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A Symphony in Starlight

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1.

He sits down at the piano, his fingers barely grazing the keys as he closes his eyes and tries to remember, because it has been far too long since he’s played.His hands settle into place, and he begins to play. Slowly at first, beginning with a few elementary scales and he skips through Chopin and a bit of Mozart before he finally gets it back, that old familiarity.

His fingers fly over the keys and music pours out of him, thrumming through his hands and through the piano, pouring into the empty room.

He has never played like this for anyone, never played to a room full of people, because it would be totally absurd. Dr. Rodney McKay, astrophysicist, so full of music that sometimes it hurts. He can hear symphonies in his head; can hear the music of the stars and the universe playing in tandem to his lone piano on this lonely, lonely planet.

Finally, he finishes, when he’s exhausted and his fingers begin to cramp from the strain, and then he cries because although he’d never played like this to a room full of people, Jeannie had heard him anyways, hiding in the next room over with her ears pressed to the wall, so quietly that the house had always seemed empty. He’s a little broken, inside, because maybe it just hit him that his little sister hates him and now, now he knows he’ll never be able to play for Madison the way he wants to.

Sighing, Rodney wipes the tears from his eyes and stumbles back to bed.



“Why did you even bother?” Her voice is quiet and bitter, with a faint trace of sarcasm which shows just how much time this particular woman has been spending with the marines.

Rodney doesn’t pay attention, because he’s working on a complicated series of calculations and he thinks – just maybe – he’s managed to crack the secret of how to reroute the main power conduits in the puddlejumpers back to the control crystals (thus, recharging the power source), and while this isn’t as great as learning how to build a ZedPM, its still pretty fucking fantastic.

“Everyone else here, in your city of the Ancients, thinks our beliefs are quaint.” The bitterness peaks at the last word, and she almost spits it out. “Quaint. Amusing. They do not believe but they are humouring us. Me. They don’t hear the music but they can at least see the beauty in nature and will believe for a few seconds of every day… but you.” She says this accusingly, as if it is all Rodney’s fault. “You don’t even pretend. You are so cold, Doctor McKay. So cold and emotionless and everything they said you were.”

Rodney puts down his laptop, stops working on his calculations because he can’t concentrate, with her there. Her name is Caldiana, and while he knows that it means something like “Symphony” were they to translate it into English, he can’t help but wonder why she is here in the first place. “Is there something you needed?”

She steps closer to him. “Why did you convince your leaders to trade with my people if you know that you can give us nothing we value, and that we have nothing to give you? Why did you even bother to bring us here? Does it bring you joy to see our beliefs mocked, do you take pleasure in deriding our most sacred beliefs? You, who cannot see the beauty in a sunrise, dare to look down on we who hear the music of the Gods?”

Rodney shook his head. “You… I… fuck. Do not talk to me. Caldiana, just… leave.”



She leaves.

Later, Rodney appears in the mess hall and sits across from the small group of aliens. Mostly human, but their beliefs and attitudes are so strange that none of the Atlanteans can bear the comparison, so they are aliens regardless of any biological and physical similarities.

“Doctor McKay.” Caldiana acknowledges with a curt tilt of her head.

“This is a piano.” He hands her the folder of papers with specific instructions, diagrams, diagnostics, and specifications for every single detail he could think of. “Look at the plans, ask the linguists if there’s anything you don’t understand.

Caldiana accepts the papers and stares at them, flipping through carefully while attempting to hide the look of confusion on her face. “I do not understand.” She says, finally.

“You’re right, Caldiana. The majority of people can’t give you anything you’d value.” Rodney stands up, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But I just gave you a musical instrument.”

Her expression is one of distaste. “We do not need musical instruments to harmonize with the heavens.” She tells him. “Our voices are the voices of the stars, and we sing accordingly.”

“Sure thing.” Rodney thinks that she is a bitch. “But I just gave you a piano, and your own customs dictate that you accept the gift.”
He leaves the mess hall.



Two weeks later, Atlantis has fallen into a routine where they merely act as intermediaries, trading fruit and grains back and forth and taking a small cut as their profit. It works well for them, and most of the planets really enjoy being able to get fruits, grains, vegetables, and herbs grown out of season.

“Doctor McKay.” Caldiana is back on some type of mission, and this time when she looks at him, her expression doesn’t seem to be drawn with lines of hatred.

“Caldiana.” Rodney nods and looks back to his calculations.

“Your gift was appreciated by my people.” She tells him, hesitantly. “But I am confused.”

“Yes?”

“Why would you give us something so simple? Surely...” Her forehead creases with the difficulty of communicating clearly. The linguist at her side makes a suggestion softly in the language that only crazy, caffeinated linguists or Daniel Jackson could have mastered in two weeks. “Why give us the piano, Doctor McKay? We do not know how to play your musical instruments.”

Without looking up from his laptop, Rodney tosses a small binder at her. The linguist catches it before it smacks her in the face, but Rodney doesn’t pay attention to any of that, just waves his hand imperiously and orders the both of them to get the hell out of his lab before they fuck up his experiments.

When he finally leaves at the end of the day, Caldiana is waiting in the hallway, leaning against the wall like a smaller, female version of a bored Colonel Sheppard. “Your musical notation system is interesting.” She says.

Rodney shrugs and grabs her hand, drags her down the hallway to the empty room that most people on Atlantis don’t know about.



It had started when a really bored lab minion wandered off into the engineering section and started talking to one of the equally bored marines on guard duty.“What I really, really miss.” The marine had stated, wistfully. “Is my guitar.”

“Why don’t you just make one?” the minion asked. “I mean, the only difficulty you’d have is calculating the fret distances, and I can just give you the formula for that.”

An engineer overheard and then wondered, aloud, whether it would be possible to make one of the larger instruments. “A grand piano.” He mumbled. “Who wouldn’t love a grand piano?”

“Didn’t McKay used to play?” The marine asked.

Perhaps Rodney would have been embarrassed, flustered, angry, flattered, if they’d done it out of any sort of affection on their parts. Instead, it was the product of boredom, of the engineer’s innate perfectionism, the marine’s carpentry skills, and the lab minion’s curiosity as to which materials would produce the best sound.

It was a full month after they’d finished the piano, set it up in an abandoned room with fairly suitable acoustics, and then moved on to more complex instruments when the lab minion – whose name was William Stewart – decided to mention it. “Oh, hey, Doctor McKay, there’s a piano in Lab H-106. I don’t know if you still play, but, it’s there.”

Rodney had been left feeling vaguely surprised. Two weeks later, when he’d finally gotten the courage to play, put his fingers to those pristine, untouched keys for the first time in fifteen years – it had broken him, inside.

Maybe it wasn’t the happiest day of his life, but it definitely wasn’t the worst. It was probably the strangest, though, because a lab minion, a marine, and an engineer had no idea what a gift they’d given him.



“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?” Caldiana asks, doubtful, as she stares at the sheet music.

“It’s a lullaby.” Rodney tells her, positioning her fingers over the keys. “And I’m not going to start you with scales – you’d be bored to death. At least this one is... sort of... music.”

“But, what is it about?” She asks.

Rodney closes his eyes and counts to three. “Atmospheric distortion on the planet’s surface interferes with our ability to see light matter.” He explains. “Stars, and other small points of light in the night sky, seem to be blinking in and out of focus. The light source is steady, but the atmospheric interference makes it look as if it isn’t.”

“And your people wrote a song about this?” She seems even more sceptical.

“No. My people wrote a song about the unknown, using the winking of stars in the night sky as a metaphor for understanding the unknown, just shut up and play the goddamn piece.”

She pokes the keys, one after the other, no sense of rhythm or timing, just plonking on one note after the other. “Twinkle, Twinkle” comes out as a series of beeps, each note resonating quietly in the air before another takes its place, but still merely a series of notes.

Rodney wants to tell her that she’s playing it like its math, but he’s not kidding himself – to him, music is math, and math is music – it’s all Plato and his save-the-phenomena except Plato could never really have understood just how beautifully it all fit together.

Caldiana shrugs and then looks at him. “It does not seem like much.” She confesses, although he can tell she’s intrigued, practically desperate for the knowledge.

“It’s a lullaby.” He reminds her.

Caldiana thinks this over, repeating the tune over and over in her head and with her hands, plonking down on the keys over and over again.

It all sounds the same for a few minutes, and then something clicks and it isn’t “Twinkle, Twinkle” at all, it’s the same notes in the same order but something totally different. The keys are the same, but some are held longer, some are pressed harder, and Rodney can see that she understands.

It’s like looking at himself at four years old, hitting keys on the piano and picking out tunes that his mother had used to sing him to sleep.

“Yeah.” Rodney nods, lifts her hands off of the keys, and then plays “Twinkle, Twinkle” the way it’s meant to be played.

Caldiana sits beside him on the bench, watching his hands, and then she puts her hands on the piano and plays with him.

It’s just a lullaby, but it’s a start.



The Aldi’Kryians are suddenly back on Atlantis, poking at machinery, asking questions about everything. One of them discovers an iPod, and then Rodney – their new favourite – finds himself answering questions about the Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion, before he realizes what he’s become and sends them to ask Colonel Sheppard, instead.

Radek sits near him in the laboratory, peering over Rodney’s shoulder as he reviews all the necessary calculations done for the shield maintenance algorithms. “That is wrong, must be Simpson’s work.” Radek points to one part of the screen, and Rodney corrects the coding and continues.

“You are very popular with Kryians.” Radek comments as they scroll through the area of calculations that Rodney did – Radek already checked them at least five times, there’s no way that there are any more mistakes.

“They have no appreciation for physics.” Rodney counters.

“And yet, they like you. Is strange, I think. Perhaps it is because of your charming personality?” Radek has always been able to give as good – if not better – than he gets.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Clearly, they only want me for my body.” Rodney manages to say this with a straight face, a perfect deadpan.

Radek manages to mimic his tone perfectly. “It is to be expected.” He nods, and then they notice a glaring mistake in Stewart’s ability to compute harmonic frequencies, and return to their work.

Neither one mentions that there are at least two non-English speaking Kryians sitting in the lab in front of what the military contingent quickly dubbed “The Alien Entertainment System” (although, officially, it is a cultural-exchange computer interface, called CE by the scientists) listening to the openings strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

Radek already knows that Rodney is the one who donated it to the CE archive.



2.

Caldiana and Rodney are friends, although nobody really understands why. The two of them rarely talk to each other, and when they do speak their conversations are all about music, about math. Caldiana mocks his belief in mathematical proofs and he mocks her faith in the beauty of the heavens until she points out the beauty in his math and he shows her the math in her sunsets.
He takes her into the room with his piano – and without a doubt it is his, nobody else in the Pegasus galaxy has even tried to touch it without his permission. The few airmen who can play go to the Aldi’Kryian home world and play their piano, giving short and amateur concerts for the natives, who gather around them and bombard them with questions after.

The Aldi’Kryians demand to know why, if Earth’s music is so beautiful, so few of it’s subjects can sing.

Caldiana never listens to the music on Rodney’s laptop, or the songs in the CE archive. “Why would I want to listen to music I can’t make myself?” she asks him.

“You still can’t play the piano.” He points out, and this makes her laugh. Instead, she sits beside Rodney and watches him play. Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, and sometimes just simple lullabies.

“I can play the piano.” She tells him. “You mean to say that I cannot play any of your music.”

Sometimes he plays simple melodies, and she joins in and matches the tone, the structure, the simplistic beauty of the piece. Even if Rodney can’t remember the notes afterward, it’s worth it.



In the Pegasus galaxy, getting mail was always a day for rejoicing. The Wraith could attack while the Daedalus was doling out packages, and the marines would probably have read their mail and gotten culled with a smile on their face. It was strange, how terribly homesick even the most macho of soldiers could be. It was a symptom of living so far away that you couldn’t even count the miles home.For video footage, most times the Daedalus separated the mail into two piles – the personal DVDs that were handed out with written letters, and the mass footage that everyone crowded around in the mess hall to watch on the projection screen.

“...so don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Smirks the identical twin of one of the air force pilots. There are a few catcalls, but this is generally received with soft laughter. The pilot flushes and grins, and then the next video is on.

“William!” A pretty brunette says, smiling shyly at the camera.

William Stewart, also known as lab minion # 46, sits up sharply and stares at his wife, addressing him on the big screen.

“There’s a lot that I wanted to say.” She tells him. “I sent you a letter, too... but, well. Your mom says hi. She wants to know why you haven’t written... I told her that you on the verge of an important breakthrough.”

Her eyes look kind of glassy, and Rodney wonders if she’s about to cry. He hates when they cry. It always makes his scientists miserable, and production basically shuts down for a week.

“But the main reason I wanted to send you this video is so you could see this.” She holds up a sonogram, and the entire room erupts into pandemonium, so loud that you’d need to be able to read lips in order to know the next sentence, but every single person in the room knows what they are anyways. “William, you’re going to be a father!” Her lips say, but the words don’t reach his ears as even the Marines have crowded around him to slap him on the back and congratulate him.

Dr. William Stewart looks shocked, elated, and vaguely horrified.

Rodney spends the next three days going over every single detail of Stewart’s file, every single detail of his contract, trying to figure out how to get him to Earth without him losing a limb, first.



Caldiana understands the notes, she can point to each one and know it’s name, know which sound it makes, but she cannot play it on any instrument. “It is too much.” She tells Rodney.

“Close your eyes.” He says, and plays the music in front of him without once having to look at the notes.

“I see.” She says, when she opens her eyes. “Oh, I see.”

She still can’t read the sheet music, but she works the other way and writes Rodney letters in musical notation. “It is a complex language.” She explains.

“This is how you write my name?” Rodney asks, looking at the page in front of him. It isn’t a tune, exactly, but he still thinks he could play it if he tried.

“That’s you, Doctor McKay.” She smiles at him.

“How do I write your name, then?” Rodney asks.

“It isn’t... your name.” She tries to explain. “It’s who you are. I can’t tell you how to write me.”

Rodney looks at the page in front of him again, sees the math in the notes, understands that she sees him not just as a piano teacher, but also as a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and so much more than she could possibly put into anything but music.

He understands.

“This is you, Caldiana.” He shows her, a week later.

Caldiana is four pages of sheet music. Her name, her music, is a sunset, a shooting star, and a smile where Rodney was the gravitational constant, harmonic frequencies, and string theory.

She smiles. “You understand.” She says.

Later, in the lab, she holds a whiteboard marker and begins to write, slowly, concentrating.

Rodney stares at her, because she still can’t read those notes and transcribe them onto the keys on the piano – but somehow he knows that doesn’t really matter, to her.

She fills three whiteboards and then stops, looking flushed and pleased with herself. “That is a sunset.” She tells him, pointing at one whiteboard after another. “That is the sunset on Atlantis.”

Rodney takes out his digital camera and takes a picture of each whiteboard before he erases them.



Stewart falls off a balcony and forgets who he is for two days, and two days are all Rodney needs to bully both Heightmeyer and one of the medical doctors into admitting that Stewart does, in fact, have brain damage, even if it is very mild.

“His brain plasticity is very good, though, so it shouldn’t cause any permanent disability.” Dr. Something-or-Other protests.

“He forgot who he is.” Rodney insists. “I can’t trust that he hasn’t forgotten some extremely important mathematical proofs, either. You wouldn’t want a Doctor in your infirmary who doesn’t remember going to med school, would you? And I don’t have time to teach him. Send him back to earth, let him get another Ph.D, and then maybe he can come back.”

“You’re being unreasonable, McKay.” Sheppard tells him.

Rodney ignores his friend’s disapproval and instead writes an almost enthusiastic letter of recommendation for Stewart.



It’s strange that the Aldi’Kryians can sing the notes and harmonize with each other, without ever needing to study the music itself. Caldiana teaches her sister “Sunset on Atlantis” and one day, when Rodney finally convinces their leaders to let him build them a small, shielded bunker to hide in from the wraith, they come with him as he installs the shield and tests it. They ask him about math and physics and sound waves, and he tells them everything he knows about harmonic frequencies and wavelengths and resonation.

When he turns on the shield – their new shelter couldn’t hold more than two hundred people, but at least two hundred will survive – they sing it for him, two melodies entwined around each other, and Rodney hears the last in his head, the melody that he suddenly realizes Caldiana wrote just for him, to play on the piano.

He thanks them for the gift, before he leaves.



“You don’t have to send me back to Earth.” Stewart almost begs to stay, and that kind of makes it easier for Rodney to just be more of an asshole than usual.

“You don’t belong here anymore.” He tells Stewart, watching his face fall. “Come back to me with a Ph.D in mathematics as well, and maybe at least a Master’s in something else. To put it simply, you’re qualified to be working in Atlantis, and I can’t even trust you to remember everything you supposedly learned the first time around. Get the hell out of my laboratory, you’re distracting the people who ought to be working.”

He turns around and ignores Stewart as he leaves, dejected.

Stewart is waiting, still and quiet and depressed, for the Daedalus to pick him up w hen a Marine walks by, claps him on the shoulder and says “Hey, at least this way, you’ll be on Earth in time for your kid to be born.”

“Yeah?” Stewart ponders this.

“Plus, if you’re working on another one of those fancy PhD’s, you’ll even be able to stick around long enough for him to start talking and stuff.” The marine adds. “That’s got to be cool, right? I was in Afghanistan when my daughter was born. It kinda sucked, not being able to hold her right away.”



Caldiana and Rodney are sitting outside on one of the highest balconies in Atlantis, watching the sun set. The sky is on fire with reds and oranges and purples, fading into the deepest aquamarine blue. Rodney watches the colours reflected on the ocean’s surface, feels the wind blow through his hair, and Caldiana reads his mind as she murmurs, softly. “Perhaps three melodies was not enough.”

Rodney agrees. “One for orange, one for red, one for purple...” He points at each colour as he names it.

“One for the green in the water.” She adds. “One for the waves, one for the clouds.”

“One for the horizon.” Rodney continues. “One for the sun.”

“And one...” She waves at the sky, the blue that can’t be described with words alone.

“You’d need an orchestra.” Rodney tells her. “You’d have to write a symphony.”

And it shocks him, really blows him away, when she stares at him and asks, quietly, “What is a Symphony, Doctor McKay?”

For a moment he’s speechless, and then he thinks about the answer for a few moments. Caldiana leans back and watches him.

He can’t explain in musical notes, in math, in words, what she needs to hear. Rodney wants to tell her that her name is Symphony and in that way her parents were right, because her entire life is a symphony. The math is in his head, he can prove it on a whiteboard with numbers and symbols and patters she doesn’t even want to understand.

Rodney knows that if he explained it to her, his way, she’d try her hardest to understand it. Somehow that doesn’t seem right, though, and he thinks of Beethoven and Mozart and maybe himself, of symphonies he can still hear and see with his eyes closed, musical strains tempting his ears as the math flows in front of him.

“Stay here.” He tells her.

It takes a while to gather everything together, but he comes back with a laptop and a pile of speakers, sets them up in silence and then finally, he sits back down and stares up at the stars in the night sky. “Listen.” He says, and the music surrounds them.