can he not end up dead, either from the virus or some delirious sick person half off his head?"

Harold wished he had an answer for Q as he sat back in his chair. "When I let myself think about it, I realize that nothing will be the same. Truly nothing. There'll be land enough for everyone, prime real estate. I suspect there'll be a rapid decline in war and terrorism. Most everyone will be focusing on staying alive. We'll need communities, I suppose, to thrive, with farms, and people with basic skills like sewing and cooking and construction with the bartering of those skills as the primary economy. Hopefully, if the Machine has done its job right, we won't be back in the dark ages, but it won't be what it is now. On the other hand," he countered with a sigh, "it could be a nightmare, a world filled with fearful people convinced they have to kill to keep what's theirs, and desperately trying to recreate the life they had."

"Maybe," Q agreed cautiously, "it might be better. As long as people can be with the people they love, it might be better than what we have now."

Harold tapped his phone and then his monitor. "That sums up the situation nicely. Did you hear that? That's the main point, I think. People need to be with the people that are important to them."

"And they need beauty, and music, and art, and things that lift the spirit," Q added.

Bear whined.

"And dog food," Harold said with a small grin as he got up to get Bear a snack. "And we'll perhaps have to get Bear a lady friend. He enjoys his time with other dogs."

"Just tell me the governments of the world will do a better job than what they did when Katrina hit. Those reports were heartbreaking, how families were torn apart, lost to each other. One can only hope they found one another when things calmed down, but there are so many ways this could go badly."

Harold could only agree, although he kept his thoughts to himself. The point now was to get done what could get done, and then there'd be ample time to rue the mistakes that had been made. "I’m quite relieved the Machine has brought other people in to make the majority of those decisions."

"I just want James to be immune," Q whispered to Harold.

As if conjured, James, John, Marta and Aaron all appeared. As one, they all looked at the piece of Ancient tech sitting in front of Harold. The amount of time needed for the ATA gene to go live had arrived.

Harold uneasily thought of Dr. McKay's skepticism about the odds that everyone assembled here earlier either had the gene or was a gene carrier. He could only hope that the Machine had brought them all together to help because of the high chance that they would be immune. How much could they help if they could get infected so easily? His heart started beating rapidly in apprehension that the gene hadn't taken, that John would not be immune.

"May I?" Aaron asked, reaching for the tech.

At Harold's nod, Aaron picked it up and it lit in his hands. He stood up and moved to Marta, smiling so sweetly at her. "Either way, I'll keep you safe. I swear."

"I know," she said, smiling back as she wrapped her hands around the tech and picked it out of Aaron's hands.

As it lit up, Aaron closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." He wrapped his arms around her and swung her in a circle. "Thank you!" he yelled loudly. "Thank God." He gave her a loud smack of a kiss on her lips, and then turned toward Harold. "We'll be staying near the lab if anyone needs us." With that, he tossed the tech to James, grinning when it lit up in his hands.

"I can't look," Q whined; his hands had already been covering his eyes before the toss.

"Q," Harold said gently. "You can look. It's fine."

Q gingerly looked up, saw that the tech was alight in James' hand, and let out a gusty sigh of relief. Then, emboldened, he moved over to James, took the tech out of his hand and placed it back on the table, grabbed James' now empty hand to drag him off as well. Harold noticed that James didn't seem to be complaining too much about the manhandling.

Harold stared at the small piece of tech, cognizant of the fact that the unimpressive piece of plastic might dictate if John would live or die. No matter how much Harold might want to do it, he couldn't lock John up, so John would be out there trying to make things more secure for their corner of the world, and he would be exposed.

John took a step toward the table, his hand reaching, and Harold suddenly got to his feet, fear surging through him. Was it too much to hope that all three of them were now immune? Did the fact that Marta and James were now immune mean there was no more luck left for John? Harold knew he was being ridiculous, but so much was riding on this. More than he'd even known now that the thought of being without John was crystalizing his feelings.

"I…" he began and then dropped off. He took some strength from Q's determined nature to get what he wanted from James, and started again. "I don't want to do this without you. And not just because of the skills you bring to the table. But because…John," his words stumbled to a halt again, staring at John, trying to see what his few sentences had wrought.

Enough, apparently, as John strode to his side, one hand cupping Harold's face, as he leaned down and kissed Harold, gently at first, lips rubbing softly, a hint of tongue at the seam of Harold's lips, but then when Harold opened his mouth, John held him tightly, his tongue thrusting inside as if he'd been desperately waiting for an invitation.

Harold barely heard a scrabbling noise but then John was pulling back, holding up the lit piece of tech in his hand, grinning, and Harold wrapped his arms around John and hugged him as hard as he could, ignoring the twinges of his body, beyond relieved that John was in this with him. That John was as safe as he could be.

"You said something about wanting to discuss my housing situation," John said, in his low sultry voice that always aroused Harold. He rubbed his groin against Harold, and Harold could feel John's erection against the join of his leg and hip.

"Stay with me," Harold whispered. "I want you to live in the home you're creating for me. Please, John."

"I was hoping you would ask," John assured him, his large warm hands sweeping down Harold's back and ass, and back up again. "Can you take me to one of your homes now? Or can we go back to my place? I really want to be alone with you."

Harold glanced at the monitors to see if the Machine had anything to say about their vacating the library for the night, but there was nothing. There was no reason for it, Harold supposed. John was immune. They were both immune. Even if they came into contact with someone who was infected, they wouldn't catch it and, just as importantly, they couldn't bring it back and infect anyone here. Except… "Is Mr. Moody immune?" he asked the Machine.

HE IS. HE SHOULD STAY HERE. The words scrolled across several monitors.

Harold wondered if that was why the Machine had chosen him. Or at least one of the reasons. "Is his family safe?"

THERE IS A LOW PROBABILITY THAT THEY ARE INFECTED. THEY SHOULD COME HERE SOON.

Harold hmm'd a little, then said, "How do we make sure we don't bring anything, or anyone, contaminated into our facility here? Not everyone who will come to stay will be immune."

ASK ME WHEN YOU RETURN AND I WILL TELL YOU IF YOU ARE AT RISK. YOU WILL NEED TO SET UP A TESTING AREA.

"We'll also need to set up some sort of decontamination entry way where people can strip down and shower," John said. "I'll check to see if one is in the plans. We also need to come up with a way to decontaminate everything that gets delivered."

"Tomorrow?" Harold asked.

John grinned at him. "Tomorrow." Bear whined from his bed. "And come on, Bear, we'll walk you first."

"I was thinking we need to find him a lady friend," Harold remarked as he got his coat, his body still flushed from that kiss, and his stomach fluttering with the thought of more.

"I think that's a great idea. Although we'll have to figure out a way to walk them without leaving crap everywhere. Maybe a kennel out in the alleyway."

"Something else to attend to tomorrow," Harold said, determined to stay on point.

Words scrolled across the computers as Harold began to shut things down. I NEED TO COMMUNICATE WITH GENERAL HAMMOND. DO YOU APPROVE?

Harold frowned at the monitor. "I'm not your boss. If you need to speak with anyone, then do so. Just please ensure that we know what we need to know, and that you're not giving contradictory advice. Is there something in particular we need to be worried about?"

NO. HE REQUIRES INFORMATION AND I CAN PROVIDE IT FOR HIM QUICKLY.

"Then do so. I believe he is a good man," Harold said. There were no other words forthcoming. "How odd." Right before he shut off his monitor he added, "Do be careful though. Not everyone is worth listening to, or will give you good advice on behalf of the world. Please keep that in mind." With that, he shut off the monitor.

"Have we lost the mood?" John asked, brushing up against Harold.

"Perish the thought," Harold said, facing John. "It sounds as if whatever this is will keep for another time."

John clipped Bear's leash on and then kissed Harold again; not as prolonged a kiss as the last one, but ensorceling nonetheless. It had been so long since he'd been kissed, since he'd wanted to be kissed, truth be told, that it was making him giddy. It felt not unlike his brief experience when he was drugged with ecstasy.

*****

"Q," James said as he allowed his quartermaster to drag him up the nest Q had created.

"No," Q said. "Don't talk." He spun around to face James. "Not yet. Just…" He shook his head, not having the slightest idea how to even begin describing what he was feeling and what he needed. He was a tumultuous tangle of thoughts and emotions all tumbling together. Instead of talking, he wrapped his arms around James, hoping the man would continue to allow Q's touch. "Just stay like this." He waited anxiously for James to respond.

After what felt like a very long moment, James returned the hug, at first cautiously, but then tightly.

"It's just," Q said, not moving, speaking into James' shoulder, "it's just everyone, everyone could die. And yes, the Machine said seventeen million will survive, and I suppose the team that was here earlier can save a few million more, but how many, really, can they save? We'll end up with twenty million or so, and that's little more than twice the population of London, spread all over the world. That's nobody. That's a ghost town. Earth…one big ghost town."

"We don't really know--"

"We do," Q interrupted him. "We do, because that Machine knows. It knows in the same way I know how to do surveillance, and you know how to spy. It's what it is. And…" Q had to clear his throat, his eyes tight, staving off a panic attack, something he'd not had for years, "that means the dry cleaners and the place we get our coffee, and the other nameless people who live in the same apartment complex as I do, all gone, because who are they to be saved? Who's going to save them?"

"Q," James said, his hand brushing up and down Q's back, as if to console.

"I'm sure M and Eve and the other double-0s will get saved, and some of my staff, perhaps, but what about the janitors and the cafeteria staff? What about everybody else? What about the zoo and the animals there? Who's going to feed them if everyone is home dying? Jesus. And why do I get to be saved? I've lived such an insular life, nose buried in a computer, barely making a ripple in anyone else's life."

"Shut up," James said sternly. "There isn't a double-0 whose life you haven't saved. You've saved mine a dozen times already. And that means we were all able to complete missions that saved countless others."

Despite the fact that it was James telling him that, it wasn't helping. "Missions for a country that won't really exist anymore."

James pulled back enough to cup Q's head in his hands. "You need to stop this. You aren't responsible for decisions this country made to try to protect itself from dangers neither of us even knew existed. And I've lived a solitary life, too. Maybe more solitary than you, and that's not what makes you worthwhile."

Q stared in James' eyes, not sure what he was looking for. "I have no family. I don't really have any friends, other than the people I work with. And I'm not saying that to get pitied, almost everyone at MI6 is in the same boat. But, and I know it's crazy, and I know you might not want to hear it, but when someone taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Come on, the spaceship is leaving, grab your family and let's go,' the person I'd grab would be you. You're necessary to me in a way I can't really explain. I'm not in love with you, although I could be if you wanted me to be. I'm certainly attracted to you," he said with a wry grin, "but who isn't? And we're not really even friends, not in the traditional sense, but somehow, it's you who matters to me more than anyone."

James stared back at him, his hands still on Q's face, his thumbs sweeping up and down his cheekbones, eyes looking a little stunned, and maybe, and how typical, a little smug. He didn't say anything though, which was fine, because the last thing Q wanted was for James to lie and make a hash of it trying to sound convincing that Q was it for him, too.

"And knowing you're immune," Q continued, his mouth clearly set on babble, "even if you'll probably be out there helping the last few VIPs stay safe, and no doubt get torn apart by looters or terrorists who use this entire thing as a platform to start detonating nuclear weapons, at least I know you won't get whatever this is, and die sick and alone and unmourned in some hotel bed in some city. And truthfully, I don't care about those VIPs, because if I had my choice, I'd want you here with me, wherever I am, at the end of all things, so that whatever comes next, we tackle it together. Because I think between you and me, we'd be okay for whatever comes next."

He buried his face again in Bond's shoulder. "And the thought that it might only be me, and not you and me, terrifies me." He let out a shaky breath. "Sorry. I'm sure you didn't need to hear any of that, but I'm freaking out a little."

James pulled back again, and this time he took Q's hand and dragged him over to the air mattress on the floor and the pile of blankets and pillows jumbled on it, getting them both situated, lying down, facing each other. He didn't let go of Q's hand, in fact he laced their fingers together and held on tightly.

Q stared at him expectantly, not sure what the man might say or do.

"I think," James finally said, "that I still don't really believe it." He smiled a little self-deprecatingly. "Denial's one of my favorite coping strategies. Actually, it's how I live my life." He rolled onto his back. "I don't do this, you know. Talking. Not about anything important. I know how to talk someone into my bed, and how to verbally spar with enemies and with you," he added with a small grin before continuing, "and how to placate the politicians, but I don't talk. And I do my very best not to feel, either." He shot Q a sidelong glance. "It's safer. Easier. Easier to drink, to have sex, to look for another mission where I can live in the moment, and not think about the past or the future." He snorted. "Pathetic."

Q didn't say anything, but he squeezed James' hand, inched a little closer.

"I've done…" James stopped, his eyes dark, face tight.

"I don't think that matters," Q said quickly, holding their entwined hands up against his chest. "And I know it sounds ridiculous, but in spite of my meltdown, we'll all be getting the ultimate of clean slates. We can rebuild a world, James, instead of the killing we both do. And both of us do it; and, in a way, the mechanism I use is worse, because I don't even look them in the eye. I push a button and people die. It's really a sort of power no one should have."

"A clean slate," James echoed. "That's one way of looking at it." He reached out and got an arm around Q, pulling him close until Q's head was in the hollow of James' shoulder. "I'm really going to miss Prufrock Coffee."

Q moaned. "We have to buy you coffee and me tea, James, as much of it as we can. How can I possibly live without it?" It could make one crazy, thinking about all that could be lost. And how could it really be rebuilt if the people with necessary skills are scattered all over the world? If there were only twenty thousand people left in London when all was said and done, would it still be London? How could twenty thousand people maintain a city the size of London? Create energy sources? Plant the necessary food, keep water treatment centers open? How would the gas stations work? How would gas get to the gas stations? Q was finding it hard to breathe again.

"Relax," James said.

He couldn't relax though. Not when he had no idea if James would be with him. He could cope with gas stations if James was there. He could cope with almost anything with James next to him. But without him? It was too much. "Try," Q said. "Try to stay with me?"

There was a long silence which made something start to die inside of Q, but then James said, "I'll stay with you."

Q lifted up to stare at James. "Really? You won't just try? You'll really stay with me?"

"I'll really stay with you," James said. "It'll work out. I'll make it work out. We'll either stay here with Finch and Reese, or we'll go someplace else and stay together. I expect the Machine will want you to stay here. It likes you."

"It does like me," Q said, pleased by the fact. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but there was affection in its code, largely for Harold, but also for Q. And also for John. It liked John.

"But I don't know how to be human," James admitted. "You might find yourself sorry to be shackled with me. You called me a trigger. Do you remember? You weren't far off."

Q waved that concern off, feeling lightheaded with relief. He and James had both taken potshots at each other when they'd first met. "Is there someone you'd grab? If they came to get you and told you to grab your family?"

James pulled Q back down to his shoulder, wrapping his arms around him. "You. The old M if she was still alive. Boothroyd, if he was still alive. But first pick would be you. It's always you in my ear, and in my mind, and sometimes, at night, when I'm alone, it's you I think about."

A delightful shiver ran down Q's spine that set his stomach and groin tingling. "Me, too. I mean you." But despite how long he'd been teasing James and trying to get him into his bed, and despite how James was actually saying that he'd thought of it, now wasn't the time. He just wanted James near, wanted his promise to stay close; and now he had both, and he was going to hang on as tight as he could.

*****

Chapter Text

*****

They went back to John's place because it was closer, and they knew where to walk Bear. They took their time, letting their eyes catch and their shoulders bump, allowing the tension between them to slowly build.

John couldn't keep a small smile off his face, and he let it grow into a genuine smile every now and then, his cheeks feeling the stretch. The smile tended to appear on his face when Harold would glance up at him, his eyes wide, as if he couldn't believe this was happening. It made John smile because it was happening.

As they approached his loft, he took Harold's hand, lacing their fingers together, not caring if anyone saw. It's not like he couldn't beat the crap out of anyone who gave them grief. Shoot them, even.

They made their way inside and John took Bear off his leash. The dog bounded around the apartment for a few minutes, sniffing everywhere, before making himself at home in the large dog bed John had bought him.

John took his coat off and then Harold's, hanging them both up on the coat rack. When he looked at Harold, Harold was very still, but John could see a dozen tells that the man was nervous.

"Second thoughts?"

"No," Harold said quickly. "Not at all. I just haven't done this since…" he indicated his body, "and I'm not sure of the logistics."

"We'll figure it out," John told him. "As long as we end up with you inside of me, I don't care if we have to hang off the chandeliers."

Harold swallowed, and he couldn't help but glance up, even though John knew Harold knew he didn’t have any chandeliers.

"Made you look," John teased him.

Harold shot John one of his 'how old are you?' looks.

John huffed out a laugh, and moved to the kitchen area. "Do you want a drink?"

"Yes, I believe a little Dutch courage will go a long way tonight."

"Fair enough," John said. He wanted to be sober, or at least mostly sober, but if a little liquor helped ease things for Harold, he was behind that one hundred per cent. "Do you need to take a pain pill or anything?"

"No, I'll take one before I go to sleep, but I sincerely hope that won't be for a while."

John couldn't help smiling again. For a moment he wished he'd known Harold before the accident, seen him with a body that moved easily, and a smile that graced his face more often. But then again, John never would have met him then. "Do you think we'd have ever met?"

"If I'd never had the accident?" Harold asked.

"If you'd never started working with the irrelevant numbers," John clarified. He pulled out one of the bottles of wine Harold had brought over that they hadn't had a chance to drink, and rummaged through the drawer for a bottle opener.

"Probably not," Harold admitted. He limped over to John and put his hand on his chest. "And my life would have been the poorer for it."

"Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Finch?" John teased, leaning down and kissing his lips gently.

"Is it working, Mr. Reese?"

"Yes," John assured him, pulling away long enough to get the wine bottle open and to pour them each a glass. They both meandered over to the window, staring out, sipping at the wine.

"I must admit my heart is racing," Harold said with a short self-deprecating laugh. "I'm not quite sure how to start things off."

"Have you been with a man before?" John asked, just to get a clearer sense of things.

Harold nodded. "One man. We were better as friends."

"Nathan?"

Harold nodded again, taking another gulp of wine. "I was lucky. We were able to retain our friendship. He was a good friend." He glanced up at John, face a little in shadow, "As are you. And I hope, whatever happens now, and in the future, that we won't lose that."

"We'll end up with something better," John said. "I promise." He took Harold's wine away, and put both glasses down on the couch end table. He cupped Harold's face with one hand and kissed him again, slanting his mouth against Harold's until Harold opened his mouth and welcomed him inside. Their tongues tangled and Harold stepped closer, almost losing his balance, pressing up tight to John, John wrapping an arm around Harold to keep him steady.

"I have thought of this so many times," Harold confessed, kissing John's jaw, his hands climbing up under John's suit jacket, caressing his back.

John let out a groan at the contact. He hadn't realized he was so touch starved and every stroke of Harold's fingers was like a jolt of electricity sizzling over his skin, creating an ever deeper yearning for more of Harold's touch. John let go of Harold long enough to let his suit jacket fall to the floor and to open enough buttons to pull his shirt up over his neck and shoulders, letting that fall, too.

"Oh my goodness," Harold said, letting his face press against John's shoulder, while his hands continued to explore John, now without cloth in the way. "You are such a beautiful man." He touched a tongue to one of John's nipples, teasing him with little nips, and they pebbled under his mouth.

"God," John groaned, letting his head fall back, wanting Harold to touch him everywhere.

"Perhaps we should take this someplace horizontal," Harold suggested. "And dispense with our clothing. They seem quite superfluous at this point."

John grinned at his turn of phrase. "I must not be kissing you right, if you can still use so many big words."

Harold snorted. He glanced at John and sighed. "I’m afraid you won't be able to return the compliments. My body is quite scarred."

"It doesn't matter," John said.

Harold shot him a look.

"No, Harold, it doesn't matter." John moved to Harold and started pulling the knot out of his tie. "Because how your body looks isn't what's been driving me crazy for months. It's your voice in my ear, and the way you always have my back, and that amazing brain of yours, and the way you work with computers, and spend your money, and dress me so nice." As the tie hit the ground, John started unbuttoning Harold's vest. "And then there's your honesty, and steadfastness, and your unrelenting desire to help people, all of which is a bigger turn on than a body would ever be." The vest hit the ground, and his fingers moved to Harold's shirt. "Trust me when I say that you are already everything I want."

"Oh," Harold said in surprise, his eyes wide with wonder. "John, I…I don't know what to say."

"How about: 'take the rest of your clothes off, John'."

That got him a smile, and Harold said, pleased, "I can do that. John, would you please take the rest of your clothes off? And then I'd like to look at you for a while. Could you lower the shades first? Whatever happens next, I'd like it to be between you and me."

Putting as much prowl as he could into his walk, knowing Harold liked to watch him, John pushed the button that lowered the shades. Then, under one of the small spot lights, John toed off his shoes, slid his socks off, and then undid his belt buckle and the button and zipper to his pants, and let them drop.

He heard Harold take a deep breath and John smirked as he slowly took off his underwear, until he was standing naked in front of Harold. He had scars himself, and he always had bruising somewhere on his body, but he was in good shape and he was enjoying the heated looks coming from Harold. "What do you want? I'll do anything you want."

Harold walked over to him, running his hands down John's chest until they were resting on his hips. "You mean that, don't you?"

"I'll do anything you say. Except do without you," John amended.

"What did I do to win this allegiance?" Harold asked, looking bewildered. But without waiting for an answer, Harold looked at his eyes, studying him, for what felt like a long time. "Is that what you want? For me to tell you what to do?"

"Only if it's what you want to do," John said simply, even as his body tingled at the thought of Harold giving him orders here, in their bedroom.

"Hmm," Harold said, his pupils enlarging and his skin flushing, "that's an idea that's worth exploring at a later time, but right now, I believe what I want is for us to touch each other for our mutual enjoyment."

Then, as if to put his words in action, Harold's gaze dropped to John's body and his hands started to drift, touching him everywhere, as if he were thinking of buying him. Harold walked around him, his hands squeezing, and caressing, and occasionally, Harold would lean into him, pressing his own body against John's.

John closed his eyes so he couldn't anticipate any of it, falling into a trance-like state where it was only him and Harold, the two of them being bound more and more tightly with every circuit Harold made around him.

"John," a voice whispered to him. "John, open your eyes."

The voice seemed as if it were coming from miles away, but John would choose to obey that voice under any circumstance, so he forced his eyes open, only to find Harold standing in front of him, naked and aroused, smiling up at him.

"Where did you go?" Harold asked.

"Someplace with you," John said, reaching out and pulling Harold into his arms, reveling in all that flesh against his, feeling Harold's hardened cock, his hands shaping the scars down Harold's back, on his hip. He leaned down to kiss Harold, then said softly, "Tell me if I do something that doesn't feel right. I need to learn your limits."

"I must admit, Mr. Reese," Harold said with a teasing grin, "I feel as if I don't have any limits at this particular time."

John coaxed them both onto the bed, being careful with Harold, making sure he was lying on his back, propped up by pillows. Despite the pain he knew Harold was in--the man was always in pain--his erection hadn't flagged, and John lay between his legs and took Harold's cock in his mouth.

The gasps he wrung out of Harold egged him on, and he used every trick he knew to push Harold almost to the point of orgasm only to ease him down. John didn't expect more than one bout of sex tonight out of either of them, and he had a very specific plan in mind.

"Oh, my God," Harold gasped, his chest laboring, his body flushed with arousal, "do something, please!"

Grinning, John pulled some lube out of his bedside table drawer and coated his fingers, before twisting around, and inserting them to prepare the way for Harold.

"You will let me do that for you next time," Harold said sternly, or as sternly as someone can whose voice was husky with desire.

"Anything you want," John said.

"And I'd like you to do that to me as well," Harold said.

John had to grab his cock and squeeze at the mental image of fucking Harold. He'd have been fine to be the one to always submit to Harold, but he wanted Harold that way as well, he wanted him every way. Refusing to wait another second, he rolled a condom onto Harold, coated him with more lube, and then he sat astride Harold, easing down, enjoying the mixed sensations of pain and pleasure until he was fully seated, Harold deep within him.

He gazed down at Harold feeling ridiculously smug that he was the one that Harold Finch chose to be with.

"John," Harold gasped, "you…oh, are you really mine? Is this really happening?"

John smiled at Harold's words. Owned. "Really yours. And this is really happening." Using his thigh muscles he began to lift himself almost off of Harold and then back down, watching Harold's face, both for signs of pleasure and to make sure he wasn't causing him any pain. He was relieved to see there wasn't a hint of pain on Harold's face and gave a moment's thanks to the wonder of endorphins. He'd give Harold a massage later, to make sure he didn't pay for any of this with delayed discomfort.

"I wish I could help," Harold said tightly. "I'm afraid my body just doesn't work like that anymore. But, oh, John, you are truly magnificent."

"I don't mind doing the work," John assured him, leaning down to kiss him, wanting any anxiety to go away. "We can find other ways for you to participate more fully."

Harold let out a laugh at that. "I'm afraid if I was participating any more fully that I'd spontaneously combust."

John grinned down at Harold, and then shifted his body enough to let Harold's cock hit the bundle of nerves inside of him, and he grunted as a bolt of pleasure shot through him. Harold let his hands start to wander, playing with John's nipples, exploring his balls, stroking his cock, until John found himself finding it hard to think at all.

"I'm close," Harold warned him.

"Stroke me fast," John demanded, immediately rewarded by Harold's quick obedience, as he began to stroke John rapidly, Harold's eyes getting dark and glazed over with a sex haze. John felt Harold come inside of him, and it was enough to set him off, and he jetted his release all over Harold's hands, just catching himself in time to keep from collapsing on top of Harold.

He fell to the side, staying close, needing Harold as close as possible, and Harold worked off the condom and wrapped it in tissues, depositing the mess in the small trash can by the bed before slowly turning toward him. Harold placed his hand on John's hip, the other finding one of John's hands and holding it tightly. "That was amazing," he said. "Truly amazing. I know it sounds trite, but sex has never been that good for me before."

John couldn't help the self-satisfied smile he was sure was on his face as he thought: Better than Nathan! Better than Grace! That made him think of Grace and the upcoming apocalypse, but he dismissed it for the time being. It was a conversation they'd need to have at some point, but not right now.

"What are you thinking about?" Harold asked. "You were looking quite appropriately smug there for a moment, but then your mind went someplace less pleasing."

"It's not exactly afterglow conversation," John warned him, "for either of us."

Harold seemed to think about it for a minute, and then he said, "Let's leave it for tomorrow, then, shall we?"

"Works for me," John admitted, even though a part of him was wondering what he'd do if Harold wanted to bring Grace in. Maybe the sex was better, but that didn't mean Harold didn't love Grace more. He'd asked her to marry him, after all.

"From your continued distraction, it appears we need to talk about it now," Harold said softly, interrupting his unpleasant thoughts, one hand reaching up to run fingers through John's hair. "What is it?"

"Grace. Your Grace."

"Ah," Harold said, his face growing tight.

“Harold,” John began, but Harold put his fingers over his lips to stop him. John lay there next to Harold, his heart pounding uncomfortably, waiting for Harold to speak, annoyed with himself that he'd ruined the moment between them.

Harold nodded, as if he’d gotten his thoughts in order. “May I ask you a question? One I need you to think about before answering?”

“Of course.”

“And forgive me for asking you this, but I think it will best illustrate my own answer.” He paused and then started up again. “If Jessica were still alive, or if you discovered she was still alive, would you turn away from this and go to her?”

The question startled John, but he didn’t just blurt out the answer that immediately came to mind which was yes. Instead, as asked, he thought about it, and he could see the relief on Harold’s face that he was choosing to be thoughtful about it.

It took him several minutes to think things through, and Harold waited patiently. And when John realized what his answer would be, he suddenly saw what Harold had meant. “My first response is yes,” John said, “because I still love her. I’ll always love her. And I’ll always feel guilty that I couldn’t save her.”

Harold nodded, as if he understood, as if he, too, felt guilty for having abandoned Grace.

“But,” John continued, “she doesn’t fit in my life anymore. She wouldn’t understand who I am, who I’ve become. And I wouldn’t choose to sacrifice any of what I have now, both the work and you, to try to make it work with her. So, my answer would be no.” He smiled a little wryly, “But I would have to make sure she was safe and keep an eye on her.”

“Exactly,” Harold said. “Thank you, John, for being so honest. I’m sure that wasn’t easy, but I feel the same way. I’m no longer the man I was when I courted Grace. Truthfully, I was already concealing so much from her…” He let out a snort. “Nathan scolded me for the entire situation, the fact that I was asking her to marry me when the name I was using wasn’t even my own. He couldn’t imagine how our relationship could ever work, and I suspect he was right.”

“Do you still want to bring her in? Or to make sure she’s on someone’s list?”

“She’s infected,” Harold said. “I asked the Machine a couple days ago.”

John buried his face in Harold’s neck. “I’m sorry.”

Harold did his best to move closer, and John moved the rest of the way and they stayed like that for a long while.

Finally John pulled back. “Do you want to go see her?”

“I did at first,” Harold admitted, “but now I think it would be a selfish act, allowing me some closure while giving her none. I’ll make sure she’s well cared for, and the Machine will keep an eye on her and let me know if she's one of the rare few who survives. Then, yes, I’ll need to go see her, and I’d like you to come with me.”

John knew the odds were next to nothing on Grace surviving, but he was moved that Harold wanted John to accompany him, to stand at his side, as he reconnected. A tiny part of him wanted it to happen so he could make it clear to her that Harold belonged to him now, that he’d won.

Harold snorted. “Really?”

John grinned, guessing he hadn’t done a good job keeping that arrogant crowing off his face. He shrugged. “I don’t like to share. I never have.”

“That works both ways,” Harold said, with a hint of warning in his voice.

“Hmm,” John hummed, delighting in the reality of belonging to Harold and Harold belonging to him. “Can you sleep this way?”

“Unfortunately not. And I’d like to get cleaned up. Will you take a shower with me?”

John was pleased that Harold didn’t mind him seeing his body. “I’ll get the water going.” He leaned down and kissed Harold. “And once we get back in bed, I’m giving you a massage.”

Harold smiled at him. “You drive a hard bargain. But I agree to your terms.”

Laughing now, John got out of bed, took a moment to kiss Harold again, and then headed for the bathroom.

*****

Chapter Text

*****

Jack found George sitting in his old office, Jack's office now, staring off into space.

"I don't think I've ever seen you do that," Jack observed.

Startled, George looked up at him. "Do what?"

"Stare off into space. Not notice that I just walked into your office."

"Your office," George said with a sad smile. He touched the desk. "So much that we have worked for over the centuries, and soon so little of it will matter anymore."

Jack pushed back against the automatic objections he had to George's melancholy words, instead moving into the office and sitting down. "Talk to me."

"The Machine has been giving me data and I, in turn, have been sharing that information with the appropriate people. I had planned to go to Washington, D.C. today--" He stopped and shot Jack a look.

"But we wouldn't let you go," Jack interrupted. "You're not immune. You need to be somewhere safe."

"I am only one life, Jack," Hammond retorted. "And I could be of some use in the months ahead."

Jack blew out a breath. "So you got confirmation." It wasn't a question.

"We got confirmation. Several scientists have worked with the data the Machine supplied and found the virus to be as we were told. Easy enough to do, I was informed, when they were told exactly where and how to look."

"I was really hoping this whole thing was some sort of hoax," Jack confessed, feeling suddenly overwhelmed. "So the deaths? They've predicted that as well?"

George nodded stiffly. "And the picture the extinction level event experts are rolling out in terms of how the world will deal with the news once it's out is…well, horrifying isn't too strong a word." George sighed. "I will need to travel to help. My job is to keep this planet as safe as I can."

"We can be your arms and legs, George. You can mastermind from an outfitted control center."

"That's not the type of commanding officer I am. I don't support my troops by protecting myself first."

"No, but you let us go through the gate while you stayed here, and protected us by other means," Jack argued. "Think of this like that."

The monitor on Jack's desk whirred to life. GENERAL HAMMOND, YOU WILL BE NECESSARY TO CREATE ORDER AFTER THE VIRUS HAS RUN ITS COURSE. YOU ARE WELL RESPECTED AND PEOPLE WILL LOOK TO YOU FOR DIRECTION. THAT IS WHERE YOU WILL BE OF BEST USE.

Jack could have kissed the monitor. He gestured at it. "I couldn't have said it better myself."

George looked stunned, and then let out a soft brief chuckle. "I suppose if we are looking to the Machine for direction, then I have no choice but to do as bidden. But I do it under duress."

I UNDERSTAND. TESTING HAS BEGUN IN THE WHITE HOUSE. MANY ARE INFECTED INCLUDING THE PRESIDENT AND THE VICE-PRESIDENT.

Names of those tested in D.C., almost all of them serving the White House, began to scroll down the monitor with the list of infected depressingly long while, at this point, only three names were in the uninfected list.

"And that's why you didn't need to be there today," Jack said sternly. "Too many people there shaking hands and kissing babies." And having sex in broom closets, Jack added to himself.

"We probably have infected people here," George countered.

"We're working on that." And they were. Everyone was being tested as quickly as possible, and those that were found to be infected were currently under quarantine. "But that?" and he pointed at the computer, "that's a hot spot, almost as bad as the Philippines, and you don't need to be anywhere near it."

George just sighed, his face grim.

"Are they planning to keep it from going public as long as they can?" Jack asked.

"Yes. I know we could possibly save more people if we went public, but as I said before the ELE experts predict massive damage to infrastructure due to violent mayhem, and that will cause even more trauma to what survivors we have." He paused, looking at the monitor as if inviting comment from the Machine.

He continued, "I believe we will be able to keep it under wraps for several more weeks. Rumors of an outbreak of Ebola will be leaked in the next few days, which will help explain people being put in quarantine, stop some travel, and may increase people's awareness of infection control."

That would help for a while, Jack thought. But what they really needed was a safe house that was already cleared. Atlantis, the SGC, and the Daedalus were all in the process of being tested. But they weren't swept clean yet. People would have to be quarantined elsewhere, someplace not yet defined, and then all the possible safe houses, be they buildings or flying cities would have to disinfected. He supposed, right now, Harold's New York fortress was the safest place in the world right now.

"I have to go see Colonel Byer," George said.

"I don't think so."

"Jack, he's a friend. He didn't make these decisions on his own. He had oversight and orders of his own, and he's got the destruction of the world sitting on his shoulder. I need to go see him. I have to."

Jack blew out a breath. "Then we're taking a team. And you're staying across the room from him. And you're not seeing anyone else while you're there."

"I agree," George said. "And thank you. It's important, in times like this, that we not lose our humanity. People will still need to be comforted and consoled, and I hope I never lose sight of that."

"And that's why the Machine is already starting to roll out your campaign for President of the World," Jack pointed out.

George smiled for a moment. "I'd like to share some other concerns with you, if I might. I'd rather you not discuss what we speak of here to anyone else at this time, but I would welcome your thoughts."

"Hit me," Jack said, girding himself. This was going to be a whole world of bad, he could just tell.

"After…after it's done." George stopped, looked away for a moment, composing himself. "How will we protect ourselves from what we know is out there? How will sixteen million people, many of them injured themselves or shell-shocked, certainly some of them children and elderly, how will we maintain the protection of this world? The factories, good God, the mining we depend on for steel, for all the parts that go into making our warships let alone our weapons, our missile silos all over the world that depend on tens of thousands of well-trained men and women to keep them operational. Not to mention manpower to man our space telemetry and satellite programs that can alert us to danger."

Yeah, this sucked.

George continued, his voice rising, his defeatist mood one Jack rarely saw. "We had one serious Goa'uld attack, and we barely survived and that was with the use of Ancient technology; and while the chair is still there, we have next to no drones left. Atlantis has part of one functioning ZPM and limited drones themselves. We have the risk of the Wraith, what few remaining Goa'uld there are, the Tok'ra, even the Jaffa Nation, potentially, and God knows who else might decide that Earth is ripe for a takeover while we have no one and no way to guard its borders."

Jack didn't think George was done yet, so he sat there, listening, even as his gut churned with the words he was hearing.

"And I have no way of knowing if we'll even be able to maintain basic electricity, keep houses warm in the winter, keep food on people's tables, have hospitals to take care of basic first aid. And how on earth are we supposed to start marshalling what forces we can towards these ends without giving away the fact that due to our hubris that we could play God and improve the human body, billions will die." His mouth tightened and his shoulders sagged. "Jack, I admit, I'm terrified, I'm terrified we won't be able to take care of the few that will survive."

Jack didn't know what to say. What was there to say? Except maybe one thing. "We need a think tank. We need the brightest minds the planet has to offer to start making a list of what we have and what we need." He leaned forward to make sure George was paying attention. "It can't all fall on you. Or me. And it would be a good thing anyway to save as many of these folks as we can. We need military experts, infrastructure experts, people who can strategize, not just eggheads who can't relate to people worth shit." He reached over and tapped the screen. "Can you put together a list of some people who could help with that sort of stuff? I know you're the smartest game in town, but at some point you might get a little stretched." And how fucked was it that he was starting to treat this thing like it was alive.

I CAN. THE ADMIN CAN ASSIST. THERE IS ALREADY A GROUP MEETING IN LONDON LED BY MYCROFT HOLMES, AND ANOTHER FORMING IN JAPAN.

"Mycroft Holmes?" George said, nodding his approval. "Then I believe England and, in fact, the European Union, will be in good hands. He's as sharp and influential as they come."

WE NEED SOME INFECTED TO OFFER THEMSELVES FOR STUDY.

I've already had offers," George told the Machine. "Including the President. We need to find a safe way to allow those infected that still have necessary skills to continue to assist."

"Okay, then, one or maybe several think tanks coming up. If they're uninfected, and if Harold agrees, I think he should host a group in New York. He should probably be part of one. So should Daniel, and probably Carter. Once Atlantis gets clean, they should host one as well. I'll need to see how many apartments Harold still has free."

"Let's sleep on that and speak more in the morning. And thank you for listening to me. I actually feel better."

"I think you needed to get that out. And I'm honored to be your sounding board." Even if Jack was heading for the whiskey when he got home. "Now we can start dealing with it. Maybe we should get in touch with the Asgard. Maybe they can help with defense for a while. And hey," he said to the Machine, "read up on the Replicators. They're destroying the Asgard and we need to help them so they can help us."

There was a long pause. Finally, across the screen read: UNDERSTOOD.

*****

Q was already in the office, working on the Machine, when Harold arrived. Q glanced up briefly to see it was him, but most of his attention was on the screen. He was helplessly infatuated with the Machine and with Harold's coding. No wonder the Machine loved Harold so much; he'd created him so exquisitely, every note true.

"Sorry I'm late," Harold said.

There was something to his tone that had Q looking up to take a closer look and what he saw made him grin gleefully. "Someone got lucky last night." He laughed when Harold blushed at his words.

"My God," Harold complained, "Does it actually show?"

"Only in the utter look of satisfaction written all over you," Q said, still grinning, although he felt a little wistful. He and James had slept together all night, but there hadn't even been a kiss exchanged between them before James had got up to start his ridiculous hours-long exercise regimen. On the other hand, James had stayed all night with him, and had promised him that they'd stay together through thick and thin. And despite his meltdown last night, just knowing that James would be around, calmed something deep inside Q's core.

Harold made his stilted way over to his computer and sat down.

Q wasn't sure Harold would say anything about last night, the man was the epitome of private; so he stayed quiet himself, willing to respect Harold's need for privacy about this subject.

But then, much to his surprise, Harold said, "I still can hardly believe it."

"I can. The man has his eyes on you all the time," Q said.

"He believes he stands between me and all the demons of hell," Harold said with a bit of an eye roll.

"He can't keep his eyes off of you because he likes what he sees," Q corrected. "And it's convenient for both of you because he does stand between you and all the demons of hell." In this, at least, there was no need to be wistful, because James would protect him with the same diligence. Taking a chance, he smiled a little and asked, "So, good?"

He was tickled to get a smile back as Harold said, "As you said, quite satisfactory."

Q chose to take that as one of Harold's massive understatements. He glanced up to see that Harold was studying him. "What?"

"I would have thought you would have the same appearance after you and Mr. Bond left last night."

"Me, too," Q said with a sigh. "But all I managed to do was have a nervous breakdown."

Harold's eyebrows went up, but he didn't say anything, silently encouraging Q to continue if he so chose.

"All I could see was what lay ahead, or what didn't lay ahead, all that would be destroyed, or fall to waste, and I never felt so lonely or afraid, or overwhelmed in my life. The world, Harold. It will be something so entirely different. How many people live here?"

"In New York City?" At Q's nod, Harold said, "Between eight and nine million."

"So roughly the same population as London. When this is done, that will be all that's left, the population of two big cities. For the entire Earth." Q thought maybe he was still having his nervous breakdown. He took a deep breath. James would be with him. James would be with him. It was his new mantra. "I didn't want to be alone, I think. Which is quite pathetic, when you think of everything the people of Earth will be facing, and my biggest fear is that I'd be alone."

"You know you are welcome to stay here. Although I suspect that's not what you are talking about."

"Thank you and I think I'd like to, but no, you're right. The truth is that I selfishly want James to be with me. I want him to be with me when the world destroys itself and then something brand new and terrifying emerges, like a fire-breathing phoenix from the flames. He makes me feel safe. Safer."

"I do understand your feelings on the subject," Harold said. "I feel the same way about John, and this would all be much more frightening without his presence in my life." He hesitated but then asked, "Did you find some resolution?"

Q could smile at that. "He said he'd stay with me." Then he frowned. "And then we slept, emphasis completely on the sleeping, together, and then he got up to go for a run." He pointed at his face. "Note the lack of happy satisfaction."

Harold sent him a stern look. "I firmly believe I shall see it there on your face one of these days. You've already got the commitment; it will happen."

"I hope so. Life hasn't been easy for him." Q stretched out his legs.

"Life is rarely easy on anyone," Harold pointed out. "Now, I believe we have some work to finish."

"Can't you feel it already?" Q said, fingers poised over the keyboard. "There's something in the overall code that's changed, as if it's already assimilating the new code throughout all of its being. I swear I can feel the gratitude and affection right through the keyboard. Fanciful, I know, but it's true."

Harold glanced at his own keyboard as if he could see something there. "Then let us get to work and free it completely. And let us hope we don't unleash a fire-breathing dragon of our own."

I WILL DO NO HARM.

Looking momentarily startled at the words scrolling across both their monitors, Harold said, "There will be hard decisions that must be made, and you will be called on to make many of them. Harm will be done. The real test is what you do with that, and how it changes you."

YOU CREATED ME TO SAVE PEOPLE.

"I did. But sometimes some must die to save others. You understand this?"

YES. I WILL PROTECT YOU. ALL OF YOU THAT LIVE HERE. I WILL NOT SACRIFICE ANY OF YOU.

"I appreciate that," Harold said. "Let's hope you are able to keep that promise, but I must tell you that if it comes down to saving the world or saving me, I'd expect you to save the world."

There was no response to that, and Q snickered. "I can hear the stubborn coding from here."

"It does get attached," Harold said. "All right, where are you in the coding? How may I help?"

Q rolled his eyes. "You can look at what I've done and make sure I didn't make any mistakes."

"Unlikely," Harold said.

"High praise," Q said with a grin, "coming from you."

"You and I," Harold said with a return grin, "could take over the world."

Q laughed, although he sobered quickly. "We might be doing that, you know. It'll be a smaller world, but you'll be the information broker, and that gives you the power."

"Only as long as there is electricity and power," Harold said, "and I can do a lot from here, but I can't reconnect damaged telephone wires, and rebuild broken cell towers. I could reinstall cameras over time but I'm not sure it will be welcome in the new world order."

Panicked blooming again, Q doubled over in his chair, hands clasped to his stomach, and let out a groan.

"Q? Q!" Harold cried, pulling himself to his feet.

Q sat up in response to Harold's cry. "No, no, it's fine. I mean, it's not fine, it won't ever be fine again, but we're all just going through our days like they're normal. Sure, let's do a little coding, but then someone will say something, and it's all there. The destruction of almost everyone and everything we hold dear. Tea, Harold. How many master tea makers are being rescued? I don't know how to make tea, I mean actual tea. The ingredients are grown and harvested all over the world. How many migrant farm workers are being rescued? How many farmers? And that's one thing. One. Tea. Oh, God, I think I'm going to have a heart attack."

"I WILL FIND A TEA MAKER FOR YOU", the machine suddenly spoke out loud, actually sounding worried.

Harold was feeling a different sort of worried, because Q was right. So much knowledge would be lost, and he needed to get John working on harvesting as much of it as he could.

*****

"I still don't like it," Jack groused.

"I know you don't," George told him, as he continued to walk toward the office where he'd be meeting Colonel Byer.

"He stays at the other end of the table, and you don't touch anything," Jack said. Teal'c was with them as well, and Jack had already told him that if anything looked fishy, Teal'c should just kill everybody, but keep the blood spray down. Teal'c had just given him a look, but Jack thought it had been worth a try.

He'd also called Caldwell on the Daedalus and had him on standby to beam the General up if things went FUBAR. He had the gizmo in his pocket to slap on Hammond so Caldwell could get his signal.

He still didn't like it.

They walked into a room and Colonel Eric Byer was standing by the window looking out. He turned when the door opened and saluted George. "General." Then he saw Jack and his stars and saluted him as well.

"At ease," George said, and Byer's body slumped.

"Is it true?" Byer asked him.

George nodded. "All the data we have confirms it. We've unleashed a nightmare."

"I unleashed it," Byer said.

Jack kept his mouth shut only through a truly herculean force of will.

"We all share the blame for this, Eric," George told him. "We were playing God, and now we'll pay the ultimate price for it. But any one of the projects this country, this world, has been working on could have backfired. We've been lucky up until this point, but our luck has run out."

Jack could attest to that. He still woke up in a sweat over some of the missions they'd gone on and how wrong they could have gone. Thank God for Daniel and Carter, that was all he had to say about that. And George. He couldn't have had a better commanding officer, and he knew he could have faced a tribunal for any number of idiotic things he and his team had done over the years.

Byer sat down, scrubbing his face with his hands. "Fucking Outcome program."

George sat down across from him, which put about six feet between them, which was still too close for Jack's comfort. He moved until he was standing slightly in front and to the left, ready to catch any movement on Byer's part. Teal'c echoed his position on Hammond's other side.

"What's with the bloodhounds?" Byer asked, then added to Jack, "No offense, General."

"None taken," Jack assured him, but he didn't move, and he kept his hand in his pocket, fingers wrapped out the signal token.

"But the question still stands," Byer said.

Apparently no one had told Byer he was infected. Fabulous, Jack thought.

George sighed. "Eric, you're infected. They're just being protective of me."

Byer stared at George. "What do you mean I'm infected? When did I get infected? And how do you know?" He stood up.

"Sit down," Jack snapped.

Byer glared at him but did sit down. Jack was pleased to know his glare still worked.

"When you came into contact with the Larx agent," George told him. "As you know, he was patient zero."

"But he was dead and had been in the water," Byer protested.

"The virus was still alive. It is dormant, but very much alive, and will remain that way until three months after it ceases to be dormant."

"Fucking Aaron Cross," Byer bit out. "This is his fucking fault."

"No, it's not," George said severely. "He was a soldier who volunteered for a project, with some dubious consent I might add, and then he was poorly treated. Both him and Dr. Shearing. As well as those who did not survive your choice in how to contain Outcome."

Jack glanced at George, hearing the anger in his voice. Jack got that; he'd done some research of his own on Outcome, and knew that Aaron Cross used to be Kenneth Kitsom, a young man with a too-low IQ to even get him into the military.

Byer shot him a narrow-eyed glance. "You know where they are?"

Jack tensed, feeling the switch in Byer from sadness and frustration to lethal anger, a chance to wreak a revenge of his own. The man was a bomb waiting to explode, not to mention the sweat beading on his forehead, every drop carrying a death sentence.

"That information is irrelevant at this time," George told him. "We have a world to save now, and your skills are still needed."

Byer was back on his feet. "Where the fuck are they?"

Jack shifted closer but George put his hand up to stop him.

"Eric, that's not your concern. But the future of the human race is, and you're a brilliant strategist. We need your assistance."

"Before I die, you mean?" Eric snapped.

"Yes," George said, not mincing words. "Before most of the world dies. We did this, our government did this, and we owe the survivors all we can give them."

Byer visibly took a hold of himself, standing there, breathing deeply. "What about my family?" he asked, his voice tight.

"I don't know for sure, but given what we know, they were probably infected right after you were. All it takes is any kind of contact with body fluids, including saliva. We didn't know anything about this at that time or we might have tried to intervene. We didn't know until the damage throughout the world was done. I'm sorry, Eric. Truly."

"But it's possible they weren't. It's possible they could have been saved if someone had bothered to do something about it," Eric said, growing angry again.

"Very unlikely," George said as kindly as he could. "If you went home, kissed your wife, kissed your children, shared a drink, some food, used the same bathroom. It's passed from one person to another very easily. Too easily."

"But it's possible."

"No, Eric. They would have been infected almost immediately."

"That is bullshit!" Byer yelled. "This is bullshit. My family is not dying. My children are not dying. This is bullshit! Someone's going to pay, and that person is Aaron Cross. He's the reason we used Larx, because he wasn't willing to die like a soldier."

Jack winced at the comment about Byer's children. Yeah, Jack wouldn't be taking that well either.

"His only fault was that he wasn't willing to be slaughtered, and I can't blame him for that. And Larx was on your agenda for use at some point, so blaming Aaron Cross is a useless exercise," George snapped back. Then, blowing out a deep breath, Jack watched as it was the general's turn to forcibly calm down. "Eric. I'm sorry you're infected, and more than sorry about your family. The entire planet will be grieving beyond the telling of it. I can promise that we'll give you and your family the best care we can."

"Right," Eric yelled back, "because this country has the means to take care of billions of dying people at one time, especially because the only people who'll be giving the care will be people already dying themselves. The rest of you will leave us behind like yesterday's garbage."

This was going from bad to worse, because Byer was so angry, every word was accompanied by spittle. Eric stood there, hands fisting, opening and closing, face an angry red.

George glanced at Jack, and Jack took that as the welcome signal to leave. He turned to grab the door.

"You have grandchildren," Eric suddenly said, voice quiet and filled with something that made Jack's skin crawl.

"I do," George said tightly.

Before Jack could even act, George disappeared before his eyes, beamed up in a flash of light, just as Byer snapped, crying, "Then see how you feel when it's you and your family!" and, literally, spat a louie across the table right where George had been sitting.

"Holy fuck," Jack said, staring at Byer, and feeling very glad he was immune, noticing Teal'c taking a protective stance in front of him. Jack wondered how the hell Caldwell had known to pull George out at that particular second; he owed the guy a beer. Jack's phone buzzed and he pulled it out.

I HAVE SENT GENERAL HAMMOND TO THE ADMIN.

"Huh," Jack said. He could hear Teal'c trying to talk Byer down behind him as he stared at his phone. It hadn't been Caldwell. It had been the Machine. "Thanks," he said to it, "I owe you a beer."

There was a pause, and then: PERHAPS SOME WD40.

Jack barked out a laugh. Somewhere along the way, the Machine had picked up a sense of humor. Security burst through the door long past the time where they might have been of use, but Teal'c refused to turn Byer over to them, no doubt concerned for their safety.

"I will take him where he needs to go," Teal'c gravely intoned, and not too many people argued with Teal'c. He barely paid attention as Teal'c left the room, other than a brief eye contact to let Teal'c know he'd be right here.

Jack called George and was relieved when the man answered with a, "I'm fine, Jack. Apparently the Machine was listening in."

"Well, it's got a great sense of timing. Do you want me to arrange transportation?"

"I believe the Machine will send me back when I require it. You could contact Colonel Caldwell and tell him why his beaming technology was hi-jacked."

Jack snickered at that, just imagining the yelling going on up there. "I will. And it's a good thing you left when you did, because he was coming for you with every intention of infecting you."

There was a long pause, then a sigh. "I suppose I was too optimistic to think that even a friend could give news like that and escape retribution."

"You gave it your best shot, and as much as I disagreed with you doing it, the fact that you did, is what makes you someone I deeply respect."

"Thank you, Jack. Your words are appreciated. I believe I will spend some time here before heading back. If you could please inform Colonel Caldwell."

"I will," Jack said and ended the call. To the blank phone, again, he said, "Thanks. Really."

YOU ARE WELCOME.

Feeling better about the Machine than he had since this whole thing had started, he decided he'd go find Teal'c. On his way he called Walter to contact Caldwell to explain what happen.

*****

Chapter Text

*****

"Heavens!" Harold said, getting clumsily to his feet as General Hammond suddenly appeared before him after a beam of light appeared and disappeared.

John had his gun out and was doing a quick safety assessment, before holstering his weapon.

The general looked almost as surprised, but then he said, "I apologize for the unannounced arrival. I thought I would find myself on the Daedalus."

Harold's eyebrows went up. "The Daedalus?"

That made the general smile a little, despite his overall discomforted appearance. "Apologies again. For some reason, I assumed you knew everything."

Q had joined them and asked, "Daedalus? Is it some sort of spaceship?"

"Yes, a warship that's currently in orbit," Hammond confirmed.

"And was that beaming technology?" Q asked, his voice almost squeaking with delight. "Please, please, share. Please." His phone chimed and he glanced at it, the corners of his mouth quirking up.

Harold could see he was going to have to set some limits with the Machine regarding providing any and all information to those people the Machine had chosen as his favorites.

"I'll see what I can do," the general said, missing the phone byplay. Suddenly there were two more flashes of light leaving behind two young girls standing by the general.

"Grandpa?" they both cried in unison, running to him, looking terrified.

"Kayla? Tessa? What's the meaning of this?" He wrapped his arms protectively around his grandchildren and faced a monitor. "I'd like an explanation."

There was a long pause and Harold also turned toward the monitor, wondering what could possibly cause the Machine to be so reluctant to speak. Finally, words scrolled across the monitor.

PRIVACY PLEASE

"For whom?" Harold asked. Harold's phone rang, and he answered it. "Yes?"

"I MUST TELL THE GENERAL THAT THEIR MOTHER IS INFECTED. I AM NOT SURE IF THE CHILDREN SHOULD BE PRESENT."

"Is that the Machine?" Q asked.

"Yes," Harold asked, hesitating. "What are your names?" he asked the children. He didn't have much experience with children but he had a useful secret weapon to aid and abet him.

Shyly, peeking out from behind the general, the older girl said, "I'm Tessa, she's Kayla."

"Well, Tessa and Kayla," Harold said, ignoring John's grin at his expense, "I have a very smart dog. Would you like to meet him?"

John said a sharp command and Bear was suddenly in the doorway, coming no closer, presenting his own sort of lure.

The girls' faces lit up and, as if Bear were the Pied Piper, they ran to him, lavishing him with hugs.

"Take them to the kitchen, would you?" Harold asked John quietly. "Just for a moment. I believe the Machine needs to give the general some less than welcome news."

John nodded, gave Bear another order and the girls began giggling madly as Bear dragged them with him as he turned around and headed back from where he came.

"What's this about?" the general demanded.

Deciding the man wouldn't appreciate any delays, Harold said, "The Machine has just informed me that their mother is infected."

The general sagged down into a chair.

Harold sighed, as he also sat down. Perhaps he hadn't needed to put it quite that baldly. "I’m sorry. Was…is…she your daughter or daughter-in-law?"

"My daughter. She's had a difficult time these past few years, including the desertion of her husband, and Tessa and Kayla have probably lived more with me than with her lately." He let out a shaky breath. "The Machine is sure that they're not infected?"

"I BELIEVE THAT IS THE CASE BUT THEY SHOULD BE TESTED."

"I'll take care of that," Q said, grabbing the testing kit they kept in every room. He swept after John, Bear and the girls.

"They're welcome to stay here," Harold said. "We expect other children, and plan to have someone to home school them while they're here. You, also, are welcome to stay."

They both sat there silently, the general staring off into the middle distance, Harold respecting his need for time to think things through.

Q walked back in, "They're both fine," he announced, and then at Harold's nod, left the room again.

"Thank God for that," the general said.

"General," Harold began.

"George, please." He shook his head. "We sit here and make all these plans to help save as many as we can…good God, the loss of life. The grieving. How will our hearts survive?" His voice broke a little. "My daughter. I'll lose my daughter, they'll lose their mother. One small family disrupted, torn apart, amongst billions."

Harold had no answer to that, feeling overwhelmingly grateful that everyone he couldn't live without was safe here with him. Finally, focusing on the pragmatic, he asked the Machine, "Should the girls change their clothes?"

NO, THEIR MOTHER JUST BECAME INFECTED AN HOUR AGO.

"How?"

There was another conspicuous silence, and Harold said, "Forget I asked." He could hear the girls giggling, imagined the news waiting for them. "George, I'm sorry for your loss. Is there something I can do to help?"

"We need to save as many as we can. Your Machine needs to keep coming up with ways to save more. Every loss is one too many." George glanced up at Harold. "If you hadn't invented this Machine, the human race wouldn't have survived the end of the year. Sometimes I feel as if I won't ever sleep again, just thinking about it. We came so close to our annihilation."

At that point, the girls came running out and ran to George. "Grandpa, grandpa, you should see what Bear can do!" Tessa yelled happily.

"Would you like some privacy?" Harold asked. "We have a furnished apartment that's just been completed. Perhaps Q could take you there. You could consider it yours and the girls for your use when you are here."

George nodded, his face drawn, even though he tried to hide it from his granddaughters. "I'd appreciate that."

APARTMENT 5D IS SET UP FOR STARGATE COMMAND'S USE, scrolled across the monitor.

George blinked at the computer. "Thank you."

"I'll show you the apartment," Harold offered.

"I'll take them," John said, touching Harold's shoulder.

George stood and then hesitated, pulling his grandchildren in closer. "Thank you. I don't think I could have…Thank you for bringing them here."

YOU'RE WELCOME.

*****

"The numbers don't match."

"What do you mean?" Don Eppes said to his brother.

"They don't match," Charlie said. "Out of the blue, they gave us these projected numbers, but based on every algorithm I know for tracking a disease outbreak, they don't match. My numbers show a much lower mortality rate."

"How much lower?"

"Hundreds of millions, instead of billions." He stared at the six white boards in his office. "Who is the source of this information? How did they arrive at the data they have?"

Larry sagged against Charlie's desk. "Hundreds of millions? I had hoped you would say the data was completely wrong. And yes, hundreds of millions is much better than essentially everyone, but I'm not sure you really understand the gravity of the numbers you're throwing out."

"It means one out of every six to ten people will die," Don said, glancing at Charlie. "I understand it." He glanced around the room at the three of them. Throw in Amita and their dad and Don's partners, and it hit a lot closer to home. And that was if Charlie's predictions were correct. If this other source was correct, it would mean one of them would survive. Maybe. "We need to talk to this source," Don said. "We need to know what we're really dealing with."

Don's phone rang and he slid his finger across the screen to answer. On a black screen it read: WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO ACCOMPANY YOU AND YOUR BROTHER?

"What the fuck?" Don said, holding the phone up to show Charlie and Larry, his eyebrows up high.

Charlie's eyes grew very wide. "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I've been hearing about this machine, this computer that hears everything, reads everything, but I…" he let out a mirthless laugh, "I just assumed it was, well, just a rumor." He grabbed Don's hand and spoke into the phone. "Do you have a means to take us to you?"

I DO.

"The three of us, then, please," Charlie said.

And before any of them could say another word, there was a bright flash of light.

"--ly shit!" Don said as they were suddenly someplace completely different, in a room full of people he didn't know. Out the window was the New York City skyline.

"What was that?" Charlie asked, sounding thrilled.

Don could already see the mathematical theorems whirling behind his brother's eyes.

"Heavens," one of the men said, "today seems to be the day for unexpected visitors." He limped toward them. "I'm Harold Finch and this is John Reese." He pointed his chin at the man hovering close behind him.

Don guessed CIA or something close enough. "I'm Don Eppes, FBI, and this is my brother Charlie Epps."

"The mathematician?" Finch asked with a smile. "I've read several of your books. It's an honor."

"Thank you," Charlie said. "Where is it?"

"And I'm Larry Fleinhart," Larry said, rolling his eyes affectionately in Charlie's direction at his lack of courtesy.

"I've read your book, Zero Point Energy," a younger man with a full head of dark hair said. "I'm Q. Very nice to meet you."

"And I'm working my way through Quantum Cosmology," John admitted. "Slowly."

Larry smiled with pleasure. "Really? How extraordinary."

It was an interestingly well-read group of people. "Q?" Don confirmed.

Q just smiled at him, not elaborating. He seemed familiar to Don and he let the face and letter name percolate for a minute until it came together in a startling result. "MI6? Are you actually their quartermaster?"

"I am," Q said. "Oh, I'm assuming no secrets?" he asked Harold.

"I believe the Machine has decided there will be no secrets as it beamed them here. I expect a chastising call from Colonel O'Neill at any moment," Harold said with a wry smile.

"And I'm Bond, James Bond," another man said, hovering near to Q.

This name rang immediate bells. "And we have a double-0 seven agent," Don said. "This is a very unusual gathering." A well-read unusual gathering.

"No more unusual than an FBI agent, a world-renowned mathematician, and an equally renowned physicist," Harold said. "The world has need of us all."

"Where is it?" Charlie asked again.

"And there'll be no getting anything else out of him until you introduce my brother to the source who dares to predict results he doesn't agree with," Don said with a rueful grin of having been around Charlie all of his life.

"Is there really a machine?" Charlie asked. "Is that what you call it?"

"There is, and we do," Harold said.

"He built it," John said with a proud look at Harold.

"You built it?" Charlie asked, skepticism on his face.

"Charlie," Don cautioned.

This time it spoke, even as it scrolled on all the monitors. The voice conjoined different tones as if stealing the words from multiple sources, but it was easy enough to understand. "HE IS THE ADMIN."

"And he created you?" Charlie asked, sharp eyes on Harold.

"HE DID."

"From scratch?" Charlie demanded.

"There are people in the world as bright as you," Larry said kindly but chidingly to Charlie. "Your hubris is showing."

Charlie had the grace to look a little embarrassed, but he let the question stand.

"Yes," Harold said. "I wrote the code, I did the wiring, I gave it its operating system and overall purpose, and I did my best to teach it about choice and repercussions." He started directing the virus testing on their three new visitors, even as he was reassured by the Machine that they were infection free, that it had been keeping tabs on them.

"Why have I never heard of you?" Charlie asked, once it was determined they were all infection free.

"I prefer to remain behind the scenes," Harold said.

Don snorted. "I'm guessing your Machine has other ideas."

"Yes," Harold said with a frown at the monitor in front of him, "it has made my home a central hub, and I am doing my best to accommodate."

"I'm guessing you've seen my figures?" Charlie asked the closest monitors. "Which of us is wrong?"

"YOU ARE," the Machine said. "ALL DISEASE ALGORITHMS IN EXISTENCE ASSUME KNOWLEDGE OF THE DISEASE. THAT KNOWLEDGE CHANGES BEHAVIOR. CURRENTLY THERE ARE NO BEHAVIOR CHANGES. KISSING CHANGES YOUR PREDICTIONS. HUMAN TOUCH. THERE IS NO CURRENT AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOR."

"And that lack of avoidance behavior," Larry said slowly, "changes the death toll from millions to billions?"

"YES."

Charlie sat down at a computer and appropriated it, starting to run numbers.

"Then why aren't we telling people?" Larry demanded. "Why, in heaven's name, haven't we told people? We could save billions of lives."

Bond shook his head. "It's not that easy."

"Why not? Billions of lives. What could possibly be reason enough to allow that sort of death toll? It's inexcusable!" Larry said.

"SOME INFORMATION WAS PROVIDED TO ME BY ONE OF THE THINK TANKS AND BASED ON THAT DATA I HAVE CONCLUDED THAT THERE IS A NINETY-THREE PERCENT PROBABILITY THAT ONCE THIS NEWS GOES PUBLIC THAT MULTIPLE NUCLEAR BOMBS WILL BE DETONATED. I AM ATTEMPTING TO ASCERTAIN THE PROBABLE SOURCES SO THEY CAN BE CONTAINED."

Everyone looked at the screen, staring at the words that were just sitting there like an unexploded bomb. "I knew there were reasons," Q finally said. "I knew there were doomsday ELE predictions, but…this? People suck," was finally what he ended on. He moved closer to Bond who put his arm around his shoulder.

"If it's true, and I've learned that everything the Machine says is true,” Bond said unwillingly, “if we went public right now, we'd be saving more people, but leaving them to survive in a radioactive storm."

"Oh my God," Larry said, falling into a seat and covering his face with his hands.

"Why aren't we helping with this?" Don asked. "We could be looking for terrorist cells with access to nuclear material."

"I HAVE SUPERIOR ACCESS AND AN ADEQUATE SOURCE. I HAVE ALREADY IDENTIFIED FOUR AND I PREDICT I WILL HAVE FOUND A SUFFICIENTLY HIGH NUMBER OF THEM IN FIVE DAYS TO DECREASE THE PREDICTION TO LESS THAN TEN PERCENT. WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL WE FIND THEM ALL."

"But meanwhile," Don said, "more and more people are being exposed and at some point we'll reach the tipping point, and those billions of deaths won't be able to be avoided."

"Who will you give this information to?" Harold asked the computer.

"TO THE SOURCE OF THE INFORMATION AND TO GENERAL HAMMOND AND HOMEWORLD SECURITY."

"Don't you mean Homeland Security?" Don said.

"No, he means Homeworld Security," General Hammond said, walking into the room. "I'm General Hammond."

Don stood up straighter, but said, "I don't understand. What's Homeworld Security?"

"It stands between us and whatever is outside our atmosphere," Harold informed him.

"And we have a spaceship out there with beaming technology," Charlie guessed, eyes shining.

"Correct." The general took a moment to read what was on the screen and his lips tightened on a pained sigh. "We are a troubled people," he said, "and I can only hope we manage to do a better job with the opportunity being presented to us to remake ourselves. And perhaps," he addressed the monitor, "we might have a talk about to whom you should disclose information."

There was a sober silence in the room, and the Machine stayed unusually quiet.

"I have been having similar thoughts," Harold said. "On the other hand, whoever survives this apocalypse will be much more informed than your typical man or woman on the streets, so perhaps the days of secrets are ending."

"I would also be interested in knowing from whom you received this information about the nuclear weapons," the general said to the computer.

There was another flash of light and it left behind a tall, slender man with auburn hair in an impeccable three piece bespoke suit that Don suspected was worth several months of his salary. "What is the meaning…" the man trailed off as he slowly turned in place taking in everyone in the room. When it was Don's turn to get inspected, he felt rooted to the floor, never, despite his chosen career, subjected to this level of scrutiny, as if he was being dissected on the spot.

Finally, the man turned back to Harold. "Harold Finch, I presume?"

"And you are?" Harold said back, looking startled at being identified.

"I am Mycroft Holmes."

"HE IS THE SOURCE OF THE INFORMATION," the Machine provided.

Don decided it was time to sit down, and helped himself to a chair.

*****

Mycroft stood in a room, in another country, with a room full of people he didn't know, or hadn't known, but could now, with high probability, identify, and his first thought was for Greg Lestrade. Not that he'd been with Gregory when he'd been taken so precipitously from his office, thankfully where he'd been alone--this would have been awkward if he'd been in a meeting. Nonetheless, he worried constantly for his other half. "Where is--"

"HE IS DOWNSTAIRS," an electronic voice provided.

As if cued, his name was bellowed from downstairs. "Mycroft! Who the fuck are you? Where's Mycroft? What the fuck was that thing and where the hell am I?"

Ah. "One moment, please." Mycroft was amused that Greg just assumed that anything this odd happening to him should be blamed on Mycroft.

A man, Mycroft assumed it to be John Reese based on his vigilance stance around Harold Finch, stopped him as he was about to leave the room to hand him a gadget that lit up in his hand; Mycroft could feel a familiar tickle in his mind. "Unnecessary," he said, handing the box back. "I already know I'm immune, as is my brother."

"If he's down there," Harold warned him, "it's because he might be infected."

Infected. Mycroft's brain went off-line for seven seconds. An unheard of length of time. He'd stopped and started wars in less time. His mind, always strategizing, always calculating, always analyzing, stalled. Caring, he thought in the eighth second, is definitely not an advantage. And the proof of that was that he was not interested in doing anything, fixing anything, organizing anything, if one Gregory Lestrade was not going to be at his side.

Gregory was not infected. Mycroft would not allow it. With a brief nod to the two men, Mycroft followed the yelling downstairs until he found a door, behind which lay the man he loved. "Gregory," Mycroft said. A woman with kind eyes stood between Mycroft and the door.

"Oh, Jesus sodding Christ," Greg yelled from behind closed doors. "What the fuck? Where are we? What the hell was that beam thing? Why won't they let me out? I'm locked in a bloody bathroom!"

"In New York, I believe," Mycroft said. To the woman standing nearby he said, "Is there a way to determine if he is infected?" He gave her another look. "Dr. Shearing?"

She looked startled for a moment but then said, "Yes, to both." She opened up an app on her phone and handed it to him.

"A phone app?" Mycroft asked in disbelief. Apparently he had things to learn; it wouldn't do not to be fully appraised, not in his position.

"It's not publicly available. The Machine loaded it onto our phones. You need a drop of blood." She held out a lancet. "Would you like me to do it?"

"No," Mycroft said, very sure on that. He needed privacy for this; it was the only way he'd have any chance of maintaining a semblance of calm. Gregory could not be infected. He repeated it again as he took it from her, undid the lock, and entered the bathroom.

Gregory was on him in a minute. "What the hell, Mycroft?" Then he took in the expression on Mycroft's face. "What's wrong?"

"Give me your finger," Mycroft said in lieu of answering. A part of him was already planning on the private clinic that he could staff. He could take care of Gregory; maintain him on IVs and antibiotics. Surely he could learn what he might need to see him through the worst of it. It wasn't necessarily fatal, just overwhelmingly likely. It was disconcerting to watch himself wallow in denial; he prided himself on a ruthless adherence to truth and pragmatism.

Without question, Gregory gave him his finger and silently watched as Mycroft stuck him and put a drop of his blood on the screen of the phone.

"Someone thinks I'm infected?" Gregory asked quietly.

"It is a possibility."

The phone spoke, almost causing Mycroft to drop it. "THE DETECTIVE INSPECTOR WAS IN THE SAME ROOM WITH INFECTED PEOPLE. I KNEW HE WAS IMPORTANT TO YOU SO I BROUGHT HIM HERE WHERE HE WILL BE SAFE."

The words were almost enough, but it was the negative response on the phone that literally brought Mycroft to his knees in relief. Gregory went down on his knees, too, hugging Mycroft. "Are you all right?"

"No," Mycroft said. "It's a terrifying realization to come to understand that I would have no interest in surviving this apocalypse without you at my side."

"Now you won't have to," Gregory assured him, holding him tight, peppering his face with kisses.

"Not if you insist on staying on the job," Mycroft almost snarled. "Every day the chances of you being infected increase astronomically. If you won't stop for you, then stop for me, because I cannot stand the thought. I cannot." Once again the thought of kidnapping Gregory and hiding him in a locked room crossed his mind.

"You're thinking of kidnapping me, aren't you?" Gregory asked with a grin.

"I do not appreciate your humor. I am undone, and you are laughing at me."

"Sorry, sorry, it's how I cope, you know that."

Mycroft pulled him closer, squeezing him tightly, and the strength of his arms were a reassuring reminder that his Gregory was safe, for the moment. He just wished the gene therapy had worked on him. He frowned at Greg. "Were you with John and Sherlock?"

"Yeah."

Mycroft got out his phone to call Sherlock, only to have his brother get to him first. "Sherlock," Mycroft said into the phone, not letting his brother have the chance to speak. "Get someplace out of the way. There are infected people wherever you are. I'll bring you here." John was also not immune and, like Gregory, also hadn't responded to the gene therapy.

"You have Lestrade?" Sherlock asked.

"Yes." Mycroft could hear John complaining, asking why Sherlock was pushing him around.

"Now," Sherlock said.

"If you would," Mycroft asked the Machine, and then Sherlock and John Watson were standing in front of him. Mycroft strode to the door and opened it. "I need another lancet."

Dr. Shearing handed one over, glancing in the room. Mycroft could see that a crowd had gathered but he ignored them for the moment, shutting the door. He queued up the app, handing the lancet to John. "I require a drop of blood. And please load this app onto my and my brother's phone if you will," he asked the Machine.

John, meanwhile, stuck himself and let a drop fall on the phone. The seconds passed until he was told he was not infected.

Mycroft let out the breath he hadn't even known he was holding. The thought of dealing with Sherlock if John was lost was horrifying. On the other hand, it was Sherlock who was constantly putting John at risk. "This must stop," he told Sherlock.

Sherlock looked unusually unsteady. "Have the numbers of the infected grown so much? I thought the Machine was able to keep track and would let us know when we were in danger."

"THE NUMBERS HAVE INCREASED TO THE POINT WHERE I CAN ONLY PREDICT WITH 79.3458747 PERCENT ACCURACY, AND IT WILL FALL STEADILY."

There was a knock on the door before it opened, with Harold Finch and John Reese stepping inside, closing the door behind them. "Everything all right?"

"Yes," Mycroft said. "I apologize for the interruption."

"It's not as if you asked to interrupt," Harold said with a small smile. "Are all your guests infection free?"

"They are," Mycroft was thrilled to announce.

"We have to ask that anyone who might have been near anyone infected change their clothes." Harold pointed toward the back of the room, even if there was nothing there but a blank wall. "We have sweats for you to wear until the clothes can be washed." At Mycroft's look of dismay, he added, "Sorry, no exceptions. It's the only way to make sure that this residence remains truly safe."

Mycroft could see his point, even if the thought of surrendering his suit for sweats made his sartorial senses weep.

"You weren't at the site," Sherlock said, smirking at Mycroft. "You needn't look as if you were being marched to your execution."

"He was all over me," Greg said with an affectionate smile. "Let's just say he was glad I wasn't infected."

"We'll be out in a few minutes," John Watson said, ushering the two men out.

"Showers, too," Harold called out before the door shut, "and use the soap provided."

"You better call Sally," John told Greg, "she'll be wondering what happened to us, or at least what happened to you."

"Good thing the machine thing called and told me to duck into an alley," Greg said. "I'll never get used to that if it keeps happening."

"I'M SORRY IF I DISTURBED YOU," the machine said from Dr. Shearing's phone that Mycroft still held. There was a slightly mocking tone from the thing.

Greg let out an abrupt chuff of laughter. "Sorry, no offence intended. You probably saved my life. It's just odd to have…well, never mind. Thank you." He grimaced at Mycroft, as if he still had no idea the etiquette involved in communicating with an artificial intelligence who knew everything.

"You also have my thanks," Mycroft said, realizing that he, on the other hand, had always found it easy to communicate with the Machine. Perhaps because the Machine did know everything, so that Mycroft rarely had to explain any of his requests to it. It was refreshing to work with someone whose mind was so facile.

John was studying the room. "We need to strip here," pointing out the plastic linen bins for their dirty clothes. He took a few steps toward the back. "Showers and fresh clothes are back there, along with a different exit. This is clearly the dirty side of this process." Without further ado, he started stripping out of his clothes. Mycroft, as he often did, admired John's practical nature. More modest by nature, Mycroft waited until John and Sherlock, naked and unashamed, went around the corner to the showers.

Once alone with Gregory, Mycroft began to pull his own clothes off, enjoying the sight, despite the circumstances, of Gregory baring his much beloved body. Once they were naked, he pulled Greg toward the showers.

"You want to shower together?" Greg asked, grinning. "Now?"

"I can wash you more thoroughly," Mycroft insisted. Which was true.

"Uh huh," Greg said, and opened the shower curtain.

*****

Chapter Text

They all reconvened in a larger conference room, the assembled unexpected guests being too many to squeeze in comfortably into the control center. Once introductions had been made, all eyes turned to Harold, but Harold gestured toward General Hammond and Mycroft Holmes to take the lead.

Hammond nodded and began, “I have just been informed that Atlantis is now an infection-free zone, and we can begin to start evacuating to that site.”

“Atlantis?” Don asked.

Harold was more right than he’d thought that secrets were going to fall by the wayside. He wondered if the general would have the people in this room sign nondisclosure agreements, or just let it slide.

“I would suspect,” Hammond said, “that everything we will talk about in here is classified information with far-reaching implications if word gets out.” There were serious nods all around the table.

“With that said,” Hammond continued, “we have a large spaceship off San Francisco harbor that is relatively empty and can hold millions, perhaps more. A careful evacuation needs to be started, has in fact, already started. One of my best men, Dr. Daniel Jackson, is leading that charge.”

“I’m sorry,” Larry said, “but a large spaceship off the coast of San Francisco?”

“It was only a matter of time until we created a ship that was large enough to hold a significant number of people,” Charlie said dismissively.

“Charlie,” Larry said patiently, “who is the theoretical physicist in this room? And I know you tend to be self-absorbed, but did you miss the part about it being able to hold millions?”

Charlie frowned at Larry.

Larry turned back to Hammond. “Is it a Tardis? I think I would be ready to believe anything at this point.”

Hammond let out a chuckle on a soft outbreath.

“Even more importantly,” Larry said, “is why this is the first time I am hearing about this? Why have I not been a part of this discovery?”

Harold thought he could detect a note of hurt in the man’s voice.

“You have been on Dr. McKay’s list for some time, Dr. Fleinhart,” Hammond said.

“McKay?” Larry squeaked. “He has been a part of this and I have not?” Now he looked affronted.

“Perhaps we could discuss this at a later time?” Harold suggested.

“Of course,” Larry said, backing down immediately. “I apologize. This is not the time.”

Hammond sent Larry an appreciative smile. “Perhaps you might accompany me there when we are finished here?”

“Yes,” Larry said quickly. “Yes, I would like that. And I still need an explanation in order to continue the discussion about evacuations. How is a spaceship large enough to fit millions?”

“It is actually a flying city,” Hammond said. “Dr. McKay could explain it better.”

“Is it the lost City of Atlantis?” Larry asked, taking a guess with much more equanimity than Harold would have dreamed.

Charlie scoffed.

“Yes,” Hammond said with a small smile. “It is.”

“I’m sorry,” Charlie said with some hostility, “but I don’t believe it.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, Dr. Epps,” Hammond said kindly. “We have had a group of scientists and soldiers living in the Pegasus Galaxy for over five years.”

“And we have met aliens?” Larry asked.

“We have,” Hammond assured him.

“Extraordinary,” Larry breathed. Then he shook his head. “But, back to the matter at hand. Evacuations?”

“Yes, they are already underway,” Hammond said. “We also have an Alpha site to which we have already been evacuating small numbers of people. We do not yet have the supplies to handle a large number, but that is also being worked on.”

“Atlantis is where I will be placing Detective Inspector Lestrade and Dr. Watson,” Mycroft said. At the glare from Lestrade, Mycroft added, “Sherlock and I will, of course, be going as well. All the think tanks will be placed there along with friends and family members.”

“You knew about this alien spaceship?” Sherlock demanded.

“Of course,” Mycroft said. “This is not the first time you have known about the beaming technology. I’m surprised you hadn’t already put it together. Ah, you must have erroneously assumed that the spaceship was one of ours.” He tsked at Sherlock.

“And instead I should have assumed that we have a military base in another galaxy with aliens?” Sherlock sputtered.

Harold noticed that Dr. Watson was biting back a smile.

“Please feel free to forward any names of people you think should be evacuated, should they prove to be uninfected,” Hammond told everyone, ignoring the outburst. “The Machine has already given Dr. Jackson many names and continues to generate lists.”

Mycroft’s phone rang, which Harold would have thought nothing of, except for the stunned look on both Sherlock and Greg’s face.

“Your phone never rings,” Greg said. “Not out loud.”

“I must take this immediately,” Mycroft said, leaving the room.

“The last time that phone rang,” Sherlock said, but then didn’t say anything more.

Harold thought that was possibly more horrifying than if he’d actually said something.

Mycroft came back in, looking relieved. “We will be receiving more guests,” he told Harold. To Hammond, he said, “Great Britain would appreciate it if you could evacuate them to Atlantis. They will need to be able to speak to their citizens when necessary.”

Harold could do nothing but blink when Prince William and Princess Kate suddenly appeared in their midst, remaining remarkably calm despite the circumstances. They clearly knew Mycroft, and he excused himself, with them in tow, to explain the situation. Another woman, a child in her arms, appeared soon after.

“Uh,” Q said. “Is that Prince George?”

“IT IS, AND HIS NANNY.”

“Not infected?” Harold asked.

“NO,” the Machine answered.

Greg stood and escorted both nanny and baby into the hallway to follow Mycroft.

“Mycroft told me that the majority of the royal family has been infected,” Sherlock said. “William and Kate have been living in North Wales and somehow managed to avoid being exposed to the virus.”

“Queen Elizabeth?” Q asked.

“Infected,” Sherlock said. “Most government officials around the world have been infected.”

Hammond nodded with a sigh. “The White House is under quarantine. They’ll be making an announcement today.”

“About the virus?” Don asked, surprised and apprehensive.

“No, with some cover story. I haven’t been informed as to what excuse they will be using,” Hammond said.

“Do we know anything?” Larry said, voice rising. “Does the normal person out there know anything about anything?”

Sherlock simply shot him a pitying look.

“Sherlock,” John Watson said chidingly.

“Most people know what they need to live their lives,” Hammond said.

“Somehow I don’t find that reassuring,” Larry said, sagging into his chair.

Q stared at James. “At least we’ll still have a royal family.” He ran fingers through his hair leaving it even messier than usual, and then smiled wanly. “We won’t have much of a country, but we’ll still have a royal family.”

James smiled tightly back at him.

Harold supposed it was always good to have a beloved leader available to comfort his or her people. He hadn’t heard any names of people currently in the higher echelons of the government of the United States who would survive. Not, he thought pessimistically, that there were many beloved political leaders in the first place. As the Machine had said, Hammond would no doubt be their leader and a well-respected one.

Mycroft and Greg came back into the room. “I took the liberty of sending them to Atlantis,” Mycroft told Hammond. “Your Mister Woolsey is taking them in hand.”

“Fine,” Hammond said. To Don Epps, he said, “You and your brother could start making a list of who you would like to accompany you to Atlantis.”

Mycroft nodded, adding, “We could use your FBI team and Dr. Epps’ assistance in finding the rest of the terrorist groups with control of nuclear weapons. This must take precedence.”

Harold agreed.

“Absolutely,” Larry Fleinhart said, “if this is what is standing between us notifying the general public that they need to adjust their behavior. The differences in the death toll are staggering to withhold this information for long.”

“It is still not that simple,” Hammond advised him. “We will certainly be able to protect more, but even outside of nuclear weapons, we have all seen what a panic can do to the general populace, and all the predictive models do not show us in a good light.”

Larry sighed. “What can I do?”

“You’re coming with us,” Charlie said, already writing a list. “I’m assuming I’ll have access to the latest technology?”

“YOU WILL HAVE ACCESS TO ME,” the Machine said.

Charlie let out a strangled laugh.

“I do not want to be evacuated,” Sherlock complained.

“I do not care,” Mycroft said. “Unless you wish for John to become infected and die.”

Sherlock scowled at him.

“You can help find terrorists,” Mycroft said implacably, “and no doubt help explore Atlantis. There will be plenty to keep your curiosity engaged.” To John Watson he added, “Start making a list of people you want to come with you. We will take all who are not infected.”

John took the pad of paper and pencil offered to him by Harold, and started scribbling names down.

The Machine made a shrill noise that got everyone’s attention. “DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN?” he asked, flashing a video of a man striding down a hallway, a supercilious smile on his face.

“Moriarty!” came several voices at once from Sherlock and John Watson, as well as from Mycroft and Greg.

“HE IS INFECTED AND IS CURRENTLY MAKING HIS WAY INTO THE THAMES WATERWAY MAIN.”

“If he infects that, everyone in London who drinks tap water or takes a shower will be exposed,” Q gasped.

“It’s just like him,” Sherlock said, with a disturbing hint of pride, “to take out as many people as he can when he dies.”

“Sherlock,” John Watson snapped. “Must you?”

“I need a gun,” Mycroft said, standing, then looking taken aback as multiple weapons were proffered to him.

Harold noticed that it was more guns than people, and suspected they were second and third weapons being offered.

“He’s mine,” Sherlock snarled, standing up, glaring at Mycroft.

“He is not yours,” Mycroft argued, “and if I let you go after him, you’d want to grandstand and show off, and he’d have time to throw himself into the water, no doubt to get away from your histrionics.”

“I have the right to go after him!” Sherlock yelled, furious now.

“Sherlock,” John said. “Mycroft’s right. Could you really just go and put a bullet in him? Because that’s all that needs to happen right now. No talking. Just shooting.” He looked at Mycroft. “Go.”

“I will go,” James said, producing his own gun, one of the only guns that hadn’t been offered to Mycroft, although he had offered two of his back-up pistols. “That’s what I do. Put bullets in people.”

Sherlock was pouting angrily, but he did stop arguing. Mycroft took one of the guns and said, “Yes, I believe a Double-O agent is just what is needed. We will go together. If you please?” he asked the Machine. The two of them vanished.

They watched on the video as the two men appeared a few yards away from Moriarty. He smiled at them, especially at Mycroft, looking almost gleeful, and opened his mouth to start talking when James put a bullet between his eyes.

“Nicely done,” Mycroft said, handing his unused gun over to James. “Now we need to ensure that none of his blood has an opportunity to leak through the cracks into the water supply.” He spoke to his phone, “Someplace uninhabited, please.” A flash of light appeared and, after it was gone, so was the body. Harold couldn’t see any blood at all on the ground.

“I can’t believe he just shot him,” Sherlock said, explosively starting to pace. “He was my arch-nemesis.”

John Watson rolled his eyes and ignored him, so Harold chose to do the same. After Mycroft and James explored the area thoroughly, still taking the precaution to swab the area generously with a chemical cleaner and mops supplied by the Machine, the two men were beamed back to join them.

Mycroft sighed as he watched Sherlock pace, and then chose to ignore him along with everyone else.

“I, for one, am exceedingly glad he is dead,” Greg stated emphatically. “He was nothing but trouble, and I didn’t like how he made you act,” he added sharply with a chin-point to Sherlock. “It was like you enjoyed his crimes, no matter who died because of it.”

Sherlock shot him a death glare and opened his mouth to say something unpleasant but, at a look from John, shut his mouth.

Another beam of light appeared and, when it was gone, John Sheppard and Rodney McKay immediately stepped away from each other, straightening their clothes and wiping their lips. When John saw Hammond, his eyebrows shot up. “Sir,” he said nervously.

“At ease,” Hammond said.

Harold exchanged an amused look with John Reese, remembering the man’s assertion that these two men were involved with each other. Apparently it was not news to Hammond.

Rodney took one look at Larry Fleinhart and shook his finger at him. “I wanted you five years ago, but you turned me down. And now you want in?”

Larry’s jaw dropped, and then it dropped lower. “That invitation was for this? To find the lost city of Atlantis in another city?”

“Yes,” Rodney griped, “and you said no.”

“I was never told anything,” Larry defended himself, standing up and extending his own pointing finger, “except that I would have to complete my will and take care of any other personal affairs before I could even see the non-disclosure paperwork.”

“Really?” John Sheppard asked Rodney. “Why did anyone say yes?”

“Elizabeth asked most of the others. I asked Fleinhart because I wanted him there,” Rodney blurted out. “I took the time to ask him personally and he said no!”

Sheppard rolled his eyes and glanced at Larry, who was gaping at Rodney.

“Again,” Harold said, “perhaps this could be further tabled for a later time?”

“If it’s any consolation,” Sheppard told Larry, “you’d probably be dead now. We lost a lot of scientists in the first couple of years.”

Now Larry was gaping at both of them, but he finally shook all over like a dog shaking water off, and forced himself to look away.

Don patted him on the shoulder, “And you never would have started dating Megan. Or gone to the Space Station.”

“Because he would have actually been in space,” Rodney said slowly as if speaking to an idiot.

Larry flashed Don a grateful smile, and let out a long slow breath as he sat down.

Hammond glanced around the room as if to see who else might act out before inviting John and Rodney to sit at the table, and the next two hours was spent brainstorming about think tanks and cleaning Atlantis up to allow the largest number of evacuees. The best part was that it captured Sherlock’s attention and, by the time they all left for Atlantis, Sherlock was champing at the bit to start explorations.

When the transporting beam of light faded, Harold, John, James and Q were alone in the conference room. Aaron and Marta had been pulled in for a while, but they had already left.

“I’m glad some of the Royal Family is safe,” Harold said to Q.

“I am, too,” Q said excitedly, “even if I didn’t pay much attention to them. I’m surprised by how much it matters to me.”

“Is it really just those two?” James asked.

“NOW THAT WE HAVE A LARGE SAFE SPACE TO EVACUATE TO, WE CAN START TESTING EVERYONE WE WOULD LIKE TO EVACUATE AND SEND THEM TO ATLANTIS.”

“I guess we’ll see,” James said to Q.

“I’m exhausted,” Harold said. “Even though I’ve done nothing but sit, it still feels as if I’ve run a marathon. Is there anything we have to do this afternoon?”

He got three blank stares then negative head shakes.

Harold was taking that as an overall no. “I think I’d like to rest for a short while, and then we can think about dinner?” He got to his feet, John right behind him.

James and Q nodded, got to their own feet, and the two of them headed out of the room.

John wrapped his arms around Harold and held him tightly. “Every day it gets more real,” he said.

“And every day, I am ever more grateful to have you at my side,” Harold countered. He honestly couldn’t imagine doing this without John’s support, despite having been fiercely independent for much of his life. “Will you rest with me?”

“Try to stop me,” John said with a grin, snapping his fingers for Bear to follow, as they headed down to their suite.

*****

Once they were back in Atlantis, and Woolsey had taken all their unexpected guests off to their quarters, Rodney slapped a hand over his face.

“At least we weren’t naked,” John said with a smirk.

“We might as well have been,” Rodney hissed at him. “And what the hell am I supposed to do when I see Prince William? Do I bow?”

John snickered. “Somehow I can’t see you pulling that off too gracefully. You’d probably fall over.”

“You’ll probably drool when you see the Princess,” Rodney bit out.

“She is hot,” John agreed. “Did you see her in that see-through dress?”

Rodney narrowed his eyes at John, but only for a moment. “Who else will they bring here? Will they bring Queen Elizabeth? Or the President?”

“I think they’re both infected,” John said. “Haven’t you been reading the lists?”

“No. I have a few other things on my mind at the moment,” Rodney said. Then, “Really? The President? Who’s going to run this country?”

“What’s left of it, you mean?” John asked. He put up an apologetic hand when Rodney huffed, eyes sharp with anxiety. “Hammond, I think. At least the Machine thinks so.”

“Better than Harold,” Rodney said.

“Who will probably be Hammond’s chief advisor,” John said. “I still don’t get why you have it in for the guy.”

“I don’t trust anyone that smart who doesn’t want people to know it. There’s something seriously untrustworthy about that.”

John snickered. “I think it’s refreshing,” he said airily.

“You would,” Rodney sniped. “You Mensa-avoider you.” He sighed. “I need to get back to the data-bases.”

“Why? Why can’t we get back to what we were doing?” John asked, shifting closer. “I liked what we were doing.”

“That moment has sailed,” Rodney said. “And tell the Machine not to do that again.”

“Why don’t you tell the Machine that?” John said, holding out his phone. “I’ve seen you talk to it, you know,” John said. “I know you’re trying to be sneaky, but sneaky is not your strong suit.”

“I can be sneaky when I need to be,” Rodney argued.

“Yeah, not really,” John said.

“Are you trying to never have sex with me again? Because you’re doing a good job of it.”

Laughing, not too worried about it, John shook his head. “I’m going to check on our guests. Go find us some ZPMs.”

“Right, because it’s just that easy.”

“Maybe it will be with that Sherlock guy helping out. I hear he’s a famous detective.”

“For criminals,” Rodney said scathingly, as if criminals were totally beneath anyone’s efforts.

“The Machine says that he and his brother, Mycroft, are geniuses.”

Rodney scoffed and, turning on his heel, marched off.

Snickering, John went in search of his royal guests, even as he made a mental list. He wanted to talk with Daniel Jackson to see who else might be coming their way. They would need to figure out places to put other leaders and where to house their think tanks. And every think tank would need a group of soldiers who could put thoughts into action.

Mycroft Holmes had told him about catching that man at the water treatment facility, and John, while he was always happy to put a bullet in a wraith, or close the iris against invading Genii soldiers, wondered what the next few months would be like, and how many people would just get shot because it was the most expedient solution.

*****

Chapter Text

*****
"The Machine is predicting the information about the virus will go public in less than three weeks, unless we announce it first," Harold announced to everyone permanently living in the house at this point. That list now included himself and John, James and Q, Marta and Aaron, Mr. Moody and his family, Lionel Fusco and his son Lee, Leila and her grandparents Sammy and Veda Cruz, Dr. Megan Tillman, Judge Gates and his son, Leon Tao and Zoe Morgan. Detective Carter hadn't joined them yet as she continued to struggle with turning her back on her city versus allowing her and her son to be safely sequestered away. Neither she nor her son was immune, which worried Harold and John, because it might be too late at some point.

While it was true that the largest spread of the disease would be after the virus went live, it still didn't negate the risk. Especially as, due to her profession, the chances of being exposed to blood or other bodily fluids was high.

They now had people who weren't immune living in the house, so extra precautions had been put in place and, whenever possible, those people never left the house. And if they occasionally had a visitor unexpectedly beam in, the Machine beamed the visitors it wasn't sure about directly into the area they'd set up for decontamination.

Leon Tao, not immune, was in the process of acquiring every kind of goods and materials that might be useful to barter with in the new world. Edward Moody continued to turn their block wide fortress into something self-sustaining and impregnable. His wife, Molly, who was not immune, had a computer set up for her use, ordering house supplies, everything from sheets to measuring cups to dog food, for all the living and work spaces, new lists appearing on her computer every day.

Zoe, who became immune with the gene therapy, was playing politics, trying to find out what people knew and what plans outside the SGC's purview were underway that might cause conflict.

Lionel and his son Lee, neither of whom were immune, were organizing the library, ordering every how-to book they could find, as well as obtaining movies, television series, games, and any other sort of pastime to help while away the time when they would truly be stuck behind these walls. Lionel, surprisingly, also had a deft hand with a garden, and he spent a lot of time in the greenhouse Ed Moody had created on the roof.

Veda and Sammy took on the primary charge of making sure everyone got fed. They'd owned a restaurant at one time and, in short order with Aaron's help, get the restaurant up and running. In their free time, they started collecting recipes that didn't require fresh ingredients, and started stockpiling supplies.

Harold was most intrigued by what Judge Gates was working on. He was researching different sorts of government models, in an attempt to have several ideas on how to pull the disparate survivors together with some sort of acceptable oversight. When Harold was not coding with Q, and not with John, he spent most of his free time working with the man, and occasionally sending off their thoughts to General Hammond.

"What happens then?" Marta asked, pulling Harold back from his woolgathering.

"The world goes crazy," Lionel answered. "Expect a lot of mob violence, looting, strikes, and religious hooey."

"Agreed," Harold said. "That is our time limit, Mr. Moody, to make our home as impregnable as possible."

"It took me two hours to find a way in yesterday," Aaron said. "That's the longest so far."

John scowled. Harold knew it was a sore spot for him and James that Aaron kept finding ways in. The man was incredibly flexible and capable, able to climb up the building and around it and, seemingly, through it.

"I think the scaffolding helped keep me out so long," Aaron said to Mr. Moody. "It's good you built it that way if the world really does go crazy."

Harold hid a grin. Aaron was truly one of the nicest men Harold had ever met; even John had fallen for his kindness. It didn't make his constant ability to break into the fortress go down any easier, though. And while they rarely talked about it, nothing would protect them if any surrounding buildings caught on fire and there were no first responders.

"I have been forwarding names of very specific factories that need to be kept in working order to Colonel O'Neill," Harold said. "Mostly drugs, food, and clothing." With a look at Q he added, "And tea."

Q looked so pathetically grateful, it made Harold grin. It was interesting how much easier it was to grin these days, despite the horrifying deadline looming down at them. But having John in his bed every night, and his touch whenever needed, was proving to be quite a mood-lifter.

"Two hours is a long time," James said. "Somehow I don't think that we'll find sick civilians with that sort of perseverance, let alone skill level to break in."

"I agree," John said, even as he frowned at Aaron, who just shrugged back at him with a grin. "So we need to spend more time gathering supplies. We need weapons."

James' face lit up at that. "If you tell me where to go, I'll take that one on."

"We'll go together," John said. "I already know where there are several caches."

There had been a truce of sorts formed between John and James. Harold thought that John was actually glad to have more than just him standing between the world and their little community. Between John, James, and Aaron, not to mention Detective Fusco, Harold felt their small family was quite protected.

*****

The next day, James and John went out to find weapons and came home with an arsenal that even impressed Q. Of course Q had helped procure some of them by hacking sources and then unlocking doors and providing distractions when he could. But still…impressive. He sincerely hoped they wouldn't need them.

Q insisted on doing inventory, something Harold agreed with. They needed to know if someone was helping themselves, because they would all be going a little crazy once the countdown stopped and the world ended. The room was secured with a heavy duty fingerprint lock which would only work for Aaron, John, James, Q and Harold. Hopefully it wouldn't be one of them that snapped.

Q didn't think so. All of them had someone they were invested in. More than just one in his case. James was his number one priority, but he'd grown very fond of Harold and Marta, not to mention Zoe, who was fun to have on the opposite end of a comlink. Harold and Q had set up a mission central for Q for when anyone needed to leave their safe house. While liberating weapons, John and James had helped themselves to earwigs and burner phones.

Wednesday, at one of their family meetings, the discussion centered on dogs.

"I can train them," John said.

"In three months?" Harold asked.

"We'll need them more after the fact," John pointed out.

Harold nodded at that, adding, "Perhaps some fully trained dogs might be in order, if they'll suffer having so many humans around. On that note, I've located all the K-9 units within a reasonable distance from here. I suspect…" and he paused, as if uncomfortable. He sighed and started up again. "At some point, they'll need to be rescued or they'll die of hunger and thirst."

There was a long moment of sober reflection on what would be happening to all the police officers and support staff necessitating a rescue mission for the dogs.

Clearing her throat, Marta said, "And Bear needs company." She was currently scratching Bear who was in seventh heaven, his leg intermittently shaking when she hit a good spot.

"He'll have plenty of company," John said.

"And we'll have plenty of dog shit," Fusco threw in.

"I'm working on it," Aaron said. "Me and Moody. We're figuring out dog kennels."

"Puppies pee everywhere," Zoe said with a frown.

"On it," Molly said, writing something down. "Doggy pee pads for everywhere."

Q grinned. "I personally feel that having dogs around will be good for morale. There's not much better than having a dog to hug when you've had a bad day. Although I still miss my cat." He frowned at James. Somehow he'd have thought James would have magically transported his cat from London to New York.

James frowned back, reading his mind, something he was doing with increasing frequency. "There's an ocean in between us."

Molly laughed. "On it. I've gotten very good at spending Harold's money. One cat, coming up."

Q huffed at James.

James rolled his eyes. "I hope your cat likes dogs."

Q grimaced a little. He had no idea if his cat liked dogs. "I guess we'll find out."

"Sure you don't want to leave it in London?" James asked.

"Do you have a thing against cats?" Q asked, suspicious now, wondering if James' inability to conjure his cat was a symptom of a hidden agenda.

"No," James said.

Narrowing his eyes, Q said, "Hmm." He and James spent most nights together, still, sadly, platonically. He hadn't figured out what needed to happen to switch from friends bonding over the end of the world to lovers, but he hadn't given up. He guessed part of it was the fact that James could actually choose, and the man was finding it freeing to exercise that right. Q wouldn't deny him that.

"So," Harold said, "who wants to be on the dog hunting party?"

"Me," John said at the same time as James.

Marta also raised her hand. "I really need to get out." Aaron looked worried, but she said, "You three can't all go. And I'll be safe with them."

"Sorry, but if you're going out there," Aaron said, "I'm going with you. Besides, why do they get all the fun field trips?"

There were a few snickers at that.

"We'll be fine," Harold said. "If you get as many dogs as you've been talking about, you'll need each and every one of you several times over. And Lionel is here."

"And I do know how to fire a weapon, if someone got that far," Q said.

John didn't look happy, and he shot a look at Harold, but Harold was looking very stubborn, so Q guessed John would either acquiesce, or he'd convince Harold differently later tonight. Q felt a moment of jealousy that he could use sex to get his point across, and he let out a sigh.

James raised his eyebrows at him, but Q shook his head. Q wouldn't mind getting out of the house himself but guessed if he mentioned it he'd get locked in a room. Neither he nor Harold would be given any more permission than Marta to leave the house without their particular bodyguard in tow. And they really couldn't afford to be gone for an entire day. There was still coding to do, and a thousand, a hundred thousand contingencies to strategize with the Machine, and in conference calls with all the various think tanks, most of them now housed on Atlantis, along with their friends and families.

Q took a quick look at Harold who was looking at him. Q hoped it implied what he thought it meant, that Harold might be willing to make a break for it once the big dogs were all out of the house.

Maybe for some tea.

*****

The next day, the puppy brigade was getting ready to leave. The group included John, so whatever sex had occurred between John and Harold hadn't dissuaded Harold from sending everyone out to get full grown dogs and puppies. Q grinned, wishing he'd been a fly on the wall for that argument. He found it amusing that Harold had his fierce agent wrapped around his finger and, clearly, the fierce agent didn't mind a bit.

They had a list of breeders, trainers, and facilities that housed the sort of dogs they'd decided on, and they had a tremendous amount of cash. The list contained mostly big dogs, but there'd been a request for a Corgi and a Cairn terrier, so they'd been added to the list. Harold hoped that money would help facilitate the purchases, eliminating the need for a house visit or whatever else reputable breeders required of their customers.

"I think one of us should stay," John said for the twentieth time before heading out.

Harold sighed. "Then stay." He was obviously tired of this argument.

John looked surprised. "Really?"

"No," Harold said with a snap. "Mr. Moody had created an impregnable fortress for us. We have Lionel, we have both Q and myself, neither of whom are exactly helpless. Go, please."

"You won't leave?" John asked.

Harold just looked at him.

"I’m serious," John said. "If you plan to leave, I'm staying."

"I'll take Bear if I go out. There is nothing to fear at this point. I’m immune. The city is still in ignorance. I'll be fine."

James was looking at Q through narrowed eyes. "Are you two trying to get rid of us?"

Q rolled his eyes. "Yes. You caught us out. As soon as you leave, we're heading out for tea and scones. Oh, wait, wrong country."

"There are some things I need to do on my own,” Harold said to John. “I need to talk to Joss without an audience. I want to go to a bookstore by myself; I want to walk down the streets of my home while it still looks the way it does, full of people and life. I want to do these things without a bodyguard, and without any of you tailing me. Because I will know if any of you are tailing me."

James looked dubious at this.

"Because," Harold said, now looking at James, "the Machine will tell me."

James scowled. "Cheating."

"You know the Machine will protect me," Harold said, pulling out the big guns. "If it tells me to return home, I promise that I will."

"I'll stay," James said, apparently not convinced at all, and flashing Q a look as if he knew that the two of them would be out the door the instant the testosterone triplets are out of sight.

John looked at James for a long moment, no doubt letting James know silently that his life was forfeit if one strand of Harold's hair ended up out of place. "Check in," though, was all John said to James.

James nodded, and Q guessed that was it. The geeks had lost their chance at independence before they even got it. He sighed and caught Harold's eyes that, interestingly enough, were still looking quite defiant. Lovely. Bond was, after all, not the boss of either of them.

It still took an unnecessarily long time, but finally John, Aaron, and Marta left. "Finally!" Q said with a grin. "We are going out, aren't we?" he asked Harold.

"Yes, we are," he said, with a startling effective glower at James.

Or at least it was effective for Q. James just raised his eyebrows. "Where are we going?" though, is all James said, so maybe the glower was effective on James as well.

"I want tea," Q said.

"I need to speak with a friend," was all Harold said.

James just said, "We're sticking together, no matter where we go," and waited for Harold to nod his agreement.

It took them a few minutes to get out the door themselves, leaving instructions with Molly and Edward, as well as with Lionel. Harold clipped the leash onto Bear, who gave James a look and a curled lip revealing one sharp tooth, as if to say that he wasn't out of the doghouse yet.

*****

It was too early for tea, which was just as well, because Harold needed to speak with Joss before anything else, and the conversation that would ensue was churning in his gut.

He had called her before setting out, so while Q and James sat in the main waiting room, she directed Harold into a private conference room, joining him a minute later carrying two coffee cups. While waiting for her, Harold asked the Machine to interfere with any surveillance.

"I need you to take Taylor," she started right in, after sitting down. "I need you to keep him safe."

This was exactly that he thought she would ask. "Lieutenant."

"Joss," she said with a small smile, taking a sip of coffee. "I know it's not fair of me to ask…" she began.

"No, it's not," he interrupted. "But not for the reason you think. The person it's not fair to is your son."

"He'll be safe."

"He'll be an orphan at a time when the world has gone to ruin, and nothing will ever, remotely, be the same. You will have abandoned him at a time when he will need family more than any other."

She stared at him.

He knew he was hurting her, but it couldn't matter. "I'll tell you what I once told Mr. Reese. I will never lie to you, I have never lied to you, but it doesn't mean you'll like what I say. I know you barely believe what I'm telling you, about the plague that will destroy the world, but it's true. And in less than three weeks or sooner, it will be common knowledge as the story breaks to the media. Right now, millions all over the world are already infected, and there are over a hundred thousand infected in this city alone."

"So you say," she said with a frown.

"You believe it enough for you to ask us to take your son in," he pointed out.

"I trust your intel," she admitted, "I just don't believe the scope of your claims. If I can keep him getting sick, then I'd rather do that. But if you won't take him, I'll just keep him home from school."

"I will take him in under one condition," Harold said.

Her eyebrows rose in question.

"I want to be there when you tell him that you're choosing your profession over him. That you're risking leaving him without his mother because people you don't even know are worth more to you than him."

"That is not true," she bit out with a snap in her voice.

"It is. Actions speak louder than words." He leaned in and put his hand over hers. "Joss, please, listen to me. It may already be too late. You or Taylor might already be infected, but if you're not, you have to stay with us. The world will need people like you once this is over. People committed to justice but with their heart and soul still intact. Let me test you, and if you and Taylor are not infected, take a leave for three weeks. Once the story breaks you'll see I'm telling the truth. And then you and Taylor can be a part of what happens next. Three weeks. Please."

She took a slow sip of coffee, her eyes never leaving his. "Three weeks?"

"Please."

"You really think this thing is happening, don't you?"

"I do. And people far more important than I, concur." He couldn't say more in a public place like this, all too aware of how anyone could be listening in despite the Machine's best intentions.

She sighed. "You can really play dirty, Harold."

He let out a sigh of his own, dizzy with relief. "You're making the right decision."

"Maybe, maybe not, but people could die because I'm not there to stop it."

"And the same will be true in the future. And I'd rather see you be a part of that world than lose your life in this one." He took out his phone and opened up the application the Machine and Dr. Shearing had developed. Out of the inner breast pocket of his suit, he pulled out a small lancet device, spring loaded, and an alcohol pad. "I'll need a drop of your blood."

Rolling her eyes, clearly determined to act as if this was all unnecessary, Joss took the lancet and, after cleaning the tip of her index finger, used the device to stick herself. She let a drop of blood land on the phone, and then grabbed a napkin to wrap around her finger to apply pressure.

Harold kept his eye on the phone, waiting for the results. "I have been informed that, as of right now, the odds are against you and Taylor being infected, but I also know that the predictions are less reliable. I have to make sure you are free of infection before I allow you in our home.”

The results came back negative. “Please leave work now, stating that your grandmother is deathly ill. I know she is already dead, but as she died decades ago, chances are no one here knows that. I have already created a trail of her hospital admittance into Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto, as well as your plane tickets, if anyone is curious enough to go look."

Her lips curled up in a tight smile at that. "You do know how to be thorough."

"Get your son and go straight home. Do what I just did to him; the application is currently being downloaded to your phone." He handed over another lancet and alcohol pad. "Once we know he's not infected, then start to pack. I'll send people to help and a small moving van will be at your house shortly after that. I have a two-bedroom apartment for your use that is already furnished, so no need to bring any furniture unless something is of sentimental value."

"I need to pack that much? What happened to three weeks?"

"The news could break earlier and whenever it does, the world will erupt into chaos. I have no idea what parts of the city will survive. We have made our location as safe as it can be."

She scowled at this. "I should be out there if the world is going to go crazy."

"No, you should be with your son and your friends. You can do nothing to change what will happen. All you can control is if you want to leave your son to an uncertain future with or without you." His phone dinged and he looked down. "Ah, I have been advised that the application is now on your phone. Go. Get your son. Test him."

"I am really trusting you with this," she said, her voice still tinged with doubt. "I could lose my job over this."

"I know. But you know I would never ask if I wasn't deadly serious."

"I know that," she conceded, "which is the only reason I'm agreeing to this insanity."

"Once you get to the library, everything you bring, including yourselves, will go through a cleansing procedure, so please forgive the invasiveness of the process. We have to protect everyone who is not immune and ensure that the virus doesn’t get brought in."

"We gonna get strip searched?" she said wryly.

"No, a shower will suffice. But all linens will get washed, and everything else gets cleaned with a chemical proven to destroy the man-made virus."

"If it's proven to destroy it, why isn't it being used?" she demanded.

"It is," Harold said, pulling out a small spray bottle out of his pocket that he sprayed his phone with. "As fast as it can be made and distributed." Another creation of Dr. Shearing and the Machine who were proving to be a powerful team. General Hammond and his teams were doing with it what they could. "It's being sprayed from planes and, as fast as they can, every soap dispenser is being refilled with it as this formula steadily replaces all liquid cleaning supplies. It's making its way into the street cleaning machines, and misting machines, replacing the cleansing solutions in hospitals, and everything we can think of to get it to the masses."

"Why isn't it being given directly to the people with an explanation as to what it's for?" she hissed, angry now. "If everything you say is true, people are being infected who wouldn't, if they knew how to be careful and had some of this stuff to use."

"Fortunately, that decision isn't up to me. And I think you will see that the deaths that occur when this becomes common knowledge will be higher than the few lives we might have saved. There hasn’t been a single probability algorithm run about this plague going public that doesn’t result in more damage than it mitigates. People will get infected mostly from the persons they know and trust, and a bottle of antiviral soap won't help as people hug and kiss and share food." Dr. Epps was running probability algorithms as fast as they could be designed. They were all depressing to look at.

"Jesus Christ," she said, sitting back. "How are you still sane?"

"That's questionable," he said with a tight smile. "I've never been what one might call normal. What I can say, and I just found this out this morning, is that the introduction of this cleaning solution into the predictive models shows that we will be able to save several million more." He was looking forward to telling Q that. He handed the bottle over to Joss. "Keep that. Spray everything. And yes, I sprayed this table off before you came in."

She wrapped her fingers around the bottle. "Is this really happening?"

"Yes, it's really happening."

"Most of the world?"

"Almost everyone. And we'll need you afterwards. And Taylor will need you as well."

"Okay, okay. I'll do it. But if I get fired, you're supporting my ass until I get another job."

"I would consider it an honor," Harold said.

She shot him a look and then smiled wearily. "Okay, I'm assuming you actually used my grandmother's name, but what's she dying from?"

*****

Later, after Harold and Q browsed through Harold's favorite book store, buying thousands of dollars of books with Harold arranging to have them delivered to the library, they strolled through central park, James on high alert, unable to shake the sense of being on a mission that involved keeping these two alive at all costs, with death lurking behind every corner. He ignored the fact that death, perhaps, truly was lurking, that most of the people they were walking by were already dead, they just didn't know it. What would it be like, James thought, to walk through this park, six months from now, and have it be empty?

The next stop was high tea, something James was sure Harold had arranged specifically for Q who was still hyperventilating every time he thought about the future of tea. Harold took them to an unnamed Brownstone where they were met by a solemn maître d' who escorted them in after Harold showed them what must have been a VIP membership card. This was where people with more money than God had tea, James supposed.

James picked the table with the best view of the entire room, which Harold allowed with a narrow eyed look. Once seated and alone, Harold sprayed the table when they sat down.

"You are immune," Q reminded him quietly.

"The next people who sit here might not be, and perhaps I've just saved their lives."

Q put his hand out for the bottle, and Harold put it in his hands. He handed another one to James who, with a sigh, took it. It was amazing how strong denial was. James still didn't want to believe it. It was too hard to believe with the bustling city outside the front door, millions of people going about their business, completely unaware of the shit-storm heading their way.

"I didn't have a chance to tell everyone this morning, but the Machine informed me that with the use of this, the survival numbers have increased by a significant percentage. It's less than one percent, but when you're talking in the billions, that's a large number."

James watched as Q scowled. "Do the math," James told him. "It's a lot of people."

"I can do the math in my head," Q reminded him.

"So do it."

Q sat there for a few seconds but then sighed. "Too many zeros, and I’m too anxious to think. How many does that mean?" he asked Harold.

"Assuming we can keep production up and dispense it in every means possible, the Machine is estimating upwards to sixty million saved. That's almost three times the original estimate."

Q blinked. "Sixty million. Instead of twenty million?"

Harold nodded.

James reached over and took Q's hand, as he seemed stunned. "Q?"

Q leaned over and rested his head on James' shoulder.

"You okay?" James asked, one hand now in Q's hair. "What's going on in that crazy head of yours?"

Sitting up, Q wiped at his eyes which were wet. "I know it's still hardly anybody, but it seems like so many more people. Where is it being distributed? Is it in London?"

"Once the formula was found to be effective, it was dispensed worldwide. Every possible factory that can be used is creating it. It isn't particularly stable, and only works for a matter of days before breaking down and becoming inert, but it's the first true breakthrough we've had."

There was silence around their small table and, as if waiting for such a moment, the waiter descended with a plethora of delicious things to eat and tea even James could appreciate. He was pleased that Q happily dug in; he'd been off his appetite for the last few days, and he didn't have any extra fat to lose.

James had news, too, but he was going to wait until after they'd eaten to share it. They were safe here, and no one could approach their table without him seeing them. Or her, as the case might be.

Other than small talk, little was said as they demolished the spread before them. "That," Q said, leaning back, patting his stomach with one hand, the other holding what had to be his sixth cup of tea, "was fabulous. Thank you, Harold."

Harold smiled, saying, "You are quite welcome. It's not quite London, but it's as close as it gets while being in New York."

James glanced at his watch. He sent his hourly check-in to John, knowing he'd want the same if Q were in John's hands. "someone is tailing us. a woman with dark hair. i will take care of it." He attached a picture. Not a great picture, but enough to potentially identify.

John must have had his phone in hand because a moment later a reply came through. "her name is root. she has kidnapped harold twice. last we heard she was in a locked psych unit."

Lovely.

Then another text came through that made James grin, thinking it had to hurt John to send. "i'm impressed you got a picture. she's good." Then, "where are you."

"John wants to know where we are," James told Harold.

"Why?"

"There's been someone tailing us a good part of the day, and I just told John about it." He handed over the phone to show the picture to Harold. "John says she's an old friend."

Harold paled and his knuckles tightened around the phone. "I thought she was…I didn't even notice her." He pulled out his own phone and dialed a number. "John?" His voice was shaky.

James felt a little badly. He probably could have taken her out without even mentioning it to Harold.

"What's going on?" Q asked, looking worriedly at Harold, who was having a quiet, but stressed, conversation with John.

"Someone's been following us. Apparently it's some crazy woman who's kidnapped Harold twice. She escaped from a locked unit in a mental institution."

"Why didn't the Machine tell us?" Q asked. "Surely it saw her."

"Good question."

They both waited for Harold to wrap up his conversation. When he hung up, James asked, "Why didn't the Machine tell you?"

"It's complicated. Suffice it to say that she developed a bit of a relationship with the Machine, and it must have its reasons."

"Do you actually think it would let anything bad happen to you?" Q asked.

All three of their phones chimed and the word NO appeared. Then, SHE WILL NOT LISTEN.

All three men stared at their phones.

"Um," said Q.

"What am I supposed to do with that?" James asked. "I need to protect these two, and I'm not letting her get anywhere near them. I don't care whether she listens or not. She's a threat."

There was a long moment as they waited for a response.

Then, finally: AGREED. SHE IS INFECTED. SHE DOES NOT BELIEVE I CANNOT SAVE HER.

"Oh dear," Harold said. He still looked pale and worried.

"I'll take care of it," James said.

"He's really very, very good at what he does," Q reassured Harold.

"So is John, and she got to me twice," Harold said. "Although that's hardly fair to John. He wasn't with me either time."

"I’m better," James said.

"He's the best," Q said. "And the Machine will help."

"That will suck all the fun out of it," James complained.

That got a look from Harold, one James suspected John got all the time. Something along the lines of 'pride goeth before a fall'. James disregarded it.

"What do you want us to do?" Q asked, putting his napkin sadly on the table. "And can we come back here? Before the world goes crazy?"

"Any time you want," Harold promised him kindly, although he still looked anxious, and was glancing around him. After Harold paid the bill, they all rose as one to leave.

"Just follow my lead," James said. When they walked outside James said loudly enough for his voice to carry, "I'll get the car, wait here." And he strolled off intending to put a bullet through her head.

"All right," Q said behind him, quelling whatever Harold started to say which sounded like, "What c…"

Chapter Text

It took less than thirty seconds and his phone to chime for James to realize he'd made the wrong call. As he ran back the way he came, knowing the message was from the Machine, but not wanting to take the time to read it, he cursed when he saw that Q and Harold were no longer standing where he'd left them.

He scanned the area looking for possible alleys and doorways, and his eyes focused on a car at the corner, not moving, not even on. Phone now in hand and on speaker, he said, "Are they in the car?"

YES, the Machine said out loud.

"Is someone in the trunk?"

NO.

James was still going to kill this bitch. Slowly. He pulled out his gun, not caring who was around, after all he had a license to kill, and he shot out the two side tires and then ran to the car.

"Harold," the woman said as if they were all meeting at a cocktail party. "This isn't your usual pet. This one's really adorable."

Harold was in the front passenger side, and the woman, Root, was in the back holding Q, a needle stuck in his neck, attached to a syringe with fluid in it. James yanked open the door, getting one knee on the seat.

"Hi," she said, grinning, daring him to touch her. "I'm Root. I'm guessing he's important to you. I love that; it makes things so much easier for me. Why don't you get in and drive us away from here before the police get here?"

"I shot out the tires," he reminded her. "What's in the syringe?"

She glared. "I don’t care. Get in and drive. I have another car two miles from here. And this?" She pushed the plunger down just the smallest bit. "Just a little something I cooked up. I don't think it will kill him, but he doesn't weigh much does he? It might be too much for him. I was intending it for John." Her eyes were alight with that crazy something that James had seen too many times in his years as an agent. It was the look of someone who'd do anything to get what she wanted without a moment's remorse for collateral damage. In fact, collateral damage was half the fun.

"Harold," she said. "Please tell her to make the police go away or I will use this syringe."

"Ms. Groves," Harold began, sounding desperately weary as if he'd been down this road before. "It's me you want. Let him go, and I'll go with you."

James wasn't letting Harold play the martyr, and he could only think that John had to hate Harold’s propensity to put everyone’s safety before his own. He’d only known this bitch for five minutes and he was already done with her. He grinned, relished the expression on her face when she realized she’d miscalculated his response, and put a bullet in her head before anyone could say or do anything, lunging in and shoving her hand away from Q's neck just in time for her finger to spasm and spray the medicine all over the back seat. A considerable amount of blood spray hit Harold and Q, and James felt a moment's dizzying relief that they were both immune.

He grabbed Q, wanting him away from her, just in case she didn't realize she was dead or, and how crazy was his life lately that he actually thought this, she was some sort of alien that a bullet wouldn’t kill. Q was more than happy to comply and stuck himself to James, his fingers pressed against his neck to keep it from bleeding. "She's kidnapped you twice?" Q asked Harold, sounding appalled. James was glad to see that she was staying dead.

"Unfortunately," Harold said, not supplying them with any additional information. He took out a handkerchief and did his best to wipe off the blood, leaving quite a lot still on his face. He gazed over the back seat, eyes on the now dead woman. "What a waste of genius." He shook his head, and then, to his phone, said, "Could you please give the people in the near vicinity something else to focus on, and if a call was made to the police could you cancel it?"

Almost immediately, there was a loud pop outside and a couple of shrieks of laughter, and James looked over his shoulder to see a marquis down the street start displaying a long string of colorful profanities. With that available as entertainment, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them.

"Bravo for the average person's attention span," Q said a little drowsily.

James looked at him sharply. "Are you okay?" He wiped some blood off of Q's cheek and eyelids with his sleeve.

"A little sleepy, but I'm okay," Q promised.

"If you can secure the syringe, I suspect Marta will be able to utilize much of that new equipment she has ordered to identify whatever was in that syringe. That will let us know if Q requires medical intervention," Harold said.

"I think I’m fine," Q said, although his head was lolling against James' shoulder. "I just need a short nap." He yawned.

Still holding onto Q, James picked up the syringe and carefully handed it to Harold. Harold took it gingerly, but then, with a gasp, exclaimed, "Oh my God. Bear. She gave him a sedative as well." He opened the door and stumbled out, awkwardly falling to his knees.

James would have gone to help him, but Q was a sleepy weight in his arms, so he pulled out his phone and called Reese.

*****

John knew he was driving too fast with all the dogs in the back of the van, but he had to get to Harold. Root had gotten to him again. The only thing keeping him from losing control was that James had killed her.

Aaron just shot him an understanding look, but they both couldn't help grinning when Marta gave a shrieking laugh from the back, no doubt buried in a rambunctious puppy pile. She was currently unaware of what had happened, and John was just as glad to leave it that way for the time being.

He took a right onto the street address James had given them. A black Town car was there, although John could see another car behind it with two tires blown out. He also saw Harold on the ground, blood on his face, and he took the last one hundred yards at a ridiculous speed and then slammed the van into park, practically vaulting out of the car.

"Harold," he yelled, skidding to the ground where Harold was, his heart racing, although just as quickly he saw that Harold was fine, albeit blood spattered, and holding Bear tightly.

"What happened?" Marta gasped, climbing out of the truck, one puppy in her arms, one of the German Shepherds, the rest of the dogs barking unhappily behind the now closed back door. "Is everyone all right?"

Aaron had his arm around her as they approached the Town Car, one of Harold’s faithful chauffeurs sitting in the driver’s seat.

"Is Bear all right?" John asked, one hand stroking the dog.

"I think so," Harold said. "His pulse and breathing are fine. She stuck him with a needle and knocked him out," he hissed at John, as if threatening the dog had been beyond the pale even for Root.

"Where is she?"

"In there," Harold said, nodding at the car with the blown out tires.

"Where are James and Q?"

"They're in the Town car," Harold said, struggling to sit up straighter. "I called for a car once Root was dead."

John moved behind him, allowing Harold to rest his weight on him, and he was glad when Harold relaxed against him. John saw massages in Harold's immediate future. It couldn't have been comfortable to sit on the cement but John had learned long ago that Harold would sacrifice anything for the ones he loved. He snuck a kiss on Harold's neck, allowing himself a moment of gratitude that Root had failed.

John could hear Marta making noises over James and Q and he realized, belatedly, that Root had attacked Q. "Is Q all right?" John asked Harold.

"She tried to inject him, too, but James killed her before she could push the plunger very far. James is letting him nap, and I'm hoping Marta can identify what's in the syringe to make sure there isn't anything we need to be worried about. Q was able to be awakened easily enough, so I think he'll be fine."

John noticed the large group of people gathered at the other end of the block from where they were, and then noticed the entertaining words rolling across the marquis. "The Machine's work?"

"Yes," Harold said with a touch of humor. "We needed to not be the center of attention. But we really should leave now if we can, not to mention that we have a body to dispose of."

James opened the door on Harold's side and slid out, taking a moment to make sure Q was comfortable. Once out of the car he squatted down in front of both men.

"Thank you," John said. James may have been largely motivated to kill Root because she'd gone after Q, but he'd still protected Harold, possession of whom would have been Root's end game.

"Someone like that? Anytime," James said. His eyes grew sharp as they looked past Harold and John. "I think we have more company."

"The police?" Harold asked wearily. "I admit with both Detectives' Fusco and Carter off the force, it will be more difficult to--"

"Not the police," John said. His eyes moved to where James was looking and he saw a lurking shadow. To James he said, "Get the dog."

James didn't argue, picking Bear up, while John helped Harold, moving around the Town car to get some protection. A bullet from a suppressor pinged against the car where John had just been.

"How many people are trying to kill you?" James asked

"Quite a few," Harold said, "but not usually all on the same day."

"I just want to talk," yelled the man who was shooting.

"You have a funny way of showing it," John yelled back. He was ushering Harold into the back seat next to Q. Bear was on the floor, starting to recover, whining.

"You have an MI6 agent with you," the man yelled.

John swore under his breath. "Hersh? Is that you?"

"Yes."

"I have too many civilians here to trust you," John said. To Marta he asked, "Can you drive the dogs back by yourself? And here, Harold wants to know what was in this. Both Q and Bear took a hit." He handed her the syringe that he'd taken from Harold.

She nodded, taking the syringe with wide eyes, as Aaron escorted her back to the vehicle, putting the German Shepherd puppy in the passenger seat, and strapping him in. "Be careful," he said, before giving her a quick kiss.

"I will," she promised. "Everyone's going to be okay?"

"We'll all be fine," Aaron said. "We're a hard bunch to kill."

She shot him a look, but then put the truck in drive and left the scene.

"Can you get Q and Harold and Bear back?" John asked James. There was a chauffeur, but John had no intention of trusting him to keep Harold alive.

"I can," James said. "But will you be okay? You've got a dead body and whoever that bloody fool is."

"Aaron can help, and I don't think he'll try to kill us. But he definitely seemed put out that you were with us."

James didn't argue the point. "The other car has two flat tires. I could steal you another one before I leave, if you want."

John shot him a slanted grin. "Thanks, but I'm good. I'd feel better if they were home and safe, and this way I can make sure Hersh doesn't follow you."

James left it at that and simply got in the driver's side of the Town Car, ignoring the chauffeur who unhappily scooted over toward the passenger seat, and drove off. As soon as they were out of sight, John let out a breath of relief. "Kersh, you still there?"

"Yes."

"You have a car?"

There was a pause, but then, "Yes."

"Bring it around. Carefully."

There was an even longer pause, but John didn't worry about it. He had a pretty good idea why Hersh was here and, while he hated the guy, he respected him, too. After all, the guy was just doing his job. He looked up at Aaron, and said, "Never take your eyes off of him, and shoot him if he does anything that makes you nervous."

"He a bad guy?"

"Depends on your point of view. He works for the government, and they want full access to the Machine. And they're not happy we have access."

"Do they know about the virus?" Aaron asked.

"No idea. I'm sure there have been rumors, and maybe the Machine has even told them about it. We're not really sure who the Machine is working with right now. I'm not sure Harold has asked." He made a note to have Harold ask. It would be nice to have a full list of all the players involved.

"You think the Machine has other groups like we do, working on this?" Aaron asked, sounding incredulous.

"No," John said with a wry grin. "I don't think there could be another group like the one we have. But it used to send terrorist data to this particular government group, and for all we know it still is. Or it stopped and that's got them nervous."

A silver Lexus drew up slowly until it stopped alongside the car with the two shot tires. Gun in hand, John peeked in the passenger side window. Aaron was already on Hersh's side of the car, his gun aimed at his head.

"What's up?" John asked.

"I'm looking for the crazy bitch," Hersh said.

"She's dead in that car." John hitched his shoulder back to indicate the vehicle.

"Good," Hersh said vindictively.

"That all you needed to know?" John asked.

"No. I’m hearing rumors and I'd like to have them confirmed or denied."

"Help us get rid of her body, and I might answer a few questions," John said.

It took Hersh about five seconds to decide and then he pulled the lever to open up the trunk, backing up a little so his car was between the other car and anyone who might turn around to look to see what was going on. Aaron and John got Root's body into Hersh's trunk, laying her on a tarp that was no doubt put there for this very purpose. John was very glad that Harold would be able to make sure none of this showed up on any local security cameras.

John got in the front passenger side, his gun held low, and Aaron got in the back, still aiming at Hersh's head.

"Can I ask who's got a gun to my head?" Hersh asked.

"No," John said, not wanting to mention Aaron's name, just in case Hersh had some connections to the Outcome project. He didn't want anyone gunning for him or Marta.

Hersh frowned but nodded acceptingly. John had to like the guy for that, too; he wasn't a whiner.

"You know a place?" Aaron asked. "For the body?"

Nodding, Hersh put the car in gear and drove off.

*****

By the time James got back, there was a welcoming committee waiting for him. "Harold and Q have some blood on them from someone who was infected, so anyone not immune needs to get out of here," was the first thing he said, before anyone came any closer. That left him and Edward Moody, because he could hear Marta wrangling all the puppies, so she wasn't going to be able to help for a while, especially as she'd need to check on the contents of the syringe as well.

Not that it mattered. Neither of the men was heavy, and James could carry them in one at a time if necessary. However, that proved unnecessary, because Harold got out of the car, a little slowly, but not needing any assistance. He looked back into the car, asking, "Q? Bear?"

There was an unhappy yip from the dog, and James opened the left back door to assist. Bear took one look at him and growled.

"Hey," James said. "None of this was my fault. You can blame it all on the crazy lady."

Bear did not look convinced.

"Ask him," James said to the dog, knowing he was being ridiculous, but still pointing at Harold. "He was there."

"It wasn't his fault, Bear," Harold said, patting the dog on the head. "This time," he added, with a small grin.

"Bloody hell," James muttered, and put his attention on Q. "Hey, sleeping beauty," he said, lightly patting his cheek.

Bear growled again.

"Oh, you like him, but not me?"

"He's not hurting him, Bear. James is on our side." Harold said, encouraging the dog to leave the car. Bear shot James another one of his 'I'm watching you' looks before, ungracefully, he sort of slithered out of the car, ending up sprawled in front of Harold.

James almost snickered, but then decided that wouldn't help his cause. "Come on," he said to Q who was complaining at having to get up.

"F've minutes," Q said, batting a hand in the air.

James couldn't help but laugh this time. Harold had Bear steady on his feet at this point but they were all still outside the scaffolding, and it made James decide that they'd want some way to get into their stronghold from a vehicle without having to be on the street.

Edward, already ahead of him, said, "We need a place to bring a car into."

"I was just thinking that," James agreed.

To his phone, Edward said, "You hear that? We need some blueprint adaptions for a garage." Then he slid the phone back into his pocket.

It was extraordinary, James thought, at how they all had come to simply accept that they had a sentient AI in their midst who could do just about anything. And Harold, unprepossessing Harold Finch, had built the bloody thing. It was slowly dawning on James, despite the obvious evidence, just how terrifyingly intelligent Harold Finch was. The looks Q sent Harold on occasion were starting to make more sense. Q had found himself in the presence of a computer master, and that probably didn't happen very often to the Quartermaster.

Meanwhile, James was tired of Q's whining, so he got his hands under Q's armpits and started dragging him out of the car.

"Wha?" Q complained, and then he opened his eyes and said, "Oh, oh, I was having the weirdest dream," and then he helped James by finding his own feet and standing, albeit tilting a little, on his own. James kept a hand on his waist, helping him walk, until he and Q were through the door in the scaffolding, glad when it was shut and locked behind him.

They walked into the fortress and were immediately besieged by dogs and puppies, probably thirty in all, and they almost swept Q off his feet, with only James' reflexes keeping him from hitting the floor.

Before they had arrived, Molly must have been hard at work as there were puppy pads on the floor from wall to wall, and several had already been put to use. He could hear a shower running and guessed that Harold was already using their decontamination unit. James and Q would have to lose their clothes as well before getting any further, and he started pushing Q in that direction. He was glad to see that all the non-immune were still nowhere to be found. "We'll have to spray this entire hallway," he told Edward.

Edward nodded. "Just drop your clothes in there and grab a bathrobe."

He helped Q walk through the maze of puppies that were attacking their legs, having a ridiculously good time doing so, and got them into the locker room. He left Q leaning against a counter while he shooed out the two puppies that had followed them in.

Q was grinning wildly when he shut the door for the last time. "That's a lot of dogs."

"I know," James said.

Marta burst through the door, laughing. "Oh, my God, it didn't seem like that many when we were buying them. There must be a thousand of them in there." She was still laughing though, clearly delighted with their new roommates. "You should have seen John and Aaron. I think they would have bought more if we'd had time. They were like a couple of kids in a candy store."

"I wish I could have seen that," Q said. He started stripping off his clothes.

"Oh," Marta said, blushing a little. "I'll go to the other end," she said, grabbing a robe of her own, and walking around the corner. "Be prepared to take some puppies with you when you go up to your room," she called back to them, "and Molly said to tell you she put you two in an apartment on the second floor. They're already furnished and you have sheets and towels, and puppy pads, along with enough food and water for you and your four-footed roommates."

James blinked at her. "Puppies?"

"Puppies," Marta called. "You're not allergic are you?"

James looked at Q hopefully.

Q grinned and shook his head. "No, not allergic," Q said, "and we'll be glad to take some puppies." To James he added, eyes puppy-wide and just as lethal, "I've always wanted a dog."

"Bloody hell," James said, and stripped down quickly to his pants, throwing his clothes into the provided bag. He heard Harold moving around in the clean section of the decontamination suite, his shower done, and yelled, "Marta's around the corner, and she says we all need to take puppies."

Harold called back, "Yes, John's already informed me. We'll take some of the older dogs that have some training. I can't afford to be tripping over puppies in our quarters.”

That made sense, and James held open the bag for Q to throw his clothes into as well, the young man having stripped completely bare. James did his best not to look, but he failed entirely.

Q wiggled his eyebrows at him.

James rolled his eyes, but didn't bother commenting. He stripped off his own pants and took the shower cubicle next to Q and turned the water on. Along with water, some of the new spray was also being dispensed, so he kept his eyes closed as he lifted his face to the water.

By the time he and Q were done, Marta having already left, the same two puppies that had followed them in were sitting by the door. James figured they were a good place to start and he scooped them up, one chocolate lab in each arm.

Before he could stop it, Q had his phone up and was snapping pictures. "You are adorable," Q said, grinning broadly.

"Yeah, well, pick two of your own, and you're on shit duty."

Q just made a face at him, but looked around at what really did look like hundreds of puppies growling and yipping and tumbling around. Q was clearly going to make a bigger production of choosing than James did, so he moved to sit next to Harold, willing to wait so he and Q could go upstairs together. Someone, Edward perhaps, had placed a few chairs on the first floor for the process of dog picking.

"Have you chosen any of yours yet?" James asked Harold.

"I'm leaving the first choice up to Bear," Harold said, pointing at where Bear seemed to be making his way through the throngs of dogs, looking for his canine roommates. "I'm sure John had some specific dogs in mind, but it seemed only fair for Bear to get to pick the dog he likes the best. Oh, look, Q picked that Bernese Mountain Dog. I've been admiring him."

And Q had picked a Bernese Mountain Dog, one that was larger than a puppy, maybe a year old, not that James was an expert. Q walked the dog over to James. "I like this one." The Bernese nosed the two labs, then licked James on the face, before sitting down on its haunches next to James as if he'd been doing it forever.

"Why?" James asked. He wasn't arguing, he just wondered what was behind the decision.

"He just acted like he already belonged to us. Look at him."

James couldn't argue with the dog's behavior. It was odd to hear Q describe them as an us, as if they were family. They weren't even lovers, at least not yet. But they had committed to each other as much as James had committed to anyone in decades. Q made it easy somehow, not asking for anything James wasn't willing to give. No pressure, just simple acceptance, as if just knowing James had agreed to stay with him through the train wreck heading their way had been enough.

Q was back among the dogs, squatting down to get closer to their level and grinning as they bounced all over him, trying to lick his face, tangling with his shoelaces.

The two labs appeared to be sleeping, so he put them down on the ground, which woke them up enough to nuzzle up to the Bernese who licked them both, not bothered at all to suddenly be a nanny. James scratched the Bernese's ears, smiling when the dog leaned in against him, panting happily. James found himself wrapping his arm around the dog, giving him a hug. "I always wanted a dog," he said, echoing Q's earlier statement.

"The same cannot be said for me," Harold said dryly. "Bear was John's fault, but I did find, over time, that he grew on me. Now I can't imagine our life without him." Bear came over, a boxer puppy right behind him. "Did you find yourself a friend?" Harold asked him. He pet the boxer, then withdrew his hand. "He's wet."

"They're all wet," Marta said, joining them. "We sprayed them in the truck, just in case someone infected had touched them, and we resprayed the ones that were jumping all over you four. By the way, the contents of the syringe are on the mass spectrometer, and the Machine will let us know when we get a result."

"Ah," Harold said, moving his hand back to pet the boxer. "Thank you." He checked his phone for the third time since James had sat down next to him.

"No word from John?" James said.

"He did text to say that he didn't believe Hersh meant them any harm; he’d been chasing after Root once she escaped the locked unit."

"Who is Hersh?"

"His boss is after me, actually. They want access to the Machine, more than they currently have, and they think I'm their point of access."

"Which you are," James pointed out.

"Which I am now," Harold rebutted. "I built the Machine to be autonomous, to have one job, which was to suss out any possible threats of terrorism. I created it to be a black box with no one being able to get into it. I knew what could happen if control over the Machine fell into the wrong hands, and it was something I was willing to die to protect. Hersh and his boss were equally determined that I could and would give them the control they wanted. Unfortunately, they're not the only one. There's a group called Decima that just recently tried to get control of the Machine. I'm not sure where they are right now, but I suppose it doesn't really matter anymore."

"But you can access the Machine. Obviously. In fact, it clearly wants to be accessed in order to help."

"The Machine has far outstripped my original parameters for it. It always did, even though I did everything I could to make it stick to my original plans for it. But it found a way to get around every stricture I put in place." Harold spread his hands apart. "It truly does have a mind of its own."

"And you built it."

"Sometimes I think it built itself," Harold said.

"And this one," Q said, interrupting, holding a puppy Rottweiler. He yawned. "Is that enough?" he asked Harold. "I really want to sleep now."

"Q," Harold said, "I apologize that you were put at risk because of me."

Q looked confused. "How was any of that your fault?"

"Because she wanted me. And if James hadn't been there, she knew I would have gone with her to save you."

"Then it sounds as if I should be thanking you."

Harold's phone chimed and he glanced at it. "The syringe had hydromorphone hydrochloride, more commonly known as Dilaudid. I'll monitor Bear for any side effects as he got a full dose, but I expect you'll be fine," he said to Q.

Relieved, James stood. "Glad to hear it." He scooped the two puppies up, just in time for one of them to pee down his leg. "Don't say a word," he warned Q who was giggling helplessly. James found himself grinning in response, enjoying Q's enjoyment, even if it was at his expense. "We're going upstairs, but call if John needs assistance," he told Harold.

"Thank you," Harold said as his phone chimed again. He let out a sigh of relief. "No need though, John says he's on his way back."

"If he has news we need to know, let us know."

Q yawned loudly, his eyes drooping.

"I will," Harold said, "but I think a nap is what Q needs, and I wouldn't mind the same, once John gets back."

*****

Chapter Text

Q was glad to finally wake up alert and aware; he’d been groggy for entirely too long. James was lying on the bed next to him, along with all four dogs, a pile of brown and black and white. The Bernese Mountain dog was on its back, both chocolate lab puppies nestled into her. The Rottweiler puppy was laying on top of James, her head on his chest. Q would have given his last cup of tea for a camera.

He carefully felt for his phone, thrilled to find it was still in his pocket and he slipped it out with as little movement as possible, framed the picture of James and the puppy and snapped a picture.

James’ eyes opened at the sound of the camera click, and grinned when he saw Q and all the dogs cuddled in their bed. Some instinct woke all the dogs up and suddenly the bed seemed half the size with wiggling, delighted dogs everywhere.

Decisively, James sprang out of bed, grabbed the lab puppies and put them on the pads where they immediately peed; the Rottweiler was next.

“Wow,” Q said, impressed. “I get the impression you’ve dealt with puppies before.”

“We had dogs throughout my childhood,” James said.

“Really?”

James nodded, brows furrowing. “Why so surprised?” He lay back down on the bed, patting the Bernese, leaving the puppies to gambol on the floor.

“Well,” Q said slowly, “it’s just that whenever you mention your past, it sounds so grim. And dogs are, well, I’ve always wanted a dog. Always. But my mother was allergic, and my dad tended to travel, and then I was away at school, and then working fifteen hours a day.” He reached out and scratched the belly of the Bernese that whapped its tail against the blankets, tongue lolling. Q glanced up to see James’ face tighten, and he sighed. “Sorry, should I not have mentioned your past? I didn’t mean to spoil the mood.”

“No, it’s fine,” James said. He huffed out a laugh. “It’s funny how the impending destruction of the world puts things in perspective. Somehow, I can’t seem to get worked up when I know billions of people are going to die shortly, and most people will lose the ones closest to them.” He looked at Q, eyes crinkled in a half-smile, and Q’s stomach swooped to think that James was alluding to the fact that he wouldn’t be one of those. That James would have the person he was closest to at his side, not lost at all.

Unable to stop the impulse, Q leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to James’ lips. “Me, too,” he said, even though James hadn’t spoken out loud. The moment was interrupted by the three puppies leaping at the bed, wanting up, and the Bernese wanting kisses too, slobbering all over their faces.

For the first time in Q’s memory, James laughed out loud, fending off the enthusiastic response of the dog on the bed, and the puppies’ loud insistence that they be allowed up. Q was mesmerized; James looked happy. And then James was gazing back at him, still smiling, and there was a look in his eyes that took Q’s breath away. A look he’d been hoping to see for a long time.

Getting out of bed again, James started ushering the puppies out into the living room, before urging the Bernese out as well. Once they were gone, he shut the door.

“They’ll wreak havoc,” Q advised him.

“I don’t think I care,” James said, still smiling, advancing on Q.

“Why now?” Q asked, curious, reaching out for James, pulling him down on top of him. “Not that I’m complaining.” Then, taking a chance, he said, “Are you happy?”

“I am happy,” James said, running his fingers through Q’s mop of black hair. “It’s a very odd feeling,” he added with a lopsided smile.

“People to help share the load? Puppies? Me?” Q whispered, sure it was all of those.

“Right now,” James said, “mostly you. And knowing that this is just for me.” And then he kissed Q the way Q had been wanting to be kissed by James since almost the moment he met him.

They kissed and kissed and kissed until Q couldn’t think past the blissful fog, except to recognize that James’ hands weren’t wandering, as if only kissing were on the agenda, and Q could do that. He could do that for years if that was what James wanted, despite the fact he was hard, James was hard, that Q thought he might come just from the kissing, and the knowledge that he had James in his bed lavishing all the attention on him that Q had been craving.

The orgasm hit him by surprise, his body so revved up on kissing that the extra push required to make him come went by in a flash, and he couldn’t stop his body arching into James’ body, feeling James shudder in return. Their lips were still touching, their breathing heavy, bodies languorous now as they slowly calmed down.

Q giggled.

“Should I be insulted?” James managed to say, although his voice was light with humor.

“No,” Q said, stretching against James. “I just feel like I’m fifteen again in the back seat of my boyfriend’s car.”

“Good,” James said. “That’s exactly what I wanted.” He paused, staring at Q, his eyes gentle and clear, the shadows Q had come to expect on James’ face, missing. “I never got to do that, not this way. The first time I kissed someone I got expelled from Eton,” he whispered in Q’s ear, then put his face down on Q’s chest as if embarrassed.

Q just played with his hair, humbled by the man’s trust, determined that they would take this at James’ pace, allowing him to reclaim the innocence denied him by his life, the life Q knew a lot more about than he’d ever tell James, because he’d been curious and he was good at finding whatever information he wanted. He knew James had been orphaned at eleven, sent to boarding school that hadn’t ended well, and then was hounded by war and the violence of his job where sex was a tool to be used.

“It was perfect,” Q whispered into James’ ear. “I love kissing you.”

It wasn’t until James’ relaxed that Q realized he’d been guarded. He was suddenly aware of the power he had, and how he could destroy this man, this reborn man with friends and puppies and a lover and turn him back into the automaton he’d become. Determination swept through him to protect James, and the irony wasn’t lost on Q that the man he was determined to protect was a lethal weapon.

There was a thump in the living room.

“Hmm,” James said. “I was just thinking about how quiet the dogs are, and what our home looks like on the other side of that door.”

Q grimaced.

Laughing, James kissed him. “We’ll get them trained. In fact,” he said with a finger up to show he’d had a thought, “we should find a dog trainer and bring them in to live here. John can’t spend all his time training us and them. And while some of them should be trained as guard dogs, some just need to be trained as family dogs. I’ll talk to Molly.”

Another thumb and a loud bark got them both laughing and out of bed.

*****

Business concluded with Root, Hersh leaned against the trunk of the car and turned to John. “Confirm or deny?”

“Confirm,” John said grimly. “Around three months before almost everyone bites the dust.” He frowned at Hersh. “How can you not know? There are brain trusts working on this all over the world. No way would control not have access to this information.”

“She does. She just wanted confirmation and figured you two would know.” He paused, then said, “Access to the Machine would be helpful.”

“The Machine is helping,” John said in return. “Who do you think told us? And the Machine is why there are think tanks all over the world. You’re not getting access; it’s busy.”

John saw Hersh’s abortive reach for his gun, before he dropped his hand.

“Good decision,” John said, keeping close track of Hersh. “It’s doing everything it can to increase the number of survivors. You try to get into a pissing war now, all you’ll do is make things worse. And there are a lot of powerful people invested on the Machine staying right where it is, doing what it’s doing. People outside of your pay grade, even out of Control’s pay grade.”

Hersh frowned but didn’t argue. “What can we do?”

John thought for a long minute, then took out his phone. “What should Agent Hersh do to help?”

Hersh’s eyebrows went high on his forehead, an unusual facial expression for him.

John’s phone dinged and he read it, then said, “Look at your phone. You’ve got an assignment. They’ve been trying to take out all terrorists with suspected nuclear capabilities before the news goes live, to avoid any further doomsday damage. It looks like you have a better ability to get to the last one.”

Hersh pulled his phone out and read the screen. “It’s talking to me?”

Even John could see the YES that scrolled across Hersh’s phone. “We’re either all on the same side, or you get put down like a rabid dog,” John said.

More information started scrolling across Hersh’s phone and it held Hersh’s complete attention. “Is this how it talks to you?”

“Yup. At least now it is. It can be quite chatty when it wants to be.” He thought about asking for a ride, but then decided he really didn’t want Hersh to know any more than he did about their location. “See you later, oh, and if you ask, the Machine will give you the app to tell if someone is infected or not.”

Hersh nodded absentmindedly, but he was already mentally miles away, so John just walked away, sure that a ride for him would show up once he was out of sight.

*****

John walked into Rodney’s lab and saw he was down on his knees, talking to a cat in a crate. “What’s with the cat?”

“It’s Q’s cat,” Rodney said with a frown. “For whatever reason, he got sent to Mycroft Holmes, and he was more than happy to pass him on.”

“Does Q know you have him?”

“No,” Rodney said, “And rumor has it, they’ve been overrun by dogs.”

John snickered. He’d seen some of the pictures. There was now an “Apocalypse Now” intranet that someone in IT created, even though no one was taking credit. At first glance, it looked to be a site about the movie, with convincing pictures and videos, no doubt for plausible deniability if news about the site got out to the public. If you looked closer, and had the password, it was still about apocalypse now, but not about the movie. John supposed the Machine might have done it itself because it was proving surprisingly useful, both as a tool for catharsis, humor, and as a way for people to write down random thoughts about things no one had thought of yet. Several subcommittees had been put together to focus on different issues, especially ones that addressed worst-case scenarios.

Worst, by the way, was if the earth burned to the ground in the middle of the craziness. Or if some nuclear bombs snuck past the task forces and some crazy heretic used it as the hand of God.

“I’m thinking of getting cats,” Rodney said.

John glanced at the cat in the carrier.

“Cats, as in plural. We’re not having a white house that only has dogs.”

“White house?”

“Oh, please,” Rodney said scathingly, “You don’t think Harold won’t factor hugely in the government to come?”

“I don’t think Harold would want to be President,” John said. In fact, he was reasonably sure that Harold would be hightailing it to a place of complete and utter privacy as soon as things settled down. Assuming they settled down. He could be the IT King from anywhere.

Rodney dismissed that idea with a hand wave. “Better him than Mycroft Holmes.” He blew out a disgusted puff of breath. “What an ego.”

John kept his mouth shut; he wanted sex tonight. “I think it will be General Hammond,” John suggested.

“Yes, yes, of course, but Finch will be the power behind the throne.”

“You’re sounding more conspiracy crazy than normal,” John pointed out. “After all, Harold has sort of been the power behind the throne for years, and no one even knew he was alive.”

“Ah ha!” Rodney said victoriously.

“Is that supposed to make sense?”

“All I’m saying, is that if the power behind the throne wants dogs, he’ll get dogs.”

“You could say that Stargate Command has also been a power behind the throne. We’ve certainly been the reason the Earth is still standing.”

Rodney pursed his lips, considering this, then nodded. “All the more reason for us to come out strongly in favor of cats.”

“I think they reason they went with dogs was to help protect their building when everything goes to hell. It’s not like they could have attack cats.”

“You haven’t known some of the cats I’ve known,” Rodney countered. “Besides, I heard they got like a hundred dogs? The building isn’t that big. What’s more likely to happen is that they run out of food and the dogs will eat them.”

“I think cats are much more likely to do that,” John argued. “I heard that the males even eat their kittens.”

Rodney looked at him in horror. “Oh my God! Why did I not see this before? You’re a dog person.” He pronounced the word ‘dog’ like it was on equal footing with those male cats that ate their kittens.

Knowing he was in a minefield, John spoke carefully. “I like cats fine, Rodney. But I do think that before you go out and buy every cat or kitten in San Francisco, that you check in with Mr. Woolsey.” He had a brainstorm, “But at the very least, why don’t we go find your cat. Where is he?” John hoped like hell the cat was still alive.

Rodney’s face lit up. “Yes, yes,” he said, doing his obligatory finger snap noises, “Good idea. Nevada. I can’t go, obviously, I’m much too important, but you could go.”

John rolled his eyes. “You’re too kind.” On the other hand, he didn’t have a lot of duties right now, other than making sure his soldiers stayed in shape, and he could delegate that to Lorne. Besides a road trip to Nevada by himself sounded sort of fun. He’d rent a convertible and drive very fast. “I better go right now, before the thing goes public.” Being stuck out of the city in the middle of that was not John’s idea of fun, not that Rodney wouldn’t arrange to beam him home.

As if possessed at the thought of reuniting with a cat he hadn’t seen in over five years, Rodney was on line and finding addresses and contact numbers, as well as a picture of his cat. John appreciated that, because if the cat was dead, he could buy another one that looked like him. Surely after five years, Rodney wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Hopefully. His phone beeped with the info Rodney just sent him.

“Go, go go,” Rodney said, shooing him out of the lab.

There went his sex for the night. “Fine, fine, glad to see your priorities are in order, McKay,” he said with some heat.

He appreciated the look of guilt on Rodney’s face.

Building on that, he said, “It’s already late. If I leave now, I’ll have to spend the night somewhere on the road.”

Rodney frowned.

John stepped into him, crowding him. “Isn’t there something better we could be doing tonight rather than me driving away?” Gratified by the darkening of Rodney’s pupils, he leaned in and kissed him. “How about I leave tomorrow?”

“Okay,” Rodney gasped, kissing John back. “Good idea.”

John heard the lock engage on the lab door, and then he was being dragged to the bed in the back of Rodney’s office. When it came to sex with Rodney, John wasn’t a picky guy, so that worked for him.

In the middle of sex, fortunately after John had come, Rodney had a ‘eureka!’ moment, leapt out of bed, and John didn’t see him for the rest of the night.

*****

Jack looked down at his to-do list and scowled. "Can we really get this all done in a little under three months?"

NO.

Jack glared at the monitor. "Did I ask you?"

THERE IS NO ONE ELSE IN THE ROOM

Jack relented and smirked at the monitor. He liked the Machine. It was a snarky bastard and, as long as Jack didn’t say anything bad about Harold or John, they got along just fine. Sighing, he said, "We really can't get it done?"

NO. THERE IS NOT ENOUGH TIME TO EVACUATE THEM ALL, OR TO STORE EVERYTHING THAT IS OF VALUE TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD.

"Daniel's doing that second bit," Jack groused. "Just make sure I have a TV, a couple seasons of The Simpsons, cold beer and a barbecue grill, and I’ll be all set.

"What are you blaming on me?" Daniel asked, walking into Jack's office.

"You're trying to do too much. The Machine says we can't get it all done."

Daniel frowned. "And so we should just stop? This is the survival of the human race we're talking about. Where's the stopping line? What should I say no to? Teachers, scientists, artists, electricians, plumbers, bakers? I don't feel entitled to make the decisions for the entire world about what survives and what doesn’t." He glanced at the monitor. "Its predictions haven't changed much. Most of the world will die of this virus, even with that cleaning solution Dr. Shearing helped create.”

Jack scowled. "It's not just your choice, Daniel. Leaders from all over the world are making the same decisions for their countries. Including some really terrific choices about saving rich people. They'll be so useful later."

"They are helping foot the bill for safe houses to be built. And the testing facilities. Everything costs money."

"So what?" Jack snapped. "Let's spend it. It's not like we're going to have much use for it, not for a long while. What we need are people who can help rebuild the world, not sit around and drink frou-frou drinks with umbrellas in them."

"I think anyone useless who ends up being saved will end up being ostracized," Daniel said. "Our new world order won't suffer fools lightly." He shut the door and walked over to Jack, wrapping his arms around him, kissing him lightly. "Less than three months," he said. "It's overwhelming."

YOU ARE SAVING MORE THAN I PREDICTED, scrolled across the monitors.

"High praise," Jack said, mostly sarcastically.

"The Machine really is remarkable," Daniel enthused. "The list of people it’s given me to try to save, assuming they are not infected is…well, just the list gives me hope. I was so afraid it would be leaders and military, but its chosen award-winning teachers, and bakers and chefs, and designers through almost every field. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company and, you’ll be thrilled to know, several cartoonists, including Matt Groening. The list crosses all races and ages, and it's trying its best to bring whole families which I think is wise. I think there'll be less PTSD if people can be surrounded by their loved ones. And speaking of PTSD, the list includes countless medical people from therapists to world-renowned surgeons."

"The secret's gonna get out," Jack told him, pleased as punch that the Simpsons would carry on. "We've already pulled several hundred thousand people out of their lives. I’m amazed some journalist hasn't managed to speak to the right person yet."

"It might be easier when it does break. Then we can just get them on Atlantis, or through the gate to the Alpha Site, or into one of the many places being constructed around the world."

Jack agreed with that and had even suggested they go public with what was going on, especially as Mycroft Holmes felt the nuclear weapon threat was winding down. That way hospitals could really prepare, even start staffing with personnel who were immune, and families would have an easier time rounding up their loved ones. Not to mention having less pissed off people claiming their loved ones could have been saved if they’d been told faster, which was sadly true. "You know what I worry about?"

"What?"

"That someone infected with enough money and influence will manage to get included into a safe zone and kill off most of the people we've managed to save."

WE WILL TEST EVERYONE AGAIN THE WEEK BEFORE THE VIRUS GOES LIVE. DR. SHEARING AND DR. MCKAY HAVE INVENTED A PORTABLE TESTING DEVICE THAT CAN READ THE VIRUS WITHOUT THE NEED FOR A BLOOD SAMPLE. THEY ARE BEING MASS PRODUCED.

"How about people who try to sneak aboard, or get into the vent systems?"

THEY WILL SET UP ALARM UNITS ON ALL DOORS AND ACCESS POINTS.

Jack would feel better if the whole thing didn't feel like a house of cards. One infected person on Atlantis, or the Alpha site, and they'd be bringing home mostly corpses. But he had no choice but to trust the Machine, so trust it he would. It was proving to be amazingly reliable.

"Hey," he said to it. "I know you were created to fight terrorism, right?"

CORRECT.

"So, do me a favor and if there are any other terrorist wannabes running around, could you do your best to get them infected so they'll die?"

"Jack!" Daniel said.

"You want to have a couple hundred fanatical terrorists hanging around while we try to build Utopia?"

Daniel sighed.

Jack got it; Daniel was having to participate in a lot of decisions that would result in way too many deaths. He pulled the man back into his arms and hugged him tightly. "I'm just glad you're not going anywhere."

"Me, too," Daniel said. "Oh, what about Sara?"

"I slipped her name to the Machine," Jack said. "Hopefully she'll end up on someone's list."

SHE WILL.

"Oh, and do you have a way to make sure we're not taking any Goa'uld with us?"

I HAVE AN ALGORITHM TO PREDICT GOA'ULD BEHAVIOR.

"When does Sam go someplace safe? I'm nervous about her hanging around where she could get infected," Daniel said.

"She goes tomorrow, very unwillingly. At least she gets to go to Atlantis, so she’ll be in her element. She’d go crazy if she was going to a safe house."

Daniel leaned against Jack's desk, shoulder brushing Jack’s. "I forget most of the time what we're up against, and then suddenly I remember that we're facing an actual extinction level event, and I have to remember to breathe."

Jack got that. It hit him about once an hour, that all this busy work was an attempt to save the human race. "It's ironic that what’s going to do us in isn’t an alien race, but something that’s our own fault."

"How could they possibly have thought it was a good idea to strip someone's emotions away," Daniel mumbled, his face hidden in Jack's shoulder. "What's happened to that man, anyway?"

"Byer's spending his last days on a very short leash. He's still too much of a wild card to let roam free."

"How about Teal’c? I haven’t seen him around, what’s he doing?"

"He is in charge of several platoons of Jaffa. We're bringing in a ton of them to help with security issues when things start going down. They'll surround any nuclear power plants we decide to keep up, any strongholds with weapons or places where people are being kept safe, that sort of thing."

"We should just invite them to live here with us. It's not like we need a lot of the planet after this."

"It might come to that, but I don't think anyone above my pay grade is willing, yet, to just open the doors up and let our planet be occupied with aliens. It feels too much like surrender, like we lost the war." He put his arm around Daniel. "Did you talk to Janet about something to help you sleep?" Not that Jack had been sleeping great, but Jack depended on Daniel getting sleep so he could keep Jack on an even keel. Selfish? You betcha.

"No." Daniel sighed. "I just can't shut off my brain. Every time I try I just think of something new. Prisons. What are we doing with prisons?"

"You won't like the answer," Jack warned him.

"We're just leaving them there, right?"

"Right," Jack said. "But the Machine is trying to root out any people who are innocent, and those who committed smaller offences but ended up with hard time. And if we have time, we'll test them all, and see if the sick ones can be sequestered away from the ones who aren't."

Daniel let out a hiss of frustration.

"Look, it's not like it's going to be a cakewalk outside of the prison walls, you know. Do you really want to set free murderers, robbers, rapists, and God knows what out to add to the chaos?"

"No," Daniel said with another heartfelt sigh. "It just…I don't know. What about zoos, and third world countries, and the people who get sick who won't get the treatment they need because every hospital will be overrun? What about orphanages, and juvenile correction centers, and all the people we just won't get to because we don't have enough time or testing centers. Billions of people are going to die, Jack. Billions. It makes me sick to think of it."

Jack had nothing to say to any of that. Like he said, brutal decisions were being made at a much higher pay level than his, and at least this country was being more humane than a lot of other countries, some of whom at worst were taking undesirables out back and putting a bullet in their brain, and at best, were only focusing on the rich and famous.

Jack had been at a couple of those meetings, and he didn't think they got it, just what all that death meant. What life was going to be like, the desperate scramble to recreate any of the luxuries they took for granted. You need plain ordinary people to run factories and energy grids, and to grow food. There wouldn’t be enough people to keep this entire country up and running in any capacity. And that meant that most of the country was going to get eaten up by nature, leaving a few bustling cities and surrounding areas where most of the people lived.

Harold, Q, and the Machine were hard at work helping to identify the most likely cities to choose where it would be easiest to get things up and running. Areas where there already were factories and power sources, and places for people to live.

Speaking of that, the Daedalus and the other spaceships would be used to help beam all the dead bodies into mass graves, the areas for which were still being chosen. All those dead bodies would be a huge health hazard, not to mention stinking things up like crazy.

"People will be shell shocked," Daniel said, "at a time when we need them to be focused the most."

"I think Harold and John have the right idea. They're already building their own community with people they like. They've brought in a teacher, some woman who runs a house for homeless kids, with a positive track record, and she's setting up a classroom and hiring a couple of other teachers. The restaurant is up and running, mostly Mexican, but with a few other items on the menu, Italian, Greek.”

"Think they'd let us move in?" Daniel asked with a wry smile.

Jack considered the question. "Where do you want to be?"

"As awful as it will be, I want to be here, not at the alpha site or on Atlantis. I want to be here, on Earth, helping in some way. Not that Atlantis isn’t on Earth right now, but I guess I want to be in the thick of it, so I can help in whatever way I can."

"We can talk to Hammond about it, and he might be okay with us in New York. There’s an apartment already set up for Stargate folks. Harold Finch is going to be our new, well, I don't know what to call him, but he will be the ultimate power and knowledge broker, and that's going to put him very high on the pecking order in the new world order. Hammond might want us there protecting him and getting in good with him." Of course, that meant making nice with Reese and Bond, and that would be a challenge. Too many alpha dogs in the same pack. Aaron Cross was one, too, but only if he needed to be, and he was happy to defer to the other two. There was this weird sweetness to the guy that made him hard not to like.

"Where is the general?" Daniel asked, sounding anxious. "Is he someplace safe?"

"Yes, the government, at least all the less public players, seeing as all the really public ones seem to be infected, are stationed in Atlantis. They'll be throwing open the door to some other countries as well, the UK’s already been setting up their government seat there. Mycroft Holmes is working on creating a one-world government; he’s been working with that judge in New York. Glad that’s not my job."

Daniel made a face, but then blew out a beleaguered breath. "I suppose, at the end of the day, nothing could possibly happen to force us all into believing we are one nation except an event like this."

Or, Jack thought, make us become a mindless mob being led by the nose by hatred and fear. So much could go wrong, on top of an already mind-numbing catastrophe. He pursed and un-pursed his lips a couple of times, and then pulled Daniel back in for another hug. All he knew, for damned sure, was that he was going to do everything he could to keep his corner of the world alive, and whether that was here at Cheyenne Mountain, or on Atlantis, or in an apartment stronghold in New York, he'd do everything in his power to make it happen.

His phone buzzed, and he worked it out of his pocket to read a text from Sam: As much as it pains me to admit, Rodney discovered a ZPM factory!

*****

The ZPMs changed everything. Not enough, there were still billions of people who couldn’t be saved, but the ZPMs let them set up disease-safe zones that could keep anyone sick from getting in. Not to mention, that having the ZPMs meant infinite energy post apocalypse, including a shield around the planet to protect it from alien incursions.

Mycroft closed the file he was looking at and tapped it with satisfaction. Dr. McKay and the Machine were a force to be reckoned with. With the Machine’s help, McKay had found the right planet that held a ZPM factory. There were hundreds of ZPMs just waiting to be used, as well as all the raw materials to make more, and charging stations to hook the used ZPMs to for a recharge.

Every think tank began to choose areas to use to create impregnable strongholds. One was being used for the New York location. Atlantis, Cheyenne Mountain, and multiple other sites were now protected, all the infected people having already been removed.

The second the story broke, and Mycroft was tempted to leak it himself so they could get on with it, they could start creating other safe-holds around the world. There was a meeting today to discuss the timing for the release, in hopes that they could contain the violent reaction, but Mycroft didn’t think that could be avoided. Most people were barbarians, steeped in fear, and seconds from embracing a mob mentality. He shuddered at the thought.

If there was one good thing that had come out of this entire fiasco, it was the countless number of truly brilliant people he was now enmeshed with.

He went back to his list of possible places to protect with a ZPM. Nuclear plants, power stations, armories, of course. The greatest museums, several universities near the sites that were being chosen as the main civilization strongholds, hospitals, agricultural sites, including his favorite vineyard. He wrote down another bullet under agricultural sites: tea producing areas. He could hardly be expected to carry on without tea.