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Summary: "You want me to babysit your robots?" (A Companion story to Male Enhancement - The Soul and the Company Store Remix.)

Categories: General
Characters: Cameron Mitchell, John Sheppard, Major Lorne, Other, Radek Zelenka
Genres: AU - Alternate Universe, Character Study, Friendship, Series
Warnings: None
Chapters: 1 [Table of Contents]
Series: Scruffy AI

Word count: 18025; Completed: Yes
Updated: 04 Jan 2008; Published: 04 Jan 2008

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Story Notes:
I wrote this for my sister Squeaky as a Christmas present, and once again I am in her debt because not only did she cheer me on every word of the way, but she also handed me the idea that made the fic work, and even beta-read this sucker in record time and told me she really, really liked it to boot. ::Loves the Squeak::

This story will make no sense unless you've read Male Enhancement (The Soul and the Company Store Remix) first. It is both a prequel and missing scenes.

And I've got more people to thank for this:

Cpt_Untouchable for this post, that started me thinking of the story in the first place. You might notice my firm denial of ever writing a sequel to my original remix. ::coughs::

Springwoof, thank you very, very much, for also doing a lightning-fast beta on this sucker. Springwoof wags and rocks, all the time. (And if anyone missed it before, The fics we've written together are The Body Holographic and Aegis, both of which can be found here.)

Haggy was again fantastically helpful, by reading whatever scenes I sent her and reassuring me that they didn't actually suck, which I needed to hear very, very badly.

My library buddy Scott (no website alas, but he is very cool and incredibly smart, trust me on this one) who has actually worked with robots, was instrumental in helping me figure out the robot communication code. And he said it was fun, bless him.

Finally, I wanted to thank Lavvyan again, because if it wasn't for her Male Enhancement fic (versions one and two, which are still WIPs at the moment), I would never have written the remix fic, or this one.

This was originally posted to the sga_flashfic community as part of the Amnesty 2007 and Men and Machines challenges.

The title is again from the song Sixteen Tons. I couldn't get it out of my head.


Prologue

>Robot 0008 (13:30:00 08/11/2000): MESSAGE all systems within normal parameters
>Robot 0008 (14:00:00 08/11/2000): MESSAGE all systems within normal parameters
>Robot 0008 (14:17:42 08/11/2000): MESSAGE new photo stimulus detected - bearing 243.2 - elevation 0.2
>Robot 0008 (14:17:43 08/11/2000): MESSAGE ALERTING robots in 8 meter radius - new photo stimulus detected
>Robot 0008 (14:17:44 08/11/2000): MESSAGE investigating photo stimulus
>Robot 0008 (14:18:03 08/11/2000): MESSAGE DANGER photo stimulus does not equal power source
>Robot 0008 (14:18:04 08/11/2000): MESSAGE ALERTING robots in 8 meter radius - DANGER photo stimulus does not equal power source
>Robot 0008 (14:18:06 08/11/2000): MESSAGE DANGER caught in power drain sequence (battery 85.7%)
>Robot 0008 (14:18:08 08/11/2000): MESSAGE experiencing power drain (battery 84.3%)
>Robot 0008 (14:47:19 08/11/2000): MESSAGE experiencing power drain (battery 50.0%)
>Robot 0008 (15:02:13 08/11/2000): MESSAGE experiencing power drain (battery 20.0%)
>Robot 0008 (15:11:50 08/11/2000): MESSAGE experiencing power drain (battery 10.0%)
>Robot 0008 (15:15:58 08/11/2000): MESSAGE require immediate recharging (battery 5%)
>Robot 0008 (15:17:24 08/11/2000): MESSAGE require immediate recharging (battery 2.5%)
>Robot 0008 (15:18:02 08/11/2000): MESSAGE require immediate recharging (battery 1%)
>Robot 0008 (15:18:22 08/11/2000): MESSAGE initiating SHUTDOWN sequence - require recharge
>Robot 0008 (15:18:25 08/11/2000): MESSAGE entering SHUTDOWN MODE
>
>
>
>

***

"Yes, yes, I can see it. You can stop hitting me now, please," Radek said tiredly, being careful not to damage the small robot as he gently shoved it aside with his foot. 0007 rolled back about half a meter, whirred as it changed direction, then rammed Radek's foot again. It kept chirping in warning, which was becoming somewhat wearisome. Radek had already checked Seven's assigned terminal to make sure it didn't actually need any maintenance itself, but the only abnormal messages were:

>Robot 0007 (15:20:39 08/11/2000) MESSAGE ALERTING DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA Robot 0008 requires maintenance
>Robot 0007 (15:22:39 08/11/2000) MESSAGE ALERTING DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA Robot 0008 requires maintenance
>Robot 0007 (15:24:39 08/11/2000) MESSAGE ALERTING DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA Robot 0008 requires maintenance
>Robot 0007 (15:25:10 08/11/2000) MESSAGE new object detected – moving 1.34 m/s - bearing 84.6 - elevation 0.1
>Robot 0007 (15:25:12 08/11/2000) MESSAGE signal detected – 01002846 – correlates to DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (02:25:13 08/11/2000) MESSAGE vibration stimulus in human vocal range detected (~2.6kHz)
>Robot 0007 (02:25:14 08/11/2000) MESSAGE investigating DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (02:25:16 08/11/2000) MESSAGE investigating DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (02:25:17 08/11/2000) MESSAGE vibration stimulus in human vocal range detected (~3kHz)

The first message had started at nearly the same second Radek's pager had signaled that one of the robots was down, then repeated every two minutes until Radek arrived. The other messages showed Seven registering Radek entering the room, then recognizing the signal from his pager. And then repeatedly hitting his foot.

But the most significant messages, of course, were the three that Seven had sent to let Bill and himself know that Eight needed help.

Bill had been delighted when Seven had created that particular message specifically for when Eight got into difficulties. Eight had its own, similar code for Seven. Bill insisted that it meant the two robots 'were pals'. Radek was not certain it showed anything more significant than that 0007 and 0008 had each become aware that the other frequently required maintenance. That kind of responsiveness to their environment was obviously of great importance in and of itself, but Radek would not go so far as to assign any kind of...familiarity between the robots because of it.

"I said stop it!" Radek snapped, when Seven rammed his foot yet again, this time hard enough to hurt. He swore in Czech, then sighed. "You know, I would be able to get to Eight that much faster if you stopped trying to trip me."

Seven would have probably rammed his foot again all the same, except at that moment 0006 looped by in one of the odd, interminable circles it occasionally lapsed into and knocked into Seven, causing it to go off course and hit 0010 instead. 0010 (which was somewhat prone to histrionics, Radek had to admit) started chirping as if Seven had smashed it. Then 0006 added its own birdlike noise to the din, perhaps in sympathy with Ten, though a quick look at Six's terminal only showed an 'all systems within normal parameters' message. Six had always been a little strange.

"Enough! Enough!" Radek yelled, which unfortunately didn't stop the noise, but did create a flurry of DANGER maximum vibration stimulus threshold reached/exceeded messages scrolling across all but Eight's terminal screen. "Apologies," Radek muttered, picking his way carefully across the gauntlet of small, tank-treaded robots, most of whom had registered his presence then gone back to rumbling around their enclosure and ignoring him completely. 0004 was hovering by one of the recharging units again, effectively keeping the other robots away while it waited until the unit lit up to show it could be used. The fact that all of the recharging units switched to power draining at random hadn't seemed to register in Four's Core Processor yet, which meant that Radek or Bill were forced to come and rescue it half the time as well.

Seven and Eight, on the other hand, had learned very quickly that the same unit could either become sustenance or starvation with no warning, and had taken it upon themselves to not only tell the other robots when power was potentially available, but to also warn the others away when it turned out to be harmful instead. Bill had even noticed both Seven and Eight 'testing' the units, then generously pulling back to allow the other robots to recharge first. He wasn't sure which robot had developed this particular behavior initially--'heroic self-sacrifice' Bill called it, though Radek thought that was a little much--but they both did it so readily now that Radek and Bill's reports attributed the altruism equally to each of them.

"See what becomes of those who are too nice?" Radek asked Eight's translucent red dome. The light behind it had shut off, and the little robot was completely still in his hand like a toy waiting to be turned on. The power-draining unit was still attached to Eight's sides, where it had latched on so the robot wouldn't be able to flee. "There is a saying--'no good deed goes unpunished.' You must learn that, I think."

Seven rammed Radek's foot again.

"And you," Radek said, glaring down at the little blue dome, "need to learn when to stop. Can you not see I am about to help your companion? There." He flicked the switch on the unit over to 'recharge'. The clamps disengaged, so Radek needed to use both hands now to make sure neither the charging unit nor the robot fell to the floor. Seven parked itself right next to his foot, but thankfully didn't try to hit him again. The possibility that it had somehow understood what Radek had just said was intriguing.

>Robot 0007 (15:26:54 08/11/2000) MESSAGE vibration stimulus in human vocal range detected (~2.8kHz)
>Robot 0007 (15:26:57 08/11/2000) MESSAGE Robot 0008 receiving maintenance

"Finally, yes. Thank you," Radek said. "I am so glad you noticed before you broke my foot. Here." He gently set Eight down beside Seven, in the spot it had been when Radek had picked it up. Eight's light turned on a moment later, glowing cheerfully red through the dome. Its terminal screen showed that the robot was recharging. "There." Radek straightened. "All is well now, yes? I can go to lunch, perhaps?" He shook his head. "Please try not to get into trouble while I am gone. I do not like to leave my meals unfinished."

He began picking his way among the robots again, this time going towards the door. As soon as he'd moved out of the way, Seven scooted in front of Eight and stopped there, as if making sure none of the other robots bothered his....

Radek grimaced. "You are becoming overly sentimental, Radek," he admonished himself. "Bad enough that you speak to robots. You should not call them 'friends' just because that is the first word that comes into your mind. Where is empirical evidence?" He scowled as he was finally able to step over the low wall on the far end of the robot enclosure, nearest the door.

He saw Bill jogging up, puffing, as the door to their AI lab slid open. Bill obviously realized that Radek had already solved the problem and slowed to a walk, panting and wiping his forehead. He held up his pager and waggled it, to show that he had also been alerted when a problem had occurred with one of the robots.

"All is well," Radek said, going to meet with him. He looked over his shoulder as the door closed, but all he could see was their small collection of ten multi-colored robots, Seven in front of Eight, still as a sentinel. Guarding...well, guarding the other one.




>Robot 0007 (02:00:00 08/15/2000) MESSAGE all systems within normal parameters
>Robot 0007 (02:08:50 08/15/2000) MESSAGE new vibration stimulus detected
>Robot 0007 (02:08:51 08/15/2000) MESSAGE ALERTING robots in 8 meter radius - new vibration stimulus detected
>Robot 0007 (02:08:53 08/15/2000) MESSAGE new object detected – moving 3.13 m/s - bearing 102.14 - elevation 0.1
>Robot 0007 (02:08:54 08/15/2000) MESSAGE ALERTING robots in 8 meter radius - new object detected
>Robot 0007 (02:08:55 08/15/2000) MESSAGE investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:08:56 08/15/2000) MESSAGE vibration stimulus in human vocal range detected (~4kHz)
>Robot 0007 (02:08:57 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER maximum vibration stimulus threshold reached/exceeded
>Robot 0007 (02:08:59 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER Robot 0006 structural integrity possibly compromised
>Robot 0007 (02:09:01 08/15/2000) MESSAGE investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:02 08/15/2000) MESSAGE Robot 0008 investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:03 08/15/2000) MESSAGE investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:04 08/15/2000) MESSAGE Robot 0008 investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:05 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER Robot 0008 structural integrity possibly compromised
>Robot 0007 (02:09:06 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER structural integrity possibly compromised
>Robot 0007 (02:09:18 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER Robot 0002 structural integrity possibly compromised
>Robot 0007 (02:09:19 08/15/2000) MESSAGE Robot 0008 investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:20 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER tread malfunction detected
>Robot 0007 (02:09:21 08/15/2000) MESSAGE investigating object
>Robot 0007 (02:09:22 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER structural integrity possibly compromised
>Robot 0007 (02:09:23 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER sonar sensor malfunction detected
>Robot 0007 (02:09:24 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER photo sensor malfunction detected
>Robot 0007 (02:09:25 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER vibration sensor malfun----Robot 0007 communication channel to Robot 0008 lost
>Robot 0007 (02:09:26 08/15/2000) MESSAGE DANGER maximum vibration stimulus threshold reached/exceeded
>Robot 0007 (02:09:27 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0008 – attempt 1/3...attempt failed
>Robot 0007 (02:09:28 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0008 – attempt 2/3...at----COMMUNICATON CHANNEL FROM TERMINAL 0007 TO ROBOT 0007 LOST

***

Sometimes Major Evan Lorne wondered what it said about his career choice in general, and the SGC in particular, that he wasn't surprised when the easiest way to track Captain Strickland was by the trail of bodies he had left between the infirmary and the lower-level laboratories.

Evan figured it probably also said something about him that he wasn't even remotely surprised that someone coming back from off-world had suddenly lost it during his routine post-mission exam and gone tearassing down the corridor, screaming at the top of his lungs. Evan wasn't sure what it said about him exactly, though, except that maybe he'd been going through the gate a little too often, if this kind of chaos and panic had become sort of routine.

"These things always happen on Tuesday," said Ford, jogging along beside him, and Evan glanced over at him right after telling Doctor Chow to go to the infirmary to get her shiner looked at.

"I think you've been here too long," Evan said.

"No, seriously!" Ford insisted. He was a Second Lieutenant, barely over twenty-one, and still so driven and enthusiastic that he made Evan feel about a million years old. "Tuesday is always the day weird crap like this happens. Ask anyone."

"It wasn't Tuesday on the planet Strickland's team was visiting," Evan said, not entirely sure why he was continuing the conversation. But right then they found Doctor Lee, so Ford didn't answer.

Doctor Lee was sitting against the wall, looking dazed and in pain with his hands cupped over his obviously broken nose, if the bruises spreading around his eyes were any indication.

"Doctor Lee!" Ford exclaimed, crouching down next to him. "Are you okay, sir?"

"No," Lee said miserably. He blinked up at Ford, and Evan remembered that the man wore glasses normally, but he didn't have them. A quick look around showed them smashed several feet down the corridor. "What happened? I was just going to get coffee--"

"Captain Strickland was bitten by an insect off-world," Evan supplied quickly. "He's not lucid right now. He got out of the infirmary."

Lee sniffed, winced, then his eyes widened. "Oh! Is he going to be all right?"

"Absolutely, Sir," Ford jumped right in, thank God, lying through his perfect teeth. "We just need to get him back to the infirmary." Doctor Fraiser was still trying to figure out what the hell had even happened to Strickland, as far as Evan knew, though it wasn't as if he'd had time to ask. The priority had been making sure Strickland didn't hurt himself or anyone else. Or at least as few people as possible, since the 'not hurting anyone else' part had effectively become null and void about two Airmen, one Marine and three civilians ago. Luckily no one had been seriously injured; Evan just hoped they could keep it that way.

"Let's get you to the infirmary, Sir," Ford said. He started helping a decidedly woozy Doctor Lee to his feet, giving a quick glance to Evan, who nodded.

"Thank you," Lee said weakly. He started down the corridor leaning heavily on Ford, as they went back the way Ford and Evan had come. "Oh, wait!" Lee said. He turned awkwardly, still gripping Ford's jacket. "He stole my ID!" Lee peered at Evan with bleary concern. "Please, don't let him get into the lab!"

Evan nodded, and took off running.

***

There were a lot of laboratories in this part of the base, but the blood-curdling scream echoing down the corridor was probably a pretty good indication of which one Strickland was in. Evan skidded to a stop in front of the nearest lab door, swiped his own ID and raced inside with his Zat up and ready, as soon as the door slid open.

Strickland was there, still screaming, and stomping on one of ten little robots, each about the size of two stacked paperbacks, with a colored dome and treads. At least two of the robots--one splintered dome was sunshine yellow, the other dark green--had been broken beyond repair, crushed beneath Strickland's military-issue boots. Another one, this one blinking angry red with an '8' stenciled on its side, kept backing up and ramming one of Strickland's feet, even though it was listing heavily, obviously damaged.

Evan quickly fired his Zat once, hitting Strickland squarely in the chest. Strickland's unholy screaming trailed into a quiet whimper as he collapsed, hitting loudly against the metal floor. Evan winced on Strickland's behalf, even though the guy wouldn't be able to feel anything until after he woke up. As soon as Strickland was quiet, Evan could hear chirping from all the still-intact robots. He didn't know if it was a warning noise or what, but it was damn loud.

He holstered the Zat and checked Strickland's pulse, which was fast but steady, and arranged him as comfortably as possible among the robots. '8' kept trying to ram him and Strickland, apparently at random, though it was listing so badly it could barely move at a crawl. Evan watched it bemusedly as he radioed in that Strickland had been found and subdued, shouting over the chirping, and let the infirmary know where the Captain was. Then he went over to Strickland's last victim and picked it up.

Its badly-cracked dome was blue, the bulb inside shattered, and there was a '7' on its side. The two treads had been flattened, though Evan could still hear a tiny, sickly whir, as if the little robot was still trying to move, maybe to get away.

"It's okay, little guy," Evan said. He felt faintly ridiculous--it wasn't as if the robot could hear him, or even understand what he was saying. But still, when the whirring suddenly stopped, Evan felt kind of bad, like the robot had just died in his hand.

He put it gently on the nearest lab table, and then leaned against the table himself, waiting for the medics to get there. '8' bumped against his boot again, then just sat there, as if it had run out of juice. On a whim, Evan picked it up too.

"What the hell's your problem?" he asked it, holding the robot at eye level. "I'm not the one who was stomping on you or your buddy. Here." He put it on the table next to '7', as much to prevent it hitting him again as anything. "See? He's right there."

'8's red light blinked for a moment, and there was even more of the Godawful chirping, then the robot started whirring madly, as if trying to get nearer to '7', but it's broken treads seemed to have finally given out, and it couldn't move.

"Fine," Evan said. He nudged it a little closer to 7.

Nothing happened for a couple seconds, then a new line of text appeared on one of the ten terminal screens lined up against the opposite wall of the room.

>Robot 0008 (02:12:01 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0007 – attempt 1/3...attempt failed
>Robot 0008 (02:12:02 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0007 – attempt 2/3...attempt failed
>Robot 0008 (02:12:03 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0007 – attempt 3/3...attempt failed
>Robot 0008 (02:12:04 08/15/2000) MESSAGE attempting to reestablish communication channel to Robot 0007 – attempt 1/3...attempt failed

The same message, over and over again. Evan blinked and then looked at the little red-domed robot on the table. It didn't look like it was doing anything, but those messages had to come from somewhere. It was kind of creepy, and kind of sad.

Evan shuddered despite himself and looked away, trying to ignore the chirping and waiting for the medics to come.

***

"Hey, Doc," Evan said. "Docs," he amended when he saw Lee. He gestured at his face. "How's the nose?"

"Fine, fine," Lee said. He smiled uncomfortably. "A little painful, actually. Doctor Fraiser says it's healing well, though." He lifted his hand as if he wanted to scratch under the large plastic cast. It looked like an alien moth taking up most of his face. Lee's glasses were perched precariously on top of it, about to slip off any second. Lee's fingers hit the plastic and he dropped his hand with a sigh.

"Bill lies to you," Zelenka said from his slumped perch on one of the lab stools. He sounded a little bitter. "He is not fine, and I am not fine and they are certainly not fine." He pointed to the floor, and Evan realized there were two robots there, the little red and blue ones Strickland had been doing his Godzilla impression on a few days ago. The red one, still with the '8' stenciled on its side, kept nudging '7', strangely gently, as if trying to dislodge it from the corner 7 had wedged itself into, its treads spinning like mad. Zelenka sighed, rubbing at one eye under his glasses. "We have turned off Seven's alarm, so as not to make ourselves deaf."

Right. The chirping. Evan was just as happy about that. "Okay," he said. He scratched the back of his head. "Uh, I don't mean to be rude, Doc, but I have no idea what any of this has to do with you wanting to speak with me."

Lee blinked at him, then looked startled. "Oh! Sorry--of course you wouldn't know, would you? This is highly classified."

Evan looked at Lee sharply, but Zelenka waved his hand.

"Do not worry about that. You will get clearance, if you can truly help." He took another breath. He was beginning to remind Evan of a harassed parent. His sister looked like that with her toddlers from time to time. Zelenka gestured sadly at the robots. "This is going on for days, now. Seven is fine until human it doesn't know comes in. Then all is chaos and tragedy."

Evan looked at Zelenka, his eyebrows shooting up in confusion. "It knows I'm here?"

Zelenka rolled his eyes. "No. It is simple remote-controlled tank we are using to play a practical joke, because we have no vital work to do." He pointed at two terminal screens, apparently replacing the ten that Evan had seen the last time he was in that lab. They both had lines of text appearing almost continuously. "These are sophisticated robot processors, Major, and have recently been reprogrammed. They are aware of everything in this room."

Evan read the nearer screen.

>Robot 0007 (09:02:16 08/23/2000) MESSAGE new object detected – moving 1.50 m/s - bearing 312.08 - elevation 0.3
>Robot 0007 (09:02:17 08/23/2000) MESSAGE vibration stimulus in human vocal range detected (~3kHz)
>Robot 0007 (09:02:18 08/23/2000) MESSAGE DANGER vocal signal does not equal DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (09:02:19 08/23/2000) MESSAGE attempting to avoid human does not equal DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (09:02:21 08/11/2000) MESSAGE Robot 0008 investigating Robot 0007
>Robot 0007 (09:02:22 08/23/2000) MESSAGE communication from Robot 0008 – investigate human does not equal DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA
>Robot 0007 (09:02:23 08/23/2000) MESSAGE attempting to avoid human does not equal DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA

Evan bobbed back a bit, surprised and more than a little impressed. "That's from the robots' heads?"

"That's right," Lee said. He didn't look much happier than Zelenka, though he seemed more hopeful. He made a weird gesture by his ear. "It's a way for us to know what they're thinking. Which is why we know that Seven is now terrified of any human he--I mean it, sorry--doesn't recognize. Since, um, Captain Strickland crushed it."

--Which seemed like a pretty reasonable reaction, actually, but it was obvious that it wasn't making the two scientists very happy. "Jeff's really sorry about that, by the way," Evan said. "And about breaking your nose."

Lee gave a small smile. "Well, I'm glad he's all right."

"Yes, well, much as I am ecstatic to know the man who destroyed two of our robots suffered no permanent damage from the malevolent insect; that does not solve our problem." He gestured at the two robots again, the blue one still fleeing uselessly for its mechanical life, and the red one apparently still uselessly trying to make it see reason. "Seven is not 'terrified'"--Zelenka shot a mild glare at Lee--"because these robots are not capable of feeling emotion. But it will not be able to learn how to interact with humans if it is convinced that everyone who is not Bill or myself will stomp on it."

"I get that," Evan said. More text spilled onto Seven's terminal--it looked like its battery was running low. Evan wondered if it was overheating as well. "But I'm still not sure what you want me to do about it."

"Well, um." Lee looked a little embarrassed. "We were hoping...you could talk to him? It?"

"Get Seven used to humans," Zelenka clarified, as Evan was staring at Lee in shock. "Since you already rescued Seven and Eight, we are hoping they will be more prone to...accepting you is best term, I think. As mentor."

Evan looked at him, then at the robots, then back at Zelenka. "You want me to babysit your robots?"

"Well, yeah, sort of," Lee chimed in, and Evan started staring at him instead. Seven was still whirring desperately in the background. "Just, get them used to people again, you know?" He rubbed the side of his plastic-covered nose, then winced. "Seven has to be able to interact with people. It's vital to the project."

"What project?" Evan asked. "And, um, I'm scheduled for Gate missions. I don't think I'm going to have time for this." And the idea of playing robot whisperer, or whatever the hell Lee and Zelenka wanted was just really weird.

That got another dismissive hand wave from Zelenka. "General Hammond will allow you to be seconded to us. This is important enough for it."

"What?" Evan snapped his mouth shut so he wouldn't gape. His eyes were drawn back to the two robots. They looked about as important as a high school science fair project. He blinked and looked at Zelenka and Lee again. "You're really going to have to tell me what the hell's going on," he said.

Zelenka sighed. "Yes, of course." He slid off his lab stool. "You will need to come with me."

***

He hadn't expected to see the corpses.

Okay, they weren't corpses. And it was really only pieces of them. Like unfinished mannequins: a metal face with hollow eye sockets, like a funeral mask, resting on the table beside the empty bowl of a skull. A single leg, sharp metal like in the Terminator, every joint and tendon visible--something yellow that wasn't plastic. Two arms, with beautifully articulated hands, lying palm-up and empty, long fingers fitted with the translucent perfection of nails. Ribs lying separate like museum pieces. No pelvis, yet. No collarbones. No muscles or nerves or skin.

"Later," Zelenka had said, almost apologetically, his fingers lightly stroking along something that wasn't bone. "Later they will have skin and real faces and hair, everything they will need to look human, like you or me." He had smiled then, proud and smug and somehow shy. "This is my specialty, here--the bodies. Not just the frames, but the internal functions." He'd gestured at his chest, then his head. "The heart and lungs, and the brain."

The heart and lungs, and the brain. This was what the tiny little tank-treaded robots were going to be, Zelenka had explained. AI that looked and moved and sounded like humans. And Major Evan Lorne, apparently, was going to help teach them how to act like them.

"I don't get it," he said. It was hard to tear his eyes away from the metal bones--they looked like skeletons, polished to a sheen. Like he was in a morgue. "Why are you doing this? What's it for?"

And Zelenka had just smiled. "That," he said, "is what I cannot tell you. But I promise it is as important as the Stargate."

So the robots were going to be on Gate teams, Evan figured. It made sense, in a way. Maybe they were going to use robots instead of people, save lives. But it was hard to believe that would ever really happen. Maybe they'd just have a few, like MALPS.

Evan scratched the back of his head. He wondered what they would look like, when they were finished. Right now it was impossible to imagine. He wondered if he'd recognize them.

"And what do you want me to do, exactly?" Evan asked. "I don't really have any experience with...." He trailed off. He didn't even know what this was. 'Mentoring', Zelenka had said. That was as good a word as any. "Mentoring." At least not with robots.

Zelenka shrugged. "We are none of us experts, Major. Bill insists it will be like raising children. I am not so sure. But what I am sure of is that numbers Seven and Eight were the most promising of all the robots for the next stages of the project, before Captain Strickland damaged them. And if Seven will not interact with other people now, we will have no project at all."

"I'll have to relocate to Nevada," Evan said, though Zelenka had already told him that.

"Yes," Zelenka said. "You have already seen how easily things can go badly, here. The robots will be safer at Area 51."

Evan nodded slowly, his eyes drifting back to the skeletons again. "Will you still want me to do the mentoring thing when...." He gestured with his chin at the two lab tables, side-by side like cemetery vaults. "When they're finished?"

"I don't know," Zelenka said, but he was nodding. "But I think yes. Likely, yes."

Robots who looked and sounded and moved exactly like humans. "Aliens." He hadn't meant to say the word out loud, but it fit--that's exactly what they would be.

Zelenka looked startled for a moment, then his expression became considering. "Aliens. Yes. I suppose that is so. They will be aliens you will have to teach to behave so that no one knows they are aliens. Like Teal'c, or the other, Nyan."

Evan had never really met Nyan, though he was aware he worked with Doctor Jackson. But he knew who he was, and he'd seen the guy a few times in the mountain. He always seemed a little bit confused, out of his depth, like every time he'd thought he'd figured Earth out, someone threw something else at him he couldn't understand. And it wasn't like Evan had ever felt bad for him or anything, just more like he'd never wanted to be in his shoes: always feeling like everyone else knew the subtext, or the joke, or the special secret handshake he just couldn't get.

"I guess it might be interesting," Evan said quietly, and he didn't realize he'd actually agreed to do it until Zelenka beamed at him.

***

Evan had had dogs as a kid. He knew how to deal with dogs. That was the only thing he could think of that might work here.

Seven and Eight had been milling around quietly, checking out some of the random objects and obstacles in their enclosure, right up until Evan walked through the door again. And then Seven went insane.

Evan didn't have to look at Seven's terminal to know that something along the lines of 'Run away! Run away!' would be covering the whole screen. Seven seemed to have already learned that just running itself into a wall wouldn't work, which made Evan's eyes widen, considering it'd only been an hour since he was last in the room. Now, the little robot kept darting this way and that, depending on which direction it seemed to anticipate Evan moving in, instead of making itself an easy target.

"It's okay, Seven," Lee said. He was crouched down next to the enclosure, one hand on the low plastic wall for balance. He was crooning, as if he was trying to calm an upset child. "Major Lorne is your friend. He's not going to hurt you. See? Eight knows Lorne's nice--why don't you come say hello the way Eight is?"

Evan didn't think that Eight was 'saying hello', exactly--it seemed more wary than that--but it did come near the wall in front of Evan's feet, which he figured meant something good.

"Hi," Evan said, feeling self-conscious, then took Lee's lead and sat cross-legged on the floor next to the wall. "Uh...my name's Evan. Zelenka and Lee thought it would be a good idea for me to get to know you guys." Evan could feel his face heating up, but he ignored it. Zelenka had been adamant that the robots were aware of him, and they could obviously communicate, at least in a limited way, so there was no reason for him to feel embarrassed, even though to any stranger who walked in it would look like he was talking to a toy.

Seven was on the far side of the enclosure, at a standstill behind a large plastic triangle and whirring softly, as if getting ready to bolt if Evan so much as twitched. Evan thought about dogs and ignored it, talking to Eight instead.

He told Eight that he was an Airman who went through the Stargate, though he didn't have a permanent team. He talked about geological engineering, and how he'd painted with his mom as a kid, and how he loved to fly and how he still missed that sometimes, though he liked going through the Stargate more.

Eventually the floor got really uncomfortable, and Evan's throat was getting sore from all the talking. It was also really strange to be carrying on a one-sided conversation--it felt like he was giving his Master's dissertation, which hadn't been that much fun the first time--though occasionally Doctor Lee would ask him questions or make comments, which Evan appreciated.

Still, he'd been stuck on the floor talking to a robot for nearly two hours. At the very least he needed some lunch.

"Do you want to get some chow, doc?" Evan asked as he pulled himself to his feet a little painfully. He figured they could swing by the other lab (the skeleton lab, Evan kept trying not to call it in his head) and pick up Zelenka as well, because Evan wanted to talk to him about the robots some more. Now that he'd signed the clearance forms, he also thought he had the right to make some suggestions, like new vocabulary the robots could use to make their messages more specific.

Eight edged a little closer to him as Evan stood, and Evan smiled. "Don't worry, little guy," he said. "I'll be back soon. I just need to eat something."

Out of the corner of his eye, Evan saw Seven move, just a little bit, as if peeking out from behind the triangle. And three lines of new code blinked into life on the second terminal.

>Robot 0007 (11:46:24 08/23/2000) MESSAGE communication from Robot 0008 – vocal signal = MAJOREVANLORNE
>Robot 0007 (11:46:25 08/23/2000) MESSAGE communication from Robot 0008 – investigate MAJOREVANLORNE
>Robot 0007 (11:46:25 08/23/2000) MESSAGE investigating MAJOREVANLORNE

Evan grinned, then shared it with Lee, who looked so relieved that for an uncomfortable second Evan thought he was going to cry. For his part, Evan felt like pumping his fist in the air and hollering, but he was sure that would be a bad idea, so he didn't.

But he couldn't stop grinning, all the way to Zelenka's lab, then all the way to the mess, and for a while after that.

***

>Quadruped 07 (19:32:00 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication to MAJOREVANLORNE – Sing TWINKLETWINKLELITTLESTAR
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:02 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication to MAJOREVANLORNE – Sing TWINKLETWINKLELITTLESTAR
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:03 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication to MAJOREVANLORNE – this unit will not enter SLEEP MODE in absence of TWINKLETWINKLELITTLESTAR
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:04 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication to MAJOREVANLORNE – Sing TWINKLETWINKLELITTLESTAR
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:07 11/27/2001) MESSAGE vocal signal = TWINKLETWINKLELITTLESTAR
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:10 11/27/2001) MESSAGE vocal signal falls within acceptable parameters
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:12 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication from Quadruped 08 – this unit attempting to enter SLEEP MODE
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:15 11/27/2001) MESSAGE communication to DRWILLIAMLEE/DRRADEKZELENKA – this unit will not enter SLEEP MODE
>Quadruped 07 (19:32:16 11/27/2001) MESSAGE entering SLEEP MODE

***

Evan walked down the corridor towards the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Area 51. He was carrying Seven and Eight, one under each arm, and a small soccer ball in his hand. Both of the quadruped robots were whirring contentedly, their stumpy little legs moving back and forth, and Evan was sure his portable terminal was filling up with all kinds of messages asking about the stuff they were passing in the corridor (explain purpose of colored lights, MAJOREVANLORNE?), or expressing satisfaction at having spent most of the afternoon chasing around after the ball. The metal sides of the rectangle-shaped robots were dusty, and still warm from the sun.

Evan was whistling, sunburned and happy, and already thinking about what he was going to do with the quadrupeds the next day. He figured another hike would be good, just around the base. Both the little robots' walking skills had improved tremendously over the last few months, but a little more practice couldn't hurt. Besides, they liked to race each other, even though Seven won most of the time.

He was thinking it might be good to get some more flashcards too, improve their vocabulary. The quadrupeds learned really, really fast, but Evan was still noticing a tendency to use the same words over and over again, and Eight especially enjoyed assimilating new ways of saying things.

But right now it was time to get the little guys down for the night, and Evan had promised them he'd start another read-through of The Brave Little Toaster before it was time for Sleep Mode. Evan didn't really like the book very much, but Bill had recommended it since he thought the quadrupeds needed good role-models. And the robots kept saying how acceptable they found it, so Evan wasn't going to argue.

Radek had been absent for days--squirreled away in his new skeleton lab, Evan figured--so it was no surprise that he wasn't in the lab that the quadrupeds lived in and where Bill worked most of the time. Seven asked about Radek's whereabouts a lot, though he seemed satisfied with Evan's explanation that Radek had a lot of work to do. But Evan still wished that the Czech would make more of an effort to drop in from time to time.

Bill was there, though, just like Evan had been certain he would be, and he smiled broadly when he saw Evan carrying Seven and Eight.

"Hi, guys!" Bill said. He rushed over and took the nearer robot, and Evan smiled at him gratefully. Bill carried Seven over to its cot and gently set it down. Seven tucked its legs under itself and rolled onto its side. "Wow, you're warm! Did you have a good day? It looks like you did--you're both all dusty. I guess you played a lot, huh?"

Evan put Eight down as well, then shook out his arms, smiling to himself as he listened to Bill chatting at the two robots. He put the soccer ball back in the toy box and watched as the terminals indicated that they were sending and receiving signals from the two quadrupeds. He fished the portable terminal out of his pocket and scanned it, chuckling at the messages but not finding any that couldn't wait until the morning to be answered.

"Okay," Evan said, stretching. "Who wants to hear The Brave Little Toaster again?" He laughed as both terminal screens filled up, Eight's with enthusiastic repetitions of 'TOASTERTOASTERTOASTER', and Seven's more sedate 'that would be acceptable, MAJOREVANLORNE'.

"Um, would you mind if I read to them tonight, Evan?" Bill asked him. He sounded sad.

"Sure," he said, wondering what was wrong. He knew Bill had kids of his own, though he was pretty sure the scientist was divorced, though he hadn't wanted to pry by asking him. Maybe something had gone wrong at home. He turned towards the two robots. "Is it okay if Doctor Lee reads the story to you, guys?" Both screens indicated that the quadrupeds thought that was fine, so Evan grabbed the book off the shelf and gave it to Bill. "Knock yourself out--I'll just go to the mess, then. Get some dinner."

Bill nodded, though he looked uncertain now, and no happier. "Do you...would you mind coming back in about half an hour? They should be asleep then, and I need to talk to you."

Evan blinked. "Okay," he said, wondering what the hell was wrong. Obviously something bad enough that Bill didn't want the kids to hear it, which meant Evan probably didn't want to hear it, either. Evan just hoped it didn't concern the quadrupeds.

He said goodnight to the robots and went to the mess, but he didn't have much of an appetite anymore. Half an hour moved so slowly it felt like he was in a time dilation field.

***

"We shouldn't talk here," Bill said as soon as Evan got back. He sounded like they were in a Cold War conspiracy movie. He started down the corridor, gesturing for Evan to follow.

Evan went with him, getting more and more nervous all the time. He wasn't really surprised that they ended up in the skeleton lab, or to see Radek there, blinking up at them as if he hadn't expected the intrusion, and then Evan saw the two pale bodies and leapt backwards with a yell.

He was automatically reaching for a gun he hadn't carried in over a year, because those were corpses, each laid out neatly on a lab table as if about to be autopsied, and Radek had been doing something to one of them, and then Evan suddenly remembered the metal bones and why he kept calling this place the skeleton lab in his head, and how Radek had said his specialty was the bodies.

The bodies. Not just the frames, Radek had said. These weren't corpses; they had never been alive.

"Holy fuck," Evan said quietly. He was breathing like he'd just run a marathon, and he was sure his face was as white as Radek's lab coat. He kind of wanted to sit down. "Holy fuck." He swallowed, looking at Bill. "This...was this what you wanted to tell me?" He looked back at Radek, who was staring at him in open shock. "What, why are you showing this to me?"

Radek blinked, then pushed his glasses further up his nose. "I was not going to show this to you, Major," he said tartly. He looked at his colleague. "I have not finished with them yet. I need you to go away now, please, so I may work."

"I'm sorry!" Bill said, looking miserable. "I really didn't mean to scare you, Evan. I just...I thought this was a better place to talk, and--"

"This is not better place to talk," Radek cut in, "because I am working."

"And you needed to know that the AIs are getting their new bodies tomorrow," Bill finished. He pointed, needlessly, at the two still forms on the tables.

"Okay," Evan said softly, mostly because he had no idea what to say. Almost despite himself he moved closer, ignoring Radek's scowl.

The bodies were male, which Evan supposed shouldn't surprise him, since Bill called the quadrupeds 'he' a lot of the time though he tried not to. They looked older than Evan's age, which did surprise him. He'd always imagined that they'd be adolescents or something, when they got the human-form bodies, because the quadrupeds were so obviously children. When he'd thought about it, which wasn't often. But these were definitely adults, somewhere in their mid-thirties, he figured, though with them being so still and--empty was the best word he could come up with--it was hard to tell.

They were handsome men, too, which he hadn't expected either. Evan had just assumed that Radek wouldn't want the human bodies to be memorable. But maybe it was an aesthetic thing, since he'd designed them.

The one Radek had been working on had short brown hair, but its eyes were closed, so Evan couldn't see the color. Its torso had a square hole in it, with part of the pale chest laid neatly aside. It was a gaping silver mass of metal and wires.

Evan looked up and away from the bodies, over at Bill, and pulled his hands behind his back so he wouldn't be tempted to touch. It felt wrong to do that, like an invasion of privacy. But part of him wanted to know if the skin was as cold as it looked, or if the hair would feel real or plastic, like a doll.

"This is happening tomorrow?" Evan asked, knowing his amazement, his disbelief, would carry in his voice. The bodies didn't look like they could ever have anything living in them. He thought of Seven and Eight, sleeping quietly on their cots in Bill's lab, dusty and warm from the sun, and the idea of forcing their vibrant, joyous intelligence into these...husks was enough to make him shiver with revulsion. "Why didn't you tell them?" His voice got louder. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

"You knew this was the outcome when you agreed to participate in the project," Radek said mildly. He seemed to have given up on trying to work.

"I didn't know when!" Evan shot back, betrayed and angry. He hadn't thought about it. He always knew it was coming, it was inevitable, but the little quadrupeds had seemed so, self-contained, so perfect as they were, that he'd put it out of his mind. He'd never thought there wouldn't even be any warning, when it finally happened. He glared accusingly at Bill. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Bill still looked as sad as he had upstairs, but now there was defiance, as well. "Did you ever read Pinocchio?" he asked.

"I think I saw the movie," Evan said.

"So you know the basic plot, then," Bill said. Evan nodded warily. "How the wooden puppet has to prove himself so that he can become a real boy?"

"Yeah." Evan nodded again, then looked back at the two robot bodies. They seemed less real than the quadrupeds had ever been. "So?"

"So..." Bill took a breath. "How do you think you would feel, Major, to know for your whole life that you weren't good enough as you were, but that, eventually, you'd become something better?"

Evan stared at him. "I think I'd feel pretty normal, actually." Wasn't that the point of existence? To strive to become better than you were? His mom had always told him that.

"I think what he means," Radek said, "is that he didn't want the robots to feel, hm, inferior, I think. Yes. He did not want the robots to feel inferior as they were, if they knew they were not going to stay in those bodies." He smiled thinly. "He thought it would damage their 'self-esteem'. I argued that there was no esteem for their selves to have, but he does not listen."

"And we, uh, didn't tell you because we thought you would tell them," Bill said. He had taken off his glasses, and was fiddling with them guiltily. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Evan said roughly. "Me too." He remembered asking Radek if they'd still want him to keep mentoring the robots, once they were in the new bodies, and Radek had said probably, but that he wasn't sure. It had seemed like such a distant thing at the time, with Seven and Eight still running on treads and each smaller than a tissue box. Evan wished he'd thought more about it, now.

It was really, really hard imagining Seven and Eight in these new bodies; really hard imagining how he'd even relate to them. "Which is which?" he asked suddenly, surprising himself.

Bill looked surprised, too. "Oh, um...that one, the one Radek's still working on, that's Eight. Or, will be Eight, I mean. The other one is Seven."

"Okay, thanks," Evan said. He stepped a little closer to Eight, looking down at the smooth, blank features, trying to imagine the quadruped in there. Tried to imagine the still face animated, the lifeless body moving. It was almost impossible.

"I really am sorry," Bill said again, and now that tiny bit of defiance was back. "But I still stand by my decision. I think it was the right thing to do."

"What time?" Evan snapped.

Bill blinked. "Um, six." He looked at Radek, who shrugged, then nodded. "Yes. Um, six. Six in the morning."

"I'll be here," Evan said. Then he turned and left, so he wouldn't have to keep seeing the bodies his quadrupeds were going to be.

***

Evan waited tensely next to the foot of the lab table were Seven's new body was lying. He was standing at parade rest because he didn't really know what to do with himself, and Bill and Radek didn't need him here. But Seven's Memory was going to be moved into this body any minute now, and Evan wasn't going to leave.

The little quadruped was still in Sleep Mode, only vaguely aware that something drastic was about to happen. Evan was just thankful that he'd been able to convince both Seven and Eight to go back into Sleep Mode while he carried them here from Bill's lab. He was amazed and gratified that the robots had trusted him that much, Seven especially, but he wasn't sure now that he'd done the right thing. Watching Radek run the final connections between Seven and its new body, Evan realized guiltily that he hadn't wanted to deal with either of the robots' panicking or refusing to go through with it. Sleep Mode hadn't been for their comfort, but his.

Eight was settled quietly on the floor underneath the lab table its new body was on. Its Memory would be transferred next; Radek could only do the procedure one at a time.

Radek clicked what looked like a USB cord into a socket behind the body's ear and stepped back, adjusting his glasses. He seemed as anxious as Evan felt, which Evan hoped wasn't a bad sign. "Very well, I am finished," he said. He looked at Bill, who was hovering nervously next to a terminal. "Whenever you are ready."

"Great, great," Bill said. His fingers hovered over the terminal keyboard, but he hesitated, licking his lips. He looked at Seven's waiting body. "Um, do you think we should maybe get some more clothes...?"

Radek took a breath. "The scrub pants are sufficient. We can bring them shirts later."

"Okay," Bill said, though he didn't sound entirely convinced. Evan could see his point, but he really doubted the robots would care if they were wearing shirts or not, or anything at all. He was sure they'd have more to worry about.

"I'll sure miss the little guys," Bill said.

"Bill," Radek said, with zero patience.

Bill blinked. "Right." He turned to the terminal screen. "Okay, here we go." He hit a few keys in obvious sequence. "Transfer in three...two...one...."

Evan grit his teeth, waiting.

"Transfer complete," Bill said, voice hushed. His eyes were fixed on the body, as all theirs were. "I, I guess we should see--" Radek shot him a quick glare, and he lapsed into silence.

Evan couldn't name the exact moment he knew Seven was there, in the body. But suddenly it was inhabited, like the difference between death and sleep. And it was nothing like the quadruped's intelligence had been shoved into a husk, the way Evan had feared. It was like a waiting vessel had been given a soul.

"Oh my God," Evan breathed. And as if it had heard him, Seven's fingers curled slowly, like a child waking. One leg bent. And then the new robot opened its eyes.

It stared up at the ceiling, unblinking for a long moment, then it moved its eyes back and forth, as if looking for something familiar.

"Hey, buddy," Evan said, and Seven's eyes fastened on him instantly, though it didn't speak. Evan stepped closer, a twist of unease working its way down his spine. The quadrupeds had never been this silent. "You're in your new body now. I know it must be a little strange for you, but it's okay, you're--"

Seven's lips moved, and Evan shut up immediately. It was obvious that Seven was trying to talk, but it wasn't working. The only sound it made was a tiny, keening wail, like a sick baby. It made Evan's skin crawl. It was moving more now as well: odd, almost spastic motions of its arms and legs, the fingers jerking. Its eyes hadn't blinked yet, but Evan saw them widen, moving frantically. Seven was obviously terrified.

Evan stepped forward, to touch Seven, but Radek was in his way. And before Evan could tell Radek to move, Radek put his hands on either side of Seven's head, forcing it to turn towards him.

"Look at me," Radek said sharply, the words an obvious command. "Yes, that's it--look at me. Good." He nodded, face kind but unsmiling as Seven's eyes finally stopped darting, focusing on his face. "Now, you must listen. You know how to use this body, Seven. Everything you need is already there, in your Memory. You merely have to access it. Access that information now."

Seven kept staring at Radek, and Evan watched, his hands clenched, fighting the urge to push Radek aside. For a long time nothing seemed to be happening at all, and then Seven relaxed all at once, his eyes finally sliding shut.

The robot's mouth moved again, and this time it was able to speak.

"That was unacceptable," it said, and Evan was startled to hear its voice. It wasn't anything like he'd expected, but he wasn't sure what would have been. Its eyes opened again, and Radek let go of its head and backed up, giving Seven room. Seven sat up, moving carefully, watching everything its body did with keen fascination. "This is me?" It asked finally, rotating its hands palm-up and palm-down as it stared at them.

"Yeah," Evan said. He swallowed. "Yeah, that's you, Seven." He forced a smile. "Welcome to, um, welcome to your new body."

Seven's head jerked up as soon as Evan spoke. It peered at his face, then at Radek and Bill. "MajorEvanLorne?" it asked. It was blinking rapidly, as if trying to get used to it. "I recognize your vocal signature, but your visual representation is different. I am having the same difficulty with DoctorWilliamLee and DoctorRadekZelenka."

"That's because you have eyes now," Bill said. "Use your infrared sensors--you'll see, we look the same that way."

Another moment, and then Seven's mouth spread in a slow, uncertain smile. It looked so (human? Real?) natural on the robot's face, that Evan almost gasped. For a second it had been like looking at a stranger, someone he'd never known at all.

"Visual identification successful," Seven said, still smiling. Then it blinked again, and its face morphed to an expression of alarm. "Eight!" it said, looking around wildly. "There is no communication from Eight! Where is it?" It swung its legs over the side of the lab bench, but instead of sliding off, it fell. Evan darted forward to help Radek, who had reached for Seven automatically but didn't look like he could keep both of them from tumbling onto the floor.

Seven latched onto Evan like he was drowning, and Evan was air and life.

"It's okay," Evan said quickly into Seven's ear. "It's okay. Eight's just fine. He's practically right next to you. Just hold onto me, and I'll take you over there."

"Thank you," Seven said. Evan took a step, moving carefully, and Seven tried to move with him, but it tripped on Evan's foot. Evan grabbed the lab table to keep from falling, and Bill was suddenly right there, grabbing uselessly at his arm to help, but it was a nice gesture. Evan yanked Seven more tightly against him, though it was awkward because Seven was taller than he was. At least Radek was steadying Seven on Evan's other side.

Everyone stood still for a long moment. "You okay?" Evan asked the robot at last. "Ready to try walking again?"

Seven nodded. "Do not let go."

"Don't worry," Evan said, pushing away from the lab table. Bill and Radek stepped back, and Seven thankfully stayed upright anyway, still clinging to Evan. "I've got you. I'm not going anywhere."

***

Evan was woken out of a Nyquil-fueled, restless sleep by someone pounding steadily on his door.

"M'coming," he murmured, shuffling painfully across the million miles between his bed and the door to his quarters. The Nyquil had helped a little, but he had a headache and his skin hurt and he felt shaky and weak, and the air of his room was freezing. He just wanted to go back to bed.

The door burst open as soon as he unlocked it, spilling Seven into the room, closely followed by Eight, who grabbed Evan by his arms when he stumbled backwards.

"Whoa! Hey, you okay, MajorEvanLorne?" Eight made sure Evan was steady, then shot a poisonous glare at Seven. Eight was really good at mimicking human expressions. "He's sick! I told you not to go barging in here! You could've killed him!"

"I'm fine, Mitch, really," Evan said, gently moving out of Eight's grasp, because it was making his skin hurt even more than his sweatshirt was. "Shep wouldn't've killed me, even if he'd hit me with the door." The robots were still learning physical limits--theirs and humans'--and sometimes had difficulty knowing what would do damage or not.

"Yeah, well, Seven needs to be more careful," Eight said. He was still glaring at Seven, who for his part had his arms crossed over his chest, face blank. Evan still wasn't sure if Seven avoided showing emotions on purpose, or if he just wasn't learning how as readily as Eight was. Seven always played everything close to the vest anyway.

Evan ran his fingers through his messy hair. He felt filthy, but hadn't had the energy to take a shower in a couple days. "What's going on, guys?" he asked. Bill had told the robots Evan was sick and wouldn't be up to much for awhile; whatever was upsetting Seven and Eight had to be bad enough that they'd decided it was worth disturbing him.

"Eight has mistakenly processed that I purposely fired my weapon at an Airman on the practice range," Seven said, practically sneering over every word. He tended to have no problem with voice modulation, though again, Eight was still better at it. "I have already repeatedly attempted to explain that it was accidental, because my targeting program is faulty, but Eight refuses to accept it."

Evan sighed inwardly. Seven was pretty good at using normal vocabulary most of the time, but get him riled enough and he reverted back to an audible version of the precise robot-code he used when he had been the much more limited quadruped or tread robot. Normally Evan would call him on it, make him repeat everything in a way that wouldn't bring him undue attention, but right now he didn't have the energy.

"Okay," he said. "You both need to sit down and tell me what the hell's going on." He walked wearily to the nearest chair in the tiny living room and collapsed gratefully into it.

Seven looked at him, his mouth curved in a small, but genuine, frown of concern. "Do you require water?"

"Yeah, water would be great," Evan said wearily. He watched as Seven went stiffly into the bathroom, then turned to Eight. "Did he really shoot at someone on purpose?" Eight's accusation was finally sinking in through the flu and the Nyquil, and Evan was feeling a little bit dumbfounded. He couldn't believe Seven would do something like that.

He looked over to where Seven was still in the bathroom, since he'd left the door open. Seven hadn't turned on the water yet. Instead he was leaning against the sink, gripping the countertop. Evan couldn't see Seven's face, but his whole body was carved in lines of desolation.

"I really wasn't trying to hurt anyone," Seven said quietly, though his voice carried easily in the tiny apartment.

"Seven was happy about it," Eight growled. He had crossed his own arms, still glaring at Seven. "When DoctorRadekZelenka asked what happened, Seven started Joking."

"That's not true!" Seven shot back. He wrenched on the water tap like it had mortally offended him, then shoved the glass under the faucet until it was half full, then ripped it away again. He stalked back into the room, but when he handed Evan the water he was gentle and slow.

"I just told him 'I think my targeting program needs to be tweaked again'," Seven said, and Evan was sure Seven was repeating the words with the exact same tone and inflection he'd used at the practice range. "And that was an accurate assessment! It is malfunctioning!" He glowered at Eight. "Just because your score was perfect--"

"Guys," Evan said, right as Eight was about to respond. Both robots stopped talking immediately and looked at him, and Evan allowed himself a very small smile--he was sure his sister's kids had never done that. He looked at Seven. "Did you shoot at the Airman on purpose?" he asked him point-blank.

Seven looked steadily back at him. "No," he said flatly. "I would never hurt anyone who wasn't trying to hurt me first."

Which was what Evan had taught both Seven and Eight, and it was extremely gratifying to hear it repeated back to him. It was possible that Seven was lying, of course--they both were more than capable of it--but Evan had been with the robots in their human bodies for more than a year now, and he knew Seven was telling the truth.

Evan wasn't even surprised. But while it was fantastic to know that Seven hadn't intentionally aimed at anyone, Eight and Seven were still furious with each other.

"Why did you say Shep had done it on purpose, Mitch?" Evan asked Eight.

Eight looked away from him for a moment, down at the utilitarian beige carpet, then his gaze swept up again, as angry and fierce as before. "Because Seven didn't apologize," Eight snapped.

"I did!" Seven barked back at him. He looked at Evan, his expression pleading, and it was good to see that kind of emotion on Seven's face, his willingness to show it. "I voiced all the appropriate statements of remorse!"

"You didn't mean it," Eight said bitterly. "Seven says all this stuff, but it doesn't mean anything. Seven doesn't care."

Oh, boy. Evan took a long drink of water. His mouth hurt when the cold water hit it, and his throat was sore. He tried not to grimace because it would upset the boys. He really wanted to go back to bed; he barely had the strength to deal with this stuff on his good days, and this was most definitely not one of them. "I think Shep cares a lot," he said finally. "I think he just doesn't want to let anyone know that."

Eight glared at Seven again. "That's stupid."

"It's not stupid," Evan said. "It's just the way he is." He sighed. He really wasn't feeling up to this. "Sometimes...if you let people know how you feel, they can use it against you. Seven doesn't want that to happen to him."

"I don't understand," Eight said. "How can people use what you feel against you? I don't know what that means."

Evan closed his eyes. He put the glass of water down on the end table so he could rub his temples. "It's hard to explain," he said. "You'll understand when you're older."

"I don't want to care about people," Seven said.

Evan's head snapped up, and he instantly regretted it when the room spun gently for a second. Seven was sitting on the couch, as far away from Eight as possible, though they both had their arms crossed. They actually looked pretty funny. Seven's expression was closed and tight, but Evan didn't miss the vulnerability there.

"DoctorWilliamLee says that caring about other people is one of the best things we can do," Eight said. He looked at Evan. "Is that true? That's true, right?"

"Yes," Evan said. "That's true." Maybe a little maudlin, but it'd do.

Seven was looking away from both of them, at the far wall. "Are you going to die?"

Evan blinked. Seven's question had come so far out of nowhere that at first he wasn't even sure it had been directed at him. "What?"

Seven looked at him again. "Are you going to die?" he asked, almost accusingly. "DoctorWilliamLee showed us a movie yesterday. The mother died."

Evan blinked again. He started mentally going through a list of all the movies he knew Bill had that he thought were appropriate for the robots. Not that many of them included matricide, as far as he could remember. Then again, he wasn't exactly in top form. "Did he let you watch Bambi again?"

"No." Seven shook its head. "The mother wasn't shot by brutal, environmentally destructive trophy-hunters."

"Hunting is evil," Eight agreed solemnly. "But the mother wasn't shot, she died of cancer."

Well, that shortened the list only slightly, but at least now Evan thought he knew what the problem was. Seven and Eight might look like fully-grown adults, but to all intents and purposes they were still children. Still insecure, and Seven more so than many. "I promise, I don't have cancer, guys," he said seriously. "I'm just sick. You know what the flu is, right?" He waited until the robots nodded, though Seven's nod was reluctant. "I've got the flu. The flu doesn't kill people."

"Yes it does," Seven said. "The CDC reported two hundred and fifty-seven deaths from the flu in 2001."

Evan closed his eyes. Sometimes he really wished Bill didn't give them quite so much unlimited access to the internet. "You're right. I'm sorry. But even if the flu sometimes kills people, it's not going to kill me. I'm going to be just fine in a few days, I promise." He looked at Seven, making sure the robot was watching his face, his eyes. "I'm not going to die. I won't leave you."

I'm not going to stomp on you either, he thought, though of course he couldn't say that. Bill had told Evan he'd purged the incident from Seven's Memory Storage, but Evan was sure it had affected his whole outlook and personality anyway. If you didn't trust anyone, if you never showed them how you felt, they couldn't turn on you. Seven interacted readily with strangers now, but that wariness, that self-imposed isolation always remained. Evan had stopped hoping he could help Seven get over it; he didn't think the robot ever would.

And Seven didn't look convinced at all. "You are going to die," he said. "Humans always do."

"That's true," Evan said. He took a breath, thinking the Nyquil was probably wearing off too, just to cap everything. "But that's not going to be for a very long time. I promise." He smiled. "And I'm not going to die of the flu."

Both Seven and Eight were quiet for a few seconds after that. Assimilating, Evan figured.

"Okay," Seven said after nearly two minutes, very quietly. He wasn't smiling or anything, but Evan figured that was the best he was going to get, so he'd better take it. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, guys," Evan said. He smiled as warmly as he could at them, considering that dying really didn't seem like that terrible an idea at the moment, then braced himself and stood. He was thinking about the long, painful trek back to his bed. "Sorry to kick you out, but I really need to lie down for awhile." He made his voice a little bit stern. "You're going right back to Doctor Lee, right? I don't want to hear about you getting into trouble. And I really don't want to hear that you've been in the hangar without permission again."

"Seven was the one trying to get into the X-302, Eight said, with a slight whine in his voice.

Seven just grinned, unrepentantly, and it was actually good to see it.

***

"Why isn't DoctorWilliamLee coming? He loves watching the stars with us." Mitch said. He looked at Evan expectantly, no doubt waiting for the Major to lie down on the rough, dry grass of the hillside. Mitch had sat down and then flopped onto his back nearly the second they'd gotten out of the car, with his arms spread wide like he was thinking about making a dirt angel. Luckily he'd only tried that once, after watching one of Bill's panoply of Christmas movies, and the nanites had taken care of the abrasions almost immediately. Of course, he was nearly a whole year older now.

"DoctorWilliamLee is visiting his other family tonight," Shep said. Shep was lying on the roof of the car Evan had borrowed, his long legs hanging down over the rear windshield with his hands stacked behind his head. He turned to look at Evan. "At least it means it'll be quieter." He smiled, but despite the car's headlights being on and the bright stars in the sky, it was still too dim for Evan to tell if Shep's smile was genuine or not. Mitch showed what he was feeling on his face all the time now, but Shep was still guarded, always trying to only reveal the emotions he wanted other people to see.

Evan sighed, thinking of what he had to tell them, the words like hooks in his tongue. "It's okay to want him to be here, Shep," he said.

Shep didn't answer.

"Come on," Mitch said, maybe sensing the tension. He patted the ground next to him. "Pull up some grass. I want you to show me more constellations."

Evan glanced at Shep again, but the robot's face was unreadable, staring up at the sky. So he walked over to Mitch and lay down.

"DoctorWilliamLee is the one who knows all the constellations," Shep said quietly.

Evan smiled a little. "He'll come out here with you guys as soon as he can," he said. "You know that. Besides," he rolled his head to the side to look at Mitch. "You've got the name of every single star up there in your Memory Storage already, don't you? And the constellations. You don't need anyone to tell you."

Mitch shrugged, making his arms bob up and down on the grass. He grinned. "Yeah, but you get 'em wrong. It's funny."

Evan rolled his eyes, and Mitch and Shep laughed, and then they settled into silence for awhile, gazing at the stars.

"Guys," Evan said after what felt like a very long time, but nowhere near long enough. "I have to go back to the SGC."

Mitch sat up instantly, staring at him. "What? You're leaving?"

"What do you mean, 'you have to go back to the SGC?'" Shep said at almost the same second. When Evan looked at him, Shep had already slid off the car, and was stalking towards him. "Who the hell told you that?"

Evan took a breath and sat up as well. So far this was going pretty much exactly as badly as he'd figure it would. "General Hammond," he said. He closed his eyes. "I told you I wouldn't be able to stay at Area 51 forever."

He could hear Mitch moving beside him, probably standing up too. "Yeah, but now? Does it have to be now?"

"Yes," Evan said evenly. He rubbed his hands over his face, suddenly feeling infinitely tired. "I don't want to leave. Believe me, I don't. but yeah, it has to be now. They--there's a mining operation starting on an uninhabited planet with a Stargate. It's a fantastic source of naquadah, and they need experts. You guys know I'm a geological engineer."

"There's a lot of geological engineers," Shep spat. "We need you here. Tell them to get someone else."

Evan looked at Shep, who was glaring down at him. Evan held out his hand for Shep to pull him to his feet, but Shep didn't take it. "Tell them to get someone else," he said again.

"I can't," Evan said. "I wish I could." He shook his head, tried to smile. "I really wish I could. But I can't. I can't disobey orders, Shep. You know that."

Shep didn't move, but he seemed to draw back anyway, like a wall suddenly going up between them.

"You could," he said flatly. "And you would, if you thought it was important enough." And he turned and strode angrily off into the darkness.

Evan closed his eyes again and let his head drop. "Fuck," he said vehemently.

"Don't swear," Mitch said. His voice was worried and sad.

"Sorry," Evan said. He pulled himself to his feet. "I'd better go after Shep." He could just make out Shep's form, moving quickly, a thicker stain of black on the darkness. "You stay here with the car. We'll be back soon."

Mitch nodded, staring anxiously into the darkness. He looked at Evan. "I don't want you to go back to the SGC," he said.

"I know," Evan said. "I'm sorry." Then he made sure his eyes were on Shep, and he broke into a run.

"Shep! Shep, come on!" Evan hollered after him, but Shep refused to slow down. Eventually he'd reach the chain-link fence on the far side of the compound, which would at least stop him. "Will you slow down, for Christ's sake?"

Shep stopped finally and turned around, a black shape radiating anger in the dim glow from the distant lights along the perimeter of the compound. Evan grit his teeth and trotted up to him. "Thanks," he said.

Shep didn't answer. His arms were crossed, his expression nearly hidden, except for the light parts of his eyes.

"Come on, Shep," Evan said. "Don't do this to me. I'm not leaving because I want to. I have to. I don't have a choice."

Shep just stared at him. "There's always a choice."

Evan took a breath. "Sometimes there isn't."

Shep looked down and away. "There would be, if you cared enough. But I guess you don't really give a damn."

Evan clenched his fists, feeling a hot spike of anger. "That's bullshit and you know it," he spit out. "If I thought that you guys still needed me, the way you did when you were little, don't you think I'd be fighting this with everything I had?" He resisted the urge to cross his own arms and glare back, forced his hands to relax. "I've been at Area 51 for nearly three and a half years, Shep, and it's been great. It's been...it's been fantastic. But you guys aren't children anymore--you'll be fully grown in a year--and you don't need me. But the SGC does. And I have to go back."

"We require your presence more than the SGC does," Shep replied, and Evan didn't know if the robot was aware of the thin note of pain in his voice, riding under the cold, steady fury. "I don't know how to assimilate your leaving."

The change in Shep's vocabulary showed exactly how upset he was, and the guilt gnawed at Evan like teeth in his chest. He reached out to put his hand on the robot's shoulder. "Shep--"

Shep shrugged him off, then started walking back the way they'd come. He banged into Evan with his elbow, hard enough to hurt. "You are removing your presence from Area 51," he snapped. "Our contact is terminated."

Evan stopped. "I know you don't mean that, Shep," he said quietly. He knew the robot could hear him, but Shep didn't stop or turn around. He just kept walking until he reached Mitch and the car. He climbed into the back seat without speaking to either of them.

The long ride home was dark and sad and silent.

***

But early the next morning, grey and unseasonably wet for Nevada in July, they were both there, waiting under the overhang of the main entrance to the laboratories, when Evan stepped out into the lash of the wind with his duffel bag over his shoulder.

He stopped, a little stunned. The robots were normally still in Sleep Mode at this hour; he had purposely avoided going by the lab for fear of waking them. The last thing he had expected was that they'd be outside.

"Do Radek and Bill know you're out here?" he asked, because he didn't want them getting into trouble, even for him.

Mitch gave him what was obviously meant to be a carefree grin, except that Evan had known him for three years and he could still see the layer of misery in his eyes. "Naw," he drawled, with the slight accent Bill had programmed into him. "We'll be back where we belong before they even know we snuck out." His expression hardened a little. "Did you really think we'd let you get outta here without saying goodbye?"

Evan didn't know what to say to that. I thought we already had, while completely accurate, would make him sound like he didn't care. The truth was he just didn't think he could handle Mitch's quiet grieving again, or Shep's cold, silent rage. He'd been hoping for a quick escape, a chance to lick his wounds in the private anonymity of an economy flight from the McCarran International Airport. And now they were both here, like pouring acid on a severed limb.

He was saved from answering when Mitch suddenly stepped forward and yanked him into a hug. "You're such a fucking dumbass," he said. "You really thought we'd let you slink back to Colorado without saying goodbye."

"Don't swear," Evan said automatically, but he hugged him back, and he wasn't the first to let go.

"There," Mitch said decisively when he'd stepped back. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" His smile was smug, but Evan could see the uncertainty there.

"No," Evan said, but his voice was suddenly so rough he had to swallow a few times before he could speak properly. "No, that was fine."

Shep had been watching the whole thing, of course, his hands in his jacket pockets and saying nothing.

Mitch grabbed Shep's arm, tugging him forward. "C'mon, Shep," he said, a kind of gentle exasperation in his voice. "It's your turn."

Evan made himself smile a little. "It's okay, Mitch," he said. "He doesn't have to." It meant a lot that Shep was even out there, even if Mitch had dragged him the whole way. And they both knew that Shep had never really liked a lot of physical contact, which Evan figured was another legacy of having been crushed. Mitch was the only person who could make Shep put up with it.

He stuck out his hand instead, wishing he knew the right words to say. He settled on, "You take care, okay? I'll be back as soon as I can. I promise."

Shep nodded stiffly, but took his hand. Then abruptly he pulled Evan into a hug as well. It was awkward, because it trapped their hands between their bodies, but Shep's arm across Evan's back held him with something close to desperation.

"I'll miss you," Shep said, quietly.

Evan swallowed. "I know," he said. "Me too. Me too."

***

Evan finished tugging on a t-shirt and shook his head to get his bangs out of his eyes, since they were still soaking wet. He could feel lukewarm trails of water soaking into the back of his shirt from his hair, but he'd practically walked out of the shower and into his clothes and he didn't have time to worry about it. He'd been called back from a mission because they were going to need his expertise, and had been given enough time to wash off two days' worth of mud and grab a change of clothes before he had to be in the Gate room, to meet up with the impromptu rescue team Hammond had been able to scrape together.

He'd just finished buckling his pack closed when someone started pounding on his door.

"I'm ready!" he hollered as he strode across the room, swinging the pack onto his shoulder. He still had ten minutes, give or take, but maybe there'd been new information, or a second cave-in, or something worse--

Evan hauled the door open, and Mitch was standing on the other side, and the expression on his face made Evan stop dead.

"Shep's gone," Mitch said, no preamble, no anything, and for a moment the only thing Evan could think of was that Shep had also been caught in the cave-in on MX5-1S1, crushed to death under a mountain.

"He's dead?" Evan asked, too stunned to even feel anything yet, his mind careening between the possibly dead Gate team on an alien world and what Mitch had just told him. Somewhere in his head the seconds were ticking down--he had to be in the Gateroom, he had to go, lives were depending on him--but he ignored it. He stepped back automatically, numb, and watched as Mitch nearly stumbled into his quarters.

"No," Mitch said. He put his hand over his eyes for a second, like he was in pain, a human affectation he'd taught himself but Evan doubted Mitch was even aware he was doing right then. His voice was flat, defeated. "He ran away. We were far outside the base on Friday, on a training mission. He thought they were going to kill us, when we got back. So he ran."

"What?" Evan stepped back, as if another foot of distance would let him absorb what he'd just heard. "Are they--is that true? Are you in danger?" He couldn't believe that, didn't want to believe that. Hell, Bill talked about the robots like they were his own children. But that didn't explain why Mitch was here. Had he run away too? Had he come to ask Evan to help him escape?

Evan would have to go AWOL, get out of the SGC somehow, without anyone knowing. Or maybe he could get Mitch off-world? Sneak him through the gate--

"No." Mitch shook his head. He looked like he was in shock, like he was having trouble processing his environment, and Evan wondered if maybe this was a malfunction, and he'd been sent here to be repaired because Bill was here now. Bill had come back to the SGC a month ago, though he hadn't been able to tell Evan what for. "It was a misunderstanding. Not dismantling. Upgrades."

Upgrades. Evan had no idea what that meant. He'd thought the robots were complete, perfect. But that still didn't explain why Mitch was in Colorado. "Why did you know that if Shep didn't?"

Mitch gave him a small smile. "I didn't. I just trust DoctorRadekZelenka and DoctorWilliamLee more than he ever did."

Evan felt his eyes widening, a flare of anger swift and brutal as a lightning strike. "You went back to them when there was a chance they would kill you? What the fuck kind of self-preservation protocol is that? What if you'd been wrong?"

"But I wasn't," Mitch said, just before his legs buckled.

Evan gave a wordless shout and grabbed him, but Mitch was still aware, and he was able to regain his balance and keep standing. "Sorry," Mitch said. He gave a weak, apologetic smile. "Just switched to Reserve power."

"Jesus Christ!" Evan exploded. "Come on." He all but dragged Mitch over to the couch and practically dropped him onto it. "The nearest outlet's under the fake Matisse. Recharge before you drop dead." He rubbed his eyes. He had about two minutes left, he guessed, if he was lucky. They might already be dialing the gate, might already be sending someone for him; he had no idea what would happen if Mitch was discovered in his quarters. "Does Bill know you're here?"

Mitch shook his head. His extension cord was snaking neatly towards the outlet, so at least he wasn't going to let his battery drain until he died of catastrophic power loss. "He knows I'm at the SGC. I flew here with DoctorRadekZelenka last night. But they don't know where I am right now. I'll go back before they miss me."

"You'd better let then know you're here, Eight, since you're not leaving until you're at least at seventy-five percent," Evan snapped. "Are you malfunctioning?"

"No." Mitch let his head fall back against the couch and closed his eyes. "Didn't want to take the time to recharge. I needed to let you know what happened."

Evan ran his fingers through his hair. It was barely dryer than before. He still had his pack on--he hadn't closed his door, for God's sake. "Thanks," he said, though he really, really wished that he didn't know abut it, that he hadn't needed to know. The idea of Shep, alone out in Nevada somewhere, maybe damaged with no one to help him, was more than Evan could handle thinking about right now. "I have to go," he said. "I'm needed for a rescue mission. A Gate team's been trapped in a cave-in off-world."

Mitch didn't move or open his eyes. "It's okay," he said. "They wouldn't let you look for him anyway."

The fact that it was true didn't make it any less of a punch to the gut. "Do you...can you track him?"

Mitch shook his head. "I think his transmitter's gone. No one knows where he is."

Evan took a breath. He had to go this second. No choice, none at all. "Look, I'll be back as soon as I can, all right? And then we'll find him. We'll figure something out."

"Sure," Mitch said. He didn't sound like he believed it. "I'll have the upgrades by then." He smiled thinly. "A whole new me."

"Yeah," Evan said. He glanced towards the door, half-expecting to see a glowering Marine, ready to bodily drag him to the gate. "Don't worry about locking the door behind you--no one's going to steal anything here. Just get your power levels to something safe, okay? I can't...I don't want to be worrying about you too."

Mitch opened his eyes again, finally. "I promise I won't leave until I'm well within safest operating protocols," he said.

Evan nodded. "Good enough." But he hesitated, half out of the door. "We'll work this out," he said, knowing he was trying to reassure them both, and knowing he wasn't managing it. "We'll find him."

Mitch just let his head fall back again. "He's gone, MajorEvanLorne," he said, and Evan had no time to insist otherwise.

He locked the door behind him and arrived in the Gateroom just as the last three chevrons were being encoded. And he tried not to think of anything but the team trapped underground, depending on him to save them, and the team going through the wormhole with him, depending on him to tell them how to do it.

***

He came back three days later, grey with exhaustion and an arm he was pretty sure got broken when a loose chunk of rock fell on it. He'd helped get SG-18 out of a mountain, and they were still alive, and he knew he should be feeling something other than distant relief about that, but all he could think about was Mitch, and Shep, and how the hell he was going to get him back.

Bill was waiting outside the door to Evan's quarters, and that was when Evan found out what the 'upgrades' meant, and what had happened to Mitch; what they'd done.

***

Evan didn't like hospitals much. He supposed that was typical.

He figured he might hate them that much more, after this, but he was still feeling kind of shell-shocked, so he wasn't sure.

He was sitting next to Mitch's bed. Mitch's hospital bed, because he was human now. While Evan was off world digging SG-18 out of a cave, one of the Asgard had made a body for Mitch and transferred his memories into it.

Mitch was Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell now. And muscle and blood and skin and bones, and unconscious on a morphine drip in an intensive-care unit because the cloning had nearly failed. Mitch had almost died before he'd even been born.

This was the part that Radek hadn't been able to tell him, way back in 2000 when Evan had agreed to help tame the robots. Evan had thought the goal was the human-replica AIs, mentally and emotionally mature and trained in military procedure. He had never even imagined that Shep and Mitch were just another stage, like the quadrupeds before them and the tread robots before that. It had never occurred to him that the point was to make adult humans all the way along.

And all because the SGC wanted more experienced military personnel with the ATA gene. Mitch and Shep had been tools the whole time, means to an end. And now Mitch was here, with months of grueling recovery ahead of him, for no reason except that his artificial body hadn't been good enough.

"Welcome to humanity, sir," Evan said. It was going to be hard to wrap his head around the fact that Mitch--that Cameron--outranked him now. He supposed he should care more, about that part, but the rank had been forced on Cameron just like this new body had been. Cameron had been made a Lieutenant Colonel because it was what the SGC brass wanted, so they could slot Cameron into their plans. A means to an end, no kind of reward at all.

Dealing with the rank was easy. It was everything else that would be the hard part. Like knowing that Cameron would be helpless and in pain for months, and Evan couldn't help him through this. If he was lucky, he might occasionally get to visit.

And the half-assed search for Shep had been called off. No one knew where he was, or if he was even still alive. And when Mitch, when Cameron, woke up, that would be the first thing he asked about, Evan was sure of it. And Evan would have nothing to tell him.

"They really fucked you over, didn't they, buddy?" Evan said quietly. "You and Shep both. Yeah, welcome to God-damned humanity."

He took a breath, and gently put his hand on Cameron's shoulder, being careful of the cast on his unfinished arm. Cameron felt solid and warm and real. Just like always.

***

"Oh thank God you're here," Carson said as Evan walked into physio. "He already chased the therapist away, poor lass, and I've had nothing from him since. I hope you can do something for him before he drives the rest of the staff to bloody homicide."

"Hey, doc," Evan said tiredly, forcing a brief smile as he walked past him. Cameron was sitting on the floor between the metal parallel bars. It looked like he'd been in the middle of trying to haul himself across when he'd just dropped and stayed there. He looked pale and vulnerable and too thin in the white hospital scrubs, with his knees bent and his arms crossed over them. His head was hanging forward and his eyes were closed.

"Did you just come from off-world?" Carson asked, and Evan allowed himself an eye-roll, since the doctor could only see his back.

"Yep," he said. He wasn't sure how Carson had managed to miss the dirt and the tac vest and the camouflage, but he hoped that was just because the doc's mind had been on Cameron and not Evan's appearance. Evan had only just cleared the gate when Sergeant Harriman had rushed down the stairs to whisper at him that Dr. Beckett urgently required his presence at the off-site hospital. Evan had barely taken the time to hand his P-90 to a Marine before he'd gone to the surface to catch the ride Walter had arranged for him.

Carson was a pretty good guy. Evan had seen him around the SGC a few times and knew he was doing some kind of work with genetics, though he'd been surprised to find out Carson was involved with Cameron's recovery. But all the same, the last thing Evan wanted was a conversation with him. He still made himself be polite, though, so he turned and caught Carson's eyes. "Uh, do you mind giving us a couple minutes?" he asked.

"Oh, yes, of course," Carson said, sounding startled. He gestured vaguely behind him. "I'll be outside." He smiled wanly. "Good luck."

Evan twitched a smile back, then ignored Carson entirely, certain he would leave. He went over to the parallel bars and ducked under them. "How you doing, Cam?" he asked quietly, easing himself down beside Cameron on the floor.

Cameron shifted slightly when Evan bumped him with his shoulder, but he didn't look up. "My name is Mitch," he said, nearly snarling it.

Evan sighed. He had no freaking clue how to handle this. "The doc said you got pretty worked up there," he tried. He reached up and slapped a metal bar. "The last time I was here you were trying so hard on this thing you nearly puked. What are you doing, down on the floor? That's not like you."

"Fuck you," Cameron said. Mitch said. God, Evan didn't even know what to call him anymore. 'Mitch' sounded like a nearly anonymous epithet now, the kind you gave when you didn't care enough about the person to learn their first name. "I've had it," Cameron said. And yeah, he sounded exhausted, beaten, done. And angrier than Evan could remember. "I'm sick of this. I'm fucking sick and tired of being stuck in bed or doing this physio crap every fucking day and still not being able to walk, or feed myself without my arms shaking so hard I drop everything half the time." He took a breath, and it was wet and shuddering. "And I hurt. All the God-damned time. Everywhere. And I'm so tired." He swallowed heavily. "And Zelenka's always busy and Bill's at Area 51, and you're always fucking off-world and Shep is dead and I don't want to do this anymore."

Evan rubbed one eye with the heel of his hand. He wanted to put an arm around Cameron, but he had a feeling it wouldn't be wanted. "I miss Shep too," he said simply. "I think about him all the time. I think about you both all the time. And I know he wouldn't want to see you like this, hurting like this. But he wouldn't want you to give up, either. He'd hate that." Evan took a risk and put his hand on the back of Cameron's neck. It was hot, and Cameron's hair was damp. "And I don't want you to give up, either." He squeezed gently. "And I'm not going to let you give up. I know it hurts, and you're tired, but you're stronger than you were, and you're going to get through this. I know you will." He smiled, even though Cameron still wasn't looking at him. "I know it because the first time I met you, you were trying to ram the foot of a madman about a hundred times your size even though you could barely even move. To protect a bunch of robots who didn't even know what was going on."

Cameron let out a huff that sounded nothing like a laugh, but Evan was willing to go with it. "Shep did," he said.

"Yeah, he did," Evan said, putting just a bit of steel into his voice. "So I know he'd be telling you to get the hell up off the floor and get over yourself. Because Eight, or Mitch, or Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell or whatever you want to call yourself doesn't give up. No matter how much it hurts. And I'm not going to let you."

There was a long silence where Evan kept his hand on the back of Cameron's neck, ignoring how Cameron's shoulders were quietly shaking. "It's okay," Evan said softly after awhile. "It's okay. You're going to be okay."

Cameron lifted his head finally, and he was pale and his eyes were wet, but he gave a tiny nod. "Yeah, okay," he said. He wiped his eyes with quick swipes of his fingers. He swallowed and his mouth flickered in a smile. "Thanks."

"No problem," Evan said. He wanted to get off the floor, but instead he threw his arm around Cameron's shoulders and hauled him closer. And considered it a victory when Cameron let him.

***

"Sir," Walter said, just before Evan was about to sign off and let the gate close, "there's a message I'm meant to pass on to you." He sounded uncertain. "From...Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell?"

Evan blinked. "Go ahead," he said, bracing himself, though he made sure to keep his voice neutral. Whatever Radek--Evan assumed it was Radek--had done to make up a history for Cameron in the Air Force and the SGC had worked like a charm, but Evan always felt a little uncertain when other people mentioned him, as if any second someone would finally notice that Cameron looked like a toaster before 2002.

Of course, there was also the fact that Cameron never actually contacted him when he was off-world because Evan was working. Which meant that Evan was about to hear something really, really bad.

"Okay," Walter said, slightly hesitant, as if he wasn't sure he should be doing this. Maybe O'Neill was looking over his shoulder. "The message is, uh, 'Shep is alive and okay'."

And then maybe a minute later Captain Strickland was shaking Evan's shoulder and saying, "Sir? Sir? Are you all right?"

"Yeah," Evan said, knowing he sounded anything but all right, and not able to do much about it. He realized the gate had shut down, vaguely wondered if he'd ever replied to the Sergeant, though he did have a fleeing memory of thanking him. He tried a smile, wondering if it looked as off-axis as he felt, like the whole world had just spun away from him. Shep had been dead. Carson had told them that. And Radek. Bill had been fucking crying. And now Shep was alive and okay. Alive.

"I'm going to check the perimeter," Evan said to Strickland. And Strickland didn't even mention that he didn't really need to, since there was a bunch of bored Marines doing that. He just said, 'Of course, sir,' and watched him go.

Evan walked into the woods surrounding their base camp. Not too far, because he wasn't stupid, and found a convenient felled tree to sit on. And he stayed there until he heard Strickland's voice over the radio, politely asking if he was all right again.

He had no idea what his face looked like when he walked back into camp, but Strickland smiled at him sympathetically and said, "Good friend of yours, huh, sir?" He patted Evan's back. "Stranger things have happened--I've heard Doctor Jackson's come back from the dead a couple times himself."

Evan had heard that too, but he'd mostly dismissed it as the kind of general rumor and hype that dogged SG-1. Now, though, he wondered if it was true, and if the rest of Jackson's team had felt the way he did: like he'd just been handed back a piece of his heart.

***

Lieutenant Colonel Carter found them in the mess hall, where Evan was bemusedly watching Cameron eat like he hadn't had food in months.

Evan greeted her, and Cameron swallowed what he had in his mouth and grinned.

"Hey, Sam. How you doing?"

Sam smiled back at him, but Evan could see the wariness in her expression, the pinch of worry around her eyes. "I'm fine, thanks. It's good to see you up and around, Cameron."

"Tell me about it." Cameron agreed enthusiastically. He gestured at the empty chairs next to him and Evan. "Pull up a seat. Evan was just telling me about the Unas guys."

"Thanks," Sam said. "But I'm afraid I don't have time. I just came by to give you something." She glanced at Evan. "It's for both of you." She took a small compact disk jewel case out of her pocket.

Evan blinked. "Both of us?" He automatically took the disk when Sam handed it to him. He put it gently in his pocket, aware that it had to be important, if Sam had bothered to deliver it in person. "What is it?"

"What's wrong, Sam?" Cameron asked her.

Sam smiled again, but it didn't touch her eyes. "We received a transmission earlier today, from the Pegasus galaxy. The Atlantis expedition."

Evan felt his eyes widening. Across the table, Cameron's mouth fell open. "Atlantis?"

"After a year?" Cameron asked.

Sam nodded. "Look, I don't have time to talk about it now. I have to get back--Daniel thinks he may have found a lead on a ZPM, which means we'll be able to dial Atlantis." She took a breath. "The disk...it's a message for you."

Cameron was staring at her. "It's from Shep--John Sheppard?"

Sam nodded again. Her smile was anxious and small. "Yes. He's fine, but..." her lips thinned. "I'll let you watch it. See you later."

Evan watched her leave. "They're in trouble," he said.

Cameron nodded. "Yeah."

***

They went to Cameron's quarters, because they were closer, and Cameron still became pale and shaky if he was on his feet too long. Evan resisted the urge to help him as Cameron sank gratefully into his desk chair, letting his metal forearm crutches clatter to the floor. "Okay," he said, sliding his laptop over. He opened it and turned it on, holding out his hand for the disk, which Evan gave to him.

"Sam said he was fine," Evan reminded Cameron gently, when Cameron hesitated before putting the disk into the machine.

Cameron smiled self-consciously. "Right." He put the disk in, and started it playing.

The screen filled with Shep's face, looking worried and tired and exactly like Evan remembered, down to the untamable hair and oddly-shaped ears. Evan curled his hands into fists, so he wouldn't do something stupid like touch the small computer screen.

This is for Major Evan Lorne and Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, Shep said, then didn't speak for a few seconds, probably making sure whomever got the message first wouldn't watch the rest of it. Hey, guys, Shep said. His voice sounded tinny and unnatural, coming from the inefficient laptop speakers. He smiled, but it was obviously tense, and fell off his face almost immediately. I don't know what they told you about where I am, but, well, things aren't going too great right now. In fact, we're expecting an attack in a few days, from a very powerful enemy who really, really doesn't like us. And to tell you the truth, it doesn't look good.

On the screen, Shep paused, pressing his lips together. Cameron shifted forward in his chair, as if being closer to the screen would get him closer to Atlantis, to Shep.

But, we're going to make it. We're going to beat these guys. And I know that because my family's waiting for me. And I'm going to see you again. You can count on it.

Goodbye. See you soon.


The movie player went black as the clip finished.

"Jesus Christ," Cameron said softly. He spun his chair so he could face Evan. He looked like Evan felt. His blue eyes were huge, beseeching. "We have to get there. We have to help him!"

"I know, I know." Evan ran his hands through his hair. He didn't bother reminding Cameron that it would be impossible for him, since he couldn't even walk unaided yet. "I'll talk to O'Neill," he said. "See if I can get a place on whatever team they send through." He didn't tell Cameron how much he doubted O'Neill would let him go, either. Not when he was one of the very few mobile personnel at the SGC with the ATA gene, and not when they still needed him to oversee the continuing mining operation on P3X-403.

"Promise me," Cameron said fiercely. "Promise me that if you can get there you'll go, all right? Don't worry about me. I'm gonna get my own team--I'm going to be on SG-freaking-one, for God's sake. I'll be fine. But he's out there, and he's all alone, and,"--he kicked viciously at one of the crutches on the floor, sending it skidding--"and I can't fucking walk...!

"Cameron!" Evan put his hands on Cameron's shoulders. He could feel the muscle there, bunched like Cameron was preparing for a fight. Cameron's face was tight with fear and anger. "I promise. I promise that I'll go to Atlantis if I can."

Cameron nodded, relaxing marginally under Evan's hands. "Okay," he said. "Okay." Evan let go of him, and Cameron rubbed his face. "This really sucks," he said.

"He's all right," Evan told him. "And you heard what he said. We're his family. And we're going to see him again."

Cameron took a breath. He nodded again, as if convincing himself. "Yeah, we will." He smirked, though it was sad. "He'll probably keep ramming them 'til they turn tail and run."

Evan surprised himself by laughing. "You know?" he said. "You're probably right."

Epilogue

"Is he going to be okay?"

"What?" Evan stepped out of the tiny bathroom in his quarters, then put the glass of water he was carrying down on the night table. He stood next to John Sheppard, who was looking at Cameron, passed out on his front on Evan's bed. Evan smiled, an irrational burst of happiness warming his stomach as he watched Cameron sleep. "Yeah. He'll be okay. Just make sure he has more water if he wakes up." He looked up at John's worried face, the same happiness curling up and outward until he almost laughed. It was so good having the kids--no, adults now, Cameron and John--with him again, and all of them healthy and whole. If maybe due for hangovers in the morning. That was what they had been celebrating, as far as Evan was concerned; John's promotion was just a reasonable excuse. "I don't think he's actually had alcohol before tonight," Evan said, shrugging apologetically. "The beer hit him harder than he thought it would."

John nodded. "Hence the term 'hammered'." He smiled as well, rich and warm, but Evan could still see the darkness in it, behind John's eyes. Cameron snuffled and murmured something indistinct. "I need to talk to you," he said, still looking at Cameron.

Evan's smile dropped. "Sure," he said. He walked quietly into the main room and sat on the couch, expecting John to take the only other chair. But John kept standing.

"I'm going back to Atlantis," he said.

Evan nodded. He wasn't surprised, though a tiny, lonely part of him had been hoping that John would choose to stay on Earth. He'd even occasionally let himself imagine the three of them on a Gate team together, much as he knew that was never going to happen. "I thought you might," he said. He glanced at the bedroom, then back at John. "Does Cameron know?"

"Not yet." John shook his head. "But I'm pretty sure he's already guessed."

"Yeah." It was obvious that John had a life back in Atlantis, people who cared...who loved him as much as Evan and Cameron did. There had been no real question in Evan's mind of John going back. "He'll be fine," Evan said, because it was true, though Evan suspected John still needed to hear it.

John nodded, his expression distant. "I need a second in command," he said seriously, looking right at Evan. "I want it to be you." His smile was brief but real. "It can get pretty hairy out there, sometimes, and I need someone I can trust to do whatever it takes to protect the city. And there's almost no one in the universe I trust as much as you."

Evan couldn't speak for a moment. "Cameron made me promise to go to Atlantis, if I could," he said thickly, when he could form words again. "To help you."

"Cool," John said, beaming, like Evan had removed a weight. "I can't wait 'til you meet my team--and McKay! You're going to love him."

***

Evan never did get to like John's boyfriend all that much. But McKay made John happy, and he saved all their lives on a regular basis, so Evan just smiled and put up with him. That was the kind of thing you did for your family, anyway.

And if Evan occasionally bitched about McKay in his e-mails...well, Cameron just thought it was funny.


END



Story Links:

The Terminator
"New Ground" (Stargate: SG-1 episode where they meet Nyan)
The Brave Little Toaster
Pinocchio
Bambi