Rodney took the seat between John and Keller. Woolsey kept his eyes down, but as usual he was reading from paper files, and that was no different than any other morning staff meeting from before, so Rodney absolved him of avoidance. There was no reason Keller – it was Keller now, not Jennifer, he couldn't be casual with someone so uncomfortable around him – couldn't meet his gaze or John's, though. Yet solidarity didn't explain why the three of them always sat on the same side of the table now. It was just easier to not see.
Sometimes he wanted to ask her why she found both of them so horrifying or why she didn't hand over treating them to Biro or one of the other doctors since she did. She wasn't to blame for what had happened, so why did she get to act guilty and uncomfortable? She wasn't the one living with this.
She hadn't lost anything.
Keller stared straight ahead. So did Rodney.
What Sheppard did, he didn't know; he'd have to look and he hadn't for the last week.
Ronon grunted at him from opposite and Teyla smiled. Rodney made himself smile back. At least his face hadn't changed.
Lorne and Radek filled out the last two places in the regular gathering. Lorne's face never really gave much away and today seemed no different. Radek's gaze skittered away from Rodney's eyes, landed on the hand resting on the laptop Rodney had just put down before him, and jerked away. Nothing new there either.
"Coffee," Radek murmured. "Major? Rodney? Would you like – "
"Yes, yes," Rodney snapped, "of course I want coffee. When have I ever not?"
Radek slid his chair back and headed for the sideboard where a coffee maker and mugs were set up every morning. He slopped coffee over the lip of one mug when Rodney reached for it. It stung and Rodney shook the brown droplets off convulsively, flicking them onto Radek's uniform shirt. Radek stumbled back, mumbling, "Sorry, sorry," staring.
Everyone stared. Everyone always stared now and Rodney was already tired of it.
"Just set it down," he told Radek, reining in his temper, snatching stinging fingers back and hiding them in his lap, aware of John's uneven gaze on them and feeling guilty as though he had been careless with someone else's possession.
He used his left hand to lift the coffee to his lips and set it down again, fidgeting the mug into the bar of morning light gleaming over the glossy wood of Woolsey's imported from Earth table, lining it up so the light fell over the surface of the coffee itself, turning it brown rather than black, concentrating on the way the liquid shivered and rippled before settling.
John already had a mug before him, of course, and traced a fingertip over the lip when Rodney glimpsed him inadvertently. Rodney averted his gaze immediately, disturbed by the mismatch all over again. Every glimpse from the corner of his vision insisted he sat next to a stranger.
Woolsey finally looked up after Radek took his seat again.
Rodney gave him pointers for looking at himself and John without flinching, without looking at just the parts that were the same. Maybe there was something to all those negotiation skills diplomats were supposed to have. Woolsey could probably sit down and discuss knitting with Madame Lafarge.
"Let's begin," Woolsey said. "It's been a week. What have you found out, Dr. Keller?"
Rodney felt her flinch beside him.
"It's extraordinary work, far beyond anything medicine on Earth can approach, despite the unacceptable and unethical aspects of what those 'doctors' did." A red flush of embarrassment colored her face as everyone looked at John or Rodney. "There's really nothing for me to do. Everything works. There are no signs of rejection. I think the appearance may eventually become less...differentiated."
Woolsey folded his hands together. "I see," he said. "Is there any valid medical reason not to restore Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay to full duty?"
"Well, no," Keller replied with obvious reluctance. She darted nervous glances down the table at Rodney and past him to John. "Though I think they should both continue their sessions with Dr. Moktefi."
"Colonel Sheppard?" Woolsey asked.
John lifted both of his mismatched hands and wiggled the fingers. It made Rodney's skin crawl. "I'm fine. Still can't play the piano, but no hands of evil impulses or strangled subordinates so far."
Woolsey swallowed a small snort of near laughter. "I'm pleased to hear that." He switched his attention to Rodney. "How are you, Doctor McKay?"
"Fine. I'm fine." No use mentioning the nausea curling in his belly, since it had been a constant since their return and it was all in his head anyway. He wished John hadn't mentioned piano. He hadn't played in years, but now all he could think of were Sheppard's hands on ivory keys. Just the hands. He kept his eyes open to banish the image.
Woolsey studied him for another moment.
"All right, let's move on to the next portion of the agenda. Is it worth it, if there is any possibility of re-establishing contact with Ixtian Station, to do so?"
Our ancestors chose to build our home in orbit over a nearly lifeless planet where they had constructed a facility to manufacture potentia. Construction of potentia was deemed too dangerous to conduct on a planet with a population or even an ecosystem. Thus we are descended from workers, maintainers, technators, programmers, and managers who commuted via rings to the planet and lived at a safe distance aboard Ixtian Station with their families and support services.
During the Wraith War, more and more potentia were required by the Alterans of Atlantis to power shields, weapons, hyperdrive ships, and experiments. Our ancestors stripped safety protocols down to the narrowest margin as priorities changed in the face of the Wraith threat. While many non-essential personnel were evacuated from Ixtian Station, many brave others chose to stay.
The location of our home and the potentia facility were a closely held secret to safeguard Ixtian against the Wraith finding us. Only the most trusted captains of Alteran ships were given our stellar coordinates. Only the highest members of the Council of Atlantis possessed the stargate address.
All this security did keep any Wraith from ever reaching our stellar system.
Instead, our ancestors were forced to endure the Destruction and the Isolation.
The Alterans of Atlantis understood the devastation inherent in a flawed potentia and the resulting destruction of the planet our habitat once orbited proved their wisdom in keeping that danger separate from our home. Recordings from the time of the devastation speak of material fatigue and an overload that resulted in a chain reaction. The destruction tore the potentia facility and the planet apart so violently pieces impacted our home's anti-collision shields, but Ixtian survived.
Pieces also tore through the Scipia, the last Alteran ship, which remains docked to the station to this day, before its crew had a chance to undock and raise their own shields, leaving it too damaged to ever fly again.
Others hit the stargate itself, sending it spinning far out into space, far beyond the range of our dialing device. It would be centuries before the stargate reoriented and returned itself to its preprogrammed orbit.
By then there was no answer from Atlantis or any other Alteran outpost.
Our ancestors were marooned, with only the materials already aboard the station to support themselves.
The collected essays in this text are intended to explore what this meant for the men and women who guided the formation of our society in the aftermath of the Destruction.
From the introduction to: Essays on the Early Post-Isolation Station Managers of Ixtian Habitat, 0002 to 2441 PI, ed. Educator Aldweh Sirin, Educator Fant Paran, Historian Hadow Tweel. Distributed: 5647 Post-Isolation.
Translated by Dr. Wilhelmina Bancroft, Linguistics Department, Atlantis Expedition, [date redacted]
"Uh, guys, it was a metaphor."
John really hadn't expected them to listen to him and they didn't.
He'd meant it. Just not literally, or at least not without giving it some thought; he would give his right arm for McKay. Hell, he'd die for him.
He hadn't been expecting this, whatever this was, though.
Director of Station Security Hanabui had just looked at him and said, "You are ustra," and then the quick march into the medical lab, hands tied behind him, thugs with their big mitts locked around his biceps, and, Christ, McKay was still in the tank, unconscious and vulnerable, and he wouldn't have a clue what had happened to John.
So not good.
"Really, we aren't related, if that's what's got your panties in a twist."
Yeah, he should have known that wasn't going to fly.
He should've kept his big mouth shut. The Ixtian had knocked Rodney out when they arrived at the hospital, cleaned him up and shoved him in a tank of goo. The Director of Station Security had arrived to find out what exactly had happened. Then John had been introduced to the head doctor, Wuiper, and listened with about half his attention while looking down at Rodney suspended in the tank. He'd tried to imagine McKay going through life with a prosthetic hand and winced.
"He is a valuable man," Hanabui commented.
"The most important man in the city," John replied absently. He clenched his own hands into fists. Rodney needed both his hands.
"Important to you personally?"
"Yeah, we're like brothers. I'd die for him."
The Ixtians seemed to have taken him literally.
He tried to fight as the security thugs dragged him to another tank of goo, but Wuiper was there with an injector that hit John's neck and stung like hell, right before everything went all wiggly and melty.
John heard himself giggle and was horrified in a distant way. Manly Lieutenant Colonel's didn't giggle in public. Or at all. But especially not when people were taking off his clothes and it tickled. He tried to wriggle away but the nice big men were still there, holding him down. He tried to stop giggling then, but there hands everywhere and the light on the ceiling kept expanding and contracting and he couldn't squirm away.
Wuiper shot him up with something else when John tried to rear up and get away one last time. It flooded through him in a tide of warmth that made everything seem fine and he just sighed as they wiped him down with something cold then slid him into the blood-warm goo.
He tried to yell as the lid closed over his face and the goo rose over his lips, but his limbs were already so heavy and numb, and the goo slid inside.
The lights went out.
Rodney looked at himself in the mirror with John Sheppard's eye. The hazel was as familiar as his blue. Any accusation in it was his own. He knew that. John Sheppard's hand clutched at the edge of the sink, knuckles white under skin still darker than Rodney's.
Dr. Moktefi would have a field day if she could really see inside his head.
After one breath and then two, he blinked. He picked up his razor and finished shaving. He'd always been right-handed, but he'd begun using his left hand more and more since returning. Sheppard was right-handed too, but he didn't like to think about that, because Sheppard didn't have a choice anymore, so he concentrated on not cutting his face.
Elizabeth's subspace ghost had uploaded a list of the places where she and the other disembodied Replicator rebels had occupied computer systems, complete with gate addresses. A long list, though it shouldn't have surprised Rodney. He knew not every planet could have been crushed under the boot heel of Wraith domination. Even dwarf galaxies were vaster than the mind could conceive and humans were stubborn creatures. There had to be places in Pegasus where they hadn't given up on technology.
Woolsey authorized some discreet – read cloaked – missions to check out the possibility of alliances.
The first three were washes, not much more advanced than the Genii and not interested in poking their heads up for the Wraith to play whack-a-mole.
Address four, which the database didn't even list, but dialed without problems, turned out to be space gate. The MALP went tumbling away, whirling images of an asteroid belt, a G-type star, and the gate transmitting back, along with its other sensor readings.
At least, no planet any longer, just the wreckage of one, the detritus spun out in an arc along the path of its orbit.
"Is that recent?" Sheppard asked, looking at the pictures from the MALP. Rocks and dust, asteroids that might qualify as planetoids, a world reduced to gravel. Most were dark, shadowed, but the local star colored the hemispheres facing it gray and ruddy, tan, umber and ochre, fogged in dust that almost glittered; it was pretty, in as much as it was wreckage. Sufficiently tremendous destruction had its own beauty, like violence.
"That depends on your definition of recent, Colonel," Rodney said.
"Is recent," Zelenka confirmed. "Perhaps eleven, twelve thousand years old."
"I meant did it happen after the Replicator ghosts were there, actually." Sheppard folded his arms and frowned at the big screen after he spoke.
"Obviously not, there are no radiation or energy readings beyond the stargate itself," Rodney told him.
Woolsey pursed his lips. "Well. MALPs are expensive pieces of equipment. Do you believe you could recover this one?
"Sure," Sheppard said before Rodney could. "We can stabilize it with the magnetic grapples Zelenka fixed up on Jumper Three. Once it's not tumbling, we'll seal the cockpit, kill the gravity generators in the cargo compartment, open the hatch and I'll just back the jumper around it."
"It's not that easy!" Rodney complained.
"I'll match velocity." Sheppard gave him a look like he felt hurt that Rodney didn't trust his mad piloting skills. "It'll be just like jumping between moving cars."
"Come on, Rodney, let's go get the SGC's toy back."
"Can we take lunch? Because I skipped breakfast – "
"You skipped breakfast?'
"I was rudely dragged away before I could get through the line, if you'll remember, Sheppard." By Sheppard, he didn't bother adding.
Sheppard grinned at him, obviously remembering.
"Come on, McKay, it'll be good for you to get out of the city and your labs for an hour or two. You won't even have Ronon trying to steal your lunch."
Ronon and Teyla were on New Athos, helping re-establish the few hybrids that had survived the destruction of Michael's proto-empire a few months back. They were probably digging or building or doing something dirty and exhausting. A few hours in a jumper with Sheppard were infinitely preferable.
"How long do you think it will take you?" Woolsey asked.
"Oh, maybe three hours," Sheppard answered. "We'll take a tour around, see if there's anything to see that the MALP missed."
"Three hours?" Rodney demanded on the way to the jumper bay. "Are you insane? I should refuse to go. You've jinxed us."
Sheppard's eyebrows nearly hit his hair line.
"Ever hear of the Minnow?" Rodney asked him darkly.
Sheppard honked like the jackass he was when he laughed.
The corruption of the habitat's datacore post-noncorporeal replicator incursion stressed the Ixtian beyond their normal limits. The introduction of outsiders exacerbated the situation, possibly triggering a xenophobic reaction, despite initial good relations between Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay and the Station Manager Steikes.
Misunderstandings were inevitable.
The Ixtian obviously had no need for the medical pharmaceuticals Atlantis normally trades, but expressed interest in exchanging repair work on several damaged systems and obtaining raw materials in exchange for control crystals they possessed the facilities to grow in zero-gee.
Neither Colonel Sheppard or Dr. McKay can be blamed for failing to realize the extent of the Ixtians need for raw materials or the more bizarre adaptations their society had made to stringent conservation and recycling over ten thousand years of isolation not just from other people but from any resources outside their habitat. They approached the prospect of diplomatic and trade relations between Ixtian and Atlantis in good faith.
The events that ensued can only be described as unfortunate.
Further contact with the Ixtian may be worth exploring, but should be undertaken via a diplomatic team dispatched aboard either the Daedalus or the Apollo and provided with a cargo of raw organics and water for collateral. Appendix C of Dr. McKay's report includes a list of potentially useful technology the Ixtian possessed, obtained from his observations while aboard the habitat and the data he downloaded from their systems to facilitate his escape.
From the pre-report notes of Dr. Alan Chawpat, Socialogy Department, Atlantis Expedition, [date redacted]
Rodney started pulling in scanner readings, analyzing them with little more than glance, because aside from his genius, he'd been doing this for a while now. Practice did at least lend speed, if not perfection, to repetitive tasks. Checking the sensors had become routine.
He pinged the MALP and received an answering ping, then found it moving away from the stargate at a steady rate on a trajectory that matched the force that had accompanied it out of the wormhole into zero gee.
And there beyond the reach of the MALP's limited sensors, he noticed something else.
Something else that looked a lot like a giant silver cigar keeper just beyond the asteroid belt, so close to the stargate that he and Sheppard could both even see it through the front view port with their bare eyes. "Look up," Rodney squeaked.
"Whoa," Sheppard breathed, voice husky and cracked.
"Space station," Rodney identified it, but he felt awed too, not that he'd showed that to Sheppard. Sheppard teased him enough as it was. Rodney studied the data the jumper's scanners gathered and added, "Actually, I think habitat would be the proper term. It's – "
Sheppard glanced at the numbers, leaning sideways into the co-pilot's space, left hand braced on the armrest just beneath Rodney's wrist. Honestly, let someone touch him and he practically leaped out of his skin to get away, but Sheppard had no sense about anyone else's personal space. Someday, Rodney would remember to ask Moktefi about that. Of course, she would just give him that hangdog look of hers and ask what he thought it meant and why it mattered to him, so he should just save his effort for something useful. He stared at the numbers as they finally registered and his mouth dropped open a little.
"Big," Sheppard said.
Rodney snapped his mouth shut.
"Yes, yes, it's big."
"Let's go check it out," Sheppard suggested and headed the jumper toward it. The closer they got, the bigger the habitat seemed, until its scarred metal hull filled the view port, an anti-collision shield shimmering like a second skin over it, and Rodney's eyes were wide as his open mouth.
"Really, really big," he mumbled and his hands stilled on his laptop keyboard for the first time.
Sheppard shared a glance with him, looking just as overwhelmed, hazel eyes dark and big, reminding Rodney of when they'd both been new to this and everything had been amazing.
Five minutes later, after a dial-in to update Atlantis, John started his approach, slow and easy, because the habitat had not only spin but was tumbling end for end. The spin likely provided cheap gravity courtesy of Coriolis force pushing everything out against the inside skin of the habitat. He'd read a lot of science fiction sitting in ready rooms and flight lines and in BOQs on bases with nothing better to do over the years and wondered if there would be gliders or other ways of utilizing the low to near zero gravity that should hold sway near the center axis of the habitat. Of course, Ancient construction usually came equipped with artificial gravity, so there might be no fun to be had, but it still remained cool to consider.
When they came close enough, a HUD popped up, dividing the habitat into a three dimensional green gridwork before them, teeming with life signs. For the first time, John really got that they were looking at something at least the size of Atlantis, though differently proportioned.
"Well, that answers that question," was Rodney's only comment. He had been busy analyzing another set of numbers while John brought the jumper closer and closer.
He could guess what Rodney had been looking for in those numbers, too.
People meant power and power for a habitat the size of the one before them might very well mean a zero point module. Of course, if the habitat's people had one, they needed it, so they would be unlikely to part with it. Unless they knew how to make them. In which case, Rodney would want to learn to fish even if he couldn't have a fish dinner.
John's hands started sweating at that thought. Rodney had him well trained. You could spot an Atlantis vet anywhere just by how they breathed a little faster and got bright eyed if you even whispered, "Z.P.M." It had become positively Pavlovian at this point. Though with less spit in John's case, as adrenaline always left him with a dry mouth.
He shook his head to clear the stray thoughts and began checking for any sort of docking area while keeping the jumper clear of the habitat. If it hadn't been for the tumble, he would have spiraled parallel to the length of the habitat, but he suspected the docks would be at the ends anyway. Coming about, he glimpsed one blunt end for the first time.
"What?" Rodney's gaze snapped up from the laptop and his mouth dropped open again. "Sonovabitch."
John hoped there were docks at the other end too, because nothing and no one would be going in at the end he saw now. It was a dock, but it was also completely occupied by the twisted and torn wreckage of a starship. The hull had been torn open, major portions of it exposed to vacuum, the hyperspace engines completely gone, along with the bridge, and most of its cargo hold. Only the lack of gravity kept the warped wreckage clamped to the habitat's dock.
"You think it was hit while it was docked?" Rodney murmured from beside him.
"Had to be," John answered, because he was a hot pilot, but he knew the impossible when he saw it and flying that crippled ship went beyond his or anyone's skills. Nothing that messed up could have been successfully docked without inflicting more damage to the station. He wondered how many of its crew were aboard and how many made it into the station when it was hit, as well as what hit it. Wraith wouldn't have left the habitat intact.
Rodney had gone back to typing again. The key clatter sounded comforting. Staring at that long dead ship, John felt glad for the company of his friend and even for Rodney's narrow focus of concentration. Two of them mooning over what must have been a horrific attack or disaster would make each other feel worse.
Rodney's grunt drew John out of his own funk.
"Spit it out."
"Fine. The secondary motion," Rodney hand made a move that either meant the cartwheel tumble of the habitat or a limp-wristed robot wave, "was not original. The impacts on the ship threw it into the current motion and they've used up ten thousand years of luck in that it didn't send the whole thing careening into the asteroid belt, because that shield they've got would never have held up this long under a constant heavy bombardment."
"And here I thought they did that just to make docking interesting," John volleyed back.
Rodney gave him a wide-eyed look. "Oh, no. No, no, no." He breathed in and went on, "No, no, no, no. No, you are not trying to dock with that thing. Not with me in the jumper."
"Relax, Rodney, we still don't know if there are any docks at the other end."
John took the jumper around to check it out even as he soothed Rodney though, and, sure enough, there were jumper-sized docks at the other end. They appeared to be functional. Compensating for spin and tumble would be tricky, but John knew he could manage. No worse than landing an Osprey with instruments on a carrier in a storm. He matched speed and motion with the habitat and said, "I say we try it."
Rodney just moaned.
to: Director Richard Woolsey
from: Dr. Alan Chawpat
subject: Ixtian technology
The ornate jewelry that Colonel Sheppard observed a significant proportion of the population wearing proved to be in fact part of the Ixtians information processing interface.
The ubiquitous goggles provided a visual display similar to a HUD in conjunction with a wireless connection to the station operating systems. Sensors in the hand devices picked up movements coordinated to virtual command consoles, allowing the Ixtian to work from anywhere on the habitat.
A drawback of the system lay in its lack of hardware backup. When their datacore became corrupted, they had nothing that wasn't hooked into the system. Whether this oversight resulted from over reliance on the high performance Ancient datacore and operating system or the Ixtians' depleted resources has yet to be determined. But lacking hard copy or backups they could reload, they found themselves without sufficient knowledge to institute badly needed repairs in the wake of a major system collapse.
Dr. McKay, with his laptop full of diagnostic programs and in-depth knowledge of Ancient systems, must have seemed too good to let go. The possibility that the cultural misunderstanding over Colonel Sheppard's status as ustra was deliberately engineered in an attempt to isolate and retain Dr. McKay, must be considered if the SGC decides to contact them again.
Alexei Petrescu pointed this last out to me. I don't know how valid the worry is, but maybe someone should take it to the military, since they're in charge of security offworld?
It only took about five minutes for Rodney to ascertain the habitat didn't have a ZPM, while John did the whole meet and greet with the locals, all of them fumbling a little because Ring Speak had changed a little since the last time any of the habitat's people went through and picked up an update apparently. They sounded old fashioned to John's ear when he radioed for permission to dock. Even over the radio he picked up on their excitement, though.
A group met them as they came through the airlock.
Everyone blinked a little on seeing each other. The locals were all not just bald, but nearly hairless. Eyelashes seemed to be the extent of what was tolerable. They stared at John and Rodney, gazes just a little up, and he assumed they were as startled by their hair as he was by their lack. John realized that he and Rodney, in their fatigues, tac vests, and arms, must look drab and dangerous next to the bird of paradise brightness of the locals' dress; which was layered, colorful, and thin, since no real weather meant not much need for protection.
"Hiya," John said with a little wave toward the foremost local, a tall guy in blue and tangerine pants and a long green duster.
Number One Guy's bare head either had been tattooed or painted in decorative patterns. A set of red-lensed goggles dangled around his neck and what John would bet was a mike and earpiece was curled into his ear.
The others behind Number One Guy were dressed a little duller. Most of them still had their goggles over their eyes. Four of them had weapons in holsters at their waists. The guns looked like hand stunners - more Wraith design than Ancient or human, nothing like Ronon's – which made sense on a space station. Projectile weapons like his P90 might hole something more important than a body. He stifled a moment of disappointment; he really wanted to find one of those pulse pistols sometime, but it looked like it wouldn't be today.
Number One Guy brought his fists together before his chest, tapping the knuckles against each other and said, "Greetings."
John rested his hands over the stock of his P90 and smiled back, nodding, "So, we were just checking things out in the neighborhood, saw your place, and thought we'd stop by, see if anyone here would be interested in exchanging some information or goods, maybe talk about some trade? I'm Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, by the way, and this is Doctor Rodney McKay. We're both explorers."
McKay gave him a dirty look and corrected, "I'm a scientist."
Number One Guy frowned for a few seconds and behind him another person flicked her fingers like mad through the air, catching John's attention. The silver rings and tip caps were all connected to a heavy bracelet and it all looked a little like what the Wraith queens wore and a lot like the Goa'uld hand devices he'd seen back on Earth.
Hand-dancer stopped her fidgeting after a second and Number One Guy's expression cleared.
"I am Station Manager Steikes."
"Nice to meet you."
"It has been a very long time since anyone came to Ixtian Station," Steikes said slowly. "We welcome you."
From what we've extracted from Atlantis' records, even the Ancients couldn't build a space habitat without industrial accidents. (We'll have to consult Engineering on some of this, it's way over my head. I'm assigning Devendra to translating the stuff on potentia – which we've all agreed refers to zero point modules – since the Physics Department always asks for her anyway.) I've gone over what Dr. McKay brought back from Ixtian and I don't know if they weren't bothering to keep decent records or if it's all corrupted or incomplete, but I've still been able to piece together an idea of their history.
Alan, they have a recorded history of over ten thousand years! Not just bits and pieces and trying to figure out a lost language, either. It's all in an Alteran variant we're already familiar with.
Okay, where was I?
Until the habitat had been assembled far enough to generate its own gravity, work was done in zero gee. Crush wounds and broken bones from working with equipment that still possessed mass and inertia were common. Maintaining the station also involved the danger of being crippled. There are lists of casualties. I'm looking at them now. Ouch. Apparently the Ancients didn't have anything like OSHA.
Hmn. All right. It looks like they were cutting a lot of corners since Ixtian was built during wartime. This journal entry says optimum solutions were sacrificed in the name of speed. Casualties were expected and factored into the estimated time of completion. The medical care facilities aboard the habitat were geared to returning workers to the job as fast as possible.
So the Ancients did possess the technology to regrow severed limbs using nanite technology, but they didn't bother with it for workers at Ixtian. Too dangerous as well as energy and time consuming. By the way, Alan, I'm starting to agree with the rest of the expedition. The Ancients were a bunch of arrogant, egotistical jerks. All the workers building the station were human, so no one really gave a damn about their medical care. It does explain why none of the Ixtian have the ATA gene.
It says here that grafting took far less time and every worker assigned to build the station had signed off on donating any useful body parts in the event of their death.
I haven't found anything that can help McKay or the Colonel yet, but I'm going to keep looking.
Transcript of recorded notes for a first draft report from Dr. Wilhelmina Bancroft, Linguistics Department, Atlantis Expedition, to Dr. Alan Chawpat, Socialogy Department, Atlantis Expedition, [date redacted]
Sweat glued Rodney's hair to his head. He scrubbed his fingers through it and then rolled his shoulders, trying to give the tense muscles in his back some relief. The heat in the badly vented and claustrophobic work space kept him from stiffening up too much, but they paid for it in lack of breathing room and air growing more and more stuffy.
One of the Ixtians he was working with ran a cloth over his head, wiping away a shiny coating of perspiration without affecting the paint.
Rodney had begun to understand why the Ixtians eschewed hair; it held dirt and sweat and had to be filtered out of everything from the water reclamation systems to the air circulation systems. Of course it went back to the organics systems to be broken down and returned to the habitat's hydroponics facilities; even the dust from the air filters was reclaimed. He was valiantly refusing to think about any of that whenever he ate, since Sheppard wouldn't let him subsist on emergency MREs from the jumper.
He turned back to the access panel, crouched, and hooked his laptop into the diagnostic port. At least three of the crystals controlling the recirculation subcenter had been blown out. He'd pulled those already, but he suspected at least two more were damaged as well, even if they weren't blackened and cracked. He didn't want to wedge his shoulders back into a space designed for a double-jointed midget if he didn't have to, though, so he'd test first before pulling them.
At least the Ixtian had spare control crystals. They weren't as rare and valuable as ZPMs, obviously, but Atlantis went through them like a kid with candy, and finding a source made doing a little quick and dirty repair work well worth it even in his estimation.
Plus getting the air moving again in a full third of the habitat would make him breathe easier too.
"Okay," he muttered to himself, "okay, what have we got?" He loaded his diagnostic and set it running, shifting a little to ease the weight and pressure on one knee.
"Everything going okay?" Sheppard asked from over his shoulder.
Rodney jolted and smacked the top of his head against the upper edge of the access panel opening. He barely held onto the laptop balanced on his knees, while resisting the urge to put one hand to his head and rub.
"Damn it, Sheppard!"
"Sorry 'bout that."
"Oh, I'm sure."
The laptop beeped, bringing his attention back to its screen.
Rodney snapped his fingers at one of the Ixtian scientists he'd been working with all day. Tweedledee or Tweedledum. "You. Tweety."
"Tweel," the scientist corrected him.
"Whatever, come here. See this?" Rodney pointed at the screen. "Here's where most of your problems are coming from. These crystals can look perfectly fine to the naked eye and still be only working at half normal capacity. It's what has your systems messed up. They can't handle a normal load. It's a long, dirty job, but I'd advise you to go through every subcenter and test for damage or things are just going to get worse and worse."
"I see. The Station Manager would have to authorize that."
"Whatever, it's your problem. I'm going to pull these and replace them," Rodney dismissed him. "That'll have the recirculators functioning again since they're on a separate power grid."
He unhooked the laptop and handed it to Sheppard, then reached into the opening with one arm, feeling for the crystals blindly. A sharp piece of metal scraped his wrist, making him curse. The energy overload had torn up the paneling around the crystal array and froze the tray that usually pulled outward for maintenance in place. "Crap."
Rodney pulled his arm out and stared at the blood beading on the scrape.
Sheppard set his hand on Rodney's shoulder and said, "Maybe you need to take out another wall panel."
Rodney glared at the next panel, which had warped out of true. "Not without a cutting torch. It's stuck." He sighed. "I'm just going to have to do it by feel. You can hand me the replacements when I get the duds out."
He shoved his arm back inside and knee-walked as close the wall as he could before twisting his shoulders and sticking his head inside too. The blue glow of the good crystals threw black, sharp edged shadows in unfamiliar shapes. He still couldn't really see the second tray of crystals, but with a grunt, he leaned further in and got his hand on them.
The damaged crystals were all the way to the back, of course. Rodney groped and drifted his fingertips over them, counting as he fingered them. Three to the side from the left. His thumb wouldn't reach. He squeezed the wafer thing crystal between his index and middle fingers and wiggled it loose. Finally it snapped out of the port. He let it rest on top of the others and felt to the side for the last one.
Five to the side, second row. This was entirely too much like working on the air conditioning on his Volvo, though with less grease. He turned his arm, trying to get a grip on the crystal and the sharp edge of the broken panel cut him again, making him hiss.
He got his thumb on it and pulled. He could feel the whole tray rack move. Stubborn piece of Ancient junk, Rodney thought spitefully, jerking harder. The groan from the tray hardly registered, because the reluctant crystal was finally coming loose. One more jerk and it would come free.
The shriek of metal tearing loose and falling morphed into his own scream as the dangling panel came loose and fell, shearing through his arm like a guillotine, smashing into the tray of crystals and sending a shattered piece straight into Rodney's eye.
to: Director Richard Woolsey
from: Doctor Jennifer Keller
subject: re: quarantine
We're calling it Chromohydrans lornei celeris. It's incredibly opportunistic. It appears that AR-2 picked it up when they crossed a dry river delta while returning to the stargate. From what we've uncovered so far, it looks like chromohydrans is responsible for all the empty niches in P4M-33V's biota.
Rodney's scream ripped John's sense of time into pieces, leaving him with shattered memories afterward of the next moments.
Scarlet painted his face, his shirt, the walls, the floor, lines of droplets flung through the air in flailing trajectories of agony and shock.
He caught Rodney's elbow, but his other hand slipped through a gush of warm wetness, slick raw flesh and bone ending where Rodney's hand was gone, blood still pumping from the sudden stump.
Rodney's face had gone colorless, the wide emptiness of his mouth stretched into a breathless keen, and John wrestled him down to the floor. A stiletto thin shard glittered in one eye, fluid running like thick tears over his cheek. John bit back a moan at the sight. Rodney's other eye was dilated and dark, not seeing anything through the shock.
"God damn it, somebody get me a tourniquet!" he shouted at the Ixtians.
"Where's my hand? Where is it? John...John...John...why can't I see it? What happened – aaaaaaaaaaah!" Rodney gasped. "Do something, someone, oh God, not my hand."
He had to keep Rodney still. If he kept thrashing around he could drive the crystal through the orbit of his eye and into his brain. How was he even still conscious?
"I'm here," John told him helplessly. "I'm here."
"John," Rodney repeated, suddenly, frighteningly calm. "I'm going to bleed out."
"No, you're not."
"I don't want to die here."
"You're not going to," John swore.
Rodney's calm didn't last and he jerked and heaved, trying to pull his wounded arm close to cradle it to his torso. He'd always been stronger than John gave him credit for being. It took all John's strength to hold him down.
No one else moved; they seemed frozen in horror. Then one of the maintainers ran and another began scrambling his hands through the air, communicating with someone at the Station control center. John couldn't let himself feel it yet. He knelt with one knee on Rodney's upper arm and the other on his shoulder, weight poised over his torso.
"Rodney, Rodney, look at me, don't look away, just look at me," John chanted. He tore his belt loose and jerked it free of the belt loops. "Don't move. Don't move, just look at me, that's right, keep your eyes – keep your head still."
The belt only slowed the bleeding, but Rodney had gone still. His breath whistled in and out through clenched teeth and the silence echoed as loud as his scream.
Tweel dropped down to his knees, bright clothes soaking up blood, and opened a cannister of something.
"What the hell is that?" John demanded as Tweel shoved Rodney's seeping stump straight into the cannister and pulled it out. Rodney whimpered, high and breathless. His torso heaved under John, twisting in the mindless instinct that told the lizard brain the flee pain.
"Emergency epoxy for hull leaks," Tweel said as he set the bottom of the cannister against the thick epoxy and pressed a button. A spark of blue electricity hit the epoxy and it solidified immediately. "It will stop his bleeding out until we can get him to medical care."
"Oh God, oh God, oh God, my hand," Rodney whimpered. He was staring at the epoxied stump. "My hand."
"No, Rodney, look at me," John told him. He caught Rodney's chin in his hand and turned his face away from the amputated limb. "Trust me. I'm going to get you home and Keller's going to take care of you – "
"Is she going to give me a new hand!?" Rodney screamed at John. "I'm crippled! Oh Jesus, fucking God, it hurts, John. My hand, my eye, I'll be half blind, they'll send me back – " He blinked and John watched the shard in his eye shift as Rodney's eyelid brushed it. "They'll send me away." The high whimper that followed cut John as sharply as the crystal sliced at Rodney, a vivid sense of sympathetic pain almost paralyzing him.
"I won't let them," he lied.
"It has to come out," Tweel said.
John nodded. Every time Rodney opened his mouth, it affected the shard in his eye. He tightened his hand on Rodney's jaw. "Hold still."
Rodney's jaw muscles rippled under his fingers. Tweel leaned forward and took hold of Rodney's skull, a hand on each temple.
John reached for the shard. He had to do this. Rodney's eye was unsalvageable, but his brain was still in there. He knew which mattered more to Rodney, no matter how horrified and in pain he was now. The sharp edged crystal sliced into his finger and thumb immediately. He tightened his grip anyway and pulled the length of it out, trying to keep it straight and avoid doing anymore damage. He flung it away as soon as he had it free of the eye and Rodney screamed again as his eyelid, bleeding where the edge of the crystal had cut it every time he blinked, closed over the ruin of his eye.
He pulled Rodney up and wrapped his arms around him, letting him cry out into his neck and shakeuntil he went terrifyingly limp. Only the fast, uneven whisper of hot breath against his throat kept John from panicking.
"You've got doctors – ?" he started to ask Tweel.
Tweel nodded. "Wedee has already called for an accident response team. If you can – I can help you and we can carry him and meet them sooner," he answered.
John struggled to his feet still holding onto Rodney. Tweel took some of his weight and they started at a staggering run down the station corridor, leaving a line of bloody footsteps marked behind them.
Don't die, don't die, please, he thought, the plea matching every beat of his heart, don't die, I don't want to do this without you. He had to hold it together. Couldn't afford to think if Rodney was right or of what would happen when they made it back to Atlantis.
Atlantis wouldn't be the same without Rodney. Nothing would be. Especially John. He hadn't been since they met.
Fall apart later, he told himself, when you know if he's even going to live through this, harsh in his own mind. He pulled Rodney's unconscious body a higher against him and urged Tweel to move a little faster down the corridor, lying to himself the whole time.
They would save Rodney, they would get back to Atlantis, and everything would be all right.
In the back of John's mind, a ghost named Holland laughed.
to: Director Richard Woolsey
from: Dr. Alan Chawpat
At some point in their history after the destruction of the planet and the ZPM factory, after scavenging everything useful they could from the Scipia, the Ixtian were faced with a grim choice. Their habitat would support a limited population indefinitely, but the closed system would inevitably fail if they stressed it beyond its perimeters. It wasn't been built to be self-sustaining.
They instituted population controls. The penalties for disregarding them were severe. In time, the way of life that grew up around those penalties, and the practice of ustra, have become so entrenched in the Ixtian mindset that they can't conceive of not applying those same laws to anyone – even those from outside Ixtian.
Even those who could have helped free them of ustra.
Rodney noticed Sheppard's absence from his bedside when he came to in the Ixtian infirmary, even before he registered that he'd blinked up at the ceiling with two eyes.
After a second to process that – he remembered the pain and the thing in his eye – Rodney lifted his hand.
His left hand looked exactly as it always had.
The right hand looked familiar too.
Rodney squeezed his eyes shut.
He opened them again and nothing had changed. The right hand had darker skin than his, dark hairs on the back of the wrist, a knobby bone at the outside and long fingers with calluses. It wasn't his hand. He knew it though. He even recognized a short, thin scar over the pinkie knuckle. He'd seen Sheppard rub it absently sometimes, like it still hurt.
Rodney swallowed a scream.
Sheppard's hand was attached to his arm.
"Dr. McKay," a man he didn't know said, drawing Rodney's gaze up from the hand he'd been staring at.
"Where's Sheppard?" Rodney blurted.
The doctor ignored him, going on, "The grafts were successful. It's lucky you had an ustra with you. Station stock costs more. Of course, there are operating costs, but that has been covered by your ustra too."
"Graft," Rodney repeated. He flexed the hand, spreading the fingers, horror growing inside. "Grafts from what? And where is Colonel Sheppard? I want to see him."
The man gestured to Rodney's hand and then toward his eye.
"From your ustra," he said, and added, "Would you mind making a fist for me?"
Rodney curled the fingers tight, keeping his thumb to the outside the way Sheppard and Ronon had taught him. "Sure," he said. He pushed himself upright and then staggered off the bed. "I'll even use it on you if you don't tell me where Sheppard is!"
He didn't manage it, but he scared the doctor enough to yell for security and found himself under guard in a private room, facing a man named Hanabui and a woman who introduced herself as Judiciar Judau.
"You took Colonel Sheppard for parts?" Rodney demanded.
Judiciar Judau nodded.
"He declared himself ustra."
"Yeah, I don't know what that is so I really doubt he did either." Rodney glared. "What does it mean?"
Judau sighed with impatience. "When an unauthorized second child is birthed, both children become station property and are raised on probation. Upon majority, they are tested to determine which child will achieve greater service to Ixtian. The other child is ustra and returned to the station materials bank. Since restoring lost organs or limbs is more energy intensive than grafting, they are maintained in a supported hibernation and harvested."
Rodney stared at him in horror. "You – you mean to take Sheppard apart? Are you crazy? Sheppard's the chief mili – He's an important man where we come from. He's not unauthorized!" His voice hit an unpleasant high note, but he didn't care.
Judau smiled at Rodney.
"Where you came from no longer matters, Dr. McKay. You will be remaining here on Ixtian. We have need of your skills."
"Oh crap," Rodney muttered. "Not again."
Judau frowned. "What do you mean?"
Rodney glared at her and Hanabui and said, "You think you're the first back-slid idiots who were just barely bright enough to want my brilliance? Scarier people than you have kidnapped me."
"Have they, indeed?" she commented, a patronizing smile on her face now.
Rodney looked up and sneered. "Yes. And my people have always come for me. By the way, when they do, when they find out what you've done to Sheppard, they'll probably blow this place up." If the marines didn't, then Ronon sure as hell would.
Judau shook her head. "We simply won't allow them to dock."
Hanabui looked more cautious.
"Of course, resources here are at a premium, Dr. McKay," Judau said. "You'll have to work to support yourself. Perhaps you'll even be able to buy your ustra out of the holding tanks eventually if you are productive enough."
Rodney gritted his teeth. He couldn't lie worth spit, but he wasn't stupid; he knew when people were lying to him. Ford hadn't been the first or the last to realize the way to make anyone on the team do what he wanted was to threaten another member. Kolya had tried it too.
He hoped Judau ended up the way Kolya had. Picturing it kept him from doing something stupid.
"Sure," he said. He drew in a deep breath. "Before the accident, I was showing Tweedledee what work needed to be done to optimize your system. If someone could get me my laptop, I'll start on a plan."
"Station Manager Steikes will have to approve any repairs," Hanabui said, speaking for the first time.
"Of course, of course," Rodney said, "but the sooner I have a proposal put together, the sooner he can make his decision. Time is money, right?"
"Maintainer Tweel will bring you the necessary equipment after third quarter," Hanabui acceded. "A security pair will accompany you until you have...acclimated."
"Whatever," Rodney said.
Once he had his laptop and five minutes to himself, he was going to hack their system, find where they had Sheppard – if he was still alive – and get out. They were idiots. That's why they needed Rodney; shortly after arriving it had become clear to him the Ixtian didn't understand their operating systems or their equipment, only used them. They thought their hand-goggle system was the be all and end all, but that was all just using existing programs, it didn't let them code anything. They hadn't the faintest idea what Rodney could do to the guts of their station.
But they were about to find out.
Brains beat brawn in any long term situation, but Rodney wasn't worried about the guards anyway. Hanabui's security thugs hadn't spent the last five years fighting Wraith, Genii, Replicators, and learning self-defense from Teyla, Ronon, and Sheppard. They thought Rodney was soft.
He'd show them soft.
He clenched Sheppard's right hand into a fist.
If Sheppard was dead...Rodney sure as hell wasn't going to stay and be his murderers' repair man.
"You've got other pilots," Ronon pointed out to Woolsey, geared up and eager to go after returning from New Athos with Teyla.
"Yes, but I would prefer to consult with Major Lorne before sending another jumper into an unknown and possibly hostile situation," Woolsey said. "We have no idea what has delayed Colonel Sheppard and Dr. McKay's check-in."
"He's right," Teyla said.
The stargate came to life and the evening shift gate tech, Amelia, said, "Receiving Major Lorne's IDC, sir."
"Drop the shield," Woolsey instructed her.
They all waited as Lorne and his team walked through a moment later, having received the come-ahead signal following the lowering of the shield. One of them was in mid-sentence.
" – gotta piss like a racehorse. Can't believe how thirsty I am, though." The marine snapped his mouth shut and flushed as he realized everyone had heard him. "Sorry, sir."
Lorne waved his men to head for medical for their post-mission exam. "I know what you mean. Go." He turned back to Woolsey, Ronon and Teyla.
"Ah, Major," Woolsey said, "I think your debriefing can wait. We may have a situation with Colonel Shep – "
"Actually, sir, I really need to get a drink of water before anything else," Lorne interrupted uncharacteristically. "You can't believe how dry that place was – "
The quarantine alarms began wailing. The stargate and the control room DHD went dead.
"I think we have another problem," Lorne said and added, "Anyone else feeling thirsty?"
Sheppard's finger curled round the trigger. His thumb flicked off the safety with practiced ease. His calluses fit the butt of the Beretta. Rodney shoved it tighter against the back of Wuiper's head and swallowed back his nausea.
Sheppard's hand. His plan.
Five damned days since they came through the wormhole. Four since the last time he heard Sheppard's voice. Three since he woke up to this nightmare. Two since he finished hacking into the habitat's operating system, found where the Ixtian kept the ustra, and discovered how much damage had been done. One since he sat down and began creating the viruses he had set loose in the system an hour ago.
The hull breach sirens screaming through the habitat were false alarms, but he'd found enough damage and bad maintenance dating back even to before the incorporeal Replicators had occupied the computers that the emergency could have been real just as easily. Ixtian was a death trap and the station management knew it. No one would doubt the veracity of the reports coming into the station control center; Rodney's viruses were mimicking a cascade effect of disasters, feeding false information to the control center and shutting down movement and communication throughout the station as well as locking out everyone but himself from the system.
The guards on his door ran when the emergency evacuation orders had begun sounding. They hadn't even bothered trying to take Rodney with them.
Wherever they'd gone, they were stuck now. Every airlock in the city had locked down shortly after Rodney arrived in the graft stock facility.
Rodney recovered his tac vest and his and Sheppard's weapons from the security station at the end of the corridor and made his way to the medical facility. He needed someone who understood the grafting process. He found Wuiper frantically setting up a triage station in anticipation of casualties from the emergency.
He had to explain in small words what a projectile weapon would do to Wuiper's flesh because the Ixtian had only seen energy weapons before. Imagination made Wuiper a coward, though. Words like hydrostatic shock and peritonitis and hypovolemia succeeded in persuading the man. Wuiper knew what that translated to in a body – his body – the same way Rodney could imagine every disastrous variable to any scenario.
Rodney took Wuiper along a winding route of still operating airlocks and transporters. The corridors were empty; the stationers retreated to sealable chambers with vacuum suits and oxygen supplies on hand to wait out the emergency per their life long training.
The system had given up the number for the tank they'd placed Sheppard in before Rodney initiated his virus attack. Finding it in the graft stock facility took longer than he would have wished, the long rows of tanks stretching off into near darkness at the far end of the chamber. Emergency lighting ran along the floor at intervals, blue and eerie, throwing shadows upward. Rodney's boot heels were loud against the smooth alloy floor, unlike Wuiper's slipper-like shoes, as they walked down aisle after aisle of upright, coffin-sized suspension tanks. Distant bulkheads echoed each foot fall. Wuiper's panicky wheeze took on a Darth Vader quality in conjunction with the bubbling hum of the machinery surrounding them.
The lids were clear.
Most of the tanks were empty, but the ones that weren't offered pictures Rodney would never be able to erase from his memory.
Some only held various limbs or organs in suspension.
Others, though, held people: bodies complete enough to recognize if he'd known them, floating in a static suspension, waiting to be harvested. He realized quickly which were ustra. Theirs were the unlined faces, the bodies barely past puberty, the lesser siblings.
Looking at them made a sound rise up inside Rodney, made his hands sweat, and the skin over his shoulder blades prickle. Instinct named what he saw. Abomination. He caught his breath when they reached the tank holding Sheppard.
Rodney stared for a long moment, while Wuiper talked. He didn't listen because he didn't care what Wuiper said. It was all excuses, reasons Wuiper couldn't do what Rodney had brought him to the tank to do. Wuiper was going to do it anyway.
"You bastards," he whispered.
What was left of Sheppard floated in the suspension liquid. The Ixtians hadn't bothered to shave off his hair. Black strands floated in the fluid, enhancing the image of a drowned corpse.
The Ixtian hadn't confined themselves to taking the hand and eye they'd given Rodney. The torso floating in the tank had no hands and no legs. Low gravity and the viscosity of the fluid supporting him kept Sheppard's torso from sinking to the bottom of the tank. The machinery kept the fluid circulating, and Sheppard's arms moved as though reaching for a way out, helpless without hands.
Rodney focused on the hollowed orbit of Sheppard's stolen eye, unable to let Sheppard's gaze meet with his, hazel to hazel, anymore than he could ever face a mirror again.
He forced himself to speak. His voice cracked.
"Put him back together and get him out of there."
"It doesn't work like – I'm not authorized to requisition that much stock for a single patient. Certainly not an ustra," Wuiper said.
Rodney aimed the gun in Sheppard's hand at an empty tank and pulled the trigger. It exploded in a mess of viscid green fluid, sparks, and shattered pieces of lid; the liquid that filled it spattered across five more tanks. More of it dripped into a spreading pool on the floor.
Wuiper screamed and covered his face.
"Do it or I will," Rodney said in a gall bitter voice. He couldn't bend over and vomit the taste of away from him. "I won't need you if I do, though."
Wuiper whimpered and then moved to the control center where the work was done, Rodney following just behind him.
He watched over Wuiper's shoulder as automated machinery moved Sheppard's tank into place and then harvested the necessary limbs from other tanks: jigsaw pieces forced to fit in the absence of the originals. He observed as Wuiper slipped his hands into a set of mechanical control interfaces and remade Sheppard from spare parts and wondered if Sheppard could ever forgive him. Sterile waldoes worked within the tank, mimicking Wuiper's motions in the control gloves. Rodney wouldn't let himself waver and kept the muzzle of the Beretta shoved tight to the nape of Wuiper's neck.
"Would someone graft an ustra's brain into your skull if I blew yours out?" Rodney asked.
The waldoes jittered and a thread of blood curled and drifted smoke-black through the green suspension fluid.
"Or would they just shove your body into one of these tanks and begin sharing it with whoever needed a bit or piece?"
"I – I can't – "
"You can," Rodney insisted. "Do it right or die."
Wuiper straightened and said, "I will do my best work. Doing less would be an unconscionable waste of materials." The waldoes steadied and worked smoothly again in response to Wuiper's movements.
"You don't get to talk about consciences."
to: Dr. Devendra Meier
from: Dr. Wilhelmina Bancroft
Did you hear the engineers talking about irradiating the entire city if the doctors don't find a cure? I used to think everyone here was bomb happy, but now I feel like if I'm going down, I want to take this shitty disease with me.
God, I look like I'm pregnant, I'm so bloated. I'll never complain about retaining water again. I look like those pictures we used to see from famine countries, with arms and legs like sticks and a huge belly distended with water.
I'm afraid to eat anything because of this stupid bug. I'm afraid it'll dry up everything inside me. Fucking Coleridge. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Except I drink and drink and dirnk and goddamn chromohydrans sucks it all up.
I swear it must be gloating down there in my gut. It's found heaven, hasn't it? Nutrients to make more and more of itself and all the water I can drink. What's it going to do when I'm not here to feed it? Stupid parasitical infections never care they're destroying their host too.
I'm going to take a bath. At least I'll feel moister, even if I'm not.
Answer this, will you? I'm starting to worry about you.
Pistol-whipping, according to Sheppard, was stupid. Hit someone hard enough on the head to knock them unconscious for more than a minute and you likely did permanent damage. Even worse, the pistol might suffer damage. Sheppard hadn't had to drill respect for equipment into Rodney, of course, but the lesson stayed in his mind, because it had contradicted all the TV shows and movies Rodney had seen. Considering how inaccurate the science in those was, he shouldn't have been surprised the rest of it was just as wrong.
Wuiper had stopped and the waldoes had retreated into the walls of the grafting tank. Sheppard now had hands and legs and two eyes. He floated, still unconscious, in the upright tank.
Rodney screwed the muzzle of the pistol tighter to Wuiper's head. "Get him out of there."
"There is a normal twelve hour recovery time before the patient wakes naturally – "
"Wake him up and get him out now. I don't have time for this."
Wuiper flinched and entered a set of commands. A waldo stabbed out from the wall of the tank, the injector at the tip sinking into Sheppard's biceps, before pulling back. "A – a mild stimulant," Wuiper explained. The fluid in the tank began draining out.
"Come on," Rodney told him. "Open it up."
Wuiper got the catches on the tank open, then hesitated. "The suspension jelly – "
"What part of open it up now did you misunderstand?" Rodney demanded. "Do you honestly think I care about the mess at this point? Are you really that stupid?"
Wuiper reached over and opened the tank lid.
Too thick to flood out, the goo that still reached Sheppard's knees – were those new legs longer than Sheppard's had been? – oozed out and over the floor. It smelled sharp, like pine needle and spearmint, but less alive. Mineral. Rodney's nose wrinkled.
Sheppard's knees folded and he came tumbling out in to the gloopy green puddles. More of it clung to his skin, caught in his hair, and glistened on goose-pebbled skin. Rodney realized for the first time that the air in the habitat had been growing colder. One of his viruses had shut down the controls that kept the temperature of the station at a human comfortable level. It would be hours yet before icicles began to form, though.
Sheppard had begun to cough, curled into a fetal ball on his side, gagging up a mixture of jelly, bile and spit that sickened Rodney, just watching. His abdomen twinged in sympathy.
Another heave answered him and long fingers scrabbled at the floor, slipping in the puddles of fluid that thinned and melted down even as Rodney watched. Sheppard's goose bumps made sudden sense as he realized the suspension fluid had been cooled down to slow the tank occupant's metabolism.
"Take off your coat," he told Wuiper as Sheppard started shaking and moaning.
"Put it over him and then get in the tank."
"No, please, I don't – "
"It wasn't a request," Rodney snapped at him and waved the Beretta at him in a way that would have made Sheppard wince if he'd seen.
It scared Wuiper though and he dropped his aquamarine lab coat over Sheppard before retreating into the tank.
Rodney latched it closed from the outside, then knelt next to Sheppard. Cold jelly soaked into his knees through the thin pants he wore.
"Sheppard," he said again and touched his shoulder, using his left hand, telling himself he couldn't let go of the Beretta anyway.
"Urrgh," Sheppard mumbled and blinked. His eyelashes were spiky wet and his hair had been glued down to his skull tighter than Rodney had ever seen it, even in a rainstorm or when he'd had to dive into glacial flood waters to dial the DHD. Rodney stared, then looked away and made himself begin using Wuiper's coat to pat Sheppard dry. He didn't want to think about an eye the color of blue slate.
Sheppard began clumsily cooperating; enough that Rodney got him onto his feet and away from the grafting tank, over to the control console, where he'd dropped a bundle of scrubs. He shifted uneasily, biting back impatient words, as Sheppard dressed in a daze, fingers fumbling over the simplest task.
"We've got to go," he blurted.
"Sorry," Sheppard slurred, "I can't – What happened to me?"
"There's no time. I'll tell you later, okay?"
Sheppard finally managed a loose bow tie at the waist of the scrub pants, and looked up. "Okay." He grimaced at the thin, blue scrubs. "You couldn't get me my clothes back?"
"Considering how long it took you to dress in those, it's just as well I couldn't," Rodney told him and started out. He snapped his fingers. "Try to concentrate, Colonel. Or are you staying here?"
Sheppard padded after him.
"Where are we going?"
Sheppard reached over and squeezed Rodney's shoulder. "Thanks, buddy – " Rodney caught sight of the long, white fingers and shied away so hard he ran into the opposite wall.
"What the hell?" Sheppard demanded.
"Not now," Rodney pleaded. "Not now."
"You're explaining as soon as we reach the jumper."
Rodney promised himself he'd find someway to put it off then, but for the moment, he knew Sheppard would let it go.
"Perhaps they are merely out of communications range?" Teyla suggested from her infirmary bed. Her throat burned with thirst.
Ronon, in the next bed, snorted his disbelief, then coughed and reached for a water bottle from the case set next to his bed, despite the IV providing him fluids. "Could be they're lucky," he said. He sounded rough.
Woolsey pressed a dampened handkerchief over his nose and mouth, but didn't flinch or move back. His gaze followed Ronon's throat as he swallowed.
Two beds over, Lorne thrashed against his restraints and called out breathlessly for water. Two nurses rushed over, followed by Keller and the on-call doctor. The curtain between his bed and the rest of infirmary was yanked closed with a rattle while they worked. Lorne begged Keller to give him something to drink, his voice desperate and near delirium.
"Let us hope that is the case," Woolsey said. "They're on their own until the city quarantine is lifted."
"I'm not that sick," Ronon objected.
"Not yet," Woolsey said. "No one even knows what this is yet."
Lorne's pleas finally quieted and Keller pushed past the privacy curtain. It left a gap, through which they could see that Lorne had an oxygen mask and two more IVs.
Keller glared at Ronon.
"You don't feel sick now, but neither did Major Lorne half an hour ago. Whatever this is, it's already spread through the entire city according to Dr. Zelenka," she told him. "Colonel Sheppard and Rodney will just have to take care of themselves."
"Does anyone have any answers?"
Keller snatched up a bottle of water, broke the seal and gulped down several swallows.
"Whatever it is, it isn't confined to affecting us," she said. "Tests are coming back positive for contamination everywhere in the city, including the fresh water ballast tanks."
"Sucking us dry," Ronon said, with a nod toward Lorne's bed. The last glimpse they'd had of him, he'd looked like a man lost in the desert for a week, despite the fluids Keller had been pumping into him.
"How close are you to a solution?" Woolsey asked.
"Days," she replied, then muttered, "If we have that long."
"And that is my cue to leave," Woolsey said. He nodded to Teyla and Ronon and called to Lorne, "I leave you in Dr. Keller's capable hands, Major. Feel better soon," before hurrying out.
Ronon grunted, drained the rest of his water bottle and lobbed it toward a garbage container. He said, "Hope they're having more fun than we are."
Teyla let her head rest against her pillow and closed her eyes. She was reminded of a saying she'd heard from the marines: hope in one hand and shit in the other, see which fills up first.
The tickle in her throat became unbearable and she opened another bottle of water, sipping it slowly, letting the cool trickle down her throat, despite discomfort from her bloated stomach and already filling bladder.
Ronon cursed and left his bed, staggering for the bathroom, snagging another bottle as he went.
"This is all your fault."
"Just crawl faster."
Behind him, Sheppard cursed under his breath.
Rodney kept crawling. The airlock they'd needed to go through to follow the path he'd programmed the viruses to leave open had been jammed with stationers. They'd had to back track and resort to the ventilation ducts to detour around it. He'd left the ventilation system intact out of common decency; he didn't want people trapped around the station smothering in their own exhalations.
This path would take them to a security station where several corridors came together like the spokes of a wheel just four levels up from the dock. With any luck it would be deserted.
"I hate you," Sheppard said.
"Not as much as I hate you," Rodney replied, trying to sound normal, glad for the fact he couldn't see Sheppard behind him. Glad Sheppard couldn't see him in the ill-lit duct. He didn't think he could keep from staring and Sheppard hadn't realized yet, but he would if he just once looked while his head was clear.
Rodney wriggled forward through the tight space, belly down, dust so fine it had escaped even the station's best filter making him swallow back a cough. He wrinkled his nose and tried not to sneeze. Normal, he told himself, say something normal. The HoHos. He'd been pissed at Sheppard when he discovered they were gone, back on their last mission, the one where Rodney had been knocked out and Ronon had carried him back to the jumper.
"I can't believe you ate my HoHos. That my sister sent me all the way from another galaxy. When I was dying!"
"You weren't dying."
"I was too."
"Then why aren't you dead?"
"Because, because..." You saved me. You brought me back, alive and whole, not like I'm doing for you. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so damn sorry. "It was disrespectful," he said. He'd give up all the HoHos in the universe if he could just give back what belonged to Sheppard.
"If you'd died, you wouldn't have cared about the HoHos," Sheppard remarked. "Unless you wanted to be buried with them."
Sheppard sounded so much the same, if Rodney concentrated, he could push the truth out of his mind, so he said the first thing that popped into his head. "Well, that and a bottle of water and oxygen probably wouldn't be a terrible idea considering the number of living burials that occur every year on Earth. Also a charged up cell phone. I should write that into my will."
"Anyway, think of it as my own personal memorial wake, a tribute to your deep love for snack cakes," Sheppard said. Rodney could hear the smirk.
"Hate," he said and then sadly, "HoHos, Sheppard. The real thing. Hostess HoHos."
"Grief makes me hungry."
Grief made Rodney want to remake the universe, to undo the wrongs, but even the Ancients had failed at that. Time travel didn't remake your timeline, it created another one. No one was ever truly saved. In his darkest moments, at night and alone, Rodney contemplated all the ways he'd already died, all the timelines where he'd failed, and had to clutch at a chair or the sheets, for fear of coming undone.
He swallowed and said, "You just said I wasn't dying."
Some when he was, had been, did, die. Someday he would. The odds were always against them. They'd already died too many times.
Not today, not here, he promised himself.
"I'm not a doctor." Sheppard sounded unbothered, blithe, and he wasn't that stupid, but he made his own armor out of denial the way Rodney wrapped himself in obliviousness sometimes.
But only sometimes.
He crawled forward until he reached a T-junction.
"McKay?" Sheppard sounded worried and Rodney realized he'd fallen silent.
"I need to remember the lay-out so we don't take a wrong turn."
"Right, wouldn't want to come out in Pasadena."
"Right now, I'd be delighted to be in Pasadena," Rodney replied.
He twisted and wriggled enough to get his hand inside his tac vest and pull out his PDA, using it to check out the schematics he'd downloaded from the station datacore. The light from the tiny screen shined off the dull metal ventilation shaft stretching away in both directions. A welded seam in the metal dug into his knee and Rodney straightened his leg without thinking to get off it.
"Ow!" Sheppard grunted. "Jesus, you just kicked me in the nose!"
"Watch where you're going," Rodney told him.
"Kind of hard when we're stuck in the guts of an alien space station," Sheppard snapped back. "In case you hadn't noticed, no one provided any handy emergency lighting in here."
"Probably because they never expected anyone to try to crawl through here," Rodney said. "And thank you so much for reminding me we're in a small enclosed space."
"Oh, right, you're claustrophobic."
"It's a legitimate phobia!"
"Oh, was that a bug I just saw?" Using Sheppard's previous traumas against him wasn't fair, but Rodney was getting desperate. It would keep Sheppard from thinking about the present situation, at least. He heard rustling and imagined Sheppard patting and flicking at his clothes to rid himself of imaginary insects.
"I'm beginning to think I'd have been better off in the parts tank," Sheppard muttered.
Sonovabitch, Sheppard was stubborn. Stubborn or more affected than Rodney has realized. What if he remembered everything that had been done to him? Rodney didn't, but maybe Ixtian weren't so careful about keeping ustra unconscious. He gagged silently at the thought, worse even than the seeing Sheppard looking as drowned as Ophelia, pale and wet and maimed.
"No, no, you really wouldn't," he said in a tight tone, swallowing bile again. He checked screen again and added, "We have to go right." He started forward again, saying nothing more.
"So, any idea why no one's come looking for us?" Sheppard asked eventually.
"You mean here or Atlantis?"
Rodney paused, a seam biting into his elbow where his weight pressed down on bone.
"I don't know. Maybe Woolsey fired everyone because of budget cuts," he said.
He didn't want to think about it. Anything could be wrong. Woolsey wasn't even the worst of it. Rodney's own staff scared him more than anything bureaucratic. So many of them were intelligent and educated, but they weren't smart, they didn't think, they didn't factor in the real world consequences of half of their proposed experiments and without him there to stop them or fix whatever they did. Zelenka was almost as good as Rodney, but it really took both of them to control the science department. Some days, he thought that except for himself and Zelenka on a good day, his entire staff were raving morons –
"I'm hurt, McKay."
"What?" He tried to twist around and look over his shoulder at Sheppard, but just smacked his head against the top of the duct, then caught his elbow against the side when he jerked away, and on top of the way his knees hurt the sheer unfairness of it made him want to kick and scream. "What?"
"I said I'm hurt."
"Why didn't you say anything?" Rodney hissed. Wuiper had done something wrong, likely on purpose. "Oh my God. What is it? Where does it hurt? Can you keep moving? Can you hold on to my ankle?"
"You think I'm a raving moron?" Sheppard asked mildly.
Oh, crap, he'd been talking to himself out loud again.
"Yes," Rodney told him in a sour tone.
"Can we keep moving?"
"Yes, yes, absolutely."
He kept moving until his head ran into a grill where the duct dead-ended into – he peered through the mesh into the room below – their destination.
Two Ixtian security guards in their dull gray and orange vacuum suits, their helmets sitting on monitoring console, were bent over the displays at the console that monitored their level. Their tense shoulders and nervous movements telegraphed how spooked they were.
He muffled a grunt as Sheppard ran into his feet again and whined. Oh, he knew Sheppard would never admit it was a whine, but Rodney could whine with the best of them and that was a whine.
Sheppard whispered this time. "McKay?"
Rodney stared down at the two thugs. He didn't care if they were wearing uniforms. His recent acquaintanceship with the security forces of Ixtian Station had convinced him that they were all mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, tiny-dicked, tinier-brained thugs.
"We may have a small problem?"
"What kind of problem?"
"What do I do?"
The long pause before Sheppard answered made Rodney want to squirm.
"You didn't think there would be guards?"
"I thought they'd be gone. The others ran away when the alarms started." Rodney said, reaching for dignity and only achieving squeakiness. "Excuse me if I'm not quite ready to take down two armed men in hand to hand combat without blinking. Somehow I missed out on that class while getting my PhD in astrophysics."
"Do they have stunners?" Sheppard asked practically.
"Hunh?" Rodney demanded.
"We don't have stunners."
Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and recited primes. Big primes. Until he didn't want to kill Sheppard, because if he killed Sheppard then everything he'd already gone through to rescue the man would be kind of pointless.
"No," he said, as one does when addressing the mentally impaired, "No, we don't."
"That's too bad. It would have been a lot easier to just stun them than use your gun."
"Don't you dare shoot anything, you lunatic!" he hissed and added a blind kick just to emphasize his words. "Projectile weaponry and fragile environments floating in vacuum do not mix unless you're suicidal. Oh, crap, I forgot I'm talking to Colonel Kill-Me-Please. Well, I don't want to die of explosive decompression or even hypoxia, so for once can you just keep it in your holster?"
"I don't know, McKay," Sheppard drawled and grabbed Rodney's boot. "Is that like keeping it in my pants?"
"Yes," Rodney snapped.
How did the man fit an extra syllable into that word, anyway?
Rodney felt Sheppard's hands moving over the ankle of his boot and then a tugging at the laces. He wriggled and tried to pull his foot away. "What are you doing?"
"Keep it down," Sheppard told him. "And hold still."
"I'll hold still when you tell me what you're doing."
"Taking off your boots."
Rodney had already deduced that part. "Why?"
"So I can throw them as a distraction."
"Why not use your own boots?"
"Because I don't have any, remember? Someone forgot to get my gear back before springing me from that tank. Plus, I couldn't reach them in this space anyway and your's are right in front of me. – Ewwww."
Rodney flexed his toes, no doubt sending another poisonous gas cloud of odor into Sheppard's face.
"I haven't changed my socks or my underwear in four days, Sheppard."
"Too much information, McKay," Sheppard gagged.
"My feet sweat when I'm nervous. It's kind of funny, actually, most peoples' hands sweat, but it's my feet. Which is much better really," he rambled on, while Sheppard wrestled his other boot off too, "since with all the delicate work I do, slippery fingers would be inconvenient if not outright dangerous."
"Remind me to get you some foot powder," Sheppard muttered. "And a gag."
"Why couldn't they have taken your tongue?" Rodney snapped back then froze in horror, wondering if Sheppard would realize.
Sheppard was – Sheppard was wriggling and crawling up over Rodney's legs.
"What now?" Rodney asked, too weary to feel any real relief at dodging the latest bullet. It was only a reprieve.
Sheppard shoved Rodney's boots ahead of him, resting them on Rodney's back. He followed, blanketing Rodney with his body, pushing him down in the tight confines until he could barely breathe. Sheppard was all knees – wrong knees, wrong, wrong – and elbows and trying to suffocate Rodney apparently. What did the man eat? Lead? Neutronium? No one that skinny should be so heavy.
"Get behind me," Sheppard panted. "I'll," gasp, "take," grunt, "the," pant, "guards."
Rodney moaned and began squirming backward. Sheppard barely missed kicking him in the face with pale, bare, foreign feet. Rodney's skin crawled.
"Ready?" Sheppard asked.
"Do I have to be?"
"Then okay, yes, I'm as ready as I can be."
Sheppard pushed the vent grill off. It hit with a clang. Then a thud followed, a second one and Rodney scrambled to get out of the duct as Sheppard launched himself forward. He went out head first and hit the floor on his shoulder. A flare of pain hit, but Rodney had been doing this long enough he knew he could and had to keep moving, so he rolled in time to glimpse Sheppard wrestling with one of the thugs, while the other, having recovered from a flying boot thrown at his head, groped for his stunner.
Rodney rolled onto his back and kicked the back of the thug's knee hard enough to break something. It made him fall and drop the stunner. Rodney grabbed it and used it on its previous owner without compunction. He swung around and found himself facing another stunner.
It was in Sheppard's hands and the other guard was also down for the count.
"Good job," Sheppard told him.
Rodney had to grin, despite the fact that it felt like he'd dislocated his shoulder.
The moment couldn't last.
Sheppard was staring into Rodney's eyes.
"McKay?" he said and his voice shook.
"Sheppard, don't – "
Sheppard's mismatched gaze – one iris the exact shade of storm clouds on a sunny day – had dropped to the hands he had wrapped around the stolen stunner. They were long-fingered, pale, and unmarked – unused – and with a jolt Rodney realized they'd come from another ustra.
"What..." Sheppard staggered back and then folded down to the floor so fast Rodney couldn't catch him. The crack of knees hitting faded an then the silence filled with the quick, panicked pants coming from Sheppard. He dropped the stunner and held the hands up before him. They shook.
Rodney set his stunner down and reached for him, but Sheppard caught sight of his right hand and scrambled back until he hit the base of the monitoring console, a tight whine coming from the back of his throat.
"What did they do?"
Rodney curled Sheppard's hand into a fist then hid it behind him.
"What did they do to me?" Sheppard demanded. "What did they do to you?"
"You remember what happened to me?"
Sheppard blinked, then nodded. He gestured toward Rodney's head, caught sight of the pallor of the hand at the end of his arm and flinched. "Hand. Eye."
Rodney forced himself to look straight at Sheppard.
"They gave me yours."
Sheppard went still, then took another panting breath. He pushed himself back against the console harder, bare heels braced on the floor. His new legs were longer, Rodney thought absently, the feet were narrow and finely made, pink and tender soled when he'd glimpsed them only moments before. He bit the inside of his cheek and waited for Sheppard to process.
When he thought Sheppard would even hear the rest, Rodney said the rest of it in a blunt rush. "They took other parts of your body, too. It's what they do. There wasn't any way to get them back. I made one of the doctors put you back together, but he had to use what they had."
Sheppard's chest heaved with too fast breathes, but all he said was, "What parts?"
"Eye, hands, legs," Rodney replied economically.
Sheppard stared blankly, likely not seeing Rodney at all, for another minute. Then he pushed himself up, got his feet under him, and said, "We should keep moving."
"Sheppard, I'm sorry – "
"Don't apologize," he interrupted, harsh and shaky at the same time, and Rodney figured out that the only way he could deal was by doing. Since that meshed with Rodney's own normal coping mechanisms, he picked up the stunner and got to his feet too.
"Okay." He cleared his throat. "Okay. Let's go."
to: Director Richard Woolsey
from: Dr. Jennifer Keller
subject: re: personnel post ixtian status
I don't know why it isn't working. I've tried everything.The grafted limbs aren't ATA positive, but the rest of Colonel Sheppard is. I can't find anything to treat. I still have no idea how the Ixtian technology worked. All I can tell him is to hope that given time it will come back. For all I know the problem could be purely psychological. We know the ATA has a strong mental component.
Maybe Shohreh can help him. I can't. I don't know what else to do, frankly.
I think I'm making it worse, because they're both smart men and they know how bothered I am by this. Maybe I'm the one who needs some time with Shohreh. I just feel so guilty because I can't do anything for them. I can't even look at them.
J. Keller, A/CMO
"Christ, my feet are freezing," Sheppard complained as they bolted through the last airlock and into the docked jumper, John's longer legs taking him up the hatch ramp ahead of Rodney. "Did you have to screw with the environmental controls?" Once inside, he hopped from foot to foot, while pawing through one of the overhead bins for the spare uniforms they kept in the jumpers.
"I'm so sorry I was in a hurry and failed to think of your cold feet," Rodney snapped. "I was more worried about you having feet!"
Sheppard dropped the duffel bag he'd found. It narrowly missed his foot, burst open and shirts and socks spilled over the gridwork deck.
Rodney froze, then turned away and slapped his hand against the hatch control. He stayed turned away, watching the view of the airlock narrow and disappear.
"Let's just get out of here," Sheppard said in a tight voice.
When Rodney turned back again, Sheppard had pulled a pair of thick gray socks on over his foreign feet. He padded into the cockpit ahead of Rodney and dropped into the pilot's seat with a relieved sigh.
Rodney waited for the HUD and the jumper pre-flight check list to come up. It didn't. He twisted around and looked at Sheppard, who was staring at the controls. He watched Sheppard touch one of the controls and frown.
"What're you waiting for?"
"Something's wrong," Sheppard choked out.
Rodney fumbled and hooked his laptop into the co-pilot's console, starting a diagnostic. The whole jumper leaped to life with a hum at the touch of one hand. Rodney went still, staring, because it was Sheppard's hand on the console. "Oh God," he said.
"What?" Sheppard demanded.
Rodney flinched and kept his eyes down.
"It's not registering your ATA," he said, double checking the laptop for the confirmation of what he'd realized. "Your – those hands –- they're not – "
Sheppard held up his new hands in front of him and made a ugly, choked sound. "They're not mine. They're not me." He jerked to his feet, movements awkward and tense, and stumbled back toward the bulkhead between the cabin and the cargo compartment. "I'm not – "
"Sheppard!" Rodney yelled. "Where are you going?"
"Doesn't matter," Sheppard replied, disappearing into the cargo compartment, calling back to him, "You'll have to fly us out of here. I'm guessing the jumper still recognizes your ATA and my hand." His voice cracked. "Your hand now."
They couldn't stay docked to the station. Someone would come after them eventually. Rodney thought it a pure miracle they'd made it all the way to the jumper without being shot at, but then, they'd already used up their share of bad luck.
Rodney stared down at Sheppard's hand at the end of his arm. "I can't do this by myself," he said. "John. John, I'm not that good a pilot."
He'd meant to release an anti-virus into the station system before they'd undocked. Instead, he shifted into the pilot's seat and shakily began the pre-flight. When the jumper was ready, Rodney called out nervously, "Sheppard. Please. I need your help."
Sheppard came back into the cabin. One look convinced Rodney say nothing. Sheppard had obviously locked everything down and his face held no expression. He leaned over the back of the pilot's chair, wrapped one cold hand around Rodney's on the control stick, then guided and talked Rodney through the tricky undocking maneuvers in a toneless voice.
Once they were free of Ixtian Station, Sheppard retreated back into the cargo compartment again. Rodney aimed the jumper at the stargate, flying in a long arc, pushing the jumper's drive pods to their limits.
Remembering how cold Sheppard had been, and realizing his own teeth had begun to chatter, Rodney adjusted the temperature in the cabin and the cargo compartment, raising it enough he should have stopped shivering himself.
Nothing could stop the shakes, though, when they finally hit.
Sheppard would never forgive him, he thought, for stealing his wings.
Sheppard and McKay, or two impostors, sat in the isolation room. Sheppard had stretched out on one of the beds and stared at the ceiling, one pale hand resting on his stomach. The other he held in a fist next to his thigh, betraying the image of relaxation. McKay paced restlessly. Neither of them spoke or looked at each other. They knew they were under observation, of course, but the silence had been notable since they stepped out of the jumper.
Woolsey turned to Keller and demanded, "Are they actually our people or not?"
"It's Sheppard and McKay," Ronon answered before she could. He glowered at Keller and Woolsey in turn, until Teyla touched his arm.
"I'm sure you're sure, Mr. Dex, but I would be more reassured by an informed medical opinion," Woolsey replied.
"I think so," Keller said.
"That isn't good enough, Dr. Keller. The differences are obvious enough on the surface. I have to know."
"I'm sure it's Rodney," she said finally. "Genetically, except when I sample from the grafted limb, there is no question. DNA doesn't lie. And when I sample from the right hand...That matches Colonel Sheppard's DNA."
"And Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asked.
"I – " Keller stopped and raised her hands. "Yes. Yes, it is him."
"But how can they have different DNA without rejection issues?" Woolsey asked.
Keller shook her head. "I don't know. The real question is whether their bodies can accept the differences, but there's no symptoms of that yet."
"They are both strong men," Teyla said. "They will find a way, if we give them time and understanding." She looked at Woolsey as she spoke and waited until he gave her a nod that promised he would see that they received that time.
Not me, not mine, not right, echoed through John's head. He fled into the cargo compartment, aware that even that felt wrong, his reflexes thrown off by the extra height of someone else's legs. Still not as tall as Ronon, he thought, verging on hysteria.
He'd been holding onto his self-possession since realizing something was different and forcing the truth from McKay.
The look on his face, the look in his eyes, his eye...John shuddered, the skin on his back and down his arms crawling in reaction. The trembling spread through his body and he dropped onto one of the benches. He pushed himself back against the hull of the jumper and squeezed his eyes shut, shutting out the sight of those strange hands curled into fists on his thighs.
Not his, his brain insisted, not his, not him, not.
Not real, he wished, but this wasn't a nightmare he'd wake from, not in his bed or the Atlantis infirmary. The feel of short fingernails digging into tender palms hurt in a too real way, just as the cold metal deck stung the soles of the new feet resting on it.
Anger bubbled up from the rat's nest of emotions, red and strong and pushing everything else aside. How had McKay dared do this to him?
John caught his breath.
Not McKay's fault and he knew it, no matter how bitter leaving him in the pilot's seat felt. That had slammed into him like a blow, like the crest of a tsunami crashing down over him. He could still feel the jumper's systems, but it didn't respond, didn't light up for him. Another piece of him cut away.
Pain shot through him. Fists and flesh protested sudden abuse. John forced a deep exhalation through his nose. No more hitting. Uncurl the fingers. Look at them. Better than nothing, he reminded himself, so much better than no hands or legs, pieces of him gone forever. He had to stop thinking of it. Thinking of pieces of him attached to strangers made him want to go back and...What? Chop them off? John relived the splatter of McKay's blood on his face, pumping from the severed stump.
No stump now.
He heard McKay speaking from the cabin
"Sheppard. Please. I need your help."
John made himself go forward. He stood behind the pilot's seat and talked McKay through the undocking process, keeping his voice clipped and emotionless, telling him which displays to activate and what responses to make. Never looking down once to see at his hand on the control stick until he had to, until he had to touch his hand at the end of McKay's arm to guide him. They were lucky leaving the space station was much easier than docking.
Once they were free of Ixtian, John turned and walked away again, moving stiffly. McKay could do the rest. He needed to pull himself together before they reached Atlantis, because there would be no privacy to do it once Keller had them in her hands. There would be questions and reactions and debriefings and medical exams and he had written the security protocols himself. John knew they'd be spending at least one night in isolation, under observation and guard. He had to be on top of his game by then, so that no one saw how it really affected him.
He kept his back to the open cabin bulkhead and forced himself to just breathe, until he had sufficient control to put it in perspective enough to go on functioning. In effect, he had the most perfect prostheses ever and he had McKay to thank for that, the same way he had the Ixtian to blame for needing them.
"Sheppard," McKay called in a tight voice. "I'm about to dial Atlantis."
"Be right there," John replied, aiming for casual but sounding a little uneven to his own ears.
McKay said nothing and didn't look his way when John joined him and took the co-pilot's seat.
"I'll dial," John said. It was usually McKay's job, but McKay was flying and it was something he could do. "Ready?"
"Yes." McKay's terse responses gave away how uncomfortable he was, too.
The space gate activated. John sent through the jumper's IDC and waited for a response. When none came, he turned toward Rodney automatically, sharing a worried glance that caught on the flash of hazel where there had always been blue. Rodney's gaze slid away from John's, unease and unhappiness delineated in the slant of his mouth and the tension in his shoulders.
"Atlantis, this is Jumper One," John radioed. "Please respond. Over."
After a long wait, the radio crackled.
"This is Atlantis. Colonel Sheppard? Over."
"We're overdue and ready to come home, Atlantis. Drop the shield. Over."
"Jumper One, we are unable to comply. Atlantis is under Level Four Quarantine. Over."
Well, crap. At least they knew why no one had come looking for them now.
"Colonel Sheppard? Is Doctor McKay with you?" John recognized Woolsey's voice, then the cough and the belated addition of radio protocol. "Over."
"Yes, I'm here too," McKay snapped. "What's going on?" As usual, Rodney ignored radio etiquette. Rodney hated wasting time. Since their communication equipment could send and receive simultaneously, it didn't actually matter much anymore.
Woolsey explained succinctly.
"Biology believes they can destroy the bacteria with concentrated UV radiation and Dr. Zelenka's team is working on a way to decontaminate the city, but Dr. Keller is still attempting to find an antibiotic that will kill it off in all those infected," Woolsey finished. "Until there is no chance of this spreading to another world beyond Atlantis, we can't chance letting anyone in or out of the city. Over."
"Understood," John said. "We'll head for the alpha site and contact you again in six hours. Over."
Woolsey coughed and asked, "Since we can't dial out, there is no way to inform the SGC, but the Daedalus will check the alpha site for survivors if we are unsuccessful. There is very little anyone can do from here, but are you both all right? Over."
John looked down at the hands he'd locked around each other. Survivors. That was one description. He couldn't make himself say the words, though. It felt too much like failure and he hadn't been there when Atlantis needed him. All the pieces of himself were being amputated; now he couldn't even return to the city.
"We'll be waiting at the alpha site. Disengaging wormhole now. Over."
"Eye. Hands. Legs," John said. He angled a look at Shohreh Moktefi. She was a better psychologist than Heightmeyer, she never assumed what she knew explained anything happening to anyone in Atlantis, but he still hated talking to her. He turned back to the window and stared out at the flat blue sea, the endless blue sky. The window reflected Moktefi watching him, the down turn of her mouth, and then the way she pushed the gray threaded sheaf of her hair back behind one ear.
"He forgot one thing."
"What was that?" she asked.
Rodney had to fly the jumper back to the stargate, back to Atlantis, when they reached it. None of the jumpers recognized John and his stranger's hands; nowhere in Atlantis welcomed his stranger's tread.
"You still have the ATA gene," Moktefi said. "Dr. Keller has confirmed that. You've confirmed you still sense a connection with the Ancient equipment here in the city."
John clenched his new hands into fists. He knew what she was intimating. The problem was in his head, not his body. But his body made him sick when he thought about it, how he'd come to have these hands and legs, and that back on Ixtian Station, there were bodies floating in tanks without both so that he could have them.
"Keller doesn't know everything," he said. "She doesn't even know why our bodies aren't rejecting everything."
"Of course we don't know everything," Moktefi replied. She sounded tired enough that John turned to look at her and found himself caught in her gaze. "That includes you, Colonel. Now I have a rather disgusting suggestion."
"Try spitting. You're a secretor according to your medical file. The ATA is in more than your sweat."
McKay's curse trailed off. Stars were more brilliant seen from space, without atmosphere, so full of real and light pollution, diluting and refracting their light. They shone without flicker or interruption, so close in this portion of the Pegasus galaxy that a blue giant actually looked blue, glimpsed through the empty ring of the deactivated stargate.
"Alpha site," John said.
"I guess." McKay didn't look at him. He let out a rough chuckle, mirthless and cracked. "I've still got my laptop. We can write up our AARs, get that out of the way."
"Way to bring a man down, McKay," John replied, pretending amusement he didn't in fact feel.
He dialed the current alpha site gate address. The Ancient controls lit yellow under his touch, sleek and cool, and afterward John rubbed thumb over finger pads, struck by how smooth the skin felt. The stargate settled into placid blue once the wormhole stabilized and Rodney nudged the jumper forward.
Neither of them spoke again.
McKay landed the jumper – with a thump that made John wince – not far from the concealed, locked down and empty temporary buildings that had been thrown together by the marines and several civilian engineers. There were weapons, electronics, and an emergency medical triage set up and food supplies in hidden caches within a day's walk of the stargate, besides the minimum stored on site.
They could stay at the alpha site a long time.
Their friendship might not be strong enough to survive this. They might not be strong enough. He didn't know. But if they had to endure more than a couple of days isolated together now, John figured one of them would kill the other. The way John felt; hell, the way John had been treating him, he figured it would be McKay who snapped. He knew he'd deserve it; he just couldn't stop yet.
John realized the best thing he could do for the moment would be get away.
He was grateful for the manual hatch release, using it to open the jumper and escape McKay's silent company. He knew the codes to get past the locks on the buildings and let himself into a barracks where he knew spare uniforms had been left for emergencies. He stayed there, lying on a cot that lacked a blanket or a mattress, staring at the metal ceiling, after getting dressed, until hunger and worry took him back to the jumper. Neither of them had a radio, so he couldn't check on McKay over the air.
A crumpled MRE pouch showed that McKay had already eaten. John helped himself to a spaghetti and meatballs meal and ate it cold while the sun went down. Exhaustion took over and he stretched out on one of the jumper benches and dozed.
McKay's return woke him. The jumper's interior lights came on for him. He'd found himself a new uniform too. He stood in the hatchway and stared at John.
"You're awake," he said.
"No kidding," John replied.
"Right. Sorry." Rodney's hands came up, but then he put them behind his back, where John couldn't see them. "Did I say I'm so – "
"Shut up, McKay," John snarled at him. He turned over, turned his back to McKay, every muscle tense. "Turn out the lights."
"What am I, your butler now?"
"...vabitch," Rodney mumbled.
The jumper's interior lights dimmed to near darkness. John closed his eyes and pretended to sleep, listening as McKay rustled around, closed the hatch and cloaked the jumper, then settled on the bench opposite. Sleep only came after he heard McKay's breathing slow and the first snuffling snore.
to: Dr. Jennifer Keller
from: Dr. Alice Biro
subject: potential treatment
Dr. Zelenka tells me Science is ready to begin decontamination. We can't wait any longer. I've developed four different variants to treat the infection based on the bacteria's vulnerability to sodium and UV. Marie Ko, Matthew Oke, and I are all going to test one on ourselves. I intend to ask for a volunteer to administer the fourth formula to as well. I know this should be your decision, but we're out of time. Once we know which formula is best, we have to begin treating people.
I've already got four people in my morgue from this thing. That's enough.
to: General Henry Landry
from: Director Richard Woolsey
subject: personnel decisions
There's nothing the SGC can do for them. Sending them back would just add the stress of forcing them to constantly remember a cover story. Dr. Moktefi agrees. I'm putting them back on full duty at the end of the week.
Atlantis Expedition Director
An inch made a huge difference.
Still not enough to outrun Ronon, but John's stride was different. He told himself he'd get used to it. It actually bothered him more than the rest of it, with the exception of not flying the jumpers any longer, because it had changed his balance. It was a little like adolescence again, tripping over his feet, legs suddenly longer; the way they'd been at seventeen when he had his last growth spurt and went from barely average to six feet in four months.
"You coming, Sheppard?" Ronon called from up ahead. A week after Keller and Biro's treatment, he still looked too thin, but had begun recovering.
John didn't know when he'd begin recovering. Or McKay. Moktefi had reminded him in his last session, though, that worse things had happened to both of them and they'd survived. Inside, they were the same.
"You were faster when you were turning into a bug!" Ronon yelled.
John laughed despite himself and pushed a little harder. That put everything into perspective. He pounded over the catwalk after Ronon, the metal booming under each foot fall, abruptly grateful for Ronon's lack of mercy.
to: Director Richard Woolsey
from: General Henry Landry
subject: re: personnel decisions
I hope you're right.
Rodney had his head and shoulders under the dead console. He twisted onto his side so he could see better, then reached back with his right hand.
"Radek," he said. "Hand me that lead."
He snapped his fingers.
"Radek, some time this century, please."
The fiber optic cable and connector he wanted dropped into his palm. Rodney pulled his hand back and hooked it into the console's secondary diagnostic port, then squeezed back out.
He grabbed his laptop, inserted the other end of the cable into place and booted the troubleshooting program he'd put together a few days before, without even getting up from the floor. There were still problems popping up all over the city thanks to the damage done by decontaminating it.
A cleared throat, definitely not Zelenka's, made him jerk his head up.
Sheppard crouched tailor fashion before him, hands dangling just beyond his knees.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," Rodney said and cringed when he realized he been snapping the fingers of his right hand. His gaze strayed to it, but it was too late to stuff it in a pocket or any other hiding place.
Sheppard's gaze followed his.
"Rodney," he said quietly.
Rodney clenched his hands into fists. "No, no, it isn't."
Sheppard held up his hands.
"These work, Rodney. You gave me that."
"I took – "
Sheppard moved faster than Rodney could react and grabbed his right hand, holding it between his. The rough scratch of new calluses, from gun and bantos, caught against the fading ones where their hands tangled.
"You didn't take anything."
"But you lost – "
"Yeah, I lost something." Sheppard's bi-colored eyes narrowed as his brows came together, but the frown smoothed away into acceptance. "Living is losing and finding something else to patch the holes. I guess. That's what Shohreh says. We're all patchwork, you know, made up of bits and pieces we get from everyone around us. You and me? We're just a little more obvious about it."
Rodney thought about, unsure but unwilling to argue for once. Patchwork? It sounded messy. Like being human. He thought of all he'd learned from Sheppard, from Teyla and Ronon, from Carson and Elizabeth and Ford, the memories that shaped who he was now, so different than the man who came through the stargate five years ago. Bits and pieces. Not a kaleidoscope, though, but a crazy quilt, all stitched together.
Sheppard let go of Rodney's hand, stood up, and stretched a little.
"You ready to get something to eat?"
"What?" Rodney said. "Oh. Yes. I suppose I could leave this and come back later."
Sheppard held out his hand and Rodney took it, letting himself be pulled to his feet.
"So," he asked, "you're okay?"
Sheppard smiled at him.