Word Count: ~21,000
Spoilers: takes place somewhere in late season 3
Summary: Great. Obviously he was now destined to see dead people.
Inside his holding cell, he was dismayed to find Lia and a contingent of women moving about the room with purpose. The room was dimly lit, but several great, fat votives flickered on sconces set about the room now. Covered trays of food sat waiting for him on the table, as well as a dark bottle of what was probably ale or wine. In the center of the room sat a large, oblong container of some sort, either bronze or copper from the looks of it. The women rapidly assembled themselves into a fluttering line at his entrance to the room, reminding him of brightly colored birds on an overhead wire. “Lia, please,” he spoke to the girl, as the only one there he knew by name, “whatever this is, I just want to be left alone.”
Lia clapped her hands sharply and the women began to file out, each one pausing to give Rodney a slight incline of the head as they left. With their passing, Rodney could now see that a fresh tunic had been laid out on the bed, along with some sort of kimono-like robe in a bright, royal blue.
“You will bathe, eat, rest,” Lia said simply. “You have worked hard today, protecting the Heart. I am here to take care of you.”
Rodney realized now that the metal box was actually a tub of some kind, a lid covering to prevent the heat from escaping, thick, undyed towels stacked on a small table within easy reach, with soap and the means to shave as well. He couldn’t help but sigh at the thought of sinking into a hot tub full of water. “Ah, Lia,” he began with gratitude, “really, you have no idea. I do my best thinking in the tub. But I uh, that is to say, well, I don’t really need any help to, you know…” he felt himself start to flush.
Lia smiled charmingly, suddenly looking her age. “This I know. You are like the grafon in the workplace, growling and snapping and crushing bones between your teeth. But in the home, you are but a tiffin.” She made her hands into a small bowl, suggesting something timid and possibly fuzzy as well. She grinned up at him as she spoke.
“Yes, well, I think you’re possibly mistaken on that front, and I’m sure there’s more to this tiffin than meets the eye, they’re probably veritable tigers if you back them into a corner—I wouldn’t underestimate them if I were you and anyway, I think I’ll take a bath first while the water is still hot, so you can just…”
He broke off abruptly as she stood on her tiptoes and brushed his cheek with a kiss. “I think it’s sweet,” she said.
In stammering confusion, he turned away towards the bed, fingering the beautiful robe and the embossed designs of the silk. “What’s this?” he said suddenly, staring down at the bed. Beside the robe, a coil of copper-colored hair was braided and beaded into a small ring. It reminded him of the stargate with its chevrons. Gently he picked it up and turned to face Lia, holding it out to her for explanation. He could feel his face folding in on itself with the effort of keeping his emotions in check.
Lia ducked her head, until her face was hidden by the curtain of her hair. “You kept the necklace,” she said simply. “I thought you would also wish a keepsake of the other friend that you have lost. I hope you are not offended, but this way, you may carry the lock of hair without fear of losing it.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly, thumbing the ring of hair before placing it on the bedside table.
Thankfully, she left without another word. Rodney pulled off the tunic top, tossing it at the foot of the bed and began to shrug out of the pants when he realized that he would have to pull the material off his skin like a giant band-aid and he dithered about that for some time before simply gritting his teeth and giving it a jerk, hissing with pain at the action. Naked, he inspected his thigh and noted the angry, raised welts along his leg, several of which had beaded with enough blood to cause the cloth to adhere to his skin. It was now bleeding again and he was tempted to call Lia back for some first aid, but he figured that bathing would be sufficient for the time being. Shivering, he slipped on the kimono and walked over to the tub to assess the situation.
Shifting the tight fitting lid to one side and lowering it to the floor, Rodney was treated to the sight of steam rising off scented water in the nearly waist deep tub. The ends were fluted in such a way to support one’s head and neck at the surface level of the water. He was anticipating the sheer bliss of sinking into that warm embrace when he found himself puzzling over how to get in the deep tub. This was going to require lifting one leg over the edge and lowering himself carefully into the hot water...
He was pushing the kimono off his shoulders when John’s voice behind him said, “What’s this?”
Yelping, Rodney spun around, wincing as he did so and hastily pulling back on the robe. He took in a deep breath with which to yell at John for startling him, yet again, when he noticed that John was holding the little circle of braided hair.
“It’s Teyla’s,” Rodney said, the words hanging dull and heavy in the air. John stared down at the lock of hair in his hand for several heartbeats before looking up at Rodney with a shuttered look, his mouth tightening briefly and his eyes squinting momentarily in a flare of pain.
“Bastards,” he said softly, before replacing the lock of hair on the table beside the bed. “Hey, don’t let me stop you from your bath there, buddy,” he added with a forced lightness.
Rodney found he was clutching the robe around his body, the lapels folded all the way up under his chin. “Never mind, I can wait. I thought I might eat dinner first anyway.”
“Liar,” John grinned. “Oh for god’s sake, Rodney, I’m not really here, remember? And it’s not like I haven’t seen it all anyway. Besides, you do the McKays proud.”
Rodney began to sputter (just what did he mean by that crack?) but John turned away and inspected his trays, lifting covers and poking at the food within. Rodney hesitated, but decided to quickly disrobe while John had his back turned and climb in the tub before the water got completely cold. Only he had a hard time deciding which leg to lift in first. Going with the injured one, he got one foot over into the tub and gripped the edges with both hands as he started to swing his other leg in so he could lower himself into the water. He hissed as the water hit the welts on his leg; there had to be some sort of mineral salts in the water, he realized belatedly, trying to hang above the water and avoid sitting down.
“What are you over here ‘ooh-ahing’ about?” Rodney could hear the grin in John’s voice as he approached and then the sudden, “Christ.”
“It looks worse that it is,” Rodney said, hastily sitting down and submerging himself to his chin in the vaguely spearmint scented water. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it hurt like a sonofabitch, but it’s not like, you know, an arrow in the ass or anything.” Rodney desperately downplayed his injuries so that John would not decide he needed to take a closer look.
John was wearing a black turtleneck over black pants, the stubble on his chin making Rodney realized that he looked older, closer to his real age now. He pushed one sleeve of his shirt up to his elbow and knelt down beside the tub, so that he was at eye level with Rodney. He reached over the edge of the tub and into the water, causing Rodney to open his mouth in surprise, but freeze into immobility as well.
John lifted the dog tags off Rodney’s chest and held them up for inspection, water dripping off his hand and onto Rodney’s collarbone. “These are mine,” he said, frowning slightly.
“Yes,” Rodney let out his breath somewhat shakily. “The Soldarians showed them to me, as proof, you know…” he trailed off, wanting to sink under the water until he was entirely submerged, to cross his hands over his groin, to will John to look anywhere but at him, naked in the tub and not very impressive, to say the least.
John continued to hold the tags in his hand, but his gaze followed the chain back up to Rodney’s face. “You’re wearing them.” In the light of the candles, John’s eyes appeared almost leonine in nature.
“They told me you were dead. They laid out these items on a tray—your tags, Teyla’s hair, Ronon’s gun.” Rodney watched as John’s jaw clenched at the words; like Rodney, John knew Ronon would never leave his gun behind voluntarily. Rodney continued hastily, repeating himself in his hurry to get the words out. “They told me you were dead. There were your tags, just lying there. I wanted them.”
“You wanted them.” John looked blank.
“Yes, yes, you moron,” Rodney snapped, suddenly impatient with John’s willful stupidity. “I wanted them because I could not have you. Satisfied?”
John relinquished the tags, sitting back on his heels with a stunned look on his face. Rodney folded his arms over his chest and glared at John. “And just to make things perfectly clear, this has less to do with your eternal hotness and more to do with who you are as a person, although the hotness doesn’t hurt at all, seriously. And I mean that in a ‘I care about you’ way, which is not the same way as a ‘friend loves a friend’ kind of way.”
“Oh.” John still looked a little pole-axed. He rubbed the side of one ear.
“Oh? Is that all you have to say? I declare that I…um, care about you, and all you can say is ‘oh’?” Rodney found John’s intense stare unnerving. He reached for the soap and began sudsing up.
“You’re telling me this, now?” John said at last, his voice sounding a touch plaintive to Rodney’s ear.
Rodney studiously soaped his forearms, refusing to look directly at John. “Oh, so like I should have told you before.”
“You waited until I was dead, Rodney, so yeah, I think maybe you should have told me before.”
Rodney shot John a quick glance, but only saw a faintly irritated frown on his face, which confused the hell out of him. “Yeah. Right. I should have said something earlier. Why didn’t I think of that? Oh wait, right, because I’m a genius, that’s why.” The soap was lathering nicely, thankfully creating a small film of bubbles of the surface of the water.
“You wanna explain that one?” Rodney got both the drawl and the eyebrow this time.
He sighed. “I didn’t say anything to you before because well, face it. It would have been…well, you know.” He made a little soapy wave of his hand.
“No, I don’t know,” John gave his little half smile and Rodney knew he wasn’t trying to look seductive, merely aiming to put Rodney on the spot, but the effect was just the same anyway. “Explain it to me.”
Rodney glared, feeling his mouth tighten until his lips had to have nearly disappeared. John was making this difficult on purpose and he didn’t want to have to spell it out in so many words that he’d been afraid of ruining the best relationship he’d ever had by revealing unwanted and unreciprocated desires. Suddenly he popped one hand out of the water, snapping his fingers and making soap fly. “I’ve got it. It would be like if Spock and McCoy somehow became one person and together they hit on Kirk. Can you imagine Kirk’s reaction?”
John’s left forearm came forward to rest on the edge of the tub. The watch looked like a Rolex; definitely not military. Somehow his other sleeve had gotten pushed up and his arms were bare to the elbows. Rodney tried not to notice how the dark hair of his arms contrasted with his skin, or how everything about John proclaimed his masculinity.
“You’re assuming that Kirk didn’t have a thing for McSpock.” John tilted his hand, splaying his fingers slightly for emphasis as he spoke.
“Are you kidding me? That would only be because Kirk has a thing for everything that moves, not because he in any way in particular…wait a minute. A thing for McSpock? Really?” Rodney’s voice rose in incredulity. “But, I mean, he’s Kirk.”
“He never ended up with any of those women.” John’s statement seemed somehow very significant and yet not very clear at the same time and wasn’t that just John all over?
“Can we dispense with the analogies now?” Rodney complained. “They can only take you so far before things start to get really confusing.”
John responded by way of snagging the soap out of Rodney’s hand. “Duck,” he ordered.
“Excuse me?” Rodney could feel his brain whirr to a jarring halt with the subject change. “What? Why?”
“You need to wash your hair,” Sheppard grinned as he placed a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and pushed him under the water. Rodney’s gasp of outrage turned out to be the only breath he got before he was completely submerged. He came up sputtering with fury, but before he could clear the water out of his eyes and threaten John with non-corporal harm, he felt John’s hands on his scalp, working the soap into a lather in his hair.
“Keep your eyes shut,” John ordered, the smile evident in his voice, “I don’t want to hear you whining about getting soap in your eyes.”
Rodney wanted to huff about that, but the feel of John’s fingers against his scalp was so good, he merely grunted instead. It felt so delicious; Rodney knew now how his cat must have felt when he scratched him under his chin, because if he had access to a mirror right now, he was sure he’d see the same blissful expression on his face that had been on the cat’s…he might even start purring as well. Part of him wanted to tell Sheppard that it really wasn’t necessary, that Rodney understood what he was doing and that the effort was appreciated and all, but he really didn’t need John’s pity. Another part of him said just shut the fuck up and go with it.
All too soon, the scalp massage stopped. “Rinse,” John said, and it was Rodney’s only warning before he was ducked under the water again. Rodney came up, pushing his hair back off his forehead and lay with his head back against the rim of the tub, his eyes closed.
“Shave?” John suggested, with entirely too much humor in his voice.
Rodney opened one eye. “No, thank you. I can take care of that myself. I know how that would go—it would start out being the most erotic experience of my life and would end with you accidentally cutting my throat.”
“Rodney.” John’s protest was in that two note drawl and this time, instead of making Rodney angry, it sent a pang of regret through him. Maybe John was right. Maybe he should have said something when it still mattered. It was too late now. He snatched the soap back from John’s hand and began lathering his chest.
John watched him for a long moment, looking more like a dangerous, feral animal than his friend and team leader, before rising to his feet and moving over to the bed. He re-arranged the pillows and made obviously himself comfortable, continuing to stare at Rodney.
Rodney tried not to be self-conscious. He wasn’t going to let John rattle him with this stupid post-mortem game he was playing. He finished his bath and cautiously gave himself a not-too-close shave with the wicked looking straight edge razor. When he was done, he carefully cleaned and closed it, eyeing it thoughtfully. It was either a measure of trust or an oversight, he decided, that he’d been provided with something so potentially lethal. Either way, he was going to make sure he hung onto the razor for future use. He looked up to find John gazing at him with half-closed eyes, a lazy glint of hazel watching him with approval. He found himself grinning at John and getting a corresponding smirk in return.
But he’d delayed as long as he could in getting out of the tub. His fingers and toes were getting pruney; the water cold and a soapy scum was starting to form. He reached over the edge for one of the towels and shook it out, trying to stand up at the same time without relinquishing his hold on the towel. He wobbled, losing his balance, and felt John’s hand under his forearm in an instant.
“Let me help you out there, buddy,” John spoke practically in his ear, so close that his whiskery chin brushed Rodney’s skin, sending a little frisson of pleasure down his spine. He accepted John’s assistance in getting out of the tub, because really, it was dangerous and he didn’t need any more head trauma. Just as he was vigorously tucking his towel around his body and preparing to tell John that he no longer needed any help, John let go of him. John then stooped to pick up the fallen kimono, letting one hand trail down Rodney’s body as though for support as he leaned over—down his still damp spine, over the edge of the towel, sweeping his cloth covered ass before dropping away as John stood again. He placed the robe over Rodney’s shoulders, smoothing the silk against Rodney’s skin before stepping away.
Rodney pulled the robe on and tied it at the waist before turning to look at John. He wasn’t sure exactly what was on his face, but robe was tented outwards from his erection, which certainly didn’t leave much to anyone’s imagination. John’s eyes seemed to darken and his respiration increased. His teeth appeared and caught the tip of his lower lip between them.
“Bridge over River Kwai,” Rodney said suddenly.
John only looked blank for a moment before smiling his slow smile and turning away towards the bed once more. His expression suggested he knew what Rodney was doing, whether it was conscious or not, and had decided to play along. After he’d settled himself on the bed, hands folded behind his head against the wall, he said, “Is that the movie where Obi Wan is in a POW camp and he has to blow up a bridge?”
Rodney made for the table, uncovering the trays and seating himself so he could still see John but eat at the same time. It seemed the safest course of action. “Alec Guinness was in more than just Star Wars, you know,” Rodney said sourly. “And yes, he was overseeing the construction of a bridge while a POW in a vicious prison camp, not that I’m making any comparisons here, but his real mission was to blow it up. However, he got so caught up in the construction, in making it the best bridge it could possibly be…” he trailed off and took a mouthful of tava-and-rice.
“You think you should sabotage the AI?”
“You don’t?” Rodney found himself raising an eyebrow at John for a change.
He took his hands down from behind his head and appeared to study them. “Whatever the leaders of this world have done, they were ultimately trying to protect their people.”
Rodney hurled the tray of vegetables across the room. It hit the far wall with a resounding clatter, spattering the food with the explosive force of P-90 firepower. “These fucking leaders, as you call them, could have asked. We would have helped them. Hell, I would have promised them my first born child for the opportunity to study this technology. They didn’t have to kill you guys.”
John seemed startled by his vehemence and he pushed himself up so he could sit on the edge of the bed. “They didn’t know that, Rodney. Pegasus, as you well know, isn’t exactly a forgiving sort of place. Are you going to condemn Lia and the rest of this world because their leaders are ruthless assholes?”
“This isn’t like you,” Rodney frowned. “You should be saying, ‘fuck that shit and where’s my C-4?’ You don’t seriously think I should fix their systems, do you?”
“If you do,” John shrugged, “you’re a hero. Whereas on the other hand, if they catch you tampering with their systems…”
“You don’t get it do you?” Rodney pushed the remaining tray aside and stood up to glare at John. “If I have to stay here the rest of my life, then the shorter the better.”
“You don’t mean that.” The look that John fixed on him was sharp, angry.
“Try me,” Rodney said bitterly. They glared at each other for a long moment and then Rodney came over to the bed.
“Shove over,” he said, pushing at John’s legs. “I want to go to bed.”
“I didn’t mean for you to leave,” Rodney said aloud to the room. Silence met his efforts. Grumpily, he shed out of the kimono and put on the fresh silk tunic and pants. John was right; they did look like pajamas—really fancy ones. He got under the covers and lay curled on his side, watching the flickering flame of the nearest candle. He closed his hand around the dog tags under his tunic.
Why the dog tags, he wondered as he began to drift off to sleep. Why the tags, the hair, the gun? Why not actual bodies? If they really wanted to shock him into cooperation, that would have done it. A rational part of his brain tried to explain about decomposition and the probable delay before he had been even aware enough to process such a sight but something weary and pissed within him said, ‘oh bite me’. And his brain shut up.
In the morning, the army of women returned and began cleaning up the spilled food, removing the guttered candles, working as quietly as possible, but Rodney could no loner sleep. Four large men came in and removed the tub while he was shaving; he pocketed the straight edge in his tunic when no one was looking. Rodney was stiff and sore, the welts on his leg having subsided to leave ugly bruises behind instead.
Lia appeared with a pot of not-coffee (or maybe it was not-tea), already sweetened the way he liked it. She also brought a bowl of steaming hot cereal, which he ate hungrily, but found himself wishing that this culture believed in eating bread. Bread dripping with butter and honey, biscuits with gravy, chipped beef in a white sauce on toast, cornbread, pancakes…he cut off the train of thought only when he was scraping the bottom of the bowl with his spoon.
“Lia,” he said, as she was hovering right at his elbow, the rest of the workers having left the room. “Tell me more about the Heart of the city.”
Lia looked faintly surprised. “What could I possibly tell you that you do not already know?”
“You’d think more people would recognize that fact and act accordingly,” Rodney shook a finger at her in agreement, “but sadly, that is not the case. This time, however, I need to know more about the history of the Heart—has it always been here?” It occurred to him that Daniel Jackson just might have his uses on off-world missions after all.
“Oh yes,” she seemed astonished at the idea of there being a time when no Heart existed. “The Heart has been part of the city since the time that the Ancestors first built it. There has always been a Heart.” She seemed to hesitate slightly as she finished her sentence and Rodney pounced on it.
“Wait, you say there has always been a Heart…has there been more than one, then?”
Lia looked slightly uneasy. She shifted her eyes sideways, as though to reconfirm they were alone in the room and then added in a confidential tone. “When the Ancestors first built the city, the Heart was strong. For many generations, the Heart protected us, kept us safe from the Wraith and outside invaders, provided the power for our city and allowed us to flourish as a people. But over time, the Heart grew weak. Things began to fail and our people realized that should the Heart die, we would all be at risk. So one of the people was chosen to feed the Heart and make it strong again. It is a great honor to be chosen—but the Heart began to weaken faster and faster and there came a time when none among out people was pure enough of spirit to feed the Heart. That’s why it is so very important that you determine what is wrong; why the Heart is bleeding, why it needs so much energy. If the Heart dies, we all die.”
She looked at him so earnestly that it was hard for him to hate her. She couldn’t know. But he did.
He knew where John was now.
“Lia,” he said, rising to his feet and taking her by the shoulders, “it is very, very important that you take me to the Heart. I must see it in order to fix it.”
She locked her gaze with his for a long moment before nodding. “You must wait here. The Heart is in another part of the city. You will need warmer clothes.”
“I need my things from the lab where I’ve been working as well, my laptop,” he drew a square with his hands and mimed opening it, “as well as my tools.”
“This will take time,” Lia nodded. “You must be patient and wait for my return.”
“You have met me, right?” Rodney said with a downward turn of his mouth, but Lia only laughed and quickly left the room.
She seemed to be taking forever. Rodney paced impatiently around the room, thinking of all the things that could go wrong and wondering if he was already too late. He placed the ring of Teyla’s hair in a small pocket within the tunic, next to his chest. Periodically he would touch the braid or finger John’s tags and take solace in the solidity of his talismans. He half-hoped that John would appear so he could run his theory past him, but there were problems with that idea as well and in the end, Rodney decided it was just as well that John didn’t show. He wasn’t sure he could look John in the eye right now.
When Lia returned at last, she brought with her several heavy, hooded robes and some fur-lined boots. She also had Rodney’s equipment and he wondered briefly what kind of reaction he’d receive if he showed up with Lia back in Atlantis as his very own personal assistant. Lia guided him quickly down the corridors; the one time they were challenged by guards, they accepted without question her explanation that Rodney was at work on the Heart. Which, he conceded, was perfectly true, just not in the way anyone expected.
“This place you’re taking me. Where the Heart is,” and he winced mentally at the thoughts this conjured up, suddenly picturing John making cracks about home being where the heart is and warbling ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’, which really, took on a whole new meaning now. “This room,” he continued, shaking off thoughts of John, “is it guarded? Will we be able to get inside?”
Lia paused beside a door and pulled the hood of her robe up over her head. “No one guards the Heart,” she said, slightly puzzled. “The Heart guards us.”
She opened the door and a rush of frigid air drove needle sharp, crystalline shards of ice into the hallway, forcing Rodney to turn his head and close his eyes against the blast. “How far is it to the Heart?” he had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind.
“It is on the other side of town,” Lia said, before exiting the building.
She plainly expected Rodney to follow. “Oh great,” he muttered as he pulled his hood up over his head. “Now we can add frostbite to the list.”
The air was so cold that Rodney couldn’t breathe; each intake of breath burned a fiery trail down his airways, causing them to constrict painfully in an effort to prevent them from being frozen from the inside out. He staggered after Lia, her form an oddly moving shadow in the empty streets before him—he himself bounced from wall to wall like a ball in a pinball machine as he tried to keep up. He tried to keep his face covered with a sleeve, but he couldn’t maintain that for long, given all the gear he was carrying. Just when he thought he could go no further, he saw a rectangle of light appear ahead of him as a door opened and he struggled to move leaden feet to catch up to Lia as she entered the building before them.
He collapsed on the floor as he cleared the threshold.
“What are you doing?” Lia frowned, shaking snow and ice off her hood as she tossed it back. “We must hurry.”
“No problem,” Rodney groaned from the floor. “Just give me a moment for the blocks of ice that are my feet and hands to thaw…or completely break off, whichever comes first.” He could barely speak; his lips felt like they were frozen solid and his face was numb in places.
“Let me guess,” John’s amused voice came to him from nearby. “Force Ten from Navarone? Ice Station Zebra?”
Rodney opened his eyes to see John squatting on his heels next to him. He was wearing a navy suit this time, with a light blue oxford open at the neck, tie askew, cuffs (naturally) shot to expose his wrists and forearms. For a split second Rodney thought John was wearing his dress blues, until he noticed the faint pin-striping and the lack of military insignia. “Shall I open up one of those ugly riding beasts from Empire and stuff you inside with its intestines to keep you warm?” John’s grin was engaging.
“A tauntaun,” Rodney tilted his head to look up at John, blinking away the melting snow on his eyelashes. “They’re called tauntauns.”
“The fact that you even know that…” John shook his head in a ‘loser-geek’ kind of way but Rodney thought he sounded admiring just the same. He stood as Rodney struggled to his feet.
“What are called tauntauns?” Lia said with frowning curiosity.
“Never mind,” Rodney shot in her direction before turning to John again. “You know that discussion we had last night about the AI? Well, you’re it.”
“I’m it what?” Now it was John’s turn to frown.
“You’re the AI, you moron!” Rodney snapped. “They didn’t kill you, well at least not per se; they merged your consciousness with the machine. You’re running the whole damn show.”
“Who are you talking to?” Lia asked slowly.
“I am?” John said at the same time and running two conversations at once, when one person was invisible to everyone else, was just as confusing as when Cadman was in his head.
“Yes, you! You’re the Heart, okay? They needed someone with the ATA gene to run it and they chose you. Only there’s something wrong with the system that keeps killing off the gene carriers prematurely. I’m guessing they ran through them in their own population a long time ago and didn’t know exactly what they were looking for until we arrived and made their toys light up.”
“The chosen come willingly,” Lia said with some distress, as though reciting a traditional formula. “It is a great honor.”
Rodney wheeled on her. “Well not this time. This time, they took my friend and stuffed him into the system against his will. The only reason they chose him and not me was that his gene is stronger—he has more energy to feed the Heart as you’d say, and because they were hoping I’d be able to fix the problem so that it wouldn’t keep draining the population of a resource you no longer have.”
“But you can fix it, right?” John sounded a touch concerned.
Rodney turned to face him. “I don’t know. I won’t know anything until I get in there and find out what really happened to you.”
“I hate it when you do that,” Rodney announced out loud. “Come on,” he said to an obviously confused Lia as he began to hurry down the corridor, urgency driving him forward. The control room doors opened at his approach and he sensed Lia’s surprise and dismissed it immediately, of course John would let him in.
Inside, the control room had huge display screens that showed every part of the city and its various systems from power distribution to gate activity to winter storm patterns. There was even an orbital satellite array. Rodney sat down at the main console and began making the necessary connections to his computer—from there he downloaded all the access codes from the day before. He worked quickly as the new information began streaming in, finding the missing pieces to his puzzle that he’d been unable to solve before but still not knowing where and how they all fit in. He ruthlessly ripped out huge sections of bad code, rewriting it on the fly and creating new linkages, shutting down areas of the system that simply did not need to be run by any AI in order to save power.
“Someone is coming,” Lia said at one point, indicating the screens, and Rodney had to laugh when doors refused to open, power went off to whole sectors and an entire contingent of military types became trapped inside an elevator. He thought the use of the fire suppression system on the people in the elevator was a nice touch. He could trust John to hold this room long enough for him to do his thing. The problem was he was no closer to a solution than he had been before. Where was John himself? What if there was nothing left of him outside the computer?
Lia’s small hand suddenly closed on his arm. He looked up in irritation to see her fishing around in one of her pockets. “I must go,” she said abruptly. “I will return as soon as I can. This is for you.”
She pulled out Ronon’s gun and held it by the handle towards Rodney. “What the…?” Rodney began, automatically taking the gun, albeit a bit gingerly.
“A keepsake from your other friend,” she said with a very adult smile. “I thought you might need it.”
“Lia,” Rodney began uncertainly, but she waved him off.
“You must keep working. I will return, I promise.” Within seconds of her exit, Rodney had forgotten all about her, once more absorbed in the problem of finding and extricating John from the AI.
“Where the hell are you, Sheppard?” Rodney muttered, staring at the viewscreen.
“Hey.” Rodney spun in his chair to find John standing behind him, looking at last like his real age, 24 hour’s worth of stubble darkening the lower half of his face, his hair just as crazy as ever, but shorter, and Rodney could tell now there was some control as well. He was wearing a rather loud print shirt; open at the collar and showing some skin, as well as the very beginnings of chest hair, over black pants, shadows under his eyes making him look dangerous and somewhat seedy. Rodney had to resist letting his jaw drop, because John looked amazing and yet a little frightening at the same time.
“Um, I could use some help here,” Rodney swallowed hard, hating to have to admit that fact. “The way I see it, you’ve got to be around here somewhere, serving as a power conduit for the AI.” He refused to call it the Heart anymore. “From what I could tell, the original Ancients who set this up thought that in addition to protecting this world, that it might be a short-cut to Ascension, that is if you could call spending centuries inside an AI a short-cut.”
“Centuries,” John said flatly.
“Well, that was the original plan. One Ancient would volunteer to maintain the machine in return for centuries of an artificial life, presumably allowing time to mediate their way into Ascension, whereby another Ancient would step up to the plate. Somewhere along the line though, a glitch developed. The volunteers no longer lasted centuries, new ones had to be chosen with little to no notice, the gene pool got smaller, and the attempts to fix the power drains made things worse. The truth is, each generation built on to the Ancients’ original design, meaning that the AI was taking on far more responsibility for running the city than it was ever meant to do. Hell, you’re handling trash disposal, John. The Soldarians were desperate—they’d begun asking off-worlders to come and examine their Ancient artifacts in the hopes of just what happened—someone would trigger and reaction and they got a new ‘replacement’ for the AI.”
“So they snagged me? To play Sim City for them?” John looked pretty pissed and Rodney knew it wasn’t aimed at him, but still it made him uneasy just the same. “So what’s the problem? Get me out.”
“Well, that’s just it. I don’t know that I can. I haven’t actually found a…I mean you, yet. I’m not picking up your transponder or finding you on the life-signs detector. And it’s possible that there isn’t any you left, you know, outside of living in the machine, so to speak. They don’t actually need that much DNA, you know.” Rodney sighed unhappily. “The power problem I can solve—I’ve patched it for now, I can come back with a naquada generator and take care of the problem for the foreseeable future, that is, if these people learn to run some of their own systems and stop relying on the AI for everything. And the AI can exist for some months on back up power, once the drain has been solved. But I still don’t know exactly where you are.”
“How come I’m here then?” John looked down at his shirt. “Looking like an extra on CSI Miami?”
“I think,” Rodney lay extra emphasis on the word ‘think’, “you’re sort of projecting yourself. You know, subconsciously. Like a radio wave. Because of your connection with the AI.”
“That explains some things,” John said thoughtfully.
“Like what?” Rodney frowned.
He shrugged. “Weird dreams mostly. Having conversations with people that I think I know but I’ve never met before. Swatting Wraith darts out of the sky with my hands, and making sandcastles on the beach that turned into cities under a glass like a snow globe. ”
“Probably a shield of some sort, and that other stuff? The AI has probably done all of that over the centuries—and I bet every personality is still there within it,” Rodney muttered, glancing back at the console before steeling himself to meet John’s eyes again. “The point is, what do you want me to do? Even if I find your body, I may not be able to separate you from the AI. Everyone else who has left the AI did so because they were dying or Ascending. I could kill you trying to get you out. At least here, like this, you can still exist.” His hands had shifted tightly during this speech, opening on ‘find’, clenching on ‘separate’, wringing on ‘kill’. He couldn’t help but remember that John had been the one to argue against destroying the AI. Maybe that had been his subconscious at work.
“I’m not going to live like this,” John said shortly. “I’d rather be dead than trapped inside some machine forever.”
“Okay,” Rodney said unhappily. “I was just thinking, given enough time, I could probably come up with a way to download you and bring you back to Atlantis.”
He could see the idea was tempting to John—to be able to leave, knowing he could exist at least part of the time in some sort of corporeal form and still bring the best means of protecting Atlantis they’d found so far back with them to the city. He could also tell the moment John rejected the idea.
“Nope,” John grinned, but it looked forced. “When you leave here, I don’t think you’ll be coming back.”
Rodney looked down at his hands. John was undoubtedly right. It was questionable whether they’d even be able to install the naquada generator. He was considering this when he suddenly felt John’s hand on his chin, tilting his face up.
John had a somewhat self-conscious smirk on his own face. “So, just in case this doesn’t work…” he leaned forward and kissed Rodney full on the mouth.
Rodney froze for a second, and then surged back in response, opening his mouth and taking John in greedily, hands gripping him by the shoulders. When John stepped back, he looked a little stunned and then he gave that little boy’s smile that usually drove Rodney mad. And disappeared again.
“Bastard,” Rodney said without heat. Now to find John in reality. He gathered up his toolkit and Ronon’s gun and headed for the door. It opened at his approach, to reveal Delkin and three armed guards on the other side.
With a yelp of surprise, Rodney fired Ronon’s gun in rapid succession, watching as all four men collapsed, completely stunned, on the ground. “Oh. My. God.” Rodney breathed, holding the weapon up to look at it in awe. “I love this gun.”
He stepped over their bodies and exited the room.