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Title: Broadcast Signal
Author: sgamadison
Recipient: 2of7
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard
Rating: NC-17
Word Count: ~21,000
Spoilers: takes place somewhere in late season 3

Summary: Great. Obviously he was now destined to see dead people.

Broadcast Signal

The first time he woke up, his head felt like it was being crushed in a vise and that’s how he would have described it, only he would have been twitted for the unoriginality of the oh-so-obvious cliché. But that was what it felt like, he would have argued back: his head felt as though clamps had been placed at the temples and that someone was slowly and inexorably turning the handles so that any second now his brains would come exploding out his nose and ears. The mental image coupled with the sudden wave of nausea that rolled over him, cold and green like an ocean wave, caused him to clutch the side of the metal-framed cot and vomit on the floor. Though it was really more like dry-heaving, he thought dispassionately, with the part of his brain that was still functioning, before he passed out again.

The second time he awoke, he was slightly more aware of his surroundings, the cold, gray room that had an institutional feel to it, the utilitarian bed on which he lay, the obvious toilet facilities. All these spoke ‘prison’ more than ‘hospital’ and he should know; he’d spent enough time in both to know the difference. He tried to sit up, but retched again, thinking that vomiting would almost be preferable, because the wracking, non-productive heaving hurt. It had him gasping for breath as well. He touched the side of his head where it hurt the most and found dried blood there.

A flutter of movement told him someone was in the room with him. “I need a doctor,” he said through gritted teeth.

“You have been examined,” a voice answered, but he could not tell if it was male or female. There was something about the cadence of it that was familiar but he could not place it. The lack of compassion was the thing that bothered him the most as the voice continued. “You merely have a concussion. You will live.”

He squinted at the form standing next to his bed, shrouded in some sort of heavy garment and obscured by the thankfully dim lighting. He couldn’t remember the events that brought him here (and that was scaring the hell out of him) but he still knew what was important. “My team,” he said thickly. “Where’s the rest of my team?”

“The other people that came with you are deceased. You belong to us now.”

Like bloody hell. “I don’t believe you,” he said flatly. He fixed the silent form with the most fearsome glare he could muster. He wasn’t going to think about the implications of what he was being told right now. He just couldn’t.

The figure shrugged slightly. “Your belief is irrelevant. The fact remains that you are our prisoner. You will work for us, repairing the equipment left behind by the Ancestors, or you will die like your friends.”

“If you want me for my brains,” he said, feeling his lips curl up into a nasty snarl, “then you should take better care of them.”

He didn’t know what happened after that.

The next time he awoke, he realized he’d been given a room upgrade while he was unconscious. The walls were soft beige, the floor covered with thick, hand-woven carpets. There were no windows, but the light seemed to diffuse in gently from all around. His bed was more comfortable as well and on the nightstand beside it, a pitcher of water sat next to a metal cup, condensation beading on the outside of the container. He sat up stiffly and poured himself a drink, sipping cautiously (after smelling it suspiciously first). The water was gloriously cold, with a bite to it like drinking from a mountain spring, and he was hard-pressed not to gulp it down the way his body demanded.

Instead, he got carefully to his feet, noting the absence of his regular off-world uniform as he flipped back the blanket covering him. Instead he wore some sort of tunic and pants that looked Asian in design, a shimmering black with bright red piping. Beside the bed were flat, slipper-like shoes. He slid his feet into them and held his breath for a moment as the room spun crazily around him. When it stopped, he began to walk cautiously around his upper class cell. Behind a patterned screen, a toilet and sink were discretely tucked away. He clutched his metal cup, periodically taking sips from it as he shuffled in his slippers around the room. He paused at a table, where his laptop was sitting in the closed position, the emblem for Atlantis emblazoned at the top. He let a finger trail thoughtfully over the design before moving away. The laptop couldn’t help him unless there as some way to connect to the city systems. There was nothing else of his in the room.

The door opened silently, catching him off guard, and he froze in apprehension as people began to enter the room. He felt himself relax slightly as it became apparent that the people were both women, one no more than a child. Both paused as they entered and inclined their heads in his direction, eerily reminiscent of Teyla’s Athosian greeting, before placing the covered trays that they carried on the table. They left as silently as they entered. He felt himself drawn to the table, where the smells of hot food wafted out from beneath the covered trays. Hopefully, he lifted the wicker lid on the first tray. Tava beans and that grain that was either like quinoa or couscous; he could never remember which was which. Scant little bits of some unidentifiable meat mixed in, with that green weedy stuff that served as shallots. A flat spoon, a dull knife. Basic utensils that could not easily be converted into a weapon. The other tray held a flatbread that was rubbery in consistency and a small dish of some sort of greenish paste. It triggered a faint memory for him and he tentatively tore off a piece of the gelatinous bread and spread a little of the paste on it. It was surprisingly good and he wished he could remember the planet where they had first discovered that particular combination of foods.

The tray also held a small flask that contained an oily brown fluid—just sniffing it made his eyes water and he knew instinctively he was supposed to drizzle it on the tava-grain combo. He stoppered it hastily and replaced it on the tray. A sudden mental image of Sheppard and Ronon came to mind, laughing over dinner in a tavern, the flickering light of a fire behind them in the hearth, both urging him with poorly suppressed grins to souse his dinner with the sauce that John later called ‘wasabi to the tenth power’.

He resolutely shut that thought away. John and Ronon and Teyla could not be dead. They couldn’t. How could they possibly be dead and he still be alive? Morosely, he sat down at the table and began nibbling at the proffered food. Just his luck he’d be captured by the NearlyVegetarian&NoStarchyCarbs people. He picked at his dinner, having a hard time telling how much of his lack of interest was due to the menu verses the effects of the concussion. He had a passing thought that Jennifer would be happy that he was finally sticking to her diet recommendations and then his spoon fell to the tray with a clatter. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the memories of all the people he’d lost to Pegasus and it seemed not only plausible but highly probable that his captors were telling the truth. He pushed the trays aside and laid his head down on his folded forearms against the tabletop.

The women who had served him had appeared faintly Asian in appearance, with long dark hair pulled back in braids and wearing silk-like tunics similar to his own. Though they could be more like a middle-eastern society for all he knew. He wasn’t very good with ethnic differences, though it occurred to him that maybe the Ancients had somehow influenced the Persians and that’s why their society was so advanced in science and math at a time when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages. And weren’t the Persians the Iraqis now? Or was that the Iranians? Daniel would know and he suddenly couldn’t think of anyone he wanted less at his side at this moment. Jackson knew his stuff all right, and he wasn’t afraid to die for what he thought was right (though here Rodney couldn’t help the snide thought that anyone who’d come back from the dead as many times as one Dr. Daniel Jackson probably wouldn’t be afraid of dying) but Daniel was not the one he wanted in his corner when push came to shove.

He wanted John. And Ronon. And Teyla.

John with his drawl and his ridiculously non-military hair and his outrageous plans that worked despite the fact that they should utterly fail. Ronon with his indestructibility and his dog-like loyalty (especially if you fed him) and his ability to blast his way out of any given situation. Teyla with her diplomacy and her serenity and the fact that she could kick the ass of any man on Atlantis, including John, which would never, ever cease to be funny but was so reassuring to have at your back.

They couldn’t be dead.

After a bit, he got up and returned to his bed, curling on his side and longing for some sort of comfort, some reassurance that everything was going to be all right. Without realizing it, he slept once more.

The door suddenly opened, forcing him upright with a gasp of surprise and then pain as the abrupt movement set off an evil gnome with a hammer in his head. This time his head, though still hurting, felt clearer. He watched apprehensively, wondering how long he’d slept, as an entirely new set of people entered. They swept into the room, an armed guard taking up position near the door and looking impassively at nothing in particular as the remainder of the party came to a halt in a little semi-circle around his bed.

“I know you,” he said sharply, shaking his finger rapidly at the garishly robed man slightly at the forefront of the group. “You, you, you, you’re Delmar, no, Delkin and you’re the leader of the…” he paused to snap his fingers several times in the manner of ‘wait, wait, don’t tell me’ before snapping his chin forward to finish his sentence with “the Soldarians.” His moment of triumph at remembering was squashed by the pain that his normal, conversational movement had caused.

“You are correct.” Delkin bowed slightly in his direction, the braided and beaded ends of his mustaches waving cheerfully with his movement. There was nothing cheerful about Delkin’s expression however, when he straightened. His eyes were flat and cold, like a shark’s.

Little bits of memory were starting to return to him now, the request by the Soldarians to set up diplomatic talks, the promise of a higher level of tech than usually found on the average planet in Pegasus, and the fact they’d been oddly ignored by the Wraith for many generations. The subsequent discovery of a treasure trove of Ancient tech that had him squealing like a school girl with excitement…and then what? He vaguely recalled the sound of weapons fire, of John telling him to take cover…the wave of nausea rolled over him with a small shudder again.

“You can’t expect to get away with this. Whatever story you made up, my people will never believe you.” He spoke with a fierceness he didn’t know he possessed.

Delkin shrugged, resulting in a whisper of red and gold silk with the movement. “A regrettable accident to be sure. The snowstorms that blow up at this time of year are always treacherous. Your ship—you called it a ‘puddle jumper’ I believe? Yes, well your ship went off course and crashed into the mountains. So sad. And too dangerous to risk mounting a rescue part right away. And of course, when we allow your people to examine the site crash, they will find parts of your ship scattered all over the mountain range. Unfortunately, they will find no survivors.”

Rodney surged to his feet, swaying briefly with dizziness. “I’ll have you know John Sheppard can land a rock, for pity’s sake! No one’s going to buy your crappy story!”

Delkin fixed an odd look on him. “Perhaps. But that does not concern you. I would like to remind you that without your ship, the Ring of the Ancestors is a five day walk at best. At this time of year, it can take up to two weeks due to the intense winter storms. As long as you do not venture outside, you will find your clothing…adequate.” Another bow, mocking this time, accompanied the statement.

He was tempted to sneeringly retaliate by threatening Delkin with the retribution that would follow when the team investigating their claims arrived through the gate and picked up on his transponder, but he seemed to hear John drawl in his ear not to give away his whole hand before the bets were laid and he suddenly clamped his lips shut.

“You have already been allowed three days to recover. That time is at an end now. It is imperative that you start your work immediately. If you do not cooperate, we will kill you, as we killed your companions. In this, we are determined.” Delkin seemed to be engaged in some sort of staring contest with him, but oddly enough, it was Delkin who blinked first, narrowing his eyes and motioning over his shoulder to the man next to him.

“I understand you have some doubts as to the seriousness of our intent.” Delkin spoke calmly, without emotion, as the man stepped forward, bearing a tray covered with an embroidered cloth.

There was a moment of tenseness, in which Rodney anticipated some sort of evil torture device would be revealed that would frighten him into cooperating, which it would, because he knew that had to buy time for his team to find him. He struggled to control the hidden confidence in his team’s ability to find and rescue him (even if he had to do most of the escaping himself, they would come for him in the end). He just had to stay alive.

The man beside Delkin presented the tray. With a sidewise glance to see how he was reacting, Delkin whipped off the cover with a flourish. For a moment, Rodney wasn’t sure what he was seeing. His eyes almost seemed to cross, to lose focus and then everything suddenly sharpened and his gaze zeroed in on the items on the tray.

A lock of copper-colored hair, chopped off haphazardly at one end. A set of dog tags on their chain, black noise guards still in place. A big blaster, the handle taped at one end with what looked like surgical tape, once white and now grubby with handling.

He began to hyperventilate.

“I see that you understand the significance of these items,” Delkin said smoothly.

Rodney stepped forward, reaching out and touching the items on the tray with a forefinger. The silky softness of Teyla’s hair. Ronon’s big gun; the one that everyone who’d ever seen it had coveted. His fingers curled around the dog tags and he lifted them up to read the embossed lettering. Lt. Colonel John Sheppard.

He closed them in his fist.

When he looked up, Delkin was watching him, a small smile on his face. “You will start work tomorrow. We have delayed long enough.”

He backed up from the display, dog tags still in hand, until the back of his knees hit the edge of the bed and he sat down abruptly. “You might as well shoot me now,” he said, and all the despair he thought he was hiding somehow leached out into his voice, giving his every emotion away.

Delkin shared a glance with the tray-bearer and then frowned. “Let’s hope you will rethink that position come the morning.” He turned with a swirl of clothing and pushed past his contingent heading for the door, the others following in his wake. The guard snapped to attention sharply as Delkin passed and then followed the others out the room, which was promptly locked behind them.

“I don’t think so,” he said aloud to the empty room. He sat on the edge of the bed a long moment and then pushed himself further up onto it, swinging his legs up onto the mattress and rolling himself into the blanket, huddling down into it as though he’d never be warm again. It’s shock, he told himself. Shock and concussion and lack of reasonable food. He crunched his eyes tight in a wince, as though he could shut out the images of the items on the tray. He suddenly realized he still had the dog tags when he felt them cutting into his hand. Loosening his grip, he stared at them a long moment before clumsily slipping them over his head and into his tunic. The metal felt warm against his skin and was somehow comforting. He closed his eyes again.

“Hey Rodney.” He heard the drawl and refused to open his eyes. He didn’t want to be shattered when no one was there.

“Yo, Rodney,” the familiar voice persisted. “Hey, nice jammies and all, but are you going to wake up and talk to me?”

Rodney cautiously opened one eye and then was surprised into opening the other. John Sheppard did indeed stand before him, but in a way that Rodney had never seen before. John was nearly luminescent in the quiet light of the room and looked impossibly young.

“You’re dead,” Rodney huffed, wanting to close his eyes again, but mesmerized by the huge shock of hair flopping over into John’s eyes and the decidedly late eighties, preppy look to his clothing.

“Huh.” John appeared briefly startled. “Well, that explains a lot.”

****

Rodney took a deep breath and let it out gustily. He pushed himself up on one elbow and squinted at the apparition of John Sheppard. “I tell you that you’re dead, and that’s all you have to say?”

John shrugged and ducked his head, rubbing the back of his neck the way he did whenever he was embarrassed or uncomfortable. Rodney spared a passing thought that maybe it was time for him to give up his hobby of Sheppard-watching, as there would probably be little source for material in the near future. It depressed him and he almost missed it when John began speaking again.

“What? What did you say?” Rodney sat all the way up and propped himself up against the wall behind the bed, carefully allowing his head come to a rest on the wall as well, wincing as he did so.

“I said,” John drawled in a fake-casual way, “that I have a few gaps in my memory, that’s all.” He was wearing a white, crew necked shirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows (naturally) and a black knit sweater vest over it, that should have looked dorky, but didn’t, not on him. He was slouching with his thumbs tucked into the pockets of his jeans. He didn’t look a day over eighteen.

Rodney looked over at him sharply. “Huh. Maybe this is not you; appearing in Ascended form to me after all. Maybe this is just a head-trauma induced hallucination, like the time in the submerged jumper, and you’re really just part of my subconscious and that’s why you have the same memory gaps that I do.”

John blinked at him and raised an eyebrow. It was hard to believe, but Rodney realized that he preferred John as he knew him now—this baby-faced John, while admittedly good-looking (okay, smokingly hot), somehow did not inspire the same confidence as the more mature Lt. Colonel Sheppard. It really wasn’t fair that John started off gorgeous and just got better looking with time.

“Wait a minute, you hallucinated about me when you where in the sunken jumper? And what makes you think I’m Ascended?” John glanced down at his body and seemed startled again. “Damn, I haven’t seen this sweater in years.” He plucked at it experimentally.

“I didn’t hallucinate about you in the jumper,” Rodney said tartly. “I dreamt up Sam. She appeared and told me everything that was wrong with what I was doing to try and save myself. Only it was really my subconscious, arguing with myself, which after a while got really…weird.” He finished on a self-conscious note, recalling both the events as he’d perceived them and his conversation with Dr. Heightmeyer afterwards. John was giving him the ‘oh really?’ eyebrow, so he hurried on. “Anyway, I’m sure I picked her because we had unfinished business and I thought I was going to die. As for you, you have this whole glowy thing going on, which I’m sure you will recognize from all your previous dealings with Ascended beings. Not to mention you don’t look old enough to drink legally.”

He’d been watching John’s face as he spoke and noted the rapid but subtle shifting of emotion in John’s expression. Whoever said John Sheppard was a closed book just didn’t know how to read him. He appeared to ignore almost everything Rodney said, eyes narrowing until just a glint of hazel showed, a half smile on his face.

“So. We have unfinished business then?” He smirked at Rodney, picking up on the one thing that Rodney would have preferred he not bring up.

Rodney heaved his pillow at him. John laughed and half turned to ward off the blow, but they both stopped and stared when the pillow sailed right through him.

“Oh, fuck me,” John breathed, turning to look at the pillow behind him on the floor.

If only. John turned his head sharply back towards Rodney, and for an instant, Rodney thought John had heard his thoughts. He felt his face warm and knew he was turning a dull red.

“Let me get this straight,” John began, still looking as though Ronon had just punched him in the gut. “I’m either dead, Ascended or a figment of your imagination?” Rodney thought it was interesting that when John got upset, instead of his voice rising the way Rodney’s would, it got all growly and threatening instead.

“That about sums it up,” Rodney agreed.

“I don’t like those choices,” John was starting to look seriously pissed now.

“Hey, at least you’ve got some choices. You were voted Most Likely To Ascend from the moment you set foot in this galaxy. All the cool kids want you at their party. But I don’t think Ronon and Teyla got any choice at all.” His voice broke at the end and he closed his eyes. If only his head didn’t hurt so damn much. The pain was making him tear up. He pressed the heel of one hand into his eye and rubbed.

“Rodney.” John’s voice felt more like a whisper next to his ear and Rodney could hear the layers of sorrow and anger contained within. “I’m going to get you out of this, I promise. You hear me? I’m going to get you out of this.”

“You’ll just get kicked out of Club Ascended,” Rodney warned, opening one eye to see if John really was as close to him as he thought. But John was no where to be seen.

He was alone in the room again. His life totally sucked.

****

The lights in the room seemed to dim and brighten on their own roughly 12 hour cycle—never quite all the way on or off, something for which Rodney could not decide whether to be grateful or not. It felt a little like he was living in a hamster cage and he briefly could not refrain from picturing himself as a pudgy, angry rodent in one of those transparent exercise balls.

He really hoped his head would get back to normal soon.

He had a moment of panic where he wondered if maybe this was normal for him now, that his head had taken one too many blows or that his brain had been exposed one to many times to dangerous situations—like the Ascending machine or the time he got all hopped up on the Wraith enzyme or the fact that he drank more beer hanging out with Sheppard than he’d ever drunk in his entire life up to now. Maybe his brain was just completely fried and he was going to see dead people and think random crazy thoughts from here on out until he descended into madness.

Yeah, well not before he utterly destroyed this world.

Yeah.

The door to the room began to open and Rodney eyed it narrowly, the full force of anger suddenly seething in him, making him want to pounce on whoever walked through the door and pound the living shit out of them. In the seconds that it took for the door to fully open, he could see it happening, him biffing the guards with a good ol’ one-two punch to the jaw, snatching up a weapon and making a run for it. People that lived so far from the gate had to have alternative means of transport to it. Some sort of land vehicle, no doubt. He suddenly recalled being given a tour of a hanger of aircraft, John becoming both animated and charming and the conversation rapidly disintegrating into g-forces, airspeed and firepower. Right. So that meant there were some sort of aircraft here…not that he’d be able to actually fly it, but still…Rodney gathered himself to rush whoever came through the door.

And almost fell off the edge of the bed when the small girl from the meal trays entered the room silently and alone, closing the door behind her. With a solemn expression on her face, she walked towards his bed and stood before him.

“You are sad. You do not wish to live if your friends have died. I have been sent here to bring you comfort.” Her long hair was no longer braided and had been washed and dried so that it hung in a curtain near her face, rippling in a shiny blue-black wave that reminded Rodney of the silk garments they wore.

“What? Okay, that’s a nice thought and all, but all the food in the world can’t make up for the fact that oh yeah, right, you people killed my friends, so yeah, pardon me if I am less than enthusiastic about your offer of comfort here. Unless you brought ice cream?” he added hopefully.

The young girl lifted her head from where she’d been studying the floor and frowned slightly at him. “I am not familiar with this ‘ice cream’ that you mention. Nor have I brought food. I am here to serve at your pleasure…whatever that pleasure may be.”

She undid her robe and started to shrug out of it, revealing nothing but acres of naked skin beneath it.

“Stop!” Rodney gave an agonized yell and launched himself out of bed, wincing at the pain this caused. He grabbed the girl’s robe by the lapels, trying to pull it back up over her shoulders. “You can’t…I won’t…this is not…” he stammered, all the while fighting the slick silk as the girl protested and tried to continue disrobing.

“Hey, Rodney,” he heard from behind him, as well as an intake of breath. “Whoa,” John continued, “Um, I guess I’ll come back later.”

Rodney hurled a glare over his shoulder at John, who was now dressed in a cream colored cable knit sweater that was miles too long for him. “This is not what it looks like!” he snarled at John. To the girl, he said, “Put your clothes back on. I don’t have sex with children.”

The girl lifted her chin in a fashion that reminded him of Jeannie and boy, didn’t that just kill any mood that could have possibly been there before. “I am not a child. I am almost seventeen.”

“Oh great,” Rodney huffed, relieved to see that she was no longer trying to disrobe but in fact was now pulling the garment back on in indignation. “You’ll be a good match for the Prep School Kid over there.”

She looked around the room uneasily. “I do not know what you mean. Do you not find me attractive?”

“I don’t think she can see me, McKay,” John volunteered.

“No really? Fancy that. Of course not. I’m the only person allowed to see people that aren’t really there, have multiple personalities in one consciousness…”

“It was one time. Jeez, are you going to whine about having Cadman in your head forever?”

“It’s my head!” Rodney shouted. “How would you feel if someone else had control over your body? Made you do things you didn’t want to do?”

“I thought you wanted to kiss Katie Brown.” John frowned, sounding faintly puzzled.

“Can we not talk about this right now?” Rodney turned away from John to look at the girl, who was now openly frightened. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he took a deep breath. “Okay, it’s not that I don’t find you attractive, because well, oh never mind that, the important thing here is that in my culture, it would be highly offensive to you if I…it would be considered taking advantage of you…it would be wrong…”

“Fifteen will get you twenty,” John sang quietly in the background.

Rodney wheeled around to shoot him a death glare (admittedly less effective on the already declared dead) and then turned back to face the girl-child in front of him. “It is not permissible for me to accept the kind of comfort you are offering,” he ground out desperately at last.

The girl re-tied her robe around her slim body, allowing her hair to fall forward to shield her face. “You mean to kill me then?” she asked in a small voice.

What? No, where did you get such a crazy idea?” Rodney was horrified and he glanced over at John, whose eyebrows had disappeared into his hairline, though really, that was not very hard to do at the moment.

“Ask her for her name,” John suggested as the girl sank to her knees in a billow of silk, head bowed in supplication.

“I am yours to do with as you wish,” she said softly, not lifting her head. “If you do not find me sexually attractive, perhaps you wish to take my life in retribution for the friends you have lost.”

“Okay, that’s just way beyond wrong,” Rodney said to the room at large before staring down helplessly at the girl at his feet. He glanced over at John who gave him a ‘don’t look at me’ face. Rodney turned back to the girl. “Look, what’s your name?”

The girl lifted her head cautiously. “Lia,” she said.

“Okay, Lia,” Rodney sighed. “There will be no sex with, or killing of, little girls, okay?”

“But I must bring you comfort in some way.” Lia looked as though she might cry and Rodney wondered if she might be punished if she failed in her given task.

“I smell a foot massage coming on,” John said and then snorted at his own joke. Rodney shot him another evil glare. Honestly, even dead, John had the sense of humor of a 12 year old boy.

“Look,” Rodney said with a little more vindictiveness than he might have done otherwise, “if you want to bring me comfort, you can see to it I get a little more meat with dinner, okay? And if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know. I feel much better now. So off you go then.” He made shooing motions with his hands.

Lia stood, a tremulous smile appearing on her face briefly before turning and making quickly for the door. At her touch it opened and let her out, closing behind her with the sounds of locking again.

“I have to figure out how that works,” Rodney said thoughtfully. He yawned suddenly and flexed his shoulders, wincing at how much that hurt.

He almost jumped out of his clothes when he felt warm hands on the back on his neck. He did gasp and start to turn, but John stopped him, moving his thumbs in slow circles along the tight muscles of his upper back and neck. “What the…how’d you…?”

“That’s what I came to tell you.” Rodney could hear the grin in John’s voice. “If I concentrate, I can, you know, take solid form. Not for very long though. But it might come in handy.”

“That still doesn’t narrow down our choices as to what you are,” Rodney groaned and dropped his head, rocking a little as John’s fingers continued to work on his neck. He steadfastly refused to think of all the ways that John might come in handy or the fact that he could not recall John ever voluntarily giving him a neck rub before. “You could still be an Ascended being who’s figured out how to manipulate different planes of existence or you could be a hallucination where I’ve perfected the details.” He recalled sharply the kiss he shared with Imaginary Sam at the bottom of the ocean and a little evil part of him wanted Imaginary John to be that real. If John was really dead and he was stuck on this hell-hole for the rest of his life, then at the very least, he wanted his moment with John before the concussion completely went away.

“You left out just plain dead and I’m a ghost,” John said lightly, even as his hands continued to knead and work Rodney’s abused muscles.

“Yeah, right, a ghost that’s learned how to manipulate ectoplasm and that’s why you feel real,” Rodney said in a burst of sarcasm before deflating again. “I don’t want you to be any of those things.”

John’s hands stopped moving, fingers tightening briefly as they rested on his shoulders.

“I want you to be alive and plotting some stupid plan to rescue me and then we all go home back to Atlantis. You can’t be dead, John.” Rodney turned to face him, John’s hands slipping away with the movement. “I need you to still be alive.”

John looked at him helplessly before turning his palms over in a half shrug. He winked out of existence as Rodney stood staring at him.

****

“Hey,” he heard over his shoulder and it caused him to drop his instruments with a curse.

“Will you just stop that!” Rodney hissed at John, collecting his tools again and making sure that they were not damaged. Today, John was dressed a bit more like his usual self, still in jeans and battered brown hiking boots, but with a black tee-shirt and a drab-olive sweater thrown over top. He still had a mop of hair that hung endearingly down over his eyes and Rodney suddenly pictured him in a convertible, with hordes of squealing girls marking his passage down the street.

“You want me to leave?” John briefly looked hurt.

“What? No, of course not. I just want you to stop sneaking up on me. At least when you showed up at the lab, the odor of Aqua Velva always gave you away in advance.”

“I don’t wear Aqua Velva and you know it, McKay,” John made his own version of the ‘ha-ha, funny’ face. Rodney did know it. Curiosity had led him to explore John’s bathroom one day (didn’t everyone do that if given the opportunity?) and he’d discovered unopened bottles of both Stetson and Polo (obviously gifts, but the burning question was from whom?), and the Athosian soap that most people despised, but Rodney had to admit, smelled good on John. He had been extremely gratified however to find a jar of hair gel (appropriately called ‘whatever’) that promised to give the wearer that messy, bed-head look. Rodney had felt viciously vindicated.

“Where the hell have you been?” Rodney continued to talk in a lowered voice, pretending to work. He had no reason to believe he was being observed, but no reason not to as well. “It’s been at least 12 hours since I’ve seen you last—maybe longer. I was beginning to think…well, never mind.”

“I’ve had a few things on my mind, Rodney.” John pulled out the sarcastic drawl now. Rodney spared him a glance and saw that he was leaning with his hips against the end of Rodney’s workstation and oh wow, didn’t that take him back to every time he’d experienced ‘the lean’ before. “You know, like trying to work out what happened to us in the first place, and what exactly I am and how we’re going to get you out of here.”

“Us,” Rodney corrected. “Get us out of here.”

“You can’t exactly take a hallucination with you, Rodney,” John made a sour face and then suddenly seemed depressed. “Or hell, I don’t know, maybe you can. Who the fuck knows?” He scrunched his eyes shut as he rubbed his forehead.

For Rodney, that was just so wrong. John didn’t give up. He didn’t second guess himself, or at least not without the help of Radek’s very best tormack vodka and Rodney had long since learned when to cut John off and roll him home. For John to sound so defeated just tore at something in Rodney’s heart. “Any luck with that? Figuring out what’s going on, I mean?” he asked lightly.

“No.” John folded his arms across his chest and stared at the floor.

“Well, since this thinking thing is working so well for you, how about I tell you what I’ve discovered?” Rodney let smug superiority enter his voice and was rewarded with an upward tick of the corner of John’s mouth.

“Carry on, Professor,” John made a ‘go on’ roll with one hand and Rodney was hard-pressed not to wonder what John was like as a student in college—probably as different from him in every way as the sun was from the moon. Blinking, he focused back on his subject.

“The Soldarians have quite the little collection of Ancient artifacts, but they only showed us the kinds of things we’ve already encountered—defunct personal shields, medical equipment, that sort of thing. The thing is, there’s a complex computer system here, something pretty powerful that is somehow shielding this planet from Wraith interference.” Rodney could feel himself getting excited and saw from John’s reaction that it was contagious.

He straightened out of his lean and raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? Shield how? Not like the Peter Pan planet, because we flew in with the jumper just fine.”

“No, you’re right, this is far more complex than a simple EM field, probably necessary because the degree of technology already in place here would also be affected by EM interference. They’re still blocking me from a lot of the information, despite the fact that I really can’t fix anything if I don’t understand the system I’m working on, but give me enough time and I’ll hack into their little secrets. I’ve got the strong impression that what I’m dealing with is a powerful AI, but at the moment, it’s seriously compromised—probably from centuries of incompetents doing their own patches and fixes to the system. Still, if I can figure out how the system works, it might be something we can use in Atlantis.”

You can use in Atlantis,” John reminded. “And be careful, buddy. I have the feeling these people won’t take kindly to snooping. If you get caught…”

“So? What more can they do to me?” Rodney said sharply, surprised at the bitterness in his voice.

“Rodney,” John began, and the familiar two-note drawl made Rodney inexplicably angry.

“No, you listen to me, John. I’m too fucking valuable to kill, see? They need me.” The very fact galled him. A lifetime ago, the very value placed on his brains, on his technical skills, would have made him grateful for the protection it offered him. Now it just sickened him. Like the Soldarians couldn’t recognize the value of the rest of his team?

“They can still make your life miserable.” John obviously felt the need to warn him.

“They already have,” Rodney turned his back and hunched over the equipment again. Somehow he knew when John had left the room.

****

Rodney was not accustomed to being wrong. That is not to say he was always right, but most of the time he was. Only as the flexible, bamboo-like rod in Delkin’s grip came down with a searing crack on the back of his hand, Rodney remembered at least one other time when John had been right and he’d been seriously wrong and the consequences of that error had resulted in the near-destruction of a solar system.

“Gah!” Rodney yelled, snatching his hand protectively up against his body. “That’s my hand, you moron! Second only to my brains, they’re the most valuable thing about me. Damage my hands and how do you expect me to fix your stupid machines, eh?”

Delkin seemed unimpressed. “You will not meddle in systems that are not pertinent to your repairs. You will focus only on the information we have provided you. You have everything you need to work on the problem at hand, and yet you persist in this foolish delay. You have no hope of rescue. Your people have come and gone days ago, and they have accepted our story as to the death of your entire team. No one is looking for you.”

Rodney could feel his blood pressure start to rise, could feel it pounding in the pulse point at his throat and in the corresponding tic he was developing under one eye. “How the hell do you know what is ‘pertinent to my repairs’? You have no idea what a mess your operating system is in and I have no idea how to approach solving the problems because you are withholding information. Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘making bricks without straw’? It means you’ve only given me half of what I need to know and I can’t build anything with that!” He stood up and was surprised to notice he was significantly taller than Delkin. He took a decisive step towards his captor.

“Look, you have a powerful AI—a computer—an artificial intelligence—at work here, but there is something seriously wrong with it. The best that I can tell is that there is a power drain somewhere that keeps shutting down the system—a system mind you, that the Ancients meant to last for centuries without needing a new power source. If you could just let me take a look at the power configurations, I do have some experience with ZPMs…”

“No!” Delkin suddenly snapped. “That is not permissible, nor is necessary. You will do the work you are assigned and stop making excuses for your failures.” He struck out sharply with the rod, snapping it against Rodney’s thigh and making his leg buckle.

“Ow! Fuck! Why, you little pipsqueak…” Rodney clutched at his leg and felt the fury rising in him again. He was so sick and tired of this petty little man…he straightened and reached out for Delkin’s rod with a snarl, his fingers curled into a claw-like grip.

Delkin avoided him easily and cracked the rod again on Rodney’s leg, three times in rapid succession. Rodney couldn’t help it; he dropped to his knees on the floor, the pain overriding the brief surge of rage. He curled on his side, drawing his leg up into his body in an attempt to smother the protests of outraged nerve endings by clutching his thigh and muttering, “fuck, fuck, fuck,” under his breath.

Delkin leaned forward slightly and said in a voice that plainly revealed how much he disliked Rodney, “Your hands may be valuable, but your legs are not. You can work from a chair without the use of your lower limbs. Think about that the next time you choose to disobey me.” He raised his hand again, in preparation of landing another blow.

The lights went out.

There was a brief moment where both Rodney and Delkin seemed to hold their breaths, and then Delkin began yelling for the guard at the door. Before Rodney could fully acknowledge his desire to grab the Soldarian leader by his scrawny throat and wring his neck like a chicken, the lights came back up to half-power. Which was just as well, as he was pretty sure he couldn’t stand right now.

“What is it? What is happening?” Delkin sounded a little panicked. Comm units began squawking at Rodney’s workstation—multiple people were reporting in at once, sounding just as alarmed as Delkin. Rodney pulled himself up by the edge of the workbench and sat heavily in his chair before adjusting the information flow to his computer.

“Power is down all across the city,” he said, not taking his eyes off the screen as the data continued to roll past. “You’re running on emergency power now and that’s draining fast. You need to shut down all non-essential systems or you’re going to lose the whole grid and I’m not sure I can re-start it if the AI goes. Did you hear me?” Rodney turned to glare at the Soldarian, who seemed utterly shaken. “Shut down everything you don’t need. Don’t stand there wringing your hands—do it!” He bellowed out the last words, causing Delkin to jump forward and begin shouting commands into the comms.

Rodney watched as the power levels started to stabilize, but they were still dangerously low. If the Wraith should chose to attack now…well, they could all kiss their asses goodbye. As it was, if the AI lost even the backup power, then the system was probably toast. “I need access to your power grid information now,” he thundered, “before we lose the whole system.”

Delkin hesitated a moment and then nodded, causing his mustaches to swing merrily once more, before removing a key from inside his tunic and inserting it in a slot on the main console. A panel slid open revealing a scanner and he quickly placed his palm on it for identification. Once he was recognized by the system, he wasted no time in putting the necessary access codes at Rodney’s disposal.

Rodney ignored Delkin once access had been granted and wheeled himself from one console to the other, fingers flying blind over the keyboards as he kept his eye fixed on the data stream that began scrolling on the main computer displays overhead. “Shut up,” he rudely told Delkin at one point when the man began demanding to know what was going on, and he was surprised later to find Lia standing at his elbow with a mug of that fragrant not-coffee that was almost as good as the real thing, as long as you put lots of that not-sugar syrup in it. “Bring me several pots of this,” he ordered, as he continued to read and tweak the system, rerouting necessary relays, by-passing non-critical areas, pausing only to wolf down a piece of cold meat folded into a slice warm bread and to write new code designed to stem the hemorrhage of power in the system until he could get a handle on it.

Worried looking science types also appeared frequently at his side and he snatched datapads from their hands before sending them away with orders to implement his directives and be less stupid in the future. Hours, or maybe years, later, when the crisis seemed to be resolved for the moment, Rodney took the time to point out to Delkin (now supported by a contingent of upset and anxious city council types) that this was the very reason why they needed to give him complete access to all their systems if they didn’t want risking the loss of their AI, and very likely their entire defense system as well, in the near future. “All I’ve done is put a massive patch on it for now. But the whole system needs to be re-coded and I still have to decipher the mess that’s been created over the years from you people and your ‘it doesn’t have to work right, it only has to work today’ mentality.”

“You will be given the access you need,” Delkin assured him, once more in control, but to Rodney’s mind, slightly more deferential. “The AI, as you call it, must not fail. It is the Heart of the City.”

“Yes, yes, whatever,” Rodney flapped a weary hand in his direction. He was too tired to care.

He was startled to discover that he was grossly stiff when he went to get up out of his chair, and that the silk pants he was wearing were sticking to the side of his thigh. It wasn’t readily obvious at first, but he’d bled where Delkin had struck him. He limped painfully down the corridor to his room, flanked on either side by his guards. With only disquieting thoughts for company, he was surprised when they arrived at the door to his room.

****

Part 2

Part 3

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