The first time Rodney noticed something was wrong was after the mission to PX4-629.
It had been a long boring day with nothing to show for it, unless you counted the incipient sunburn he could feel lurking under the top layer of his skin, waiting to burst forth in a rose-hued glory. Sheppard, the louse, hadn't been burnt at all despite his reliance on military-issue sun-block instead of Rodney's special mix.
When they'd finally gotten back to Atlantis, Rodney had been exhausted from chasing phantom power signatures all over the godforsaken desert. All he'd wanted to do was take a bath in aloe and go to bed, but Sheppard had suggested a game of chess, and then had studiously ignored the incredulous expression on Rodney's face.
Knowing Sheppard never ignored one of his expressions when he could make fun of it, Rodney played chess.
It wasn't odd that he'd let Sheppard influence him into doing something he would rather not, of course. And it wasn't odd that they played chess together; they'd been doing that about once a week since their old Game had proved a little too real. What was odd was that Rodney had won. Twice.
At first he'd thought the statistics were finally averaging out. After all, Rodney was a genius. If Sheppard generally won seven out of every ten games it was either a mathematical anomaly or Sheppard was some kind of freak chess savant. Or both.
That night Sheppard had seemed tired, though, and off his game. So when he began setting up the pieces for a third match, Rodney reluctantly passed up the opportunity to nudge his win count back toward the statistical mean, and stood to go.
"Oh," Sheppard said after a long moment, rubbing his eyes. "Okay. Nice game."
There was something a little... wrong in his voice. A little rusty and distracted. It made Rodney feel weird enough to grip him manfully by the shoulder as he said good-bye.
After that Sheppard seemed back to normal, mostly. He shot at things with the Marines, and hit things with Ronon and Teyla and did whatever else it was he did all day; Rodney was too involved in running vacuum expectation value simulations to keep track of him.
He was so close. It should have been obvious to even a small child that zero point energy had gravitational mass, of course, but he was on the verge of proving it, in which case they could hand him his Nobel Prize right now, thank you very much. Sheppard was weird enough for any ten colonels. He'd still be weird tomorrow; it could wait.
The simulations were zipping along without him for the time being, so Rodney took advantage of the rare free moment to grab a sandwich at the mess. His open laptop should have made it obvious he was not interested in company, but he'd barely taken the first bite of his tava-burger before Radek bounced in giddily with, of all people, Major Lorne in tow.
"Rodney," Radek said, smiling. He didn't say anything else. Was Rodney supposed to guess what he wanted? Had all of Atlantis turned strange?
"McKay." Lorne grinned at him. Rodney thought he'd had just about enough and turned pointedly back to the screen.
"Rodney," Radek said again. "Ask me what I did today."
"What? I don't care what you did today. Weren't you in the lab? Didn't I see you there?"
"Rodney," Radek said for the third time and then giggled. Rodney was seriously transferring back to Siberia if this was what he could expect from--oh. The puddlejumper drive tests.
"The modifications to the engine pods gave us a consistent fourteen percent speed increase in atmosphere." Radek grinned. It made him look like an elf. Not the good kind, either. "Just as I predicted."
"Better acceleration, too." Lorne added, sounding a little breathless. And were his pupils dilated? "You shoulda been there, doc."
"Please, I have more important things to do than play with--wait. Why were you there? Doesn't Sheppard usually test the jumpers?"
Lorne shrugged. "He said he didn't want to. Said he had some paperwork that needed to get done."
Sheppard had passed up test-piloting an enhanced and possibly dangerously unstable puddlejumper in favor of paperwork? In what universe did that make sense?
"Are you sure?" There had to be an explanation. Lorne had probably clocked him over the back of the head and then run for the jumper bay. That was more likely than Sheppard wanting to do paperwork.
"Asked him twice." Lorne shrugged, and then the grin was back. "Wasn't about to ask three times."
He suddenly punched Radek in the arm in some kind of caveman bonding ritual. "You should have seen this guy up there. Took him a while to get over his nerves, but underneath it all, he's an animal."
Zelenka gave a pleased little smile and tentatively punched Lorne back. Rodney rolled his eyes and left to check on his simulation before they started grunting.
Two points were not enough to graph a function. So Sheppard lost at chess and didn't want to fly the jumpers. That didn't necessarily mean anything. Rodney knew that Sheppard was sometimes unpredictable. He wasn't worried.
So he didn't keep an eye on Sheppard over the next few days. If he needed him at the lab more than usual, it was because there was a lot of new Ancient tech to initialize. It wasn't Rodney's fault that Sheppard's mutant gene made him the best man for the job.
And Sheppard seemed fine, anyway. He made jokes, and rolled his eyes, and whined at all the moments Rodney expected him to. He didn't seem tired or sick or under alien influence. He was fine.
And if he wasn't--well, they had a mission scheduled soon to P8J-738, otherwise known as The Planet of Endless Summer. Ninety percent of it was ocean; the rest was one large land mass with white sand beaches, regular fifteen-foot swells, and temperate weather year-round. The local population called themselves the Danji and made a cotton-like cloth and grew a strawberry-like fruit. They also apparently worshipped surfing. On missions there, Sheppard would invariably disappear for a few hours in the name of cultural relations and come back wet, sandy, and grinning.
If anything could shake Sheppard out of his funk, it would be P8J-738. Rodney had complete confidence in the efficacy of salt water submersion for perking up droopy colonels.
The Planet of Endless Summer was everything Rodney remembered. Half-dressed native girls he wasn't allowed to touch, sand itching its way into distressingly private places under his uniform, and a hot tropical sun beating down on everything. Rodney was never sure--and he was unwilling to test it--but it was also entirely possible that the purplish fruit served as garnish to every meal was some sort of pineapple--which was too close to citrus for Rodney's comfort. He stuck to power bars.
Sheppard, however, seemed to be having as good a time as he always did. Rodney was willing to put up with an afternoon of alien fruit for the easy grin on Sheppard's face and the relaxed looseness in his limbs.
They'd done their trading, had their ceremonial feast, and now was the time when Sheppard, and sometimes Teyla, usually disappeared to go worship the ocean by riding wooden planks on it or something.
But Sheppard just shook his head when Paju, the youngest of the Elders, showed him the new boards propped in a corner of the open hut the Danji used for meetings, even though one was temptingly black and shiny.
Rodney was all set to start worrying again when he noticed that Sheppard was still grinning. He was talking animatedly with a group of local kids and Sufi An, the beautiful Danjian princess. Rodney rolled his eyes--of course. Sufi had laughing eyes and golden skin and wavy hair so black it was almost blue. Sheppard had to be doing okay if he felt up to flirting; and Sufi knew Sheppard well enough that an intergalactic diplomatic incident was unlikely. Still, it never hurt to keep an eye on Sheppard offworld when he was talking to a pretty girl.
Rodney was making his way over to the group when Sheppard suddenly dropped to his knees, forming a circle with Sufi and the children on the grass mat; Rodney could see now that there was some kind of small animal between them. It seemed to be mostly fluffy black and white fur. If it had a head, Rodney couldn't see it, but it must have had legs, since it gamboled unsteadily between Sheppard and the kids.
Sheppard made room for Rodney in the circle, but Rodney preferred to stand. The fluff-thing fell over onto what was probably its back, and Sheppard threw his head back and gave a braying laugh. Rodney was shocked to realize it had been weeks since he'd heard that. Sufi righted the furball and smiled up at Rodney.
"She is called Rihalii."
"Yeah," Sheppard said, "She's a--" He looked to Sufi as if trying to remember. "A thiji. Like a dog."
Rodney peered down at it. Black eyes blinked up at him through the long fur before the thing gave a little shake and made a high pitched barking noise.
"Aw," Sheppard said, "She likes you, Rodney."
Sheppard played with the thiji for forty-five solid minutes. Rodney bit back all the comments he wanted to make about sharp teeth and alien rabies and tribbles, because Sheppard looked happy and he'd laughed at least three more times, and Rihalii was pretty cute for something with no discernible head.
When it was finally time to leave, Sheppard actually hugged the damn thing and rubbed what Rodney guessed was its stomach before handing it back to Sufi.
"We look forward to seeing you all again," Sufi said and Rihalii barked.
Rodney supposed now they'd have to call it the Planet of Endless Summer and Dubious Furballs, but at least Sheppard was happy.
Sheppard didn't stay happy. He didn't laugh that horrible donkey laugh once in the next week, not that Rodney was keeping track.
Rodney was busy with his vacuum energy project and keeping the idiots in the labs in check. Veracruz had somehow managed to screw up the desalinization plant to the extent that it was actually making the water saltier; Johnson, who was supposedly a mathematician, seemed to have forgotten how to add in his latest batch of calculations, and Zelenka couldn't stop talking about his quantum entanglement proposal, no matter how many times Rodney said "Fine, yes, go work on it, but for the love of God don't make me hear about it any more."
And then there was Sheppard, haunting the labs like a lost puppy, or eating in the mess with a sad, distracted look on his face, barely noticing the savory-smelling treska bean soup he was spooning into his mouth, which, as Rodney knew firsthand, was excellent.
When Rodney found himself thinking about Sheppard late at night in the lab when he should have been devoting his brain to vacuum energy, he knew the time had come to act. He did not need to add worrying about a mopey colonel to his long list of problems.
Teyla. Teyla was the person to handle Sheppard. Clearly he needed to… talk or something, and she was good at that. She'd make him feel better.
So the next evening he may have mentioned to Sheppard that Teyla wanted to practice her N'tia meditations after dinner and needed a partner for the two-person katas. And he may have told Teyla that Sheppard was feeling sad lately and really wanted to talk to her, but had confessed to Rodney that he was too emotionally stunted to ask. Teyla raised an eyebrow at that, but it was all for the cause of Rodney being able to concentrate on his work and therefore the advancement of science and human achievement. He didn't feel bad.
But the next day Sheppard was still in Rodney's lab, getting underfoot and looking as mopey as ever. Rodney gave him an artifact to play with that produced a cinnamon-like smell when you thought on at it and went in search of Teyla.
She was in her room and answered the door wearing some kind of filmy Athosian robe. Rodney stammered out his question.
"He did not wish to talk, Rodney," she said. "Are you certain he expressed that desire to you?"
"Maybe not in words." Rodney forced himself to concentrate firmly on her face. "But have you seen him lately?"
"I have not noticed anything wrong."
"But… He did paperwork."
Teyla blinked at him. "Perhaps you should speak to him, then, if you are concerned."
He had a lot more to say to her, but she was beginning to get that look in her eyes that meant she'd humored him just about all she was prepared to for the moment. He took a breath. "Talk to him?"
Rodney was about to explain just why that was a terrible idea, when something in the thin line of her mouth made him stop.
"Umm, yeah. I can do that. Sure," he said.
Teyla smiled supportively as she firmly shut her door. A moment later he heard the sound of her shower running.
Fine. He could talk to Sheppard. How hard could it be?
He spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down the materials he needed. Come nineteen-hundred, he set his laptop up on his coffee table and radioed Sheppard on a private channel.
"I have Canadian beer and the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Be here in ten minutes."
"Ten minutes." He clicked off.
It took Sheppard closer to fifteen. He said "Hi, Rodney," then nothing else through the first episode and the first two beers.
"I didn't think anyone on base had that yet," was the first thing he said, finally, when the episode ended.
"I have my sources." Rodney opened Sheppard another beer.
Sheppard didn't say anything through the second episode either, and Rodney began to despair of ever getting him to open up. After alcohol and sci-fi he was out of ideas.
He was trying to decide whether it was worth it or not to give Sheppard his last beer, when Sheppard plucked the framed picture of Rodney's cat from his bedside table.
He worried it between his fingers for a moment. "What's your cat's name?"
"The name, Rodney. Of your cat."
At least Sheppard was talking. Could this be considered progress?
"What? What does that have to do with anything? And I already told you, anyway."
"I forgot. Humor me."
"Maybe I don't want you to know."
"Fine." Rodney spoke as quietly as he could. "F.C."
"For Fuzzy Cat." And there was the braying laugh. "Now I remember."
"Hey, I didn't name him."
"I got him from an ex-girlfriend. He came with that name."
"I believe you, buddy."
Rodney glared. Why had he wanted Sheppard to talk, again?
"I ever tell you I used to have a dog? When I was a kid?" Sheppard was using that weird, quiet voice again.
"You did?" Rodney watched Sheppard turning the picture of his cat over in his hands.
"Yeah. Been thinking about him some since I got back from Earth."
Earth. His father's funeral. Rodney felt his stomach drop. What kind of lousy friend was he for not realizing that was the problem? But Sheppard had seemed fine after the trip. Everyone thought he was handling his father's death well.
"He was a beagle. Wasn't good enough for showing, so my dad gave him to me. He had some ridiculous show-dog name, but I called him Hornet."
"After the F-18. Shut up, Fuzzy."
Just for that, Rodney was drinking the last beer.
"I was twelve. We both loved that dog. Only time my father and I ever saw eye-to-eye on anything."
Rodney tried, but he couldn't get out the words he wanted to say--words like how are you doing and are you okay. Sheppard must have seen something in his face, though, because he smiled.
"Hey," Sheppard said. "I know I've been weird lately. It's just, with my dad--even though we weren't close--and, you know, everything in the Pegasus Galaxy. It gets to you after a while." He took a swallow of his beer. "And for some reason I just--I really miss Hornet. I haven't thought about him in years. Well, not much."
It was the most Rodney had ever heard him talk about his feelings. He pushed the last beer over to Sheppard after all, and they watched the next two episodes in silence before calling it a night.
After that it was obvious what to do; it only took him a few minutes to hack into the Daedalus' manifest. Rodney went to bed feeling very pleased with himself.
The feeling lasted until Sam called him into her office the next day.
"You can't have a dog, Rodney."
"It's for Sheppard. And how did you know it was me?"
"Because anyone else would have asked, instead of changing the Daedalus' cargo list. Also you used your own laptop. Are you even trying anymore?"
Rodney decided to let that go for the moment. "Okay. I'm asking."
A long strand of hair was loose from Sam's braid. It wafted in the air as she sighed. "It's against IOA policy to import Earth animals except for small experimental specimens. They're worried about invasive species."
"So we'll get Sheppard's dog fixed."
"I'm sorry, Rodney."
"What about a native Pegasus species, then? The Planet of Endless Summer has these tribble things."
"The IOA forbids Atlantis personnel to keep any kind of pets larger than goldfish. It's in your contract."
"Oh, come on, Sam, that's ridiculous."
"I'm not saying I disagree. But we're in a war zone. What if we had to evacuate? Or if something happened to the owner? The IOA doesn't think Atlantis can support pets, Rodney. I hope that changes."
"Yeah, me too."
He thought he'd spoken pretty reasonably for how pissed off he felt, but Sam must have heard something in his voice.
"Let this one go, McKay."
He turned to leave. "Of course."
He waved back at her without turning around.
That afternoon Rodney sent a politely worded email to General Landry at the SGC.
The response he received that evening was far less civil, so Rodney sent another email. On the surface it was just as polite.
He really should have been working on his vacuum energy project, but Rodney disliked being thwarted by bureaucracy almost as much as he liked composing his Nobel acceptance speech.
It wouldn't take him that long, anyway. A few months ago he'd stumbled on some ten-thousand-year-old research in the Ancient database. At the time he'd dismissed it as typical Ancient metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but it could come in useful now.
He settled down to work. He could knock this thing out in a weekend, tops.
A weekend may have been too optimistic a time-frame. Rodney hadn't been able to piggy-back nearly as much of his work onto the Ancient research as he'd hoped; he'd had to develop and fabricate new systems from scratch. At least he was getting to use his mechanical engineering doctorate for something besides being the city repairman.
After a week, Rodney sequestered himself in his favorite auxiliary lab--the one where the idiots knew better than to bother him for anything less than imminent death or dismemberment--his, not theirs.
Someone taped a sign to the outside of the lab door--Rodney saw it when he returned from one of his trips to forage for food. It read, "Beware of the Leopard." Huh. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, cute. He left it up; it was as good a Keep Out as any.
Progress, finally. The joints were articulating just the way they should. Audio input was achievable at up to sixty-five kilohertz, output averaged at fifty decibels.
Rodney had had to code entirely new applications of game theory and decision theory, and of course symbolic AI was useless--what had those morons at Stanford been thinking? The Ancients had made some strides there, thank God, but he'd still had to build a completely new form of strong AI practically from the ground up; if he was ever able to let Earth in on his work, he'd be due two Nobels. At least.
The team didn't have any missions that Rodney, as chief science officer, couldn't sign himself out of, and the Wraith were being cooperatively quiet for once, so he could devote his full attention to the new project. Sheppard radioed every once in a while to ask him to play chess, or video golf; Rodney felt a little bad about the terse, "Working," he invariably replied.
And then it was done. Rodney felt a little hysterical and smelled a lot ripe. He knew he should take a shower and maybe get something to eat before he showed Sheppard, but he just could not wait, so he grabbed all twenty-three pounds and headed to Sheppard's quarters. He remembered to be polite and ring the door-chime, but he couldn't be bothered to wait for an answer.
Sheppard looked up from his laptop when he walked in. "Howdy, stranger. Guess I don't have to send this nasty email after all." He stopped and suddenly looked closer. "What is that?"
"It's yours," Rodney said, unable to contain his grin. "He's yours."
Sheppard moved so quickly he seemed to materialize in Rodney's personal space. He nudged at one of Rodney's arms to get a better look at his burden. "What is it?"
"It's a dog." Rodney sat down on Sheppard's bed. His project sniffed around a little, then settled into Rodney's lap. "For all intents and purposes."
"A dog?" Sheppard sounded a little faint.
"Yes," said Rodney, then: "No. Actually it's better."
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked, using a familiar tone of voice--the one that was supposed to fool people into thinking he was calm. "Why is it silver?"
"Huh. Interesting question. Fur was actually a much bigger stumbling block than I anticipated. I tried a few different things, but it all felt weird. Or it didn't move right. Or it was purple. I nearly went ahead with that one, actually, but--"
"--I decided fur wasn't really that important. His skin's warm. Go ahead, pet him. Feels nice." Rodney demonstrated. "It's an Ancient polymer. Kind of like rubber but, you know, with simulated nerve-endings. See? He likes it."
Sheppard stared open-mouthed at the wagging tail. "Where'd you get it?"
"Are you listening? I made him. For you."
Sheppard sat down hard next to him on the bed. Rodney took the opportunity to push the project onto his lap.
"You made him?"
"Okay, I get that you're thrilled stupid. But it's a little irritating to repeat everything I say."
Sheppard scrubbed a hand through his hair. The project sat up and began to take an interest in his surroundings--stomping around Sheppard's bed and growling experimentally at his pillow. His tail stuck up straight in the air as he jumped on the floor and sniffed around the room curiously.
Rodney tried to see him through Sheppard's eyes. He was shaped like a beagle--medium-sized, slightly more than a foot tall with a compact sturdy body and well-defined musculature visible under the skin. He had a broad head with a rounded top, big floppy ears and a square muzzle with a little triangular nose at the end. Rodney had taken the specs from some beagle who had just won the Westminster Dog Show, so he was a perfect specimen. More or less.
True, he was silver and smooth, instead of brown and furry, but Sheppard couldn't expect everything. His eyes, nose, and mouth stood out sharply against the silver; they were darker, almost black, as was the tip of his tail. He was cute--there was no other word for it--with his big, curious eyes and the way his mouth kind of smiled up at you. Rodney felt immensely pleased with his work. And that was just the outside.
"So?" He turned to Sheppard. "What do you think?"
Finished inspecting Sheppard's room, the dog sat in front of the bed, staring up at them with black eyes that sparkled with intelligence, just like a real beagle's. There was even a little bit of white around the pupils, though it rarely showed. They received visual information better than a real dog's; the project's eyesight was two-point-five times sharper than an actual beagle's.
He must have seen something he liked in Sheppard's face, because he crouched on his haunches and scrambled up into Sheppard's lap. He wagged his tail as if pleased with his mighty leap and licked Sheppard's hand happily. Rodney felt a flush of pride; it hadn't been easy getting the dog's tongue just the right consistency of wet.
Sheppard coughed. "Rodney."
"Maybe you better start from the beginning."
"Fine. You wanted a dog--"
"I wanted a dog?"
Rodney sent him his best don't-interrupt-me glare.
"Okay. Yes. Actually, I did want a dog." Sheppard sounded puzzled.
"I made you one. He has several hundred state-of-the-art wholly articulating joints, the most fully-developed AI yet invented--capable of reinforcement and unsupervised learning, and his name is K-9."
Sheppard had leaned forward to nuzzle the nose of the dog--who was wagging his tail so hard that Rodney would have thought it was in danger of falling off if he hadn't made it--but at this he looked up.
"I am not naming my dog after Doctor Who. His name is Max. I always wanted to have a dog named Max."
The dog, who apparently had no loyalty to his creator, looked up at Sheppard, adoration shining in his dark eyes, and barked in what was almost certainly agreement.
"What do you know?" said Rodney.
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked a few hours later as Max tore up a stack of After Action Reports he'd given him to play with. He sounded embarrassed. "He's um... He's... not alive, is he?"
"Yes." Rodney snorted. "Because I'm God." He raised a hand. "Don't say it."
"So he's a robot?"
"He's a highly advanced mechanical construct, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing in all the important--yes," he said at the look on Sheppard's face. "He's a robot."
"Cool," Sheppard said.
Early the next morning, Rodney was awoken by a warm wet tongue tracing a line up his neck.
"Mmm," he said, lost in the sensation for a moment before his brain came online and he bolted to a sitting position.
He heard an indignant yelp as Max flew off the bed, followed shortly by Sheppard's ridiculous laugh.
"Don't you knock?" he asked, annoyed.
"Yeah, that's funny," Sheppard said. "Max and I just got back from the East Pier."
He grabbed Max off the floor and sprawled on Rodney's bed in a way that forced Rodney to scoot into his headboard.
"This guy is awesome." Sheppard rubbed the dog's head vigorously, then grinned at Rodney in a way that made him fear he was next. "You should see him fetch. Tomorrow I'm gonna try him out on a Frisbee. You think you can handle a Frisbee, Max?"
Max panted with sheer joy and wagged his tail hard enough to make the rest of his body vibrate.
"He is a state of the art McKay-Ancient hybrid seed AI, Sheppard. He's capable of a lot more than Frisbee."
"I think I'll start him on some dog stuff before I figure out what college to send him to." Sheppard pulled a tennis ball out of his pocket. "Show your Uncle Rodney what you can do."
Max took the ball in his mouth and padded up to Rodney, then waited with an expectant look in his eyes. At that moment Rodney realized it was true that owners started to look like their dogs, because Sheppard wore the identical expectant expression on his face. Rodney sighed and took the ball. He tossed it across the room. It bounced once, then Max leaped from the bed, snatched it out of the air and dashed back to Rodney, seemingly all in one move.
He waited, making high-pitched eager noises around the ball in his mouth until Rodney threw it again. Sheppard watched Max proudly. Every once in a while he said "Way to go," or "Attaboy," and Rodney felt slightly ridiculous at having to fight the feeling the praise was for him.
Max made his debut to Atlantis at large that morning at the senior staff meeting.
Everyone was already seated around the conference room by the time Sheppard walked in five minutes late. Max was with him, sporting a collar and leash. Rodney wondered where Sheppard had gotten them, and then wondered if Atlantis was the kind of work environment where people brought their dogs to the office. He'd worked briefly for a software company like that once. It had been kind of nice.
Rodney was suddenly aware that the pre-meeting buzz had abruptly silenced and everyone was staring at Max, most open-mouthed. No one said a word while Sheppard found his usual chair, scooted a little further back from the table than usual, and whistled. Max clambered onto his lap and looked eagerly around at the group. He was panting a little, his mouth held open in a smile.
"Colonel Sheppard?" Carter said, maybe thirty seconds later. There was no call for her to sound so shocked. With the way she was always going on about SG-1, a robot dog shouldn't have even been a blip on her radar.
"This is Max," Sheppard said. "Rodney made him."
"You made him?" Carter and Radek said at the same time. Rodney didn't like Sam's tone of disbelief, but Radek rolled his chair closer to Sheppard to get a good look.
"Ah," Radek said. "From the Ancient life-science research we found three months ago, yes? I see you solved the problem of--"
"Yes." Rodney said. "The Ancients had it all wrong. There was no reason to--"
"I can see that. And you decided to keep me in the dark about this."
"Why would--it was a present for Sheppard. And besides, you wouldn't shut up about quantum entanglement."
"Forgive me for--"
"Gentlemen," Sam said hastily. "It's Ancient tech?" she asked Rodney. "Nanites?"
"Of course not," Sheppard said firmly. "Rodney wouldn't give me anything made of nanites. It's a robot."
"McKay?" Sam asked.
Rodney felt warmed by Sheppard's complete confidence. It was true; he hadn't even considered using nanites for Sheppard's dog. Not for long, anyway. "Nope. No nanites. It's fascinating, really--"
"Can I touch it?" Ronon asked.
"Him," Sheppard said. "Sure." He placed Max on the table and bent his head close. "That big guy over there is Ronon. He wants to meet you."
Max padded across the table obediently. His nails clicked loudly in the quiet room. When he got to within a foot of Ronon, he seemed to turn suddenly shy and hesitated, ducking his head and sniffing. When the big man didn't make any sudden moves, Max slowly looked up at him. A moment later, he wagged his tail tentatively, then with more confidence.
Ronon scooped him into his arms. Max made a pleased, snuffly noise and licked his face. Ronon hugged him so hard Rodney was glad the dog didn't really have to breathe--Max used air transference strictly as a cooling measure.
Max began to sniff and bite at Ronon's dreadlocks, and Ronon actually giggled. Rodney said, "Hey, he's too expensive to lose in that shambles you call a hairstyle," at the same time as Sam said, "All right, Rodney, share with the class."
Rodney threw Ronon and his hair one last look and sighed. "Short version: once upon a time, a few renegade Ancient scientists had the idea that instead of just replicating life, they could actually create it. Maybe it was rampant Ancient insanity, maybe ascension just wasn't the thrill it used to be--"
"I thought you said--"
"For the last time, Sheppard. Not alive. Has he eaten anything? Or taken a--"
"Rodney," Sam said. "Stay on point."
"Of course they couldn't do it, but before they were laughed out of Atlantis, they managed to develop some interesting simulations of simple life. Nothing as sophisticated as Max, of course, but they did contribute a few things. Max's skin and musculature for instance, and the beginnings of his AI. All vastly improved by me, naturally."
"Naturally," Sam said in a way that Rodney thought was probably sarcastic.
"Bottom line, Max is not a replicator, not alive, and not prohibited under any IOA rules. I checked."
Max barked in a decisive manner and returned across the conference table to Sheppard.
"Um," Sam said. "He can't understand us. Can he?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "He's a dog, Sam. I coded his AI to be smart and trainable, but he's still limited by a dog's abilities."
"You hear that, Max?" Sheppard scratched Max's stomach. He rolled over onto his back on the table, lolling for all he was worth. "No taking over Atlantis as evil overlord for you."
"More's the pity," Rodney said under his breath.
Teyla approached Sheppard and Max. "May I?" She took over stomach scratching duties when Sheppard nodded.
"I see you have given the dog a penis," she said. "Surely it is not necessary in an artificial creature?"
Rodney was glad he'd already finished his coffee. As it was he could feel himself turning bright red. He stammered out something--he wasn't sure what--about Sheppard being used to boy animals, which made Sheppard glare and Teyla laugh.
After that the meeting was pretty much a wash. Max tolerated everyone touching him with far more grace than his owner would have, and Rodney noted that he'd already learned that holding his mouth open in an appealing beagle-grin got him good things, like belly and ear scratches. It wouldn't be long before Max had all Atlantis trained. He'd already conquered Sheppard, if the man's goofy smile was any indication.
After half an hour of puppy love, Sam finally gave up and called the meeting to an end. Before they left the conference room she made Sheppard promise to leave Max in his quarters for any future staff meetings, so it looked like Atlantis wasn't a take-your-dog-to-work kind of place after all.
Max quickly became the most popular member of the expedition. He ran with Sheppard and Ronon every morning--continuing on with Ronon after they'd exhausted Sheppard. The Marines were training him for search-and-rescue--which involved a lot more tug-of-war and fetch than actual training, as far as Rodney could tell. The scientists made him the unofficial lab mascot--Rodney even caught Simpson with a tape measure. He suspected she was knitting him a sweater.
Sheppard seemed to regard Rodney as Max's step-owner or godfather or something, and would regularly drag him out of his lab to show off a new trick Max had learned, or for a rambunctious game of hide-the-sock. It never seemed to matter to them how much work Rodney had to get done; Sheppard would show up, Rodney would say no, and Max would make his eyes huge and give him his little dog-smile.
"Do not give me that look," Rodney would say. "I programmed that look."
But he'd always had a hard time resisting Shepard's puppy dog eyes, and now there were four big eyes staring up at him in mute appeal. In the end he always went.
They were on the East Pier again today, in a sunny closed-off area someone had set up as a dog run. Rodney had his laptop with him; Sheppard and Max were off cavorting somewhere.
He was finally getting some good work in on the vacuum energy equations when a shadow fell over his screen.
"He doesn't like Frisbee," Sheppard said mournfully.
Rodney grunted unsympathetically, trying to concentrate on the equations.
"I was sure he'd like Frisbee." Sheppard peered over his shoulder. Rodney angled his laptop away. "Can't you do something about that?"
"He makes his own decisions. The AI was written to develop its own preferences."
Close association with Max had apparently improved Sheppard's whining, not that he'd been a slouch at it before. Rodney put the laptop down.
"That's your Frisbee?"
Sheppard must have had it since college. It looked rough and scratchy around the edges, and it might have once been red, but the sun and accumulated dirt had turned it a sickly orange. Rodney didn't blame Max; he wouldn't want to put it in his mouth either.
"What about it?" Sheppard looked down in the object in his hands. "Best Frisbee I ever had. Aerodynamically perfect."
"It's disgusting. Nolan in Botany has a mold. He makes them out of tree sap or something. Tell him I said to drop his moronic plant hormone experiments and make you a new one."
"You're a prince, Rodney." Sheppard said. Max barked.
"Whatever. Working now. No. No, Max! We do not lick the touchpad."
When Sheppard tripped over an invisible crack in a cobblestone path on MX8-334 and sprained his ankle, Max even proved to be a pretty good assistance animal--fetching him comic books from across the room, and keeping him company during the long hours he was forced to spend in bed.
In fact, of all the times Sheppard had been laid up since Rodney had known him, this enforced bed-rest was definitely the easiest. Max kept Sheppard happy and entertained instead of whiny and on the comm to Rodney--which was his default setting in these situations. Rodney chalked up another point in the win column--making Sheppard a robot dog had been the best idea ever.
So he was taken by complete surprise when his radio shouted at him early one morning, tinny and desperate from his bedside table. Rodney came awake instantly, expecting an invasion or power drain.
It was still dark outside. "Max is gone." Sheppard's voice was hoarse as Rodney slipped his earpiece on.
"What do you mean gone?" Rodney asked, already pulling on his clothes.
"I mean gone."
"Where could he go?"
"I don't know, Rodney. I woke up, and he wasn't here."
Sheppard's voice had a hard, worried edge that Rodney had rarely heard from him. Something cold and stiff formed at the bottom of his stomach. "I'll be right there."
"Check the East Pier. Maybe he's at the dog run."
"Why would he be--"
"I don't know, McKay. Just try it." The radio clicked off.
He wasn't at the dog run. Rodney had known he wouldn't be--Sheppard had probably known he wouldn't be--but he'd had to check, for John.
He arrived at Sheppard's quarters fifteen minutes later to find him hobbling around half-dressed trying to pull on combat boots.
"What do you think you're--"
"We can cover more territory if we split up. You take the personal quarters. I'll take the jumper bay and lower levels."
Sheppard gave up trying to fit a boot over his swollen ankle, and seemed prepared to conduct a search for Max in his bare feet.
"You can't even walk."
"If you're not going to help you can leave."
"What? Of course I'm going to help but you can't--"
The door-chime rang. John threw the door a hopeful, anxious look. It clicked open and Ronon entered, Max under one big arm. Sheppard nearly fell over trying to get to them. "Where did you find him?"
"Took him for our run, like always. What do you mean, find him?"
Rodney looked at Ronon. He had his dreads pulled back and was dressed in sweat-drenched running clothes.
Ronon shrugged. "Didn't look lost to me. He was there, usual time, usual place. Wanted to run."
Sheppard took his eyes from Max for the first time since Ronon had entered the room. "He's been restless since I've been hurt, but--the door was closed. And locked. There's no way he could have gotten out."
Rodney had to sit down. "Son of a bitch. It worked."
"Ow," said Sheppard, whose leg had been jostled by Rodney plopping on his bed. He stared dangerously at him. "McKay?"
"That's fantastic," Rodney said. He jumped up. "I have to tell Radek."
"McKay!" He was almost at the door by the time he registered Sheppard's shout.
"Oh," Rodney said. "His ATA gene has kicked in--he can interface with Ancient technology. He opened the door by himself. This is great."
"His what? What do you mean, his ATA gene?"
Rodney waved a hand. "Well, the mechanical equivalent, obviously. I don't have time to discuss this; I have to find Zelenka."
He was out the door and away before Sheppard could stop him. It was pretty easy with Sheppard's busted ankle.
Rodney spent the next two hours in his lab poring over Max's circuit diagrams with Zelenka. Machinery interfacing with the Ancient tech was nothing new--the puddlejumpers did it every time they remote-dialed a gate, but every piece of equipment that had thus far been capable of it had required a human operator. The implications of Max being able to do it under his own direction were huge.
So huge that Rodney hadn't really believed it would work, even as he had coded the potential into Max's AI. It had taken Max himself to activate the subroutine; he must have really wanted to go for a run.
Somewhere around hour three Sheppard limped in with Max on a leash and an intense look in his eye. Zelenka disappeared.
"Gah," Rodney said. "Sit down before you fall over. And get that leg up."
After Sheppard was settled, stoically refusing to acknowledge the ankle that looked ready to burst like a balloon, Rodney explained the mechanical ATA gene in as simple language as he could manage. When Sheppard glared at him, Rodney slid over Max's circuit diagrams and called up the relevant lines of code on the nearest computer.
"Why does he need to be compatible with the gene-operated equipment?" Sheppard asked after staring at the computer screen for twenty minutes. He looked a little fuzzy around the eyes.
"He doesn't, strictly speaking."
"Then why would you code it in? Didn't you think it could cause problems?"
The cold lump was back in Rodney's stomach. He hadn't thought about any problems; he'd just wanted Sheppard to have the best dog he could make for him. He'd been thinking it would be cool if Sheppard's dog could operate things like doggie doors with his mind.
He grimaced. "I--uh. I can't turn it off. Sorry."
Even Max could tell Rodney felt bad; he snuffled up to him, pushing the top of his head into Rodney's knee. Rodney reached down to scratch his ear.
"Okay," Sheppard said. "That's okay. We'll just have to keep a closer eye on him. And train him. You said he was trainable, right?"
"He's trainable." If he wants to be, Rodney added in his head.
Sheppard's ankle got somewhat better, and he had to do military-type stuff around the city. He didn't trust Max to be left on his own any more. Rodney--who had to work himself, more than Sheppard, even--was his dog-sitter of choice.
He would drop Max off at the lab in the mornings, and then go do whatever it was that he did. The Daedalus had recently delivered a new batch of Marines; Rodney supposed Sheppard was molding them in his image or something. If Rodney complained about being on Max duty, Sheppard would suggest scheduling an extra training session for Max that evening, which was ludicrous--Rodney got dragged into Max Obedience School three times a week as it was.
At least in the lab there was no shortage of Max-devotees willing to see to his every need. To Zelenka, Simpson, and Miko's eternal despair, however, Max only seemed to have eyes for Rodney.
He'd visit with the other scientists, and allow them to pet him, but it was Rodney's attention he craved. He'd acquired a host of dog toys--approximately every fifteen minutes he'd bring one to Rodney at his computer or the white-board. He wouldn't leave him alone again until Rodney threw the tennis ball, or squeaked the rubber bone, or--God help him--did a cooing sound for the surprisingly realistic stuffed pigeon Radek had made out of a pillowcase and infirmary cotton balls.
Why Zelenka would be teaching Max to hunt his precious flying rats by carrying one around in his mouth was beyond Rodney. Zelenka insisted he was training Max to respect them. He was pathologically jealous of the attention Max paid Rodney, accusing him of hard-wiring his affection for him--to which Rodney responded hotly that all he had hard-wired into Max was superior judgment.
He could have done with considerably less affection, truth be told. He would have been happy to hand Max off to Radek once in a while, just so he could get some work done. He had made Max; he felt a pride of accomplishment every time he looked at him, but he couldn't understand why the rest of Atlantis had gone silly.
Max was a machine, not a real animal. He didn't feel emotion; he simulated it--although with his super-powered AI, that line was so fuzzy as to have blurred itself out of existence. Still, if nothing else, Rodney was a cat person. He was unmoved when Max greeted him each morning, thrilled to his core to see him, jumping around on the end of his leash, shaking with excitement. He did not melt when Max looked up at him with a hopeful expression in his big black eyes and dropped his favorite pink tennis ball at his feet.
And now, when Rodney's vacuum energy tests had hit a possibly devastating setback and he slumped in his chair with his eyes closed, he felt nothing as he heard Max pad up to him on quiet feet. The dog fit his round-topped head under Rodney's dangling hand; his smooth skin was warm as he nuzzled Rodney's leg. Rodney opened his eyes to see Max gazing up at him mournfully, sad as only a hound dog could be. Rodney nodded and Max jumped into his lap, snuggling down. Rodney petted him for a while, long strokes from his head down his back. He could feel Max's warmth spreading across his lap, and under his hand. It was... comforting.
Max seemed to have discovered other new abilities along with his mechanical gene. His sense of smell had improved dramatically--it still wasn't on par with a scent hound like a beagle, but it was better than a human's. Olfactory reception was one area Rodney hadn't been able to conquer in his lab work--the technology just wasn't there. He'd been able to install some rudimentary chemical receptors, but he hadn't expected much function out of them. So it was gratifying that Max had been able to use his evolving AI to bring them on-line, even though it now meant that he had to be kept on a leash during runs to keep him from dashing off to investigate every exciting new scent. He also showed a new affinity for digging through garbage. Rodney was secretly proud of his curiosity--that was the basis for all scientific advancement, after all--but he could have done without Max's sudden desire to sniff the crotches of all the expedition members.
He was proving extremely trainable; Rodney and Sheppard had worked out a series of hand-signals, and Max could follow long sequences of directions with ease--bring Rodney a whiteboard marker and eraser; locate Radek where he was slacking in the mess hall; fetch a few chocolate-chip power bars while he was there; drag Radek back to the lab.
Rodney really wanted to see if he could teach Max chess, but he dreaded the inevitable Sheppard freak-out. It was ridiculous--computers played chess all the time--but Sheppard was not always known for his logic.
Rodney sighed. He was elbow-deep in transporter guts; he didn't have time for Sheppard and that tone of voice. He tapped his radio. "What?"
"Get to the ZPM room."
"What? What is it?" Maybe the transporter repairs could wait.
"Just get your ass over here."
Sheppard sounded annoyed, not panicked, which was a good sign. Probably not a Wraith takeover or an impending explosion then. Still, discretion was the better part of valor. Rodney ran.
When he got there, Sheppard and Ronon were standing in the hallway outside the ZPM room watching Max go nuts. He alternated jumping around in circles and barking with crouching down and growling at the closed door. Sheppard tugged at his leash to no avail.
"McKay?" Rodney wasn't entirely sure he liked the demanding note in Sheppard's voice. "What's going on?"
Rodney was still out of breath from running. "He's your dog."
"We were out for a run when Max pulled us this way. He was very insistent, and now he's barking at the ZPM. Tell me what's going on, before I get worried and call the Marines."
Rodney sighed and bent down to Max. "It's okay," he said. "Good job, but we got this one."
Max immediately relaxed, sitting down and scratching his side with lazy strokes of his paw.
"McKay?" Sheppard asked.
"I may have programmed him to sniff out ZPMs. What?"
Sheppard just rolled his eyes and pulled Max away by his leash.
"You'll thank me someday," Rodney called after.
It was still early for lunch so there wasn't much of a line in the mess hall; Rodney was able to get his food and settle at a table with a minimum of fuss. He sniffed at his almost-chicken salad sandwich with the citrus-free almost-mayonnaise. It smelled kind of like strawberries.
Sheppard materialized of nowhere suddenly, and settled across from him with a plate of macaroni and cheese. "So what other surprises do we have in store?"
"Hmm?" Rodney asked around his bite of sandwich, shuddering a little because strawberries and chicken should not mix. Sheppard didn't have Max with him. It had become strange to see them apart, but taking Max to the mess now that he was interested in smelling everything was a disaster waiting to happen.
"Max. What other upgrades did you sneak into him? He's not going to suddenly turn into a super-weapon, is he?"
"Of course not," Rodney said. "Well."
"Rodney," Sheppard said after he didn't say anything more.
"He has the best AI ever created. I told you that, right? Light years beyond anything they have on Earth. You thought I was blowing my own horn, but as a matter of fact, it's true."
"So Max is smart."
"He transcends smart, Sheppard. His AI is capable of improving itself. Making itself smarter--giving itself new abilities. It's the holy grail of AI research."
"Which means?" Sheppard took a bite of his food and leaned back. To someone less skilled than Rodney in Sheppard-interpretation, he would have looked casual.
Rodney sighed. "I don't know."
"This is all new territory. His base programming is Ancient--modified extensively by me, but still--he's absurdly close to a living organism. Living organisms are messy."
Rodney put down his sandwich. He didn't feel like eating anymore.
"Max was designed to be precisely as unpredictable as a real dog. Essentially he is a real dog. That's all I wanted when I made him for you."
Sheppard scrubbed a hand through his hair. "A real dog."
"His AI--his brain is as close to a dog's brain as I could make it. He's not going to be speaking English any time soon or flying the puddlejumpers. Beyond that? I don't know--it's up to Max." Rodney rubbed his suddenly aching forehead. "I could have made you a toy. I should have made you a toy."
"No." Sheppard's mouth tightened. "Max is great. You did good, Rodney."
Rodney sighed. He looked down, surprised to find he'd torn his sandwich into bits.
"You did good," Sheppard repeated, more firmly.
Rodney expected his days as Sheppard's favorite dog-sitter to end after that, but Sheppard seemed determined to go on as usual.
He still dropped Max off at the lab after their morning runs, still took him out to the dog run whenever he could, still petted him and praised him in exactly the same way he always had. There was a slightly reckless edge to his reach for normalcy--Rodney could feel it, thin and sharp as a razor. He'd associated the feeling with Sheppard before--too many times--when Sheppard would fly a jumper on a suicide mission, or crash a disintegrating shuttle into a planet, or face a Wraith Queen unarmed.
Rodney had made up his mind a long time ago to stand with Sheppard when he could, so he pretended that dog and owner were not extraordinary, that Max was average--was real. Rodney ignored Max; he grumbled; he made Sheppard coerce him into accompanying them to the dog run or on walks.
Max--perhaps in response to Sheppard's mood--did his part too. He behaved like an everyday dog. He played fetch and Frisbee; he smiled and charmed. There was no hint of unexpected abilities, no interfacing with the Ancient equipment--not even when Max rescued Doctor Parente from a locked storage closet by dragging Sheppard to the door and barking at it.
Completely normal dog behavior, Rodney assured Sheppard. Lassie did that kind of thing all the time--it was Timmy down the well instead of anthropologists locked in closets, but the principle was the same. Max hadn't read the life-signs monitor, or communicated somehow with Atlantis.
Sheppard seemed to unclench a little with every day that Max behaved like an average dog, and he treated Max less and less like a ticking bomb. It wasn't as if Sheppard didn't have other things to worry about. According to him, the new rotation of Marines was not shaping up the way it should.
"There's always one SGC asshole," Sheppard said as he dropped Max off one morning.
"Oh?" said Rodney, watching Miko try to entice Max to her side of the lab with what appeared to be an argyle sock pulled over her hand.
"Yeah," Sheppard said, then launched into a long story Rodney ignored in favor of Miko's antics, though he did catch something about a new Marine major named Bailey or Bakey or something, and his permission-to-speak-freelies, and that's-not-how-we-did-it-at-Cheyenne-Mountain-sirs. One bad apple could ruin the bunch, and one hardnosed hard-line SGC-er could threaten the apparently tenuous hold Sheppard had on his troops' puny little military hearts and minds, though Rodney was pretty sure Sheppard didn't phrase it that way. He tossed around words like "command style," and "cohesive unit," but it came to the same thing.
"Bust him to private, or make him scrub toilets with his toothbrush. Or shoot him," Rodney said, not really listening.
Across the room, Miko had gotten Max to go to her after all, but he was beginning to look bored. She'd have to pull out the big guns if she wanted to keep his attention.
"He'll come round," Sheppard said. "He could be a good officer if he can adjust to the way we do things in Atlantis."
Miko pulled a brand new tennis ball from the pocket of her lab coat. Rodney watched Max light up. He yapped happily.
"Why don't you let Max eat him?" Rodney asked.
Sheppard barked out a laugh, then suddenly looked worried. "Can he do that?"
Rodney gave him his don't-be-a-moron look. Sheppard smacked him over the back of the head, so he was finally relaxing.
Sheppard didn't let Max eat Major Bailey, but he did let him growl whenever they passed in the corridors, which brought both him and Max great satisfaction. Rodney was of the opinion that if you wanted someone to adjust to life in another galaxy, confronting him with a robot dog was not the best way to go, but he kept quiet.
Max learned to control his enthusiasm for the smells of Atlantis a little better, so Sheppard started taking him around with him more, but Rodney was still surprised to see him in the team locker room before the mission to PF8-839.
"I don't think tac vests come that small," Rodney said.
"He didn't want to stay with Zelenka." Sheppard grimaced. "I thought if I spent a little time with him before the mission, he might be happier."
"Can we take him with us?" Ronon asked. Max barked.
"No," Sheppard said emphatically.
It was hard to tell who looked more disappointed, Ronon or Max. At least Ronon didn't immediately start whining.
Max kept up a low whimper all the way to the gate room, breaking into a pathetic wail when the wormhole engaged and Sheppard tried to hand him over to a waiting Radek.
"Hey, buddy," Sheppard said. "I won't be gone long."
Max's howling rose in pitch and he burrowed into Sheppard's side.
"If you're a good boy for Doctor Zelenka, you and I can take Rodney for a nice long walk when I get back. He needs the exercise."
"Hey," Rodney said.
"Come on." Sheppard rubbed Max's head. "Won't that be fun?"
Max's long high cries echoed in the gate room, hanging over the cavernous space. Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare--Rodney even saw Sam come out of her office to watch over the balcony.
"Don't do this to me, buddy," Sheppard said. "I promise we'll be back soon."
He shoved the squirming mass of silver beagle at Zelenka, then turned resolutely away. The tense line of his shoulders was the only thing that betrayed what it cost him to ignore Max's heart-wrenching wails.
Rodney followed Sheppard toward the gate, then stopped short as it... flickered. The next thing he knew there was a loud grinding sound, and the blue wash of the wormhole disappeared, leaving empty air in the gate's circle.
"What the hell?" Sheppard asked, but Rodney was already dashing up the stairs.
He elbowed the gate tech out of the way and tried to engage the wormhole again. Nothing.
"McKay?" Sam asked.
Rodney waved her silent and scanned the readout. Zelenka arrived at the console, having somehow beat Sheppard up the stairs. The small part of Rodney's brain that was not occupied with the gate failure wondered how he'd managed that.
That question, at least, was answered a moment later when Sheppard arrived burdened by a whimpering Max.
"Rodney?" he asked.
"Do we have a security breach?" Sam was using her commander voice.
"McKay." Sheppard sounded like a soldier too.
"Right," Rodney said. "I am actually figuring out the problem right now this very second. Or I would be if everyone would just shut up and let me--oh."
He sat down abruptly in the tech's chair.
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked quietly.
"It's Max." He swallowed.
"Max." Sheppard didn't sound surprised.
"Max?" Sam asked.
When Rodney didn't seem inclined to answer, Zelenka spoke, scanning the Ancient readout. "Max has overridden the control room DHD. He controls the gate; we are locked out of the system."
"Max controls the gate?" Sam asked.
"I can fix this," Rodney said, typing commands into the nearest laptop.
"Max," Sam said. "The dog."
"Just give me a minute," Rodney said.
"Max," Sam said.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Max, the dog. He can interface with the Ancient equipment. He doesn't want Sheppard to leave. Have you caught up yet?"
Sam spoke to the gate tech. "Are we in any unusual danger?"
"Nope," Rodney said, attention still on the console, voice almost cheery. "Just the normal kind."
The tech peered at the Ancient readout. "No, Ma'am. We're all right for now."
Sam turned to Radek. "Doctor Zelenka, please take over. Gentlemen, my office."
"Sheppard," Rodney said. "Ask Max to give us the gate back."
"My office, McKay," Sam said. "Now."
Rodney pointed to Zelenka and the techs. "They won't be able to fix it. I don't know if I'd be able to fix it. Ask Max nicely to give us the gate back--or, wait." He tapped his comm. "Miko. Bring the ball that's in my left desk drawer to the gate room."
"Rodney," Sheppard said. "What are you--"
"Now, Miko," Rodney said into the radio.
Rodney didn't know if it was a testament to the absurdity of the situation or if Sam was in shock, but she didn't say another word. They all stood there staring at each other until Miko breathlessly arrived a few moments later, clutching a green fuzzy tennis ball in one hand. Light tinkles could be heard with every step she took.
"It jingles," Sheppard said.
Maybe Sheppard was in shock too. "Yes. It does. Can we focus?" Actually it hadn't been easy to get it to jingle. It wasn't like Rodney could just run to the local pet store. And there were no miniature bells in Atlantis. Rodney had had to engineer one out of some burnt-out crystals, then insert it into the--
He shook himself. "Give him the ball."
"What?" Sheppard asked.
"Give him the ball," Rodney said. "Play with him. I don't know. Distract him."
Sheppard took the ball from Miko. "Hey buddy," he said. "Look what I got. Wanna play?" He shook it a little, making the bell ring.
The effect was instantaneous. Max stopped whimpering and turned his complete attention to the ball. Sheppard let him down on the floor, then tossed the ball a short distance. Max scrambled after it happily.
Rodney typed as fast as he could into the laptop that was hooked into the console. He wouldn't have much time before--there. He had it. The gate was back under their control, completely Max-proof. He wouldn't be able to hijack it--until his AI improved itself enough to find a way around Rodney's fix, of course. Below them the gate whooshed to life once more, pulling everyone's attention--except Max, who was too engrossed in his new toy to notice.
"It's fixed?" Sam asked.
"Okay," she said. "My office."
They had just settled in, and Sam was watching them from behind her desk--she didn't do the mom thing half as well as Elizabeth had, but it still seemed to get to Sheppard--when the alarms went off.
Both Sheppard and Sam turned gaping faces on Rodney. "Max didn't do anything. Whatever it is, all dogs and astrophysicists are completely innocent."
He could tell Sheppard believed him, which was nice. Then all three of their radios started chattering and no, it wasn't Max.
The rush to the lower level desalinization tanks effectively put a hold on whatever chastisement Sam had been preparing to give them; Rodney had never been more grateful for a crisis in his life. He could have kissed Veracruz, the moron, for flooding sub-level B in his attempt to fix his earlier mistakes with the desalinization programming, and for getting himself, along with Doctors Pelham and O'Hara, trapped behind the automatic floodgates with water rising on the other side.
He was still sending Veracruz back to Earth, but he was grateful to him.
It took the rest of the afternoon, and half the night, to rescue the wayward Veracruz and company. Max even got a chance to shine.
Rodney hadn't realized the dog was present, but there he was, paddling to the trapped O'Hara after Rodney had finally gotten the last of the gates open, and chewing through her jacket where it was caught in equipment before towing the unconscious scientist through the water by her sleeve. Maybe he'd actually paid attention to some of the search-and-rescue training the Marines had tried to give him. More probably he wanted to make up for getting them in trouble earlier.
With the last of their people safe, Sam told everyone to get some sleep. From the way she looked at him when she said good night, Rodney could tell that the Max issue was far from settled, dashing canine heroics aside. He could tell Sheppard knew that too, and knew also that the question was not likely to be settled in Max's favor.
So when Sheppard dragged himself tiredly to bed, soaked to his skin with an equally wet Max under one arm, Rodney took a different turn and ended up at Sam's quarters.
She answered the door with pink cheeks, hair wet from the shower and not the flood. She took one look at him, sighed, and let him in.
On the walk to her room, Rodney had decided to go on the offensive right away. "I can guarantee that Max won't be able to control the gate again," he said. "Well, almost guarantee. Call it eighty-five percent."
Sam pointed a chair. He sat.
"I won't ask why Max can control the Ancient tech." She pulled up another chair.
"You won't?" So far it was going better than he'd expected.
"Mind-controlled doggie doors, am I right?"
Rodney grimaced. She sighed.
"The question is," Sam said after a moment. "Why he went after the gate in the first place."
"He saw a way to keep Sheppard on Atlantis."
"By creating a what could have been a catastrophic emergency."
"It's not like he's a deep thinker. He didn't understand what he was doing."
Sam looked thoughtful.
"It's not his fault," Rodney said.
"No," Sam said.
He'd left himself wide open, the way he always seemed to do around her. Rodney waited for her to blame him, or disparage his scientific abilities, but she just sighed.
"Max has the intelligence and self-control of a dog, Rodney, combined with the abilities of an Ancient. You can see how that doesn't work for us."
"We can work with him. He can be taught."
"You can't just hit him over the nose with a rolled up newspaper every time he hijacks the Ancient equipment."
"Yes. We can." He paused. "That is to say, not a newspaper, because we don't have them, and a data burst wouldn't exactly work, but--" He took a good look at her. "Is that how you trained your childhood pets? Because it's really not very--"
He decided to lay it on the line. "Max's ability to interface with the Ancient equipment is coded into his AI. If I could get rid of it, I would."
"I can't let this happen again. If he can do all that, just with his mind--"
"Look, Sam, I blew it." He saw a flicker of surprise cross her features before she schooled them back to carefully neutral. "I can't take it back. The only thing I can do is shut Max down completely." He looked into her eyes. "Don't make me do that to Sheppard."
She sighed. "Let's talk about this in the morning."
She walked to her door and waited for him to follow. He stood.
"What if it's something worse next time?"
"There won't be a next time. I'll see to it."
Rodney could tell she didn't believe him. He didn't really believe it himself, but it was all he had.
He spent the night tossing and turning, trying to come up with a solution. There had to be a way to remove Max's ability to access the Ancient technology. He was under no illusions that Sam would let Max remain operational--remain alive--otherwise.
But there was nothing. The equipment interface was built into the AI, and the minute the AI was functional it had become its own independent entity. That was the whole point of a seed AI--and the nut the Earth researchers had never cracked. It grew--it learned--it expanded, by itself; there was no way to pull it back. He didn't know what he'd been thinking. Sheppard's pet hadn't needed all of that. The robot dog could have functioned elegantly with so much less.
God, he always did this--let the science run away with him, did something just because he could. He supposed he should be grateful he'd ended up in the Stargate program and not weapons' research. He'd have blown up the Earth five times over.
And now he was going to have to take Max away from Sheppard.
He rolled out of bed some time before the sun rose and headed to the lab. If he was going to exhaust himself searching for answers that were not there, he might as well do it somewhere with processing power.
He stayed in the lab all day. No one spoke to him, for which he was grateful. He wrote and erased a hundred equations, a thousand lines of code. He ate power bars when he started to feel lightheaded.
But it was an unsolvable problem. He'd known that ever since Max had taken over the gate.
The sun was setting by the time he located Sheppard in Sam's office.
Rodney's stomach dropped. She wouldn't have condemned Max to death, would she--without even discussing it with him before she told John? Sam was more measured than that, more thoughtful. Wasn't she?
He raced up the gate room stairs, barely noticing the annoyed Marine he nearly knocked over on the way up.
They turned their heads as he entered. "You can't do this."
Sam was leaning against her desk. She looked at Rodney with weary, sad eyes. Sheppard's face betrayed no emotion, of course, but Max wasn't there.
"Where is he?" Rodney asked. A cold lump was growing in his stomach.
"He's okay," Sheppard said with an unconvincing half-smile. Rodney heard the unspoken for now.
"Sam." Rodney turned to her. "You said we would talk about this. You can't just unilaterally decide to--"
"Rodney." Sheppard sounded tired.
Rodney knew there was no point in arguing, but he couldn't stand seeing Sheppard this way--shoulders slightly hunched, mouth turned downward, eyes distracted. Something protective surged through him; he couldn't let Sheppard give up.
"No. I demand to have a say in this. Max is--an ongoing experiment, if nothing else. I know the gate thing wasn't his finest hour--"
"He shut off the environmental controls to Major Bailey's quarter's," Sam said.
"What? Who? Who cares? He--" Oh. Bailey. That was the Marine Rodney had barreled into on his way up the stairs. The one that didn't like Sheppard--or that Sheppard didn't like.
"So Bailey's room got a little cold. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Rodney." Sheppard was using the quiet voice that Rodney couldn't argue with. "It could have been life support. It might be next time. Max is--a risk."
It was true, of course. It didn't even have anything to do with Bailey. Max wasn't capable of understanding the consequences of his actions. With the power Rodney had given him he could become a danger to anyone he took a dislike to.
It was an impossible situation. Rodney had admitted it to himself; that didn't mean he wanted to admit it to Sheppard. His legs wouldn't hold him up suddenly, and he sat in one of Sam's chairs.
"I can't put our people at risk." Sheppard looked at the floor, then up into his eyes. "I'm sorry, Rodney."
God, Sheppard was apologizing to him, when it was all his fault. Rodney had wanted so badly to have something to share with John, when they were finally forced to have this conversation. He'd wanted to pull out a last-minute miracle, the way he always did.
"I'm sorry, too," was all he could say.
Sheppard took Max to the dog run, on his last morning. He asked Rodney to go along.
They let Max off the leash, and watched him zip away, chasing some enticing smell.
"How will you do it?" Sheppard asked.
"Localized EMP charge," Rodney said. "He'll just... shut down."
Sheppard's face didn't change, but he took a deep breath. "I want to do it."
Rodney watched Max leap in the air, then pounce on a shadow. He thought of saying no to Sheppard--of insisting the equipment was too technical, of trying to persuade Sheppard he didn't want the memories, of sparing John this, at least.
He looked sideways. Sheppard was completely motionless, gazing out at Max, squinting against the sunlight. Rodney could suddenly see him at twelve, gangly and awkward, loving a dog more than anything else in the world.
"Okay," Rodney said.
He left Max and Sheppard alone to say good-bye, after promising to be there, when the time came.
He wished he and Sheppard really were twelve, wished they could grab their dog and run away to the woods and refuse to come back. He'd never done anything like that in his actual childhood--at twelve the idea of camping out would have given him a panic attack.
Of course he hadn't had a dog then. Or a friend like Sheppard.
He spent the time he had before Max's shutdown alone in his room. They'd gotten the data burst from Earth that morning. He had messages that needed attending to.
After answering his email, he sat at his desk, not moving, staring forward, until it was time.
Sheppard was already there when Rodney entered the lab. Max was squirming in his arms, panting up at Sheppard happily.
There weren't many onlookers. Rodney was sure most of the base would have liked to pay their respects, but he'd given Miko explicit instructions about just who was allowed in. She was a surprisingly tough enforcer when something was important to her.
She was in a corner with Zelenka now, tears rolling down her face. Radek's eyes were suspiciously red-rimmed. Teyla, Ronon, and Simpson talked quietly a few feet away. Sam wasn't there. Rodney was sorry for that; she probably thought they were mad at her. Rodney, at least, wasn't; he doubted Sheppard was. She'd made the only call she could, and Sheppard had agreed. Not for the first time, Rodney felt glad he wasn't in command.
He walked up to John. "I need to talk to you."
Sheppard looked up at him, and for once Rodney could read everything that was in his face. His eyes were filled with pain, but at the same time he was grateful to Rodney for being there. He smiled a little and Rodney felt as if the air had been knocked out of him.
"It's time?" Sheppard asked. "Already?"
Max wagged his tail at Rodney and stretched up his head for a scratch.
"We had a good morning," Sheppard said. "Didn't we, Max?"
Rodney looked around. The others were out of hearing range if he spoke quietly.
"You can't keep Max."
Sheppard got a pained expression and opened his mouth to say something. Rodney raised a hand. "And that's my fault, and I'm sorry."
"We've already done this," Sheppard said. "You don't have to apologize."
"I know," Rodney said. "I wanted to fix this for you, John, and I couldn't. Max can't stay here. But--" He took a breath. "Jeannie's agreed to take him, if you'd like. He can go to Earth."
Sheppard looked at him with wide eyes. Rodney continued quickly. "I emailed her when I couldn't find a solution. Her answer came in the data burst."
"But--" John said finally. "The gene."
"No Ancient equipment on Earth. At least not in my sister's house. Not a problem."
"Rodney," John said, but Rodney could see the beginnings of hope in his eyes. "He's a robot. He's silver."
Rodney snorted. "Madison had a naquadah-powered bounce house at her last birthday party. I fixed their lawnmower to mow the lawn by itself. The neighbors are used to crazy Uncle Meredith, the inventor. They'll think Max is the latest toy. If anything, we'll have to worry about everybody wanting one."
Sheppard smiled, a genuine grin that started small, but grew. "We can do this," he said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes. We can." Rodney felt something like happiness bubble through him, but he couldn't help feeling a twinge of sorrow. "I'm sorry you can't keep him."
Max yelped as Sheppard raised him high in the air. "Yeah, me too."
The twinge blossomed into a full-grown pang. Sheppard must have seen it in his face. "Hey," he said. "We can visit, right? We'll go visit."
"Sure." Rodney smiled. "We can do that."
Atlantis seemed strangely empty without Max. Rodney had grown used to the sound of his nails chattering down the corridors, his boundless happiness at greeting Rodney even when he'd seen him only a few hours before. It was odd to see Sheppard without his small shadow.
Rodney had given up apologizing to Sheppard--every time he did, Sheppard got a look on his face and tried to make him feel better--with Sheppard that usually meant dragging him to the shooting range, or making him spar. Rodney still felt guilty, even though Sheppard seemed all right--alone in the way he usually was, but not lonely. They played a lot of chess.
Jeannie sent him a picture with every data burst--Max playing with Madison, meeting other dogs at the park, tearing up Kaleb's students' papers. John tacked them to his wall, right by Johnny Cash.
A few weeks after Max went to live in Canada, the Daedalus arrived. Rodney was happy he'd finally get to send Veracruz home, though for some unfathomable reason Sheppard had elected to keep Bailey.
Daedalus-arrival Day was always a good time. There had been blue jello at lunch with real whipped cream out of an aerosol can; Rodney was feeling pretty good about the world as he headed to his lab. Sheppard caught up with him halfway there.
"Colonel Carter said something interesting to me a while ago," he said.
"Colonel Carter says many interesting things. She's an interesting person."
"True," Sheppard said. "What she said this time was that the IOA has decided to allow domestic animals in Atlantis."
Rodney stopped walking and stared at Sheppard. "Really?"
Sheppard nodded and sauntered on. "Seems the SGC was having some trouble with its computers. You wouldn't know anything about that?"
Rodney made a noncommittal humming noise.
"It's been getting worse. Apparently all anyone can access on the SGC computers is the Canadian Humane Society."
"They do good work."
"Hmm," Sheppard said. "I'm sure. Colonel Carter says they've been trying for weeks to fix the problem. For some reason General Landry thinks that pets in Atlantis might be the solution."
"That's an odd choice," Rodney said. "But probably wise. Pets can solve a surprising number of problems."
"Landry seems to think so. Turns out he's an animal lover. Did you know he has three golden retrievers?"
"I did not."
"He's a man of hidden depths."
And one who knows when he's beaten. Rodney tried to keep the grin off his face. "So you'll be getting a dog then?"
"Oh." Rodney felt his smile fade.
"I have a dog. We'll see him next time we get to Earth."
"Oh," Rodney said. "Okay."
He suddenly noticed that Sheppard had steered him away from the lab and towards his quarters. He was up to something.
"But," Sheppard said. "If you wanted to get a pet, I wouldn't mind helping out."
That was nice, Rodney supposed. Weird, but nice. "I'm not really much of a pet person."
"Really," Sheppard said. "That's too bad."
They were in front of his quarters now. Sheppard was bouncing on his heels and seemed to be trying not to laugh. He was turning a little red with the effort. Rodney rolled his eyes. What was Sheppard up to this--
Rodney heard a distinct meow from inside his quarters. Sheppard waggled his eyebrows. It sounded like--but it couldn't be---Rodney swiped a hand over the door controls.
His cat--his Earth cat--sat on his bed, looking aggrieved.
"Fuzzy!" Rodney shouted before he could stop himself and dashed into the room.
He couldn't help it--he grabbed F.C. off the bed and squeezed. The cat made an annoyed sound and refused to look at him.
Rodney set him on the bed, where he walked carefully and with great dignity to the head. He settled on the pillow and glared balefully at Rodney.
"He's mad at me for leaving him for four years," Rodney said.
"He'll come round."
Rodney couldn't stop staring. It was his cat--really his cat, with his fur that ended up everywhere, and his bad disposition. He felt affection roll through him.
Sheppard stroked F.C.'s head. To Rodney's complete un-surprise, the cat stretched into Sheppard's touch, purring. When Rodney tried it, he got a hiss.
"You can share custody, if you want. But I have to warn you, he's a hellcat."
"This guy?" Sheppard asked, still petting. "Nah. He just missed you."
"You'll see." Rodney tried to look stern, but couldn't help smiling. "I can't believe you got F.C. here."
"Mitchell helped. It was easy. Well, no, it wasn't. Your old neighbor did not want to do you any favors. What did you do to piss her off?"
"Nothing." Rodney managed to sneak a hand onto F.C.'s back. He'd try to pet him in a minute.
"You were just your charming McKay self, huh?"
"Hey." Rodney tried to work up some annoyance, but Sheppard had gotten his cat. From Earth.
"I suppose," Rodney said. "You know me."
Something unreadable passed across Sheppard's face. "Yeah, I do." He stuck a hand down to scratch the cat's ear before breaking into a grin. "But I guess Fuzzy and I can put up with you."