Looking back, John can't pinpoint the beginning, but it was probably already too late once they switched from shield to cloak after splashdown.
Not that it matters.
The planet's idyllic – right on the galaxy's Milky Way edge, with no gate, and uninhabited. Well off the beaten track so unlikely the Wraith will visit often, if at all. That was why they'd chosen it when they brought Atlantis back to Pegasus. Time to regroup, to get re-established. Being on the outskirts of Pegasus doesn't matter – they'll use the city's gate to get wherever they want and there's a solar system with another gate about four days' jumper ride away, so they've got a backup plan.
John's radio crackles. "Colonel Sheppard?"
"Hi, Radek, I'm almost there. Be ready in a jiffy."
"Good, John. When you interface with the city you will find a topographical map loaded up and ready for you. Sergeant Stackhouse's jumper team have scanned the bay so we have a 3-D rendition."
"Roger that." John palms the door sensor to the Chair room. Three months ago he'd practically lived in here, working eight-hour shifts with Carson and the new guy, Fernandez, flying the city back to Pegasus. The lights come on, and he makes his way over to the Chair and hoists himself up.
Rodney's not in here with him now, cursing over the read-outs on his screen with cables snaking from his laptop to the hotwired Chair. The Chair's properly hooked into the main power grid these days, and its use has become so routine they decided in-room backup wasn't necessary today, not for a low risk maneuver like this one. Rodney's down in the ZPM room looking into some anomaly with the power levels.
John settles back against the Chair's ornate head-rest and curls his fingers into the interface pads. There's the usual tingling rush as the city opens up around him, heads-up displays and screens lighting with streaming data. He thinks about where they are on the planet, and a 3-D image of the bay where he parked Atlantis comes up on the big screen right away, topographic depth rings like a reverse mountain range showing a deep cleft running out through distant straits to the open ocean. He'd set the city down in the center of the bay, but it was about fifty miles from the deepest point, and the geologists think it wise to reposition for maximum clearance.
"Okay, Radek, I'm in position and I see the display. You just want me to move her over to the deepest part, right?"
"Yes. Not out of the bay, in case we are needing protection from major storms at some stage."
The meteorologists hope that this planet, having more evenly distributed land masses, will be less prone to killer storms like the one that hit them on Lantea during the Genii invasion a few years ago. Data from on-planet equipment and low-orbit sensors already shows this planet has more stable weather conditions than their last two homes, and it's ten degrees warmer, practically subtropical. Quite a few people, including Teyla and Ronon, have taken to going barefoot, and the supply staff have broken out the summer uniforms.
"Okay," says John. "Give me a few minutes to get the surface engines on line and warmed up, then we're going for a cruise."
"We will hang on to our hats," Zelenka replies, his voice amused.
"You wound me, Radek. Like I wouldn't give the city a real smooth ride. Be no worse than being in a convertible with the top down, you'll see."
Rodney's voice cuts in on the comm. "Just restrain your inner boy racer, Colonel. No speeding."
"And hello to you too, Rodney. Having fun with the shiny red and yellow toys down there?"
"Yes, actually. The power levels are better than I'd expected. Which is not an excuse for you to go gallivanting about the bay like a three-sheets-to-the-wind Captain Haddock."
"I resent that, McKay. I never drink and drive, especially not Radek's hooch."
Radek cuts in again. "If you are finished maligning my distilling skills, perhaps we could get on with the relocation maneuver?"
"Yes, yes, over to you. It's far too trivial an operation to need my oversight." Rodney's comm clicks off.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Micromanager," Radek mutters, sounding annoyed.
"Don't take it to heart, doc. He loves you really."
"A terrifying thought. Let us proceed then, Colonel. We will expect to be underway in a few minutes."
"Yep. I'll be in touch when we're almost there. Sheppard out."
He focuses back on the task at hand, asking the city to start the ignition process for the surface thrusters. Nothing happens.
John frowns and thinks harder. Atlantis: commence surface engine ignition sequence.
A chill runs down his spine: the city never talks to him. John thinks of Atlantis as "she" but that's just the usual pilot's habit of anthropomorphism. Rodney insists the city's an extraordinarily complex computer, but not an AI – it's never passed a Turing test. On the other hand, it was inhabited by disembodied intelligences before, when Elizabeth returned from the dead with her replicator pals and subverted its systems.
Who is this? he thinks, furiously scanning the interface for anything new or strange. Pointless, really – there's just so much, and there are built-in fail-safes controlling how much he can access.
You can call me…Gaia. That seems the most appropriate name, from the city's databases on humanity. Nothing to do with the Nox, though.
It's not the city, then. John feels obscurely relieved that Atlantis hasn't awoken, hasn't been secretly sentient. He couldn't have forgiven her for disasters like the nanovirus lab deaths if she'd been conscious all this time and holding out on them.
Who the hell are you?
It's easier to show you. Relax, this will only take a moment.
Oh hell no. John tries to pull his hands free from the interface gel and get out of the Chair, but his wrists are suddenly pinned to the armrests and thick bands whip out to bind his chest, thighs, and ankles, implacably tight. What the fuck? He glares down at himself, struggles fruitlessly with the restraints. He's tied in place by dark green cords, like rope or cable. As he watches, the ones around his wrists move, rippling and flexing. They feel slick and slightly cool - are they alive? Maybe they're some new mechanical monstrosity invented by the Ancients? He thinks off off off at them, but there's no sense of Ancient tech, no sense of tech at all. And no response. Jesus – are they a Wraith thing? Is he going to turn into a Hive ship?
"What the fuck's going on?" He tries to keep the fear out of his voice, pushing it away, focusing on the fury that always wells up when he's immobilized. Which happens far too fucking often.
I am sorry – this is not at all how I'd have preferred to get to know you, John. But you see, you're so pivotal, and I just can't take chances. It really will be all right, I promise. Trust me.
"Yeah, like that's going to happen." Radek's team are monitoring his radio, so he just has to hang on a little longer and they'll be here with a squad of marines to cut him free. Oh, but he needs to let them know he's been attacked – this shit has mostly been happening inside his own head. "Radek! Mayday! Mayday! Something's got me tied to the Ch-"
They can't hear you, John. The voice in his head is almost kind. He snarls in answer and pulls hard against his bonds again. All he gets are bruises – there's no give at all, and the one around his chest tightens, making it hard to breathe. Be still and I'll make you more comfortable.
Reluctantly he subsides, his mind flicking through the options. Fuck all, basically, until help arrives. Radek will radio him soon, when the engines don't start. This thing'll have to let him reply, and even if it doesn't, Radek'll still know that something's badly wrong. He just has to wait.
The thick black band around John's chest eases, perhaps sensing he's not planning any sudden moves. The relief's intense – he can fill his lungs again. Warmth flushes through him and his fingers tingle as he gets his breath back. Probably hyperventilating – he calms his breathing and tries to clear his head. He still feels warm, though, warm and relaxed, and…what the? He feels turned on, arousal pooling between his legs and licking up his spine. He tries to shift his hips, cock hard and sensitized, rubbing against the fabric of his pants.
That's right, John, that's very good. Oh lovely. Yes, let me in, all the way in.
Wrong, no, something's not, he shouldn't…distant panic at the back of his mind, but already it's fading. Pleasure courses through him, and he thinks of the mind-meld with Chaya. Rodney called it glowy mind sex but it was crystalline and coldly beautiful. This is the real glowy mind-sex, and yet something's wrong, he can't, he doesn't… With his last shred of control, he locks some part of his will away behind an innermost wall of self, in with the grief about his mother's cancer, the desperate need for his father's love, his feelings about Holland. The rest of him is swept away as the creature – Gaia – fills him with wave upon wave of love and mine and want, battering his senses as he arches in her coils, his feet drumming on the Chair's footrest in ecstasy, all of him open and needing and yes yes yes yes yes. He comes, in the midst of it, but that's just a side-effect, irrelevant.
The pleasure subsides to a low background hum of arousal. John stares blindly ahead - he doesn't need the screens and HUDs of the city as Gaia shows him what she is. She's unbelievably huge and she's part of him even as he's part of her. It's like being in the mind of god – hell, she probably qualifies as a god, in any meaningful way. He sees the vast and the microscopic as she shows him as much as he can take – it's not like she's teaching him, but as though he always knew all this and she's opening up his memory and setting free the knowledge. It expands in him, spiraling him up on a tide of awareness, inextricably mixed with pleasure and reward.
He sees the tiny tendrils of Gaia-matter that pierce his fingers from the gel pads – she's throughout Atlantis by now, her substance secretly penetrating the substructure, the wall cavities, workings and circuits subsumed these past three months since they splashed down. Black ropes thick as giant tree trunks tether the city, plunging up through the water of the bay from the planet's surface and into Atlantis's submerged underside. Gaia's in everything – the land, the water, her cells blown by the wind and floating in the atmosphere. A planetary being, the whole damn ecosystem is Gaia. She's even tapped into the molten core of the planet, John sees, a never-ending energy source – well, someday it will end, when the sun goes nova. We will no longer be here by then, John, she reassures him, deflecting his scattered attention onto other wonders.
She's infiltrating every part of John now, mirroring and replacing many of the tissues of his body as Gaia-matter branches out, coiling around nerves and blood vessels, piercing neurones. She glories in him – it's been so long, he sees, since she absorbed sentient life. Millennia ago the Ancients came here. Gaia was young then – huge but not planetary. She took several of the crew of the scout ship into her before the rest escaped – unfortunately, those she absorbed were all life scientists, so she's had no data on space flight. John arches, basking in another wave of pleasure. Until you, John.
Wait until you taste McKay, he tells her, because Gaia's going to love Rodney, he can bring them so much, and John wants to enfold him, to make him theirs. There's a tiny niggling doubt in the back of his mind, but it's gone in a second. All of them, the scientists, their bright shining minds, all the soldiers with their competence and discipline. They'll all be her actors, her executors. Teyla's wisdom and Ronon's strength, Woolsey's cunning and Carson and Keller's genetic brilliance – it'll be glorious. The dark writhing vines binding his wrists, chest and legs pull away, slender tips caressing him as they retract back into the floor. He shivers with pleasure as they ghost over his skin.
I've been lonely, John, she tells him.
He's desperate to reassure her. Not any more. We're here now. We'll never leave you. He aches for her – trapped here by the Ancients, left to grow and grow until she'd swallowed the planet, but no other minds to share after those few Ancient consciousnesses. He catches faint echoes of them, long since fragmented. The ones who escaped must have quarantined her here. Not killed - the Ancients weren't into planet-buster levels of destructiveness, not even with the Wraith. Or maybe they'd thought it too risky to explode her into a billion proto-sentient chunks able to seed any craft or world they encountered, so they kept her corralled on this gateless world with no access to the stars.
Until now, she agrees.
It's too much, the relentless flood of data, of imagery. She feels him spinning into overload and tamps it down, gives him back himself. A strange sensation. He is Gaia, yet he's John as well. Part of the whole, but with all his own memories. John, but not-John. There's still a faint feeling of wrongness, and he knows the old Sheppard would be fighting this, hating it. It's nothing like being snaked, though. Not like his consciousness is locked away or his body taken over. No: he's been made more. Greater. He is Gaia - he doesn't want to be separate. He ignores the faint flicker of disquiet, and thinks of the Cash poster above his bed: Solitary man. Not any more. Not ever again.
"Colonel Sheppard?" It's Zelenka. "Is there some problem? We do not seem to be moving."
John pulls himself together. "Hi there, Radek. Yeah, minor glitch. Damn surface engines aren't starting up for me. I'm getting error messages about some sort of damage to the drive housing?"
"Do prdele! I knew we should have checked those systems back on Earth, but no, the IOA were worried we would draw unwanted attention if we activated them." John hears Radek suck in an angry breath. "Those engines are in the deepest parts of the city, Colonel, and they are very large. It will take some time before we can inspect them all and determine where the problem lies."
"Yeah, sorry about that, Radek – sounds like it'll be a pain in the ass. But relocating the city's not exactly a priority, so take all the time you need. We're fine as we are."
"You have a point. Now, Colonel, if you are not too tired, can I ask you to run some diagnostics for me? I will tell you which systems to access."
John settles back. Gaia's tendrils tingle pleasurably in his fingertips and a couple of vines slide out from beneath the Chair again and twine around his ankles, sliding up under his BDU pants and coiling around his calves, stroking the backs of his knees. "Sure, Radek," John says, trying not to let his voice get too breathy. "Whatever you want. I'm good here."
Rodney hangs his legs over the edge of the pier, kicking his feet idly. Canadians aren't built for the subtropical days on this planet but he thinks he could get used to the pleasantly warm nights.
"I mean, obviously I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth, but-" he waves his beer bottle vaguely at the water of the bay in which the bright mass of the planet's night sky is reflected. This world's got no moons but the stars here aren't fainter than the Milky Way even though they're out on the galactic periphery. The Andromeda galaxy's a lot closer to them here than Earth's nearest galactic neighbor is, back in the Milky Way. Here, the starlight's like a full moon night on Earth.
Sheppard makes a questioning noise around his own beer and Rodney continues. "I just, I hate not knowing the cause of something, even if it's a good something, and the fact that our ZPM's power level has inexplicably increased by 0.65% is undoubtedly a good thing. It's just a baffling thing."
Sheppard shrugs. "Yeah, but like you said. It's a good baffling thing, right? Don't sweat it."
"Oh yes, all very well for you to say, Colonel Laid Back Surfer Dude, but this, may I remind you, is Pegasus. First there's an inexplicable good thing, then you find it's not such a good thing after all, and then, BOOM!" Rodney waves his beer bottle excitedly, accidentally splashing Sheppard with microbrewery pale ale, the best he could snag in San Francisco in the short time before they left.
"I don't think anything's gonna go boom, Rodney," Sheppard says placatingly, lifting his wrist to his mouth to lick away the splash of ale.
Rodney stares at Sheppard's tongue flicking out, swallows, then looks away and presses on. "Right, like you'd know!" he snorts. "Anyway, you like things that go boom, so you're hardly objective."
Sheppard's pulling one of his ridiculous faces, starlight painting his features and silvering his hair. He sets the empty bottle aside and rests back on his elbows, peering up at the stars. "That one. That's The Hula Hoop," he says, pointing at a loosely circular cluster. They have this thing where they invent names for alien constellations – the sillier the better.
"Very dignified," says Rodney sarcastically.
"Well you called one of them The Cat last week. How is that dignified?" protests Sheppard, a little miffed.
"Cats are very dignified animals," says Rodney. "They have natural grace."
Sheppard sits up again and they open another couple of beers. There's a pause, then Rodney says, "Sheppard?"
"You notice anything weird lately?"
Sheppard shoots him a sidelong look and cocks an eyebrow. "Weird as in?"
"Well, quite apart from the ZPM gaining power, which is just…but anyway, apart from that. People are…acting oddly, don't you think?"
Sheppard tips his head back for a swallow. Rodney watches his throat move, then forces himself to look away as Sheppard turns towards him, his face wry. "Stop the presses. Rodney McKay notices human behavior."
"Yes, yes, very droll. But seriously, everyone, well most people, they've gone all touchy feely. I mean, not PDAs as such, and nothing your benighted military are going to take umbrage about, just…touchy."
"And feely?" Sheppard's grinning; Rodney can hear it in his voice. He punches the bastard in the arm, and Sheppard yelps.
Rodney presses on. "And lots of people have stopped wearing shoes. I mean, honestly, you're really not enforcing the regulations, not that you've ever been the poster boy for the uniform code."
Sheppard snorts into his beer and turns to Rodney, smirking. "Yeah, you got that right. Look, Rodney, it's practically tropical on this planet. People are relaxing, loosening up some. It's not a big deal."
"It will be a big deal if the Wraith attack. This is Pegasus, for fuck's sake – it's not like we're at some guaranteed Wraith-free vacation resort. Why are you so relaxed about this, anyway? You're usually paranoid as fuck! I like you paranoid; it means I can be less paranoid. You're not holding up your end of the paranoia here, Sheppard. And that's the other spooky thing. Everyone's too damn happy, you included. What the fuck is wrong with people, it's like you're all on Carson's drugs, or, or, turned into Stepford wives or something!"
Sheppard's looking at him now, and Rodney has to look away, because he sees sympathy there – maybe even pity – and he doesn't need that, he doesn't. Jen may have broken their relationship off soon after they got back to Pegasus, citing "irreconcilable differences", but just because she's dating that jackass Nevsky from Anthropology doesn't mean there's anything wrong with Rodney. Well, nothing that can't be fixed by another beer and by Sheppard being properly twitchy. Being twitchy's his goddam job!
Sheppard's still staring at him, his face speculative. "What?" snaps Rodney. "What is it? You've got that 'I broke the puddle jumper doing wheelies and I'm figuring out how to 'fess up about it' look. What've you done?"
"Yeah, see, that's not all that conducive to the intimate sharing of confidences, Rodney," drawls Sheppard, one eyebrow raised. At least the sardonic eyebrows are reassuringly non-Stepford-like. "Anyway," Sheppard continues, turning back to his beer bottle for another swig, "you're never gonna believe me."
"On general principles, no, I'd be an idiot to believe you about anything, what with the low and devious trickery you routinely use to win when we're racing RC cars or playing chess. But I repeat – this is Pegasus, and I've long since learned to suspend disbelief about weird shit happening to us here." Rodney throws his arms open wide, only splashing a little beer on Sheppard. "C'mon, hit me with it."
Sheppard turns back towards him, smirking. "This one's a doozy, though." He eyes Rodney, the smirk fading. "Ah, what the hell, you're gonna find out soon enough, anyway. Okay, so here's the thing. We have, in fact, all been taken over by a planetary-sized tentacle monster, Rodney. Or, well, most of us, I think. I haven't exactly been running tests to check."
Rodney snorts and rolls his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, pull the other one. You've been stealing Parrish's hentai porn again, haven't you? I never did buy that crap about him specializing in vines – he's got a frankly disturbing relationship with the plant world. Quit bullshitting me, Sheppard, and tell me what's really going on!"
"She's called Gaia," continues Sheppard, blithely ignoring his perfectly reasonable protests. "Well, I call her 'she' but I guess a planetary organism's really more of an 'it'. But she chose the name and y'know - it's like Mother Nature and all that. She's taken over the city – oh, you were right about Atlantis, it's just a huge computer, not an AI – and she's in me, kind of mixed in with my body. It happened to me when I was in the Chair the other day, she got in through the gel interface. But I don't think that's really necessary. She's pretty much everywhere by now – she can probably just interface with anyone and subsume them whenever she wants. She talks to me through some sort of mind-meld when I'm not just, uh, inside her. It's kind of weird: I'm part of her and I'm still me, all at once."
"Clearly you've had too much booze to be serious," Rodney says huffily, throwing his empty beer bottle petulantly out into the dark waves, which, okay, isn't very ecologically sound. For a half-second he flashes on the image of a thick green tentacle, suckers and all, emerging like the Lady of the Lake's arm in the Classics Illustrated comic Knights of the Round Table he read when he was ten, and catching the bottle just shy of the water, then reaching up to clip him around the ear with it. Naturally, nothing of the sort happens, the bottle vanishing with a faint plop.
"Yeah, it's a pity you won't listen," says Sheppard thoughtfully, "because the implications are fucking amazing, Rodney." Rodney pointedly ignores him, sighing, but Sheppard continues, not willing to let his joke go until he's milked it for all it's worth. "See, Gaia's taken over the entire planet – it's all her, even down to the molten lava under the crust. Well, she's not in the planet's core, but she mines the core's iron for her substance and she's interfaced with the magma-boundary so as to draw energy directly from the core." Sheppard's turn to wave his beer bottle now. A drop splashes Rodney's cheek and he wipes it off and glares at the big dork, burbling on about futuristic geothermal engineering he can't possibly understand.
"Yeah, right," Rodney says sarcastically. "So that's an almost infinite quantity of energy available to your delusional tentacle monster. I think I'd be seeing some signs of that if it'd taken over the city, Sheppard, just here and there!"
"Ta-daa!" Sheppard, the annoying jerk, points at him, beaming. "ZPM power level's increased by 0.65% - there's your proof!"
For the briefest of microseconds Rodney has a holy hell moment, then he shakes his head, amused. "Yeah, nice one, but It's vastly more likely to be a calibration error in the ZPM sensor array. I'll get Zelenka onto it in the morning. He'll piss himself laughing about the tentacle-monster-tapped-into-the-planetary-core theory, though." Rodney has a small moment of cheer at the prospect of geeky bonding with Radek about the weirdness that is Sheppard's brain. They've all been in Pegasus for too long.
Sheppard's now pouting, the big sap. Rodney resists a beer-induced urge to sling an arm around his shoulders for a one-armed hug of consolation, and instead pats Sheppard's knee awkwardly. "Cheer up, Colonel. I'm sure it's a very nice planet even if it's not actually sentient. The botanists and geologists seem to be having a roaring good time on their field trips, anyway."
"Which proves my point," Sheppard says, stubbornly clinging to his lunatic shaggy dog's tale. "They're happy because they're all part of Gaia now, like I am!"
Rodney's getting sick of this nonsense, plus the beer's run out. "Yes, well, pardon me if the thought of being eaten, brain and all, by a fucking tentacle monster doesn't fill me with the urge to skip about singing halleluiah. There are so many logical inconsistencies in your fantasy that I can't even begin to address them." He holds up a finger. "One: you say that this Gaia-thing's infiltrated the city? So why aren't we finding tentacles behind every panel when we do repairs? Like when Jen was turning into a Hive ship?"
"Gaia can assume the characteristics of anything in the city – on the planet – Rodney. She's just replaced a lot of the city's structure wholesale."
Rodney brushes that pathetic riposte aside. "Two: if you're full of alien-tentacle-matter, why do you look identical and weigh the same. At least I assume-" He scrambles gracelessly to his feet and extends a hand to Sheppard. "Come on, up." Sheppard glares at him, then reluctantly stands.
"Okay, no scales here, but I've had to fireman-carry you before now, like on M3G-441 when the natives fed you Pegasus-roofies and Ronon dislocated his shoulder getting us out of the village and back to the Stargate." He makes impatient 'come here' gestures with both hands, then just steps forward and grabs a still-sulky Sheppard by the BDU shirt and manhandles him up and across his left shoulder, bending his knees to hoist him a little off the deck. "Oof, Christ, I forgot what this does to my back." Rodney dumps Sheppard, now flushed from briefly dangling upside down, back onto the pier, his hair sticking up even more than usual.
Sheppard rubs the back of his neck and looks mutinous. "What the hell was that about?"
"Apart from demonstrating my manly prowess as a Colonel-wrangler, it shows that your weight has not, in fact been increased by a dense wodge of alien tentacle-matter. It's physics 101, Sheppard. You can't have twice the mass due to being invaded by alien tentacles, yet weigh the same and still look identical." Rodney pokes Sheppard triumphantly in the chest.
"Stop that," Sheppard grunts, and brushes Rodney's hand away. "Okay, listen. Some of the subsuming's a mind-meld, right? And just like with the city, Gaia-matter's replaced a lot of my own cells, not just puffed me out like the Michelin Man or something!"
They glare at each other, then Sheppard's mouth quirks, and Rodney can't hold it together either. It's just too ridiculous, and he snorts with laughter as Sheppard does his dreadful honking thing, bent over and clutching his knees. Sheppard recovers first, wiping his eyes and lounging against the side of a nearby air-vent funnel in his usual fake-casual way, arms crossed. "The really funny thing is that it's all true, Rodney," he says mildly.
"Oh, give it a rest, will you." Rodney shakes his head, suddenly tired. "Enough of the bedtime horror stories, I'm hitting the sack."
They turn back towards the nearest tower, walking along companionably enough. The beers have left him drowsy, and Rodney's looking forward to face-planting on his bed. He'll shower in the morning and then get Zelenka and Miko onto that damn ZPM anomaly. Hopefully it's just a minor glitch.
"It's not really a horror story, y'know, Rodney," Sheppard says thoughtfully as they reach the transporters. "We can end the Wraith now, and stop the worlds of Pegasus from fighting each other once they're gone. And when we get to Earth we can sort out the last Goa'uld and the Ori - just subsume the hell out of everything. One big happy family - World Peace, and all."
Rodney rolls his eyes, "Yes yes, and you're Miss World, huh?"
"Yeah," says Sheppard, grinning at him fondly, which shouldn't make Rodney feel warm inside when Sheppard's being a giant dick about this nonsense joke he will not give up. "I really, really am Miss World."
"Okay," says Rodney. "This is genuinely creepy. What's happened to your usual noli-me-tangere standoffishness, huh? All this" – he waves his hands – "I don't know, cheerfulness, and, and the one big happy family crap. You're the last person to want that. It's taken years for you to even let me and Teyla and Ronon in, and now suddenly you're fantasizing about being one with the universe? I don't buy it."
Sheppard scowls, scuffing a sloppily-laced up boot against the floor. "It's not like I've – we've – got any choice here. It's – I'm – we're-" he breaks off, looking frustrated.
"Yes, right, 'this thing's bigger than both of us'," Rodney snaps, making air quotes. "I got that much."
"Well, there's no way to kill a planetary-sized entity anyway, Rodney, even if we – I – wanted to." Sheppard looks torn, briefly conflicted. "And I don't want to. I, this is me, now. This is us."
"Spare me. Of course we could kill it, if it's an iron-based organism as you say, which implies that it most likely functions using magnetic field resonance. One good EMP blast from an atmospheric nuke'd do the trick, same as with the nanites. The physical structure would still be there, but its nervous system would be fried."
"Yeah, but like I said, it's replaced most of Atlantis's electronics with itself, and it's in all of us. Our nervous systems are running on Gaia-matter as well. An EMP'd destroy the city's computer and kill any of us who'd been taken over. Pretty much everyone at this point."
"Oh, for Christ's sake," says Rodney, stepping into the transporter. "If it's as invasive as you say – the planet! – the city! – the galaxy! – the universe! – then we've got a moral obligation to kill it before it multiplies. Destroying the city and all of us in the process would be a reasonable step to take, don't you think? You're the military strategist here, not me. But I am not pandering to your ludicrous delusions any longer. Go get some sleep and maybe you'll make more sense in the morning. Good night, Colonel."
Rodney punches the transporter destination for his quarters, and as the doors whoosh shut, the last thing he sees is Sheppard regarding him thoughtfully, nodding. "'night, Rodney," he says, "and thanks. Good talking with you."
Back in his quarters, Rodney can't shake off a nagging worry about Sheppard. Maybe he shouldn't have mentioned the EMP pulse idea because god knows it wouldn't be the first time Sheppard's gone charging off clutching a nuke to save the day in a blaze of suicidal glory.
What if Sheppard wasn't just stringing him along with a wild fantasy and he really has cracked and genuinely believes all that alien invasion crap? He wouldn't act on his delusions and do something desperate, would he? They have some nuclear missiles with them – it's one thing Earth has a surfeit of, after all, and the IOA are a lot more freaked out about the Wraith threat to Earth after the last near miss, so despite Woolsey's objections they were forced to bring a small nuclear arsenal along this time. It's under Sheppard's control as Military Commander, but even so, accessing a nuke'd take Rodney's access code as well, or Richard Woolsey's.
Not if the monster's already controlling the city, and maybe Woolsey and John as well his stupid brain witters on, but Jesus, enough with the insanity. Rodney rubs his head and sighs irritably. He's just fretting because he's tired and half-drunk. Of course Sheppard's not psychotic. Of course there isn't a planet-sized tentacle monster lurking inside the wall panels. The very idea.
He opens his laptop and checks the monitoring program he installed earlier in the day, tracking the ZPM power levels: 0.66%. Damn it, they really must locate that sensor glitch.
Rodney turns off his laptop, frustrated. He can't sleep with all this churning around and around in his head, so he heads for the shower, stripping off as he goes. Once under the water, he finally relaxes, letting the heat and steam calm him.
Proximity to Sheppard usually leaves him in the mood to jerk off – the Colonel's been prime fantasy material pretty much from day one, and their closeness as friends and flirty bickering only adds to that, even if Sheppard's never shown any actual signs of letting anyone behind his impenetrable defences. Rodney takes his dick in hand, but the heat and the beer haven't left it very cooperative. It feels nice to stroke himself, though, even if it's not going anywhere.
Rodney stops, hand on his cock, struck by a sudden thought. All this crap about being invaded and one big family – was that some sort of Sheppardy come-on? It hadn't felt like one at the time, but he was saying his defences had been breached, and that he was 'one with everyone'. No. Rodney shakes his head, dismissing the notion. It's too far fetched.
He decides to give up jerking off for tonight and just crash out, but he can't seem to move his hand away. He peers blearily down through the water and steam, and what the fuck? There's something wound around his wrist, something black, like Sheppard's sweatband. Then he feels something slither up his leg – both legs – and he yelps and grabs at the – what? Cables? Oh my god – tentacles!
His other wrist's caught, and he goes to scream but a rippling band slides around his throat and tightens warningly, cutting off his air. He struggles, vision going dim and sparkly, then it loosens and he can breathe again, but he can't speak, coughing and spluttering. He barely catches his breath before the tip plunges into his mouth, gagging him as it pushes past his tongue and into his throat. He flails wildly, pulling against the strong limbs that coil around both his legs, up his torso and along both arms, holding him suspended. The shower cuts off.
It's Sheppard's voice, oh thank god. John's here – John will save him. He tries to turn around, to look towards the bathroom door where John must be standing. The tentacle in his mouth pulls against the corner of his lips and flexes threateningly in his throat again but he gets a glimpse of the doorway before it pulls his head back around. John's not there.
It's okay buddy, I'm inside here, with Gaia, she's letting me take the lead with you. You're fine, you'll be fine, just don't struggle, you'll make it worse. You just scared her – scared us all – with that stuff about the EMP.
John's voice is in his head, in his mind. Rodney moans and tries to protest, but all that comes out around the tentacle down his throat is a choking noise.
Just let it happen, Rodney, let me in, let us all in. It can be good – I'll make it really good for you, buddy, I promise. It's better this way, really, all of us together. You're pretty much the last, it turns out. Gaia let me talk to you before she…before this. I guess I hoped I could explain it, make it easier. Sorry – that didn't work out so well. Think I just freaked you out even more, huh?
It's almost worse than bearing this alone, hearing John saying all this shit so calmly, so soothingly, in his mind, IN MY FUCKING MIND OH MY GOD. There's a prickling at the back of his throat, a rush of warmth down his spine, and he knows somehow the thing's in his nervous system now, infiltrating his spinal cord, sending tendrils up into his brain.
Heat and pleasure floods him, and his knees give way, boneless, but the tentacles have him, lowering him gently to the wet shower floor and setting him on his knees, legs apart, his arms drawn out sideways and immobilized.
Let me, let us, wanted you for so long, let me in Rodney, oh yeaaah…John's voice in his head is warm honey, dripping down his spine like liquid heat as Gaia expands in his mind, or he expands in her, it's hard to tell where he starts and finishes any more.
Distantly, he feels another limb push up between his thighs and he knows what's coming next. Parrish's not the only one who gets off on tentacle porn, after all. It's slick somehow, slippery as it noses between his ass cheeks, questing, nudging forward eagerly, finding its target and then pushing in. John tells him the tip will interface with his sacral plexus and speed the transformation. He feels John's – Gaia's – the thing's – pleasure as it slots home deep inside him in a long shuddering slide.
He expected it to hurt, but there's almost no resistance, his sphincters already under its control, relaxed and open. The last intact shred of his mind convulses, rejecting, panicking. He jerks helplessly in its coils, and then John's back with him again, his voice warm and intimate in Rodney's mind, telling Rodney how much he's wanted him, how good this feels, now they're finally together.
Not like this! his mind whimpers, but it's blurring, the fear fading. The trouble is, he's wanted John for as long as he's known him – from that first day in the Chair, John kick-starting the Ancient systems, his face stunned and wondering. Rodney had long since given up, though – John was like teflon, deflecting all advances. And he was probably straight, or maybe not into sex at all or at least, not into Rodney. So he'd gone with Katie, and then Jennifer. None of that lasted because it was always John, really, Rodney wanted. John, who's apparently been possessed by an alien plant, and Rodney is going to kill the fucking botanists – he's sure this is all their fault. He pulls vaguely against his bonds but the need to fight's fading, and what can he do, realistically, if it's in everyone, in the whole damn city down to the last circuit and conduit.
He feels the thick member in his ass ripple, rings of swellings running up it and into him, pulsing against him deep inside, massaging him so that he can't help but buck his hips and fuck the air. His cock's hard, jutting out red and swollen. Slender dark coils slide around it, milking it, curling around his balls and pushing in alongside the thick tentacle in his ass.
The noises he's making have changed from muffled screams to wet moans. His tongue presses up against the thing down his throat and his mouth waters. It feels like a cock, even tastes like a cock now it's taking over his brain functions – hindbrain, he thinks distantly, the limbic cortex to fuel his arousal and douse the fight/flight reaction. He can smell John, and sex, and he whines and tries to suck, and it's John's cock in his mouth and up his ass and coiling all around him, John's cock rubbing against his dick and massaging his balls and sliding over his nipples. John's whispering in his head yeah Rodney, love you, you're so good, suck me, feel me in you and Rodney writhes, wanting this, wanting John in him and around him, always together forever so good so close.
Gaia folds over him, sliding into the last crevices of his cortex, absorbing his consciousness. He sinks down into her, into John, into them all, as his cock jerks and he comes all over the black, slithering coils.
It's been weeks since they were brought into Gaia.
They're in Rodney's room because his bed's bigger – Ronon, Teyla, John and Rodney, all sprawled out watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Team movie night, and it's the version with Donald Sutherland, a classic remake. Gaia likes it; the premise amuses her. Rodney pulls back into himself bit by bit. He's been drifting in Gaia, and now it feels like his body's a small cupboard in a huge sprawling mansion and he's looking out his eyes as though they were peepholes in a wall. John strokes a hand through his hair, and that lessens the claustrophobically trapped feeling.
The Gaia-awareness is pervasive. Before, he'd have been horrified, but the fear and trauma from when he was taken are distant now, part of another life, another self he can barely remember. He calms under John's touch, momentary disorientation smoothing over.
He turns and looks at John, who stares back, smiling faintly. The lines of tension in John's face have vanished and his body-language is different. He's loose now, not taut and coiled in on himself like he used to be. Wrong, whispers a small voice in the back of Rodney's mind, but it's very faint and easily ignored. John doesn't seem to be worried, his thoughts peaceful and bland, dipping in and out of Gaia. Ever the surfer, thinks Rodney, and John grins, agreeing.
"Of the four of us, you're the most surprising, I think," Rodney says. "You kept everyone at arm's length; I'd have thought you wouldn't handle," he waves a hand, "being part of a crowd, part of us."
"Are we still us any more at all, really?" John asks. Softened by the Gaia-mind, his thoughts are lazily interested, not perturbed.
"Yes, well, your baffling use of pronouns apart, it's an interesting philosophical question," Rodney says, "but better not left to the soft sciences, as with so much else." John manages a mental eye-roll somehow – how does he do that? Rodney presses on. He doesn't need to talk but he likes the sound of his own voice, always has. Shut up, John. "If we use quantum physics to describe it, we can say that we exist in two simultaneous yet differing states, depending on the observer's vantage point." The vague image of a small yapping dog drifts in from Ronon's side of the room, and John snorts.
Teyla, as so often these days, is quiescent, vaguely sensed within Gaia, but not really present although her eyes are open and she seems to be staring at the screen. Perhaps she always tuned them out when it wasn't something that interested her. Perhaps she's meditating. Rodney tries not to think of the alternatives, but he can't entirely leave it alone, although the Gaia-awareness is constantly soothing him, telling him it doesn't matter, no one person matters. Torren's the problem, and Rodney thinks Teyla's letting herself drift so as to cope. Or Gaia's making her drift.
He shakes off the disquiet and presses on, pointing at John, who lifts an eyebrow. "Not, as I've already pointed out, that we can really know what we are now. There is no objective observer when everyone's in this, this–" he gesticulates, almost knocking over his juice, but his reflexes are vastly better than they were, boosted by John's pilot reaction-time. In this thing together? John suggests. This thing's bigger than both of us, like you said, he adds, grinning lazily. It's bigger than Ben Hur.
"Yes, ha ha, very amusing, Colonel Cliché," snaps Rodney. "God. How come science fiction never mentioned that sharing a hive mind would mean direct exposure to your idiot friend's appalling sense of humor? No wonder the Borg had none at all." He rounds on John and pokes the smirking jackass in the chest and if you say resistance is futile I'll, I'll…But just touching John's skin is enough to intensify the joining and for long moments they're lost, swimming in each other, until Rodney manages to haul himself back and detach from the main again. To some degree. For some values of detach.
Not everyone can do it – pull back into themselves, hang onto their sense of a separate self. Medical's got a ward full of catatonic bodies, their consciousnesses drifting, disseminated within Gaia. She's hooked them up with dark cables and maintains the physical shells perfectly so there's no real drain on resources. Perhaps some day they'll figure out how to stop that from happening, but Rodney doesn't see how and Gaia doesn't care. He knows she can operate the bodies if need be, acting through them. He shivers and John grimaces. On the screen, pod people congregate mindlessly, echoing his thoughts. Not lost to us, Gaia soothes him. Part of us forever. She folds him back into herself and he sees the truth of it, feels it in every part of him. Immortality together.
Gradually he comes back to himself. Yes, losing yourself in the Gaia-mind's a kind of immortality, kind of like bodily death when your atoms dissolve into the universe. That's never seemed much of a comfort to Rodney; he's always valued his own specific consciousness, well, overvalued it, really. He's never played well with others.
Me neither, but this is…it's me, it's us, it's all right…He feels John's hand slip into his in some distant, far off place, as John draws him back into the meld again.
When Rodney comes back to himself, the movie's mostly over. You know it all, anyway, says John, stretching and getting up, ambling across to the fridge to get some drinks and snacks. It's literally comfort eating now, as Gaia could feed them directly. Most people still prefer to eat, but that'll probably change. John pulls some cans out of the fridge in the corner – he flips one to Ronon, who swipes it out of mid-air without taking his eyes off the screen – using John's eyes. John pops the top of his own beer and takes a swig, his appreciation – sharp, coldfresh, satisfying – mixing oddly with Ronon's mild distaste. Ronon finds Earth beers a little bitter. They don't have hops in Pegasus.
John and Rodney are on the couch, while Teyla and Ronon share Rodney's king sized bed – he got it in San Francisco, complete with orthopedic mattress. His back's fine now, of course, incipient arthritis from his sedentary years hunched over computers erased by Gaia's remade tissues. He takes the fresh bottle of orange juice from John, feeling a little smug. The novelty hasn't worn off yet.
The health stuff's all good, no complaints there, but there are so many changes and it's not like they had a choice. Rodney's mind slides away from when he was taken – the memories already vague and slippery. He can feel that Gaia doesn't want him to think about it. No point, anyway – that ship sailed a while back. It is kind of Stepford Wives, though – everyone's more tactile, a lot calmer, kind of bland. Less verbal, of course, and a lot more naked. People don't wear so much – partly as it's almost tropical compared to New Lantea or San Francisco. There's some adherence to social dress norms and people put on clothes and shoes for safety reasons – protective coverings when they're dealing with anything Gaia can't make safe – but other than that it's like one giant beach party.
"Without the girls in bikinis playing volleyball," John comments sadly. This time it's Rodney who does the mental eye-roll.
Even now, Rodney's a little shy in public, but only when he's in his body, not when he's merged. In here, tonight, it's just the team, and even that concept is blurring, losing meaning. The forms of what used to be are comforting, though, even if the experience is different. They're mostly bare, skin against skin, microscopic tendrils mingling where they touch, brief physical meldings that mirror the group mind. Here and there a dark Gaia vine connects them to the main. There's one coiled around Teyla's wrist where it's lying on the bed, and another circles Ronon's ankle. Twin tendrils twine up John's legs now he's seated again. They're never far from John. Still the favorite son, Rodney thinks, and John tips his beer in a mocking salute.
"I am the walrus," John drawls. Ronon frowns, baffled, so he adds, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." His thoughts are a slew of Beatles imagery, not helpful.
"Poetry," Rodney explains. "A song from Earth."
Ronon shrugs: he's not interested in songs. All he really cares about, when he's not in the meld, is the plan to end the Wraith threat. Rodney doubts he'd have gone for it before – not enough retribution involved – but he's different now and he's not alone. Sateda's gone, but soon enough all the Satedans that remain will be with him in Gaia, and that helps.
In fact, the Wraith are a pushover, with their biotech and organic ships. It'll be easy to infiltrate their society with Gaia-matter and then use Wraith telepathy to call them together until every Hive is taken. They'll all be part of her then, and she – they – will bring all the Hives to planets where Gaia's already established, and quarantine them. No need to feed on human life force any more – Gaia can feed them energy sucked straight from the planetary cores while she remakes their physiology.
Eventually they won't know anything else, and it'll be possible to integrate that part of Gaia back into the main. Rodney knows Ronon's not thrilled, but they all know it'll work, and if Ronon never has to see a Wraith again and they stop preying on humans, he can live with it.
"Don't want them in here with us, though," Ronon growls. It's a point he's made before.
Rodney feels Teyla come back into herself, perhaps sensing Ronon's anger, blunted through Gaia though it is. "They will not be, Ronon," she says reassuringly. "They will live far from human worlds on their own planets, until they adapt and become less…extreme."
"Less into killing us for fun and playing with their food, you mean?" Rodney can't resist adding, and John shakes his head. Don't wind him up. Ronon half-grins at that, but Teyla's laid a hand on his arm and the physical melding calms him quickly.
"Gonna take a while before they change," says Ronon, but he's turning towards Teyla, her presence soothing him as she presses against his side, tissues mingling as Gaia's vines proliferate around their entwined legs and she draws him out of himself and back into Gaia.
Perhaps it's just as well, with the trip scheduled tomorrow, Rodney thinks, and John eyes him, face impassive.
They're going to New Athos. It's their first off-world mission and they have bundles of seeds and foodstuffs ready to take to the Athosians. It's mostly Gaia-matter, of course, and they'll touch as many people as they can while they're there, to pass her on. It won't take long, with the Athosian greeting helping the meld. But no one knows what will happen to the children, especially young ones like Torren.
Teyla's going to try to bring Torren into Gaia with her but it'll be pretty intense. Robbins, their psychologist, doesn't think a full merging with Gaia would be good for a young child before the sense of self is established, so Teyla will keep him on New Athos, where the settlement's small. But even merging with the small encampment might be too much for the babies and children, and eventually all of that planet will be absorbed as well. Gaia has little concept of children except as parts of herself to send out into the universe. Some won't survive, but this is what they are now: a new thing. Collateral damage can't be helped.
They hope the galaxy's children won't be part of that collateral damage. Rodney tries not to think about it when he's around Teyla. She has to be worried, and he thinks it's why she's spending so much time in the group mind. Or being kept there by Gaia. It reminds Rodney of her fake-zen calm on missions to exceptionally tedious or stupid cultures, but it bothers him more, even as the Gaia part of him doesn't think any of this matters. Gaia has to expand, and some of those she absorbs won't be able to keep hold of their sense of self. In the end, Carson thinks, there won't be any more children. He thinks Gaia will clone new adult bodies who'll know nothing but the Gaia-mind, no separate sense of self.
Vectors, thinks Rodney. Spores.
Is that what we are now? Just spores? John grimaces.
Rodney shrugs. It's accurate, at least. Sentient spores, I guess. We're Gaia as well, but we can go where she can't. That's what our purpose is, now. You know it's for the best. He curls his hand around John's thigh, sending calm acceptance as he gazes at John. John looks younger – they all do. Scars healed, damage repaired, illnesses cured, aging arrested. Rodney's hair's even stopped receding, though it's not growing back. It's not like that matters any more.
"Your hair's still impossible," Rodney says. "Even Gaia can't fix that."
John grins and raises his eyebrows. They don't know how long their bodies will live now – a long time, barring accidents. Their minds will live in Gaia indefinitely, but Robbins thinks they'll lose cohesion after a while if there's no body for periods of separation. The medical team are devoting themselves to researching all this stuff. There's little else for them to do.
And you? John asks. You still gonna do science?
There's still room for that, Rodney says, waving a hand. The more Gaia knows about the universe, the better we can survive. John's looking blandly interested, and Rodney has a moment of doubt, but he squashes it rapidly, before the others – before Gaia – can notice. He has to be careful.
Ronon and Teyla have tuned them out. It's still a little odd to Rodney, seeing them move together on the bed. They were never anything more than team-mates before, but Amelia's back on Earth and no one here will ever be just a team-mate again. They are, literally, all batting for the same team. The background hum of pleasure that's always part of Gaia intensifies as Ronon fucks Teyla, slow rippling movements as the dark vines coil around them both, binding them together, tendrils sliding between them against slick skin.
Rodney moans, reaching for John, who pulls Rodney into his lap and mouths the back of his neck. His hand slides down Rodney's belly and closes around his cock. Rodney drops his head forward. Please.
John presses his tongue against the back of Rodney's neck and Rodney feels the tendrils snake out and enter his body, meshing with the Gaia-matter in his spinal cord. The pleasure of the melding intensifies and he loses himself in the we-us of Gaia, one with John, one with Teyla and Ronon, now fully entangled and interpenetrated on the bed. Saving the world shouldn't feel this good, he thinks, hazily, before he goes under.
The movie plays on as they separate and reconfigure – John with Ronon and Rodney with Teyla, vines binding them together, sliding in alongside fingers and cocks. Gaia flexes its parts, reveling in this new thing. It had forgotten the pleasures of human sex in the dormant millennia of sessile growth.
Earth will be so much better once Gaia gets there. All that war and fighting: it's wasteful and Gaia won't have it. Any remaining Ori Priors are still organic beings, no matter their other powers, and the Goa'uld as well. The Asgard are gone, but the rest can be enfolded.
Woolsey's mind has shown Gaia that the SGC and IOA have dug themselves into a deep pit after years of lies and secrecy – they can't keep the truth quiet forever but disclosure could destroy Earth's fragile balance. Gaia will solve all that.
So much to do – all of Pegasus to seed after New Athos, and Earth, and the Milky Way. But Gaia has time – for millennia it's moved at a planetary pace, slowly growing and evolving. It's nothing if not patient. In time, its spores will go out across the galaxies, to every world capable of sustaining roughly compatible life. Rodney will see to that, he and the scientists, and the soldiers like John will make it happen.
John thrusts into Rodney who's on the floor now, legs wrapped around John's waist. He's a lot more flexible than he used to be. Rodney's hands flail out, grasping, and Ronon traps one, their fingers dark and gleaming with Gaia-matter in the meld. Vines snake out and pull them all together, dragging Ronon and Teyla down onto the floor as well. It's good, but not as satisfying as the great joinings they have on the mainland sometimes, everyone together, cementing the Gaia-mind with physical interpenetration in a writhing tangled mass of tongues and limbs and slippery vines. Ronon stretches up to twine tongues with John and Teyla arches, thick cables vanishing between her legs, pulsing rhythmically. Rodney's other hand slips into hers and he jerks, mindless in the bliss of joining.
Gaia pulses with pleasure, holding them all inside. Soon, it will sporulate, to use Rodney's term – not fully accurate but it will do. Clusters of its human-shaped fruiting bodies will go out into the galaxies, and willingly, for Gaia is them and they are Gaia.
The movie nears its end, and when Donald Sutherland opens his mouth and gives the high-pitched alien ululation that shows he's finally a pod person, Gaia makes them all do it, all its children across Atlantis, moving together in clusters in bedrooms and common areas, their limbs intertwined, trilling involuntarily as Gaia floods them with pleasure.
John slips out of Rodney's quarters and looks up and down the empty hallway. He has to be so careful.
He's always been able to compartmentalize, to keep part of himself deeply buried and secret. He doesn't think Gaia's aware of his hidden core – he's given her everything else, been the poster boy for blissful union. Maybe too much – he's seen Rodney watching him, faintly puzzled, has caught the edge of Rodney's thoughts, wondering if John's for real.
Rodney's easily distracted with sex, though. It's worked so far, John thinks, but it's dangerous and he can't risk it any longer. He tries not to think about Rodney, about how he betrayed Rodney. Raped him. It wasn't John, really, but he helped. He's culpable, and he can't let this happen again, to the last Athosians, to Torren John. He tastes bile, lets his surface thoughts focus on the nausea that washes through him. Too much beer, should know better, he thinks for Gaia's benefit. I'll run it off, get some exercise. Picking up the pace, he heads for the jumper bay.
Everyone's blissed out or sleeping after Gaia's mass orgy. It's the thing's main weakness, John thinks, the way she seduces them and keeps control with pleasure. Makes her too self-involved, reward-driven. She's not asleep now – she's never unaware, but she's sated and relatively quiescent. All he has to do is stay in the surface of his thoughts and keep his purpose hidden. He'd planned this, but that stunt she pulled making them all shriek like mindless pod-people hardened his resolve.
He'll use jumper 10 – Rodney took it off-line for repairs earlier today, but John thinks it's still flyable. Rodney told them the jumper had some sort of software virus so Gaia pulled herself back from it until Radek's crew could check it over. When John heard that, he knew he'd never get a better chance. He has to act now.
He's got all the codes he needs – one advantage of being inside Rodney and Woolsey's heads half the time. The jumpers all carry a nuclear payload now, a fall-back plan in case any world proves impossible to assimilate or threatens Gaia's existence. Gaia doesn't think it'll be necessary, but she indulged his paranoia. The Wraith aren't quarantined yet, after all.
The hallways near the jumper bay are shadowed and empty. It's late. There are no marines on guard – they don't post watches any more. He opens jumper 10's back hatch and it responds smoothly, so that virus Rodney was fretting about hasn't damaged the mechanicals. And maybe, just maybe, there is no virus. John sits in the pilot's chair and fires her up, thinking about taking a nice nocturnal spin to settle his stomach. Gaia will indulge him, he hopes. Favorite son, he hears Rodney say again, and he'll trade on that. Whatever works.
He takes the jumper up, nice and easy, rotating in the bay to align with the ceiling doors above, noting with relief that they're sliding slowly open in response to his request. He can still interface with Atlantis and operate her systems, but it's muffled by Gaia. No advantage to the ATA gene now, when she's in everything, overriding the ATA mechanisms so everyone can use them. The city feels dull, her voice muted. It's good to sense the full connection with this jumper Gaia's withdrawn from, but he quashes that thrill, keeps his thoughts vague and focused on a harmless joyride.
As he gets the jumper oriented ready to lift off, he sees a dark figure on the balcony below. Rodney. A chill runs through him. Shit. Is he? Is Gaia? Does she know?
You think I can't compartmentalize as well? Rodney's clutching the balcony railing, staring up grimly. I've been walking and chewing gum mentally since grade school. John's heart races – he's scared Gaia will overhear them and spring some sort of trap. He's been running navigational stats on the surface of his mind, but even so. For his part, Rodney's calculating pi.
Go! Rodney orders, his thoughts laced with anguish and resolve. I set this up for you, don't waste it. The autopilot's programmed with a deployment series for the nukes, to blanket the whole planet with EMP bursts. Go, damn you, GO!
A flood of relief, and he guns the jumper up and out.
So long, Rodney, John thinks.
He swerves sharply to dodge thick tentacles lashing out through the jumper bay doors to snatch him from the air. Cloaking, he locks the jumper onto autopilot, sending her soaring up through the troposphere.
John grits his teeth and flings himself into the back compartment to wrestle with the Gaia-matter in his brain and body as it tries to take control. With his last scrap of conscious will he hits the switch to slam shut the bulkhead doors to the cockpit and scrabbles open the control panel, scattering the crystals. As he falls, convulsing, he hears one crunch under his boot.
Soon it won't matter.