a memory and memory
It was too late to be angry with a dead man.
Years too late, but John crumpled the pages of Radek's private journal in his fist, the paper sharp and dry, crisp angles against his palm. He could feel his heartbeat in his fingertips.
Lorne was watching him from the doorway. He wondered what his face betrayed, and smoothed the emotions away, until only his officer's mask remained; the one he learned to use when he ran out of strength, after he gave up deflecting people with a smile and a quip. Then he met Lorne's eyes, silently forbidding him to ask.
With infinite care, John smoothed the pages flat again, closed the notebook and tucked it inside his jacket. He followed Lorne out to the gate room, where he stood straight and gave the eulogy for Radek Zelenka. His words went through the city PA system, for those who hadn't come to the gate room for the ceremony.
Elizabeth stood straight and watched dried-eyed as her husband's remains were consigned to the energy backwash of the opening Stargate.
They walked through the event horizon in the late afternoon. The Stargate stood in the middle of a plaza in the center of a city of red-bronze metal, glass and mirrors. Everything seemed just one degree off from true, twisted into angles that disturbed his sense of balance. Sunset flames reflected from every surface, long shadows cut black voids from the orange-tinted stone of the plaza.
John turned in a slow circle, fighting a strange vertigo. Where was Rodney? But Rodney wasn't with them this time. Zelenka was in his place and Rodney was on Earth. M34X99's sun hung on the horizon, larger appearing than it should have been, ominous red, bathing them all in bloody light.
He tightened his grip on his P90. Everything about this place felt wrong.
There were no birds.
Nothing but the wind.
He caught Ronon's eye and motioned for him to shadow Zelenka, while he and Teyla scouted in the other direction.
The Colonel walks the halls at night. I have seen him, so have others, but I do not think they see what I see. Even Elizabeth, who is wise and clear-eyed, does not see, but I fear she does not want to see or to know. There is no comfort to be offered; the years have not eased his pain. If only Elizabeth loved me like that, but I am second choice at best, third, perhaps, in light of that man who would not come to Atlantis for her. But I do not think she loved him, or would have loved the Colonel, in the way he did Rodney. My Elizabeth is practical at heart, a pragmatist, an artist of compromise. Her love is faithful, but should I die tomorrow, she would mourn and move on. Colonel Sheppard's affection does not shift or diminish.
I pity and envy him that.
you will (kiss me) go
They were so careful sometimes it hurt, because John knew all the care was for him. It was his career, his place in Atlantis, that they were guarding, keeping their secret. Rodney wouldn't be taken back to Earth in disgrace if they were discovered. He tried to tell Rodney how much he cared, how much he understood Rodney was giving up to be with him; he tried to tell, but the words dried up and spun away from him like autumn leaves. He could only touch Rodney's face, press his palms flat over Rodney's chest, taste him, swallow, lay his head on Rodney's stomach, rubbing his cheek against the soft skin over his navel. All he had were broken sounds and his body, to tell Rodney that everything, everything John was, belonged to him.
John slouched on Elizabeth's couch, idling rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, while Zelenka did an excellent imitation of Rodney at his enthralled-with-new-technology-and-discoveries best. The differences — height, weight, flashing glasses, floating Einstein hair—were nothing to the identical intensity Zelenka projected.
"It is a shield," Zelenka insisted.
"We have a shield," Elizabeth pointed out.
John smothered a grin. She was trying to remain calm and sensible in the face of Zelenka's excitement, but it was hard, and he was pretty sure Zelenka was her favorite among the scientists. John could understand why, he liked Zelenka himself. He was good guy, easy to get along with, probably as bright as Rodney but lacking the overweening ego. And anyone with eyes knew he had a huge thing for Elizabeth. She never had to give Zelenka hell like she did Rodney or even, John admitted to himself, him.
"But only one ZPM," Zelenka said. "This shield will protect and hide the city while using much, much less power."
Zelenka's whole face lit up as he began explaining his theory. John only half listened. He'd heard part of it before, back on M34X99, where they'd discovered the device. He was tired and his head had been pounding since about half an hour into the mission. It had felt distinctly wrong not to have Rodney there. He kept looking for him unconsciously, tensing when he didn't see him, then remembering Rodney was back on Earth, on the Ice, working on the command chair at Terra Atlantea. The repeated adrenaline spikes and the dim red light had left him exhausted and headachey by they time they returned to Atlantis, even though the mission had gone without a hitch.
Or maybe that was it, he laughed to himself. He was so used to things going wrong, when they didn't, he got nervous.
His gaze drifted over the collection of African art placed around the office. Everyone who had gone back to Earth after they got the ZPM and had contact again had brought back as much as they could. It looked like Elizabeth had finagled more cargo space on the Daedalus than even Rodney had. John had brought a longboard back with him. All those bits and pieces of Earth were supposed to make Atlantis feel more like home, but they didn't really.
Maybe because Earth hadn't felt like home, either.
He focused on Elizabeth. "Sorry."
"Dr. Zelenka wants to start running simulations, to see if we can link the shield from M34X99 to Atlantis' systems. Are there any military reasons why we shouldn't?"
"Shouldn't we wait until Rodney gets back and can look it over?"
"No," Zelenka snapped. His expression tightened into unhappiness. "It is not necessary that every breath be overseen by the great Rodney McKay."
John blinked at him. "Okey-dokey," he drawled. "Not my call, anyway. Right, Dr. Weir?"
It sounded like Zelenka was still a little raw over being ignored when they tested the Arcturus weapon the second time. Which he had a right to be; he'd been right and Rodney had been blinded by possibilities. John had been a little too concerned over the possibility of dying right there to consider if Rodney had managed to alienate the effective second in command of the science section.
"No, it's my decision, Colonel," Elizabeth said, a hint of amusement in her voice. She smiled at Zelenka. "And I think we can trust Dr. Zelenka to not become carried away."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"Ah, I am leaving to set up the first simulations now," Zelenka declared and left, trotting.
John shook his head, quirked a smile at Elizabeth and said, "Rodney is going to be really, really pissed, you know."
"I know," Elizabeth said, "but he needs to learn he isn't indispensable and he isn't the only one who can make valuable contributions here."
John raised his eyebrow. "We are talking about Rodney, right?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Let Dr. Zelenka have the spotlight for once."
He got to his feet. "I'll let you explain when Rodney gets back." His headache seemed stronger. "Is that it? Because I need to get Beckett to issue me a couple of Tylenol or something."
"That's it," Elizabeth said. "Go on. Get some sleep. You look exhausted."
He rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen some of the tension. "Yeah," he agreed. He hadn't slept much since Rodney left. He added, "Three weeks' leave anywhere sounds good right now." He grinned lazily at her. "Next time we open the Stargate to Earth, I'm going to be the first one through."
"You deserve the time off, John," Elizabeth replied.
He shrugged, then lifted his hand in farewell before leaving her office.
Zelenka manned the console Rodney usually commandeered. After six months, John was almost used to seeing him there. Streams of data from the city power controls washed over a screen behind him. Translations appeared on the screens of the laptops synched into Atlantis' systems.
"Power systems are stable," Zelenka said, tapping commands into the keyboard. "ZPM usage is within predicted parameters."
"Then we're ready to contact Earth?" Elizabeth asked.
Zelenka looked up. Scrolls of Ancient numbers reflected off the lenses of his glasses. "We are ready."
"Good. Edwards, if you would do the honors?"
Peter Grodin's Canadian replacement nodded and activated the controls one by one.
The Atlantis gate always dialed faster than the one on Earth, even dialing in to another galaxy. John rested his hands on the railing where the control room over looked the gate and grinned. Whatever was up with the Daedalus not showing on schedule, they were finally going to be back in touch with the SGC. He half expected that once they had radio contact, he'd be hearing Rodney squawking furiously at the other end of the transmission. When Rodney heard they'd melted a ZPM and had been forced to find another one, he would yell loud enough they wouldn't need the radio to hear him, even from another galaxy. And, God, wasn't John looking forward to that.
The comforting kawoosh had everyone relaxing slightly. John flexed his fingers, realizing how tense he'd been. What if they hadn't been able to establish a wormhole? What if something had gone drastically wrong in the Milky Way, too? Why hadn't the Daedalus returned? Once they were in contact again, the SGC would probably have as many questions as they did, along with some answers.
Elizabeth tapped the on-switch on her radio headset with a smile. She was standing in the middle of the control room, as she often did.
"Stargate Command, this is Atlantis."
The silence in the control room slowly grew stifling.
"Stargate Command, this is Atlantis Base," Elizabeth said. "Please respond."
John let go of the railing and came to near attention, watching the worry bleed the smile from Elizabeth's face, a frown replacing it. His heart thudded steadily faster; adrenaline ratcheting him into combat mode.
"This is Dr. Weir of Atlantis Base. Please respond."
"Edwards," Elizabeth said quietly.
"We're transmitting, Dr. Weir," Edwards replied, and he hadn't looked that serious since he took over Peter's responsibilities during the siege. "They're just not answering."
Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly.
"Bring one of the MALPs to the gate room, please," she said. "We'll send it through."
Elizabeth spoke quietly into her radio microphone while they waited. "This is Atlantis Base. If you are receiving this transmission, please release the iris over the Stargate. We are sending through a MALP to ascertain your situation."
They all waited tensely until the MALP rolled into the watery event horizon. Several screens were tuned to the MALP's camera transmission. It fizzed out as it entered the wormhole, flared white then faded to black. The radio transmission switched to static.
"We've lost all MALP telemetry," Edwards said. His voice wavered. "All data indicates the MALP has been destroyed. No response from Stargate Command. Either the iris is closed or the gate is buried."
"But it's still there," John pointed out. "The wormhole is open and stable." He began calculating the force it would require to blow the iris on the SGC Stargate and stopped himself. To generate enough power in the moment of impact on the other side of the wormhole would take an overloaded naquadah generator and there would be nothing left of Cheyenne Mountain.
"Yes, Colonel," Zelenka said.
Elizabeth's mouth went prim and pinched. White noise hissed through their ear pieces. John watched her walk to the overlook and stare at the Stargate.
"Shut it down," she commanded. Her voice cracked. "Shut it down."
"Zelenka," John appealed.
Zelenka stared at the data on the screen before him. He'd gone pale. His hands were shaking.
The light in the gate room dimmed abruptly as the wormhole collapsed, the blue glow gone with the hiss of white noise. Silence followed, unbroken until Zelenka cleared his throat.
"I think we must — " Zelenka stopped, blinking rapidly, his narrow shoulders hunched, " — we must accept the hypothesis that the effect we've observed on those planets we've contacted since the 'incident' has not been limited to the Pegasus Galaxy."
Elizabeth bowed her head.
"The Stargate on Earth remains, but we cannot access it."
"There's no one there to disengage the iris," John finished. He kept his voice level. He kept his face blank. All he could think of was planet after empty planet they'd searched, looking for any sign of life. Nothing but the sound of wind and water, not even a bird call. No voices ever, ever again. No SGC, no Air Force, no one; the Daedalus and the Prometheus hung in orbit somewhere or floating between the stars, silent and crewless. Everything and everyone just gone, wiped away without a clue left behind. The universe hollowed out. Wraith, humans, Goa'uld, Asgard, species John only knew by name and others humans had never even met, all extinguished.
Earth and everyone on it.
Earth and Rodney. All he could think.
"We did this," John murmured.
Zelenka looked stricken. "I— I— I didn't—"
Elizabeth crossed the control room and rested her hand on Zelenka's shoulder. "We did this, not just you," she said. She shot John a disappointed look. "Colonel Sheppard wasn't accusing you of anything. We all share the responsibility for what has happened."
"I wasn't blaming you," John forced himself to say. He was numb. He remembered this numbness from Afghanistan. It wore off.
He needed to be alone when it did, because he was going to shake apart. He had to get away from the empty Stargate and the control room with its black screens and the echo of white noise still in his head.
He took a step toward the transporters.
"John," Elizabeth called out. "We have to make plans. We have to decide how to deal with this."
He stopped, but kept his back to her, only turning his head.
"You're in charge, Dr. Weir. You give the orders. I'll follow them."
Just not now, not yet. He walked away. She was saying something, but it didn't matter, it was just white noise.
"Dr. Beckett has a matter we need to discuss."
Carson nodded to Elizabeth. He let his gaze skate around those gathered at the conference table. Teyla and Halling, John and Will Lorne, Radek and Miko, and his own second, Louise Biro. They were, for lack of anyone else, the leaders of the last of the human race. A fine group of people, intelligent, adaptable, healthy, and each of them had become a precious resource.
One of those resources was unlikely to cooperate with what Carson meant to propose.
He sucked in a deep breath and leaned forward.
"Our current, combined population on this planet," he didn't say this galaxy, didn't let himself think universe, maybe, "is eight hundred forty-three people."
Louise nodded, pursing her lips. She had worked on the same numbers with him.
"That's our gene pool, ladies and gentlemen. Think about it."
Teyla and Halling didn't seem disturbed. The Athosians had already faced facts. Carson and his staff had been playing mid-wife to a minor baby boom on the mainland. A subtle disturbance ran through the rest of the group, however. Will sucked in a deep breath; Miko ducked her head.
Elizabeth pulled one hand off the table. Radek looked at her and she looked away.
John stared at Carson without expression.
"Luckily, with the exception of a few older Athosians, most of us are within child bearing and rearing ages. But there is another problem we have to face."
"Another problem?" John drawled.
"Okay, tell us."
Carson glanced at Elizabeth. John wasn't going to like this. He couldn't read the man anymore. John had shut down tightly, running missions and commanding the Atlantis military like a machine, while acting the perfect, courteous officer. Concern slid off his detached reserve; his performance offered no excuses to push for more. Carson had discussed it with Elizabeth, but neither of them knew what to do for him. And now they needed him to do something Carson anticipated the old John would have balked at and this quiet stranger would flatly refuse.
He couldn't imagine forcing the issue.
Elizabeth gave him a tiny nod, urging him to continue.
"It's the ATA gene," he said. "None of the Athosians have it. Of our people in the city, only eighty-nine of us have it, seventy-eight as a result of the gene therapy. None of them will pass the trait to their children."
"We have to have people with the gene to run this city," Elizabeth stated.
"Can't you give whatever kids we have the gene therapy?" Lorne asked.
"Aside from the ethics of playing with the genetics of minors, with or without the consent of their parents," Carson said, "it's only a stopgap measure. It works less than fifty percent of the time. The results are never as efficacious as possessing the gene naturally. If we don't breed the ATA gene into our population now, we lose the opportunity permanently. The gene therapy uses a retrovirus to insert a sequence of genes into the RNA. That sequence only comes from someone who was born with it. If we rely on the gene therapy, two generations from now, no one on Atlantis will have it." He finished tiredly, "None of us are going to live forever."
"There's a comfort," John murmured.
Carson winced. "Colonel. We all have to do distasteful things sometimes."
John's eyes drifted down to his hands, folded and still on the conference table. Something that wasn't a smile lifted the corner of his mouth. When he looked up and spoke, his voice was light and toneless. "So, I'm being put out to stud."
Carson swallowed hard. He'd never seen eyes as empty as John's right then.
"What about Kusinagi and the other two women?" John asked. His eyes narrowed. "Are you turning them into broodmares, too?"
"Renata Finnegan married Lars Koenig last year. She's already expecting," Carson said. "Yukio and Eleanor Garvey have agreed to let me harvest their ova. There are several women here willing to surrogate host the embryos after fertilization. We can work out something where babies are adopted or fostered once they're born."
"Our people welcome children," Teyla said. "We will gladly take in any your people do not wish to raise. It has been our way since the first cullings."
Halling nodded in confirmation.
Carson said, "There just aren't enough of us with the gene to wait until you find the right woman, Colonel. If you refuse—"
John shrugged. "Fine. I'll come by the infirmary tomorrow and make a 'donation'. You can find someone who wants a kid and use a turkey baster. You don't need anything else from me."
They weren't going to get anything else from him, Carson understood, relieved and unhappy at the same time. John hadn't engaged enough to even fight over the matter, despite his clear distaste.
Radek caught his eye and shook his head. Carson fell silent.
John looked at his hands, his mouth still twisted into that not-smile, listening to the rest of the meeting, but contributing nothing.
(kiss me) you will go
Rodney was practically giggling when they came back through the gate. John kept wiping his hand over his mouth, trying to stifle his own laughter and the smile that was hurting his cheeks. Elizabeth's eyebrows shot straight up, of course, and John had to cough to hide a snicker. Rodney didn't bother, sniggering over Ronon and Teyla, who were twitching and surreptitiously rubbing anywhere they could reach. They were about five seconds from breaking down and scratching madly at what looked like a case of poison ivy crossed with hives.
John couldn't blame Rodney, because for once the universe had smiled and the feathery grass-stuff on M4B888 hadn't bothered either of them, but it certainly had affected Ronon and Teyla. The dusty yellow pollen had drifted up with every step, smelling like old attics and anise, settling over all of them and working its way under their clothes. It wasn't long before Ronon was dotted with red bumps and Teyla began itching soon after. John had waited for Rodney to start wheezing and complaining and wondered if he wouldn't be scratching himself raw soon, too, but neither of them so much as sneezed.
Ronon's efforts to not scratch during the negotiations with the locals had been distracting. Rodney's less than sterling efforts to hide his amusement had been even more distracting and John had never seen Teyla's mouth set in quite that expression before. He wasn't sure how he'd kept a straight face himself. Teyla had been positively curt and terse during the negotiations. She had made a quick series of excuses when they were offered tea. Ronon had actually groaned in relief as they returned to the Stargate.
Except for that, the mission had been a cakewalk.
He waved at Elizabeth, pointed at Ronon and Teyla, and herded Rodney toward the infirmary for their post-mission exam. Ronon and Teyla ended up staying the night under the medical staff's watchful eyes. Carson seemed almost as amused as Rodney to discover something he wasn't allergic to and sent them both off, telling them to shower and launder their clothes as a precaution.
Rodney followed Carson's instructions by dragging John back to his quarters, stripping them both, pushing John into the shower ahead of him, then pinning him against the wall. Hot water hit them both and sluiced off sweat and yellow dust. John settled his arms over Rodney's shoulders and sighed, caught between contentment and arousal. They just looked at each other for a while, because they could, because neither of them was hurt or scared or angry for once. Rodney's lashes were clumped into dark spikes, beads of water at the tips. His mouth curled into the smile John liked best, the one that made him hold still and let Rodney do anything. He smiled back helplessly.
It was supposed to be like this. Rodney pressed closer, using his weight to hold John in place, until he was between John's legs, plastered against him. It felt right. To hell with what anyone thought or what it said about him. He needed this.
He shivered and tipped his head back, letting Rodney lick the line of a tendon from behind his jaw to his collar bone, a hot streak of sensation following Rodney's tongue over his skin. Like that, like that, like that, he thought, as Rodney's weight held him in place, heat soaking into him.everywhere they touched, rocking against each other. He slid one hand down Rodney's back—wet slick warm skin—and along his side restlessly. Rodney licked his way up John's neck to his mouth and inside.
John wrapped his free arm closer round Rodney's neck and fell into the kiss, slow and deep, letting Rodney in, sliding his tongue along Rodney's. The inside of Rodney's mouth was — hot smooth sweet teeth tongue — familiar and welcoming. He kept his eyes open, watching Rodney's eyes go dark, blue and blind and dazed with just kissing; then got lost in the rub and rock — slip slick pressure pleasure friction tension more — and Rodney's fingers tightening against his hips, until Rodney's breath caught and they both went over the edge.
They dressed silently afterward, late to the post-mission debrief. Rodney pressed a kiss against the nape of John's neck as John bent to pick up a boot. Neither of them could stop smiling.
I am a selfish, selfish man. I have accused Rodney of this, this selfishness, but I am not immune. I do not think Rodney would have stayed quiet over this discovery, this knowledge, as I have. It disturbs me. Perhaps he would have brayed the truth to show everyone his brilliance. Yes. But also to help, to a find a way back. Even if it cost him what he valued most.
I am selfish. I know I would not have my Elizabeth if this had not happened or if Colonel Sheppard had been less loyal.
John snapped awake a half second before the alarms began wailing through the city. He felt the shudder that ran through Atlantis when the power dropped to a trickle from the back-up generators as the ZPM went off line. By then, he'd already bolted upright in his bed, sweating, his skin crawling, feeling everything twist and distort. He clutched at the bedding, feeling his bones and cells warping, then desperately rolled to the side and was sick. The acid bile sounded harsh, the moonlight hissed vodka sharp over the walls rippling inward, heat from his body deformed into the green alarms, and his rapid fire pulse smelled like cordite. Then everything steadied and seemed normal again, but still some how off.
He scrambled into pants and a shirt, shoved his feet into his boots, and donned his radio headset. He grabbed his holster and Beretta on the way out the door.
The gloomy emergency lighting they'd grown used to during the first year was back.
John headed for the power generation section, using the stairs, knowing the transporters were out instinctually.
He heard Simpson shrieking at someone before he reached the doors.
"What have you done!?"
Kavanagh's voice raised in indignation and fear. "Me? This wasn't my project! It's Zelenka's. I wasn't even in the labs. Damn it, you can't blame this disaster on me!"
"What disaster—?" John asked as he came through the doors, but his words dried up as he spotted the shattered pieces of Atlantis' ZPM glittering all over the room. Some of them lodged in the walls like spears of broken glass. Some of them were lodged in Radek Zelenka, lying on the floor in a growing pool of blood. Simpson crouched beside him, hands stained dark red, trying the staunch the worst of the bleeding. "Damn it."
Kavanagh's head whipped toward John. His hair hung in tangles over his glasses, instead of in his usual, meticulously neat pony tail, and he still had on pajama pants. A fire extinguisher hung from one hand, the nozzle still dripping foam onto the floor. He was crouched beside the shield device they'd brought back from M34X99, but not touching it.
Neither Simpson or Kavanagh had their radios. Simpson was wrapped in a faded yellow chenille robe. The bottom edges were trailing in Zelenka's blood.
John could feel the heat radiating from the eleven-sided mechanism all the way across the room from where it sat in a pile of fire retardant foam. It had been black and bronze in coloring. Now it glowed white hot fading to sullen red. A tangle of translucent, blue white leads ran from it to the power conduit from the ZPM. The conduit was burnt to smoking black ash. Dark smudges stained the wall and ceiling beyond it. More foam was sliding down the wall and dripping from the ceiling.
He hit the radio switch. "This is Sheppard. We need a medical team in the ZPM room ASAP. It looks like Zelenka was caught in a explosion in here."
Beckett's voice, hoarse from sleep, replied.
"On our way, Colonel. Can you tell me anything about Zelenka's status?"
"It looks like head trauma and shrapnel wounds. Burns on his hands and face. He's losing blood fast, so get a move on."
"He's in shock," Simpson said.
In his head, John said, Fuck.
He picked his way into the room and knelt on Zelenka's other side. His balance kept shifting. Something was really wrong, but he couldn't pin it down. He glared at the M34X99 device. It popped and crackled malevolently as it cooled.
He thought: Rodney is going to kill someone.
Simpson reached under her robe and tore away part of her nightgown, handing it to John, who used it to put pressure on another wound.
"Beckett, you need to get here fast," he said. "ETA?"
"I can't do much more than you can without my equipment, Colonel. Three more minutes."
"I hope Zelenka has that long," John muttered.
Then he began cataloging exactly what this disaster meant for Atlantis, because Kavanagh was right: it was a disaster.
He switched to the command channel, leaving a bloody smear on his jaw.
"Dr. Weir? This is Sheppard."
"Colonel." Elizabeth sounded calm, but a little relieved to hear from him. "Can you tell me what is happening?"
"Kind of," John said. "We've got a big problem."
"What kind of problem?"
"The ZPM's history and Zelenka's in bad shape."
Happiness is like water. Cup it in your hands, hold on, but it spills between your fingers. It can keep you alive and it can drown you. When you need it the most, it evaporates like a mirage.
Today the Colonel's team brought back a ZPM.
The relief everyone feels frightens me. What happens next? What happens if, when we open the Stargate to Earth, the only answer is silence?
What will we do then?
How will I live with myself?
Only vacuum is truly silent and no one can experience that. An X-302's cockpit was filled with noise that its pilot filtered out unconsciously — unless it stopped. An EVA hardsuit amplified the hiss and rush of every breath and the thud of each heartbeat echoed in your ears. Silence was death's footstep just behind you.
M4P673 was just like M4P572, M4P571, M4P564 and every other inhabited planet they had visited since losing the ZPM.
Silent and empty.
After the third empty village, they'd brought Beckett with them, as though he could find some explanation that the other scientists had missed.
"Plagues don't wipe out all signs of the bodies in a few short weeks, Colonel," Beckett snapped.
They were standing in the middle of a half-burned village.
"The Wraith must have attacked or — or something. Someone," Beckett added.
Ronon looked over from his examination of the blackened skeleton of a hut. "There was no attack." He stirred through the stone cold ashes with his boot.
John raised an eyebrow. Ronon didn't offer a lot of comments. It paid to listen to him when he did. Seven years on the run had made him very observant.
Ronon gestured to the hut. "Cooking fire. Something fell in and it spread. No one stopped it."
"All the people simply disappeared," Teyla added. "I have not sensed the Wraith, however. I do not believe they were responsible."
"We haven't seen any sign of the Wraith," John said. "Anywhere."
"Can't say I miss them," Beckett replied.
John nodded. He didn't feel like smiling. Something big enough to wipe out the Wraith, along with everyone on three planets just so far, just scared him.
"The Wraith harvest humans," Teyla said. "Not any other life."
Beckett's eyes widened and he looked around, realizing what had disturbed every recon team since the 'incident'. The silence was greater than the lack of human voices and noise. All the animals were gone. Even the insects.
You didn't know you heard them until they quit. The only sound on this planet came from the wind whistling through the conifers the Ancients had seeded Pegasus with along with humans. That only pointed out the lack of sound from anything alive.
"'And no birds sang,'" Beckett quoted.
John shook off a shudder.
Everything had felt wrong, just out of step, since the accident with the ZPM and the shield from M34X99. No one admitted hooking it up. Some people wanted to believe the device had generated its own connections, but John knew that was just crap. The burnt-out leads John had seen had been the same standard issue they used to connect their own equipment with Atlantis' machinery. Someone had done it, but, unlike Simpson, he didn't think it had been Kavanagh. The only one with answers, however, was Zelenka, and he was still in the infirmary, unconscious and unlikely to remember much of that night according to Beckett.
Meanwhile, John felt perpetually off balance, as though the walls were leaning in over his head, like a compass in a magnet factory. It felt like he was losing it. He kept dreaming of the way everything had twisted inside and out that night. He woke in his own bed, on the west side of the tower with the living quarters, shivering in the dark.
And the Daedalus was behind schedule. Three and a half weeks and counting behind schedule, even if they had set out on the regular departure date and not when Atlantis failed to make contact.
John didn't let himself think about that.
With Zelenka down and Kavanagh sulking, they needed Rodney back more than ever. No one else was going to figure out what had happened.
And John just needed him.
Today in the Athosian settlement, I saw one of the children conceived to carry the ATA gene. Teyla tells me that it is so; the boy is Colonel Sheppard's son. The mother is Nariya, a tiny, dark-eyed woman, who lost her husband when the Wraith were first wakened. Almost eight years ago now, but she has not remarried. Among the Athosians, that is not common. Ten thousand years of culling taught them to keep their mourning to a minimum and move on. Nariya seems to have found an acceptable way to avoid remarrying, by carrying and raising children for people, however.
I watched that boy today, in between working on the new hydro-generator and eating the meal Teyla insisted on serving, and wondered. If ... If we had never gone to M34X99, then that child, Jeil, son of Nariya, with his dark eyes and cow-licked hair, would never have been born.
Never conceived. Never dreamed of.
Teyla said the Colonel visits Nariya and the boy sometimes. I wonder if he smiles for his son.
you will go (kiss me)
Rodney slept like a stone. Off planet or in his own quarters, he was still in his sleep, quiet except for a soft, intermittent snuffle that John couldn't in all fairness call a snore. John always woke before him. It had become a habit to shower and dress and then pause, to just wait for Rodney to wake up when the room seemed to glow with the morning's light, the sun reflecting from the water, from stained glass, from Rodney's PhDs framed and hung on the walls, from the white sheet hanging tangled onto the floor. John never meant to stay, but he always did, until Rodney's eyes blinked open. It was so easy to smile then, before he went back to being Col. Sheppard, USAF, and all the responsibilities that meant he couldn't even acknowledge the truth except when they were alone.
Sometimes keeping it secret made it hotter, but mostly John just regretted every affectionate impulse he had to stifle. He didn't want to do Rodney on the conference room table, he just wanted to be able to touch him without raising eyebrows. Examining every gesture for the possibility that it might show too much left him so tired some days.
He listened to the marines crow and taunt each other and even the scientists and wanted to just walk away. But he still found himself at Rodney's door every night and it was so easy then, so easy to hold on and melt, until everything else disappeared. When it was late and he was tired, he told himself no one would care. Rodney didn't let him worry or think about tomorrow, and John stayed as long as he could.
It was too late to be angry with a dead man, but John ended up in Rodney's old lab, that had been closed for years, trying to find some way to handle the scalding, bitter betrayal he felt. His hands were shaking with it, his chest ached, pain running up his neck and down his arm, until he had to lean against a console and concentrate on breathing.
"Jesus, Jesus," he whispered when the pain eased back.
His knees still felt weak. He stumbled over to a bench and settled there.
All this time and Zelenka had known.
His hands tightened into fists.
So there was no way back, so they'd screwed themselves, couldn't the little bastard see that they'd needed to know the truth? To know, even if they could never see or touch it again, that the world they'd known and the people there still existed?
John wrapped his arms around his torso and shook. He'd been cold so long and hadn't felt it until now. Cold a coat couldn't help, not that he had one. He hadn't known he was coming here. He'd just tossed Zelenka's notebook down on his own desk and walked out in the corridors.
He'd kept moving until the city opened the doors into Rodney's lab.
They'd closed up this part of the city years ago and the ocean cold had seeped in. His breath fumed with each uneven exhalation. It made John's fingers ache. God, he hurt. Nothing was making that sharp pain in his arm go away.
John hadn't let himself come there for years, even when he roamed the halls of Atlantis at night. It reminded him of Rodney too much. In the longest nights, when he hadn't slept for so long the city began to whisper to him, he would see Rodney there. From the corner of his eye, John would glimpse Rodney berating someone, bent over a computer, or holding up some piece of Ancient technology, his face open with awe, soft the way it had been soft when he touched John. He fled the lab after that, afraid sooner or later he would reach for a phantom and break when no one was there.
He wanted to go back. He wanted to keep Rodney in Atlantis or walk through the Stargate beside him. He wanted to have handed Landry his resignation and walked into the sun outside Cheyenne Mountain and kissed Rodney, without worrying about anyone seeing. He wanted to have had the chance to wake up next to Rodney's sleep heavy body, sweaty warm where their skin touched; the chance to make love while the sun reflected off the water and filled the room and everything dissolved into white light.
He wanted to tell Jeil he'd been unfair, but he couldn't let himself feel anything or he would have gone insane.
He closed his eyes and eased back on the bench, realizing the pain wasn't going to let go.
I should not have done it. I knew it even then, though I never conceived the ultimate consequences. No, I let my jealousy push me into the most foolish of decisions. I wished for accolades and forgot the risk, forgot that failure meant more than a simulation that did not work. My mistake cost so much. We live, but we do not thrive. We are none of us what we were.
I think of Rodney often. I think it would not have taken him ten years to understand the mechanics of what had happened. I think, too, he would have done as I did.
Rodney was no saint. He was obsessed, egotistical, driven and competitive, unwilling to share credit or acknowledge anyone else could be right or that he could ever be wrong. It made me angry with him at the time, yet I know now I harbored all the same faults.
He would have connected the device and attempted to activate it. I believe that. Rodney would have done as I did, but he would have admitted it. Perhaps, afterward, he might have found a way to undo what had happened, once he understood it. He would have listened to the Colonel then and not ten years later.
It was never a shield. It was a hiding place and never meant to operate with the power of a ZPM behind it. It pulled all of us, all of Atlantis, and even the Athosians on the mainland, out of our own set of dimensions and into another, vastly different set. Yet most of us could not sense a difference. Our brains adapted, rendering the new into old forms we could recognize and deal with without going insane. But that adaptation denies us even a glimpse of what we lost.
We live within a mirage and a memory, a construct of symbols provided by our minds. We can never again see or touch what is there, sideways to us. It is not the world well lost, but us.
On bad nights, I try to fathom what our forms might truly consist of now. There must be some way we, as we are now, could be described by mathematics, could be conceived of in the dimensions we came from. I fear we are not even ghosts, not even memories. There is no way to know if time has moved at all in the 'real' universe or if it speeds much, much faster than I can imagine.
I dream sometimes of that red city, of its emptiness populated, and think that we walked among its people and did not see them. Even when we returned, we could not find anyone. Perhaps they found another way to hide. Perhaps they found their own way back.
Perhaps they faded away, knowing there was no way back.
I have decided I will tell no one of what I hypothesize. Yet I am too much a scientist, too much like Rodney, and I will write it down. Hubris again.
If the Colonel ever reads this, he will shoot me, I think.
i) kiss me, (will go)
"What? No kiss good-bye?" Rodney joked.
John gave Rodney a playful little push. "Go on."
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Rodney grumbled. "You know you can't get along without me."
John lifted his eyebrows. "Oh, I'll think we'll get along for two months, McKay," he said, laughing. "Zelenka can handle the rest of your people for that long."
Rodney still looked unsure and maybe a little worried. John met his eyes.
"Look, just get the job done in Antarctica. Apparently, they can't get along without the genius that is Rodney McKay. I'll take my annual leave and come through when we open the gate next month. We'll both end up catching a ride back on the Daedalus together." He smiled, making promises with his eyes, things he couldn't say out loud in the gate room, with two marine guards watching and the ripple of the event horizon throwing blue light over Rodney's face.
"A month," Rodney said, and not things can go wrong in an hour here or you touched me like it mattered last night.
"A month," John repeated. "You won't have time to miss me."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Please. Like I would ever admit missing you. I'm merely concerned for the fate of Atlantis without my expertise on hand to save the rest of you."
"Right," John drawled.
Rodney picked up his pack and walked slowly toward the Stargate. John stayed on the last step of the stairs. Two of the biology staff trotted past him, heads bent together, oblivious to the open wormhole across the room. Life in Atlantis went on; paperwork waited for him in his office. He rested his hands on his hips. He wouldn't leave until the wormhole winked out.
At the threshold, Rodney half turned back. He lifted his hand in farewell. John swallowed hard. He nodded. Rodney tipped his head back with that little half-smile, then nodded once, too, and stepped through the Stargate.
up into the silence the green
He was a good man, Lt.Col. John A. Sheppard. Everyone had told Jeil that. He thought it was true, but he'd never known his father well enough to judge. He'd inherited his height, his hair, and his ATA gene from the Colonel. Teyla said he'd inherited John Sheppard's smile, too, but Jeil had never seen that.
The closest to a smile Jeil had ever seen on his father's face had been when they found his body down in one of the abandoned labs. The Colonel had been lying on one of the flat benches. His eyes were closed and his mouth curled upward at one corner.
Jeil recited one of his mother's prayers, asking the Ancestors to take back one of their own, and rose from where he knelt beside the shrouded body on the gate room floor. He offered Teyla his hand, but she shook her head. She bent forward and pressed her forehead to the Colonel's for a long, long moment, before she rose without any help, still graceful despite her age. Her lips were pressed tightly together.
She let Jeil take her arm as they walked up the stairs to join Dr. Beckett and Dr. Weir-Zelenka in the control room overlook.
He listened respectfully as Dr. Weir-Zelenka spoke of the Colonel, then entered the gate address for a planet in another galaxy. Jeil had no idea what Earth had been like, but the wormhole's destination didn't matter, it was merely part of the ceremony. The Atlanteans were sent to Earth, the Athosians were sent to Athos.
The wormhole opened, quicksilver energy boiling across the gate room for an instant, consuming John Sheppard's body, before settling placidly into the ring, light rippling across it.
"Take him home," Teyla murmured, before the event horizon collapsed and the ring was empty once more.