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Ascending Order

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The shield was offline. They hadn’t used it for several weeks, but now they couldn’t use it; if the Wraith decided to come calling they were sitting ducks. It wasn’t simply offline, but changing somehow—new code being added from... somewhere. Zelenka didn’t think it looked like a virus, but that was the most he could or would say as he dashed around the control room, pulling crystals and powering down equipment.

Simpson nearly dropped a burned-out crystal as Zelenka tossed it to her. Her fingers looked raw, nails bitten to the quick. Miko of course seemed ready to burst into tears at any moment, though she worked quietly and efficiently. John didn’t recognize any of the other scientists, didn’t know their names, didn’t care if he ever learned them.

It was useless, even John could see that. The scientists were getting nowhere—except maybe in each other’s way. McKay would have been able to fix the problem, but McKay had been dead for almost a month now.

“Do I evacuate?” It seemed polite to at least pretend he wanted Elizabeth’s input. John was military commander; this was his call. He’d already made up his mind.

“I think perhaps we should give them a little more time.” Elizabeth’s voice was carefully modulated. She was trying not to provoke him, John realized, even in the middle of a crisis.

Too bad. Civilian personnel were gating to the Alpha site in an hour. He’d just opened his mouth to inform Elizabeth of his decision when the gateroom gave a slight shudder and there was the familiar sound of the shield powering up.

Zelenka said something in rapid Czech and dashed to the nearest console. “The shield is working,” he added pointlessly in English, a note of wonder in his voice.

“Radek?” asked Elizabeth.

“Working,” he repeated. “And... stronger. By twelve percent, according to the readings.”

Elizabeth seemed to want to ask more, but John knew there was only one question that mattered. “Have we been breached?”

Zelenka checked the readout. “No,” he said cautiously. “Whatever did this to the shield came from within Atlantis.”

Not a military problem then. Probably something to do with the changes the Ancients had made to the city when they’d been in possession. Let Science deal with it.

John nodded to two Marines. Keep an eye on the situation.

They nodded back an acknowledgment. John turned on his heel and left without a backwards glance.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

“What should we talk about today?” he asked, making his tone as cheerfully grating as possible.

“I was thinking, your dead best friend?”

“No one,” he said, settling on the couch, “likes a person with a one-track mind.”

“You’ve been thinking about other things, then?” Kate asked. “Like what?”

John sighed. He had three more of these mandatory sessions, and provoking Heightmeyer didn’t gain him anything. He’d been through this before, more than once. He knew the best strategy was to play the game: be sad, but not too sad. Show you missed your teammate, but could still be effective.

Something about Kate’s pretty blonde blandness had always gotten under his skin, though. Rodney had liked her, had claimed to get a lot out of their sessions. John realized he was making a fist, too-long nails biting into his palm, and forced himself to relax.

“McKay liked you,” he said finally.

“I liked him.”

“I think it was mostly the blonde hair and the tits.”

“He said he liked the red, too,” she replied mildly.

John looked at Kate. Her hair was red. He’d been seeing her for three weeks; had it been that color the whole time?

He was suddenly exhausted. Baiting Heightmeyer was juvenile and unproductive. She’d be reporting back to Elizabeth, after all. “What do you want to know?”

“How have you been feeling?”

“Angry,” he replied, knowing this was the right answer. It also had the advantage of being the truth.

“At?”

“Myself. Carson. The Ancients. Mostly the Ancients for building something as stupid as an Ascension machine in the first place.”

“Are you angry at Rodney?”

“No!” The answer slipped out before he could catch himself. Damn it, he knew you were supposed to be angry at the dead person. The doctors always expected it. Well, maybe he could pretend to be mad at Rodney next week.

“But you’re angry at the Ancients?”

John knew there was a trap here somewhere, but he couldn’t see it. “Yeah.” He shrugged. “Why build something that, you know, kills you if you can’t Ascend? Seems like a pretty big design flaw.”

“You’d rather Rodney had Ascended?”

“Than died? Yeah.”

“Wouldn’t he be lost to you either way?”

“If he’d Ascended he could have come back... If he’d wanted to.”

And there was the trap. John bit his lip, annoyed at himself.

“You’re afraid he would have wanted to stay on the higher plane? That he wouldn’t have wanted to come back? To... Atlantis?”

To you? John heard the unspoken question clearly. He took a breath. “What difference does it make?” Shit. That wasn’t what he’d meant to say. “Rodney didn’t Ascend, he died. I scattered his ashes myself. I know he’s not coming back, and I know it’s not because of me. Okay?” He stood. “Are we done here?”

She didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow at his outburst. “If you want to be.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I do.”

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

At least his endurance was improving. He was running ten miles a day now. More if he ran with Ronon in the morning. He never even felt it until somewhere around mile eight.

Then the burn came, and he started hearing the echo of his strides on Atlantis’ cold floors. Pound. Pound. This was what he waited for; the time in his run when he felt disconnected from his body. It was almost the only time these days he could think clearly.

He’d stopped by one of the labs before his run to check on Corporal Terry. That was going well, he thought. Not that you’d know it from the way the scientists were behaving, glaring at John with resentment they didn’t bother trying to hide. That was too damn bad. It wasn’t like they were under guard; Terry and the other Marines were there for their protection.

Pound. Pound. John had suspended exploration of the abandoned labs until further notice, and had put a Marine in every lab that was already in use, with orders to take guinea pig duty and fall on any piece of Ancient tech that was metaphorically or literally ticking. John wasn’t stupid; he knew it was too late to save McKay, and he knew that Rodney would never have stood for a military presence in the labs, but Rodney wasn’t here. John was, and he’d keep the civilians safe. They could resent him as much as they wanted; he’d been resented by better people than a few pasty biologists.

Perspiration was streaming freely now, wetting his hair, soaking through his t-shirt. It always took a long time to work up a sweat in the perfectly climate-controlled corridors, and it felt good. Pound. Pound. Lately he’d been toying with the idea of banning the scientists from first-contact teams. It only made sense that civilians shouldn’t go to a planet that hadn’t been cleared by the military first. He just had to think of a way to broach the subject with Elizabeth. She wouldn’t like the idea, but she’d see it his way in the end. Safety had been too lax for too damn long.

And here he was back at his quarters and maybe tired enough to actually sleep. His door opened with a quiet swish when he was still ten feet away, so he didn’t even have to break his stride as he ran into his room. Doors had been doing that a lot lately—opening with swift precision before he could swipe a hand in front of the panels. Busy little Ancients. John didn’t think any more about it, just fell heavily on his bed and thought the lights off without bothering to undress.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

“Any ideas, Colonel?”

John started. He’d lost track of another meeting—this time losing himself in daydreams during Morning Staff. It wasn’t like this was an unusual occurrence, but he could no longer nod sagely and say something like, “Let’s give McKay a chance to do his stuff. Tell me when you need something shot.”

No, Zelenka wanted actual feedback, so you had to listen all the time. All Rodney had required was backup, and John had quickly learned that backing Rodney up was the best move three out of four times. Those were good odds and also meant that John could spend a lot of his time in staff meetings looking interested while thinking up ways to soup up Jumper One.

His confusion must have shown because Elizabeth said kindly, “The alterations in the city’s infrastructure?”

Okay, he’d heard that part. “Well, they’ve all been beneficial changes so far, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Zelenka said impatiently. “The shield is stronger, more drones are accessible, long-range sensors see farther. The question is why?”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I always say.” John let his natural drawl bleed through. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Teyla throw him a worried look. Fine. He sat up straighter. “Look. Militarily there aren’t a lot of options here. Let’s try not to use our new toys for a while. See what happens.”

“I agree with Colonel Sheppard,” said Elizabeth. That was rare these days. He glanced over at her. She smiled. “I think that’s enough for this morning.”

“Great.” John was already up and halfway out the door.

“John, may I have a word?” Damn, he’d been this close to a clean getaway. The others filed out, Teyla giving him a smile full of so much understanding he felt a brief urge to sock her in the nose. Get it together, John. He smiled pleasantly at Elizabeth.

“Have you given any thought to taking your team offworld again?”

Have you thought about replacing Rodney, he knew she meant and tried not to look like he’d been punched in the gut.

Now was not the time to tell her about his military-only plan. “I don’t think I’m quite ready,” he said instead, hating himself for choosing to appear weak, but knowing it would shut Elizabeth up for a while.

As he expected, she looked at him sympathetically. “How has it been going with Kate?”

Play the game. “I don’t think I’m exactly her favorite patient,” he said with a little-boy head duck.

Elizabeth laughed and seemed reassured. “Try not to give her too hard a time. And John? Think about your next mission.”

“I will,” he promised on his way out the door.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

“McKay!” John shouted, senses filled with unseeing blue eyes and flat-lining monitors. Fuck. There had to be something he could do. If only he could get close to Rodney, but his feet were stuck to the floor. It couldn’t end like this. Not when he’d never even–

John felt himself shuddering against his hard mattress. His eyes felt sticky when he rubbed them open. Another nightmare. Thank God the living quarters were fairly soundproof. He didn’t need it getting around that Colonel Sheppard was calling for his lost teammate in the dead of night.

Now he was awake. He should get out of bed, go for a run, look over the duty roster, something. Anything was better than lying in bed stewing over old memories, which was what inevitably happened every time he woke in the middle of the night. He didn’t need any more messages from his subconscious; he got it. Epiphany was a bitch, but Heightmeyer would be proud of him if he ever told her. Which he never would. He sighed as the scene played out behind his closed eyes, the way it seemed to do at least once a night.

It hadn’t even been after an attack, some time when they’d cheated death again, adrenaline running high. No. He’d been so damn happy, and Rodney too—after they’d saved Atlantis, and the planet, after Sam the whale had said his good-bye in a way that Rodney had understood perfectly. McKay had been smiling out to sea, and John had suddenly found himself ridiculously, absurdly, overwhelmingly charmed and had stepped close to him. Too close, nearer than he usually allowed himself.

Rodney had turned that smile on him then, looking at him steadily, sudden understanding lighting his eyes. John had held his breath, knowing what was coming.

The first touch of lips was soft. So soft John had to open his eyes, had to pull back a little to be sure it was really McKay kissing him. Rodney had just smiled that brilliant smile and leaned forward to recapture John’s lips.

And for a moment, it had been good, so good, everything he hadn’t let himself think about. Then the world had come flooding back, and with it the return of John’s common sense.

“Rodney—”

He’d seen the light drain from Rodney’s eyes, had felt a queasy flutter in the pit of his stomach. This was never supposed to happen. He’d never wanted to make Rodney look like that.

“Rodney,” he’d said again, choking a little. “I’m not—”

“No,” Rodney had said quickly. “Of course not. I’m sorry.”

“Rodney.”

“My fault completely, Colonel. It won’t happen again.” His mouth was twisted unhappily. It had taken all John had not to pull Rodney back to him. But he couldn’t. They couldn’t.

“I’ll just go inside then, shall I? Before I embarrass either one of us any further?” Rodney had been on the verge of a babbling fit and seemed to realize it. He’d turned quickly, heading inside.

John had forced himself to stay calm. He’d grasped Rodney’s arm, right below the Canadian flag, and given him a smile that revealed nothing more than camaraderie. “It’s all right, McKay. Breathe.”

“Yes. Well. Thank you, Colonel.” Rodney hadn’t looked any happier. John saw him attempt a careless smile and had felt a rush of dangerous affection. When Rodney had started back inside, John hadn’t stopped him.

He couldn’t remember how long he’d stood out on that balcony, running it through his mind, feeling Rodney’s lips against his. They couldn’t; that was all there was to it. He’d already let himself become dangerously close to McKay; it couldn’t go any further.

It wasn’t even DADT, not completely. There were ways around that, and over the years John had found them all. An anonymous blow job in an off-post bar. A quick fuck in an air field lavatory when you and the guy were heading to different postings. John understood these things. They didn’t get in the way.

This thing with McKay was different. John already liked him way too much; you couldn’t feel protective about someone you had to go into combat with. You wouldn’t be able to remain detached enough to do what was necessary. Being in command made it that much worse. He had all of Atlantis to think about. If he couldn’t function because someone was holding a gun to McKay’s head or a knife to his arm, all his people would suffer. If he couldn’t be objective, his people might die. You didn’t fuck a teammate. There were reasons for that.

John rolled over and punched his pillow. Lying sleepless in the early morning hours it was hard to remember what his logic had been. Hard to remember why it had seemed so important. Even when Rodney had been putting his affairs in order, after the fucking Ascension machine had done its damage—even then John hadn’t pulled him close, hadn’t kissed him hungrily the way he’d wanted to. It would have felt too much like giving up, like acknowledging Rodney was going to die—hey, no consequences!—John couldn’t do that.

So they’d only ever had that one abbreviated kiss. And worse than that, Rodney had never known how much John had wanted him. All Rodney knew was that he’d been rejected. Because John had had some chickenshit ideas about emotional distance.

And that had turned out about as well as John’s brilliant plans usually did, of course, because he had no emotional distance as far as Rodney had been concerned. His objectivity had been blown the minute Rodney had walked into that energy-sucking cloud their first month in the city. While Rodney had been alive, John had been able to lie to himself, had been able to pretend Rodney was just another teammate. Now that Rodney was dead, John realized the truth, too late to do either of them any good.

John’s head was pounding. Self-flagellation apparently caused migraines. He stumbled to the bathroom, soaked a washcloth in cold water, and placed it over his forehead as he sank back into his mattress. Now that he’d gone through the John Sheppard Multiplex of Shame—tonight’s offering: “How John Fucked It Up With Rodney,” maybe he’d finally be able to sleep.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

His headache was still there the next day, flaring up a bit as John stood in the doorway of Zelenka’s lab watching his Marine watch the scientists. The pain had mostly faded to a dull buzz at the back of his skull. He thought about getting some pills from Carson, but decided against it. It wasn’t that bad, just weird, like a hum flitting around the edges of his brain. Rodney would have probably diagnosed a brain tumor. The pang he felt at the thought made his head throb again. He needed some real sleep so he could stop being such a basket case. Maybe he’d get some meds from Carson after all.

He wandered over to where Radek was peering intently at his laptop screen. Looking over his shoulder, John couldn’t make out any of the data. McKay would have swatted him away in annoyance. Zelenka just looked up mildly, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Any luck tracing the source of our sudden good fortune?” John asked to explain his presence.

“Not yet, Colonel. I will let you know.” He turned back to his computer, a pointed dismissal.

Well. John had grown used to the cold shoulder from the other scientists, had taken it as confirmation that he was doing his job, but he hadn’t expected this attitude from the Czech.

Suddenly Radek sighed. “It has been a long day, yes? After a long night. We are all tired.”

“Sure,” John said cautiously.

“Atlantis is behaving oddly. I am forced to do Rodney’s job as well as my own. Forgive me if I am on edge.”

“No problem.” John didn’t like hearing him talk so casually about Rodney somehow, like he was no more than his work, but he couldn’t exactly say that.

“Yes. Now if you would please leave. You make the others nervous and we have much work to do.”

“You’re kicking me out?”

“Of course not. You are military commander, you may go where you please. I am merely pointing out that scientists lose efficiency when half their intellect is devoted to plotting a civilian uprising.”

John looked around. The scientists were indeed casting him sporadic resentful looks. Even Dr. Esposito—who John knew for a fact had had a crush on him as recently as three weeks ago—had abandoned her work on an Ancient yo-yo to glare at John murderously.

“They do not like being watched over like babies or ovce. You know this.”

“It’s for your own—”

“Please. Do not insult me. You are not the only one who misses Rodney, you understand? But we cannot work like this.”

John wanted to tell Radek he had it all wrong but blinding bursts of pain were suddenly flashing behind his eyelids. It felt like his brain was trying to crawl out of his skull.

“Colonel?”

He tried to answer, the words I’m fine struggling to come out. Instead his knees buckled and he had to grab the console to keep from falling. He was dimly aware of Zelenka calling for a medical team before the world faded out in a dampening rush of black.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

John opened his eyes and was not at all surprised to find himself in the infirmary.

What did surprise him was the complete lack of excruciating pain. He didn’t feel drugged, and he wasn’t—he took a quick survey of his body—dead, so... huh.

Actually, he felt great. The buzz was still there in the back of his mind, but it wasn’t painful at all any more. It felt kind of comforting, like having the TV on when you were home alone. Alien possession?

He wasn’t really sure how to go about probing his mind, but when he tried it there didn’t seem to be any other consciousnesses in there with him, and he felt like Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, USAF, for whatever that was worth. So he was going to go with a working theory that the buzz was a side effect of the terrible headache rather than a sign of evil mind control.

He supposed he should be worried about... epilepsy or space flu or some other horrible disease that could get him grounded, but he hadn’t felt this good in weeks. The secret to finally getting a good night’s sleep was to pass out in the labs, apparently. That explained a lot about Rodney.

All in all he saw no reason to stay on his back in a hospital bed, so he sat up and swung his legs over the edge, relatively pleased to discover an IV line attached to his arm but nothing else. There was no one in the infirmary, which was odd, but to his advantage. He looked around, hoping to spot his uniform nearby.

Just when he’d made up his mind to make a break for it in the hospital scrubs he was wearing, Carson bustled in, Elizabeth trailing after.

“No you bloody well don’t, Colonel,” Carson said, pressing his shoulder firmly down to the mattress.

“I’m glad to see you awake, John.” Elizabeth smiled. “We were worried.”

“I feel great, Carson. I just needed some sleep.”

“Possibly, possibly,” he agreed. “We can’t find anything wrong with you. The scans we did while you were out show normal brain activity.”

“See,” John said, sitting up again. “I’m peachy.”

Carson raised an eyebrow. “Be that as it may, I’m going to ask you to remain our guest for a little while longer. Just to make sure there aren’t any more episodes.”

“I have work to do. Elizabeth, tell him.” His protest was half-hearted at best, but it seemed the right thing to say. The truth was he felt too good to argue, and he was still awfully tired.

“How long was I out?” He heard the sleepy mumble in his voice.

“Thirty-four hours,” Elizabeth said softly.

That long? He nestled into the soft pillow. He must really have needed sleep.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

When he woke again, Teyla was in a chair at his bedside, either meditating or sleeping sitting up. He couldn’t tell which, even after she opened her eyes and smiled at him.

“Teyla.” His return smile was genuine; it felt strange on his lips.

“John. Are you feeling well?”

“I feel fantastic.” A sudden thought occurred to him. “I wasn’t asleep for days again, was I?”

She laughed. “No. Just a few hours.”

He stretched, sitting up a little, and felt a sudden rush of well-being that seemed to come from somewhere outside of him. Maybe he needed to rethink that alien possession hypothesis.

“Anything exciting happen while I was out?” He felt like listening to her talk without having to think for a while. Teyla’s idea of excitement would be a new farming method on the mainland or some mischief the Athosian children had gotten up to. He could zone out and let her smooth voice ripple over him.

She didn’t disappoint, and John felt himself drifting off again even though he was not tired any more, when something caught his attention.

“Say that again.”

Teyla gave him her Look of Serene Reproach No. Four, which meant she knew he hadn’t been listening.

“Sergeant Wynn discovered the machine of the Ancestors he was using to clean dishes has additional capabilities to synthesize food products. Dr. Simpson calls it a... replicator? Not,” she assured him quickly, “anything like the Replicators of Asuras.”

“Wynn found a replicator?” This had to be another of the improvements Atlantis seemed to be making to itself. He’d bet dollars to donuts the Ancient dishwasher hadn’t been able to do that before.

“Yes,” Teyla said. “But all it will... replicate is chocolate. It is much tastier than the substance of the same name in your ‘Power Bars.’ Ronon has grown quite fond of it.”

John couldn’t stop laughing, even when Teyla sent him a look of undisguised concern. “Rodney,” he said between gasps, “Rodney would have loved that.”

For once he didn’t feel the tearing pain that usually accompanied thoughts of McKay. Instead he was almost sure he felt, pushing at his consciousness, a little sigh of satisfaction.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

Carson let him out once he was sure his brain wasn’t going to explode any time in the near future with a strict admonition to stay in his quarters and rest.

He was going to do it, he really was, but when he walked into his room, the lights dimmed themselves to a soft glow. It was nice, but John was sure he hadn’t thought them any instructions to do that. As a matter of fact he needed some light so he could find the copy of Bourne Identity he’d traded Lorne War and Peace for.

He thought Brighter at the lights, but nothing happened. He thought it again, and was sure he felt something nudge at his mind. Something that said clearly, though not in words, No.

He sat hard on his bed. Huh.

So much for rest. He quickly pulled on a pair of sweats and his running shoes, and headed out the door. He took the transporter to the unpopulated Northwest Pier and started running.

It took his mind a while to quiet down, like always, but then he could think. Okay, so his lights thought they knew better than him. No big deal, and they might have been right. He probably should have been resting.

Only his lights had never done that before. The coolest thing about Atlantis—the thing that had made him secretly squeal like a fourteen-year-old girl when he’d first come through the Stargate—was the way he could control the equipment with his mind. Okay, the coolest thing about Atlantis was actually the puddlejumpers, but that wasn’t the point.

The point was, he could control the equipment with his mind. Atlantis had seemed almost alive in the beginning; dormant consoles powering up when he walked into a room as if awakening from a long sleep, technology far beyond what he’d seen on Earth eager to do his bidding like it had been waiting just for him.

What Atlantis was, though, was a technologically advanced city, not a living presence. It responded beautifully to John, but it responded just as well to anyone with the ATA gene. John was better at manipulating the technology than most, but he was good with machines. The puddlejumpers flew like dreams for him because he was always the best pilot wherever he went, not because they were making an effort to please him, in spite of what some of the Marines thought. There was nothing more to Atlantis than metal and glass, or whatever the Ancients had used to build it.

John knew this because Rodney had devoted a good part of their first year to a search for some kind of directing AI, but it wasn’t there. Nor had John ever felt any kind of organic intelligence. Atlantis certainly didn’t have opinions. It did what you wanted it to, or it was broken and you called Rodney to fix it.

But something had clearly told him No. And what’s more John had felt what he was sure was concern, along with a suggestion he go to bed and get some rest so whatever it was could stop worrying about him. Since it seemed unlikely the lights in his room had turned into his mother in the time he’d been unconscious, John felt justified in being a bit freaked out.

The comforting buzz in the back of his head, the mental nudges he’d been feeling for so long without really even noticing—these were coming from Atlantis itself; John had no doubt any more. But Atlantis was not intelligent. At least it never had been, not until it started bringing new systems on-line and increasing the efficiency of those that were already there. A replicator? For chocolate?

And John hadn’t really needed to go running, of course. He didn’t have to think; he knew what was going on. But knowing wasn’t understanding. Wholly contradictory ideas screamed through his head. Rodney wasn’t dead; he was more sure of that than he’d ever been of anything in his life. But Rodney wasn’t here.

He ran and ran, until he had to crawl, then somehow made it back to his room. He fell on his bed and was asleep before the lights turned off by themselves.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

“Rodney?”

...No.

The answer came from Atlantis, seemingly from the walls of the gym around him. It wasn’t in language, more just a feeling that sort of... diffused through John’s body. And it was lying.

“Rodney, I know you’re there.”

Rodney, or Atlantis, or—the possibility wasn’t off the table—John’s late-onset schizophrenia was silent.

“Rodney?”

John had the distinct impression of the city trying to hold its breath until it turned blue like a three-year-old.

“You Ascended, didn’t you?”

Ha. John felt a sudden blast of surprise. The lights brightened slightly, as if they were taking an interest.

“What? You didn’t think I’d be able to figure it out? It’s obvious.”

Now there was disbelief.

Chocolate, Rodney? Thanks for boosting the top speed in the jumpers, by the way.”

There was the satisfaction again, an emotion so typically Rodney that John had to smile.

“So how do we get you back? The machine did things kind of differently than your normal Ascension.”

There was no response.

“Can you come back on your own? Because the upgrades have been great, but we need you back now.”

Still nothing. John tried to probe the silence with his mind, but either he hadn’t figured it out completely yet or there was nothing there. Okay. He’d been cowardly long enough.

I need you back now,” he said more quietly than he’d intended.

He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he felt the burning in his lungs. He forced himself to breathe normally—for a long time—but there was no answer.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

Any more running and John would need artificial knees before he was forty, so he decided to have a nice little mental breakdown instead. His office was a good place for it. It was the last place anyone would come looking for him.

He thought the door locked and bypassed the desk chair to sit in a corner with his head in his hands. He’d seen Rodney’s body. He’d held Rodney’s body, not to mention the little Athosian box they’d put his ashes in. But Rodney wasn’t dead, which was good news—the best—and really shouldn’t require an existential crisis.

So the ridiculous meditation plan had worked after all—clear blue skies, my ass—even if the machine had somehow made it look like he’d died. But the second part of the plan had been for Rodney to de-Ascend and come back. Yet Rodney was somehow inhabiting Atlantis instead—when John placed his bare hand against the wall he could feel a thrum pulsing through it. The city felt alive in a way it never had before.

So there were two possibilities here. John felt a little better now that he could quantify the problem. First, that Rodney was enjoying his new role as Atlantis Good Fairy, and had decided to embrace a career in Ascension. From the contempt Rodney had come to hold the Ancients in, this seemed unlikely. Or second, that Rodney was stuck somehow, a ghost in the machinery of Atlantis, and couldn’t find his way back.

This possibility seemed more likely. Who knew what the Ascension machine had actually done? It clearly hadn’t been working right. John had seen people Ascend, with the glowy bodies and the empty clothes; probably the device was supposed to do the same thing. Not for the first time, John wished the Ancients had had the decency to destroy their failed experiments.

No. Rodney was not staying away voluntarily. No way would he abandon his work on Atlantis. Or its people. Or me. John clamped down quickly on that thought. No. It was clear what he had to do. John wouldn’t leave a man behind.

 

•*•*•*•*•*•

 

His first instinct was to go to Elizabeth. Then he remembered the last month of concerned looks and mandatory therapy and gentle hints that it was time to move forward. He could just imagine how it would go. Elizabeth, my imaginary friend Rodney needs some help becoming corporeal. Elizabeth was convinced Rodney was dead, and she was at least half-convinced John was unstable.

Radek, then. He was never on the radio when you needed him, so John dropped casually by his lab, and used his military authority to strong-arm him into accompanying John to the Ascension machine room.

Stuj, sedivy despota.” Radek brushed John off and looked around. “Why are we here? You wish to become Superman?”

John wasn’t sure how to say it, so... “McKay’s not dead.”

Radek’s angry look transformed quickly to pity. “I was at the memorial.”

Fuck, John didn’t want to deal with this, but he wasn’t going to get anywhere if the nice man thought he was crazy. He took a breath. “He’s been doing all the improvements around here lately. The shield, the jumpers—”

“Yes, yes. Of course the ghost of Rodney is tinkering with Atlantis.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Sounds like him, actually.”

“Radek. I know it looked like Rodney died. I was there, remember?”

Zelenka squinted at him, considering. “And you have reason to doubt the evidence of our eyes?”

“He Ascended. I’ve... felt things.” God, this was embarrassing. “And the city’s been behaving strangely, you know that. Rodney’s become part of Atlantis somehow. I can’t explain it.”

Radek had gotten a pensive look on his face. “It’s true there are many things we don’t understand about the Ascension platform.”

“Yes! I know he didn’t go all glowy, but—”

“I am thinking.” Zelenka shushed him with an eerily familiar gesture. “All right. I will look into it.”

“Thank you.”

“Although I still think you are unhinged with grief.”

“Think whatever you want as long as—”

“Yes, yes. I want Rodney back too, if such a thing is possible.”

John opened his mouth again. He didn’t want to say this, but it was important.

Radek waved a hand before he could speak. “I will not notify Elizabeth until I have concrete information. I do not wish to appear mad, any more than you do.”

Zelenka was almost as good at reading his mind as McKay, which was creepy. But he was going to find Rodney for him.