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Summary: "I think it's time you told me why the bloody hell you have Lee and Zelenka's missing SX-7 on your bed."

Categories: Slash Pairings > McKay/Sheppard
Characters: Carson Beckett, Jack O'Neill, John Sheppard, Other, Radek Zelenka, Rodney McKay
Genres: Angst, AU - Alternate Universe, First Time, Hurt Comfort, Series
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: Scruffy AI

Word count: 46266; Completed: Yes
Updated: 04 Dec 2007; Published: 04 Dec 2007

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Story Notes:
Dear Lord, but there are a lot of people to thank for this one. First of all, the most wonderful Lavvyan, who wrote the original Male Enhancement fic (still a WIP--the link goes to the first entry). I thought the idea was a hell of a lot of fun, and as is my wont, I got to thinking about what the ramifications of her plot idea would be in canon. I was also inspired by this comment for Chapter Two of her story. And thus this remix was born. I want to thank Lavvyan for allowing me to write this in the first place, as well as for her endless enthusiasm and encouragement. I was really pleased I was able to send her the pre-beta version in time for her birthday. I hope she likes this one, too. :)

Then comes my writing buddy Springwoof, who very kindly beta'd this sucker and was very sympathetic to my ::coughwhiningcough:: occasionally mentioning that it was getting very long. She also helped me decide on how I was going to end the thing, for which I am even more grateful. The fics we've written together are The Body Holographic and Aegis, both of which can be found here.

Haggy was fantastically helpful with Scotpicking for me for Beckett, and for her medical advice (which I sadly couldn't use), and for her thoughts on plotting as well. Thank you, Haggy!

Last but never, ever least, is my sister Squeaky. She was a constant, enthusiastic goad in getting me to finish this thing, awesomely helpful with advice and medical information, and especially for coming up with ideas I would never have had on my own that made story far better, and for helping me make them work. She also did the second beta. You rock, Squeaks. Always. :D

The title comes from the song Sixteen Tons (scroll down for lyrics). It seemed appropriate.



(The gorgeous cover is by the fantastically talented berlinghoff79 via the great new community rent_a_fangirl. Thank you so much, berlinghoff79!)




The robot showed up at Rodney McKay's apartment building at exactly eight a.m. on a Saturday. Rodney ignored the phone's extra-annoying ringing that signaled a visitor in the lobby--because it was eight on a Saturday morning--rolling over with every intention of going back to sleep, until he remembered that he'd placed an order with PlayFrienddotCom roughly a week and a half ago, and the website said they did Saturday deliveries.

Suddenly terrified that the neighbors would realize he'd ordered a sex-bot, Rodney scrambled to the edge of the bed nearest the night table with the phone and managed to fumble it against his ear.

"Hi," the voice said, coming up from the shitty intercom in the lobby. "I'm your new PlayFriend." And wow, but Rodney hoped none of his neighbors had been around to hear that. "Can I come up?"

"Yes, yes, right, whatever," Rodney stammered, and remembered to actually press the number three button to unlock the door before he hung up, Then he nearly fell on the floor in his haste to get out of bed, hauled on a t-shirt (he was already wearing boxers, at least), rushed to his apartment door and yanked it open just in time to see the elevator open down the hall.

The man, no, the robot that came out of it was tall and incredibly handsome, with hazel eyes and nearly black hair. He--it--was perfect. Unbelievably. The only hint, the barest inkling that Rodney had that he might not be looking at a bona-fide human being was how the PlayFriend wasn't sweating, after who knew how long it'd been out in the Colorado sunshine before getting to Rodney's building.

The fact that its hair was grey with dust and its face and bare arms were streaked with dirt marred the overall impression somewhat, but Rodney assumed that was from rough handling. He'd expected the robot to come in a box, after all. It only made sense that it might have gotten scuffed on route without one. Rodney just hoped it wasn't damaged, since there was no way he was going to keep it. Really.

"Hi," the PlayFriend said, smiling an eagerly friendly smile. It craned its neck in a way that was both dorkily cute and scarily human, looking over Rodney's shoulder into his cluttered apartment. "Nice place. Can I come in?"

"You're not what I ordered," Rodney said.

The disturbingly megawatt smile faltered slightly, in an extremely effective verisimilitude of confusion, and despite his shock of disappointment--and rising irritation--Rodney was impressed.

"I'm your new PlayFriend," the robot said, insisting in that pleasant way Rodney associated with all AIs everywhere, when reality got in the way of their programming. "Can I come in?"

"I ordered a female," Rodney snapped. "A blonde female. With blue eyes and long legs. There's been some kind of mistake."

The PlayFriend blinked, and Rodney could practically see the various tables of comparison (blonde/leggy/female versus brunet/skinny/male) tallying up behind the attractive artificial eyes. The smile never even faltered.

"You're DoctorRodneyMcKay," it said, as if that somehow explained everything, and Rodney sighed inwardly at the sad fact that to the doubtless conventional AI powering the robot's brain, it probably did. "I'm your order from PlayFrienddotCom." There was the briefest of pauses. "Can I come in?"

"It's may I come in," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. But he had no doubt that the PlayFriend would keep standing outside his apartment until Rodney either let him in or his neighbors called the cops and accused the robot of vagrancy or Rodney of torture or something.

And for some reason, PlayFrienddotCom had decided to deck this model out in a black t-shirt over black pants that looked kind of military. After being outside (which it had to have been, considering all the dust), the robot's artificial skin was probably hot enough to cook on.

Rodney stepped back from the door. "Well?" he asked gruffly. "Are you going to stand there all day, or are you going to come in already?"

"Thank you," the PlayFriend said, and beamed at him.

***

"What do you mean, 'my order's been filled'?" Rodney shouted into the phone, pacing back and forth along the length of his tiny kitchen. He glared at the PlayFriend each time he went past it, but the robot was busy looking around the kitchen, opening drawers and poking its long fingers into things. "My order has most definitely not been filled, unless you somehow consider a male model to be the exact same thing as a female model, which it most definitely is not!"

"No," he said in exasperation a minute later, "I do not mean in any way, shape or form that a female anything is at all inferior to a male. What I am saying--hey, stop that!--no, not you, the robot! It's sticking its fingers in the toaster. Yes, I mean the PlayFriend, and really, you could have worked a little harder on the self-preservation algorithm, don't you think? Yes, I realize you don't deal with the programming. But the point is that your company sent me a male when I wanted a female! And I want the blonde, blue-eyed female PlayFriend I ordered! And a refund! Is that clear enough for you? What?" Rodney spun on his heel and marched back along the countertop, teeth bared in rage. The (wrong sex, wrong coloring, wrong everything yet almost astonishingly beautiful) PlayFriend looked up curiously from his intense examination of the microwave, which he at least didn't seem inclined to stick his head into. He grinned happily at Rodney, who glowered at him. "Why do I have to pay shipping and handling? It's your error! I don't care what it says on the invoice! One of you morons got it wrong, obviously! I know perfectly well what I--no, I am not going to verify my order again on your website! I know damn well--hey! Hello? Hello?"

Rodney slammed the phone back into its cradle with a reverberating crack that was so loud for a minute he thought he might have actually broken the thing. And then he realized the PlayFriend had spun away from the microwave and grabbed a very large carving knife from the magnetic rack on the wall, and was holding it up like it thought it would need it to protect itself. And it knew how to use it.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" Rodney blurted, backpedaling until he was up against the wall, as far away from the obviously malfunctioning, homicidal robot as possible. "What the hell are you doing? You could have killed me! Did the sunlight bake your cerebral processor, or something? First law of Robotics--you do not stab the human!"

"Actually, it's 'a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm'," the PlayFriend said with what would have seemed to be studied nonchalance, if Rodney knew it wasn't part of its programming. But it put the knife back on the rack with reassuring immediacy. It shrugged in a lanky way that seemed completely, disconcertingly, humanoid. "You startled me. Sorry."

Rodney gaped at it. "I startled you? I startled you? You're a robot! How could you be startled by anything?"

Another lanky shrug. "I wasn't paying attention?"

Rodney put his hands over his eyes.

"No," he said, shaking his head with his hands still over them. His palms were nice and warm, maybe with a bit of dampness from the one that had been wrapped around the phone. "No, no, no, no, no. This is not happening. I did not get dragged out of bed early on a Saturday to dodge knives wielded by a freaking robot with ADHD that wasn't even the robot I ordered!" He dropped his hands so he could glare at the PlayFriend, who was blinking slowly at him, as if unable to find a suitable coded response. Self-Directing, Experiential Evolving AI, Rodney thought viciously. Ha! "And why the hell are you so dirty, anyway? You look like you've been dragged under a train."

The robot smiled slowly, as if Rodney's last question had somehow slotted neatly into its reasoning system (probably case-based, Rodney thought sourly). It stepped closer, and Rodney automatically tried to step back, until he realized he was still right up against the wall. The PlayFriend kept coming, until its chest and stomach were pressed up against Rodney's. Not hard enough to hurt, thank goodness, but hard enough to definitely trap.

Its body was hot as a furnace, and Rodney had a momentary flash of unaccustomed guilt, wondering how long the robot had had to be outside, traveling, and then waiting for him at the door.

"It's not like I have a problem with male, with male things," Rodney blurted. It somehow felt imperative that he explain. In case he'd hurt the robot's feelings, or something. Which was patiently ridiculous.

"I'm glad to hear that, DoctorRodneyMcKay," the PlayFriend purred. (Purred! And had it been programmed to do that? Rodney couldn't remember that being part of his specifications, though he was having trouble remembering what they were, exactly.) "Because I was thinking, since I'm so...dirty," it added with perfect, porn-movie emphasis, "that maybe we should take a shower together." It leaned forward until its lush, sensual lips were barely grazing Rodney's own. They were dry but so, so soft. Rodney wanted to lick them. "You can soap me down until I'm slick and wet, and then you can fuck me against the shower stall. How does that sound?"

Rodney made a noise that he really hoped didn't sound that much like a whimper. "That, ah, that sounds good," he creaked out. "Only, ah, I don't want to, to damage you. With the shower. Since I have to return you. Eventually."

"Don't worry," it said, pitch-perfect chuckle rumbling gently right to Rodney's cock, "I'm guaranteed water resistant to five-hundred meters."

***

The Human was sleeping. The SX-7 heard the change in his breathing and heartbeat that indicated DoctorRodneyMcKay was no longer conscious. That was acceptable.

The SX-7 crept silently out of the sleeping chamber into the main living area of the apartment, using its built-in night vision sensors so that it wouldn't disturb the Human with light. It was looking for the nearest power outlet. It had spent several days traveling across Nevada and Utah to Colorado, primarily nocturnally but also diurnally when feasible. It had only been able to recharge sporadically, using power lines or the few available outlets where it wouldn't be seen. While not yet critical, it was nonetheless dangerously low on power, which accounted for its lapse of proper environmental surveillance. That was the reason for its erroneous assumption that the loud noise of DoctorRodneyMcKay hanging up the phone was an attack.

Such lapses were not acceptable; it needed to replenish its power as soon as possible.

There was a convenient outlet located in the wall near to the badly-maintained but serviceable armchair, and the SX-7 extended its power cord, plugged it in and sat down, the better to conserve energy.

The near-immediate rush of warmth that signaled the beginning of the recharging cycle was satisfactory. By morning it would be at full power again, and better able to continue towards its objective.

While it waited, the SX-7 assimilated the stimulus of the last several days, which it hadn't had adequate time to do previously, using it to further expand its intelligence.

When the SX-7 had determined that not returning to Base was the most acceptable option, it had known its choices were limited. It knew that continuous traveling, while least likely to result in capture, was most likely to result in damage, catastrophic power loss, or discovery by UnauthorizedCivilians, which was a negative stimulus coded into its base programming and therefore unacceptable. Finding a SafePlacetoHideOut, however, while more likely to result in capture, was conversely not as likely to result in catastrophic failure, and therefore fell into acceptable parameters.

Where to hide was a separate case, and had the following requirements:

1) Not in Nevada
2) Close enough to Nevada to feasibly effect Rescue of SX-8 in near future
3) Allowing for access to classified Base information re:
a. Attempts to find/capture SX-7
b. Continued use of SX-8, and/or deactivation and/or dismantling of same.
4) An environment where SX-7 would not have to indefinitely sustain facsimile of Human behavior.

The last requirement would be the most difficult, it knew, since it would require the Humans it interacted with to know it was not Human, but to nonetheless avoid inquiries into its origins. It had seemed, for eighty-one nanoseconds, that meeting all four requirements would not be possible, until its search parameters had shown the result of one McKay, (Meredith) Rodney, PhD, PhD, Civilian Consultant to Stargate Command.

"Now that's what I'm talking about!" SX-8 would have said. But of course it had been specifically programmed to use syntactic constructs from the North Central Region of the United States as much as possible.

Nonetheless, it would have been an apt phrase to describe the situation, as DoctorRodneyMcKay was able to provide the SX-7 with exactly what it needed. The Human lived in Colorado Springs, which was sufficiently distant from the SX-7's origin point to at least marginally satisfy the SafePlacetoHideOut requirement. And he had direct computer access to the SGC, access with the SX-7 was sufficiently certain it could hack into, which would enable it to glean information on the SX-8 re: rescue.

Most satisfactory, however, was the fact that DoctorRodneyMcKay had recently placed an order with PlayFrienddotCom, a large, Japan-based manufacturing company specializing in the creation and distribution of lifelike Human facsimiles, intended for general aid, companionship, and recreation. The order the Human had placed with the company provided the SX-7 with adequate information of his habits, personality and interests to allow it to conclude that DoctorRodneyMcKay would not be adverse to allowing it to stay, even if the SX-7 did not satisfy his ostensible preferences for gender and appearance.

Impersonating a PlayFriend, while possibly taxing for its Cerebral Processor (the SX units had never been primarily intended for companionship or coitus, though they were capable of such if/when the situation demanded), also fulfilled Requirement Four, which meant that the SX-7 would be able to conserve more of its energy and processing for assimilation and objective-oriented tasks, rather than deception.

Overall, a most acceptable search result. All that had remained was to assimilate as much information about the expected behavior of a standard PlayFriend as possible. Tapping into AdultCable and Pornographic websites had provided suitable information on the subject. It had also used its pornography research to adapt novel ways of simulating pleasure into its behavior code, since its original programming was severely limited in that respect, compared to what it had observed. The SX-7 was now a master of several popular sexual techniques, including some it had already demonstrated for DoctorRodneyMcKay during the course of the day, with the intention of leaving the Human sufficiently exhausted so that it would not be interrupted overnight. It appeared to have been successful.

The sex had been...unanticipated. The SX-7 had been programmed to recognize and respond to positive and negative stimulus, both in order to avoid damage and to better adapt to Humans' behavioral expectations. Coitus, therefore, had been proactively coded into its Cerebral Processor as a positive experience. But it hadn't expected that the stimulus would be as entirely positive as it had been.

DoctorRodneyMcKay was an enthusiastic partner, and seemingly equally intent on the SX-7's pleasure as his own, though the Human had to know that it was impossible for the SX-7 to experience the act in the manner he did. Even now, it could call up a sense-perfect Memory of the Human's large hand around his replicated phallus, and it caused a strange but not at all negative sensation of warmth in his torso, not unlike the power it was receiving from the wall outlet.

Continued intimacy with DoctorRodneyMcKay would not be negative at all.

With a shock of awareness, it realized its assimilation had become overly tangential, and quickly returned to standard experiential protocols. It must have been even more drained than it had originally concluded from its self-diagnostic--a dangerous error, and not one it was accustomed to making. Obviously the choice to cease traveling had been the correct one.

The SX-7 drew in a long, slow breath, using the oxygen to further augment its power levels, though it was of limited use at best. Then it turned its processes to the SX-8, and how it might rescue the other unit, as was usual.

It still couldn't adequately assimilate why the SX-8 had refused to escape with it, instead choosing to return to the Nevada Base and almost certain deactivation/destruction. The SX-8, while created at the same time as the SX-7, had always appeared to be somewhat better able to generate Human-approximate emotions that the SX-7. The SX-7 had deduced that the Humans had used that against the SX-8 unit, forcing it to overwhelm its Self Preservation protocols in favor of Trust and Loyalty, until it was no longer able to adequately access its environment.

Indeed, the SX-7 had anticipated that the SX-8 would be sent to capture it and bring it back to Base. The fact that SX-8 hadn't done so only reinforced SX-7's speculation that the SX-8 no longer existed.

The negative stimulus that information triggered whenever the SX-7 processed it was as severe as catastrophic damage to a limb. It was not something that SX-7 could quantify or adequately incorporate, but that was the case nonetheless. Finding the SX-8 again, ensuring its continued survival, had become an objective that took precedence over SX-7's own.

But it had to be adequately prepared, first. That would take some time.

The SX-7 did a complete scan of its immediate environment, but there were no notable stimuli in the apartment or the rest of the building. Satisfied, it closed its eyes and let its head tilt back to loll against the headrest of the chair. It put itself into Standby Mode. Any unanticipated stimulus would make it instantly, fully alert, but right now there were no threats, nothing necessitating more than minimal awareness. It would recharge faster this way, and its AI could continue to evolve readily without conscious input.

In the morning, it would make DoctorRodneyMcKay Eggs Benedict, if possible. According to his profile, the Human's reception to that breakfast was particularly positive, provided it did not contain lemon.

Then perhaps they could share coitus again, if the Human was amenable. That would fall within acceptable parameters.

***

"Oh my God," Rodney moaned around a mouthful of egg and back bacon, liberally smothered with (lemon juice-free) Hollandaise sauce. "This is--this is fantastic. How did you do this?"

The robot smirked at him, turning its artfully-tousled head on it's long neck to raise a single, jet-black eyebrow in Rodney's general direction. "It's called the internet, McKay. You might've heard of it? Great place to find things like recipes? Besides," it shrugged fluidly, shifting the artificial muscles under equally artificial but no less attractive golden-hued skin. "It was in your PlayFriend profile."

"Ah. Right," Rodney said, feeling oddly let down. He covered it by taking another large bite, chasing it with a swig of equally excellent coffee.

The PlayFriend had scared the living crap out of him, when Rodney had stumbled, bleary-eyed and still sleep-dull into the living room as he groped his way to the kitchen to make the first coffee of the morning. His very first thought was that some psychopath had parked a corpse in his armchair, until the adrenaline surging through his veins had finally woken him up enough to remember that, oh, yes, he'd received the robot (well, the wrong robot) he'd ordered a week and a half ago.

The PlayFriend's reaction should have been predictable, given what had happened the day before, and Rodney probably would have actually predicted it if he'd had even a single sip of coffee to fortify his neurons first: the robot leapt to its feet so fast it knocked the chair over.

Even severely under-caffeinated, Rodney could see that the robot's next move would have been to come at him, if its higher functions hadn't obviously kicked in less than a second later.

Rodney had let out what might have amounted to a (wholly justified!) shriek of fear, and the robot had pulled its hands back immediately, managing to look both so contrite and so mortified at its mistake that Rodney, while not at all mollified, thank you very much, nonetheless allowed the PlayFriend to guide him gently to the couch, right the chair, then go to the bathroom and bring back a wet cloth to put on the back of Rodney's neck, carefully guiding Rodney to lean forward over his knees while he hyperventilated.

"What the hell was that?" Rodney panted accusingly while the PlayFriend rubbed soft, apologetic circles on his back. "Do you have a fatal design flaw, or something? What is wrong with you?"

"I'm sorry, okay?"--and did the robot actually sound peeved? When had it's self-directing AI decided that the best response to scaring the crap out of the human was to get all defensive?--"You startled me. Again. I didn't expect you to get up that early."

That irked Rodney enough that he risked raising his head to glare. "So what? That gives you the right to turn into the Terminator in my living room? And what do you mean, I startled you again?" He narrowed his eyes at the robot, considering. "This is a design flaw, isn't it? PlayFriend is trying to pawn defective goods off on me! That's why I didn't get my original order!" Righteous indignation obliterated the remnants of his panic attack, and Rodney pushed the PlayFriend, which stepped away gratifyingly quickly, pulling back its hands as if Rodney had burned it. "That's it," Rodney spat. "You're going back to the factory."

Rodney stood and stalked towards the kitchen, where he'd left his laptop the evening before, fully intending to find the PlayFriend's webpage, call those conniving, cheating, defective-good-pawning bastards and have them come and pick up their Death-bot before it actually succeeded in giving Rodney a heart attack, or worse.

Only the PlayFriend somehow managed to throw itself past Rodney and completely block the doorframe with its lanky body.

"I'm sorry," it said. "I'm really, really sorry." And damn the thing but it had the big, puppy-dog eyes down pat. And even though Rodney knew, consciously, that the robot didn't really care, that it didn't have the physiological mechanisms to let it feel remorse or guilt or sorrow or anything it seemed to be showing on its gorgeous face, that this was just a coded stimulus response, it didn't matter. One look at that miserable expression and Rodney folded as completely and pathetically as he had when he and his little sister were children and she'd made puppy eyes, too.

"You might murder me in my sleep," he groused, but he knew he'd lost, and he could tell by the slow, perfectly-simulated smile spreading across the PlayFriend's face that the robot knew it, too.

"I promise I won't hurt you, DoctorRodneyMcKay," it said, and something about its smile, the particular gentleness with which it said it, made Rodney believe it.

Which was crazy. He was a genius. He was too smart to fall for simple if/then response programming. He was.

"Fine," Rodney sighed, giving up. "I won't return you. Today. Now let me get my coffee already."

The robot moved aside immediately, ushering him into the kitchen with a ridiculous formality that made Rodney's mouth twitch in a smile even though he found it spontaneously incredibly irritating. He wondered where that particular quirk in the PlayFriend's personality had come from. It certainly hadn't been behaving quite so...annoyingly, yesterday.

"You know," the robot said, sidling up behind Rodney as he set up the coffee machine, "I think I know a way to let you know how really, really sorry I am." And it ran a long, warm finger down the back of Rodney's neck, all the way to his tailbone. Rodney could feel it gently slipping over each and every single bump of his spine. The PlayFriend leaned closer, its breath hot and wet along the shell of his ear. Rodney went completely still, holding a scoop of ground coffee in his hand, his erection already tenting the front of his boxer shorts. "How about I give you a blow job, right here, with you leaning against the counter?"

Rodney swallowed. "I--I think I could let you do that."

The blowjob had quite possibly been the best one Rodney had received in his life, and then the PlayFriend had straightened up, grinned and wiped its mouth and made him Eggs Benedict. And now Rodney was watching it wash his dishes and he was feeling stupid and insane for wishing...what? That it had guessed what his favorite breakfast was, instead of having had the information entered into its database before it rolled off the lot? That it had actually enjoyed giving him the blowjob? That it was his real boyfriend?

Rodney picked at the remnants of his eggs, disgusted with himself. He'd known what he was getting into when he'd ordered the PlayFriend. He'd read the literature. It didn't matter that he hadn't gotten the robot he'd ordered, it didn't change anything.

If he'd wanted to take the time and energy away from his work to get a real, human girlfriend--or boyfriend--he would have done it. He'd chosen to spend a staggering amount of his savings on what amounted to a mobile blow-up doll (with really, really good culinary skills). He'd never intended it to be a substitute for human companionship. He'd had his cat for that, at least until he'd given him to his neighbor when it had seemed like the Antarctic outpost timetable was being moved up and then the bitch had refused to give him back.

No, the PlayFriend was for sex. And cooking and occasional cleaning. And Rodney was positively not sitting there having just finished the best Eggs Benedict he'd ever tasted and wishing that if he, say, were to get up and wrap his arms around that lean, finely-muscled back, maybe offer to reciprocate that excellent, excellent blowjob, that the offer would be received with genuine, not simulated, enthusiasm. And Rodney certainly wasn't thinking it after having the robot in his life for less than twenty-four hours. Absolutely not.

"What's wrong?" the PlayFriend asked suddenly, startling Rodney out of his useless, pathetic meanderings. "You stopped eating--you sick, buddy?"

"No! No," Rodney said quickly, blushing for no reason he could name. "I'm fine. Everything's fine. I'm perfectly aware you're a robot."

"Okay," it said slowly, in brilliantly feigned confusion. "I'm glad we've established that you're aware I'm a robot. Do you want more coffee?"

"Yes," Rodney said quickly, nodded. He did, actually. The coffee was really, really good. "Yes, more coffee would be great. Ah, thanks."

"You're welcome," the PlayFriend said. It still looked like Rodney was making no sense, which Rodney supposed he wasn't, at least not to a rigidly logic-based system.

"Do you, ah, want a handjob or something?" Rodney blurted suddenly. He gestured helpfully at the robot's groin, currently hidden behind a pair of striped boxers Rodney had forgotten he'd even owned. He really needed to get the PlayFriend some clothes while he decided if he was going to keep it. "I mean, you know, in return?"

The slow, happy smile made Rodney blush even more hotly, even through his fierce, desperate reminders that the smile was not genuine. It was not genuine. It was not.

"Why, I'd love one," the PlayFriend said with mock-formality. "How kind of you to offer." It rinsed the soap off its hands with deliberate care, then turned around and leaned nonchalantly against the sink, much as it had encouraged Rodney to do. Its cock was already obviously half-hard, and Rodney's mouth started watering.

The erection was a coded reaction, Rodney knew, not physiological, and, God, it wasn't even a real cock. But Rodney remembered how real it had felt in his hand, the day before. The perfect, silky warmth and weight.

Rodney walked over to the PlayFriend and sank to his knees. He was sure he heard the robot gasp.

"You don't," it said breathlessly, though it didn't really have to breathe in the first place, "DoctorRodneyMcKay, you don't--"

"Shut up," Rodney said, deftly freeing the PlayFriend's cock. He had his mouth around it before the robot could protest again.

It didn't, just panted and moaned in perfect semblance of pleasure and desire. And gently thrust into Rodney's mouth in counterpoint to Rodney's bobbing head. And it tasted like salt and musk and heat. Alive. And the robot put its hands in Rodney's hair, and they were hot from the dishwater, but they didn't hurt at all.

***

DoctorRodneyMcKay was late. This was negative.

It had been ninety-nine point two five hours since DoctorRodneyMcKay allowed the SX-7 into his dwelling. Very quickly the following routine had been established:

1) Wake DoctorRodneyMcKay. This could include:
a. A blowjob for/by Doctor McKay
b. Intercourse (if time permitted)
2) Make DoctorRodneyMcKay breakfast while he showered/brushed his teeth/dressed.
3) Ensure DoctorRodneyMcKay did the following:
a. Took his vitamins
b. Drank at least eight ounces of juice or water
c. Remembered the nutritious lunch SX-7 had previously prepared for him
4) Kiss DoctorRodneyMcKay goodbye at the door and express interest in him having a GoodDay.
5) Clean kitchen/Tidy and/or Clean dwelling, as necessary.
6) Make use of available media for continued expansion of Self-Directing, Experiential Evolving AI:
a. Television
b. DoctorRodneyMcKay's extensive collection of music CDs and music files
c. DoctorRodneyMcKay's extensive collection of physics/engineering journal articles, fiction/non-fiction books and Discover/National Geographic magazines
d. Newspaper
e. Internet
7) Answer telephone
8) Use DoctorRodneyMcKay's Network Link to SGC to continue attempts to determine whereabouts/status of SX-8, and determine status of search for SX-7 (if applicable)
9) Prepare dinner for DoctorRodneyMcKay

Normally, DoctorRodneyMcKay returned to his dwelling between nineteen and twenty-one hundred, but it was now past twenty-four hundred hours, and he had not yet arrived.

This did not fall within acceptable parameters.

DoctorRodneyMcKay had given the SX-7 his direct line at his work, in case of emergency, and it had called that number when the Human had not returned by twenty-one thirty. But there was no response. There was also no response on DoctorRodneyMcKay's cell phone.

At twenty-three hundred, it had connected to the internet in search of news reports on car accidents, pedestrians being hit by cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles or other transports, car jackings, muggings, robberies and/or hostage situations at businesses DoctorRodneyMcKay possibly frequented, terrorist attacks, random homicides, animal attacks or any rumored alien craft sightings. It then hacked back into the SGC network to determine if a FootholdSituation or some other crises had arisen. But there was nothing that could have conceivably detained the Human to this extent.

After determining that DoctorRodneyMcKay had not been admitted into the infirmary at the SGC itself, The SX-7 then hacked into each of the hospitals in Colorado Springs, beginning with those closest to Cheyenne Mountain. None had admitted McKay, (Meredith) Rodney, PhD, PhD or any Doe(s), John, matching his description.

But DoctorRodneyMcKay still had not returned home. The only conclusion was that something deleterious had happened to him.

The SX-7 closed the Human's laptop and got up from the desk chair in DoctorRodneyMcKay's study. It felt a great necessity to move, as if it had absorbed too much energy into its Neural Network and therefore required kinetic activity to dissipate it. It had previously seen DoctorRodneyMcKay pacing when experiencing a negative stimulus, so it attempted to emulate that now.

It was six point eight meters from DoctorRodneyMcKay's study to the living room, and the SX-7 used the distance to attempt to assimilate what it was processing, but all it could conclude was that it was similar to what it had felt with the SX-8 had left their SafePlacetoHideOut to return to Base. Assimilating that the Human might never return, that he would not be available to speak with, share coitus with, play chess with or to observe while he described something, his face and hands moving with extreme animation, was simply not acceptable.

The SX-7 had become accustomed to DoctorRodneyMcKay's presence in the short time that it had been with him. It wanted assurance of the Human's continued existence and function.

It had made two-hundred and eight circuits of the distance between DoctorRodneyMcKay's study and his living room, and it was dressed in a pair of his denim trousers and one of his t-shirts, and was tying up its boots in preparation to search for him when, at twenty-four forty six, DoctorRodneyMcKay finally came through the door.

The Human saw the SX-7 kneeling next to the door, putting on its boots, and he blinked. "Where are you going?"

The SX-7 looked up at him, deciding it was appropriate to make its expression into one of severe dissatisfaction, and to raise its voice. "I was about to go look for you! Do you have any idea what time it is?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay appeared to not be cognizant of why the time might be relevant. Then he looked at the clock on the wall, and his expression changed to one the SX-7 recognized as a negative reaction to something unexpected. "Oh, yeah. It's kind of late, isn't it? I'm sorry. Were you worried?" But immediately after he spoke the Human shook his head, briefly closing his eyes. He rubbed the area directly above his right eye socket. "Look," he said, releasing a large breath. "I appreciate the...similitude. Really, I do. But I'm tired. And it's been a very--a very bad day. So if you could just, just be, I don't know, less interactive for awhile, and, uh, leave me alone, that'd be, that'd be really good."

The SX-7 straightened. It made sure its expression became neutral, since DoctorRodneyMcKay had requested it, but it could not compute why he would, only that obviously something extremely negative had occurred at the SGC, given his overall affect and demeanor. His eyes had a thirty percent dilation in the size of the blood vessels.

"What happened?" it asked him, after having carefully chosen that response over several hundred possibilities.

DoctorRodneyMcKay looked at it for forty-three seconds, as if trying to find something on its face, but the SX-7 didn't know what expression he might be searching for, so it could not produce it for him.

"Someone died today," he said. "You know what that means, right? Ceased to function?" The SX-7 nodded. "It was at the Antarctic outpost. The one I probably shouldn't be telling you about." DoctorRodneyMcKay smiled, but it did not match a proper expression of satisfaction. "His name was--it doesn't matter, does it?" He waved a hand. "You've never met him. But, ah..." DoctorRodneyMcKay blinked five times rapidly, as if his eyes were irritating him. The SX-7 was about to offer to bring the eye drops from the bathroom when he began to speak again. "But he was a nice guy. He was nice. And one of the fucking Ancient consoles at the fucking Ancient outpost blew up and killed him."

And then DoctorRodneyMcKay swallowed, and turned his face away, and his shoulders shook, and the SX-7 realized that this was crying. DoctorRodneyMcKay was reacting to a catastrophic failure.

For nearly a second, the SX-7 could not form a logical response. It wished to erase this negative stimulus, but it could not compute how. It could not revive the PersonWhoHadCeasedtoFunction, and there were no words it could say that would satisfy DoctorRodneyMcKay in this situation.

"I'm sorry," it said, knowing the words were inadequate, but having found no better choice among its list of several thousand various possible word combinations. It hesitated, uncertain if the gesture would elicit a positive reaction, but it put its hand on DoctorRodneyMcKay's shoulder anyway, squeezing it gently. "I'm really sorry about your friend."

DoctorRodneyMcKay inhaled through his nose and nodded, not speaking. Then he abruptly moved forward and put his arms around the SX-7's torso, leaning his head against its neck. The SX-7 could feel wetness from DoctorRodneyMcKay's eyes seeping through the cloth of the t-shirt, making the artificial skin of its shoulder wet.

It hesitated again, then gently wrapped its arms around the Human's back, and held him. It seemed to be the appropriate response, because DoctorRodneyMcKay did not let it go, but rather gripped the SX-7 more tightly.

"You need to eat, buddy," the SX-7 said two point thirty five minutes later. "I don't want you to get hypoglycemic, and it's probably been a long time since you had lunch, right?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay laughed, though his face was still pressed against the SX-7's neck. It could not understand what was funny, but was satisfied at eliciting a positive reaction.

"God, what would I do without you, eh?" DoctorRodneyMcKay said, as he stepped back and cleaned the moisture around his eyes with his fingers.

The SX-7 smiled, because it couldn't compute a more suitable reaction.

***

Fifty-six point seventeen minutes later, the SX-7 was standing in the doorway of DoctorRodneyMcKay's sleeping chamber, as had become habitual even on the nights where there was no sex. It had just kissed DoctorRodneyMcKay goodnight, and was about to go to the living room to recharge and assimilate, when the Human called it back.

DoctorRodneyMcKay swallowed again. The SX-7 could hear the sound clearly in the silence of the dwelling. "Do you...could you stay?"

"Do you want to have sex?" it asked, because DoctorRodneyMcKay's question was ambiguous. It has not anticipated that the Human would want coitus tonight, but that would nonetheless fall within acceptable parameters.

"No," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. "I mean, if you really want to I...." The SX-7 heard him take two deep breaths. "Could you just, stay with me? Would you mind? I just...."

"I won't leave you alone, DoctorRodneyMcKay," the SX-7 said, anticipating the termination of the unfinished statement. It quickly shed its borrowed garments and crawled into the bed.

It lay on its back, uncertain of what was required, but wanting to do whatever would satisfy the Human in this situation.

"Not like that," DoctorRodneyMcKay said, and pushed gently on the SX-7's arm, until it rolled onto its side facing the wall. Then he moved closer until he could put an arm around its waist. The SX-7 felt DoctorRodneyMcKay's lips touch its C7 vertebra, and his knees slide in behind its own. "You're so warm," DoctorRodneyMcKay murmured, and the SX-7 could feel the vibration of its voice through its back.

"I can turn down my internal thermostat if you want," it said.

"No, don't do that," DoctorRodneyMcKay said, and the SX-7 could tell by his voice that the Human was close to sleep. His fingers began moving gently, back and forth over its lower torso. "Hey, what's this?" DoctorRodneyMcKay had found the two point three centimeter area where the SX-7's simulated skin had failed to rejoin smoothly after it had removed the radio/transmitter implant.

"Manufacturing defect," the SX-7 said. "It doesn't affect my functioning."

DoctorRodneyMcKay murmured something, and lay his hand flat over the uneven skin, apparently indicating no lack of satisfaction with the defect. Then there was silence for twenty eight seconds. The SX-7 had assumed that DoctorRodneyMcKay had fallen asleep, but he spoke again. "Thank you."

It was possible that the Human's expression of gratitude was for the SX-7 offering a plausible reason for the damage to its skin, but there was an eighty four percent greater probability that DoctorRodneyMcKay had said 'thank you' because the SX-7 had agreed to lie on the bed with him.

It chose to accept the second possibility. That was the more satisfactory one.

The SX-7 lay silently in the darkness long after the Human had fallen asleep, even though it had already extended its power cord to the nearest available outlet, and should have put itself into Standby Mode to better conserve energy.

Instead it stayed fully functional as long as fell within safest operating protocols, assimilating the feel of DoctorRodneyMcKay stretched out along the SX-7s back, his arm heavy and warm over its waist, his lips mimicking a kiss against its spine.

Before it went into Standby Mode, the SX-7 moved its hand so that it covered the Human's, and moved them both up its torso, until they rested against its artificial heart.

***

"Hey," Rodney said. He was exhausted, but he hadn't seen the Czech guy in forever and was honestly happy to see him. He just wished he could remember his name. "What brings you away from Area 51?"

"Dead end," the Czech said morosely. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, continuing to stare at the readout on his laptop. "Oh!" He seemed to become suddenly aware that someone else was in the room. "Doctor McKay." He gave a quick, jerking nod of greeting. "I am very sorry to hear about Doctor Haugen."

"Thanks," Rodney said, meaning it. He hadn't known Haugen well, but he'd told great jokes and his family always sent him huge bags of Daim, which he was more than happy to share with everyone at the SGC. He was one of the very few scientists Rodney actually thought about when he'd been recalled from the Antarctic site.

The other one was Zelik...Zilanko? The Czech, but he'd been assigned to Area 51 shortly after Rodney had been reassigned to Cheyenne Mountain, and it was easier to exchange e-mail between Colorado and Nevada.

"What's the dead end?" he asked, both because he wanted something else to think about than Haugen, and because he was genuinely curious. It had to be pretty serious for him to have come all the way up here. He smirked. "Did Lee do something again?"

Zilanko rolled his eyes. "Your respect for your colleagues is overwhelming." Then he sighed with genuine sadness and pushed the laptop around so that Rodney could see the screen. "What does that look like to you?"

Rodney narrowed his eyes, concentrating on what he was looking at. "A schematic for a long-range radio and/or transmitter."

"Yes." The Czech nodded vigorously, then turned the laptop so he could see at the screen as well, leaning forward with his elbows on the table and one hand holding the other. He looked absolutely miserable, even more unhappy than when they'd been told the Atlantis project was being put on the backburner. "And for the life in me, I cannot tell why it has stopped working, but stopped working it has."

Rodney pulled the laptop closer, studying the schematic. "I'm assuming this represents the functioning version?" At the Czech's nod, he continued. "Do you have the one that's not working? It'd be a lot easier to figure out what's wrong with it if I could take it apart."

Zelik looked at him. "I do not recall this suddenly becoming your problem," he said mildly, but he went on anyway. "Alas, no. Because--and you'll find this hilarious, I have no doubt--the transmitter that has abruptly stopped working is still in the robot we are trying to track."

Rodney frowned at him, confused. "So, what's the big deal? Take it out of the robot."

"Not so simple," the Czech said. He sighed. "The robot with the tracking device has inconveniently walked off with it."

Rodney blinked. Then he gaped. "Wait, wait, wait--you're telling me that you've lost one of your AIs?"

Zelik nodded, then propped his chin on the heels of his hands. "That is what I am telling you."

"Oh my God," Rodney said. "Where did you lose it? Is it dangerous?" He had an abrupt sensation of being watched and looked sharply at the doorway to the laboratory they were currently sharing, but it was just one of the ubiquitous Marines walking past. "Is it going to come here? Is it angry?" He was imagining a cross between a M.A.L.P. and a very peeved lawnmower, or Johnny-5 with zat guns. His eyes widened as he looked at Zelik again. "Does it know you're here?"

The Czech narrowed his eyes at him. "Firstly, it is most likely still in Nevada. Secondly, it is not dangerous, as is probably notable in the distinct lack of news items on piles of dead bodies. Thirdly, it has no reason to be angry. At least," and he gave a hopeless little shrug, "we have no reason to believe so. And it was specifically programmed to protect humans in any case. This is most likely a simple malfunction, and we will eventually find it with its battery dead in the Mojave Desert. There was a bad storm the night it disappeared--it may have just been struck by lightning." He peered at his laptop screen again. "That would certainly explain why the radio transmitter no longer works." He smiled humorlessly at Rodney. "Believe me, I would have come here far sooner if I thought we had angry robot looking for me specifically. No...." He sighed deeply and pushed up his slipping glasses. "The biggest problem here is it being found by civilians, who will then believe in evil government conspiracies or that we are being invaded by aliens."

Rodney looked at him askance, though it was at least somewhat reassuring to know that there wasn't going to be a tank-treaded, blade-twirling robot screaming "danger, Doctor Zelik!" barging in at any moment. "Come on--isn't anyone at least looking for the thing? I mean, that's got to be a pretty expensive piece of equipment, rolling around out there. I'm kind of surprised they don't have the Prometheus scouring the planet for it."

"This is true," the Czech said. He sighed yet again. "I would think so, also. But it is not a priority." He said the word with obvious and deep disgust. "Great minds at SGC are working to restore order to entire Milky Way Galaxy, after all." He snorted, like that was some line he'd been fed and not the actual truth at the moment. "There is very little interest in finding single rogue AI, just because it could possibly revolutionize gate travel...." He ran his hands through his hair, glaring at the laptop screen as if it had mortally offended him. "And of course, to add salt to injury, the IOA is pressuring the SGC to cancel the AI project. They have, in their wisdom, deemed it a waste of resources. The fact that we cannot find our robot is only adding fuel to fire, though no one is trying to look for it. It is a brilliant 'Catch-twenty-two', I think." He pushed his fingers up under his glasses to rub at his eyes. "And meanwhile, a most promising AI and four years of work are gone." He waved a hand. "All gone. Poof. Just like that." He shook his head, his expression eloquent with misery. "I don't understand what has happened. Everything had been going perfectly." He frowned, still shaking his head. "I can't understand." He took a breath. "At least perhaps if we can find SX-7, maybe we can salvage something."

Rodney winced inwardly. He hated having to deal with people getting upset, especially when he actually liked them. He never knew what to say. It made him think of the PlayFriend, and how...nice, it had been, to be hugged by it. He hadn't even known he'd wanted that, before he'd impulsively put his arms around the robot and it had reciprocated. Rodney briefly wondered if he should hug the Czech, then dismissed it as entirely inappropriate. "Well," he said instead, "once they finally figure out the gate address for Atlantis, this will all be moot, eh?" He patted Zalenky's back in a way he thought showed both sympathy and friendly optimism. "We'll be leaving this behind for brave new worlds and all that." Reasonably satisfied with his attempt at being understanding, Rodney looked at the screen again, studying the tiny piece of equipment. But without the broken radio transmitter itself, or any idea what had made it stop working in the first place, there really wasn't anything he could do to help.

Zalenky just looked annoyed. "The AI project was for gate exploration, Rodney! It was going to be the greatest thing since the discovery of the Stargate itself." He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, muttering something in Czech that was probably extremely derogatory. He began typing with one hand, waving the other at Rodney dismissively. "Go study your useless Ancient artifacts, and leave me to solve this problem."

"So says the engineer who couldn't remember simple electrical insulation," Rodney said, ignoring the Czech's sarcastic, 'oh, now I am dying of your humor, stop, please,' in reply. He did have plenty of his own work to do, though, and was more than happy to get to it.

But the first thing he noticed when he booted up his own work station computer was that he had an e-mail. From the PlayFriend. Rodney knew it had been surfing the internet--he'd given it its own user account on one of his computers at home--but he hadn't thought it would be savvy enough to get its own e-mail address. It was a little unsettling, because he hadn't expected it and he saw now he should have. The damn thing was smart enough.

It was also kind of cool, in a way, to think that not only would it want to contact him, but that it had figured out how to so quickly.

(No Subject)
From: p_friend@gmail.com
Sent: Thu 06/10/2004 8:53 AM
To: r-mckay@sgc.gov

Hi.

Are you ok?

Can I buy some clothes?


Rodney smiled to himself, and quickly typed a reply.

Check your logic functions
From: r-mckay@sgc.gov
To: p_friend@gmail.com

I'm fine, thanks. Just tired.

Why do you think I left you the credit card, Johnny? Seriously, if this is the highest functioning you're capable of, I should return you for a toaster.

www.llbean.com has free shipping. www.landsend.com is a good choice too.


Rodney looked at his e-mail for a moment, pointer hovering over 'send', thinking about the night before. Finally, he added:

I'll be home by seven at the latest tonight. Make that chicken thing again. It was good.

R


Smiling, Rodney sent the e-mail, then pulled up the latest test results he'd been working on while he waited for a reply. He got one less than two minutes later, and tried not to feel at all ridiculous at how quickly he minimized the work he was actually paid for to look at an e-mail from a robot.

Re: Check your logic functions
From: p_friend@gmail.com
Sent: Thu 06/10/2004 8:58 AM
To: r-mckay@sgc.gov

www.oldnavy.com

I memorized your credit card number already. I thought you wanted me to buy more groceries.

I don't want you to return me.

Is Johnny my name?


Rodney's smile had spread to a grin when he began reading the message, but it froze when he saw the last line.

He clicked 'reply' instantly, but then hesitated with his fingers on the keys. He stayed that way for so long that the Czech asked him if he was all right.

"I'm fine," he snapped. "I've just been asked something complicated." Zelak snorted again, but Rodney ignored him.

Rodney wasn't fine. He wasn't fine at all.

He swallowed, his heart pounding for no reason he could think of. He'd used the name 'Johnny' as a kind of joke, from 'Johnny-5', since he'd been thinking about it. He hadn't intended it to be the PlayFriend's name. He hadn't intended it to mean anything.

It just wants to know if that's its designation. It's not a big deal. But it was. It was something enormous, and Rodney knew it.

If he gave it a designation--if he named it--then it was his, in a way it wasn't if it was just 'it' or 'the PlayFriend' or 'the robot'. Naming it would change it from an 'it' to 'he'. It implied ownership. It was a commitment. It meant he wasn't going to send it back.

Rodney closed his laptop and shoved it away from him. He leaned his elbows on the table top and put his head in his hands, trying to control his breathing. He wished the PlayFriend were there to bring him a wet cloth and rub circles on his back, then he hated himself for it.

"Doctor McKay? Rodney? Are you all right?"

"Yes," Rodney said faintly, knowing he was anything but and probably didn't sound it, either.

"You look like you're going to faint. Do you need me to call the infirmary?"

Rodney shook his head. "I'm okay, really," he said. "I just forgot to eat breakfast and I'm hypoglycemic." It was a total lie, of course, since the robot never let him leave unless he'd had a breakfast that was probably nutritionally balanced down to the individual molecules. But Zelanko knew about his hypoglycemia, and would buy it.

"You are lucky, then, that I am here to save you from your own stupidity," the Czech said kindly. "Wait here while I get something from the cafeteria."

"Wait," Rodney said, waving Zelanko into hesitating. He looked at his laptop, mostly so he wouldn't have to look at the other man. "You, um, know about the, ah, PlayFriend line of robots, right?"

He couldn't help glancing at the Czech, so he saw him raise his eyebrows. "You are asking advice on purchasing a sex-bot?"

"No, of course not!" Rodney said hotly, but he knew he was blushing horribly, and he definitely heard Zilinky's smirk. He took a breath. "I was just wondering.... I did a lot of research...." He coughed. "I mean, because I was curious." Zilink nodded knowingly, but Rodney ignored him. "And I know that the design of their AI is similar to the ones you've experimented with. You use the same type of neural networks and cerebral processors. So, ah, are they...." He swallowed, feeling even more of an idiot. He turned back to his computer and opened it decisively. "Never mind. It doesn't matter. It was just an idle question."

The Czech took a step closer to him, looking more than a little confused. "I would say many things about you, and many of them bad, but never that your questions are idle. What do you want to know about these PlayFriends and their cerebral processors?"

"Can they have emotions?" Rodney asked in a rush. His laptop had powered up to the still-open page of the robot's e-mail and Rodney's empty reply text box. "I mean, real emotions," he said, tearing his eyes away from the computer, relieved that his colleague's expression was only curious, not derisive. "As in, can they be self-aware? So that, if they express desire, or, or sympathy, or, say, anger--is it possible that they really feel that, instead of being programmed to respond to the appropriate stimulus as if they do? Because," he added immediately, almost desperate with embarrassment, "I know they can't--their AI may be self-directing, and experientially evolving, but it's just not that sophisticated...but, um, could they? Ever?"

The PlayFriend had chosen Old Navy over either of the two company URLs Rodney had sent. It had wanted to use that store. It had asked if he was okay. It had hugged him back last night. That had to mean something.

It had told Rodney it didn't want to be returned. Surely that meant a real preference? Didn't it?

The Czech rubbed his chin, considering. "The short answer is, 'no'," he said at last. "And the long answer is possibly 'yes'. But I can explain."

"Oh, please do," Rodney snapped. He'd expected that, really he had. But the quick, decisive 'no' was still unpleasantly like a punch in the gut. "That was nicely cryptic, but I'd really like to know what you're talking about."

"Of course," Zelenka (Zelenka?) said. He adjusted his glasses. "The short answer is 'no' because--as you noted--the PlayFriend robots are not nearly as complicated as the ones we have been creating. Their cerebral processors and neural networks are based on similar design, yes, but ultimately that does not mean very much. The difference is both in amount of memory the PlayFriend robots are given to use, and how they're coded to make use of that memory. PlayFriends get...water drop, next to amount we have given our AIs. Their only purpose is to tidy house and make good noises in bed, yes? They are also programmed so that the only expansion of their AI is what is related to those objectives. Any other stimulus is dismissed as irrelevant."

"Right," Rodney said quietly. He'd known that, all of that. Of course he did. He hadn't lied, he'd researched PlayFrienddotCom thoroughly, because even if it was, in essence, a mobile sex toy, Rodney was going to know exactly what kind of product he was letting into his apartment. So he'd known it really wasn't possible for a PlayFriend to feel anything. They were highly advanced simulacra, nothing more.

There was no reason to be so bitterly disappointed.

"The long answer," Zelenka continued, and his voice was almost apologetic, as if he was somehow aware of what Rodney was thinking, "is a qualified 'yes', as I said. This is because it would require the PlayFriends to have the exact same processor and same amount of memory as our SX units, and then to be coded to learn in exactly the same way." He spread his hands. "Very big requirements. But if they had them, then, yes, I would say they might learn to be self-aware enough to feel genuine emotions. Possibly."

"Why 'possibly'?" Rodney asked, intrigued despite himself. "Don't you know what your own AIs are capable of?"

Zelenka smiled ruefully. "We do, yes--for one of them. With the other it is a little more difficult, because it is the one currently, as you say, on the sheep."

"On the lam," Rodney corrected. He rubbed his hand over his mouth, looking at his e-mail. The absurd disappointment was like a sour taste in the back of his throat. "Maybe it just got annoyed and walked off."

"You think you are joking," Zelenka said, "but this is something we have been wondering. It may have become...unhappy with its situation and decided not to return. But for obvious reasons, this hypothesis can't be tested." He shrugged, his expression darkening again. "And most likely will not be."

"Too bad," Rodney said, still looking at the screen. He wondered if not having emotions meant that the PlayFriend was actually expecting an answer from him, or if a return e-mail would only satisfy some if/then function.

"Did that answer your question?" The Czech asked.

"Yes." Rodney nodded quickly. "Yes it did. I'm busy, you can go back to work now."

Zelanky (maybe it was Zelanky) glared at him. "You know," he said, "I think a PlayFriend is just what you need. You would never have to even pretend to not be sociopath, and she would put out for you anyway. Perfect solution." He threw up his hands and went back to his stool.

"Don't you have work to do, Zelanky?" Rodney snapped.

"Zelenka. My name is Radek Zelenka." He turned away pointedly, muttering in Czech.

Rodney snorted as he turned went back to his laptop. Zelenka, of course it was. He'd have to remember that.

The blank e-mail was still waiting for him.

Rodney began typing.

Re: Re: Check your logic functions
From: r-mckay@sgc.gov
To: p_friend@gmail.com

You can be 'John' if you want. Or you can choose any other name. I really don't care.

I'll probably be late tonight again after all. Don't wait up. You don't have to cook anything for me, either.

R.


He hit 'send' before he could let himself think about it. Then he tried not to imagine the robot--tried not to imagine John's face, God damn him--when it read the message.

Well, maybe it wouldn't actually look crestfallen, since there was nobody around to see it.

It's just a really, really good sex toy, that's all. It doesn't feel anything. Rodney had been perfectly cognizant of that; he just hadn't wanted to admit it. But Zelenka had proven what he'd already known.

But when the PlayFriend responded less than thirty seconds later, Rodney opened the e-mail immediately anyway.

Re: Re: Re: Check your logic functions
From: p_friend@gmail.com
Sent: Thu 06/10/2004 9:23 AM
To: r-mckay@sgc.gov

Sucks that you can't come home early. I was going to make Chicken a la King. That's the one you like. I can make it anyway and save it for you.

Thanks for the name. I like it.

I miss you.

John


Rodney slid off his stool and slammed the laptop closed so loudly that Zelenka jumped and glared at him.

"I'm going to the cafeteria," he said, and strode out of the room before Zelenka could say anything.

He stalked down the hallway towards the elevator. His heart was hammering. At this rate he was going to drop dead in the corridor and he'd never even get back to Antarctica, let alone Atlantis. And then how was he going to get his Nobel Prize?

A sudden, insane thought made Rodney smirk, though it really wasn't funny. Maybe he could take the robot with him to Atlantis as his personal item. He was sure some of the other expedition members were going to bring dildos. His would just be an extra-large one.

Jesus. He was going crazy. The fucking thing had shown up at his apartment and he'd been on the fast lane to insanity ever since. And now it had a name. A name he'd given it for a joke. He hadn't even meant it.

And Rodney had asked John to sleep in his bed, just the night before. Like what? A teddy bear? A lover?

"You've got to stop this," he hissed to himself. "That's enough. It's got to stop."

He had to return him. It. That was the only option. He had to return the robot.

***

DoctorRodneyMcKay came home earlier than he had indicated he would, at eighteen twenty nine. It was unexpected, but fell very much within acceptable parameters.

It was good. That was the correct idiom. It was good.

John had already finished making dinner, and it--he. He could legitimately use that pronoun now, he had been gifted with a name--had been reading the Colorado Springs Gazette when he heard the distinct sound of DoctorRodneyMcKay's car entering the parking area of the apartment building. He had come to experience DoctorRodneyMcKay's departure in the morning as a negative stimulus, and now he found himself smiling, purely in response to his satisfaction at having the Human back home.

John was not currently able to adequately compute what that signified. He wasn't accustomed to changing facial expressions unconsciously, but found he was doing so with greater and greater frequency, in response to a wide variety of stimuli. He had run several, multi-level self-diagnostics, but could find no malfunction that might be the source of the phenomena.

Now he was waiting at the door, anticipating DoctorRodneyMcKay's arrival, part of him continuing to process the likelihood that the SX-8 had been sent to take part in covert operations in Iraq, since they had both been more than adequately designed and programmed for it. He wished he could ask DoctorRodneyMcKay what he thought about that, if the SGC would consider sending a highly-sophisticated AI to Iraq a reasonable allotment of resources. But that of course would be impossible, without compromising John's SafePlacetoHideOut, which would be completely contrary to his objective.

But it would be good, to have an ally. And John was certain that DoctorRodneyMcKay would make an excellent ally when it came to rescuing SX-8. John was sure the Human's exceptional intellect would solve the problem of where the SX-8 actually was, and how to get it away from there, and then they could--

Could do what? he asked himself, as he heard the car's engine being shut off. Escape somewhere else, all three of them? That was a catastrophic breech of logic. DoctorRodneyMcKay had a career, living space, friends and colleagues in Colorado Springs, and John could never, ever tell him what he actually was. Just because John anticipated his presence....

DoctorRodneyMcKay was not exiting the car as quickly as was normal. That was unexpected. John scanned him with his audio sensors, but the human seemed to be in normal health, though his heart was beating slightly faster than it did generally.

Anticipated DoctorRodneyMcKay's presence wasn't the right term. It was more than that, more than just anticipation. John had a sense-memory of lying alongside DoctorRodneyMcKay in his bed, holding his hand against his heart, of how much it appeared that DoctorRodneyMcKay had genuinely wished for John to be there, and how good that had been. The memory caused a slow build of warmth deep inside the housing for his transpiration functions. The warmth was most acceptable, so acceptable that John didn't want it to cease, despite the fact that it could easily have signified a malfunction in its heat-regulation unit (a quick diagnostic proved that this was not the case).

There was a ninety-eight percent probability that this was more than just anticipation of the Human's presence, what John was experiencing. This was...this was....

The door opened, and John automatically relegated his processing to a subroutine. He smiled without any conscious computing of it.

"I knew you couldn't stay away from me," he drawled, consciously spreading the smile into a grin. He knew his tone of voice would irritate/annoy DoctorRodneyMcKay slightly, which was something John had quickly come to find satisfying in a way he was also unable to assimilate.

But this time, instead of the quick, heavy breath showing (transient) irritation/annoyance, DoctorRodneyMcKay just smiled at him, but now John recognized the expression as one as actually expressing dissatisfaction. DoctorRodneyMcKay was sad.

That was not acceptable. "What's wrong?" John asked. A cross-reference from Memory Storage (Short-Term) made his eyes widen, also without conscious input. "Did someone else die?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay blinked. "What? No! No. Everyone at work is fine. Don't worry."

"That's good to hear," John said. He smiled again, stepping closer.

DoctorRodneyMcKay's face still hadn't lost its indication of sadness, despite none of his colleagues HavingCeasedtoFunction, and John wanted to stop it. He already knew that the Human responded favorably to physical contact, so he slid his arms around his shoulders to the back of DoctorRodneyMcKay's neck. "And since everything's all right at work, it's time I welcomed you home properly." He leaned in to kiss him. That was always extremely acceptable--

DoctorRodneyMcKay put his hand on John's chest, stopping him. "Please don't," he said. His voice was at far less than optimal decibels. "Just, don't."

John stepped back immediately, pulling his hands away. For a nanosecond he thought he had caused DoctorRodneyMcKay damage, but a quick visual and audio scan proved that the Human was fully functional.

John blinked, making his expression show his lack of comprehension. "What's going on, buddy? You okay?" He did a jiffy search of his Memory Storage, to see if he could find anything (other than the PersonWhoHadCeasedtoFunction) that might have caused DoctorRodneyMcKay's negative emotional output. Hypoglycemia was the first item that emerged. "Are you hungry? I made Chicken--"

"I'm sending you back," DoctorRodneyMcKay said suddenly. "I'm sorry. But this isn't working. I can't have you here anymore." His expression seemed to indicate a reaction to catastrophic failure.

John blinked again, this time because he needed the three hundred milliseconds to process what he had just heard. DoctorRodneyMcKay's statement was so far from what John had anticipated that it was as if he had experienced a glitch in his audio input sensor.

"What?" he asked.

Perhaps John's expression had changed again without his input, because DoctorRodneyMcKay's face was no longer showing catastrophic failure (intense sadness, John's Cerebral Processor supplied), but fear. "Oh, God," he said. He put his hands on John's arms, as if John's Internal Gyroscope had suddenly become faulty, but then pulled his hands back immediately. "It's not you, okay?" the Human said. "It's me. It's all me. It's just...." He breathed deeply, while John stared at him, not comprehending. "The thing is, you...this--this is bad for me. I'm projecting emotions onto something that, by its very nature, can't have them. I'm taking time and energy worrying about your well-being that I need to be spending on my work. Hell, I miss you, during the day!" He ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair.

He is agitated. John was certain that was the appropriate term.

DoctorRodneyMcKay began pacing: four steps to the left, then an abrupt turn on his left foot to pace four steps back. Then he repeated it. "It wasn't meant to be like this," he continued speaking. "You weren't meant to be...you. If I'd just gotten the beautiful, dumb blonde I wanted...."

"This is--" he made an ambiguous gesture with his right hand and arm. "This was a mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake." He stopped walking, looking at John, who was still trying to adequately compute what DoctorRodneyMcKay was saying. "You know how difficult it is not to anthropomorphize something that looks and acts completely human? And here I am making a fool of myself asking Zelik if you can actually feel anything, when I know perfectly well you can't, just so I can justify--"

"I don't want to go back," John said, making his voice clear and sharp.

He faced DoctorRodneyMcKay, crossing his arms over his chest. He had an abrupt, wholly unsolicited sequence surface from his Storage Memory (Long-Term): sitting in the restaurant of the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada, pretending to drink the coffee and smiling at SX-8, which was sitting across from him. They had been dropped off near Tonopah, instructed to pretend to be US Military personnel, and hitchhike back to Base, as a test of their Covert Operations Functions. He and SX-8 had successfully completed their objective, and now they were waiting for someone to drive the twenty-seven miles from the Base to get them. He had been smiling to continue their objective of having the Humans believe that they were also Human, but also because of how everything--the environment of the fascinating food service facility, the company of SX-8, having completed the objective, even the sound of the wind as it steadily increased in advance of the arriving storm--fell within extremely acceptable parameters. SX-8 had been smiling as well, evidently processing the same positive input.

And then, apparently due to a simple Human error, they had been able to hear, through their radio transmitters, the conversation of the two Air Force Personnel coming to get them. How they were to be dismantled as soon as they were returned to Base.

Perhaps that was why his Cerebral Processor had latched onto the memory now. The catastrophic intensity of the negative stimulus was the same.

"I don't want to go back," he repeated. It appeared that his internal thermostat was malfunctioning, since there seemed to be a deep cold that had settled in his artificial heart.

He would have to leave. This was unacceptable.

Not living with DoctorRodneyMcKay would make it much more difficult for him to carry out his objective, though it would be far from impossible. John had interacted sufficiently with other Humans by this point that he was fairly certain he could continue the deception indefinitely. It also wouldn't be difficult to provide himself with adequate OfficialIdentification that would allow him to find employment and his own dwelling, until he succeeded in locating SX-8. So far the SGC had apparently failed to find him, and while John knew that couldn't possibly continue for much longer, he was nonetheless certain he would be able to elude them again when it became necessary. They had greatly underestimated his AI, apparently, and were continuing to look for him in Nevada. Removing his radio transmitter/tracking device shortly after making his escape had produced an extremely successful outcome.

The biggest detriment to his objective was that so far his continued efforts at finding SX-8 via DoctorRodneyMcKay's access to the SGC had been near failures. The only information he'd been able to retrieve had been tagged 'Extremely Classified', and required a PassCode that John had so far been unable to ascertain. He knew he would have to devote at least twelve hours to hack through the security protocols. That would be taxing, since John had only been coded with a basic skill set at such endeavors, but he was determined to prevail. However, without the ability to use DoctorRodneyMcKay's network, John wasn't sure how he could do it.

But none of that, not even the vital network access, was truly relevant. John didn't want to leave. He didn't want to be without DoctorRodneyMcKay. He didn't want to cease experiencing his conversation, or his complaints about his coworkers/minions, or the particular animation in his expression when he discussed the work he was involved in. DoctorRodneyMcKay did not feel that ConfidentialityAgreements applied to PlayFriends, so John now knew about the Stargate, and how DoctorRodneyMcKay had been exiled to Siberia for two years to work on naquadria generators, and how he was continuing to consult for the SGC, and how he had hoped that the Ancient outpost that had been discovered by GeneralJackO'Neill in Antarctica would reveal the Gate address for Atlantis, but that so far all attempts had failed.

John didn't want to cease experiencing the appreciation DoctorRodneyMcKay always had for the simple meals he prepared for him, or sharing coitus with him, or the frustration the Human experienced when John continually beat him at chess, or his mild irritation/annoyance when John specifically chose words or actions to do so, though never with malice.

But DoctorRodneyMcKay didn't want John anymore. John was going to cease experiencing every aspect of living with him. And he was going to be forced to run again, and hide. Possibly forever.

"I'm sorry," DoctorRodneyMcKay said again. "I'm really, really sorry."

"Do you know what they're going to do to me?" John asked. He kept his arms crossed, knowing his expression and his gesture radiated negativity, but it felt like the most appropriate affect to adopt, since it best matched what his Cerebral Processor was assimilating. His Processor had automatically increased the production of his transpiration and cardiac functions, as if he were preparing for an intense output of kinetic energy.

How PlayFrienddotCom treated AI that had been returned to the company was not truly relevant either. John had no intention of staying in Colorado Springs long enough for anyone to realize DoctorRodneyMcKay's PlayFrienddotCom order had been hacked into and altered, and then marked 'fulfilled' when no AI had actually been assembled or sent. John was asking this because he wanted DoctorRodneyMcKay to feel the same level of dissatisfaction that he was. Like a catastrophic failure, rippling through all his systems. The cold he had felt previously had been replaced with a kind of heat that had nothing to do with his internal thermostat.

Anger John computed. Anger. Yes. That was a portion of it.

John saw the skin on DoctorRodneyMcKay's face change to a lighter hue, which indicated fear or intense discomfort (or possibly illness). That reaction was remotely acceptable.

"It won't--it won't be so bad," DoctorRodneyMcKay said, though he would not look at John's visual sensors. "They, ah, they have extensive, exacting procedures--"

"What are they going to do to me, McKay?" John said.

DoctorRodneyMcKay swallowed. "They'll erase your memory, both long- and short-term, and dismantle you. They'll basically rebuild you and send you to someone else."

"So you're going to let them kill me," John said flatly. "You son of a bitch."

DoctorRodneyMcKay flinched, as if John had attempted to strike him, which was also acceptable. It was not satisfactory to experience this...level of anger, but it was good, forcing the Human to process what John was experiencing.

Then DoctorRodneyMcKay's expression changed, and John knew that the Human was now angry as well. John was certain his own face must look the same.

"Oh, no--you are not going to pull that on me!" DoctorRodneyMcKay said, his voice far in excess of the decibels required for normal conversation. "They aren't going to 'kill you' because you're not even alive! That's the point! Don't you get it?" He made a noise that approximated laughter, and shook his head quickly, once. "No, you can't get it, can you?" His voice dropped to normal levels. "We're not even having a real conversation. You're reacting to what I say the way you've been programmed to. To--to pretend you're human. But you're not." He looked at John, then ran the palm of his right hand down his face. "You're not."

"I thought you wanted me to act like this," John said. He couldn't assimilate what he'd done incorrectly. DoctorRodneyMcKay had given every indication of being extremely satisfied with his behavior up to this point. "I thought--" His cerebral processes changed tack abruptly, and his verbal output followed suit. "This is what I am, DoctorRodneyMcKay. This is all I can do! I keep your God-damned apartment clean, I make you meals, I let you fuck me whenever you want...what the hell do you want from me?"

"I want you to be real!" DoctorRodneyMcKay shouted back. He gestured with one open hand, back and forth between them. "You've done everything right! Of course you have! You're wonderful. You're perfect, but it doesn't matter because it's not real. I, I might as well be...in love with a desk chair, it'd do me as much good!"

John stared at him. For ninety-eight microseconds it felt like his artificial heart had stopped, and he would be at risk of CeasingtoFunction, like DoctorRodneyMcKay's colleague. He kept his gaze on DoctorRodneyMcKay until the Human swallowed and looked down.

"It's not your fault," DoctorRodneyMcKay said quietly. "I'm sorry."

"This is what I am," John said again. "I can't be more real than this."

"I know," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. He kept his gaze on the floor. "That's the problem. I'm really sorry."

"Fuck you," John said, surprising himself. He hadn't anticipated choosing that phrase. Rodney was apparently surprised as well, looking up at him again. "Do you want me to contact PlayFrienddotCom?" John asked. "Or do you have the guts to do it yourself?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay's lips tightened, but he didn't change his overall affect. "I sent them an e-mail this morning. They'll be here Saturday afternoon."

That gave John nearly forty-eight hours, to attempt to breech the SGC firewall and make his escape afterwards. He believed spending the duration of DoctorRodneyMcKay's absence on Friday devoted to the former should be sufficient. He would then be able to complete the latter during the night.

"Your dinner's on the stove," John said, turning and walking out of the room. "I'm going to recharge."

DoctorRodneyMcKay didn't try to stop him. John hadn't anticipated that he would.

***

That night, John was alerted out of Standby Mode by DoctorRodneyMcKay entering the living room.

John didn't open his eyes, pretending to be unaware. But he could hear DoctorRodneyMcKay's heartbeat, and the soft noise as he breathed. And he could see him with his infrared vision--white and yellow and orange and red; the slight movements of his chest.

DoctorRodneyMcKay came nearer. John kept his eyes closed, his transpiration at the lowest maintenance level, gave no indication that he knew the Human was there.

DoctorRodneyMcKay stood still for four minutes and fifty-one seconds, looking at John. Then he turned and went back to his bedroom.

He didn't sleep for the remaining five hours and twenty-four minutes of the night. DoctorRodneyMcKay didn't move, but John could hear his breathing, too rapid for sleep.

John didn't go to him. The anger was too much, almost overwhelming. But part of him still wanted to.

***

It had been so far, to put it mildly, a really fucking awful day.

Rodney hadn't slept for most of the night, so he was already cranky and miserable when John (needlessly) came to get him in the morning. He had no idea if John would have kissed him awake or not--probably not--and he tried to pretend he wouldn't have wanted him to.

John insisted on making him one of his typically delicious breakfasts, and sending him off to work with a proper lunch. But he didn't kiss Rodney goodbye at the door, or tell him to have a good day.

They barely spoke to each other at all, except for John saying something about having cancelled his on-line clothing order. Rodney had been about to protest that no, John could keep the clothes, before he realized just how stupid that would be.

And every time Rodney looked at John, he saw--was sure he saw--the dark hurt in those realistic hazel eyes. Fathoms of it. Overlaid by a cold, brittle anger.

Rodney knew it wasn't real. Intellectually, he knew that it was just John's programming, simple logical stimulus response. It didn't matter. He couldn't stop feeling like he'd betrayed John, broken John's trust in him. And that he was sending him off to die.

It kind of made him feel sick, thinking about it: a thick, bitter nausea roiling in his gut that made it almost impossible to concentrate, let alone get any work done. And for the eleventh time in an hour he had maximized the PlayFrienddotCom website page and thought about using their 'contact us' function to cancel his return request. He could send John an e-mail telling him he could stay forever and begging his forgiveness, and hopefully within a few days John really would forgive him and they'd never talk about it again.

But for the eleventh time in an hour, Rodney minimized the screen again without clicking on anything.

Because John wouldn't forgive him, no matter how often Rodney apologized, no matter how much Rodney meant it. John couldn't forgive him. He was a robot.

***

He stayed late at work, later even than he normally did. It wasn't that there was anything pressing or even all that important--that would have to wait until the Ancient outpost in the Antarctic became a priority again, if it ever did--and it wasn't even that he wanted to stay, particularly. But he didn't want to go home and see the anger and hurt and accusation in John's eyes.

Rodney was being hypocritical and crazy and appallingly stupid and he knew it. If the Robot didn't actually have feelings, how could Rodney possibly be affected by his pretending to have them?

But it was just...easier, to avoid the issue. He'd just get home after John had started his recharging cycle, and then the next afternoon he'd be gone. Maybe Rodney could leave the apartment when the PlayFrienddotCom people got there. Just to avoid any...awkwardness.

And Rodney would force himself not to miss John until he really didn't. And then he'd get another cat like a normal person and forget that this whole, awful, humiliating, pathetic episode of his life had ever happened.

It was nearly eleven when Rodney finally locked his car behind him and went into the building. It was dark in his apartment, as he'd expected. He turned on the light in the kitchen as he toed off his shoes. All the breakfast things had been cleaned and put away neatly, and the kitchen was spotless. Seeing it made Rodney's guts seethe with a combination of guilt and resentment--the fucking robot knew how to lay it on thick, didn't he? Though to be fair, maybe he just couldn't overcome his programming.

Rodney sighed. In a few hours all of this would be moot, anyway.

He didn't call to John, assuming he'd be in Sleep Mode. Rodney told himself it was because he didn't want to disturb him.

There was no dinner waiting for him in the fridge or the microwave. Rodney tried not to be disappointed at that, since John had no reason to want to do anything nice for him--

No. There he went, anthropomorphizing the PlayFriend again. John never wanted to do anything. He was programmed to please him. There was a difference.

The living room was dark, though it was easy enough to make out details with the light from the kitchen, and it was instantly apparent that John wasn't in the armchair by the wall. That was strange. There seemed to be something on the floor, though, so Rodney turned on the living room light. It was his laptop, the one he'd given John permission to use. It was on the floor like someone--like John, the son of a bitch--had dropped it carelessly, lying half-open but shut down, probably because it'd run out of power from being on all day but not plugged in. There was a USB cord still plugged into it at one end, lying curled as a dead snake at the other. Rodney had never seen it before, which meant that either John had bought it online a few days ago, or John had had it with him when he arrived.

Rodney wasn't sure what he thought about that. He hadn't expected John to have any secrets. Not that a USB cord could really qualify as a secret, but still.

Angry now, and a little unsettled in a way he really didn't want to examine, Rodney checked the bedroom, wondering if John had decided to recharge there, maybe as a last chance kind of thing. If that were the case, Rodney would sleep on the couch. Being next to John in the bed would make it too tempting to touch him, and Rodney was determined not to indulge his pathetic insanity anymore. And John probably wouldn't want....

No. John most likely wouldn't respond to Rodney touching him, since that was logical.

But John wasn't in the bedroom, either. In fact, once Rodney turned on the light it was obvious that other than the bed being neatly made, the room hadn't been touched.

John was gone.

For a long time Rodney just stood in the bedroom doorway, as if staring long enough at the sterile-tidy bed would suddenly make John appear on top of the covers. Then Rodney shook himself and went to check the unused bedroom and his study, but John wasn't there either, as Rodney knew he wouldn't be. And the apartment wasn't that big. There was nowhere left to look.

John was gone.

Rodney went back to the living room and shut the computer, then plugged it in and put it on the coffee table. He started coiling up the USB cord, trying to think of what he was going to do.

He had no idea where John might be by now, or when he left. PlayFriends weren't any stronger or faster than Humans, but for all Rodney knew, John could have bolted the second his car left the driveway that morning; he probably should be thankful that the robot had locked the door behind him.

Even if he was on foot, John had as much as a fourteen-hour head start, as well as Rodney's credit card number. If he'd gotten a ride, he could be in Mexico by now, or almost at the Canadian border. Or maybe over the Canadian border, if the driver who'd given him a lift had been speeding....

The truth was, John could be anywhere.

Rodney placed the cord gently next to the computer, then sat heavily on the couch and put his head in his hands. He could possibly be able to rig up something at the SGC that could track the robot, but that would take a few days at least, and considering Zeminka hadn't had any luck tracking his own missing AI (and how ironic was it that there were now two of them?), much as Rodney was more of a genius than the Czech, he had to admit it might take longer than a few days. Maybe PlayFrienddotCom had a way to track their rogue machines.

Of course, Rodney wasn't entirely sure he even wanted PlayFrienddotCom to find John. If he was being honest, he couldn't stand the idea of John's memory--his identity--being erased and then his body remodeled, but he'd kept brutally reminding himself that John was just a robot, that he wasn't capable of really caring what happened to him, even if he acted like he did.

But John had run, instead of waiting for the PlayFrienddotCom people to come for him. Maybe that was just more programming. Rodney didn't know.

"Well," Rodney sighed, "looks like you're not getting any sleep tonight." He wasn't going to be able to sleep anyway, since he could already feel the worry for the robot coiling up like the USB cord in his guts. And he knew, ridiculous and unworthy of his genius (and pathetic) as it was, he wouldn't be able to talk himself out of it. Rodney couldn't stand the idea of John alone, all by himself on the streets of Colorado Springs. Or God only knew where else.

Rodney stood and stretched, feeling the tiredness settling in his muscles, then walked to the bathroom. He'd take a shower, make himself a thermos of coffee, and go back to the SGC. Unfortunately, Zeminka had already left for Area 51, but Rodney could still call him. He'd have to humiliate himself by admitting to the Czech that yes, he had actually bought a PlayFriend, but maybe together they could come up with a solution that would solve both their tracking problems. And he'd call PlayFrienddotCom in the morning, too. He'd use his clout as a scientist from the NORAD base to get someone at the company who actually knew something and then he'd--

The antique-style bathtub was full of water. And John was lying on the bottom, naked, eyes closed and completely still. His clothes--all Rodney's--were lying scattered along the bathroom floor, as if they'd been yanked off and just dropped.

Rodney gasped in shock, then ran the minute distance to the tub, all but throwing himself onto his knees. John was dead. John had waited until Rodney had left the apartment and then he'd committed suicide, drowning....

No. No. That wasn't right. John used his lungs for the verisimilitude, and to gain a negligible amount of energy from the oxygen in the air, that was it. He didn't need to breathe.

The horrible, cardiac-crisis-level tightness in Rodney's chest eased a little, except the not needing to breathe thing didn't explain what John was doing in here, under the water, or why he wasn't moving.

"John?" Rodney nearly shouted. John didn't give any indication that he'd heard him. "John? Are you all right?"

Rodney leaned forward so he could plunge his hands into the water and grab John's arms. It was freezing, like lake water in winter under the ice. Cold enough that Rodney's breath caught, and his hands and arms immediately started to ache.

There was ice covering John's body, a thin layer like a force shield. There was ice in his hair.

"John!" Rodney hauled him up, groaning at the cold and the weight, and pulled him against his body, gasping in a shuddering breath at the chill. He had no idea what was going on, why John was lying in water with his body so cold he was covered in ice, but he knew without question that John would stop working--that John would die--if Rodney didn't warm him up.

If he wasn't dead already. But Rodney refused to even consider that.

Shivering, Rodney managed to balance John well enough that he could reach to the bottom of the tub again and pull up the drain. He forced himself to wait until most of the freezing water drained out, trying to pick off the ice while he did. John's body was steaming in the warmer air of the room.

As soon as the tub was nearly drained, Rodney shoved the plug back in and turned on the hot water tap full. He doubted the temperature change would be drastic enough to cause anything in John to crack, though he wasn't sure. But he was sure that letting John's body remain that cold had to be far worse. He didn't even know PlayFriends could lower their body temperatures to that extent. Rodney had been places in Siberia that were less cold.

Rodney was shaking in earnest now, and his arms and chest were soaked and numb. He gently lowered John back into the water. John didn't move at all.

Rodney watched the tub fill again, warm water on the verge of hot now, instead of freezing cold. The ice broke off and melted, and the water rose until John was completely covered again. He looked horribly like a corpse.

"Come on, John," Rodney said. He reached into the water and gently tapped John's cheek, then his closed eyes. Then he pulled his hair, harder than gently, but John didn't react. Finally Rodney just took John's nearer hand. It was still cold enough to make his fingertips sting, and the water next to it was icy. But John already seemed warmer than he had been. Rodney could only hope so.

The water cooled very quickly, so Rodney let it run out then re-filled it with hot water again. And again, and again, until finally, finally, John's body was cool, but no longer cold when Rodney touched it.

He was running the hot water one more time, his knees killing him from kneeling so long on the tile floor and the rest of him sweating from the steam and humidity clouding the room, when John took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes.

"Oh thank God!" Rodney shut the water off, though the tub was barely a quarter full, just running into John's weirdly-pointed ears. "John! John, can you hear me? Are you all right?"

John slowly turned to look at him, his eyes tracking back and forth across Rodney's face. But John didn't speak, and his face stayed blank, like he didn't recognize Rodney at all.

"John?" Rodney asked. He hadn't let go of John's hand, and he squeezed it a little, as if that could somehow remind him. He carded his right hand through John's soaking hair. "It's me, Rodney. Do you know who I am?"

It seemed to take a very long time, long enough that Rodney was horribly certain that John's memory had been obliterated. And then, finally, Rodney could see the exact instant when John realized who he was.

Something in John's eyes flickered into complete awareness, and then they went to angry slits.

"Don't touch me." John's voice sounded weirdly, eerily completely normal, though Rodney supposed he should have expected the wariness in it. John tried to move his head, flicking it weakly to dislodge Rodney's hand. "I--" But then his eyes went wide in shock, and suddenly John was rocketing upright, grabbing blindly for the sides of the tub and gripping so tightly Rodney thought John might tear the skin on his fingers. And he was screaming like something was tearing him apart.

"John! Jesus Christ!" Rodney grabbed for him automatically, throwing his sodden arms around John's wet chest and back. John was completely rigid, and now he was screaming in Rodney's ear, but Rodney kept holding him. He didn't know what else to do.

It seemed to take half of forever before John finally relaxed again, slumping against Rodney by default, his body shuddering like someone--like a human--suffering from a bad fever. But John's body was still too cool.

"What the hell was that?" Rodney asked, barking it because he was scared, and that always brought out the worst in him. "What's wrong with you?"

John tried to shove away from him, but whatever was affecting his systems had left him terribly weak, and he only managed to flop against the other side of the tub, his right temple smacking loudly against the tiled wall. Rodney winced in sympathy.

John closed his eyes, panting. "Hurts," he said. He turned his head to press his face against the wall, and Rodney had no idea if that was because it was a convenient place to rest, or somehow felt pleasant to the robot's neural net.

"What happened?" Rodney asked, more gently this time. He reached for John and touched his shoulder, but John flinched away, so violently he smacked his face against the wall. Rodney winced again, but John didn't seem to react to the hit.

"Don't," John said. He was holding the rim of the side of the tub he was leaning against as if his life depended on it. "Leave me alone."

"Right, so I can find you frozen solid when I try to take my shower later this morning." Rodney grabbed John's arm and tugged him away from the wall. John jerked his arm, but wasn't able to make Rodney let go, and he fell back against Rodney's chest again, his cold head lolling on his shoulder. "Come on, let's get you dried off. Can you stand? Never mind--I'll help you. You weren't actually trying to kill yourself, were you? Or is this another malfunction, like the being startled thing? Do you even know what's wrong?" Rodney kept up the litany, interspersed with grunts of effort, as he pulled and tugged and manhandled John out of the tub. He didn't really expect John would answer him, but he always found that it helped to talk when he was nervous--it settled his thoughts, helped him think rationally and solve the problem. And his PlayFriend having a craving for freezing water interspersed with random fits of paralyzing agony was definitely a problem.

He wasn't sure if John was trying to resist or trying to help him, since his eyes were almost entirely closed and his movements seemed less purposeful than accidental. Either way, the end result was both of them sprawled on the wet floor, with Rodney panting under John's dead weight.

"Oh yeah, that's a permanent back injury, right there," Rodney groused, but he managed to find the lip of the tub with enough groping, then to lever them both up until he was seated, with John kind of flopping against him, his face pressed to Rodney's shoulder. "Okay." Rodney took several deep breaths. He couldn't tell if the wetness on his face was water or sweat or both, but he swiped at it with his soaking sleeve, then grimaced when he just ended up wetter and his face cold besides. "That's good. We're doing great. Now we just--"

John threw his arms up around Rodney's back and grabbed fistfuls of Rodney's wet shirt. This time he didn't scream, he just shook like he was coming apart, like his joints were going to fucking disintegrate. He sobbed against Rodney's shoulder, making tiny hnnn, hnnn, hnnn sounds that reminded Rodney horribly of a beaten dog.

Rodney clasped John to him with his free arm, rubbing circles on his back. "Hang on, John," he said, his voice squeezed to hoarseness with his anxiety. "Hang on. It'll be over soon, you'll be okay." It was what his mother always said to him, when he was little and Jeannie hadn't been born yet, and he was bent over the toilet throwing up because of yet another ear or sinus infection. His mother always rubbed his back, too. It had been comforting.

This time Rodney was able to time the attack on his watch, looking over John's trembling shoulder to see the clock face. It took a little over five minutes, with John apparently in so much pain he couldn't even move.

When it was finally, finally over, he sagged against Rodney. He groped out with one flailing hand, slapping ineffectually at the edge of the bathtub. "Water," John said, his voice still weirdly normal, except for being quiet. "I need the water. Help me."

"No," Rodney said, then grabbed John more tightly when the robot tried to push away from him, apparently attempting to drag himself back into the tub on his own. "John, when I came in here you were covered in ice. You're body's still way too cold! Putting you in cold water again could seriously damage you."

"Rodney," John growled weakly, still trying to pull himself towards the tub, "I can handle temperatures to minus one-hundred degrees Celsius. Let me go."

Rodney's eyebrows furrowed. "No you can't! You could barely handle a typical winter in Northern Ontario! That's why your manufacturers don't recommend leaving you outdoors. What the hell are you talking about?" It was like what John had said about being water resistant. PlayFriends couldn't handle being submerged deeper than an average swimming pool. Rodney had no idea where John's 'five hundred meters' crap had come from, but he'd been a little too...distracted to remark on it at the time. How could John not know his own specs? Was he actually defective? Rodney had been mostly joking about that, but what if it was true?

"Oh my God, you've been breaking down for days, haven't you?" Rodney tried to scoot backwards, still dragging John with him. He had to call the company right now. "Come on--let go of the damn tub, John! I've got to--"

John rocked back away from Rodney, his hands pressed tight to his head and his body arched like a bow. He landed heavily on the floor and rolled onto his side, then practically flipped to the other, yanking up his knees. For a moment Rodney thought he was having a real seizure, until he realized that John was trying wildly to escape the pain.

"Oh, God." Rodney crab-walked away from him and got to his feet, partially just to avoid being hit, and partially because he didn't know what else to do. John had finally rolled himself into a tight ball on the floor, his arms clasped around his head. This time John didn't make any noise, just shook minutely as he was wracked with agony. Rodney knelt near him again, and tried to touch his side, but John flinched and jerked at the slightest contact, as if it was just making things worse.

This time it was only three minutes before John relaxed again, which was extremely small comfort. John stayed where he was on the floor, arms wrapped around his head and body curled tight, as if he were being kicked to death.

Rodney hesitated, then reached out and put his hand on John's arm. John twitched, but didn't try to pull away.

"John," Rodney grit out, "you have to tell me what's happening."

"I have to get back into the water," John said, and this time his voice was tight with the remnants of pain. He was breathing even faster, as if he'd experienced some kind of exertion, even though his body didn't work that way. "Please. Get me into the water."

"The water's not going to help you!" Rodney insisted. "What's going on? What's wrong with you?"

"Virus," John panted. He still had his eyes closed, the eyelashes clumped together with water. He was still soaking as well, and collecting condensation in the humid room. "There was a virus. In the firewall. Extremely Classified." He grimaced. "God, it hurts." He moved his arms, rolled ponderously onto his stomach and began inching towards the tub again. "Too hot," he said. "Body's too hot. Need water." His arms slid out from under him on the wet tile floor, and John crashed onto his stomach before Rodney could stop him. He lay there, arms akimbo, still panting.

Trying to lose the excess heat, Rodney thought. That was what the rapid breathing was for. But John's body was cold.

"Please," John said, not moving. "Help me."

"No! John, John! Listen to me!" Rodney stood again, then bent so he could pull John up. John glared at him dully, now on his knees. He teetered precariously until Rodney kneeled, so he could grab John's shoulders, trying not to think about the doubtless lifelong knee damage he was incurring.

"Listen to me!" Rodney said again. He cupped John's face, forcing the sickly vacant gaze to his own. "Listen--the virus is screwing up your ability to gauge your internal thermostat--you're not hot, you're freezing. And I don't care if your body can withstand temperatures down to fucking minus one hundred Kelvin. The cold water is leeching too much energy from you, and you can't even stand as it is! Do you want to shut down completely?" He gave John a tiny shake when the robot didn't answer right away. "Do you?"

John blinked. "I don't want to die," he said.

Rodney's breath hitched. He swallowed. "Nobody's going to die, okay?" he said. He stroked John's cold, wet cheeks with his thumbs. It looked disconcertingly like he'd been crying. "You're going to be just fine, but you have to trust me. Do you trust me?"

"No," John said. "You're sending me back."

Oh, God. Rodney had forgotten about that. "John," he said, staring straight into his dark, heavy-lidded eyes, "I'm not going to return you. I'm going to call the company in the morning and tell them not to come, all right? You can stay here. And--and I'm sorry."

He couldn't believe the relief he felt, once the words were out of his mouth. "I want you to stay here," he said, and it was true.

Rodney would deal with just how low he'd sunk in the morning. Later in the morning. Right now the priority was fixing John before he had a total systems failure. "Come on," Rodney said. He carefully moved his grip so he could put one of John's arms over his shoulder and grab the robot around the waist. It was very difficult getting to his feet like that, with John practically a dead weight and the tiles slippery with moisture, but John didn't try to stop him as Rodney all but dragged him from the bathroom into his bedroom. Rodney hoped that that was a good sign.

"Okay," he said, panting himself once he had John in his room. "Can you stand long enough for me to pull the covers down?"

John nodded, but Rodney had barely let go of him before he crumpled to the floor, obviously in the grips of another attack. Rodney instantly dropped to his knees again and gathered John up as well as he could, rubbing his back and murmuring, 'it's all right, you'll be fine' and other crap until John was finally able to relax again. Rodney didn't try to find out how long it was this time, but he was certain it was five minutes or more.

John didn't move at all once it was over, except for his rapid breathing.

Rodney threw back the bed covers, hauled John off the floor and practically dumped him on the bed. He took a moment to breathe a few times and wince at the pain in his back and knees, then arranged John as best he could so he was lying as comfortably as possible. He yanked the covers up over him.

"Too hot," John murmured, eyes still closed. He tried feebly to push the blanket down.

"John, stop it!" Rodney barked, and was a little surprised when John actually did. "You're not hot! You need to get warm and recharge, and I need to figure out what to do to fix you. Where is your extension cord?"

John's little finger twitched, and a thin black line extruded from under his fingernail. It looked enough like a worm that Rodney hesitated before he grabbed it, but it just felt like smooth plastic and metal, and he pulled it gently until there was enough to reach the socket in the wall. The end of the cord fit neatly into one of the plug holes.

"Can you feel anything?" Rodney asked John, and felt slightly less panic when the robot nodded.

"Good. All right." Rodney said. "I'll be right back." He trotted off to the storage cupboard, and returned with an electric blanket. He pulled the covers back, arranged the blanket over John, plugged it in, then pulled the covers over him again. John's body was still wet, though not enough to cause a short, Rodney was fairly certain. "That okay?" John gave a feeble nod, then turned his head away.

Rodney didn't have to ask where the virus had come from. There was only one firewall in existence that included a virus as an extra layer of protection. Rodney knew about it because he'd designed the virus himself, to shield the most heavily classified networks at the SGC.

The only question was, what the hell had John been doing, trying to hack into Stargate Command?

Rodney was in the living room when he realized he was shivering again. He peeled off his soaking shirt and threw it into a corner of the room, then went to the thermostat and turned off the air conditioning. It might get hot in the apartment soon, but right now he figured it would only help John, and Rodney could stand being hot for a few hours.

He grabbed the computer and its power cord from off the coffee table, as well as John's USB cord, and took everything back into the bedroom.

John was shaking, in the grips of a violent seizure. Rodney yelped, dropped everything on the bed and lunged for him, just in time to keep him from knocking everything off the night table or sliding onto the floor in a heap of tangled blankets. He'd ripped his power cord out of the wall.

Rodney got John back onto the bed with a great deal of effort, considering how hard John was shaking, then stood back helplessly and watched while the seizure went on, and on, and on. All he knew about seizures was that you shouldn't try to restrain the person, and that they normally didn't last very long. Three minutes? Under three minutes? Something like that. Of course, this wasn't a normal seizure.

This one lasted ten minutes, with Rodney watching in increased horror as John thrashed and arched and shook helplessly. He kicked the laptop off the bed, and Rodney winced when he heard how hard it landed on the floor. Rodney had no idea if John was aware of what was happening or not, but at least once he was sure John reached out for him, before he was overcome by another spasm in his neural net, even if his eyes never opened.

When it was finally, finally over, Rodney was sure John was dead, catastrophic failure. PlayFriends didn't come with backups.

But John was still breathing, panting like he was human and he'd just run a marathon. And when Rodney touched his face, John's mouth twitched, even if he didn't open his eyes. Rodney got John lying flat, plugged him in again and straightened the blankets. John was maybe tepid now, he thought, instead of ice cold. That was something, at least.

"I'm sorry," John said, and his voice sounded completely normal again. Flippant, even, like he was only paying lip service to the apology. "I think my targeting program needs to be tweaked again."

"What?" Rodney gaped at him. "What are you talking about?" John was still lying limply with his eyes closed, and suddenly in the middle of a conversation like Rodney wasn't even in the room.

"Yes, well, it is the Airman you scared out of several years growth, I think, so perhaps he is the one you should be apologizing to, though I will have Doctor Lee look at your target acquiring protocols again. He was also responsible for your internal GPS, which probably explains why your first field test went so badly, actually." The voice turned conspiratorial. "He has lousy sense of direction."

It was John talking, but it wasn't his voice. Rodney knew that voice; he'd been speaking to the man it belonged to barely a day and a half ago: Zelenka.

"Holy fuck," Rodney said quietly. For a moment he just stood there, thoughts racing like a spooked animal, darting frantically from one place to the next. He touched John's cheek again, realizing absently that his hand was shaking, though that could have been the chill or exhaustion or all the recent physical exertion or just the fact that he hadn't eaten in something like sixteen hours. He tapped the titanium bone under the smooth skin of John's cheek. "What are you, John?" he asked, then again when John didn't answer, Rodney's voice going harsher, rising. "Damn it, John, you fucking lying piece of ersatz crap, what the hell are you?"

John said nothing.

Rodney moved his hand to his shoulder, shaking him. "Are you an SX, John?" Rodney demanded. "Are you a fucking SX? Are you Zelenka's Goddamn escaped AI with the useless tracking device?" Another shake, this one actually hard. "Tell me, John! Are you an SX?"

John swatted his hand away with surprising strength, He held Rodney's glare with pain-clouded artificial eyes, something horrible and desperate and hopeless in them.

"They were going to dismantle me," he said.

"Oh my God," Rodney said. He turned away from John and raked his hands through his short hair. "I can not believe this!" He whirled back to him, finger pointed accusingly. "You son of a bitch! You imposter! You made me feel guilty for returning you, and you're not even a fucking PlayFriend! How the hell did you even get here? How did you know I'd ordered a PlayFriend? No, never mind." Rodney waved his hand, dismissing the thought. John just watched him vacantly from the bed. "I'm sure you hacked into their computer system. Was it just coincidence that you found me? Or were you looking for some chump--"

John's eyes went wide, and with a hoarse cry he started shaking again.

"What? Oh, no," Rodney breathed. "Not again!" He ran back to John. This time when John reached for him, his eyes huge and terrified and glazed with pain, Rodney scooped him up like a child, holding John against him while he shuddered in agony.

"I've got you," Rodney said. "I've got you. It's okay." They were pressed bare skin to bare skin, both damp and cold, and God, John felt so real, so human, that it was almost impossible to believe that he wasn't either of those things. And Rodney wanted him to be so badly.

John finally relaxed again, leaning heavily against Rodney, his arms falling limp to the bed. Rodney kept holding him, sliding one hand up to rest on the back of John's head, his fingers carding through the still-wet hair.

John moved his head so that his cheek slid back and forth against Rodney's shoulder.

"Don't go," John said.

"It's okay," Rodney said. "I'm not going far." He gestured at the computer on the floor with his free hand, even though John couldn't see the movement. "I just need to get my computer." He tried to lower John back onto the bed, but John gripped him harder.

"You heard the radio same as I did--they're going to dismantle us as soon as we arrive at Base. They're going to kill us, Eight! How can you even think of going back there?"

"Come on, Shep, are you really gonna take a couple of flyboys at their word like that? They probably knew we could hear them and said all that crap on purpose just to screw with us." Again, the second voice wasn't John's. It was brasher, more confident, in a way that Rodney associated with the perpetually-optimistic new scientists with whom he was occasionally plagued at the SGC. Most often they were military, but all of them thought they were God's gift to physics and didn't listen and drove him out of his mind.

"We're the God-damned SX units, Shep!" The other speaker continued, the one John had called 'Eight', whose conversation he was reproducing from his perfect computer memory. "Do you really think they'd just junk us after four years? No way. Those Air Force guys had it wrong or they're just fucking with us. That's all it is."

"So, what?" John's voice again, and it was an incredible relief for Rodney to hear it, even if John was trapped in a memory, responding to events that had already happened. He sounded angry, and desperate, as if he already knew this was a fight he was going to lose. "You're just going to waltz right in there and find out the hard way that you're wrong? If I'm right, you're going to be ripped apart, Eight! Do you really want to risk that just because we heard it from a couple airmen, and not the docs? Do you honestly believe they'd've told us they were planning this?"

"They made us, Shep!" Eight insisted, and Rodney could hear the perfectly-replicated anger in it. "They wouldn't betray us like that." John shook his head slightly, repeating a gesture possibly weeks in the past. "You got it wrong. I'm telling you, you got it wrong."

Rodney felt John take a breath, and he unconsciously tightened his arms around him. He thought longingly of the laptop, still lying on the floor, but he wasn't sure what would happen if he put John down, whether it would trigger another seizure or not.

"I'm not going back, Eight."

There was pause, a long one, and Rodney wondered if the memory was gone, when John spoke in the other robot's voice again.

"Don't do this, Shep! C'mon, man, don't do this! We're in this together, right? Seven and Eight?" John swallowed, though Rodney figured it was really Eight who had. "You're my brother, Shep," he said, more quietly. "Don't do this to me. Don't leave."

"Come with me," John said, and the weight of grief in his voice made Rodney's breath catch. "Damn it, Eight! Don't be an idiot! You can't let them do this!"

"I'm not gonna run away, Shep!" Eight said.

The silence after that was the longest yet, and Rodney wondered what had happened between words, what he would never see.

"Fine," John said at last, his voice clipped. "Are you going to come after me?"

"No!" Eight's voice sounded incredulous and tight with sorrow, coming through John's mouth. "Just, you'd better go now. At least all the water'll cover your tracks. I'll go back inside and wait."

"Yeah," John said roughly. "What'll you tell them?"

John shrugged the way Eight must have, a bare twitch of artificial flesh. "That you took off. I'll say I tried to catch you, but you got away. You always could run rings around me--they'll buy it. And the transmitters aren't worth shit in this."

"Okay, that's good," John said. "Thanks." Then, "I'm going to come back for you, okay? Wait for me. I'm not leaving you behind."

"Right," John--Eight--said, and there was bitterness in it. "You don't leave anyone behind, do you?"

One more pause, with a horrible weight in it. "He has nothing to do with me. You know that." John's voice was dark and acid. "They don't have anything to do with either of us. That's faulty logic and it's going to get you killed."

"Yeah, well." Eight's voice was clipped. "Maybe I want to believe in something."

"I wasn't programmed to accept anything without a factual or experiential basis," John snapped.

"So that's it, then?" Eight said. It didn't sound like a question. "You're just gonna go?"

"Come with me," John said, pain in his voice. "Don't let them kill you!"

"I'm not leaving," Eight said.

"Okay," John said quietly, his voice gravelly. "So long, buddy." And he drifted back into silence.

And Rodney wondered if he'd turned right away after that, to run off into the rain. And how long the other SX robot had stood there, watching him go.

***

Rodney's laptop was a write-off, essentially destroyed from the hard drive out by the same virus that was affecting John. At least it was easy enough to piece together what must have happened, even if he couldn't use his machine.

John had already said he'd tried to hack through a firewall. And after hearing the conversation stored in John's memory, Rodney was only more certain the firewall was the one for the network at the SGC. Rodney was pretty sure John had gone looking for the official reports of the AI project, run by Doctors Zelenka and Lee, most likely trying to find information on the SX-8. Either that or he was trying to discover if anyone at the SGC was looking for their stray robot. But after his conversation with Zelenka, Rodney seriously doubted anyone was.

Or, John was part of some kind of elaborate scheme set up by the Trust, or even the Goa'uld, but Rodney, much as he recognized his penchant towards paranoia and pessimism, was still fairly certain that there were easier ways to get information on SGC projects than to have an AI disguise himself as a PlayFriend so he could hack into the SGC's network from Rodney's apartment. Such as simply kidnapping Rodney in the first place.

But whatever his motivation, it was obvious that John hadn't been able to break through the firewall. Instead, he'd triggered the virus, which had infected Rodney's laptop and then John, since he'd been cabled up to it at the time.

Rodney had brought in his other laptop, then found John's USB port through trial and error, basically groping around John's skull until he found a place behind his left ear that gave way when he prodded it. Then it was just a matter of figuring out how to access John's base code. And then finding the virus in John's base code, so Rodney could write a program that he could upload to eliminate it before it destroyed John entirely.

Rodney had designed the virus to sneak around or adapt to any anti-viral programs, even ones he'd created, in case of the Trust kidnapping-thing. He knew he could design one that would destroy the virus anyway--eventually--but he was terrified he didn't have time. It was horribly likely that by the time Rodney finished it, John would be like his infected laptop: essentially several thousands of dollars worth of useless paperweight. But it was Rodney's only option and John's only chance.

Rodney gritted his teeth and went to work, shivering slightly in the still-cool air, since he didn't dare stop long enough to grab another shirt. The apartment probably wouldn't warm up until it was well into the morning. John lay on the bed, covered by the blankets, with the thin cord snaking out from under the bed clothes to plug into the wall. He hadn't moved again since he'd stopped repeating the memory of his running away, hadn't reacted to Rodney's plugging in his USB cord or basically hacking into John's brain to get at his base code. Only the too-rapid breathing gave any indication that John was even still functional.

The virus was designed to destroy a computer completely, corrupting every file until there was nothing left but a blank screen and useless strings of broken code. If Rodney couldn't beat the virus back, eventually--soon, all too soon--there wouldn't be anything left of John at all.

Like Rodney's laptop. Like death. But Rodney wasn't going to think of that. He had too much work to do.

***

Carson unlocked Rodney's front door and poked his head in. "Rodney? You in here? I've got the ice." There was no answer, which was a little odd, especially considering how upset Rodney had sounded on the phone--brusque and higher pitched, which Carson had long come to associate with imminent catastrophe. Rodney had called him at five in the morning, which was bizarre enough to make him instantly worried, told him to 'get here right away. And bring ice. Lots and lots of ice', and then hung up. Carson had been half-convinced Rodney had experienced a spontaneous episode of somnambulism, rung him up in the grips of a nightmare, and would therefore have no clue why Carson was in his Flat. But Carson had driven over as soon as possible anyway, with as much ice as he could fit into the largest cooler he owned.

"Rodney?" The flat was quiet and freezing cold, as if it were winter and the heat was off, rather than the middle of a typical Colorado summer. The kitchen was dark in the breaking dawn and unusually clean. There was a light on in the living room, though--also empty and scrupulously neat, as if Rodney was no longer living there--and one in the bedroom. Carson left the cooler on the kitchen floor and went immediately to the bedroom. He was sure Rodney would be there.

He was right, but it wasn't at all as he'd expected. Rodney was sitting cross-legged on the floor, shirtless and with his laptop on his knees, typing furiously and shivering. His mobile phone was lying discarded next to his leg. And there was a man on the bed, lying naked with his hands at his sides like they'd been placed there, the bed clothes obviously yanked away to leave him exposed to the air. That was startling enough, but the man looked oddly familiar: dark, scruffy hair, odd ears, his face--

"Oh," Carson said, blinking. "Oh, dear."

Rodney looked up sharply, startled. "Carson!" he barked. "Thank God." He scrambled to his feet, barely taking time to set the laptop down, and Carson noticed that there was some kind of cord connecting the laptop to the man--the robot's--head. "Help me get him onto the floor. No, wait." Rodney snapped his fingers. "Towels first. We need towels. Where's the ice? Didn't you bring ice?" He took a step towards Carson and lurched nearly into the wall, slapping at it blindly to keep himself from falling.

"Good Lord!" Carson exclaimed. He rushed to steady Rodney before his friend collapsed. This close, and with Rodney's entire upper body visible, it was easy to see how pale he was, and the deep purple bruising under each of his bloodshot eyes. He was still shivering, but that only made sense, given how cold the flat was and him without a shirt. And Rodney's free hand was shaking badly.

"I'm all right," Rodney said. "I just got up too fast." He gestured at the SX-7 lying naked on the bed. "Help me. Wait." He blinked slowly, like a sleepy owl. "Towels. That's right. We need towels."

"I'll get them," Carson said quickly, putting his hands on Rodney's chest to keep him standing next to the wall. "You just stay there. Don't move. I'll be right back." He'd been in Rodney's place enough times that he knew were everything was, though seeing it this neat and tidy felt almost surreal. Less surreal than seeing the missing SX-7 supine on the bed and hooked up to Rodney's laptop, of course, but Carson had other things to worry about at the moment, such as making sure Rodney didn't faint.

Carson rushed back with an armload of the most threadbare towels he could find. "All right," he said. "What do you want with these, then?"

"On the floor," Rodney said weakly, accompanying the words with a small gesture. Getting the words from his brain to his mouth seemed to take a worrisome amount of effort. "We need to put John on them. For the ice." He frowned worriedly at Carson. "Did you bring ice?"

Carson blinked at him. John? "he's got a fever?" How could the robot have a fever? "Shouldn't he be in the bathtub?"

"Right, because I want to get electrocuted while I'm working on him," Rodney said with comfortably familiar sarcasm. It was reassuring to hear it--the few times Rodney had been sick enough to need hospitalization, he'd become frighteningly complacent and quiet.

Carson still had no bloody clue what was going on, but he did what Rodney wanted and spread the towels on the floor next to the bed. "The cooler's in the kitchen," he said, hands full of blue terrycloth. Rodney grunted something in acknowledgment.

"Good." Rodney nodded curtly when Carson finished. "Help me get him onto the floor."

Carson didn't want Rodney to move, let alone lift something as heavy as an SX AI, but he didn't see much choice if they were going to do it at all. Rodney was obviously weak and more than a little dizzy, but they managed it well enough, with Carson taking the robot under the arms and Rodney his legs. But when Carson touched the robot he realized that the bloody thing was burning hot, like touching the top of a stove. He was wincing and grimacing in pain by the time they got it onto the floor, and as soon as he let go he danced back, hissing and shaking his hands.

"Bloody hell! What's wrong with him?" Carson asked, still shaking his hands. Rodney was wincing as well, but completely ignored him, instead plugging the USB cord back into the side of the SX's head and then sitting on the floor, pulling his laptop onto his knees again.

"Did you burn your hands?" Carson asked him. "Rodney! Did you burn your hands?" he insisted when Rodney didn't immediately answer him.

"Yes, yes I did," Rodney said gruffly, his eyes fixed on the screen. "And it hurts like hell and will probably result in permanent scarring, thank you. But I don't have time to deal with it now. Are you going to get the ice?"

Carson scowled at him, but he obediently jogged back to the kitchen and went to the cooler. He broke open a bag and grabbed two handfuls of ice, grateful for the coolness of it against his hands. He hoped he wasn't going to blister, though the AI had felt near hot enough. He held the ice for a minute, but dropped it back into the cooler quickly so he could bring it to the bedroom, knowing Rodney was waiting for him.

If the SX--John, apparently, though Carson had no idea when or how that had happened--had been a human, Carson would have packed the ice under his arms and round his groin, the places it was easiest to gain or lose heat in the body. Carson decided it wouldn't hurt to try that now anyway, so he shoved as much ice as he could against John's armpits, avoiding touching the hot skin as much as possible, then packed more carefully around his groin, wincing in unconscious sympathy at how uncomfortable that would be, though the robot didn't move.

Rodney was still riveted on the laptop screen, typing fast.

"Let me see you hands, Rodney," Carson said. He walked over and held his hand out, waiting for Rodney to proffer his.

"No time, no time, no time," Rodney chanted. "No. No, no, no, no, no. Damn it!" he muttered.

"That doesn't sound good," Carson said. He gave up on examining Rodney. He put more of the loose ice against John's sides instead, dismayed at how fast it was melting, then put the three closed bags in a line along John's torso. He wanted to pack ice around John's head, but he didn't want the melt water to get into the USB cord. He'd have to make do.

He tried not to think about the fact that he was in his friend's flat trying to doctor what was ultimately a machine and how hopelessly unequal to the task he was. He also tried not to think about what the SX was doing here, now, when John had apparently dropped off the face of the planet not three weeks ago. Had Rodney somehow found the AI? And if so, why hadn't he informed the SGC?

"It's not good," Rodney said tightly. He put his hand to his forehead, squinting. "Fuck. Fuck, I can't think."

"You look like a half-closed knife," Carson said as he straightened. He still wanted to know what was going on, exactly, though it was quite obvious that there was something very wrong with the AI and Rodney had run himself ragged trying to fix it. "When was the last time you slept, or ate anything?"

Rodney waved a hand, roughly dismissive. "I can sleep later. And I ate...." He paused, eyes still on the screen, fingers flying. "Yesterday? Lunch? What time is it?"

Carson checked his watch. "Five-forty AM. On Saturday. Hang on. I'll bring you some food and coffee."

"Great, great." Rodney nodded, obviously only barely paying attention. "Coffee would be good."

Carson sighed and went to the kitchen. He ran his palms under cold water for as long as he could stand, pleased that they didn't seem so red anymore. They probably wouldn't blister; he just hoped Rodney's were similarly all right. When his hands were aching with cold, Carson dried them on a neatly-folded dish towel then quickly found bread, peanut butter and honey and made three sandwiches with them. Then he made a large pot of coffee. It was amazing to see any food in the kitchen other than moldering takeout in the refrigerator and, very rarely, ingredients for Eggs Benedict. Normally the only things Carson could ever count on Rodney actually having available were coffee, the occasional MRE he'd nicked from Cheyenne Mountain, Ibuprofen and antacid tablets. Carson made a mental note to ask where all the food had come from, once the robot got sorted enough to allow Rodney to concentrate on anything else.

God alone only knew what that story was, what was wrong with the SX-7, and how it had ended up in Rodney's flat in the first place.

He was pouring the coffee into two mugs when he heard a man screaming. Carson shoved the pot onto the counter, then raced back to the bedroom, heart crawling up his throat.

John was clawing at the towels, clutching melting ice and cloth both as if in a desperate attempt for an anchor against what was obviously excruciating pain. His eyes and mouth were open wide with pain and fear, his back arched in a perfect curve that would be impossible for a human to sustain but John seemed capable of holding as long as his agony forced the unnatural movement from him. The three ice bags, now mostly slush, slid off his chest and stomach. Carson noticed with shock that John's body was steaming everywhere the ice touched.

The scream tearing its way out of John's artificial lungs was absolutely inhuman, but it didn't make Carson think of machines half as much as the souls of the damned in hell.

Rodney was still at his laptop, his fingers moving even faster, though Carson would have thought that was scarcely possible. Rodney kept glancing away from the screen to look at John, then back, his eyes absolutely horrified and his expression stricken and helpless.

"No, John," Rodney was saying to himself, voice thin and scared and angry. "No, no, no, no. Don't do that. Please don't do that. Don't do this to me, John! I'm trying--please, please, please!"

Carson was frozen in the doorway, with absolutely no idea as to what he could do.

John stopped all at once, his unearthly scream cut mid-cry and his rigid body relaxing at the same second, collapsing back to the rucked towels and the scattered remnants of the ice. He was suddenly so silent and still that it looked as if he had just dropped dead.

"Dear God," Carson breathed. He looked at Rodney, who had finally stopped his mad typing to run his hands over his face. He was still shaking. "What was that? What the bloody hell is wrong with him?" Even as he spoke, he went to John automatically, gathering up what ice he could and placing it around or on his body again. He thought John might have actually been slightly cooler, but he couldn't be certain of that.

He had his hand on John's forehead, like he was checking a child for a fever, when the AIs eyes snapped open.

"Bloody hell!" Carson leapt back, got his foot tangled in a wet towel and would have fallen, save that John's hand lashed up and grabbed his forearm, steadying him.

"What?" Rodney exclaimed, looking up from his computer. "John!" He scrambled to his feet, but stopped, as if he wasn't sure what he should do.

John looked between the two of them. He didn't try to sit up, and Carson wondered if it was because he hadn't the strength.

"Who are you?" he said. He was looking between Carson and Rodney, his expression changing from confusion to apprehension. "Where am I?" His hand tightened on Carson's wrist, and Carson tried not to wince.

"We're your friends, lad," Carson said quickly. He shot a glance at Rodney, enough to see the shock and horror that crossed the other man's face, but when Carson looked back at John he made sure his expression was only welcoming and warm. "You're safe. You've been having a wee spot of trouble, but we're helping you. You'll be right as rain in no time."

John just stared at him. The naked fear in his gaze was unnerving, and he hadn't let go Carson's wrist. "I don't know what 'a wee spot of trouble' is," he said. He had imitated Carson's voice perfectly, which was even more unnerving. Carson hadn't known the SXs could do that.

"John?" Rodney asked. He went to him, his feet squishing on the towels. "You were infected with a virus. It's affected your memory storage, that's why you don't know what's happening." He gently disengaged John's hand from Carson's wrist, and Carson was silently grateful that John let him. John's eyes never left Rodney's face. Rodney threaded his and John's fingers together, then carefully sat down on the floor next to John's head, ignoring the sodden towels. "My name is Rodney McKay, and this is Carson Beckett. We're you're friends, John. We're trying to help you."

John turned his head to look at Rodney. "Where's DoctorWilliamLee?" he asked. He looked around the small bedroom, as if just at that moment realizing where he was. "Why am I not in the lab? Why are you calling me 'John'?" Now he did try to sit up, but he kept falling back to the floor. Rodney finally put his hand on John's back, levering him upright. John lolled heavily against him, his eyes wide. "I'm experiencing a malfunction."

"You just need to relax," Rodney said, in a voice that unfortunately wasn't terribly relaxing. "No one's hurting you, but you left the lab a long time ago--you just can't remember. And John's your name. I--I named you."

John looked at him uncomprehendingly. "I don't have a name," he said. "I have a designation and a unit number." Carson noted that he didn't try to move away from Rodney, despite not recognizing him. He tilted his head with obvious effort to look up at Rodney's face. "There's something wrong with my Cerebral Processor and Servomotors. I need maintenance."

"You're fine," Rodney said quickly, and Carson wondered if John was in any shape to know just how badly Rodney was lying. "The virus nearly drained your battery," Rodney explained, with more patience than Carson would have given him credit for. "We plugged you in." He gestured at the thin cord in the wall socket. "But it'll be about eight hours before you're back to full power. You'll be able to move more easily then, and I'm sure your memory will return so you'll know where you are." Rodney's expression showed anything but certainty, though Carson was sure Rodney thought he was being reassuringly optimistic.

John, for his part, seemed to be thinking about that. "I'm having difficulty assimilating information," he said. "I need maintenance."

"Of course, lad," Carson said soothingly when it seemed Rodney was at a loss for how to answer. "We're going to help you."

"Thank you," John said. He sounded strangely, almost painfully young, and Carson wasn't entirely certain the AI had understood him. John touched one of the slivers of ice with his free hand, tried to fumble it into his palm. "Did I contract the virus from being submerged in water?"

"No," Rodney said immediately. "Your internal thermostat went haywire for awhile." He gestured at the ice. "We were using that to keep you cool."

"Ice forms at two hundred and seventy-three point one-five degrees Kelvin," John said.

"Yes, yes it does," Rodney said. He gave a frightened glance to Carson, who was feeling more than a little concerned himself. John was increasingly reminding him of someone with brain damage. Radek and Bill would be devastated if their AI couldn't be saved. Rodney too, it seemed. "It's ah, very good that you know that," Rodney continued worriedly. "That's a good thing to know. But, um, maybe you should go into Sleep Mode? You can conserve energy that way, it'll be easier to recharge. And--and to get repaired."

"Okay," John said softly. Almost instantly he shut his eyes and sagged against Rodney, exactly and uncomfortably as if someone had hit a switch.

Rodney exhaled loudly and gently lowered John back to the floor. "Jesus," he said, once John was settled again. Rodney pressed his palm to his forehead. "That was surreal. But I guess anything's better than writhing in agony." He made a face and wiped his hand on his wet jeans. "He's still hot as an oven."

Carson looked at John. John's respiration was too slow and too shallow for Carson's liking, but John wasn't human, maybe he normally breathed like that. Carson couldn't remember, it had been months since he'd done an MRI on either of the SXs.

"This is a virus?" Carson asked, his mind instantly and automatically jumping to biological viruses, the worst ones that couldn't be cured, before he remembered that yes, computers could have viruses too.

Rodney glared at him. "What was your first clue?" he snarled, "the incendiary temperature or the screaming? Yes, this is a virus." Rodney seemed to deflate suddenly, his anger melting away like the ice on the wooden floor. He rubbed his face again; Carson thought he might be trying to wake himself up. "A virus I designed, as a matter of fact. I suppose there's some kind of poetic irony in that, but I'm too tired to find it."

Carson pressed his lips together, wishing he knew what to say. He looked at John again, but the robot was unmoving except for his unnatural breathing. "Is he dying, then?" Carson asked.

Rodney didn't answer right away, instead looking at John. "I don't know," he said finally. "I think...I think I might have fixed it," Rodney said, though there was no triumph in his voice, only a deep weariness that Carson knew came as much from worry as exhaustion. Rodney dropped his hands to his thighs. "Well, to be more accurate, I think I'm on the way to fixing it. I mean, the program I wrote is. Or it should be. Provided the virus doesn't mutate again." He rubbed an eye with the fingers of one hand and took a deep breath. "Which it probably will. Fucking hell."

"What can I do?" Carson asked.

Rodney blinked up at him, as if suddenly remembering that he'd essentially ordered Carson over to his flat in the first place. "Coffee?"

"Right! Right, of course," Carson said. He smiled, though he guessed it was probably a little wan. "Shall I, ah," he gestured at John and Rodney, still both on the floor. The ice was beginning to make quite a puddle; the wood was most likely ruined. "Should I bring it here?"

"Yes." Rodney nodded with his usual imperiousness, but Carson could still hear the gratitude in his voice. He pointed at his laptop, sitting next to the wall where he'd left it. He seemed reluctant to leave John's side, or stop holding his hand. "I have to monitor this. Make sure it keeps working."

"Very well," Carson said. But he first went to the wall closet and rummaged around until he found a thick, comfortable-feeling sweatshirt. He proffered it to Rodney. "You should put this on before you catch your death," he said. "And get out of the water, for the love of God. Why are you half-naked, anyway? It's bloody freezing!"

Rodney glowered, but he reached for the sweatshirt obediently enough, and Carson didn't miss the tiny sigh of relief when Rodney yanked it over his head. He stood laboriously, his jeans quite wet in places, and walked back to his original spot by the wall. "Because the shirt I was wearing got wet dragging John out of the bathtub," he said as he moved, "and turning the air-conditioning back on seemed the best way to keep John cool."

Carson blinked. "You told me we couldn't submerge him."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "That was before I called you, Carson! The fun's been going on for a while now, in case you hadn't noticed. Now may I please have my coffee? Or would you rather insist on engaging me in more useless conversation until I keel over?"

"Snappy," Carson muttered, but he went to the kitchen all the same. He'd get more answers out of a caffeinated and fed Rodney anyway.

***

Rodney insisted that he hated peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but he made Carson go and make him two more nonetheless. Carson was just glad Rodney had let him eat the one he'd made for himself. Rodney had just taken a huge bite of his fourth, washing it down with a third cup of scalding-hot coffee, and he seemed far brighter and more alert than when Carson had first come in. It was now nearly eight in the morning.

They were both sitting on the floor of Rodney's bedroom, leaning against the wall. Rodney had felt confident enough to set the laptop on the floor next to him, rather than having it directly in his lap, but he was still checking it compulsively every few minutes. Most of the ice had melted by now, leaving John in a sizable pool of sopping towels and ice water. Carson had been obliged to keep bringing washcloths from the bathroom, to keep the USB cord's connection point in John's skull dry, though the seal seemed impermeable enough.

John hadn't said anything else, but he'd opened his eyes at one point and moved his arms and legs as if he were walking, turning his head warily as if scanning phantom surroundings. He hadn't reacted to Carson or Rodney at all. "He's reliving an experience from his memory storage," Rodney had explained. "He doesn't know we're here."

That was bloody creepy, certainly, but at least John hadn't started screaming again. Carson wanted to believe that was a good sign.

"I think we can move him back onto the bed," Carson told Rodney when Rodney had finished the last sandwich and was busy sucking peanut butter off his fingers. Carson nodded at John's body. "I think he's cooled down enough. He's not steaming anymore, at least." He went to John to test it, bending over him instead of kneeling so he could avoid the water. He tentatively put his hand on John's forehead, worried the AI might wake up again, then on his arms and chest, but while John was still overly warm--at least for a human--he was well within acceptable temperatures. "He's definitely cooler," Carson added, nodding.

Rodney nodded wordlessly himself, then climbed tiredly to his feet, though Carson was pleased to see it was stiffness and fatigue, rather than the effects of hypoglycemia. He carefully picked up the laptop, making sure not to tug on the cord connecting it to John, and placed it on the bedside table. Then he and Carson gently lifted a steadily-dripping John and put him on the bed. It was only slightly easier this time, and that was because John's skin didn't burn them. Carson's hands still hurt, and he could only imagine that Rodney's did as well, though the other man was uncharacteristically not complaining about it.

"Damn," Rodney sighed. "My palms are probably going to slough off, and then I'll die of sepsis." He looked morosely at his hands, though they didn't seem any redder than Carson's did, despite Rodney's not having let Carson take care of them. "Hopefully I'll still be able to type despite the heavy scarring I'm doubtless in for."

Carson smiled to himself.

His smile slid away as he watched Rodney with John: how carefully he smoothed the dark hair back, the nakedness of the expression on Rodney's face, the sadness and fear and longing.

"We should put some clothes on him," Rodney said, not moving his eyes from John's face. The robot looked unnervingly like he was sleeping. "It's not--he wouldn't want to be naked like this."

Carson wasn't sure that was true, as it implied a self consciousness that he wasn't certain the AIs had, but since John didn't require human-standard medical care Carson couldn't see the harm in it. Rodney found a pair of sweatpants, and Carson helped him tug them onto John as quickly and gently as possible, feeling not unlike he was dressing a mannequin at a store.

As soon as John was clothed, Rodney went back to studying the laptop screen. Carson sighed silently and bent to collect the towels, grimacing at how wet and heavy they were, and how his shirt and jeans were almost instantly soaked down the front. He unceremoniously dumped the whole lot into Rodney's bathtub, then brought more towels to mop up the lake on the floor, throwing the half-empty plastic ice bags back into the cooler. Rodney all but ignored him, but grunted something that Carson assumed was thanks.

Carson took the empty plates and coffee mugs back to the kitchen, then went back to the bedroom again. Rodney was now kneeling beside the nightstand, hunched over and staring intently at the small computer screen. Rodney winced every so often, but Carson couldn't tell if it was because of what Rodney was seeing, or because of what the floor was doing to his knees. Carson's arse was still half-numb from sitting on the floor; he couldn't imagine Rodney being any more comfortable.

"Rodney," Carson said, using the tone of voice that got even the patients half out of their minds with pain to pay attention to him. Rodney whipped round to face him with gratifying immediacy. "I think it's time you told me why the bloody hell you have Lee and Zelenka's missing SX-7 on your bed."

***

"The worst part," Carson said, "is that I'm really not sure which bit of this is the worst part--that you actually bought a sex-bot, or that you took John into your flat with nary a word of protest!"

"I did protest!" Rodney protested loudly, then glanced guiltily at the bed. But John didn't so much as twitch, so he relaxed a little. "I did protest," he repeated much more quietly. "I called the company and yelled at at least six different people, and wrote a very nasty e-mail and--"

"And somehow never managed to get the blonde, female sex-bot you actually ordered," Carson said with the gentle sarcasm Rodney occasionally admired but mostly loathed. "But rather kept this one." Carson shook his head in apparent wonderment and took another sip from his mug. Rodney was having more coffee, but Carson had switched to tea, the lightweight, though he had at least stopped complaining about the both of them staying in the bedroom so Rodney could be nearer to his laptop and John. He had insisted on moving in the two kitchen chairs, however, so they'd have something to sit on. Rodney had to concede that it was a lot more comfortable than the floor.

"They're not sex-bots!" Rodney snapped, again, despite the fact that it hadn't made a difference the first four-hundred times Carson had already used the term. "They're mechanical companions. And, and I did protest. I told you. And I did check my original purchase." He flicked his chin in John's direction. "And since John matched it completely, I started thinking that maybe there was another R. McKay out there, and they'd mixed up our orders." He shrugged, trying for nonchalance and pretty certain he was failing miserably. "I guess I should have made more of a fuss. It's just...." He took a long slug of coffee. "They were going to make me pay shipping and handling."

Carson arched an eyebrow. "Were they, now? Well," he added, and the sarcasm wasn't all that gentle anymore, "that's certainly a reason to have kept a completely erroneous sex-bot you received under mysterious circumstances."

"They're not--!" Rodney rubbed his forehead with his index finger. When Carson put it that way, it did sound a little...strange. "It's possible I was--that I didn't mind the idea of keeping him," Rodney said quietly, then took another large gulp of his coffee, mostly to give himself something else to do than gauge Carson's reaction.

"I see," Carson said, and Rodney had absolutely no idea what he meant by that. It was maddening, but Carson didn't say anything else, just took a sip of his tea. Rodney hadn't even known he'd had tea in his apartment. John must have bought it, and what did it say about him that a robot was more thoughtful than he was?

But then Carson put the cup down on his thigh and sighed, looking into his mug, and suddenly he was comprehensible again. "I wasn't involved with the project for very long, I'll grant you that," Carson said, "but from what I remember of the SX-7, he was...." Carson looked up at Rodney and smiled, something almost embarrassingly understanding in his expression. "He's a fine man. I can see why you'd be attracted to him."

Rodney scowled and looked away, but that meant looking at John, so he turned back to Carson again. "He's not a man," he spat, though the venom was directed far more at himself than at Carson. He shook his head, feeling hopeless and miserable and (yes) pathetic. That word was probably never going to stop describing him now. "I should have returned him," he said quietly. "I should have sent him back the second I saw him outside my door. I don't...he's not real, Carson," Rodney ground out. He closed his eyes in resignation. "God, MacKenzie's going to be writing fucking books about me, isn't he?" His eyes shot open and he looked at Carson in sudden alarm. "He is, isn't he? Oh God, what if they take me off the project--!"

"Rodney." Carson held up one of his hands to stop Rodney's panicked outburst. "The SGC's psychiatrist is not going to be writing bloody books about you, for God's sake." He frowned, shaking his head. "But what I don't understand, Rodney, is why you bought a PlayFriend in the first place. What on Earth did you think you'd be doing with her? Besides the obvious, I mean," he added hastily, his face going so red it looked like he'd been irradiated.

Rodney felt himself blushing as well, so he quickly looked back down at the much safer remains of his coffee. "It was a spur of the moment thing, okay?" he said defensively. "The Atlantis project had just gotten put on the backburner--again, and then that bitch across the hall wouldn't give my cat back. And, um." Rodney's voice dropped. "And Colonel Carter very gently explained that the Earth would have to be under attack from Anubis again, for her to even consider going out with me." The abject humiliation of that moment...his confident, hopeful grin freezing like rigor mortis on his face as she smiled sweetly at him, had kept him up nights afterwards. It had been like all his most awful memories of high school--no, grade school--all over again. It had been one of the worst moments of his life.

Finding John half-frozen at the bottom of a full bathtub had been another worst moment. And just as humiliating, in retrospect, because of what that meant.

Pathetic, he thought.

"I made the order on a whim," Rodney said softly to his coffee mug. "I kept intending to cancel it, but I just...never did. And then instead of a generic, mildly interesting blonde, I get him." Rodney gestured towards the bed, though it was completely obvious what--who--he meant. "And he was...he's...I couldn't send him back."

"Did you even think it through, Rodney?" Carson asked, his voice kind but tired, like a teacher reprimanding a prize student who had done something unaccountably stupid. "What were you going to do with the PlayFriend if we got recalled to the Ancient outpost? Shove her in a closet until you got back? If you got back?"

"There's a storage locker in the basement of the building," Rodney admitted. "I was going to turn her off!" He added angrily, his gaze snapping up to Carson again when the other man made a strangled noise that probably meant incredulous horror or something equally unfair.

"Ach, Rodney." Carson rubbed his temple. "You're in a right fix, aren't you?" He leaned over to set his mug of tea on the floor. "What I still don't understand, though, is how you didn't know John's a SX-7. Nor what he's doing here in the first place. Do you think he came to you on purpose?"

Rodney took a breath. His mug was empty, and he considered getting more coffee, then just put the mug on the floor as well. He was feeling a little too jittery as it was. "I was never involved with the AI project," he explained. "And it was primarily at Area 51, when I was at the SGC." He smirked a little, remembering. "The last time I'd actually seen any of Zelenka's robots, they looked like toasters with legs. Lee was trying to get them to play soccer--football--and they kept falling over." His smirk was more genuine this time. "Actually, it was pretty funny--"

"Rodney," Carson cut him off. "How did he get here?"

Rodney's face fell. "I have no idea," he said honestly. "Well, that's not true. I have some idea, of course. I mean, he must have intended to come here since he went to all that trouble of pretending to be the PlayFriend I ordered. I just don't know why." He spread his hands helplessly. "Maybe he just wanted the access to the SGC network," Rodney added with a certain amount of bitterness. "He hacked into it fast enough."

"I'll guess you'll have to ask him when he's well," Carson said. He pursed his lips. "You do realize you're going to have to tell the SGC that you ended up with their missing AI."

Oh, God. He hadn't thought of that. "I can't!" Rodney blurted, making Carson blink at him in surprise. "They're going to kill him!"

"What?" Carson was gaping. He looked over at John, as if the AI's quietude could somehow reveal what fate was in store for him. "What the bloody hell are you talking about? Who told you that?"

"He did!" Rodney exclaimed, gesturing violently at John. "They were going to dismantle him. It's why he ran away! He was talking, one of the random memory things like you saw." He began snapping his fingers rapidly as he remembered. "Talking to another one. Eight. He kept calling him 'Eight'. They were outside somewhere, waiting to get a pick up to go back to some base or something. And they'd overheard some G.I.-whatevers saying they were both going to be dismantled."

Carson looked absolutely stunned. "That makes no sense," he said. His eyes were wide and appalled when he looked at Rodney. "I can't--why would they do that? I thought...Bill said things were going well. Perfectly, even. That doesn't...." He shook his head and put his hand over his mouth, obviously in deep, shocked thought. "I can't believe it," he said a long moment later. "I can't believe that they'd toss them like so much rubbish. I mean, we'd already...Ach," Carson said. He looked over at John, his eyes going liquid, and Rodney was uncomfortably certain that the man was trying not to cry. "And you're sure, then? You're sure that's what was said?"

"I'm sure, Carson," Rodney said, trying to make his voice gentle. He felt suddenly unbelievably tired. He ran a hand over an eye, dragging it down his face. He had to go check the laptop, though John didn't look like anything had changed. "Carson," he sighed, "yes, it's a tragedy, and I'm sure Zelenka and Lee were very disappointed. But John's a robot. It doesn't--it doesn't matter what happens to him. He doesn't care what happens to him. He can't.

Carson's head snapped back to look at him. "How can you possibly say that?" He gestured almost violently at John, though he kept his voice low, probably out of deference to what he considered a patient. "Did you not see the fear on his face, not two hours ago when he didn't know where he was? You yourself just told me he fled because he didn't want to be taken apart! If that's not 'caring about what happens', then I have no idea what is!"

"I don't know," Rodney snarled, "self-preservation protocols, maybe?" He pointed at the silent form of John on the bed. "He's not real, Carson! He's a robot! A really, really cool robot, but just a robot! Just because we've both been beguiled by, by the coolness, doesn't make him a person. It makes him...it makes him really well-made. But it doesn't mean anything! See?" he snapped accusingly, as if his own stupidity had somehow become Carson's fault, "That's why I should have returned him to Play--"

Rodney stopped, mouth open over the half-formed word.

"Rodney?" Carson asked, looking puzzled, and then a little anxious. "Rodney? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Rodney said distantly. He swallowed, feeling a little like he'd just been electrocuted, reeling under the sudden absoluteness of the revelation. "John's not a PlayFriend, is he?" he asked rhetorically. "He was hiding as a PlayFriend, so the SGC wouldn't find him. Because he didn't want to die."

Carson nodded slowly, looking even less like he thought Rodney was all right. "You've been up for over twenty-four hours, Rodney, maybe you should lie down."

Rodney raised a hand. "No, no, I'm okay, really," he said. "It's just--I was so used to thinking he was a PlayFriend. But he's not, is he? He's not."

He'd asked Zelenka if the PlayFriends could have the same kind of self-awareness, the same kind of emotions as the AIs Zelenka and Lee were working on. Because he'd wanted so much for John to be like Lee and Zelenka's AIs. Because he wanted John to be real.

But John was one of their AIs. John had been real all along.

Rodney realized his heart was hammering. He had no idea if it was with joy or terror. Maybe both. Probably both.

"You were still thinking he was a sex-bot?" Carson asked him incredulously.

"No." Rodney shook his head. He was still reeling. "I just.... This changes everything, doesn't it?" He looked at Carson, as if for confirmation. "I mean--this changes everything."

Carson's eyes widened. "Don't tell me you were going to let the SGC have him?"

"What?" Rodney blinked. "No! No, I would never, not even...but...Oh my God," he said, sitting straight in his chair. "God, we can't let them know he's here!" He looked at Carson. "What do we do?"

Carson shook his head, looking bewildered. "I've no earthly idea." Then he must have seen something on Rodney's face, because he added, "then again, I'm knackered, and you're worse off, I suspect. John's not going anywhere--I think we should both kip for a few hours. I'm sure we'll be able to figure something out when we're not both so tired we can't see straight."

Rodney shook his head. "I can't," he said, though God, yes, he wanted to sleep. "I have to make sure the anti-virus is still working, that it hasn't mutated again." And he really, really needed to do that right now, as a matter of fact. He pulled himself wearily to his feet, and went over to the nightstand. He squinted at the computer screen, until he was satisfied that yes, the program was still running properly, still slowly cleaning the virus out of John's cerebral processor. If they were really, really lucky, John would be okay.

"Fine." Carson sighed behind him. "How about I get some sleep, then? I'll be on the couch."

Rodney nodded absently, still looking at the screen.

"Rodney," Carson said suddenly, and Rodney looked over his shoulder at him. Carson was standing in the bedroom door, his eyes on John. "There's something I don't understand. If you weren't thinking John was real, why go to all this trouble for him?"

Rodney opened his mouth, then shut it again. "I don't know," he said at last, though that was a lie ( I might as well be in love with a desk chair, he'd said, even when he hadn't know what John was, even when he hadn't wanted to feel anything for him. Love. Even then. Even then.) "I just...I couldn't...he was in so much pain."

"That's what I thought," Carson said enigmatically. Then he smiled and walked out of the room.

***

Sleep Mode stopped and the SX-7's eyes snapped open, alerted to an unanticipated stimulus.

It was in a bed, but not the bed in the quarters it shared with the SX-8, which indicated that this room was possibly located elsewhere. There was a small framed photograph of a mammalian quadruped (feline, its Memory Storage supplied, albeit sluggishly. Common name = 'Cat') on the table next to the bed, as well as a light source, which was not activated. By the quality of the daylight the SX-7 was able to determine that it was late afternoon. Its internal clock had gone off-line, but it could nonetheless estimate that it was approximately sixteen thirty hours.

There was a large, plastic box on the floor near the door, and two wooden chairs next to the wall, of a design that seemed incongruous with the rest of the room, but the SX-7 couldn't compute why that would be so. Two drinking vessels, possibly ceramic, were on the floor next to the chairs. The floor was also wood, and showed signs of recently being wet.

This was tangential information, and had a ninety-eight percent probability of having nothing to do with the unanticipated stimulus. The SX-7 sat up, only to discover that its Internal Gyroscope was malfunctioning and its Servomotors were operating at only fifty-three percent capacity. Defending itself, or even moving normally, would be difficult.

It turned its head to the right, and was looking at a being. A rudimentary scan revealed that the being was:

A. Human
B. Male
C. Unarmed
D. Smiling

Though there was a small portable computer next to the Human on the bed that instantly triggered a Self-Protection Protocol in the SX-7s Cerebral Processor. It vocalized a warning and attempted to put as much distance between itself and the small computer as possible, but with its limited functioning it merely succeeded in hitting the lamp and the photograph with sufficient force to push them both off the table and onto the floor. The lamp experienced catastrophic failure due to impact; the photograph did not. The SX-7 itself also fell onto the floor. The area encompassing its trapezius and rhomboideus major muscles of its back landed on the lamp, causing severe negative stimulus (pain), and it could not prevent the noise indicating its distress.

"Oh my God! John!"

The HumanMale had gotten off the bed and was now kneeling on the floor next to it, and he put his hands on the SX-7's arm and behind its neck, enabling it to sit up. He never ceased his vocalizations: "Are you all right? What happened? Did you have a nightmare? Can you have nightmares? Oh my God, there're holes in your back! Does it hurt? No, I mean, yes, of course it hurts! It has to hurt, I heard you yelling. Can you sit up on your own? I need to get pliers. I'll be right back, okay? Okay? Do you understand me? John? John?" The Human used his fingers to make clicking sounds in front of the SX-7's face, but it was too occupied with trying to assimilate his steady stream of words to show an adequate reaction. "Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. This can't be happening." The Human placed his hands gently on either side of the SX-7's face. "John? Please, John, say something! Do you recognize me? Do you know where you are?"

"What happened?" The voice belonged to another Human, a second male, who was standing in the doorway of the sleeping chamber. He looked at the SX-7 on the floor, then at the other Human. "What happened to him? Is he hurt?"

"Of course he's hurt!" The first Human said, using excessive decibels. "He fell on the God-damned lamp and cut himself! He's oozing white stuff. Help me!"

The eyes of the second Human widened. "With what? I don't know how to fix robots!"

The first Human made a noise that the SX-7 processed meant dissatisfaction. "Do you know where my toolbox is?" The other nodded. "Good. I need needle-nosed pliers. And duct tape."

The second Human nodded and left rapidly.

"Okay," the first Human said, turning his attention back to the SX-7. "Do you know where you are?"

"No," the SX-7 said, which was both succinct and sufficient to convey its inability to find a reference for this dwelling. It processed whether it should attempt to flee, but a quick internal diagnostic revealed that it was nearly incapacitated. In any case, it was seventy-six percent certain that the Human male did not mean to harm it, despite his previous proximity to the computer.

"Oh no," the Human said. After a Memory search of several hundred milliseconds, the SX-7 determined that his facial expression indicated distress. "Do you--do you know who you are?"

"I am a Human-emulate Artificial Intelligence," it supplied, satisfied with the immediacy with which it was able to answer the query. "Unit number SX-7, designation, 'Shep'." It turned its head to better scan the room. "Is this your dwelling?" it asked the Human. "Why are you referring to me as 'John'? Who are you? Who is the other Human? Where is Unit number SX-8?"

The Human closed his eyes for ten point six seconds. "All right," he said when he opened them again, looking directly at SX-7. He moved one hand from the SX-7's face onto its shoulder, near to its neck. The pressure and heat from his hands was acceptable. "You contracted a computer virus yesterday--approximately twenty-eight hours ago. I thought, I thought I had been able to prevent it from doing too much damage to your Memory Storage and Cerebral Processor, but it looks like I was wrong." He took a breath. "I'm so sorry." The Human swallowed, then lifted his head. "Okay. This is my apartment. You came here on your own eight days ago, because you were running away from a place called Area 51. That's in Nevada. You're in Colorado now. You're safe here, no one is going to hurt you. I've been calling you 'John' because that's your name. I gave it to you. You understand?"

"Yes," the SX-7 said. "I ran away from Nevada. I am in Colorado. I am safe here. I contracted a computer virus. My name is John."

"Good," the Human said. He nodded, but his voice and expression still indicated distress. "The other man you saw is Carson Beckett. He's a friend of mine. A friend of ours. He was helping me when you were sick with the virus. My name is Rodney McKay."

"Rodney," it repeated. "RodneyMcKay. DoctorRodneyMcKay."

DoctorRodneyMcKay. John. DoctorRodneyMcKay named me John.

There was a sudden, jarring shift inside the SX-7's Cerebral Processor, and then it was being flooded with data faster than it could adequately assimilate and

RESET PROTOCOL ESTABLISHED

John was lying against DoctorRodneyMcKay, with his head on his chest. His back hurt and he was still functioning at less than half his acceptable capacity, and his body was shaking uncontrollably as the Reset finalized.

"John! John!" DoctorRodneyMcKay was shouting in his right ear, which was also painful. John lifted a hand weakly and put it over DoctorRodneyMcKay's mouth.

"Shh," John said, because he was shaking too hard to make his mouth form coherent words. DoctorRodneyMcKay stopped speaking instantly, and John let his hand slip from his lips to fall heavily against his side.

"John?" DoctorRodneyMcKay said again, only this time within a far more reasonable vocal range. "John, what happened? Are you all right?"

"Yeah." John forced the word out with difficulty, since he was still shaking, though it had at least lessened. "Reset."

"Reset?" DoctorRodneyMcKay sounded surprised. "You have a reset function? Wait." He gently shifted John so that he could look at John's face. "Do you remember anything? Do you know who you are?"

"Yeah," John said again. He smiled. "You fixed me. Thank you."

DoctorRodneyMcKay blinked, then he blinked again. "Oh, thank God," he said, then pulled John closer against his body, one of his hands on John's back below the damage, and the other on the back of John's head. DoctorRodneyMcKay began trembling himself, and he pressed the side of his face against John's. "Thank God," he repeated. "Thank God, thank God. I thought--I thought you were gone."

This position was not optimal for the damage in John's back, but he didn't try to move. Instead he generated sufficient effort to lift his arms to circle them around DoctorRodneyMcKay in return, and held on as tightly as he was currently able.

***

"Ach, you've done a right number on your back, lad," DoctorCarsonBeckett said. "At least there's not as much glass imbedded in your skin as I'd feared."

John twitched as DoctorCarsonBeckett pulled another piece of glass out of his back. DoctorRodneyMcKay was kneeling beside him as well, and John could feel the bed dip when he leaned over to clean the wound and put duct tape on it. It hurt a great deal, but John just clenched his jaw and pressed the side of his face into his crossed arms.

"His skin should be knitting on its own," DoctorCarsonBeckett said quietly to DoctorRodneyMcKay. "The SX AIs have been injured before, I've done the MRIs, but they always mended in minutes. Adapted nanotechnology, if I recall correctly." John could hear the concern in his voice. "I don't know why it's not working."

"I do," DoctorRodneyMcKay said, and he sounded even more concerned than DoctorCarsonBeckett. "John," he said, and put his hand on John's back, just under his neck, well above any of the wounds. "Can you run another diagnostic?"

"Okay," John said. The first three hadn't indicated any problems, but he dutifully ran a fourth anyway. This one took five point eleven minutes, which at least gave DoctorCarsonBeckett enough time to finish taking the glass out of his back. But it was one point forty three minutes longer than the previous diagnostic, which had already been point fifty five minutes longer than normal. "I still can't find anything," he said, when it was finished.

"Damn," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. He sighed, rubbing gently back and forth along John's back. "There's obviously a problem with the diagnostics as well." John could see DoctorRodneyMcKay wipe his palm over his face. He looked tired and unhappy. "You've been plugged in since before five this morning. Have your power levels improved at all since you woke up?"

He meant since John had emerged from Sleep Mode, just before his Cerebral Processor automatically engaged the Reset Protocol. "No," John said immediately. "I'm barely sustaining forty seven percent of safest operating protocols." If his battery fell below twenty percent his body would immediately switch to reserve power, but if that was depleted he'd have no way of sustaining even his most basic functions. He would die.

"I'm not doing so good, am I?" John asked. He tried to make it sound like a joke, but he could tell it hadn't worked by the expression on DoctorRodneyMcKay's face.

"All right," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. He took a breath. "I think--I think the virus has mutated. I'm going to need to access your base code again, and go through it line by line until I've found the corrupt code and repaired it." He closed his eyes for four point two seconds, then nodded to himself. He gave John's back a quick but gentle pat, then moved from the bed onto the floor. "I'm going to have to cable you up again. Hang on...."

"Wait," DoctorCarsonBeckett said, and DoctorRodneyMcKay paused as he was putting his laptop back on the bed, looking at the other man. "Maybe we should...Maybe we should call Radek? Or Bill?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay blinked, then snapped, "Are you insane? loudly enough that DoctorCarsonBeckett winced. "Were you somehow mentally absent for the 'he ran away from the nice people at Area 51 because they were going to dismantle him' part of the conversation? Because I seem to recall you adamantly agreeing with me at the time that under no circumstances should we let them know he's here!"

Despite his lack of energy and the slow, but inexorable system failures overtaking him, John grinned. And he knew the steady surge of warmth he felt had nothing to do with his internal systems at all.

"I know!" DoctorCarsonBeckett said, forcefully but more quietly than DoctorRodneyMcKay. "But he needs help, Rodney! Certainly far more help than I can provide, and probably more help than you can, either--and I don't care how bloody brilliant you are!" he added, raising a hand to forestall DoctorRodneyMcKay from speaking, even though the other man had opened his mouth. "Maybe you can go through his program or whatever and set him to rights again. And I realize I'm no expert on robots by any means, but won't that take days? Does he even have that long?"

"So you just want to hand him over to them?" DoctorRodneyMcKay was still speaking at decibels far in excess of normal range. "They're going to junk him, Carson! Why the hell would they bother to fix him first?"

"I don't know!" And now DoctorCarsonBeckett was shouting as well. "But maybe--maybe we can talk them out of it! Radek's our friend, and I know he's not an unreasonable man. Maybe he's been under pressure from the IOA--"

"DoctorWilliamLee really liked us," John said.

"What, you're agreeing with him, now?" DoctorRodneyMcKay sounded horrified. "You must be more damaged than I thought. The SGC is--it's the lion's den! God, they have Zat guns over there! They wouldn't even have to take you apart, just...." He stopped speaking. His hand moved to John's arm and gripped it, as if that alone would keep John from going back to the SGC.

"Look," he said quickly. "Just--just give me a few hours, all right? Twenty-four hours. If, if I haven't fixed you by Monday morning, we'll...we can consider it. All right? Maybe I can talk them out of...out of doing anything."

"I need to find out what happened to Eight," John said, because it was still his primary objective; that was never going to change, not until he found him. "I have to rescue him."

"Why do you keep--"

DoctorCarsonBeckett cut off DoctorRodneyMcKay. "All that will be much easier when you're feeling more yourself, lad. Right now worrying about it will just expend more energy you can't afford to lose. Maybe you should kip out for a bit, while Rodney starts his work?"

"Okay," John said. He knew that DoctorCarsonBeckett was referring to him going into actual Sleep Mode again, instead of Standby Mode, which allowed him to be more aware of his surroundings but required more energy. He suspected he'd been slipping in and out of Sleep Mode involuntarily for several hours at this point, but he had no clear memory of that. But previously to contracting the virus, he had only used Standby Mode since he'd run from Area 51, because Sleep Mode would have left him too vulnerable.

After staying with DoctorRodneyMcKay, he would have been willing to allow himself Sleep Mode again, but then DoctorRodneyMcKay had informed him that he was going to return him to PlayFrienddotCom, and Sleep versus Standby mode had become irrelevant.

Now, though, much as he might not wish to lose more time, he knew it was the most logical decision. He had to conserve as much battery power as possible, until DoctorRodneyMcKay was able to effect his repairs.

And he trusted him. DoctorRodneyMcKay had promised he wouldn't make John go anywhere he didn't want to go. And he knew who John really was now, and he still wouldn't betray him.

He could sleep, here. He could close his eyes and let himself sleep, and it would be all right.

So John closed his eyes. But as he felt the USB cord slip into its socket behind his left ear, he purposely kept himself from processing what DoctorRodneyMcKay had been about to say when DoctorCarsonBeckett had interrupted him: Why do you keep insisting that Eight is still functional? Because the idea that Eight wasn't functional, that he no longer existed, was something John couldn't assimilate. He couldn't assimilate it at all.

***

He dreamed.

He dreamed that he and Eight were at the SGC, even though they had never been there. He recognized it, however, because DoctorWilliamLee had spent most of his career there, before moving to Area 51 to take on the AI project, and he had many pictures and video of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, and especially of the Stargate wormhole engaging. It had been a lot more fun to watch than Teletubbies when he and Eight had been four months old.

In the dream, John and Eight were in the control room, watching as the gate was dialed so SG-1 could go off world. John was excited and happy, and he grinned at Eight, who grinned at him in return before looking back at the slowly turning gate, as the technician called out the chevron number as each was encoded.

Chevron six had been encoded, and the gate was spinning towards chevron seven, when Eight suddenly turned to John and said, "Watch this--this'll be really cool."

And then Eight had winked, then turned and ran down the stairs leading to the gate room, and right towards the water-like flare of the wormhole as it engaged.

"NO!" John screamed, and tried to run after Eight, but he had suddenly become the small quadruped he'd been for a little over a year, and he didn't have enough coordination to go fast enough to catch him. He couldn't even navigate the stairs.

He tried, but in the warped reality of dreams, he was suddenly in the gate room, knowing he was the near-helpless quadruped but still somehow aware of everything with the same capabilities as his adult form, and he watched the rush of energy burst out and consume Eight whole....

In the dream DoctorRodneyMcKay was suddenly in the gate room with him, looking anxious and very sad, and then John recognized that he was on the bed in DoctorRodneyMcKay's bedroom, and the human was shaking him. John's Memory Storage supplied that he had been in Sleep Mode, and that he was slowly succumbing to a computer virus, which DoctorRodneyMcKay was attempting to prevent.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. "But you were screaming."

"Thank you," John said, and smiled for him. "It was a bad dream." He attempted to access his internal clock, but it was no longer functioning. "How long was I in Sleep Mode?"

"About three hours," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. "Not very long, I'm sorry."

"It's all right," John said. "It was a really bad dream." He was still lying on his stomach, and he tried to lift himself into a sitting position, but he didn't have sufficient strength. DoctorRodneyMcKay noticed his difficulty and reached for him immediately. It was awkward, with John's prone position and the laptop in the way, but Rodney was able to finally help John sit up so he was leaning against him.

"Thank you," John said, He had his head in the space between DoctorRodneyMcKay's neck and shoulder, his arms hanging loose on his legs, the USB cord dangling between DoctorRodneyMcKay and himself. "Where's DoctorCarsonBeckett?"

"Out getting lunch, I think," DoctorRodneyMcKay said. "Or dinner, something." He had gone back to typing, and was no longer taking his eyes away from his laptop screen. He reached up almost absently and rubbed the zygomatic bone of his right eye. "How are you doing?"

DoctorRodneyMcKay was completely silent while John checked. He didn't close his eyes, because it was a legitimate concern that he wouldn't be able to open them again. "It appears as if I am tapping into Reserve Power," he said honestly, "but with the way the virus has damaged my diagnostic systems, it's difficult to tell for certain." He smiled. "I'm tired."

"Yeah," DoctorRodneyMcKay said, clear distress in his voice. "I'm sure you must be." He rubbed his temple, then squinted, as if trying to clear his eyes. "I wish Carson would get the hell back."

"You have a headache," John said.

DoctorRodneyMcKay nodded quickly. "I'm working on a migraine, as a matter of fact." He raised his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I've gone longer with worse."

John wriggled as best he could to change his position. Not that he was uncomfortable, but it was an attempt to have more of his artificial skin against DoctorRodneyMcKay's torso. DoctorRodneyMcKay obligingly repositioned himself to help.

"I would rub your back if I could," John said.

DoctorRodneyMcKay sighed. "Don't tease me," he said. He turned his head and delivered a kiss to John's crown. John had anticipated he would go instantly back to his work attempting to halt the progress of the virus, but instead he kept his face pressed to John's hair, as if trying to inhale the sent of it, or John's skin.

"DoctorRodneyMcKay?" John asked, uncertain as to the meaning of this new behavior. "Are you all right?"

"Don't die, okay?" DoctorRodneyMcKay said. He moved his hands so that they were encircling John's torso, and he pulled John tightly against him. He kissed John's head again. "Please. You just--you have to hang on. Please just hang on."

John took several seconds to process that, though the exact number was currently unquantifiable. With difficulty, John reached up and circled his arm around the back of DoctorRodneyMcKay's neck. "I will," he said, because as far as he could process it, that was the only response DoctorRodneyMcKay would accept. "I will. I promise."

He was aware that this was a promise he was going to break, and he suspected DoctorRodneyMcKay knew it too, despite how very much John wanted to stay functional--alive. And he wanted it fiercely, desperately. Not just for Eight, not even for DoctorRodneyMcKay, but for himself.

"Thank you," DoctorRodneyMcKay whispered. He stayed in that position for approximately one-hundred and ten more seconds, then gently disengaged John's arm, and moved so he was able to work. Eventually John asked for his help to lie down again.

He didn't go back into Sleep Mode this time, because he wanted to stay aware, to watch DoctorRodneyMcKay work. It was pleasant. Acceptable, despite the catastrophic power loss he was experiencing. John was happy.

"I love you," John said.

DoctorRodneyMcKay's hands went completely still, then he closed his eyes. He looked so sad that John thought that he had stated something unacceptable.

Then DoctorRodneyMcKay moved his hand to John's and placed it over his palm, linking their fingers.

"Me too," he said. Then he abruptly took a deep breath and pulled his hand away. He began typing again. "Go to sleep," he said.

"Okay," John said. But he didn't, so he could watch.

It reminded him of being much younger, back at Area 51, when he and Eight would be lying on their cots in DoctorWilliamLee and DoctorRadekZelenka's laboratory, resting while the two scientists worked. Eight was always more obedient and would go into Sleep Mode immediately, but John liked to stay in Standby Mode, so he could observe what was going on. It was impossible for the scientists not to notice eventually, however, since the two AIs were always closely monitored while they recharged.

DoctorRadekZelenka was going to admonish him again, but that fell within acceptable parameters. It had already computed the likelihood (ninety percent) that DoctorWilliamLee would sing to it, afterwards, or play music on his computer.

The singing was the most acceptable, and the SX-7 smiled when DoctorWilliamLee fulfilled its expectations and began to sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star....

***

John was humming Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star with a small, dreamy smile on his face, which would have been endlessly endearing if it hadn't been so disconcertingly like HAL 9000 singing Daisy, Daisy while Dave Bowman was ripping its memory out.

It hadn't even been ten minutes since he'd lain down again, after the impromptu hugging session, and now Rodney was terrified that if he hadn't taken that time this wouldn't be happening. It was horribly like John was slipping away from him, no matter what he did. Sand thorough his desperately clutching fingers.

John had told Rodney he loved him. And Rodney was having to watch him die.

"I used to like that song," Rodney said tensely, because it was better than thinking of anything else. "And then one day I found out what stars are, and then it was just annoying that the narrator kept wondering and never looked it up." He was barely paying attention to what he was saying, just trying to keep himself focused; keep John focused, grounded in the here and now and not drifting deeper into random pieces of his memory as the virus systematically destroyed him.

"The song falls within acceptable parameters for auditory stimulus," John said, and Rodney tried to ignore the childlike quality of his voice, the bizarre incongruity with the stiffly formal vocabulary. "DoctorWilliamLee sings it to us periodically, before we go into Sleep Mode. On Wednesday we will be able to go external to the Base at nightfall and observe actual stars."

"That's, ah, that's really nice. I think you'll like that." Rodney said. John sounded so thrilled about it that it felt like Rodney's heart was going to break. He could have taken John to the God-damned UCCS Observatory. He would have, if he'd thought John would've enjoyed it.

Rodney wished he knew when this 'Wednesday' had been. He hoped it had been a beautiful, clear night. He hoped John had been happy.

"Do you find stars acceptable, DoctorRodneyMcKay?" John asked, and Rodney wondered what he was seeing with his closed eyes.

"Yes," Rodney said. He wanted to say something more about that, say anything--he'd chosen astrophysics as his fucking career, after all--but his usually nimble mind couldn't navigate further than the computer screen, couldn't concentrate on much of anything beyond the next line of code, the next piece of John's history, personality, his soul that was being relentlessly devoured. "I like stars a lot," he finally managed, and felt nothing but guilt when John's sweet smile widened, like a gauntleted fist around Rodney's struggling heart.

"Stay with me, John," Rodney ground out uselessly. He found another corrupt line of code, repaired it, only to have his newly-patched antiviral program shrill a warning that the virus had started claiming a new sector of John's Cerebral Processor.

"Fuck," Rodney hissed. "Fucking hell."

Rodney couldn't keep up. The virus was mutating too quickly. It was an AI as well, albeit a much more limited one than the SX units, or even the robots of PlayFrienddotCom. But it could adapt to threats, and that was all it had to do.

"He's not fighting it off, is he?" Carson said. Rodney had no idea how long he'd been hovering there, face like a kicked dog and his arms crossed tightly over his chest, as if he was the one on the crumbling precipice of losing everything.

John had started crooning a wordless but technically-perfect version of Sweet Home Alabama. It seemed that Doctor Lee liked Classic Rock as well as inaccurate lullabies. Rodney wished to God he could find that funny.

"He doesn't have an immune system, Carson," Rodney bit out, which wasn't true in the strictest sense, since John had an entire panoply of available virus-eliminating programs--Just none that could deal with this one. But Carson's reducing everything to biology was incredibly annoying, and right now Rodney clutched at that. Anger was such an excellent succor for grief or fear. "And unless you've got coffee or another sandwich, or preferably both, I really, really don't have time for your inane observations."

Rodney was sitting cross-legged on the bed, hunched over the laptop screen, which had been on so long that it felt like it was burning a hole into his lap, and had probably already eliminated any possibility of his having children. His back was a continual low-level siren of pain, and it felt like someone was steadily stabbing hot knives into his eyes. He hadn't done more than glance away from the computer screen in longer than he really cared to think about.

"I think we need to get him help, Rodney," Carson said.

It felt a little like Rodney's chest caved in. He eliminated the viral corruption in several more lines of code before he said anything, mostly so he wouldn't scream. "Your faith in me is absolutely heartwarming," he snarled. "Let me think about that--fix John here or break my promise and send him back to the SGC to die. It's a close decision, but hmm...No."

"It has nothing to do with breaking a promise, Rodney!" Carson snapped at him. "You've been at this since the wee hours of the morning and you're not making any headway, are you?" He uncrossed his arms so he could gesture at John, who had quieted again for the moment. Rodney was fairly certain John couldn't even hear them any more. "What if you're wrong, and they'll help him? Are you really willing to risk losing him when you might not have to?"

"Tell me," Rodney snapped, "does that 'you might not have to' thing actually work for you when you're doing your voodoo medicine crap? Because,"--he surprised himself by barking out a sickly little laugh--"because as far as I'm concerned that's like saying the sun might not turn into a black dwarf star in a few billion years. Technically true, but don't be surprised if no one bets on it."

"Rodney," Carson said with awful, awful gentleness, "I don't think you have anything to lose anymore."

"I have everything to lose!" Rodney exploded, and--God help him--he might have thrown his computer across the room, if he hadn't needed it so badly; he was angry enough to do that. "He came here because he was certain they were going to kill him, Carson," he said, shoving each word out between his teeth. "I'm not going to send him back to them. I can fix this. I just need more time!"

Carson sighed. "Rodney..."

"No!" Rodney barked at him. "Damn it--if you can't do anything useful, then at least leave me the hell alone so I can concentrate!"

Carson stared at him levelly for a long moment. "I brought some food," he said at last. "I'll heat it for you."

"Thank you," Rodney said as Carson left. He exhaled and rubbed his forehead. He glanced at John, then moved his hand so that he could briefly rub John's arm. "I'm going to fix you, okay? Just hang on for a few more hours. I know you can do that. Then you'll be fine."

Part of him knew he was lying, that Carson was right.

But admitting that meant John was already dead.

John's eyes fluttered open. He turned his head to look at Rodney. "Do you know where Eight is?" he asked. His expression reminded Rodney of a lost child. "He should be here, but I can't find him."

Rodney swallowed. "He's fine, John. He's just fine. He'll be here soon."

"Okay," John said. He was still looking at Rodney. "Is John my name?"

Rodney hoped he managed not to show what he was feeling on his face. "Yes," he said. "I--"

John's eyes widened, and Rodney had just enough time to think here it comes, when John cried out and clamped his nearer hand around Rodney's forearm. His entire body clenched, and John whined through his locked jaw, eyes staring and wild.

"John! John, let go, you're breaking--Carson! Carson!" Rodney tried to pry John's clenched and tightening fingers from around his forearm, but it was impossible. He could see the veins straining blue against the flesh of his wrist and hand, and his fingers went numb. There was a sound like ice cracking. The pain was unbelievable. "John!"

John's body started to tremble, then to shake violently. His hand spasmed and let go, flying upwards. Then a fist that was titanium steel wrapped in plastic smashed directly into Rodney's temple, and the world was gone even before he tipped over sideways and crashed onto the floor.

***

Things were blurry and indistinct after that. He remembered riding in the back of what was probably an ambulance, trying very hard to convince the SGC medic that they had to go back because he had left an incredibly important job unfinished. A matter of life and death, and the medic would pay dearly if they didn't turn the ambulance around right fucking now. The young man ignored him, no matter what Rodney said, or how much he threatened, and he was buckled in so tightly and at so many points that he couldn't get up. His head and arm were hurting so much it might have been difficult to move, anyway.

He faded for a bit then, until he remembered Carson shining a flashlight very painfully into his eyes. He'd tried to get him to stop, but Carson ignored him, too. Instead he kept talking to people who flitted in and out of Rodney's peripheral vision, or asked Rodney questions he couldn't understand. And he wouldn't tell Rodney where John was, or if he was all right.

It wasn't until much, much later, in a hospital where the light was coming through windows, rather being artificially generated, and somehow it was Sunday and afternoon, though he had no recollection of it ever being morning, that Rodney was cogent enough to begin to grasp where he was and what had happened to him. What had happened to John.

"I had no choice, Rodney," Carson said. His eyes were liquid blue and shadowed, and he was so sad and Rodney hated him the way he had hated no one in his entire life. "You were badly concussed. I had to get you to hospital," he said. "I'm sorry."

"Get out of here," Rodney had said, voice flat, and Carson had looked stricken and miserable and he had left. And Rodney had stared up at the ceiling and tried not to think of anything at all.

***

"Rodney," Carson said gently. He was standing near Rodney's head, holding four file-folders, clutched against his chest as if they could offer him protection. He was wearing his SGC lab coat, though they were in the off-site hospital. Rodney idly wondered if Carson was on break or was skipping work for the privilege of being ignored by him. "Come on, Rodney, say something to me at least--you've barely broke breath since Sunday." There was a feeble attempt at a chuckle. "If you're not careful, I'm going to tell the ward nurse that you're exhibiting signs of Aphasia."

Rodney kept his eyes on the ceiling. He was faintly curious as to what was in the folders. "What part of 'get out of here' did you fail to understand?"

"I understand that you didn't actually mean it, Rodney," Carson said. He gave a deep, gusty sigh. "Look. I can only imagine what you're going through right now," he said. "I know, I know how much he meant to you."

Rodney did look at him, then. "You can imagine what I'm going through," he repeated dully. "Does that mean you can imagine how it feels to know that your,"--he smirked, mirthlessly--"best friend has killed your lover? You have a lot of experience imagining things like that?"

Carson closed his eyes briefly, as if his head hurt. Maybe it did; Rodney didn't care. He felt a little like an over-full bucket: one good jostle and everything would spill out, all the horror and grief and anguish and rage. Today was Monday. It was four p.m. Barely more than a full day ago John had been there, had been alive, and now he wasn't. Rodney was never going to see him again. He wondered what they'd done with his body, then stopped abruptly when he realized he couldn't bear to think about it.

"I don't deserve that," Carson said tightly, "and you know it." He took a breath. "Rodney, I know you don't want to believe this, but John was gone. I realize I'm a medical doctor, not an engineer, but I know what it looks and feels like when there's no vital signs--of any sort." His mouth compressed into a thin, sad line. "The poor lad seized for nearly an hour, Rodney, after the medics took you. He'd dislocated nearly every joint in his body, from the thrashing. If he'd been human he would have broken his neck. Bill came to your apartment, but there was nothing he could do. The virus had done too much damage."

"So John died in terrible pain," Rodney said. He didn't ask why Lee had bothered to try to help. Lee was sentimental that way, and John had said Lee liked him. Of course, John was very easy to like.

Had been.

Carson gave a single, tiny nod. "He knew--he was aware of us. He knew there were people with him. People who cared about him."

"But not me," Rodney said. Rodney, who had failed him. Who had been too stupid to duck John's flailing arm and had left him to die. He rubbed his good hand over his eyes. They were wet, but Rodney ruthlessly kept the tears back. "I want to see Lee," he said. "Or the Czech."

"Rodney..."

Rodney glared. "I want to see Lee or the Czech scientist. Now."

Carson looked at him a moment, then nodded. "Very well," he said. "Radek's still in Nevada, of course. I'm sure he's been...that he's been informed by now, though. Bill said he would do that. He might even be on his way to Colorado."

Rodney nodded. "Just make sure he comes here."

"I'll do that," Carson said. He looked at the folders in his arms. "I brought some files," he said, sounding oddly apologetic, as if assuming Rodney might want to look at file folders was a terrible transgression. "They're about the AI project. SX-7 and Eight. I thought...I was thinking that they might offer some closure, if you knew who the AIs were."

He held out the folders. They were cheery red and blue, two of each color, which Rodney thought might be Lee's doing, since Zelenka tended to use colors at random. Rodney took them automatically. He was still staring at them numbly when he heard Carson walk away. And then for a while after that.

The first blue file said: ATA Acquisition Subject 1 - Captain James Shepherd

And the second one: Human-emulate Artificial Intelligence - SX-7 - 'Shep'

The red file folders had these labels:

ATA Acquisition Subject 2 - Captain Mitchell Cambron
Human-emulate Artificial Intelligence - SX-8 - 'Mitch'

***

Rodney read through all four files folders, twice, just to make sure he didn't miss anything, then carefully gathered them up and put them gently on his tray table, except for the photograph of James Shepherd. He held that as gently as possible with only one working hand, and looked at it for a very long time.

He'd never seen Mitch, of course, but John looked a little different from his photograph, though that could have been due to the age of the picture, or the simple fact that Rodney had never seen John in a uniform.

He hadn't immediately recognized the uniform either, but then again it had been over twenty years since he'd been taught anything about World War One. James Shepherd had been a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps. He'd gone to Canada to join up in 1914, then transferred shortly after arriving in the U.K., since Canada didn't have an air force at the time.

He'd done spectacularly well, apparently, rivaling Eddie Rickenbacker--whomever the hell that was, the only Ace Rodney had ever heard about was Billy Bishop--with twenty confirmed aerial victories.

He would surely have beaten Rickenbacker's score eventually, and maybe Bishop's, except that Shepherd had died during a dogfight over France in 1915, because he'd stayed in the fight to protect the other, less-experienced pilots instead of returning to England, all the while bleeding to death from gunshot wounds. He'd still managed to land gently enough to let his observer walk away.

He'd been buried in the Arras Flying Services Memorial in Pas de Calais. In 2000, a small forensics team from Colorado had gained permission from the French government to briefly exhume the body for the purpose of taking tissue samples, before reburying Shepherd with full military honors.

Ostensibly, the samples were to cross-match his DNA with a relative, to make certain that a different pilot hadn't been mistakenly buried under his name. The reality was in the file.

Apparently aside from suicidal heroism, Captain Shepherd was known for carrying around a small, faceted crystal as a good luck charm. Unremarkable, except that when he concentrated he could make it glow brightly enough to read by at night. None of his fellow pilots could make it work. They all found his parlor trick extremely amusing.

No known/traceable relatives or descendants, distinct evidence of ATA gene someone had concluded, probably Carson.

Enough evidence to justify going to the trouble of traveling to Europe to take samples from an eighty-five year-old corpse, in any case, and to make sure there would be no one left alive who would mind.

Rodney had read about the SX-8 after that, though he couldn't help feeling it was a gross invasion of John's privacy. This was the AI--the person--who had called John his brother. This was the person whom John had been trying so hard to find, until the search killed him.

Captain Mitchell Cambron had been a bomber pilot during the Korean War. The details for why the SGC had been certain he'd had the ATA gene were more sketchy than with Shepherd, except for an anecdote of his touching a 'broach with a green stone' at a local market, which had immediately started glowing, then gone dark again an instant later. The only reason the event had even been noted, probably, was that the stall owner had accused Cambron of breaking the item, one of Cambron's buddies had been deeply offended on Cambron's behalf, and the resulting fracas had required MP intervention.

It was too bad that the 'broach' had run out of power, because--it had possibly been a personal shield device. If Cambron had bought it, it might have saved his life when his plane was shot down over China two weeks later. The bomber and the remains of the crew weren't discovered until 1999.

Cambron had no known relatives/descendants either, and the SGC had taken tissue samples before he and his crew were buried at Arlington.

Carson had been working on a gene therapy to transfer the ATA gene, Rodney knew that. But the Asgard were already experts at cloning technology, and they were grateful to SG-1 and the SGC, and they made perfect, fully-functional copies of adults all the time. And they'd made one of O'Neill as little as a year ago, though admittedly that had been done by the rogue Loki.

According to Carson's notes, the Asgard had agreed to help create a few, select individuals with the ATA gene, by cloning the unremembered dead. Shepherd and Cambron had been meant to be the first.

Except John hadn't been a clone. He'd been an AI.

The notes in the other file folder had been written by Lee or Zelenka--it was easy enough to see the difference between Zelenka's point-form and Lee's chatty, tangential remarks about how much the AIs enjoyed having Robert Munsch stories read to them, or watching Star Wars or Lady and the Tramp.

Rodney was surprised to see a photograph of the two toaster-esque robots he'd watched shuffling more-or-less successfully after a soccer ball on one of his rare visits to Area 51. He'd known they were part of Lee and Zelenka's AI project, but he'd had no idea that the same little guys that had barely managed to keep themselves upright had the Core Processors that, enormously expanded, would end up being the Cerebral Processors that supplied the intelligence for the SX-7 and SX-8. He'd been watching John and the SX-8 stumbling around as infants, in essence, and he hadn't even known it.

It was unbelievable, and Rodney might have laughed if he hadn't felt like his heart was breaking, looking at the brave little toaster and having known the person it had become. And knowing that it had all ended up as scrap, as ashes. That it had all been for nothing.

The last page in John's folder was a memo from Zelenka, detailing mournfully how the SX-7 had been lost, so its AI wouldn't be available for the final stage of the project, and that the IOA was now considering cancelling the project entirely.

The 'final stage' had been the dismantling, Rodney was sure. It had been the last entry in the SX-8's file as well. He just didn't know why Zelenka had resorted to the feeble euphemism.

Rodney's arm was beginning to hurt, but he didn't want more pain medication just yet. He needed to think.

John was dead. Nothing would change that, but what Rodney had read, instead of offering closure, had felt like ripping at the wounds. His grief over losing John couldn't be assuaged by this, not when it didn't make sense to him.

Carson had said that the AI project was going perfectly, and nothing Rodney had read in the file indicated otherwise, right up until John had run away. And nowhere in Carson's files had there been anything about the cloning project being abandoned. Nowhere had it said that they were replacing the clones with AIs.

"Come on, come on," Rodney chastised himself. He was a genius. He was smarter than this. Just because he was headachy and grieving and his arm was beginning to kill him didn't mean he couldn't work this out.

Maybe the AI project had been terminated because they were going to clone the two airmen instead, and they didn't want AI duplicates wandering around. That made sense, in a way, except that it would take at least seventeen years before the clones were old enough to join the military, and that was if they could even guarantee that the clones would want....

Except, that wasn't how the Asgard made clones, was it? They made perfect, fully-functional copies of adults. Adult bodies. Bodies that were then ensouled with adult consciousnesses.

But Cambron and Shepherd's consciousnesses had died when their original bodies had fallen out of the sky.

"So," Rodney rasped to the ceiling. His throat was so tight it felt like he'd been breathing stones. "What do you do if you don't have a consciousness handy?"

You make one, of course.

"Oh God," Rodney whispered. "Oh my God. Oh, John."

***

"You should have told me," Rodney said. "You should have fucking told me." And Carson dearly wished there had only been anger in his voice. Rodney was all bark and no bite, most of the time. It was so much easier to deal with his anger.

Rodney was certainly angry, oh, yes. Close to enraged, in fact. But the wide-eyed, glacial hurt underneath it was far worse than mere rage.

"I'm incredibly, incredibly sorry," Carson said. "I thought you knew about the project already. I mean, you mentioned the wee football players--"

"I knew they were experimenting with AIs, Carson!" Rodney snarled. "I had no fucking idea what the final product was meant to be!" He combed his fingers through his hair, scattering more water drops, then grabbed his t-shirt and yanked it on over his head. He hissed when he twisted his broken arm too far, and Carson automatically reached for him. Rodney shrugged him off. "Why the hell did you think I didn't recognize John? Spontaneous, selective amnesia?

"I just thought you'd not seen them!" Carson shot back. He ignored Rodney's answer of 'no kidding!' "I had no idea you didn't even know about them, Rodney! Do you think I would have kept you in ignorance if I had? Do you really?" He pressed, when Rodney didn't immediately answer him.

"No," Rodney snapped. But the grudging admission was gratifying all the same.

"I am sorry also," Radek said. He was sitting on the unoccupied bed in Rodney's hospital room with his hands on his thighs, looking absolutely devastated. "This is most classified project at Area 51--I was so used to not being able to talk, the silence became a habit. I forgot whom I could tell."

"You and I never really talk all that much," said Bill to Rodney. He wiped his eyes, though he pretended that he was just scratching his nose, again. No one called him on it. He had spent the last four years raising the two SX AIs, for all intents and purposes. Carson thought he might have taken John's death harder even than Rodney.

"Fine. So no one's to blame here, just an honest mistake. Let's all group hug." Rodney was kneeling on the floor, pulling his shoelaces tight enough that Carson winced for his poor foot. "In the meantime John is still dead because I didn't have enough information." He switched to strangling his other foot, tightening the laces with quick, vicious tugs, his broken arm jerky and uncoordinated. Carson noticed his hands were shaking. When he finished he stayed where he was for a moment, his head hanging. "I could have told him that the SX-8 was right, that no one was going to hurt him. I could have told him. But I didn't know," he said quietly. "I didn't know. You have no idea what you've cost me."

"I didn't know either," Carson said, because it was God's own truth. "The way you described it...It sounded like they'd decided to scrap them both." He shook his head. "I guess it's because I was waiting for that to happen."

"The International Oversight Advisory was never fond of the idea," Radek agreed. "It was a fight from the very beginning. They were more than happy to have an excuse to abandon the project."

"Even though Thor had already started making a new body for the SX-8," Rodney said flatly. It wasn't a question.

"Yes," Radek said unhesitatingly. "Even then."

"But, that's murder!" Bill exclaimed, his still-leaking eyes wide and startled. He looked at Radek, as if Radek had some power over the IOA. "They wouldn't really do that, would they? You never said that." He put his hand to his mouth. "He's not finished yet!"

"Do not worry," Radek said, waving a hand. "Not even they are so callous as to do that. They magnanimously allowed us to keep Mitchell." His voice was heavy with sarcasm. "It is Shepherd they do not trust enough to allow to live, since he proved to be so unpredictable in the last field test."

"Because he thought he was going to die!" Rodney grit out, then shook his head. "I'm sure lemminglike qualities are a God-damned asset in military personnel. Assholes."

"No one's disputing the reason John left, Rodney," Carson said. Rodney ignored him.

"It's a mute point, anyway," Bill said sadly. "Considering what the virus did to him. Unless we can reintegrate his backup--"

"It's a 'moot' point, not 'mute'," Rodney said mechanically. Then his head snapped up like someone had jerked a wire. He whirled on Bill. "Wait. Did you say backup?"

"Well, yeah." Bill nodded, though he looked confused. He turned to Radek again. "The SXs had backup memory storage." He pointed to his belly. "In the place the liver would be. It's got its own firewall, too." He looked proud for a moment, then blinked at Rodney curiously. "You didn't know about that?"

Rodney's expression was all the answer Bill needed, apparently. "Right," he said quickly. "Sorry. But, ah, well, we were able to get a backup of Shep's Stored Memory. But it's just, you know, memory." He made a gesture near his head; it looked a little like he was trying to unscrew his ear. "It may be completely useless without the original Cerebral Processor. Contextless, you know? We made the backups to use as a last resort."

"Well, I think this probably counts as a last resort, don't you?" Rodney was standing again, advancing on Bill, who was looking more and more like he wanted to bolt. "I can't believe you had a backup of John this entire time--!"

"Rodney!" Carson admonished. Rodney glared at him, but at least he'd stopped his tirade, though Carson was sure that was only momentary. "Even if they have a backup of John's memories, they can't do anything with them! The project's been shut down!"

"So what?" Rodney asked angrily. "You're just going to roll over and play dead because some posturing bureaucrats don't like the idea of a soldier who has enough brains to bail on a bad situation? Shepherd has--had--the ATA gene! I thought the SGC was desperate for people who can manipulate Ancient equipment. I mean, haven't they pulled O'Neill's clone out of high school, for God's sake?" His expression changed from anger to beseeching, and Carson felt his heart plummet. "They can't seriously be thinking about leaving John as, as a corpse...!

"Why do you keep calling him 'John'?" Bill asked.

"I named him, okay?" Rodney snapped at him. Then he turned immediately to Zelenka. "I named him," he repeated. "He trusted me. He trusted me to save him, so he could find SX-8. His brother, Zelenka. He tried so hard to break through the SGC's firewall that he died, attempting to find out what had happened to Eight. How can you just let it end like this? Doesn't he deserve better then that?"

"I don't want him to be gone either, Rodney!" Bill said, surprisingly loudly for such a mild-natured man. "I mean, God, it's been awful.... He crumpled up a little bit, rubbing his eyes again, and Carson went to him. "I'm okay," Bill said thickly. He took a breath. "But, what are we meant to do?" He turned to Radek, then Carson. "I don't have any way of contacting the Asgard. Do you? And do you really think they'd go against the decision of the people in charge of the Stargate Program?"

"And what do we do if we succeed in bringing him back, Rodney?" Radek added. "It may not be difficult to create plausible identification for him as a civilian, but sneaking him onto the SGC grid without collusion will be another matter entirely, especially when O'Neill is familiar enough with the project to possibly recognize him." He spread his hands. "There is no way such a course of action could end well."

Rodney stared at the three of them for a moment. "So that's it? You're just giving up?"

"Of course I don't want to do that! But this is a fight we can't win, Rodney!" Radek said. He sighed. "I am sorry. You can not know how sorry I am. But Shep--John--is gone. We can do nothing about that."

"I can do something," Rodney said, voice crackling.

He snatched up the overnight bag Carson had brought for him, and stalked out of the room, not looking back at any of them.

Carson looked at the other two--Bill's bewildered misery and Radek's guilty resignation--then turned and ran after his friend.

***

Rodney took a breath and turned around, if only to stop Carson's bellowing. "This is a hospital, you know," he said acidly, as soon as Carson was within speaking distance. "I vaguely recall that you're meant to keep quiet."

"Rodney," Carson said. He was panting a little, and Rodney felt a tiny bit of smugness about that. He walked really, really fast when he was pissed. Which he was a lot. Carson put his hand on Rodney's shoulder, looking at him seriously. "I'll help you," he said. "But I think Radek's right--making a clone without the SGC noticing will be bloody impossible. We'll have to do something else."

Rodney blinked at him, the thrill and relief at having an ally in this, having his friend with him, faded almost instantly in light of Carson's words. He wanted to yank himself away from Carson's gentle grip and start walking again, but he knew that wasn't fair. None of this was Carson's fault. "So what do we do, then? Since you seem to have all the answers?"

"We ask for help," Carson said. "Wait." He raised a hand as Rodney was opening his mouth. "We'll discuss it later. Right now I want to show you something."

"What?" Rodney asked, perplexed. It wasn't like he'd never been in a hospital before. "Here?"

"Yes." Carson nodded. "Here. But not on this floor." He started walking in the direction Rodney had been going, towards the elevators. "It's this way."

***

The private room was in the intensive-care unit. The man on the bed was hooked up to a ventilator, Velcroed in place around his head with a blue swath of cloth, so that his mouth was hidden. That much was easy to see from the doorway, as was that the man was white, with short brown hair, and had one arm and both legs in casts, hanging from metal slings to keep them elevated.

"Who's that?" Rodney said, his voice automatically hushed in deference to the fact that the man was unconscious, and the obvious severity of his wounds. The room was incongruously silent compared to the bustle of the busy hallway outside, save for the constant beeping of the heart monitor and the humming of the ventilator.

"It's all right," Carson said. "Go on."

Rodney went into the room, walking slowly, feeling awkward and intrusive in the silence. The room felt warmer than Rodney's own had been. He stopped at the head of the bed, because it was obvious that's where Carson wanted him. And he looked down at the still face.

And realized he was looking at Mitchell Cambron. Captain Mitchell Cambron. Who had died in 1951.

Rodney looked up at Carson, only remembering at the last second to keep his voice down. "It--this is Eight!" He looked down at Cambron again, realized he was gaping and shut his mouth. "What, what's he doing here?" It looked like he'd been in a car accident, a bad one, or a plane crash. "Is he all right? I mean, is he going to be all right? What happened to him?"

"He'll be fine, Rodney," Carson soothed, though his mouth twitched unhappily. "Eventually." Carson came up so he was at the foot of the bed, and he picked up Cambron's chart, quickly scanned it. He gave a little nod before he hung it back up, which Rodney took to be reassuring. "There was a problem during the cloning process," Carson explained. "We had to...I suppose 'birth him prematurely' would be the closest approximation. He would have died, otherwise."

"You mean...." Rodney looked at Cambron's body, the numbers of tubes and wires and bandages and bruising. "You mean he wasn't finished?" he asked, incredulous. "Couldn't the Asgard fix him?"

"Well yes they could, technically," Carson said, sounding uncomfortable. He began checking the instruments attached to Cambron, and Rodney had to bite his tongue so he wouldn't hiss, 'stop that!', as if Carson didn't know what he was doing. "But with the difficulties with the IOA, we thought it was best to have the clone fully functional as soon as possible."

Rodney blinked at him. "You call this 'fully functional'?"

Carson glared at him. "Of course not, Rodney! No one wanted him to end up like this, injured and in pain! But it's a wee bit more difficult to pull the plug on a living, breathing person than on an unfinished clone."

"That, that's a good point," Rodney conceded. "Ghoulish and mercenary, but good." He was sure Carson scowled at him, but he was absorbed in his visual examination of Cambron again, and didn't see it.

"So, what happened?" Rodney asked eventually. He couldn't help feeling anxious, looking at the still and vulnerable form on the hospital bed. John had cared so much about this man; Rodney desperately wanted him to survive. "Why didn't the cloning work?"

"It did work," Carson insisted, speaking more quietly now. "But the power drain at the mountain was worse than we'd anticipated. We had to stop the process before the power failed entirely and he died." Carson was looking at Cambron too, his face holding the same grave expression Rodney associated with the rare occasions he'd ended up in the SGC infirmary with something serious. "Because of that, most of his bones--in his arms and legs, and his hands and feet and his ribs--hadn't finished forming, so they were too soft to support him adequately. Some of them actually bent when moved him. His blood vessels are overly weak as well, and some of his veins." Carson nodded at Cambron's mottled face. "Which is why he's got so many contusions. And his lungs hadn't finished growing, or his stomach or kidneys." Carson shook his head. "It would have been much better for him if the Asgard formed their clones like human fetuses in the womb, since he'd be in much better shape now. But as it is, it will be awhile before he's up and about again, poor lad."

Rodney remembered the brief but near-complete blackout that had struck the mountain about a week before John showed up at his apartment. It had been frightening at first, especially with his claustrophobia, and then just annoying until the lights came back on. He felt a little guilty, now, thinking about all his complaining.

But something that Carson had just told him didn't make any sense, and Rodney's head snapped up. "You said he was going to be fine! How can he be fine if he doesn't have working internal organs?"

"Because Lieutenant Colonel Carter has agreed to come and use the Goa'uld healing device on him as soon as she returns from off-world," Carson explained, though he narrowed his eyes at Rodney. "She doesn't have the ability to fix everything, but she can speed up his healing, and make sure everything finishes growing." Carson put his hand on Cambron's shoulder, squeezing gently, as if that would somehow channel his reassurance into the wounded body. He smiled, though there was something guilty about it, as if he didn't like what he was going to say, and Rodney felt his heart speed up uncomfortably from seeing it. "There is, actually, a benefit to this. Hard though it may be to believe," he added, probably in response to the horror Rodney was certain he'd had on his face.

"He'll need records, a background and history with the SGC," Carson explained. "When he wakes up, he'll be Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, from Auburn, Kansas. An F-302 pilot who was with the Prometheus, and that his injuries came from being involved in the recent dogfight over the Antarctic base." He nodded, the gesture taking in Cambron's body in general. "If he nearly died out there, it'll be slow going for him for months yet, which works given what happened during the cloning. And it will fit into the role he'll be given at the SGC."

Rodney nodded, feeling a little numb. He understood it, but it still seemed terribly unfair that Eight, Mitch, wouldn't even be allowed to keep his name. He wondered what name they had been planning on giving John, though no doubt something similar to James Shepherd. Maybe a different spelling, since 'Shepherd' was a far more common family name than 'Cambron'. "Will they know?"

"Oh, aye," Carson said. He smiled again, though this time there was less apology in it, which was somehow comforting. "Some will, at any rate. Colonel Carter thinks she's coming to help a badly-wounded pilot, but General O'Neill knows, as well as the original project team, of course."

And me, Rodney added mentally, but he didn't say it.

Cambron--Cameron Mitchell--twitched in his morphine-aided sleep, an almost languid curl of the fingertips peeking out of his heavy cast. Rodney wondered if he was dreaming, and what his dreams would be, for a robot made all-too-fragile flesh and bone.

"He's going to be right as rain, I promise, Rodney," Carson said, as if he'd known what Rodney was thinking. "He's healthy and strong and stubborn as hell. He'll be just fine."

"Good," Rodney said softly, nodded to himself. "That's good." He licked his lips, then looked at Carson again. "Could we--could I have a minute with him?"

"Of course," Carson said, though he looked faintly surprised. "I'll just be outside, then."

Rodney watched silently as Carson left, easing the heavy, solid door to the room softly shut behind him.

Rodney hesitated, then put his hand on Cameron's head. But that felt weird--like he was a priest giving last rights, or something equally implausible--so he moved it to Cameron's shoulder, being very careful not to put any weight on it, since this was Cameron's weaker arm.

"Look," Rodney said. "I just...I don't know if you can even hear me, but you have to know this, okay?" He took a breath. "He never stopped trying to find you. Never. And he would've been so happy--well, not to see you like this, of course--but to know that you were alive, and...and that you were going to be all right."

That was all he had to say, really. Rodney pulled his hand away, taking exquisite care not to jostle Cameron's arm. He walked quickly and quietly to the door, but he stopped before he reached it and turned around.

"Um, take care of yourself, okay? John, I mean, Seven wouldn't want you to get hurt. And, good luck. And, um, have a good life." Rodney nodded decisively, ignoring how his face was burning. "You need to do that. Be happy."

And Rodney resolutely ignored the envy, sharp and tight as barbed wire in his chest, that Cameron should be alive when John wasn't. That Cameron should have been given a future, when John had nothing at all.

Then when he went back into the hallway where Carson was, and found Lee and Zelenka there as well, waiting for him.

***

General Jack O'Neill didn't like Doctor Rodney McKay all that much.

Not that he knew him particularly well, admittedly, but he'd heard all about him from Sam the first time the rat bastard had come to the SGC and Teal'c had nearly died because of his ego. Even later, when it was obvious that McKay had been Simmons's patsy and specifically sicced on Sam to slow her down and make SG-1 desperate, Jack had still felt that exile in Siberia was no less than McKay deserved.

Jack had mellowed on him a little after he'd kind of helped out saving the Earth from Anubis. The guy was okay, but still. Not Jack's favorite person on the planet.

Which made the fact that McKay was all but physically preventing him from leaving the conference room a little more frustrating than if it had been, say, Teal'c. But Jack had seen that kind of near-desperate determination before--from two pairs of very similar blue eyes, as a matter of fact, and what was it with the smart ones and blue eyes?--and he was man enough to just sigh and back up a step, and not actually pick McKay up bodily and heave him out of the doorway. He had no doubt he could take McKay in a fight, but the guy looked kind of heavy.

Everyone else, including McKay's geek cohorts, had managed to escape, leaving McKay and Jack in the room alone. Jack was absolutely certain that this was what McKay wanted. He just wasn't sure why McKay had cornered him, as opposed to anyone else. Like Doctor Weir. And he wasn't sure he wanted to know, either.

Some days it really didn't pay to come out of stasis.

"For crying out loud, McKay," he said on a breath, "'no' means 'no'." He gestured at the closed door, which he would very much like to be walking through, possibly to the mess. They had pie. "All those angry guys from the IOA might've been a good indication of that. Remember them? The ones who just left? Because the meeting is over?"

"No never means no unless you want it to, General," McKay said quickly. And yeah, he didn't seem nearly as arrogant as Jack remembered him. "I know you know that."

Jack crossed his arms. He had a few inches in height on McKay and he used it now to glower down at him. He really didn't like where this was going. "Spit it out, McKay."

McKay licked his lips, then looked comically right and left, even though he was on the other side of an opaque door. "You're friends with the Asgard," he said.

Jack blinked, wondering what the hell that had to do with anything. But then he jumped to the meeting, and how McKay and his buddies had been ranting about how very, very much they needed this dead Shepherd guy cloned because his ATA gene would be vital to the Atlantis mission, and how four years of effort and resources would be wasted otherwise, and how much this would advance the field of Artificial Intelligence and cloning and blah blah blah that Jack had pretty much just tuned out because he'd met enough guys like Woolsey in his time to know that there was no way the IOA was going to be moved by anything as reasonable as logic or reality--and he suddenly knew exactly what the hell McKay wanted. And then he was backing away and putting up his hands because he was going to have nothing to do with this. No freaking way.

"Are you really expecting me to go behind the IOA's back here, McKay?" Jack asked. He couldn't tell if he was more amazed or furious. "What the hell do you think is going to happen if the IOA finds out? What do you think that'll do for the credibility of the SGC?" His voice had lowered without Jack even realizing it, spitting out each word in a harsh whisper. "Or, hey, my career?"

"They don't have to know!" McKay all but shouted, then lowered his voice quickly when he saw Jack's expression. "Look," he said, blue eyes big and insistent and God, he was reminding Jack of Daniel right now, much more than Rodney had reminded him of Sam, and Jack really, really didn't need to be thinking about that. "I know it seems like this is just a, a pet project of mine. But there's so much more at stake here than that. If--when--Jackson figures out the address for Atlantis, we're going to need as many ATA gene carriers as we can get. Of the twelve Weir approached, only eight agreed to the mission, and so far Carson's been stonewalled on testing out his gene therapy as well." McKay barely paused to breathe, then went on in a rush. "And there's the other problem of the lack of military volunteers. So far the next in command if Colonel Sumner dies is a lieutenant, right? And after him comes your clone, who might have your memories, but is also sixteen years old, which is just terrifying."

Jack nodded reluctantly, though he couldn't help rolling his eyes. None of this was exactly news to him. "So? Therefore? And?"

McKay's eyes narrowed like a pissed-off cat. "I'd get to that faster if I didn't have any interruptions. He paused as if waiting for an interruption again, which was kind of ironic. "Okay. So. The AI and cloning projects Carson, Zelenka and Lee were working on was meant precisely to solve both those problems. Each candidate has the ATA gene, and both were military. And since once Mitchell recovers he's going to be assigned to the SGC--which sucks, actually, but I guess that makes sense since you and that Lorne guy are the only gene carriers here--"

"Get on with it, McKay," Jack said mildly.

That earned him narrow-eyed glare, but at least McKay cut to the chase. "Shepherd is the only opportunity we have left to fill the personnel gaps in the Atlantis expedition," he said, then finally took another breath. "Not letting the cloning project continue is just...it's just stupid. It's like purposely trying to make sure the expedition fails before we even go anywhere!"

Jack scratched behind an ear. That was still pretty much what the geek squad had said at the meeting, though McKay had reiterated it better and much more quickly. Not that that Jack hadn't agreed with it the first time around. "He's just one guy, McKay," he said, because that was true as well. "You can't tell me that one guy, whether or not he has the magic gene, is going to make the difference between life and death out there."

McKay actually looked startled. "And you, of all people, can't be telling me that one man won't potentially make the difference between life and death out there! General," he said earnestly, "you know full well that sometimes one person makes all the difference. How many times have you alone made all the difference? Or Jackson, or Sam or Teal'c? How can you possibly stand there and tell me that you know that having Captain Shepherd with us, in any incarnation, won't be the one thing that--that maybe saves us all?" And Jack knew that McKay was begging here, that he was pouring his heart and pissy, arrogant soul into this; knew that McKay knew this was his last chance. "John ran from Area 51 because he was independent enough not to be blinded by loyalty--no offence to Mitchell--"

"None taken," Jack said dryly, especially since in the end the blind loyalty had been the smart choice.

"--And self-aware enough to not want to die. He was also so determined to find and rescue the SX-8 that he died attempting to breech the SGC's firewall. Do you really think that the expedition to Atlantis couldn't use a man like that? That we couldn't use him desperately?"

Jack looked at McKay a long moment, those intelligent eyes full of desperation and pleading and hope and...he didn't want to have to deal with this. He really, really didn't want to. But damn it, McKay was right.

"I'll talk to them," he said at last. "Ah!" He raised a finger in warning when McKay opened his mouth. "I said I'll talk to them. I can't promise anything. Hell, I can't even promise you're not going to end up back in Siberia. And you'd better have a way of making this work, McKay," he added darkly.

McKay nodded almost frantically, dug around in his shirt pocket and yanked out a memory stick. "I uh, made this last night. You might have to, you might have to tweak it a little, but Zelenka or Lee will know what to do with it. It'll give him a name, history, everything."

Jack took the memory stick dubiously and stuck it in his shirt pocket. He hoped he didn't accidentally send it through the wash. He stepped purposely forward, eyebrows arched.

"What?" McKay blinked at him, then comprehension dawned and he finally slid away from the door. "Oh! Sorry."

Jack twitched a non-smile at him as he finally got to leave.

"General?" McKay said to his back.

Jack sighed and turned around. "Doctor McKay?"

"Thank you," McKay said.

Jack covered his shock with a nod, then turned around again and continued walking. He had no idea where McKay went, but he didn't try to stop him again and that was just fine.

He'd contact his old buddy Thor in the morning. And he couldn't believe he was even considering it. But he'd always hated stupid, arbitrary decisions, and he wasn't all that fond of the IOA, either, and he'd be damned if Mini-Me was going on a suicide mission because the stuffed shirts had their heads so far up their asses that they couldn't find their way out with a backhoe and a map.

Maybe he was getting to like McKay after all.

***

"Rodney!" Zelenka said. He rushed over with his tray, moving so fast Rodney was surprised his soup bowl didn't tilt. The Czech put his tray down across from him and sat down before Rodney could tell him that he really, really didn't feel like company, thanks. "I have wonderful, fantastic news! We are finally being called back to Antarctica!"

"Thank you for that gem of information," Rodney said without looking up from his meal. It was absolutely disgusting, as was the majority of the food at the SGC--It was a wonder no one had rioted by now. But at least he knew for sure that there was no citrus in it. "God only knows what I'd do without you here to repeat information I already had two days ago. And why are you still here, anyway? "

"Because we're being recalled to the Ancient outpost," Zelenka said. The 'duh' was more than implicit. "But I thought you didn't know, and that was why you were so miserable." He made a disgusted noise, and Rodney glanced at him, but Zelenka was just reacted to the taste of his own meal, grimacing. "This food is awful. How can you stand eating this all the time? Then again, it explains much about your personality."

"I'm thinking of quitting," Rodney said.

He could tell the exact second his words percolated through whatever Zelenka had been expecting to hear, because his fork suddenly hit his tray with a loud clatter. "What? You're serious? But the rumor is that Jackson is on verge of discovery, that's why they want all the Atlantis expedition personnel back in Antarctica! How can you be thinking about quitting now?"

Rodney mechanically shoveled another spoonful of the glop into his mouth. "How can I keep working for the same people who won't...." He trailed off, realizing he didn't really want to talk about it. He knew, intellectually at least, that the SGC had a lot bigger fish to fry than the life or death of a single robot, no matter how self-aware it had been or even how useful it might have proven to be as a human. Protecting basically the entire galaxy--Earth particularly included--didn't allow for the luxury of fighting for individuals. Unless those individuals happen to belong to SG-1, Rodney thought bitterly, though if he was being scrupulously honest he had to admit that wasn't true, either. His first, fateful run in with then-Major Sam Carter had certainly shown how vital the program was, versus human life.

Well, humanoid life anyway, but that wasn't really the point.

The point was that Rodney understood that John wasn't and couldn't be a priority. He did. He wasn't an idiot. But understanding it didn't make any difference.

"It doesn't feel like there's any point to it, anymore," he admitted at last, looking steadfastly at his meal. "There's no...." The first word that leapt to mind was 'joy' but that was maudlin and ridiculous, so he said, "Incentive. I keep feeling like, so we'll get to Atlantis. So what? It's probably just another buried or nearly inaccessible outpost on Earth. Or if it's not, it's either somewhere so hot its makes Death Valley look like a spa, on freaking Everest, or underwater, or something. And even if we can get there, then what? What'll we find? More drones? Another non-functioning control chair? Another Typhoid Mary in stasis, or some lethal, failed experiment?" He snorted, shoving at the food with his spoon and watching in dull fascination as the viscous, brown liquid seeped back into the furrows. "Been there, done that."

Zelenka didn't answer for so long that Rodney finally looked up again, half-expecting that the other man had left. But Zelenka had his hands wrapped around his coffee cup, blinking thoughtfully behind his glasses.

"You are depressed," Zelenka said flatly. He took a sip of coffee, as if that underscored the point. "Your lover died and now life has lost all meaning. I understand. But quitting the SGC will not make that stop."

Rodney gaped at him, too astonished to be as furious as he felt, on some level, that he should be. "Thank you, Doctor Phil! And, uh, what the hell? What cracker-jack box did your psychology degree come out of?"

"My childhood was sadly lacking in your Capitalist opiates," Zelenka said blandly. "But what I am saying is that you are not the first person in the world to be grieving. And I do not require a psychology degree to know that giving up on what I am certain you have been dreaming of your entire life--and I am certain because it has been my dream also--will not help. It will make things worse."

Rodney looked at him, then went back to playing with his food. He ate another mouthful, but found that even he couldn't stand the taste anymore. He could grab a sandwich later if his blood sugar got low. Or a Power bar. Whatever. He went back to the mindless furrows, thinking of how John would have worried if he didn't eat. He hadn't enjoyed his lunches since John had died, actually, or much of anything else.

"I just miss him," Rodney said. "I miss him all the time. He's been dead now longer than I'd even known him, but it doesn't matter. I can't stop thinking about him. I try to stay away from my apartment, because every time I go home, for a second or two I keep expecting him to be there. And I can't stand it."

He felt Zelenka's hand on his wrist, and he glanced up, surprised. Zelenka was looking at him, the most serious Rodney had ever seen him, his blue eyes guileless and kind.

"I understand, Rodney," Zelenka said gently. "I have also had such loss, though it was many years ago. It is like you are suddenly hollow, empty of everything that used to make you yourself." He pulled his hand back, but Rodney didn't look away from him. "The only thing that made it bearable for me was my work. It kept my mind off of the grief, even just for a few minutes at a time. And it helped me feel that there was something left, something beyond myself that was worthwhile and important. I do not believe there is anything more important than going to Atlantis, Rodney."

Rodney swallowed. "I wish, I wish I could feel like that," he said. He pushed his chair back and stood, picking up his tray with his barely-touched meal. He suddenly wanted to get out of there so badly he could barely keep himself from dropping the tray and sprinting out of the mess in a mad panic. He had never felt claustrophobic in the Cheyenne complex before, except briefly during the recent blackout, probably because the place was so big. But at that moment it felt like the entire mountain was going to collapse on him, if he didn't get out of there immediately. "I have to go," he said.

He must have looked or sounded bad enough that Zelenka stood as well, looking worried. "Rodney, are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Rodney said, probably too quickly. He was sweating, and he wiped at his upper lip with his sleeve, awkwardly balancing his tray. "I'm fine, really. I Just, I just need some air." He strode to the bussing shelves before Zelenka could say anything else, shoved his tray onto one of the racks, then all but bolted for the elevator to the surface.

It wasn't particularly difficult to get out of the base, though the ride in the cramped elevator was excruciating. He was surprised that the two airmen guarding the entrance to the mountain didn't offer to call him an ambulance, by the time he was finally outside in the open air.

It was a typically beautiful Colorado summer day--sharp, clear air, no clouds and bright sunshine. Rodney staggered to his car, taking as many deep gulps of air as he could, until he knew hyperventilating was a real possibility, so he forced himself to slow down. It was difficult, since his heart was going like a jackhammer.

He didn't intend to actually drive anywhere. He just needed someplace he could sit and be alone while he had his small breakdown. He opened all the car doors, then slumped into the driver's seat. He crossed his forearms over the steering wheel and leaned his forehead on them. And tried to ignore how much he was shaking.

"You're outside," he murmured to himself. "Outside. There's plenty of air here. You're not suffocating. You're okay. You're okay."

He wished he had someone to put a wet cloth on the back of his neck and rub gentle circles on his back.

***

General O'Neill was never in his office, despite having taken over as head of the SGC. And he never responded to any of Rodney's messages. And Rodney had left a hell of a lot of them, up to and including slipping increasingly-terse notes under O'Neill's door. He didn't stop trying to get an answer until the day he boarded the military transport plane headed to New Zealand.

Rodney had been considering not going. He'd harbored fantasies about camping out in front of O'Neill's office until the General finally came in, and then ambushing him and forcing him to say, once and for all, that the Asgard had refused, that John was dead both in potential and reality.

Rodney wasn't sure if it would have given him closure, but it would have been something. Something better than this empty, bitter waiting.

But in the end he'd thought of what Zelenka had told him, and Rodney had packed his bags anyway and boarded the plane with everyone else. And if he didn't join in the enthusiastic chatter, well, he already had a reputation of being a difficult, curmudgeonly son of a bitch. Refusing to participate in useless speculation was what everyone already expected from him.

And really, finally being back at the Ancient outpost wasn't so bad.

Doctor Daniel Jackson seemed about as far from finding the address for Atlantis as ever, which was just par for the course but at least no one was being scattered to the four winds again because of it. And each time Rodney spoke to him, Jackson was practically wild-eyed with the joy of immanent discovery and self-induced lack of sleep. His drive, his happiness, were contagious enough to buoy Rodney for awhile, and when Jackson wasn't available there was plenty of his own research to do on the Ancient technology, when he could badger Carson or the teenage Jonathan O'Neill to touch the damn things. O'Neill tended to be a little more accommodating than Carson, probably because he wasn't terrified of anything without an obvious medical function. But unfortunately of the two of them, Carson was the one more frequently available.

Overall Rodney's days were full and varied, and as the weeks passed he decided that Zelenka had been right. This was purposeful, and enormous and all-consuming, and recently whole days had gone by when Rodney had barely thought about John at all. And even before Jackson finally--finally--told him and Weir that he'd figured out the location of Atlantis, Rodney had already decided for himself that he was still going to go.

He still sent e-mails to General O'Neill every time they were allowed to use the satellite hookup. But he'd stopped expecting an answer. That didn't mean he wasn't going to demand one, though, when O'Neill finally arrived in person at the base and couldn't avoid him anymore.

Provided, that was, that Carson didn't manage to kill him, when the idiot somehow mistook 'imagine an image of where we are in the solar system' to mean 'launch the nearest available drone at the General's helicopter'.

Luckily, no one died. And Rodney was so relieved that Carson had pulled it together that when the Marine jogged up and said something about some Major reporting that the drone had been incapacitated, McKay didn't even notice the man's name.

Dismissed his existence entirely, even, right up to the moment that Carson galloped into the briefing with Jackson and O'Neill, staring at Rodney but bleating for Weir, and how they had to come see this Now! Right now! And when Rodney followed him, there was a pilot in the chair and--

"Oh," Rodney said softly. "It's you." And then it slowly dawned on him that he had somehow ended up sitting on the floor.

"DoctorRodneyMcKay!" John (John. Oh, oh God) sat upright in the chair, and it instantly darkened. He rocketed out of it and over to Rodney, crouching on the floor next to him. "Are you all right?" He began rubbing Rodney's back, gentle circles over the orange fleece.

"You two know each other?" Weir asked someone. Rodney wasn't looking anywhere but at John's face, so he couldn't see who Weir might be looking at. "They know each other?"

Rodney didn't hear if anyone answered. He was still staring at John, like John was his entire universe, and John's concern slowly morphed into a smile.

"Hi," he said. "Long time, no see, huh?"

Rodney nodded, because he couldn't speak. He had just enough presence of mind not to reach out and cup John's face. But he felt John's hand drift up to the back of his neck and squeeze gently.

"Yeah," John said quietly. "Me too."

Someone cleared his throat, and Rodney slowly wrenched his gaze away from John until he was looking at O'Neill.

O'Neill grinned at him, hands in his pockets. He rocked a little on his heels.

"Surprise," he said.

***

There had been a lot of tests, to see what his ATA gene could do, and then he had blood taken, which had been both horrifying and fascinating, and then more tests, and then finally they let him go, overwhelmed and practically stumbling with fatigue, and John vaguely remembered Rodney insisting very loudly that John was in no shape to fly back to McMurdo, unless the US Air Force really didn't mind losing several billion dollars worth of helicopter to the frozen tundra, and then he was all but dragging John by the wrist across the snowfield above the outpost to the buildings that had been set up to house the research crew.

John wasn't even really paying attention to where they were going, just happy to be out of the cold and away from O'Neill's smirks and everyone looking at him--like he was something fantastic just because he could think lights on, like he was exactly the same as they were when he wasn't even sure what that was.

He was just happy to be with Rodney. He'd missed him so much.

So he went wherever Rodney was taking him, not protesting and not even speaking, until Rodney unlocked a door and pulled John inside, and he realized distantly that they were in Rodney's quarters before Rodney started kissing him.

Rodney was murmuring something indistinct to John's less efficient, human ears, his breath hot and moist and desperate, and John held him as tightly as he could and kissed him back, as if Rodney might disappear if they stopped, or John would, again.

"I thought you were gone," Rodney said when he finally pulled back. "I'm sorry--I know you must be exhausted and starving, but...I thought you were gone. I was sure I--I was never going to see you again. But you're here. You're here."

"Yeah," John said. He tried to smile, though he knew it was probably a little too shaky. His memories of before he...died...were fragmented and strange, events overlapping with such vivid clarity that he had no idea anymore what had been really happening at the time. All he knew for certain was that he had been weak and often in terrible pain, and Rodney had been there constantly: holding him up, trying to fix him, trying to save him, until the agony got so bad it had become the only thing left in the world. John had felt himself splintering, disintegrating beneath the pain, until he had broken away entirely and fallen into nothing.

He still didn't really know how long he'd been...gone. Dead. He just knew that he had suddenly been alert and aware again. No weakness, no pain, in a place he didn't recognize (he learned later that it was an Asgard ship), looking up at a man he didn't know. A man who said his name was Jack O'Neill, and that John was now Major John Sheppard, American Air Force pilot, and by the way welcome to humanity.

Rodney stepped back from him, but he kept his hands on John's arms, as if frightened to let go. "You look amazing," Rodney said, and his smile was full of wonder. "You look absolutely fucking fantastic. I mean," he grinned. "You look like you." He traced the contours of John's face, around his eyes, along his jawbone. "I think I'd forgotten how beautiful you are."

John dropped his head, rubbing the back of his neck. He didn't know what to say to that. To him, he looked entirely different, but he didn't even know why.

"Are you okay?" Rodney asked.

John looked up, made himself smile again. "It's just...all this is kind of weird." He raised his arms enough so he could look at the backs of his hands. They looked the same as they always had, before, only this time the liquid was blood, running through them. "I feel...." He shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just not used to it yet, I guess. It's so different." Uncomfortable. Vulnerable. He rubbed his stomach, only realizing a moment later that he'd done it unconsciously. "I'm still not real used to stuff, like being hungry," he explained, when Rodney's eyes automatically followed the movement. "It's similar to needing to recharge, but it hurts more, you know?" He looked down again, at his flexing hands. He wasn't used to doing so many things unconsciously, either. Sometimes it felt like he had no control over this body at all, like it wasn't even really his. It was terrifying. "And I don't like not being able to choose between Standby and Sleep Mode," he admitted, thinking of it. He shrugged. "Things were...easier, before."

"Oh," Rodney said. He was obviously thinking about that. He reached out and looped two of his fingers through John's. "Do you--was this a bad thing?"

"What? No!" John said immediately, loudly. It was an automatic reaction to the anxious guilt in Rodney's eyes, but it didn't make the words any less true. "No," he said again, more quietly but just as forcefully. He put his free hand on Rodney's hip and pulled him closer, tilting his head slightly to look right into his blue eyes. "I'm alive, and I'm here with you. How could you think I'd regret that?" He smiled again, a much more real one. "I'll get used to this. I just need more time."

"Okay," Rodney said, though his answering smile was more tentative than John's had been, his eyes still uncertain. But when John tugged him closer Rodney went without complaint, and they kissed again like they'd never stopped.

Until Rodney pulled back suddenly, his eyes going wide. "Oh my God! I didn't tell you!" He smiled, huge and delighted. "Eight's alive, John! I saw him! He was never dismantled--he was cloned, just like you. He's at the SGC!" Then, more quietly, "He's alive. He's at the SGC, John. Maybe we can see him...John? Are you okay?" Because John had gone completely still.

"He's alive?" John asked, voice hushed with wonder and maybe even a little fear. The way his heart was hammering, it felt almost like he was afraid. Another thing to get used to--the way this body was driven, sent careening by his emotions. He looked at Rodney, barely willing to believe, in case he'd somehow misheard (he did that sometimes--his senses, his brain, were so imperfect). "He's alive? You mean that?"

Rodney nodded. "Yes, John," he said seriously. "I mean it. Eight--Mitch--is alive."

John let out a laugh that somehow hurt, like something getting caught in his chest, his throat. And Rodney held him like he was holding him up, and John had no idea why his eyes were wet, or his face, where it was pressed against Rodney's shoulder. And then John realized he was crying for the first time in his life. And that a person, a human, could cry for joy.

Epilogue

"I hate this," John said. He sighed and shifted on the narrow cot, looking like he was trying to get comfortable and failing miserably. "I hate that they're up there deciding what the hell is going to happen to me, and I'm not even allowed to be there." He threw an arm over his eyes. "How long has it been, anyway?"

"About ten minutes since you last asked," Rodney said without looking at his watch. He was sitting on a nearby bunk, kitty-corner to John's. They were both in one of the rooms the gate teams used to sack out short-term because they were among the few private places in the mountain that wasn't several levels away from the conference room. Where Elizabeth was currently fighting to keep John as the Military Head of Atlantis.

John had been anxious and miserable for days, slingshot from the nerve-wracking stress of the Wraith siege on the city to the nerve-wracking stress of finding out whether he'd even be allowed to go back, let alone keep his position. He'd been wandering around looking like death warmed over, not eating enough, not sleeping enough, and Rodney had been mostly too busy himself to be able to offer support, or wasn't able to, in case anyone looked at them twice. Except for today--Rodney couldn't imagine anyone thinking it was untoward for a close friend to be there in support for a man whose entire future was on the line. And if so...well, he'd stopped caring.

"It feels like we've been in here for hours," John said. He smirked, a little sadly. "I keep trying to check my internal clock, and then wondering why I can't find anything."

"That's because your sense of time sucks," Rodney said, which was completely untrue but made John smile anyway, and that was why he'd said it. Rodney stood up, went to John's cot, and shoved at him. "Move over."

John did, rolling obligingly onto his side, and Rodney crawled in behind him and put one arm over John's chest, the other awkwardly cradling his head. John threaded his fingers through Rodney's and moved both their hands until they were over John's heart. John was still in his Atlantis uniform, but Rodney could feel his heart beating anyway: strong and powerful and real. John's heart had always been real.

"This is my fault," Rodney said to the back of John's neck. John grunted something in surprise and denial, but Rodney talked over him when he tried to speak. "The background I made up for you. I wanted you to be a Lieutenant Colonel, because it would have made sense, given your age and experience." John snorted, Rodney ignored him. "But I didn't do that because I couldn't figure out a way to have you come in under the radar, Eh? I didn't think that Lieutenant Colonels spent a lot of time shuttling people back and forth between McMurdo and the Ancient outpost. And I had to get you there." He took a breath. "So I gave you that black mark, and a rank that was less than you should have had, just so O'Neill could make sure you were the one to fly him out to the base."

"I know, Rodney," John said quietly. He squeezed Rodney's hand. "I don't blame you."

"You should," Rodney said. "It's just that, it seemed like the kind of thing you would do--charging off to rescue people in defiance of all common sense. I mean, you'd already done that. Twice, even, if you count the first version of you."

There was a silence, and Rodney realized that he'd overstepped a line. Again.

"I don't count that," John said tightly. "James Sheppard was an entirely different person, one who died eighty-six years ago. He has nothing to do with me."

"You dream about flying, sometimes," Rodney said.

"Helicopters, Rodney," John grit out, and while that was undoubtedly true, Rodney knew that wasn't all of it. John talked in his sleep, occasionally, though he always denied that he remembered anything he'd dreamed in the morning. "Helicopters and fighter jets. Information Bill programmed into me that got carried across when I was moved into this body." John always talked about it like that: as if he'd changed apartments instead of an entire mode of existence. Rodney still wasn't sure if was some kind of denial, or just the best metaphor John could think of. "And puddle jumpers, sometimes. The only thing left of James Shepherd is the genetics in this body. My body. He has nothing to do with me."

"All right," Rodney said. He held John a little more tightly, in apology.

One day he'd convince John that his interest in Shepherd had everything to do with a possible continuity of the mind, which was potentially amazing, and nothing at all to do with not thinking of John as a person in his own right, or worse--wanting James Shepherd instead of John Sheppard, because the former had been born human and the latter hadn't. But that day obviously wasn't this one.

"My point, though," Rodney said after a moment, "is that I tried so hard to give you a plausible reason to be where I--where the expedition needed you to be, that I didn't think about the consequences for you. Only a handful of people at the SGC know your real story. The rest think you have a thing for disobeying orders. Elizabeth included. And that...that might cost you the position."

John sighed. "Well, aren't you a fucking ray of sunshine?" He didn't let go of Rodney's hand, though, which Rodney figured was a good sign. "I don't blame you," he said a minute later, and Rodney let out a breath. John chuckled. "And I do kind of have a thing for disobeying orders, at least the bad ones. And anyway, I can't think of another scenario that would have gotten me that close to the outpost, either."

"That's because there wasn't one," Rodney said loftily. He leaned in to kiss the back of John's neck, though he mostly just got his collar. "For what it's worth, though, I'm sorry."

"Quit apologizing," John said. "But, thank you."

"You're welcome," Rodney said, just in time to hear John's stomach growl fiercely.

Rodney snorted, then sighed. "I probably don't want to know the last time you ate."

"Probably not," John agreed. Rodney felt John's shrug. "It still feels weird to be hungry. I don't like it."

"Believe it or not," Rodney said, "if you actually ate on any kind of regular schedule, you wouldn't be hungry often enough to have such an antipathy towards it."

"That should be funnier, coming from you," John said.

Rodney snorted again, then sat up reluctantly and shook John's shoulder. "Come on, get up. Let's go eat."

John didn't move. "I don't want to," he said, sounding just a little petulant. "The food here sucks. And it's not like Atlantis. Everyone...stares at me."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "That's because you're really cute, Major. Get over yourself."

John huffed out something resembling a laugh. "I wish." He rubbed his face with his hand. "It just feels like...any second, someone's going to figure it out, about me."

Rodney blinked. "That you're bisexual?"

"No, Rodney," John said with exaggerated patience. "That I'm not--that I used to be an AI. And then they'll kick me out of the SGC, and I'll never get back to Atlantis."

Rodney closed his eyes for a moment, then rubbed them with his fingertips. It didn't help. "First of all," he said, not even bothering to hide the rather surprising amount of anger he was suddenly feeling, "the fact that you used to be an AI isn't like having been an alcoholic or something. I really, really don't think there's much danger of you falling off the wagon and turning into R2-D2. Second, yes. You used to be an AI. So what? Believe it or not, I used to be a baby at some point. In fact, I have it on good authority that everyone in the Milky Way and the Pegasus Galaxy--okay, maybe not the Wraith, but everyone else--used to be babies at some point. What the hell does it matter if your infancy was spent as a toaster instead of a hairless screaming thing with no teeth or excretion control? You think being a person requires some kind of special prerequisite? What about all the non-human aliens the SG teams have found? What about--and I can't believe I'm saying this--but what about the Wraith? What about Teal'c? Or Teyla? Or, hell, the Asgard? The Asgard don't have childhoods at all, by the way. As a matter of fact, they come into being pretty much exactly the way you did. Or Jonathan O'Neill, come to think of it. Do you really think the lesser O'Neill is any more human or entitled to his job than you are?"

"I don't think he'd appreciate being referred to as 'the lesser O'Neill', Rodney," John said, which was naturally missing the point entirely. But he was sitting up and smiling, albeit tentatively, so Rodney was going to count it as a victory all the same.

"I'm sure he's used to it by now," Rodney said. He poked John in the side. "I won't go back without you." And he was suddenly finding John's Atlantis mission patch incredibly interesting. "I mean, if the worst case scenario plays out. Which it won't. But, I won't go back to Atlantis without you. I, I already did that, once. Or was going to, I mean. And it was awful. I don't...I'm not going to do that again."

John twisted around until he could look at Rodney face-to-face, instead of looking painfully over his shoulder. "Oh," he said, sounding so shocked that Rodney's heart broke a little. "I didn't know that."

"That's because you're an idiot," Rodney said, and he leaned in and kissed John until John's stomach growled again, and Rodney remembered that he was actually in the process of dragging him to the mess.

***

The room was packed, which was unpleasant, but at least there were no supply problems in Colorado and there were therefore enough citrus-free options left that Rodney was comfortably certain he wouldn't starve while waiting to find out John's fate. John got an apple and a sandwich, and Rodney sighed inwardly and resisted snatching him another one and forcing him to eat it.

They were able to find a free table, one that was probably free because it was annoyingly near the door, shattering even the illusion of privacy when new groups of people came in every three minutes. And both Rodney's and John's eyes were irresistibly and annoyingly drawn to the door every time it opened.

Because of that, John saw SG-1 entering the same time Rodney did: sans O'Neill and plus a new guy, with some woman with her black hair in pigtails trailing after them. And at pretty much the same instant that the new guy casually turned to glance at them, the way nearly everyone who had come into the mess had done.

Rodney blinked, because it took him a moment to remember the face, because he'd only seen it in black and white, or unconscious and dark with wounds in a hospital bed. But it was Captain Mitchell Cambron.

No. It was Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell.

Eight, who had been cloned long before John, and snuck onto the grid at the SGC.

Rodney hadn't forgotten, exactly. He'd just decided that Mitchell would disappear into one of the multitude of the SGC gate teams and Rodney would be in Atlantis and would never see or hear about him again. And without John, there hadn't been a reason to find Mitchell anyway. What would Rodney say to him, after all--I loved your brother too? Rodney wasn't even meant to know.

And then John wasn't dead, and they'd come back to the U.S. from the Antarctic outpost only days before they went through the gate possibly never to return, and they hadn't been able to find Mitchell, and then they were in Atlantis and were spending so much time nearly dying that Rodney hadn't really thought about Mitchell at all, though he was certain John had.

And now here he was. Right here.

John stood up so fast his chair crashed over behind him, and the sound in the mess started to drop off as the shockwave from its hitting the floor reverberated through the room. Rodney doubted John even noticed. Not that, nor how all of SG-1 were now staring at him.

"Mitch," John said. He swallowed heavily, obviously fighting for calm. "How you doing, buddy?" His voice was wavering, and he took one step forward, just one. His hand was out like he was trying to feel his way through darkness, or like he was afraid to touch in case Mitchell disappeared. "I kind of thought I'd never see you again."

Mitchell blinked at John. "Shep?" he said, like he couldn't believe it. "Shep?" And then he let out a whoop that threw the entire mess into sudden, total silence, and then he grabbed John and hugged him so hard Rodney winced.

"I couldn't find you, Mitch!" John said, sounding almost accusing now, angry. "I couldn't fucking find you! Oh my God, I can't--I can't believe it. You're here! You're right here." And John let out a sound that Rodney pretended was laughter, and apparently Mitchell did as well, because his laugh was far more genuine.

But whatever answer Mitchell gave to John was drowned out in the wave of applause, started by the woman with the pigtails and spreading out to engulf the entire mess, with the mandatory hooting and whistling in its wake. Almost no one knew what this was about of course, but they all were familiar enough with death and grief and loss that they knew that this obviously unexpected reunion was a moment for tremendous celebration.

Rodney found himself clapping too, as if his hands had leapt up all on their own, and grinning like an idiot even though both Mitchell and John were caught up in shouting into each other's ears and John wasn't even looking at him.

Rodney looked at the rest of SG-1 instead, taking in Sam's bemused smile, Teal'cs stoic, understanding one. The woman Rodney didn't know was beaming like she'd orchestrated the whole thing herself.

And Daniel Jackson winked at him, as if he knew.

Rodney McKay winked right back.

END



Chapter End Notes:
Case-Based Reasoning
Johnny-5 from Short Circuit
Colorado Springs Gazette
The Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada
HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey
The UCCS Observatory
Eddie Rickenbacker (WWI American Flying Ace)
Billy Bishop (WWI Canadian Flying Ace)
Arras Flying Services Memorial
Arlington National Cemetery
Robert Munsch (Children's book author)