Deep underwater, the dying puddlejumper settled on the bottom of the ocean with a crunch of rock and a groan of tortured metal. Its cockpit long ago imploded, the crushed body of a human pilot still floating within. Silt and sand rose disturbed by the fall of such a large object, attracting the attention of tiny deep water scavengers used to the giant carcasses of the great singing fish-whales.
Noises echoed from within the thing, the big stone-hard thing. Something was alive inside it.
It was cold, yes. Bone-chillingly cold. Yet despite the cold Rodney had to force himself to ignore how good it felt, water lapping gently at his skin, washing away the stench of a human body, replacing it with the clean smell of living fish. He found himself immersed in the rising waters to his neck before coming back to his senses and standing up.
It was only knee-deep. He had time, the water was only knee-deep.
"It must be terrible for you," Sam remarked.
"What, dying out here alone with only an uppity hallucination for company?" Rodney demanded.
"Not just that. All these years, all this time you've suppressed your Change, and here you are in the one situation where it would have saved you."
Rodney stared at his hallucination in incredulous horror. "How dare you bring that up?" he demanded.
"Some part of you obviously agrees with me or I wouldn't have brought it up," Sam pointed out.
"The suicidal part of me maybe," Rodney growled.
"Don't you want it, though?" she asked in a small voice. "A lifespan so long it might as well be forever, the chance to chase science and her discoveries to the ultimate understanding of the multiverse, it's like ascension handed to you on a silver platter by the genetic lottery."
"I have spent my entire life pretending to be normal, pretending to fit in," he snarled. "Do you honestly think I want this?! As far as I know the military still has a 'shoot on sight' order for escapees from the Innsmouth raids and as a direct result of those raids I think I fall under that order! I've suppressed my Change because if I don't I die!"
"You know that if you suppress it too long it'll never take place."
Rodney slumped down onto a sodden bench. "Of course I know that," he whispered. "I can't undergo the Change until after I leave the stargate program. But don't you see? I can't leave. I don't want to leave, ever. But I don't want to die. The best I can do is suppress it until it goes away and just stay here among the stars."
Sam sat next to him, leaning into him to offer some sort of comfort. She grew hopeful when he leaned back onto her. "There's always the possibility that you're underestimating your friends again," she said. "They might surprise you."
"Then again they might not," Rodney said sullenly. He realized then that if he was going to escape this then he'd have to do it himself. "Please, just leave me alone while I work on getting myself out of this."
"It's ready!" Rodney crowed. Despite distractions and headache and anger he'd done it. The programming looked flawless if blurred, he was sure there was enough power, he could get out of this sunken deathtrap.
"It's a mistake," Sam urged.
"I trust you'll be gone by the time I reach the surface?" Rodney asked, smug triumph radiating from him. He pushed the button and gave himself over to mad delight as the lights came on and the engines powered up.
And then it all died. Delight shattered, leaving only madness in its wake. "Don't," he pleaded. "Just... don't."
"How much power did you waste?" Sam asked.
"A half hour."
"That's not too bad," she said, trying to soothe bruised ego.
"No, I mean a half hour's all that's left," Rodney whimpered. "And then I'm going to die."
Sam gave him a pitying look.
"Don't. The last thing I need right now is an 'I told you so.' Just... let me be..." Rodney murmured before giving one long exhale and sticking his head underwater. One last petty stab of spite at the worlds, for someone like him to die of drowning. It was a mark of shame, of simple humanity, for someone so capable of swimming, for someone who was expected to have gills long before age 40, to die of drowning.
Instinct had one long laugh at his expense as it refused to allow his lungs to expand. Instead Rodney sucked water into his mouth and tried to push it past gill fans with his tongue. It resulted in a big gulp of saltwater into his belly before he came up for a real breath.
"I can't even drown properly," he murmured. He gave a long salty belch that ended in a sob. "I'm not even human enough anymore to drown."
Sam knelt down in the rising waters and put a comforting hand on Rodney's shoulder.
"Why are you still here?" Rodney murmured. "You say you manifested out of my mind as the one person smarter than me. Fine. I'm in a busted jumper at the bottom of the ocean. I have no engines, no power, life support is failing, and the compartment is filling with seawater. I can't stay here. I have no gills, no scales, no way of surviving the pressure or the water chill, and worst of all no excuse. I can't leave. I have no way of flying this junk heap and despite your optimism I'm not na´ve enough to believe that the others are even looking for me much less likely to find me."
"Well, the way I see it, you have two possible options for escape," Sam said. "And only one of them involves being rescued."
Rodney snorted. "Fine. What's your plan?"
"First you need to increase the pressure in this space again," Sam pointed out. "Ignore the safeties, they're programmed to deal with more human physiologies, you can handle more pressure than the jumper is used to dealing with. It'll slow the seep of water inside if the ocean outside has something to push against."
Rodney got up and wordlessly prodded life support into slowly increasing the pressure inside the jumper. He ignored the flashing red flags on his tablet as they tried to remind him that humans didn't do well over six atmospheres.
"Got tired of arguing with yourself?" Sam asked.
Rodney held his nose and popped his ears as the air pressure increased. "I'm not going to dignify that with an answer," he said.
"You just did."
"No I didn't. So what's next in your not-waiting-around-to-die plan?"
Sam braced herself. "Now you stop holding back and grow gills," she said.
The look Rodney gave her was pure murder. "What?"
"You have to have realized that part of the Deep One's Change can be accelerated or suppressed mentally," Sam explained. "How else would you explain your almost complete lack of progress while in the Stargate program?"
Rodney held up his hands, fingers spread. "I took a knife to my own hands and cut out the webbing so I'd look human," he growled. "Since when is that a 'complete lack of progress'? Hmm?"
"Since you did that before you even began work at Area 51. You cut the webbing from your hands over a decade ago and since then you've had almost no progress. Ten years and all you have to show for it is a slight change of facial structure and some scales down your spine. You don't even have nictitating membranes!"
"Seriously? I have scales on my back?" Rodney reached down his shirt collar in the back and tried to feel for the rough slide of skin over scales. "Help me get them off."
"See? That's why you're going to die out here, you can't even accept a few little scales much less a set of gills."
"You wouldn't be able to either," he exclaimed, pulling his hand out of his shirt to gesture. "You're me, you remember Dad at his funeral. He was halfway Changed when he shot himself, didn't even look human anymore. He was an ugly, disgusting monster when he finally gave up trying to pretend."
"He was only disgusting because he took the coward's way out," Sam said. "He couldn't face the enormity of what he was being given and rejected it in the only way he knew how. Much like you tried to do by drowning yourself."
"Yeah well at least I admit I'm a coward," Rodney snarled.
"Are you so sure he was ugly?" she asked. Sam's clothes vanished between moments as she began to change, quickly morphing into a scaly, anthropoid sea creature. Large eyes stared behind nictitating membranes, gill fans fluttered underneath bony gill plates, a short dorsal fin raised and lowered slightly with each breath. She raised a webbed hand to examine black claws and shining scales, slid that hand down smooth, pale-white breasts and taut belly to a dolphin-like slit. "Am I so ugly?" she asked, her voice still purely Sam Carter.
Rodney found himself reaching for her, didn't realize it until his hands were grasping the soft frog-like satin skin of her breasts. He slid his hands down her sides, feeling the rasp of chitin where scales began between smooth front and scaly back. He gazed in wonder at the slide of muscle under skin, followed the silver and green patterns of her scales as they faded to pale in front and darkened to deep blue-green in back. Hands and eyes wandered up to the fish-like head and Sam's unmistakably expressive eyes. He traced the bony plates covering her gills, the wide scales of her snout, her thin lips, her long tongue. "You're beautiful," he found himself whispering. "I-I mean, I've never seen another Deep One before, not up close. I had no idea..."
"And why would you be any different?" Sam whispered. "You're not your father, Rodney. His self-hatred made him ugly, made him a monster. But this is as much a beautiful thing as it is anything else. All you have to do is accept it, let it happen."
"I can't," he whispered.
"Yes you can."
"We don't have time for it."
Sam smiled as she turned back into a human hallucination. "You're wrong there, too," she said. "If you slowly divert power away from heating this volume of water it'll eventually equalize with the temperature outside same as it'll equalize with the pressure. It'll buy you more time with an air bubble in here, too, as you'll have more power set aside for equalizing the pressure at a more comfortable speed."
"And how many months do you expect me to sit at the bottom of the ocean talking to a figment of my imagination?"
"Don't insult yourself, Rodney. You know there's a pretty big mental component involved here. It's why you haven't hit the Change yet, the only reason why. Remember Colonel Sheppard and his foray into bug-dom? Drugs suppressing his transformation coupled with his mental refusal to let it happen and he still bugged out within a very short time. The differences here are that you're not taking mutation suppressants, it's not actually a mutation but rather expression of genes the way they should be expressed, and starting a few minutes ago you're not mentally screaming at yourself not to let it happen."
"No you're not," Sam said. "You're beginning to accept it."
"How do you know?" Rodney asked miserably.
"Because there's no other reason for us to be pressing ourselves as deep as we can into frankly kinda frigid waters while still being able to talk just for the feeling of being submerged," Sam pointed out with an obscenely sexy purr. "Especially in water that's only thigh deep."
Rodney sighed and leaned back, sliding completely under. He ran his hands through his hair and came back up, not entirely comfortable with the amount of hair that had fallen out and stuck to his hands. He hadn't been losing his hair that fast before this...
"You're right," Rodney said, leaning back again to try and submerge every inch of skin that he could and still be able to speak. "It is happening faster." Webbed hands slid around him from behind as his hallucination of Sam as a naked Deep One held him close and purred lovingly in his ear. "I do want this."
"I know you do," she said.
He yawned, ears popping. "Tired," he murmured.
"The Change is a strain on your body," Sam whispered. "Coupled with your concussion and the stresses of the day you're pretty run down. Sleep, I'll keep watch."
"That's a terrible idea," Rodney slurred. He let Sam maneuver him around so he was curled up in her arms, head pillowed on her chest. He could hear, feel her heart beat right under his ear and it merged with her purr to lull him under. "Gonna blame you if I drown," he mumbled.
"I know," Sam whispered. "Sleep." The hallucination disappeared as Rodney passed out curled up against the wall of the jumper, his ear pressed to the wall where just beyond he could hear the soothing song of an Atlantean whale.
Rodney regained consciousness in a jumper almost fully flooded. He opened his eyes to blurry vision and closed them again with a raspy groan.
"Stay with me, McKay," Sam coaxed.
"My throat is on fire," he whined. He felt icy hands, human hands on his neck. They gently rubbed and searched before pulling back. He still couldn't see clearly and reached up to rub his eyes.
"Don't," Sam whispered. "Just open your eyes. All the way."
Rodney opened his eyes and opened them again. He could see the slide of nictitating membranes as the pulling back of blurry to show him the relatively clear vision of a very flooded jumper. He blinked in wonder a few times before a sluggish smile spread on his face. "I have nictitating membranes," he whispered.
"That's not all," Sam said. She grasped his hands and drew them up to his neck.
Beneath the skin he could feel faint ridges from the base of his skull to the underside of his jaw. Rodney gave a tiny laugh. "I have gills," he wondered.
"Not yet," she admitted. "That feels like the bony anchors where gill filaments attach to."
"So I don't have gills," he lamented.
"So I can't swim out of here."
"You knew it wouldn't work anyway," she pointed out. "A half hour isn't enough time."
"How much power do we have left?" Rodney grasped for the tablet, all of his movements in slow motion. He gazed at it, blinking hard to keep his eyes clear. "Nothing."
"You're gonna get out of this."
"I don't think I would believe that even if you were naked," Rodney said, closing his eyes. He never had seen Sam naked as a human and he found he wanted to, badly. Sam as a Deep One was hot but Sam as a human was much more real. He cracked an eye open hopefully, nictitating membrane only sliding halfway open. She looked bashful yet fully clothed. Damn. "Oh well."
"Stick with me, Rodney. You've gotta stay alert this time."
"I knew my plan wasn't going to work."
"Twenty-twenty hindsight, huh?"
"You were right but it's not like your plan worked either," Rodney pointed out. "Still no gills. Would come in handy though. Want to know how that feels..."
"I envy you that."
"And I envy you your humanity. You don't have to worry about what you're going to be tomorrow."
"I suppose that's true," Sam admitted. "We each want what the other has."
"I wish I had your wisdom," Rodney mumbled. "Intelligence-wise I'm smarter. On your best days maybe we're, like, a tie. But my intelligence aside, you're wiser. I guess at the end of the day that's, that's why you were down here."
Through the lullaby of whale song came a crackling sound. "Jumper Six, this is Sheppard, come in."
"What the hell was that?" Rodney slurred.
"Help," Sam said.
"McKay, Griffin, do you copy?"
"Sheppard!" McKay called, turning his radio on.
"Hey, buddy! What say you lower your door?"
"That's-that's probably a bad idea."
"Listen. Long story short, we've converted the cloak into a shield and extended it around your jumper. I'm standing outside right now." Sheppard's words were punctuated with several bangs on the outer door.
"All you have to do is open your door and walk to my jumper."
"I told you they'd come up with something," Sam said.
Rodney paddled over to the release mechanism but couldn't pull it. "What if it's not Sheppard?" he asked. "What if it's another one of my hallucinations? What if it's-it's the pessimist in me just wants it all over with?"
"You heard the shield come on," Sam pointed out.
"Yeah but I hear you," Rodney countered.
"McKay? What's the hold-up? We need to do this sooner rather than later. This shield ain't gonna hold forever."
"You're minutes away from hypothermia," Sam warned.
"I can't tell what's real and what's not!" Rodney shouted. "Part of me keeps wanting to make the Change, part of me would still rather die than go through it and that's very possibly making me think that Sheppard is out there just so I'll open the door and drown except we already know it won't work!"
"Rodney, they're here," Sam coaxed. "They did it. Let them help you."
"Okay." Rodney got his shaking hands wrapped around the release. "Better stand back, we've taken on a lot of water." He pulled the release.
Nothing happened. "No," he whispered.
"Secondary release," Sam urged.
Rodney nodded and exhaled to purge his lungs, an instinct he knew he hadn't had an hour ago. His vision was clear behind nictitating membranes, clearer than he'd even seen on land. He fumbled around underwater, forcing himself to not try and swallow water past gills that weren't there yet. He tugged a panel open and pulled the lever inside, had to exhale more, much more as he was suddenly thrust into a much lower pressure.
Oh how it hurt. Rodney screwed his eyes shut as his ears rang painfully then popped. Every joint suddenly ached, his chest hurt so much even as he kept exhaling.
He felt footsteps, heard a voice through the distant ringing of his damaged ears. Voices. John. Radek. Voices asking if he was okay, voices asking about the other guy, Griffin. Voices picking him up and half-dragging him through knee-deep ocean floor silt to another jumper. He mumbled something about needing to decompress, about Carter telling him to increase the pressure.
"Carter?" Zelenka asked.
"I mean I did, I did," Rodney mumbled. "I told myself. Oh, my head..."
"Almost thought we'd lost you," Sheppard said.
Rodney looked up, eyes covered by membranes to see the whale swim overhead, singing. He fancied he could almost understand its song. Sheppard and Zelenka set Rodney down in the jumper, not noticing as he stood up and watched Sam wave him off.