Actions

Work Header

Throw Off the Bowlines

Work Text:

Rodney loved wandering through a used mech shop. Servos, microchips, nanochips, Mark3 motherboards – there was a veritable treasure trove of parts and pieces to be had. None of it being fresh off the assembly line meant he could afford to get what he needed to keep his ship functional.

“Get ya a good deal on this one,” the proprietor said. “Just got it in a cycle ago.”

He gestured one grease-blackened hand at a droid that still looked intact. Human features, male, dressed in a black tunic and matching pants. Not unattractive, but Rodney wasn’t looking for a sexbot.

“Pass. I need some couplings for my hyperdrive.”

“This way.”

Rodney followed the guy down the aisle but found himself turning around for another look. Was he being too hasty? Even a sexbot had electrical parts that could be harvested and, if they were original, that would be even better.

He chose a handful of couplings that were in pretty good shape.

“The sexbot. It still works?”

“Fully functional,” the proprietor said, waggling his eyebrows and leering.

Rodney frowned. “I meant for parts harvesting.”

“Suit yourself.”

The sexbot was activated, eyes glowing hazel-green-gold as it powered up. The articulation was very good, its movements fluid and smooth as it stood and dusted itself off.

“Artificial Intercourse Partner, Model 71604. Please hold for internal calibration.”

“Sexy, right?”

Rodney scowled. “Just tell me how much.”

By the time he paid for the sexbot and the couplings, the bot was ready to move under its own steam.

“Let’s go, uh…” Rodney paused. “Is there a name you’re called?”

“My designation is John. But you can call me anything you like, handsome.”

“That’s enough with the flirtiness. Get a move on.”

Rodney didn’t care for sexbots. It was one thing to pay a stranger for sex, but building a body and slapping a rudimentary personality on it for the same purpose was creepy and gross. Naturally, the first real strides mankind had made in the field of artificial intelligence had been for sex dolls. Humanity needed an upgrade.

The looks they got on the shared transport back to the spaceport were expectedly prurient. It didn’t help that John insisted on sitting so close and looked so loose-limbed. Whoever had sculpted his body had done a fine job.

“This is your ship?” John asked when they got to Bay 22. He didn’t sound flirty, he sounded surprised. And maybe a little judgmental.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Rodney snapped defensively.

The Ahab wasn’t sleek or new or visually appealing, but he’d put it up against any other ship if they were going head-to-head on propulsion or maneuverability. Rodney had practically built it from the ground up from scavenged parts and countless visits to mech shops and shipyards and junkyards.

“It’s not very big. How many crew members do you have?”

“Just me. It’s fully automated. Anyway, I work better alone.”

“You’re not alone now,” John purred.

He put a hand on the back of Rodney’s neck, squeezing slightly, but Rodney shrugged him off.

“Let’s be clear. I didn’t buy you for your sex programming, I bought you for the computer bits in your brain.”

“You’re going to disassemble me?”

Now John sounded hurt, and Rodney felt unaccountably guilty. It wasn’t like John was alive. Taking him apart wouldn’t hurt him.

“It’s not like I’m going to do it right away.” Rodney opened the side panel near the entry ramp and did a hand scan to unlock the Ahab. “In the meantime, you can be useful and help me with these couplings.”

“I don’t have any maintenance protocols,” John said apologetically.

“Well, prepare to learn.”

The door slid open and Rodney ushered John in. Surely the sexbot could be useful for something besides sex.

*o*o*o*

Rodney studied the coding streaming by on his datapad, isolating various sections and altering what was there, or adding whole new sections. The datapad was connected to John via a cable running from the port behind one of John’s oddly pointed ears. (Just one of many interesting choices made by the sculptor, including a head full of cowlicks.)

John was in standby mode, the LED light embedded in his left temple flashing yellow, so Rodney could work without interruption. John wouldn’t have been able to answer any of the questions Rodney had, anyway, since they had to do with the creation of John’s artificial brain.

Why, for instance, was there such a large module for memory? Sexbot programming didn’t require it, and John’s was only half full. It was heavily encrypted, though. Very unusual. But maybe the programmer had some juicy techniques in there they didn’t want duplicated.

Maybe Rodney was making a mistake, not using John as intended.

There was also the issue of the humming. John was continuously humming, the same tune over and over. Rodney didn’t recognize it, and he couldn’t find the coding so he could delete it or at the very least mute it.

Once he’d finished adding his own programming, Rodney booted John back up.

“Artificial Intercourse Partner, Model 71604. Please hold for internal calibration.” John’s eyes pulsed as he calibrated. “You added new protocols.”

“I need you to do more than stand around looking slinky,” Rodney replied. He removed the cable from John’s head. “This way you can actually be helpful.”

“I am helpful. I provide a worthwhile service.”

“Now you can provide more. Like piloting us out of here.”

That visibly perked John up. “I can fly your ship?”

“You can now.”

Rodney got him set up in the pilot’s seat, and showed him all the gauges, buttons, and digital readouts. He’d programmed John with an advanced piloting protocol because Rodney wasn’t fond of flying and he wasn’t particularly good at it. Enough to get from one settlement to the next, and do a Gate jump, but not much else.

He only needed to run though it once, and John picked it right up. More surprisingly, he actually seemed to enjoy it.

Rodney sent a departure request to the Hub, and when he got a green light in return, he had John take them out.

“Trust the new programming,” Rodney said.

John executed everything perfectly, from the initial rocket burn to the thruster boost once they broke atmosphere.

“I’ll be in the engine room. Don’t kill us.”

“Thanks for that vote of confidence,” John replied.

Rodney lingered in the doorway a moment, watching as John ran the tips of his fingers over the various displays. For a sexbot, he displayed a stunningly wide range of human emotion. It was discomfiting.

*o*o*o*

Proper programming turned John into a handy assistant for Rodney, though the humming continued unabated despite his best efforts.

John learned how to help Rodney with engine maintenance, did all the piloting, and gave Rodney someone intelligent to talk to. In return for the companionship, Rodney tweaked all of John’s systems, fixing broken connections and upgrading his software so everything ran more smoothly.

The only blight on the situation was the seemingly uncrackable encryption on the original data in John’s memory module. That, and John’s insistent nagging.

“You’re too smart for this namby-pamby stuff, Rodney,” he said, feet propped up on the console. He was supposed to be piloting, not lounging.

“Remind me to re-write your language protocols.”

Rodney was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, datapad hooked up to the drive systems to run a standard check. He pointedly did not look at John.

“You’re avoiding the subject. Don’t you want to do something more important?”

Of course he did. Rodney was a genius. He had a case full of memory chips, each one maxed out with ideas that would revolutionize the fields of astrophysics, zero-point energy harvesting, and nanorobotics. It was all proprietary information, which meant he wasn’t willing to take the chance on sharing it with anyone.

It was lonely, sometimes, being on the forefront of a scientific revolution.

“What I’m doing is –”

“You’re a glorified handyman, Rodney.”

Rodney scowled. “It’s not too late to scrap you for parts, you know.”

The galling thing was John wasn’t wrong. Rodney did want more than just traveling from place to place, doing freelance tech work. His piloting skills had been holding him back – proper exploration meant going through regions of space that hadn’t been cleared for the Gate network – but now that he had a pilot he didn’t know what was still keeping him from realizing his greatest dream.

Rodney wanted to find the Lost City of Atlantis.

“You’re so tense you look more like a droid than I do,” John observed wryly. “A blow job would relax you.”

“What? No! We’re not doing that.” He could imagine all too well, though. John on his knees, mouth stretched wide. Rodney’s skin flashed hot.

John raised an eyebrow. “Why did you leave my intercourse protocols in place if you weren’t going to use them?”

“I haven’t had time,” Rodney lied.

“Maybe you need your own mental processes upgraded,” John suggested.

“I wish.” Rodney unplugged the data pad and tucked it under his arm. “I’m going to the galley. Don’t crash us into an asteroid.”

*o*o*o*

John started going along with Rodney on jobs, once Rodney had procured him some clothes that didn’t mark him as a sexbot. (He was just as sexy in a green jumpsuit, unfortunately.) It turned out things went more smoothly with paying customers when Rodney paired his brains with John’s charm.

“Hand me the –”

“Microwrench,” John said, already pressing it into Rodney’s hand. “You have very dexterous fingers.”

Rodney flushed, glad his face was hidden by the console he’d half crawled into. “Born with them.”

“You can do a lot with fingers like that.”

“Shut up, you horny pile of diodes,” Rodney muttered.

“Turn off my intercourse protocols,” John challenged. “It’s my core programming, and not fulfilling my purpose is glitching my neural networks.”

“Stop being so dramatic.”

“You want me, but you feel bad about it. Why not just admit it?”

“What is this? Therapy? Give me the control crystal.”

Rodney didn’t care to be psychoanalyzed by a computer he’d partially programmed. He wasn’t an introspective guy, never had been. And he was going to shut down the sex protocols at the next available opportunity. Probably.

“I see the way you look at me. You’re not alt-sexual.”

“You can’t tell that just by looking,” Rodney contradicted, even though in his particular case it was true. He enjoyed sex quite a lot, on the rare occasions he got to engage in it. “And it’s not that simple.”

“Your human brain complicates things it doesn’t need to.”

“No kidding. Can we please get back to the task at hand?” Rodney stuck his hand out from under the console. “I need the –”

There was a snap, a buzz of electricity, and the console exploded in a shower of sparks. Rodney yelped and covered his head, flinching when some of the sparks landed on the bare skin of his hands.

“Where the hell did that power surge come from?” Rodney barked, sliding out from under the console. “John, did you…John!”

John was lying in a heap on the floor, limbs twitching.

“Oh, no.”

*o*o*o*

John was face-down on the lab table, the back of his head removed and the access ports in his upper back and left thigh open. The large light that hung over the table illuminated almost everything, but Rodney also had a high-powered LED strapped to his head along with magnifying goggles. He couldn’t take a chance of making a mistake just because he couldn’t clearly see what he was looking at.

“There is little damage here.” Zelenka was working in the thigh, which housed controls for the lower half of John’s body. “Only one component to replace.”

“Good. Replace it.”

Rodney had been worried enough to get some help, even though that help came in form of his scientific nemesis. He and Zelenka had only met in person a few times, but their feuds were well known in certain sectors, and there was plenty of room in subspace communication for rivalries to grow.

John’s computer brain was going through a full diagnostic on Rodney’s datapad while he checked for damage to the upper body systems. A patch of synthetic skin that had blistered and burned needed to be replaced, and Rodney was carefully soldering the connections between the new nanocomputers that would give John function back in his right arm.

“What is that song?” Zelenka asked.

“What song?”

“The one you hum incessantly.”

Rodney hadn’t realized he was. “Oh. John was programmed with it, for some reason. Must’ve gotten stuck in my head.”

It was too quiet with John completely shut down. No nagging, no humming, no flirty comments. Rodney hadn’t realized how accustomed he gotten to the disruption John had brought into his life.

He was afraid John’s neural memory might have gotten fried. If that happened, John would be just another blank, unprogrammed robot. All the little quirks that made him John would be gone. Rodney tried not to obsessively check the progress on the diagnostic.

“Strange,” Zelenka said, still focused on the work he was doing.

“What’s strange?”

“Strange to program sexbot with random humming. Is not even sexy-sounding.”

Rodney had thought the same thing himself. It was an odd tic to give to a robot. It was annoying, the way the humming burrowed under his skin. Like being slowly eaten to death by ants. Why…

The connection, when it came, was as unexpected as the power surge had been, setting off mental sparks inside Rodney’s head.

“It can’t be that!” he exclaimed, sitting up and staring at Zelenka, the other man’s head grossly magnified through the googles. “Could it be that simple?”

“I am expected to know what you’re talking about?”

The music had to be the key to the encryption in John’s memory module! Why else make it the same song over and over again?

“Nothing,” he lied. “Just the possible answer to a problem I’ve been working on. It’ll keep.”

It would have to. Rodney couldn’t check to see if he was right until the diagnostic was finished and he could be sure the memory module hadn’t been wiped out. The unfair irony of that possibility didn’t bear contemplating.

“Very interesting,” Zelenka murmured. When Rodney didn’t respond, it said it again. Louder. “Very interesting, no?”

“Have you always been this chatty?” Rodney complained. “What? What’s interesting?”

“You like this sexbot.”

“His name is John,” Rodney snapped. “And what I like is having an extra set of hands to help me on the Ahab. That’s all.”

“He is companion for you, yes?”

“In the very loosest sense. Can we get back to work please?”

Zelenka nodded. “It is better not being alone.”

Rodney clenched his jaw and refused to respond. Had an alert gone out over the subspace network that he was unaware of, calling for open season on his feelings? When had his life become one big therapy session?

John was a mechanical aid, and that was all. Something for Rodney to talk to the way people sometimes talked to their pets, except he occasionally got intelligent responses. There couldn’t ever be anything more between them. John wasn’t alive, didn’t have feelings that weren’t pre-programmed.

It wasn’t logical for Rodney to feel so relieved when the diagnostic finished running and John’s memory module was still fully intact.

*o*o*o*

“I don’t know what it is,” John said, when Rodney asked him about the song. “I didn’t write the programming.”

“Okay. It can’t be the lyrics then.”

John was hooked up to the datapad again, but Rodney hadn’t shut him down this time. He needed to hear the tune in John’s own voice, because if the encryption key wasn’t the actual words, it was the notes.

“Hum it again.”

“I’m not a trained monkey, you know.”

“You’re not a comedian either. Hum.”

John hummed and Rodney listened. It had been a long time since he’d indulged in music – as a young Tau’ri he’d taken piano lessons – and it took him a while to figure out the notes. When he finally got the right notes in the right order, the memory module opened up like a flower.

“This is it! I knew it!” Rodney loved the rush of satisfaction that came with achieving a goal, and the anticipation of seeing just what he’d unlocked.

“So what’s in there?” John asked curiously. He leaned closer to the datapad. “Secrets of the universe?”

It was mostly more lines of coding, the algorithms and programming that gave John his weird personality. The sexbot protocols were in there, too, as well as all of John’s memories saved in compressed files. There was one other thing as well, separate from the rest and standing out like a beacon.

“Coordinates. But it doesn’t say to where.”

Rodney knew where he wanted it to lead, though. Atlantis. The holy grail of Ancient technology. There were rumors about it going back thousands of years, but no-one had ever found it. What else could be valuable enough to so heavily encrypt in the memory module of a sexbot?

And why a sexbot?

“John, do you know who did your initial programming?

John’s eyes flashed as he did an internal scan. “I don’t remember him. But he left a signature. Janus.”

Janus. What had he hidden away in John’s head? And why?

“You have an idea,” John said. “What is it?”

“There are only a few places worth hiding like this. The Ancient facility for manufacturing ZedPMs, for one.”

“And the other?”

“Atlantis.”

“What’s that?”

Rodney stared at him. “You’ve never heard of the Lost City of Atlantis?”

“I’m an Artificial Intercourse Partner,” John said patiently. “The focus of my knowledge is narrow. You should know. You’ve seen my programming.”

“Atlantis holds all the knowledge of the Ancients. Technological marvels I can only dream about. It’s the one place I could do my real work.” Rodney looked over John’s shoulder, imagining what that would be like. “I could change the face of physics forever.”

“So let’s check it out.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Yes. It is.” John unplugged himself from the datapad.

Rodney shook his head. “These coordinates, they’re not a Gate address. We’d have to travel through hyperspace. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? I don’t have a death wish, you know.”

John studied him for a long moment, and Rodney busied himself with the datapad, storing the information he’d copied from John’s memory module. He’d do his research, find out where the coordinates led without having to go there himself. Maybe it was Atlantis, or maybe it was some random place Janus thought was cool.

Not worth losing his life over.

“Does your hyperdrive work?”

“Of course it works! It’s in pristine condition. Well…As pristine as anything else on this ship.” Rodney tucked the datapad under his arm. “Now that you’re fully functional, get us off this rock. We have a job. I’ll be in my quarters.”

*o*o*o*

Rodney snapped awake the second the Ahab went into hyperdrive. He scrambled out of his bunk, cursing.

“John! You idiotic network of nanochips!”

He raced to the bridge without stopping to put his shoes on. Sure enough, the view through the front viewscreen was the trademark star smear as the ship hurtled through hyperspace. And there was John with his feet propped up on the console – Was he incapable of sitting up like a normal person? – humming the encryption key like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“It looks like you’re trying to kill us! Take us out of hyperspace!”

John blocked Rodney from the console. “No.”

“No? You can’t tell me no!” Rodney almost followed that up with a claim of ownership but stopped himself in time. Owning an artificial lifeform was fraught with uncomfortable connotations he preferred not to think about. Bad enough the news feeds were full of it. “I’m the one in charge here, in case you forgot.”

“You need to throw off the bowlines, Rodney. Don’t be so afraid of the unknown. Besides, dropping out of hyperspace early is what would probably kill us.”

“I’m not afraid!” Rodney protested.

That was a lie. He was terrified. Gate travel was a known quantity. The network was carefully mapped, the lanes cleared of dangers. Outside the network there were any number of things that could go wrong. What if they dropped out of hyperspace in the middle of an asteroid field, or a collapsing star? What if they were overtaken by pirates? What if they got lost and couldn’t find their way back?

“You’re supposed to help me,” Rodney said petulantly, hating how he sounded.

“I am helping you, the only way I can since you want nothing to do with my base programming.”

It was unfair of John to sound upset about that since Rodney wasn’t having sex with him for all the right reasons. It was getting harder by the day to remember those reasons.

“If we die, I’m going to kill you,” Rodney said.

Since he had no hope of getting back to sleep, he dropped down in the co-pilot’s seat and double-checked the coordinates John had input into the drive system. It was perfect, of course. Rodney had programmed him to be a top-notch pilot.

“What was that thing you said? About bowlines?”

“It’s something an old Tau’ri writer said. ‘Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.’” John looked at Rodney, his expression unreadable. “It means you’ll never make your big discoveries and change the face of physics if you keep treading the same ground over and over.”

“That Janus put a lot of useless stuff in your head,” Rodney said.

“It’s only useless if you don’t use it.”

Before Rodney could respond to that, an alarm sounded on the console and John was all business, feet back on the floor as he checked the monitors.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. We’re here.”

John began the process of dropping them back out of hyperspace, using the sensors to make sure they were exiting at the right place and weren’t about to die horrible deaths. Rodney was all nerves, eyes glued to the viewscreen, until they were back out in the vastness of space.

There was an enormous space Gate in front of them, easily large enough for a 300-class ship.

“Is that what you were expecting?” John asked.

“No.” Rodney magnified the viewscreen, but it was a standard Pegasus Gate. “How are we supposed to know the address to dial?”

“Maybe it’s the planet, not the Gate.”

Like all space Gates, that one was in orbit around a planet. Rodney checked the coordinates against the known Gate network, but nothing came up.

“We’re out of network,” Rodney said. His gut was telling him the Gate was the destination, but he had to be sure. “Send a MALP to get a read of the atmosphere.”

John jettisoned the probe and guided it remotely into the atmosphere of the planet below. Rodney studied the readouts as they came in, making informed guesses about the planet as a whole.

“The atmosphere is toxic,” he said. “High levels of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. I’m not seeing any major energy readings. If there’s life on the surface, it’s rudimentary.”

They were pretty far out from that system’s sun, so the surface was likely frigid and frozen, a chunk of lifeless rock.

“Which brings us back to the Gate,” John said thoughtfully. “Maybe you should hook me up to the datapad.”

“No. I’ve been through your memory module twenty times. There’s nothing in there that resembles an address.”

They both stared at the Gate through the viewscreen, and then Rodney stared at John. He’d held the key to the encryption, and the coordinates to their current location. Somehow, in some way, John had to be the source of the address as well.

Rodney just had to figure out how.

*o*o*o*

Rodney ran several different algorithms on the data from John’s programming systems and his memory module, looking for any combination of seven numbers that could indicate a Gate address. Nothing panned out there, or with a re-examination of the encryption key.

He stared resentfully out at the space Gate. Rodney hadn’t asked John to take them there, but now that they were, he was determined to see it through. Especially if Atlantis might be on the other side.

He startled when John’s hands dropped down on his shoulders.

“You need to relax, Rodney,” John murmured in his ear. “I can help you with that.”

He started massaging Rodney’s neck and shoulders, and Rodney didn’t hate it.

“This is no time to fall back on your base programming,” Rodney protested. He didn’t move away, though.

John’s dexterous fingers worked the knots out of his shoulders like magic, and Rodney allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to take John up on his continued offer for sex. He’d seen John naked, of course. Knew how beautifully sculpted he was, and how well-endowed. Surely he had top-notch sexual programming to go along with all his physical enhancements.

When John pressed a kiss to the side of Rodney’s head, Rodney turned and made it a proper kiss, damn the consequences and his inconvenient morality, and holy shit, that was good! If John was that good with his fingers and his tongue, what could he do with his cock? Or even his toes? Rodney wasn’t really a foot…

“Take off your shoes!” he blurted out.

John pulled back, confusion on his face. “What?”

“Shoes off. I want to see your feet.”

“I didn’t peg you for a foot fetish guy, but if that’s what you want, okay.”

John sat down in the pilot’s seat and kicked off his boots, which he kept unlaced. He put one naked foot in Rodney’s lap, pressing into his groin. Rodney pulled it up to get a look at the sole.

“Not this one. The other one. Come on!” he snapped his fingers until John obligingly switched feet.

And there it was, inscribed on the bottom of John’s narrow foot. His Artificial Intelligence Number. Seven digits tattooed into the synthetic skin, each one potentially corresponding to a different glyph on the Gate.

“You get off just looking at it?” John asked, wiggling his toes. “Weird.”

“Don’t be stupid. Your AIN, John. It’s what we’ve been looking for!”

“Oh. So…No sex?”

“No time!”

John’s visible disappointment barely registered with Rodney.

*o*o*o*

The space Gate spit them out in uncharted space.

“What was I thinking?” Rodney fumed, pacing around the bridge while John watched him from the pilot’s seat. “Uncharted space! Do you have any idea how dangerous this is for us? Anything could be out here! And we’d have no way to get help.”

“We can put out a mayday with the coordinates of the Gate,” John pointed out.

“It’s probably completely lawless out here!” Rodney continued, unabated. “We could be robbed, killed, set adrift. Well, I could. There’s always a place for a sexbot, isn’t there?”

“I’m your woefully unused sexbot. My protocols are set for monogamy. Even if you think a random gangbang will save me from being spaced.”

Droids could be made to look like toasters or made into such close human simulations it was nearly impossible to tell the difference, but nothing could give them free will. They were slaves to their programming, and slaves to the people who bought and sold them for whatever purpose they’d been created.

Rodney didn’t like how that made him feel, so he ignored it the best he could.

There was a loud ping, and John swiveled back around in his seat. “The sensor array found something.”

“Well? What is it? And how likely is it to kill us?”

“It’s a planet. Three orbiting moons. We’re not close enough for more detailed information.”

“Get us closer, then.”

Rodney hovered over John’s shoulder, watching the viewscreen. When the planet was close enough to be seen through magnification, it looked almost completely covered in water. Which meant it had a stable atmosphere.

When they were close enough to deploy a probe, the information it sent back was positive. Breathable atmosphere, low levels of solar radiation, and energy levels that were spiking off the charts.

“This is it!” Rodney said, his excitement canceling out his earlier trepidation. “This has to be it!”

John piloted them through the atmosphere and along the planet’s watery surface, tracking the energy reading to its source. Typically, finding it was the easy part.

“Can the Ahab submerge?”

Rodney shook his head. “Even if it could withstand the pressure at the depth we’d have to take it, the propulsion systems wouldn’t work. We’d sink like a stone and probably get crushed to death.”

Why was every step so difficult? The source of the energy readings was submerged far below the surface of the ocean they hovered above. If Rodney couldn’t figure out a way to get there, the whole trip would prove pointless.

“Let’s send the probe,” he said finally, after more pacing. “Once we have a visual, I might get an idea of what we need to do.”

Unlike the ship, the probe was designed to withstand great external pressures as it took atmospheric readings. It also had the capability to extract biological samples and ice cores for study. Rodney could make further modifications as necessary once he knew what they were dealing with.

“Atlantis,” Rodney whispered when the probe started beaming back images. “It’s beautiful.”

They could only see what the probe illuminated for them, because the city was on the ocean bottom, but it was stunning. Tall towers and spires rising up through the water and gleaming metallic in the probe’s light.

“It’s shielded,” John said, studying the monitors.

“Of course. That’s why it’s still intact.”

“Couldn’t we do the same?”

“No, we –” Rodney paused. The Ahab had rudimentary shields, to deflect space debris and give him a chance for a hasty retreat in case someone started firing on him. It had never happened, but he believed in being cautious.

“Rodney?”

He shook his head. “No time. Stay put.”

He ran to the engine room. If he could beef up the shields, and divert enough power to them, the Ahab could submerge. They wouldn’t be able to get through the city’s shield directly, but once they were close enough to it, Rodney could establish an air lock. He just needed to find the correct electronic frequency and align his own shield to it until they matched.

It might work. It had to work!

*o*o*o*

“You’re pretty smart,” John said.

“Very flattering,” Rodney muttered. “Do you have any idea the level of brilliance it took to put all this together?”

“Like I said. Smart.”

They were standing in the Ahab’s airlock, waiting for the shield resonances to sync up so they could cross over into Atlantis. Once that happened, the shield on the Ahab would feed off the city’s shield, keeping it powered up and safe from the deep-sea pressures.

Rodney was a bundle of nerves, so close he could taste it. Atlantis! It was the defining moment of his lifetime!

“What do you think we’ll find?” John asked.

“With any luck, the repository of all Ancient knowledge. Recharging ZedPMs. Time travel. The secrets of the universe!”

“Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you?”

Rodney shook his head. “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”

John reached over and put his hand on Rodney’s shoulder, lightly squeezing. “I hope it’s everything you want.”

The shields finally aligned, and the light over the airlock turned from red to green. Rodney had outfitted himself with an oxygen pack just in case the air inside the city was bad, and both his and John’s boots would automatically adjust for local gravity. Rodney also took the precaution of bringing a stun stick, in the infinitesimal chance there was trouble.

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Rodney couldn’t help thinking of his favorite childhood vidscreen program as he took that historic first step onto one of the city’s many long piers. John looked around curiously as he followed, but it was obvious he didn’t feel the importance of the moment. He had no context for it.

They started walking toward the nearest door. A task light bobbed along over their heads, illuminating the way.

“Their ships must’ve docked here,” Rodney said, eager to share his excitement even if John didn’t get it. “Loading and unloading supplies and people. Atlantis must’ve been a hub back in its day.”

“Why do you think it’s at the bottom of the ocean?”

“I don’t know. There are stories about a long-ago war. Maybe they sank the city to protect it, hide it from the enemy.”

“And then they abandoned it.” John may not have felt the actual emotion, but he sounded sad. Rodney remembered he’d been abandoned as well, left in that mech shop to collect dust.

“Well, I’m here now. I can bring it back to life.”

John turned, favoring Rodney with a grin. “You’re good at that.”

When they reached the door, it slid silently open and let them inside what Rodney surmised to be a kind of storage warehouse. It was vast and empty. The moment they stepped inside, John froze in his tracks and his eyes started rapidly pulsing gold and green and brown.

“John? John! What’s happening?”

“Un…expected…pro…gram…update.”

What the hell? Was it some kind of city protocol, still in operation after so many years? What if the update overloaded John’s systems? Rodney might not be able to fix him a second time, and for a moment he lost his breath.

“John!”

“Recalibrating. Stand by.”

John’s whole body twitched, like he was having mini seizures, and then everything stopped, and he blinked at Rodney.

“I didn’t see that coming,” he said.

“Are you okay? What did it do to your operating system?” Rodney pulled the datapad out of his pack. “Let me run a quick diagnostic.”

John shook his head. “I’m fine. My memory module is full.”

“What’s in there?”

“Instructions. I know where we need to go.”

“What do you mean, instructions? Instructions for what?”

The city was powered down for the most part, aside from the doors and the shield. The energy spike they’d read from the Ahab had been much bigger than that. Somewhere in the city, something was up and running at full power.

John’s tone was scarily neutral when he said, “I know how to bring the city back to life.”

Rodney hated to say it, because he’d mocked others who had, but he was having a premonition and it wasn’t a good one.

“How?”

John shook his head. “I have to show you. This way.”

John took the lead from there, taking Rodney down countless identical shadowy corridors and refusing to answer any of his questions. Rodney didn’t worry about getting lost, even though he had no idea where in the city they were, because the Ahab would act like a beacon.

Still, it would’ve been nice if the Ancients had taken the time to label things.

“You know you don’t have to do whatever the city is telling you,” Rodney said.

“Yes, I do.”

Rodney grabbed his arm, stopping John in the middle of another nameless corridor. “No. You don’t.”

John’s face finally lost the blank, unprogrammed expression he’d had since the upgrade. He smiled at Rodney.

“Yes. I do. It’s what I was made for.”

*o*o*o*

Janus, the man who’d built and sculpted John’s body, was a long-dead Ancient. John had probably been assembled right inside Atlantis, though there was nothing about it stored in his memory module. Maybe Janus had wiped those memories out.

Rodney still wasn’t clear on the purpose behind John’s construction. Why would an Ancient build a sexbot and send it out in the world? Why hide the coordinates to Atlantis in his computerized brain?

If John knew, he wasn’t being forthcoming about it.

“This is it,” he said.

John palmed open the door and there it was, the reason for the energy spike. The room was large and held at least twenty-five stasis chambers. All but one was empty, though Rodney couldn’t see who might be inside because the window in the lid had a privacy shield extended.

“Who’s in there? Janus?” Rodney got closer and tapped on the chamber with his finger. “What the hell is going on, John? Hey! What are you doing?”

John was in the middle of the room, tapping away at a console.

“I have to turn off the stasis chamber,” he explained patiently. “The man inside can bring Atlantis back to life. But he’ll need your help. He has the gene, but not the technical knowledge.”

Not Janus then.

“Thank you, Rodney. For giving me the chance to fly.”

Rodney abandoned the stasis chamber. “Why does that sound like goodbye? John, you need to tell me what’s going on.”

“All I can tell you is this is how it’s supposed to be. Once I’ve downloaded everything in my memory module, I’ll cease to function.”

“What? No! Absolutely not!” Rodney stood on the other side of the console, staring John down and trying to ignore the flutter of panic in his ribcage. “I forbid it! We can help Atlantis, the two of us.”

“Neither of us has the gene,” John pointed out. “You’ll never get Atlantis off the ocean floor without it.”

“Then let it stay here! I can work underwater!”

Zelenka was right, damn him. Rodney didn’t want to be alone again. John wasn’t just a pile of nanochips that knew how to pilot a ship. He was Rodney’s friend, as much of a friend a sexbot purchased for parts could possibly be.

Atlantis had been the only thing he’d wanted for so long. It was his dream come true. But somehow John had become part of that dream and Rodney didn’t see any reason he couldn’t have his cake and eat it too.

“This is what I was made for. It’s okay.”

It wasn’t okay, nothing was okay. But there was still a chance to make it right. Rodney moved around the console and got into John’s personal space. All he needed was a distraction, and then he could power John down and get him far away from the stasis chamber.

“You can’t just end it like this,” Rodney said. He put his hands on John’s chest.

John looked regretful. “I’m sorry you never took advantage of my intercourse programming.”

“Me, too,” Rodney replied honestly.

He slid his right hand up, aiming for John’s shoulder. The power switch was tucked behind John’s pointy ear, just above the data port, easy to access. Except then John was kissing him, and it was nothing like they kiss they’d shared on the Ahab. This one was full of passion and hunger, and Rodney forgot for a moment what he was trying to do.

A moment was all John needed.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling back from the kiss.

In the next second his eyes started to pulse, and the console started to thrum, and John went as rigid as the metal walls surrounding them.

“You asshole!” Rodney punched John in the arm, as hard as he could, but John didn’t even sway on his feet. “We could’ve found another way!”

His eyes burned and his throat was tight. When the data transfer was over, the light faded out of John’s eyes and Rodney caught his crumpling body before it hit the floor.

John was a droid. And droids couldn’t die. They could be powered down or scrapped for parts, but death didn’t apply. Rodney could get John up and running again. He’d need to figure out a way to extract John’s data from the Ancient console but given enough time he was confident he could do it. He could…

There was a hiss and a metallic creaking sound. Rodney gently laid John fully on the floor, hating that he looked like an abandoned doll, and peeked over the console to see what was happening.

The lid of the stasis chamber was opening, releasing a swirl of gas that had made up the internal atmosphere for the man inside to breathe.

No. Not a man. John.

Rodney scrambled to his feet. Suddenly all the strange sculpting choices made sense: Janus had made a copy. The original was now slowly blinking open his eyes and looking around, and when he saw Rodney his mouth widened in an achingly familiar grin.

“Hey, Rodney,” Other-John said, using the same inflection and drawl that Rodney had gotten used to hearing. “Give me a hand?”

Rodney shook his head. He looked down at his John, the one sprawled lifeless at his feet. How had he downloaded his memories into a living person with a human brain? That should’ve been impossible.

Other-John sighed and extricated himself from the stasis chamber. He was wearing loose white pants and a white tunic, but every movement, every cowlick, was familiar. He stumbled a little with his first steps, not unexpected for someone that had likely spent thousands of years in stasis. When he moved toward Rodney, Rodney moved back out of his way.

“I won’t hurt you,” Other-John said.

You already did, Rodney wanted to say.

Other-John came around the console and, when he saw his doppelganger lying on the floor, looked stricken. He knelt down, closing Droid John’s eyes.

“Thanks buddy,” he murmured, head bowed.

“I want to know what’s going on and I want to know it right now!” Rodney demanded.

Other-John got to his feet. “You already know most of it. The Lanteans were leaving, abandoning the city and the galaxy at the end of a brutal war. Janus left a safeguard, a way back for the right person.”

“Wait. You’re not an Ancient?”

“I’m just a guy who got lost,” Other-John said with a shrug. “Time travel experiment gone awry. I couldn’t go home, so I stayed here. The city needs someone with the gene to get all the systems up and running again.”

“But why –” Rodney waved his arm at Droid John.

“Someone had to go out there, find the right person to bring back to Atlantis. A droid had the best chance of sticking it out for the long haul.”

That all sounded very simplistic. Any number of things could’ve happened to Droid John out there on his own. A sexbot had a better chance than say a battle droid or a tech droid, but it was still dodgy. What if someone had decided to scrap him for parts, like Rodney originally wanted to do? What if his memory had been wiped?

Uncharted space would be charted eventually, but in how many hundreds or thousands of years? Would Other-John have died in that stasis chamber eventually, never knowing what had happened?

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” Rodney snapped. “And why did John have to suffer for your plan? Why did he need to be deactivated?”

“There can be only one,” Other-John intoned with solemnity before cracking a smile and shrugging one shoulder. “Or something like that.”

Rodney didn’t appreciate the humor. “What makes you so sure I want to help you?”

Other-John gestured widely. “Atlantis is your white whale, Rodney. It’s where you’ll reach your greatest potential.”

“I have some demands.”

Other-John rolled his eyes. “Of course you do. Let’s hear them.”

It was a long list.

*o*o*o*

One Month Later

It was a clear day, nothing to see on all sides but the blue, blue ocean overtopped by a blue, cloudless sky. It was quiet, but Rodney knew that wouldn’t last. They were ready to invite some new people to Atlantis, people who would be beneficial in finding all the secrets the Ancients had hidden there.

Some of them Rodney knew personally – like his arch nemesis, Radek Zelenka – and others came from Droid John’s memory module, people he’d met that would be a good fit for Atlantis. Information he’d gathered without knowing why.

“Doesn’t your brain ever mellow out?” John complained. He nudged Rodney’s bare thigh with an equally bare, and very hairy, knee. “Lesser men would’ve passed out by now.”

“I’m not lesser men,” Rodney replied smugly.

It had taken him a while to warm up to John. The one big perk in their relationship being that Rodney didn’t own him. They were both free to make their own choices, and Rodney had chosen to stop going through his life alone.

“So was all the sexbot programming based on your personal prowess?” Rodney asked, propping up on one elbow so he could look down at John. He wasn’t as flawlessly put together as his robotic counterpart, but he was still ridiculously good-looking.

“I’ll never tell,” John said loftily, but the tips of his pointy ears pinked up and that told Rodney everything he needed to know.

“Well, you don’t have the stamina. But I can’t fault your technique.”

John narrowed his eyes, and in the next second was straddling Rodney, one hand between Rodney’s legs. “I have enough stamina to get you off again, McKay.”

Rodney rocked his hips up, grinning. “Prove it.”

Several floors down, in Rodney’s private lab, Droid John was hooked up to a computer, his standby light flashing yellow as his neural systems were slowly being rebuilt.

He didn’t deserve to be left behind.