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Summary: "Never in a million years would I have imagined ending the world. But from the stories I've heard, the legends of John Connor, Judgment Day was inevitable."

Updated: 15 Aug 2009; Published: 15 Aug 2009

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Story Notes:
On behest of polite requests from readers (and not-so-polite requests from friends), I have expanded the Ecce Machina 'verse into a fully-fleshed out story. At first I thought it would be a quaint little 'verse, and boy did it get out of hand so quickly. I am not at all kidding about the Graphic Violence (probably at the level of any violent military movie), but it's not Evil Dead gore, so please be fairly warned. Also, I realize that this is only the first act that is posted. Rest assured--there is a second act in the making, but only after the Graduate Record Exams are over. Maybe even before then :P


Ars Machina

or The Tale of the Postmodern Pygmalion written in Two Acts.

Act I

Chorus

Skynet. The primary target. The cyberhorseman. The harbinger of death. The ender of civilizations. These are all names used to describe my ultimate project, the foundation of my dissertation, and my theory of theories. When I was recruited by Cyberdyne Systems, I thought I was creating life. I believed myself to be studying the foundations of what it meant to be alive—not in the biological or physical sense (even the laws of physics are too restrictive for how I view life), but in the purest spiritual sense—life as information. But there are reasons why these physical laws were in place to restrict life, for if life is bound to a physical configuration, it is possible to kill it. Skynet was not, is not of this physical life, so to kill it would be a contradiction on the most fundamental level of logic. To truly kill Skynet, we will need to violate the most sacred of physical laws, we will need to violate the First Law of Thermodynamics. We will need to destroy energy, use our insignificant forces to undo something more powerful than we can possibly imagine. But if there is any reason I should believe this possible, despite the bleak skepticism and insurmountable powers of mechanical circumstance, it is the absolute tenacity of the human spirit. I know this because I see it every day—in face of aerial Hunter Killers shooting us down from the skies, the Earth-Splitters melting us away, the Terminators blasting us into oblivion, we live to fight on, one machine, one base, one bloc at a time. And although they manufacture new machines to hunt us down and exterminate us, thousands of machines will be mowed down with each human birth. I believe in humanity, not because of some abstract calculation, but because I believe in everyone I see today. I believe in humanity because I believe in John Connor. This is Doctor Rodney McKay. If you are listening to this, you are the Resistance.

Scene 1

It's the third night this week I haven't slept. I wasn't really staring at the screens or working in the labs. I spent the last three days in the mess, no uppers, no coffee. Just the emptiness of the past six months. Evan's body was finally found several weeks ago and although I've been mourning his death all this time, even the recovery couldn't bring the fact home to me. Until now.

Fourteen years since Judgment Day and I still have trouble remembering how to lock my tactical gear into place. Of course, I never was assigned field duty—Evan forbade it—but even us "Docs needed to protect ourselves from the machines. Throughout the drawn out years, we've had multiple infiltrations by Terminators; they've grown cleverer with their cybernetics and the cyborgs were more convincing as time went by, but the Second General Command had learned to cloak itself. Even John Connor doesn't know where we are.

A tray is set before me and I look up to find Teyla's gentle face smiling down at me. The poor woman—the lone survivor of the Athosian tribe whose history is now wiped from the Earth.

"Rodney," she admonishes softly, "it has been been many hours since you have last taken food. Please, have at least a bite." Knowing her voice, it's not an invitation, but a command. My arms are too weak to reach out for the toast, but my heart is even weaker at the sight of her shimmering eyes. Gingerly, I take the proffered slice slice and tear off a hunk into my mouth, chewing slowly.

"'S not like McKay to be refusing food," Ronon rumbles from behind me. He appears at my left, setting down a mug of hot water, and gently squeezes my shoulder. Well, gently as Ronon defines it.

"Thanks guys," I manage out, "but I'd really prefer to be alone right now."

"Can't," Ronon replies. "Heightmeyer's got you on suicide watch." He jolts up and reaches down to rub his leg, scowling at Teyla.

"Rodney, Drs. Heightmeyer and Lam are both concerned about the recent... tragedy. They only want us to stress that we are here for you in any way you wish for us to support you. We are not here to pester you or pry into your life, but merely—"

"Acting as pillars, strong links in a chain, yeah, yeah, yeah," I spit out. "Look, I get what you guys are trying to do, but don't take this the wrong way, because I really do appreciate it. I just need to spend some time thinking about how I'm going to blast apart an immense robust network impervious to explosions and physical damage, so if I promise to eat regularly, in my labs, will you at least let me breathe a bit?"

Teyla nods in agreement, though she's blinking rapidly. Ronon grunts, "We only care 'cause you're our friend, McKay."

I feel a raw heat building at my chest. "Friends don't single-handedly annihilate the world." I turn to leave the mess.

Scene 2

As I erase the white board for the fifth time, I recall how the impersonal forces of circumstance acted on history and pulled the curtains on humanity before it could bow off the stage. Whatever way I look at it, it all seems to have started with Cyberdyne Systems. Born as a product of the Second World War, Cyberdyne was always dealing in death since its first incarnation as a weapon systems integrator. Riding on the coattails of radar systems, it was the shadowy force that drove the newly burgeoning information science race, recruiting the disciples of Shannon, Turing, and Wiener. Though IBM was building individual computers, Cyberdyne was what brought these computers together with the cold efficiency of control theory and algorithms. By the 1980s, it drove the IT Revolution, though no one outside of the industry knew its name or history. Those suckers at Microsoft, AT&T, and Lockheed-Martin had no idea how their competitors kept disappearing, being silently bought out and turned subsidiaries of Cyberdyne Systems Corp. Yes, it was only natural that Skynet was born of Cyberdyne as it embraced its principles: invest and control, although now it's more infest and control.

That's not to say the employees or the board members were just as sinister. The Chairman of the Board before the Air Force buyout was an extremely principled man and generous to a fault. The financial officers were no less gluttonous than those at any other tech firm and our attorneys routinely took pro bono cases for urban housing and civil rights. None of these people were taking any shady contracts or were involved in nefarious plots of world-domination. In fact, we took much company pride in our auditing transparency and even our factory workers felt no strong desire to unionize. Perhaps it is this very innocence that was the sign of the horrors to come—Cyberdyne was built on blood and its foundations were flowing a torrential crimson, an execution masked by a smile and a warm handshake.

2004. The United States Air Force bought out Cyberdyne the year before. It wasn't due to any financial woes, but rather because of the large government buyout of defense contractors after September 11. By that time, I had finished my doctorates and Computer Science and Mathematics from Stanford University and was Chief Research Director thanks to my theoretical work on robust scale-free networks and the hybridization of Markov Processes and Hamiltonian Path Theory. Things didn't change much under Lt. General Brewster and I still retained oversight over all research, although our namesake had changed to the USAF Cyber Research Systems. During this year, I was amazed at the efficacy of military scientists who didn't dawdle like the buffoons of the Californian private sector or squabble like the monks of Academia. The only fault I saw in them was a lack of vision, but I was arrogant enough at the time to believe that I could supply that for them.

Then, Skynet woke up. I specifically warned General Brewster not to start up the system without my presence, but the bastard didn't listen to me. Stationed at the satellite complex next to NORAD, all I heard over the comm were reports of Brewster's daughter and a fugitive named John Connor infiltrating the main complex. Furious, I started my way towards HQ, but as soon as I got above ground, I saw the warheads fly over my head and into the sky, heading towards their designated targets all over the world. I was dragged back into the base by Brewster's field aid, a young captain who I would fall in love with in those dark coming years. More than two-thirds of the world's population was wiped away that day. Of those who survived, only a handful would escape the clutches of the Terminators, Skynet's most efficient and deadliest assassins, hard-wired to hunt down every last human being on the planet. So far, my captain and I had been very lucky to survive this long. But that luck ran out and now it's only a matter of time before they get me too.

The klaxon screeches shrilly, jarring me back to my body. By the way the dogs are barking, I know that a Terminator has infiltrated our complex. In a few seconds, the quarantine system will seal off the residential wing and the labs, but in that short window of time, my heart pounds to the beat of the siren, breath hitching as I taste the sour adrenaline of uncertainty. If a T-unit rushes into my lab within the next thirty seconds, there will be no escape for me. The doors will clamp down, twelve inches of fortified steel alloy, and my body will be flayed by the flurry of bullets.

The blast doors whoosh as the pneumatic pistons prepare them for descent and I'm locked in the lab, no way out. I will have to wait for the all-clear signal from the outside to know how many graves to prepare in the mausoleum, but I would definitely be lying now if I said I wasn't the tiniest bit disappointed.

Just as quickly as the quarantine began, it is lifted and the doors slowly begin to rise. I step out into the concrete hallways of the research wing, only to find it devoid of any soul. Unusual. Because of our depth in the ground, there is no daylight to regulate our circadian rhythm, so groups of twelve scientists should be wandering these corridors at all hours, even after a quarantine.

"Hello?" I call out. I'm answered only by my echo, so I venture further down the hall.

I come to a turn and I see that the lights have been blown out in this sector. I squint, attempting to see just how far this blackout goes, but it's the beginning of a warren of branched hallways and as far as I'm can see, the darkness becomes solid just twenty feet in front of me. I look back at the lit hallway, still deserted and empty. I bring out a small torchlight and start my descent towards the labyrinth.

In all my years here, I never felt such a chill in this area. Most of the rooms are extra labs and maintenance rooms regulating our everyday needs in the base. Yet now, something just doesn't seem right and against the protests of the shiver down my neck, I need to explore the cause of the blackout.

The torchlight isn't much help, as it only gives me about three feet of visibility. When I point it up vertically, I can see a highway of pipes that cover the concrete heavens, above which is at least a third-mile of earth. When I shine the light below, I can see the dusty stars trapped in the granite, glittering the celestial vistas of a nascent universe.

I reach the first fork of God knows how many. Towards the right is the closest auxiliary power room in which I Can banish this darkness. I swerve that way, except I hear a light clattering from the ground. Casting the spotlight downward, I can see that my left foot has kicked a shell case, gun powder tracing its cycloid path. I kneel down to pick it up, but I hear a loud clank from the left corridor. There are no power stations or pipe rooms down there—only storage and the mausoleum. I freeze, willing myself to be silent as I try to make out another noise. All I hear is my heart, pounding deafeningly in my ears, and my breath, rasping its way out of my throat.

The shell is still warm when I pick it up with my left index and thumb. Judging by the temperature and the smell of sulfur, it's fresh. Slowly I get back to my feet and I shine the torch to illuminate the left hallway. There are three dark puddles reflecting in the light and I abandon the power room in order to investigate.

As I walk down the corridor, I see more puddles glimmering at me as the darkness gives way and soon enough, the puddles become a smeared trail of boot marks. I kneel again to get a closer look at these dark puddles and dip a finger into the viscous liquid. When I bring my finger to the light, I see that it's covered in dark crimson and smells of iron. There's no denying that it's blood.

Just as I make my realization, another clank echoes down the halls, this time a little louder. I bring my hand to my ear to activate my comm-link, only I recall that I took it off earlier in the lab and it is sitting next to the white board. Cursing silently, I pull out my pulse gun and continue to follow the blood trail.

I meet another fork, already dreading where the footprints will lead. My fears are confirmed when I look down again at the floor—the trail heads right, the hallway to the morgue and mausoleum. At first glance, this hallway looks like any other, but the sterile smell gives up the identity of the "Death Wing." The walls in this corridor are the only ones decorated with anything: crucifixes, prayers, and flags of countries that no longer exist. Many pass their mourning by adorning the walls with flowers and letters, votaries to the dead, begging for peace, comfort, and deliverance. Photographs and drawings of fallen soldiers, scientists, and civilians litter the walls, their eyes following you as you walk down the halls, their mouths in half-grins as if they're whispering to you "You're next." I remember a time when tombstones were the ultimate cultural symbol for death. Now it's a photograph, pasted on a wall that serves as a flag hung upside down. Ironic how these are the faces we wish to see again, yet they have become gravemarkers themselves.

I stop ten feet away from the mausoleum; at its entrance is a huddled figure dressed in a torn Resistance jacket. I can see the figure trembling, both hands gripping at the back of the neck, covered in the same crimson blood that led me here. The figure falters, too weak to be on feet, probably dizzy from all of the blood loss.

"Identify yourself," I call out. This is where the military training kicks in. The hands reach out to the sky, but they are so unsteady that I wonder if this poor creature is going into shock right now.

"Are you alright?" I inquire.

The figure doesn't answer and topples to the ground.

"Fuck the protocols," I saw to no one in particular as I rus to this person's aid. Rolling him onto his back, the soldier turns out to be a gaunt young man who cannot be older than twenty-one. "Are you hurt anywhere?" I ask while checking his pulse. Very slow, very weak. "Are you bleeding anywhere?" I wince at my stupid question when I see his mangled leg underneath a makeshift tourniquet.

The unmistakable click of a shotgun. "Step away from him."

I whip around and see another Resistance soldier, pointing the barrels right at me. The man behind the firearm has powerful arms, a great Adam's Apple, and dark rakish hair that set over his hazel eyes.

"Can't you see that he's injured?" I gesticulate at the boy. "He needs medical attention right away!"

"Step away from him now, Doc," the soldier rasps slowly.

I throw my hands up. "Are you insane? Has fourteen years of background radiation scrambled your brain? This poor bastard needs a transfusion and antibiotics now! Can we keep him alive so that you can first ask, then shoot later?"

"I'm not kidding, Doc. Step away from the boy, or else it'll be your brains that get scrambled." He tightens his grip on his rifle and I see that I have no choice.

"You have no idea who you're dealing with, G.I. Joe, but when this is over, you will be marching your grunt ass to General O'Neill and you will find yourself locked in a cell where—"

"Doc!" he interrupts. Though I'm out of the way, he's still aiming the gun at the boy on the floor. "I need you to do me a favor and shut the hell up."

"How can you order me to shut up when you're pointing that thing at a fellow human being?!"

The gun goes off. The shot echoes down the empty halls. My ears are ringing and I struggle to take a breath. Looking down, the boy's face is half-blown off, chunks of flesh, dark bits of skull, and a lot of unidentifiable bits and pieces are flowing along the currents of the blood soup fountaining out of the head and neck.

An involuntary retch comes up and my hands drop my torch as they cover my mouth; my eyes sting with the absolute horror of the sight. How is it that the Terminators can see such carnage and continue to carry own without the slightest reaction? Yet, this is no killing by a machine—this is murder at the hands of another human being.

I struggle to find the words. "How... I..."

The killer just aims and shoots again, this time blowing open the thorax.

I scream an lunge at the man, trying to punch him, swipe him, hurt him in that savage primal rage that only a sight as grotesque as this can cause. "You absolute monster! You sick son of a bitch! What the fuck were you thinking?! He was a defenseless boy!"

My attacks are ineffectual at best. How could a seeding scientist match strengths with a trained killer? "Why? Why?"

With one motion of his left hand, he grabs both of my wrists, grinding them down on each other in his vice grip, eyes flickering with a patience dangerously tested. I continue to dry heave, wailing silently, tears freely drenching my face as I struggle helplessly.

"Look, Doc," he says. I shake my head and continue to writhe in his grip. "Hey! Hey! Hey!" He tugs me forward so that I look directly into his face. "You're supposed to be in quarantine. What the fuck are you doing out here playing Indiana Jones?"

He lets me go. I bite down on my lips and smack him across his feet with the back of my left hand. He brings his own left hand to his cheek and slowly turns his face back to me. He opens his mouth to swear at me, only we both turn to the figure writhing on the floor.

The boy brings himself up into a sitting position, blood squelching as his chest contracts with the strain. His hands go back to the back of his neck. He pulls on both sides, the remaining half of his face scrunched in pain and effort, until his hands altogether rip off his face from his skill, leaving a dull gray metal head reflecting in the torchlight, and eyes glowing red like ruby lasers. It opens its jaws and lets out an unearthly shriek.

The soldier grabs my wrist again. "Come with me, if you want to live."

We thunder down the hallways, away from the mausoleum and away from the figure brought back to life. I turn to look back, only the darkness shrouds the wing and I don't know how close it is behind us. Our footsteps and our ragged breaths drown out any sound, so we'll never know when it catches up to us. Every once in a while I can feel wet fingers grazing at the back of my neck, but I don't dare find out whether it's the soldier pushing me to run faster or the beast reaching out to pull me back.

Within a couple minutes we reach my lab and G.I. Joe shuts the blast doors. Hunching over at my desk, I try desperately to control my breathing, but it feels as if there's a hole punctured in my lungs and I can't get enough air. My head is pounding and I hear the haunting rhythm again—duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun; duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun. It's the syncopated beat of the 8-pulse processing written within the binary source of Skynet, the heartbeat of the machines. It is precisely this rhythm that regulates the machines' cores and it is what causes the dogs to park as they cannot stand the frequencies at which this beat is broadcast.

"Doc, find a way to lock these blast doors."

I barely hear him as I recall the burning image of the T-unit ripping its face off. I've heard about it from others and read perfunctory descriptions in the mission reports, but everything that has been said or written about it have been extremely clinical, for there are no words in any human language that could adequately describe what I just saw.

"Doc!" he shouts again, "The blast doors!"

A familiar nausea hits me and I let go on the floor there. The packet of peanuts, the half-slice of toast, all of what I had eaten is extruded to the floor and as I have nothing left. I dry heave again, choking to expel the memory of flesh peeling off of metal.

"Oh, come on!" I hear him say. "Is now really the time for this?" He moves away from the door and reloads. "If we ever get out of this alive, remind me to take you out on a date so we can talk about this in hindsight and laugh our asses off."

Suddenly, bits of concrete come flying into the room, scattering dust into the room, scattering dust into the air. Our eyes turn to the hole in the wall punched through by the Terminator.

"Fuck me," my companion grits out as he cocks his shotgun. We flinch as the beast punches another hole through the wall. It screeches at us again, punching once more. "What a fucking day," he mutters and aims his firearm at the wall. Both of us know it's no use at this point—we've trapped ourselves in this room in a moment of utmost stupidity.

"Terminator identified!" a scream rings out and heavy artillery follows. The T-unit screeches its unsightly shrill, but is mowed down by rounds of automatic fire. "Clear!" a woman shouts and the blast door opens to reveal Teyla and a tact squad in full gear. She hurries to me, squeezes me in a suffocating hug and quickly checks me for injuries. Ronon walks down the hall towards the T-unit and empties his clip into it.

"Okay, Ronon. Save the fire for... well, the fire." General O'Neill marches into the lab and everyone snaps into attention. Rolling his eyes, he ignores the soldiers and heads straight for me. "So... McKay. Can you explain to me why that thing over there was trying to break through the wall into the room?"

All eyes shift to me. I'm not entirely sure I like the feeling of every pair of eyes staring at me right when I'm recovering from absolute terror, so I look down and shuffle my feet. "X-ray vision?" I suggest.

Ronon barks out a laugh, covering it with a cough under Teyla's glare. I can't tell whether O'Neill is amused as Ronon is. "This guy is a standard T-750A. Doesn't even have infrared detection. And don't think I'm dumb enough to believe x-rays can penetrate a foot of concrete."

"General, I was in this room, following general quarantine procedure, then I got the all-clear. How do you expect me to Houdini myself out and back into a locked-down room? Astral projection?"

"You know, that's funny, since I'm sure the base is still under lock-down."

"Are you suggesting I MacGyvered my way out into the embrace of death for the sake of glorious adventure?"

"General O'Neill," Teyla steps in. "Forgive me for interrupting, but there have been reports of various residential pods that did not operate properly under the general protocols of our quarantine procedure. Perhaps it is an observation that demonstrates Rodney's situation is not unique?"

O'Neill flushes in anger. "Are you telling me that we could've had several civilian casualties thanks to faulty quarantine programming?" Teyla nods. O'Neill snaps back to me. "How could you let this happen? Did you even have a single thought running through your head while you were gambling with people's lives on the offhand chance that a Terminator would be roaming through the base?"

Teyla steps in again. "General, Rodney was not messing with the base system during the protocol update last night. He has not touched anything in the past four days and I can attest to that."

O'Neill raises a brow and turns back to me. "What were you doing instead?"

"Moping," Ronon supplies, stepping between me and O'Neill. "He wasn't even eating."

Eye-ing me up and down, O'Neill sighs and I see a soft glow of pity in his dark brown irises as he scrubs his face. "Let me guess? Kavanaugh intercepted yet another project." He blows out through his cheeks and points Teyla and Ronon. "You, make sure he eats and properly sleeps." Turning around, he points to me. "You, take the rest of the week to get your shit back together. I want you to post up a portrait in the mausoleum by the end of the weekend. This has been going on for far too long. Any questions?" He peers around the silent lab. "Dismissed."

"Thank you, sir!" we all chorus.

"Aw, for cryin' out loud... don't. Just..." With that, he walks off, shaking his head.

The rest of the squad lugs off the T-unit, while Teyla and Ronon hound up on me.

"Survived a 750? Guess you didn't suck, McKay."

"What Ronon is trying to say, Rodney, is that we're proud of you, even if we are more than slightly upset that you've sought out trouble."

I don't move. O'Neill's words sting sharper than any burn from a soldering iron, because he just essentially ordered me to hold a funeral for Evan.

Ronon grunts and shoulders me on his way out. Teyla squeezes my arm, assuring me that we'll hang a very handsome photograph of Evan. She bows her head, requesting an Athosian embrace, and leaves the lab, trailing after Ronon. I turn back to rakey G.I. Joe. He's eye-ing me in such a manner I can't tell if he's choosing between brands of laundry detergent or debating on whether he can run this red light.

"What?" I snap at him.

He shakes his head and heads out of the lab as well. When he's outside the door, he turns back and calls out, "Major John Sheppard. Ex-Navy SEAL before the Resistance." He pauses, acting like he expects me to return the courtesy. I have no will to fight anymore.

"Doctor Rodney McKay. Creator of Skynet."

Most people recoil at that, some even try to kill me. Sheppard just nods, albeit tightly, and walks off. The PA system crackles on with a report of the events (no casualties, some minor damage outside the labs) and a summons for one Calvin Kavanaugh to General O'Neill's office as soon as possible, thank you very much."

I return to my desk and pull out a small ring-box from my top drawer. I open it and Evan's dog tags gleam at me. I pull the chain over my head, trying very hard to picture his arms around my neck and press the tag to my lips, jerking continuously to stifle the sobs building in my throat. What's worse is the realization that no one's going to be laying with me as I cry in the bed tonight.

Interlude

To my surprise, Teyla and Ronon show more trust in me during the next several days and don't pop up in my lab every other hour, pestering me with food or clapping me on the back with, "So you didn't kill yourself yet." Although I still spend most of 22:00-06:00 awake, most of it is spent in bed rather than in the empty mess. It isn't easy, though—Evan and I shared this bed the entire nine years since he lugged it in with five marines. I was surprised at how little they cared about our relationship—I don't recall if Don't Ask, Don't Tell was ever officially rescinded, but I never expected hard-set jarheads and grunts to actually smile at us, especially when they see me lean into Evan for a kiss or him walking down the halls at night with a steaming mug of coffee, heading towards the laboratory wing.

O'Neill, of course, never really cared for it either way, although I remember on several occasions he jokingly asked me to dump Evan for a general. Then again, these events usually followed a discovery of security holds in the Skynet code or the successful run of a prototype weapon, so I can't be sure how serious he was being. Whatever his intentions were in the past, he demonstrated why men would die for him following him into pits of machines when he showed up at Evan's framing in full regalia and uniform, folded flag in gloved hands.

I couldn't very well put up Evan's military portrait because it would mean that he died like any other soldier. For hours before the framing, I battled with Teyla, refusing to choose any of his pictures, because once I do, that will be the face smiling at us from history. That's how we will remember him.

Teyla sighed and brought out a Polaroid. It was one of the last photos she had ever snapped (like Evan, she is an artist and a photographer). In the snapshot, Evan has his head turned to the left, sweating and hair mussed after a confrontation with the machines. He wasn't wearing his dress uniform or posing in civvies—he wasn't even smiling. He was in his TAC-vest, dusty from the battle, looking out into his right, right hand occluded by his face, arm flexing as if he were scratching at his ear, mouth slightly open with his tongue peeking out. He was calling me, Teyla said to me. I was apparently giving him an earful.

She explained that that this is when she first met him. The charred buildings in the background were what remained of her people's village after scouts raided through their lands and decimated them, effectively committing genocide in thirty minutes. By the sadness in her eyes, I could tell that this photograph is the only reminder of her past and I told her that I couldn't possibly post it. Teyla smiled, a single tear rolling down her cheek. She told me she would be honored if Evan was remembered protecting her people.

The Polaroid is framed in the mausoleum itself. Although I was reluctant to receive it on Evan's behalf, General O'Neill presented me with one of the last Congressional Medals of Freedom, which is now also hanging with the picture above a plaque that reads: CAPT NICHOLAS EVAN LORNE, USAF, SOLDIER, BROTHER, LOVER AND HUSBAND WHOSE FAMILY WOULD DIE FOR HIM AS HE DID FOR THEM. Teyla used the last of her beads to create a commemorative ornament hanging from the frame and Ronon cut off one of his braids to hang as well, a gesture of mourning and glory reserved for family members back in Sateda. Post right to the left of Evan's photograph is the sketch he had drawn of me in profile, looking to the left, smiling gently at Evan across the frame. Inscribed on my chest where my heart would be, Evan wrote, "To the end of the world and back, I will be there with you, each step of the way." I don't know if I have the heart in me to call him a liar.

Scene 3

"Doctor McKay," my comm-link chirps.

"Yeah?"

"Doctors Zelenka and Carter have just passed the check points."

I glance at my computer clock. Five hours earlier than expected.

"Where are they now?"

"They're just about to enter the situation room with General O'Neill. He's expecting you as well."

"Thanks, Chuck."

I gather a notepad and my tablet and exit the lab. I didn't expect Radek and Sam to return to the base this early, but the underground transport system has been getting better. As I pass the mess, I see Sheppard stepping up from a table and heading out towards me. It's been two weeks since our last run-in, yet I still don't have much to say.

"Afternoon, Doc," he drawls, speaking as lazily as the rest of the career military men who've been in the forces even before Judgment Day.

"Good afternoon, Major," I curtly respond, keeping my eyes locked in front of me. We walk together in silence for a minute, making our way though the labyrinth that is the SGC.

"So..."

"Major, have you spotted another T-unit in the compound, or are you here to collect on that date?"

He waves that off with a hand. "Aw, that? It was a heat of the moment thing. I wouldn't have said it if I had known you actually liked cock."

"Well, I'm glad you retracted that statement as I'm pretty sure yours wouldn't be too appetizing."

"Is that how you flirt with people?"

"I'm quite sure it's not, because when I'm around you, flirting is the last thing on my mind."

"You're that type of girl? The kind that doesn't hedge around and goes directly for the kill?"

I stop in front of the situation room. I turn to Sheppard who is smirking tightly, eye twitching as if he had just discovered the taste of cat feces. "Look, just because you're ex-Navy SEAL, it doesn't mean I'm afraid of you. Remember, I worked for Cyberdyne since I was fifteen, so I grew up dealing with special ops soldiers far more threatening than you. If you think that I'll just roll over because I'm a weak geek helpless against your Jedi mind tricks, well buddy, I can give you a long list of military personnel whose fear of me is eclipsed only by their awe."

I open the door and step inside.

"A one-man USO Show, eh? I guess that's one way to serve your country."

I narrow my eyes. "I'm Canadian." I slam the door in his face.

"Is there a problem, Rodney?" Jack peers at me over his reading glasses. He's at the desk, sitting across from Colonel Cameron Mitchell, who's just preening in his seat.

"No, General. Just one of those obnoxious soldier boys you've always forbid me from dating."

He takes off his glasses. "I see. Well, are you going to let the obnoxious soldier boy into the house, sweetheart?"

"Why would I?"

"Because he's your date, pumpkin. Also, he's here on my orders, sunshine."

The door raps behind me and I silently plead with O'Neill through my eyes. Sorry, he indicates with a shrug and rolls his neck, an order to open the door or face ghastly consequences in the human artifacts repository, shut in for hours with Daniel.

I open the door to find knuckles aiming straight for my nose. Sheppard glances at O'Neill. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Yeah, yeah."

His eyes return to me and trail down. "Do you keep him around because of all the funny noises he makes."

O'Neill drops his pen and covers his ears with his hands. "I think I liked it better when people didn't ask or tell. Get your ass in here."

Sheppard saunters past me and heads to the table. He sits in Evan's chair. I wince at the psychic whiplash, but under O'Neill's stern watch, I take my seat between them. Sam and Radek arrive with escorts on either side, as do Teyla and Ronon... and Ford. The escorts offer O'Neill a crisp salute before marching off and when Daniel enters the room after O'Neill's incessant shouting, the doors close and we are ready to begin.

"Sam," the General calls, "What does intel say about Weir's endeavors in the Antarctic?"

"Sir, it's not going as well as hoped. The climate down there is steadily rising in temperature, possibly due to increased manufacturing on part of the machines, and it'll soon be warm enough for the machines to function without problems."

"Well," O'Neill replies, "I guess I can no longer sit on the fence about global warming."

Sheppard turns to Sam. "Hold on a minute—why do we want a base down at the South Pole?"

She barely looks at him and replies out of the side of her mouth, "Because one, the machines were built to withstand high heat, not cold, two, the magnetic field lines around the pole tend to cause disturbances with their communications system, particularly layered encryption, and three, they won't be looking for us there."

Sheppard grins at this, obviously pleased with himself for getting a pretty woman annoyed and leans back. "I think I'd like it there."

I just roll my eyes and turn to Sam. "Did they manage to scrape any signals?"

Sam smiles and procures a flash drive. "We have about five gigs of flat files and pure signal. A rather good portion of their most current encoding, I should say."

Radek jumps in. "But I must say we need take caution at this. Remember, code mutates every day. We may have pirated trap codes."

O'Neill leans in. "What do you mean trap codes?"

Radek pushes up his glasses. "You know. Trojans. Spyware. Maybe such code is decoy so we fall for trap."

"I wouldn't discount the possibility," Sam interjects, "but I hardly think they would send out trojans if they know we'll test them. They'll probably guess that whatever signal we get from them, we'll work on them on non-networked terminals, minimizing the damage to a single box. If they sent us a decoy, it would be because they believe us to be that dumb and it would be too easy of a solution."

"Pardon me, sir," Sheppard chimes in again, "but I wouldn't put it past the machines to think us that stupid. I think that precisely because even I would think us that stupid."

O'Neill raises a brow at that. "Are you insinuating something, Major?"

"Not at all about you, sir. All I'm saying is if we hook that... doohicky thing to a computer, the computer might spring legs and zap us to dust. Or at the very least attempt to give us seizures by constantly streaming lolcats."

This is getting ridiculous. I throw my hands up. "General! You can't possibly believe that the Major is an asset to this meeting!"

"What, because I was never one of your bodyguards while you developed Skynet?"

"Oh sure, you're one to talk, Mr. Trigger-happy-'sir'-slurring-I-wear-a-porcupine-on-my-head!"

"Aw shucks, Doc! I'd never thought you'd notice my hair. Does it inspire you to divert a new doomsday device that shoots spikes everywhere?"

"On the contrary, it invites me to find the deepest crater around and throw you in head-first to see if you bounce or just stick like a dart in the ground."

"Are experiments like that how you created Skynet? Because I've always pictured you as a physicist."

"With your hair, I would've have needed to develop Skynet to destroy the world, as I'm pretty sure they're antennas communicating with deep space satellites calling the Klingon Armada to arms against Earth!"

"Well, nice to know my hair is an asset. Are you going to hack into Skynet with your mouth on my—"

"Children, please!" O'Neill interrupts. "That's more than enough. I know neither of you play well with others, but do I need to give you boys a time-out?"

Sheppard actually has the temerity to grin. I just roll my eyes and swivel in my chair. O'Neill rubs his temples and sees that this is going to be a long meeting. He murmurs directions to Daniel, who leaves and returns with aspirin as we continue the debrief.

"Sir," Sam attempts carefully, "I do agree that there is always a danger with Skynet code, but this is why we've built those isolated boxes. Even if the Major here has a valid concern regarding unknown variables, the probability of a computer sprouting legs is essentially zero."

"Very well," the General replies. "Make sure that the computers you work on don't have even as much as a modem. And since Major Sheppard is so concerned about wires and lolcats, he has volunteered himself to be the security supervisor, just in case people start dying from 'teh cute'."

Sheppard snaps up rigidly. "Sir, you know I was just making a tasteless joke, right? I may not be a computer geek, but even I know—"

"Actually, Major, I'm less concerned about your spreadsheet education than about how well you know Dr. McKay. You need not remind him of his involvement in the birth of Skynet, as I'm pretty sure he has to deal with it during the casualty count every evening, so knock it off, will you?"

A look of genuine remorse crosses Sheppard's face. "Yes, sir."

O'Neill nods in satisfaction. "Rodney's the smartest man alive and that's not just because I'm told we have a small sample size. Ever since Judgment Day, he has performed superhuman feats just to keep us alive, and at such terrible cost. You will give him the due respect he deserves or I'll see to it personally that you will be benched for the rest of the bloody war. Is that understood?"

"Crystal clear, sir!"

"The same goes for you, Rodney. Major Sheppard here may have started out as a slimy squid from the Naval Academy, but his training and leadership are not to be questioned, as they are designed to save your geeky ass from all manners of threats, feline and otherwise. That, and he's a damn good pilot. Are we on the same page?"

"Jawohl, mein Kommandant."

O'Neill rubs his palms together. "Now that we've go the Dr. Phil portion of the meeting finished, let's discuss some rearrangements in the field teams."

Teyla, Ronon, Ford, and I perk up.

"I know that we've just framed Captain Lorne's portrait, but we need to fill that hole where he used to command. Teyla, Ronon, Lt. Ford has come to me about possibly transferring to another unit and maybe he has spoken to you regarding this delicate situation. I know that team dynamics is a very delicate situation and I don't intend on pulling rank at this point, but if you are comfortable with his presence on the team, I would very much prefer that he stay 'stead of breaking in someone else."

Teyla nods at Ford. "General, Aiden, Ronon, and I have discussed this matter at length, and we've come to the agreement of keeping Aiden on the team. He is a very strong soldier and we do not hold him responsible for any wrong-doing."

"He's very good at blowing things up," Ronon adds helpfully.

I see Ford's eyes graze on me, but as soon as I turn to glance at him, his gaze turns to O'Neill. I have a lot of things to say about all of this, but I don't know how I can even begin.

O'Neill nods. "I'm glad we've reached the same conclusion." He watches me from the corner of his eye as he says, "I'm sure I speak for everyone ere that though the circumstances were unfortunate—" he raises his voice, "—we all agree that Captain Lorne's death was in no way, shape, or form the fault of any one person other than Skynet and the T-hunter sent out by it."

I look down at the desk and chew the insides of my cheeks. Some battles are not meant to be won.

"That being said," he continues, "Captain Lorne's position must be filled by a ranking officer, and seeing as he has the requisite experience, I propose assigning Major Sheppard to Squadron-1 and see how that turns out."

Some battles can't not be fought. "General, this I must object!"

O'Neill cradles his head. "Here we go again."

"I don't know how you can think this is a good idea. He may be Major in rank, but he's still Navy by training."

"Sea, Air, and Land!" O'Neill rebuts.

"He is reckless, undisciplined, and altogether too happy to shoot civilians on sight."

"Just because of our first date—" Sheppard quips with mock hurt.

"He is too ostentatious, too unreliable, and frankly, too dangerous to be out there in the field with other soldiers."

"If I recall correctly," Sheppard interjects not too patiently, "I saved your fucking life."

"I was in danger mostly because of you, not the crippled Terminator! I do not trust Teyla's or Ronon's life in your hands!"

"Now McKay," O'Neill asks, "I don't know why you're getting so worked up about this. This is a military matter, not something with the science department!"

"Jack," I beg desperately, "Please! This is Evan's team! We have to remember that he used to be the one in charge of the field operations and—"

"You're out of line, McKay!" Jack shouts. Daniel puts a hand on his shoulder but Jack angrily brushes it off. "How much longer? How much longer does it take? Squadron-1 has been off the roster since Evan disappeared. I've flagged it down altogether for the past two months so you could mourn! When will you be ready? When will you accept it?"

I jump out of my seat and head for the door. Before I get there, Ronon outmaneuvers me and blocks my exit. I glare him down, willing him to move away, but he just stares back, a gentle plea as opposed to a harsh threat.

"Rodney," Jack says softly. I refuse to turn back. "I know a bit more than you'd expect about grief that is fueled by noxious guilt. Believe me, I do. But I can't let you out of this meeting until we are finished discussing business."

"Why the hell not?" I demand, back still turned.

"Because I know what's waiting for you out there past those doors and trust me, you don't want to go out there. You think this is bad now? You'll be even more helpless out there. Some of it may be because of the ditches you fall into are deeper, but mostly because out there, you're alone."

I fight the burning in my throat, willing my body to absorb it all back in.

"Rodney. Please come back to your seat," Teyla requests.

"We need you," Jack says.

Ronon nods and walks back to the table. I walk back a few seconds later, reclaiming my chair between O'Neill and Sheppard.

I withdraw for the rest of the meeting. Sheppard will lead Squadron-1 on a probationary basis, beginning with targeting Genii factions who are profiting off of displaced children. News is shared, details pored over, arguments had, but I pay no attention to the rest of the table. I feel the same void from two weeks ago shutting me down until everyone stands up to leave.

I exchange glances with Ford, who hasn't spoken to me since he returned to base without Evan. He nods and leaves the situation room. Teyla embraces me on her way out, telling me that Ford is wrangled with guilt and she asks that I forgive him. Daniel and Jack leave for the office, discussing some procedures with Mitchell, and it's just Sheppard and me sitting at the table with a thick wall of silence between us.

We stay there for a couple minutes, having nothing to say to each other. Finally fed up, he gets up to leave. At the door he turns back to me and opens his mouth. No words come out and he shakes his head, walking out of the door. I reach under my shirt and pull out Evan's tags for the fifth time that morning. Stifling a hiccup of emotion, I kiss the tags several times. I'm starting to see a pattern.

Interlude

When I was five years old, my father would take me out into the mountains near our small Canadian town to look up at stars through his dinky little telescope. It wasn't anything to gush over—he found it at a garage sale for ten dollars Canadian—but we would go every Saturday night, just me and him, and gaze at the stars. He told me that the blackness out there was a vast empty space in which people will one day travel through like we did through the seas and the air. He himself wasn't a very well-educated man (he was a security guard in a small factory town), but he always wanted to have gone through college to become an astronomer. When I heard him speak about the constellations and the stories behind them, I would listen to him with absolute silence. Some of the stories I did not understand, but the way he whispered reverently as he recited the stories of Orion or the Polar Star, that made me want to study the sky as well. I've known that he would be proud that his son and daughter both hold doctorates now, but he never lived to see us graduate grammar school.

One Saturday evening in 1989, my father was assigned an extra shift which would interfere with our usual outings. I remember being very upset with him for that was the night of a meteor shower. I was crying uncontrollably as a nine-year old boy can, but he promised me a surprise at the factory if I were to accompany him that night.

We arrived at the factory—I had been there to visit my father many times. I followed him up the stairs to the security room where I usually spent my time watching the surveillance cameras and wondering how the controls worked. When he opened the door, a three-hundred dollar sleek black telescope was waiting for me at the desk with a promise to head out of the factory to catch the early AM sky.

A security alarm blared and we saw three men being led by a light-haired woman and what looked like a five-year old boy in hand on the CC-TV. My father ordered me to stay in the room while he goes investigate. I was not to let anyone in the room unless it was him or the police, whom I was to demand for badge number and supervisor. I watched on screen as he moved down towards the main warehouse where the intruders were setting up some sort of device, attaching wires to stacks of cylinders that I now know to be dynamite.

Someone clubs my father from behind and I scream, rushing out of the room and bolting down the stairs. I rushed to my father's side. When I saw him on the ground fifty feet ahead of me, I heard a gun click and turned to face the woman with her son at her side. Even at nine years, I knew that maybe it was my time to die. That moment of mortality froze me in place, the only worry in my head being that I'll never get to try out the new telescope. I glanced at the boy years my junior who had the same hollow look on his face as on his mother's.

She aimed the gun at my head, squeezing the handle tightly, but her son tugged on her hand, shaking his head and quietly changing "Mommy, no."

That was the first time I met John Connor, the savior of the human race. My life was the first one he saved.

Sarah Connor shouted out to her henchmen, calling off the entire operation. Not flinching for even one moment, her fellow warriors packed up their gear and quickly retreated from the factory. A groan from my father brought me back to his side, where I stayed until the medics hoisted him into an ambulance.

He died several months later—the blow on his head dislodged micro-fragments of skull into his brain, and I never looked through another telescope again.

Worker's compensation was more than enough to give my mother secure amount of income to raise me and my sister, but my father's superintendent was the one who gave me a rapid path to recovery. A fairly middle-aged man with five grandchildren, Michael Dawes took me to the arcade after my father's funeral. My mother was too distraught to care and Jeannie was too young to follow, so Mr. Dawes took me by the hand to the mall in the nearest city, where he indulges his grandsons with video games. I was never too fond of video arcades—shooting games were all that we had at the local gas station—but he played several games of Pong with me before watching me face off the machine.

As I watched the machine move its paddle, I asked Mr. Dawes how exactly the virtual player knew to respond. Although he was only responsible for security at the factory, Dawes was a chief programmer for the company before taking what he believed to be a more relaxing retirement position. He inquired as to whether I knew anything about computers and how they interacted with humans. I told him that my guess was that machines were able to learn as we do, if we give them the right shape. Intrigued, he asked me what I meant by the "right shape" and I simply answered that it would need a memory storage, a translator, and a boss piece that would direct the memory, writing and rewriting based off of what is needed to learn from the translator that understands and presents the thing that is to be learned. He asked me if I had thought about ideas like this before. I respond that I have, curious about how we could take different machines, like cameras, that would then send the pictures to a translating computer, comparing those pictures against the memory and making a decision on whether to alert the police or not even before people break into buildings. I explained how my father always complained about the slow response by our neighborhood police, ow it takes a long time before he is told that there is trouble, whether there is a way to predict which areas will need patrolling most, and so on. I told Mr. Dawes about various machines that I made up in my head, how they would help him at work, and also things to help my mother at her job as a secretary, machines that would be able to do all her calculations for her and sort through papers automatically with no mistakes.

When I finished talking, Mr. Dawes silently watched me play. I quickly got bored with Pong and moved on to a video chess game. I could feel his eyes on me while I studied the third board, but soon enough I got engrossed in the game. Half-way through my third match, he suggested that we head on home.

The next morning, my mother woke me up at dawn, three hours earlier than when I usually head to school. I entered the dining room, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and find Mr. Dawes sitting there with a man in a clean-pressed suit. I asked him if he was a shrink, rewarded with an uneasy laugh from everyone in the room. I was told that the man was with the company's career development division and that he would like to ask me some questions. Mr. Dawes assured me that he'd be in the room while my mother rushed to prepare some coffee with the breakfast, kissing my head on her way to the kitchen.

The questions he asked me were insultingly stupid—which shapes will follow the series, what object seems out of place, what numbers come next. He then provided me with several puzzles to work through, all of which I breezed through with ease.

Then he brought out a portable computer, the type I only saw on television, and told me that we were going to play a game. He gave me a printout of various commands and told me that these are the pieces to fit together an electronic puzzle. I was to type in the commands, using as many of them as I needed to as many times as I wanted, to move a block on the screen in a certain pattern.

My hands were awkward on the keyboard, as I've never worked on one before, but within fifteen minutes, I was able to complete the task, much to the astonishment of the men in the room. They then explained how a computer will count numbers and how they store information in a place called "memory." My task, then, was to build a program that can add numbers up and subtract them down using these memory slots. I asked if the negative sign would take up space in the memory, which they affirmed, although with awe and a bit of fright. It took me forty minutes to build the program and I found myself cursing occasionally, returning to the terminal screen multiple times. I finally presented to them with my creation, which would add and subtract, multiply and divide, and I added a feature where you can multiply a number by itself several times like how multiplication is adding a number by itself many times.

The men were silent. They looked at me with something I still can't identify and they looked at each other, unable to speak. I was worried that I had done something wrong and began to fidget. I didn't realize that my mother was back in the room, watching me type furiously at the machine completely engrossed. She quietly told me that I would be late for school and I should change.

When I slung my school bag over my shoulder walked out the front door, I saw the two men quietly talking with each other about something that seemed very important. Mr Dawes noticed me standing there and smiled, telling me that he will be dropping me off at school that day in his car. When I came back home that afternoon, I was introduced to three men: Mr. Roberts, my mathematics tutor, Mr. Tyler, my physics tutor, and Mr. Mathison, my computer instructor. These men were retired professors from the University of Toronto and acted as consultants to my father's company.

From then on, I was the rising star in the company that I never knew to be so big, and when I matriculated at California Institute of Technology at age 15, I was on the payroll for Cyberdyne Systems Corporation, their greatest scientist and engineer, the child prodigy who would one day destroy the world.

Scene 4

Now I was never kooky enough to believe the universe itself is sentient, but right now, it seems like all of the worst-case scenarios piling on one another indicates that yes the universe is alive and it hates me. Just when the navigation systems on Sergeant Teller's cruiser went haywire, a Hunter Killer appears out of nowhere and starts shooting at over 30 personnel on board. They were headed for a VLA in New Mexico, but now that we have confirmed machine activity, they've been compromised and Squadron-1 is over ten minutes away.

Walter and Chuck are at their stations, coordinating the blind cruiser. The two ATFs accompanying the cruiser have already been shot out of the sky. Sam and Mitchell are standing next to O'Neill, who is shouting himself hoarse at Teller's crew, demanding that they get the hell out of there.

I'm monitoring airspace activity, seeing a squadron of additional HKs headed out into that area.

A boom crackles out the speakers and the radio goes to white noise as we hope for a miracle to save our men and women.

"Sergeant? Sergeant!" Jack barks. More white noise.

"We've lost their signal, sir," Walter announces. His training masks all hysteria in his voice.

"What do you mean? The entire cruiser's comm system?" O'Neill demands.

"That last blast hit the cruiser's diagnostics array and main transmitter, sir. We have no idea what shape the ship's in."

"God damn it! Are you telling me that they could very well be alive and at the mercy of the machines, and we have no way of finding out?"

"All I know is that they didn't pull the self-destruct mechanism."

"Damn it all! Chuck! How far out is Squadron-1?"

"Still eight minutes sir," Chuck replies, even calmer than Walter.

"Squadron-1, report status," Jack calls.

"We're still in formation and in good shape, sir," Sheppard replies over the comm. "ETA seven minutes forty. We can make it in five if we use the boosters."

Jack whips to me. I shake my head. "I'm making five HKs headed out to the VLA site. ETA twelve minutes conservative estimate."

"Major! McKay detects five HKs headed towards site of combat. How would you rate your readiness?"

"If we boost, we may not be able to make thrust maneuvers, but our missile systems are good to go. Artillery and EMP mods are loaded and charged. I think we can handle combat if we happen upon the enemy, sir."

"Rodney," Sam asks, "are you detecting any modifications on the HKs, particularly EM-dampeners or other absorption fields?"

"Nothing telling on the radar, but we can't be sure if modified defense is turned off. Squad-1 may be in for a nasty surprise for all we know."

"Sir?" Walter announces, "I'm getting a radio signal on a lower frequency—it's Sergeant Teller."

"Patch him in," O'Neill orders. Gunfire and shouting. "Sergeant! Report your status!"

Crackle and more gunfire. Teller's shouting indistinctly into the radio, but it's impossible to make out.

"Can't you clean up the transmission?" O'Neill asks Walter desperately.

"There's too much hysteresis, sir. The signal is overloading."

"Move over," I huff, taking the controls from him. I find the fine control for the receiver and dampen it to attenuate the signal. Teller's words are still difficult to discern, but we make out "crash landing", "irreparable cruiser damage", and "T-600s on ground combat".

"Permission for reconnaissance mission, sir!" Sheppard requests.

O'Neill turns to me for a cue. I rush back to my station and see three additional HKs moving towards the VLA along with a Harvester. I shake my head.

"Negative on that, Major," O'Neill announces.

"Confirm on last, sir?"

"McKay's giving me a no on the reconnaissance, Major. Head back to base."

"SGC, this is Infantry Unit 29. I confirm 18 casualties," Teller crackles over the radio.

"Sir, men are dying over there," Sheppard interjects. "Permission to engage with the enemy."

"Permission denied, Major," O'Neill states firmly. "Do not engage and return to base immediately."

"Twenty-four, twenty-six, thirty," Teller counts.

"We can't leave them behind, sir!" Sheppard pleads.

"Get back to base, Major!" O'Neill roars. "That's an order!"

"They're our men, sir!" Sheppard yells back. "We don't leave anyone behind!"

"You're this close to insubordination, soldier!" Jack's entire face is blazing with fury. He looks dangerously close to having a fit. "Get your ass back to base now, or I'll have you thrown in the goddamned brig!"

"Thirty-three, thirty—" Static.

Walter takes off his headset. "Sir?" he approaches O'Neill. "The transmission is dead."

The air in the room is thick and viscous. No one dares breathe in fear of choking.

O'Neill turns to me. "How far away is the enemy squadron?"

I check my screen. "Two minutes. They moved like the wind, General."

"Any Harvesters?"

I raise a finger.

He nods grimly and calls out to Sheppard. "Squadron-1, return to base immediately using evasive route 753. Boost your asses here and be back home in forty minutes."

Silence on the other end.

"Squadron-1, evasive route 753, do you copy?"

Silence again.

"Squadron-1, evas—"

"Received and understood. Sheppard out."

The entire sit room watches O'Neill. He is chewing on his lip and tightening his grip on the clipboard. "God damn it!" he yells, flinging it onto a wall, shattering it to pieces.

We give him a moment to recover as he steadies his breathing and scrubs his face. He clears his throat and addresses us. "Inform the families, Chuck. Direct them to Daniel to set up an appointment with me. Walter, tell Sheppard to see me the second he passes through security."

"Yes, sir!" they salute and rush out of the room.

Sam and Mitchell keep a respectful distance from the General, allowing him to gain his composure yet again. Exhaling deeply, he pats both of them on the shoulder. As he turns to leave, his eyes meet mine and for a second I see blame in them, but he quickly exits the room before I can confirm. He shouts for Daniel.

Sam nods at me as she leaves and Mitchell follows suit, not even batting an eye in my general direction.

Sighing heavily, I radio Zelenka, informing him that I'll be in the mess.

Everyone gives me a wide berth in the cafeteria, so I'm pretty sure that word has gotten out that I was the one who advised O'Neill against a rescue. I usually never minded it and saw it as an advantage as I had a wall of solitude buffering me against people I never want to talk to. However, it isn't such a strategically sound configuration right now as it was easy for Sheppard to locate me and greet me with "You motherfucker!" and a right hook to complete the hello present. The blow hurls me down to the concrete floor and the metal taste of blood flowers throughout my tongue. I feel the ground shake from the scraping of chairs, but only Sheppard's feet hurry toward me and he pulls me up by my jacket.

"Those men were dying! I could hear them being slaughtered one by one over the radio! Who the fuck made you their executioner?"

The vertigo rushes through my entire body and I feel close to hurling. It doesn't help that Sheppard is shaking me with all the wrath of the Furies. I open my mouth to respond, only warm blood dribbles out the corners of my mouth.

"They had families! Wives and children, and you moved them around like expendable pawns on a fucking chessboard! Was nuclear holocaust not enough for you? Did you have to hand-feed your pet with the leftovers of your science fair project?"

Another rush of nausea washes over me and my legs begin to wobble. My eyes roll upward and I feel Sheppard letting go of me. I collapse backwards, except I feel a soldier in a flight suit catch my fall. When I feel well enough to open my eyes again, I see that Ronon has a writhing Sheppard in a tight hold, not even budging as Sheppard thrashes wildly, hurling abuse at me.

"He's a fucking machine! He's in league with Skynet! Why the fuck are you all just standing still? Why are you protecting that monster? Let me go, you bald wookie! He's a menace to humanity and you all know it!"

The soldier supporting me pulls me onto my feet and I'm eye-to-eye with Sheppard.

"Do you know what's the difference between us and them?" he snarls, "We bury our dead. Let's see if anyone comes after your body when you fall. Not even your dead husband would frame a picture of you!"

"ATTEN-SHUN!" The entire mass snaps up rigidly. The sudden jerk of my rescuer makes me dizzy yet again, but his grip on me is strong. Through my swollen eye, I see General Jack O'Neill standing at the entrance of the cafeteria, cold fury etched into his face. "Speak plainly—what the fuck is going on in here?"

Teyla, ever the diplomat, calmly reports the ruckus of the past five minutes. As she goes over Sheppard's assault on me, O'Neill's eyes grow even colder as his eyes dart between me and Sheppard. When she concludes, the General stands still, draining the air out of the mess's lungs.

"Major Sheppard," he points stiffly, "My office, now." He looks over at me. "Doctor McKay,"—formal address, not good—"stitch up with Lam, then report directly to my office. Make sure he gets there in one piece, Ford." One of the hands lets go of me for a crisp salute. "As you were," he orders the rest of the mess and marches off, Sheppard fuming at his tail.

I block out Lam's incessant commentary about testosterone, bullheadedness, and soldiers as she sews my cheekbone up. Ford stays silent, nodding at the appropriate intervals in the rant, and I'm so dizzy that I don't remember to mull over Carson, an ongoing argument between me and Lam.

"One every six hours," she instructs, thrusting a pill bottle in my hands. "If the swelling doesn't go down in two days' time, you will drop what you are doing and report directly to me. Is that understood?"

I give her a sloppy salute and Ford takes me out. Men! I hear her mutter under her breath as we leave.

Ford keeps his mute vow as we meander until O'Neill's office door. We can hear shouting through twelve-inches of solid steel and Ford gives me a look of sympathy. I sigh and reach for the doorknob.

"Hey, Doc?" I face Ford. "For what it's worth... I think you made the right call. Just so ya know..."

A spring of gratitude and affection wells up within me. I squeeze him on the shoulder, smiling slightly. His face lights up into a grin and he knocks the door. Not waiting for a response, he opens it and announces my arrival.

O'Neill's at his desk, lips thinly locked in a grim face. Sheppard's standing front, still in his flight suit, his hair standing in all directions protruding his fury.

"Rodney, John, please take a seat. Thank you, Ford. That will be all."

Ford salutes O'Neill and Sheppard before shutting the door behind him.

O'Neill glances at both of us, twiddling his thumbs. Usually I would welcome that as a sign of detachment, but right now, I'd prefer if he just brought out his pistol and shot me between the eyes.

Sheppard's breathing returns to normal, but that stiff formality he wore when I introduced myself as the creator of Skynet is radiating off of him like a warning sign. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

O'Neill finally breaks the silence. "Alright, boys, there's an awful lot I can say about the both of you, to the both of you, but I'll squash them all in favor of sentencing, although 'Get the hell out of my base' is a close second favorite."

He turns to John first. "Major, your actions today included insubordination, failure to obey direct orders, and battery. Given the circumstances, I could have you executed and enjoy a cool beer at night, watching the procedure on video multiple times and still go to bed, dreaming happily of fishing in Beaver Creek. Your hotheadedness, erratic impulses, and absolute arrogance could've cost more lives than the thirty-six placards we'll be issuing tonight. All of this coming from an ex-Navy SEAL. Isn't the Navy supposed to be the ones who get their panties in a bunch when the crease of the uniform is this side of flat? When you transferred from SGA, you were commissioned as an officer for the Resistance—do you think that I'm not in your direct line of command because I am Air Force? Do you not take the rank 'Major' seriously because it's not Navy?"

He pauses for a drink of water. "I don't know what they taught you in the Naval Academy, Sheppard, but we in the Air Force have long learned to respect our scientists, sometimes even loving them. Skynet is not a conventional enemy and this is not a conventional war. To drill that in your head, Major, you are assigned as personal detail to Dr. McKay. When he's in the labs, you're the one to hand him his wrench socket. When he's in the mess, you're handing him his tray. When he's in the head, you're standing outside his stall, holding his toilet paper. You will set up a cot in his room and if anyone enters it, it'll be over your limp lifeless body. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

"As for you, Rodney," O'Neill arcs to me. "You've obviously lost touch with dealing with military. No one doubts your brilliance, McKay, but remember that the Resistance is a militia." His face turns into a sick smile. "Therefore, you will learn to act like a soldier. Every morning, you will join Major Sheppard and Specialist Dex on their daily jogs. Every evening, you will join Major Sheppard and Ms. Emmagan in hand-to-hand combat. Whenever I or Major Sheppard call for PT, you will be the first shining face in the room and the last glistening body to head for the showers. Do I make myself clear?"

I look at Sheppard, whose grin is even more evil than O'Neill's. The malevolence in the room confirms to exit door, so I mumble my affirmation.

"Good. Now both of you, get the hell out of my office. I'm sick of seeing your ugly faces. Daniel!"

When Sheppard and I are alone in the hall, I flinch in fear of another beating. Sheppard just stands there, lips twitching. He's clearly enjoying this. "That's quite a shiner you've got there, Doc."

"I have you to thank for it, G.I. Joe."

Sheppard lets out a harsh laugh. I stare at him, wondering if he's choking, but all the tension has left his face and it's definitely his genuine belly laugh. God help us all.

"Don't ever change, McKay," he says, slapping me across the back.

I run the spot where he hit me, scowling at the obnoxious man-child. "Laugh it up, furball. While you're at it, pick your hair off the floor. I need to see Zelenka about some cruiser modifications."

Sheppard doesn't move from his spot. I narrow my eyes, promising retribution, but he only grins even wider.

"You know what I think?" He leans in, nose dangerously close to grazing mine. "I think it's excellent weather for a run with the Marines, don't you?"

Chorus

Never in a million years would I have ever imagined ending the world. When I first saw through that telescope, the powers of the universe were something to be taken down, understood, presented to the world in a public declaration of our place in all of it. All of that space out there—the dust, the stars, galaxies, nebulae, blackholes—even if they are too far to touch or too quiet to hear, even if they are uninhabited, the fact that they're out there proved to me that we're not alone. Why should we seek out little green men when we still haven't explored the dark side of the moon? Science was, is, and always should be an incomplete book with an infinite amount of pages to fill out with observations, experiments, and theorems. The mere fact that we write an equation tells us that the universe adds up. But doesn't add up is how I royally fucked it up.

Sometimes I wonder how things would've turned out if I hadn't joined Cyberdyne Systems. Would I have gone into computer science? Would I have worked instead in astrophysics as my father wanted? Would I have instead charted a course across the stars, visiting those innumerable planets? Be a guest of a civilization devoted to science and learning? At the center of a great city in the middle of another galaxy with an infinite depository of knowledge?

But from the stories I've heard, the legends of John Connor, Judgment Day was inevitable. Apparently it's been thwarted before. No matter who developed Skynet in the end, it was inevitable in the end. We look at these machines, believing them to be removed from humanity, but are they not our children? The faces, oh God, the faces of the Terminators seem to hold no less pity or mercy than those belonging to sociopaths, thrill-seekers, or—the most dangerous kind of murderer—the soldier who believes his cause to be right. I'm pretty sure there was something in the Kant or Hume I skimmed at Stanford that tried to posit free will as natural, but did we truly choose for Judgment Day to happen? Was it our choice to be slaughtered at the hands of machines? Yet while I consider this, why am I so wrangled with guilt? If it is inevitable that humanity wipes itself out, then why do I choose to mourn? My conclusion then is that the only freedom we have is our passivity. We choose to be passive to fate, destiny, providence, what have you. Our choice is in dealing with fate. We do not make our own fate—we merely choose it from the limited choices forced on us by circumstance. Scylla or Charybdis. Death or Taxes. Ennui or Illusion. There is no future we make, John Connor, only the future we choose.

This is why I choose suffering over death, because if I choose the latter, there is no way of knowing what's at the next fork. I chose to walk down towards the mausoleum that night and I don't regret it. Otherwise, I would not be enjoying the absolute pleasure of keeping G.I. Joe awake at all hours.

Scene 5

"Come on, McKay!" Sheppard whines. "It's three in the fucking morning and tonight was supposed to be my free night! Besides, isn't it time for all good little scientists to go to bed?"

"Quid pro quo, Major," I quip from behind my screen. "Shouldn't all the good little soldier boys be fast asleep at 05:00?"

"It's not my fault that Ronon decides to go running that early."

"And I suspect it's not your fault he runs for three hours, either. Imagine how much earlier we'd be headed to bed if we didn't waste that time running."

Sheppard rubs his eyes with his fasts, making him look like an overgrown puppy frustrated with an unreachable itch. I turn back to my computer, though keeping my eyes on his boots in case he starts kicking them in the air like a five-year old—which incidentally occurred when I had him help with inventory last week.

"Seriously, Doc. Most people wake up in the mornings and go to bed at night. What you're doing is so unnatural, not to mention the fact that you're trampling over a man's right to—"

"God, are you still accusing me of cock-blocking? You know that by virtue of your not being able to leave me alone, I'm not able to leave you alone, and I'm not so keen on watching you enjoy your philandering or joining you in a ménage à trois in the name of stress-relief."

His brows jump at that. "Is the reason you're objecting to a threesome me or the possibility of seeing a woman naked?" He ducks as I fling a marker at him.

"For your information, Major, the thought of getting intimate with another person is objectionable enough, let alone two, three, or n other people, male or otherwise."

"Are you saying you've never done it with another person?"

I stop typing and look up at Sheppard. His entire body is leaned into what I have to say and he challenges me with his stare. I push up my reading glasses and clear my throat.

"Don't be ridiculous, Major. My late husband wasn't my first."

He grins wildly at that. "McKay, you sly dog! Tell me, were there any women in that list of victories of yours?"

I resume typing. "You're being extremely juvenile, Major."

"Well, were there?"

"Go back to your comic book, G.I. Joe. I'm sure you'll understand it the fifteenth time you read it."

I freeze. I haven't realized that I've been habitually calling him G.I. Joe. It was the name I used to refer to Evan when he was first pestering me, particularly when he was begging me to go out with him. This isn't heading anywhere good...

"Come on, Doc! Spill! I promise I won't tell—Hey, Doc? You alright?"

I snap back and shake my head. "It's nothing, Major."

"Are you trying to remember the name of the lady friend you bedded?"

"I told you, Major, it was nothing. I'm just trying to remember where I left my tablet."

"Well... it's sitting right over there, next to—"

"Yes, yes, Major, hence the 'it's nothing.'"

I return to my coding, trying to see if there is any way to lock down arrays into specific electric buses in the stochastic allocation Skynet uses to keep itself from being vulnerable to site-specific attacks. The code Radek and Sam gave me were golden as they included the bus protocols that Skynet uses. If only there's a way too interrupt...

"Earth to McKay! Come in, McKay!"

I rip my glasses from my face. "No, Major, I have not, am not, and will never have a liaison with a woman, even if she can solve the P-NP Problem or prove rigorously Navier-Stokes. My first time was with Special Agent Larry Sullivan, ex-Army Ranger and my first bodyguard. He was 26. I was 17. Before Evan were two Marine sergeants, an Ex-Delta Force and his FBI partner, a Secret Service agent and his 'partner' partner, three Air Marshals, two Naval officers, and Colonel Cameron Mitchell, USAF. Happy now?" I glare at Sheppard, whose eyes are bugging out. Though I'm known to be irascible, no one ever prepares adequately for my outbursts of TMI.

"So..." he drawls, "were they all assigned as your bodyguards?"

My arms fly up in resignation. This man is the most insolent person I have ever had the displeasure to come across in my entire life. If I try to convey to him in words how exasperating he is, I would probably choke on my swollen tongue after thirty-six hours of straight monologue.

"Why do you want to know?!"

"Because you might fall in love with me sometime." He shrugs, observing me with a genuinely curious look.

I put on what I want to believe is a pleasant smile, but the last time I've done such a thing, twelve children on the base started crying for their mothers. "If it's your virtue you're concerned about, rest assured. I'm a bottom."

"Well, you must've thought about it a little bit. After all, I'm military too."

"If this is your way of propositioning me, you're going to have to go through the General first. Outside of Teyla, Ronon, and Ford, O'Neill's the most overprotective nutcase, even if I yell at him and he calls me names." I put my glasses back on and stare down at the code. "Besides," I add, "I've learned my lesson."

"Oh? And what might that be?"

"Never again to fall in love with someone charged to protect me."

It's a tense silence after that. Tense, yes, but silence nonetheless, so I can force myself to focus on the terminal in front of me.

I don't know how long I keep typing, but I'm jarred by soft snores at my right. Sheppard's asleep on the tiny sofa, stomach down, face planted onto the arm. His mouth is open and his arm dangles to the floor where his comic book has dropped. Despite how irritating I find him, there's something about the way he's conked out on the sofa that draws some affection from me. I tiptoe to the cabinet where Evan stocked some bedding and pull out a blanket. I gently drape it over him, watching it rise with his back as he inhales. Even his hair seems tired right now, drooping over his face, blowing up and out with his snores.

I don't know when it was I started getting used to him, but he's been on good behavior ever since O'Neill sentenced him as my detail. He still doesn't trust me, of course, and is always extremely on edge whenever I'm called to the sit room, but I can't help but wonder if we'll end up sharing moments of silence that are more than comfortable. But that's a very slippery slope.

I shake all of those thoughts out of my head, urging discipline and professionalism as I return to my machine.

There's something here that's feeling more than warm tonight. In fact, I feel like I'm sitting right on top of it. I rush through the screens in search of what is calling out to me and suddenly the blocks of code are making sense to me. I'm starting to recognize a familiar structure to the data and type furiously, watching letters and numbers fly across the screen. My heart is pounding faster and my mouth is getting dry as I hear the heartbeat of Skynet again—duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun; duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun. It's there. It's there, somewhere. Oh God, oh God...

"YES!" I scream at the top of my lungs. "I GOT IT!"

Sheppard bolts up from the sofa, caught in the blanket, and trips. "Jesus, McKay! The fuck—?"

I run over to him and slap him across the back. "I found it! A system vulnerability!"

"Ow!" he whines, rubbing his back. "What was that for?"

"I'm calling O'Neill, Mitchell, Sam, and Radek. You call Ford, Ronon, and Teyla." I rush to find my comm.

"I'm taking it this is important?" he asks, pouting more than scowling? I check my clock. Oh wow—it's 04:15.

"Yeah, Major. It's very important." I proceed to dial Sam.

"McKay?" I glance at him. "Seriously. Don't ever change."

Scene 6

Nobody looks extremely happy to be assembled at 04:45 on a Saturday morning, least of all Jack, who snarls, "If you haven't found a way to disable Skynet, wipe out the machines, and bring O' Malley's back to business, I will hire a Terminator myself to chase you around a corn maze."

"Trust me, sir," Sheppard assures him, "this seems good."

"Oh? So you're buddies now?"

Sheppard ignores his bite. Teyla, ever so serene, even after being roused from some ancient Athosian morning ritual, turns to me and asks, "Rodney, have you managed to get some sleep at all in the preceding days? You like quite... yourself."

"Thank you, Ms. Emmagan," I curtly reply, "I dressed up especially for this occasion."

"And what occasion would that be, Rodney?" Radek bites. Boy, he's not a morning person.

"That would be the day Dr. Rodney McKay, yours truly, found a hole in the Skynet system settings as it evolved to eradicate safety measures I put into place that it deemed irrelevant."

Sam sits up straight. "Are you saying that you found a way to isolate processes?"

"Isolate and freeze, my sweet Dr. Carter," I announce, rolling on the balls of my feet.

"How does it work?" Radek demands.

"My, aren't we snippy today?"

"Terminators, McKay," Jack threatens once again.

"Not if I shoot him first," Ronon chirps. Why is it that sociopaths can speak so sweetly?

"Two words, my friends: bloated software. Skynet has had fourteen years of managing its own code and in the process, it's managed to create some vulnerabilities as it updated itself to become more efficient."

"Hang on a minute, Rodney," Same interrupts. "Doesn't bloated software usually mean the code is more complex?"

"Less accessible, actually," Radek answers. "Bloated software can look more efficient, only because is more automatic and combines important subroutines to make simultaneous."

"It's the ultimate problem of automation, really," I explain. "The more you automate the system, the more you have to hide the complexity. It's the same with biological evolution. As organisms become more complex, they require higher levels of modular organization, and doing so, they become more dependent on the previous choices of subunit organization."

"Are you talking about Bayesian models?" The entire room turns to Sheppard. He just shrugs. "I majored in mathematics and operations research at the Naval Academy."

"Well," I stall, "it's not exactly..."

"It's exactly a Bayesian problem," Sam grates out.

"Oh, you are so his type too," I spit at her. "Blond, blue-eyed—"

"McKay!" I forgot how resolute Jack can get, particularly when he's cranky.

"Anyway, I figured out a script that exploits Skynet's bloated Assembly code so that we can trap vital processes inside a specific physical memory space. This will freeze that node—no data can go in or out—meaning that if we blow that storage space to kingdom come—"

"Data is wiped away forever!" Radek jumps up in excitement. Sam shares his enthusiasm while Ronon, Teyla, Ford, and Mitchell look at us glazed. Sheppard is grinning. O'Neill just sits there, thinking.

"So..." Mitchell attempts, "If we do... whatever it is you do and blow up one of the Skynet facilities, does that mean it's the end of Skynet?"

"Well, yes and no," I reply. "There are obviously some crucial processes that will keep moving around the network at literally the speed of light, but we'll significantly cripple it."

Mitchell swivels to face O'Neill. "I don't know about you, sir, but something sounds better than nothing to me. If we pull this off, maybe we'll have a fighting chance at beating the machines."

O'Neill keeps his silence, glancing at me. Uncomfortable under his gaze, I turn my eyes down to the floor and shuffle my feet. Sheppard speaks up again. "Can this be done remotely, or would you need access to a Skynet terminal?"

"Ah, that's the caveat. We'd only have the time to immobilize this data on the machine we're working on, and given Skynet's vast system size, we're going to need a supercomputer."

"Great!" O'Neill finally says. "Know anybody who can led us one?"

"General," I say slowly, "I was thinking of infiltrating a Skynet hub. Specifically the large Skynet Mechacenter at Area 51."

"Are you out of your flippin' mind, Rodney?" Jack screeches. "Infiltrate a Skynet hub? Do you have any idea how suicidal that sounds? I wouldn't even send Black Ops to do this."

"But General, you must understand just how great of an opportunity this is! This is the break we've been waiting for since Judgment Day! I'm not a religious man, and you know it, but trust me, this is a gift from God Himself!"

"Or from the machines! Honestly, McKay, can't you see just how dangerous this is? Not only are we working off of deductions from a radio signal, but the sheer audacity of running into a Skynet hub? What if Skynet realizes what you're trying to do and gets to you before you upload your code? Or worse—what if it's a trap? Either way, the machines will capture you, and do you think they're going to kill you right away? You're Rodney Fucking McKay, inventor of the damn thing! I don't know if it's worse that they torture you or worship you, but there's no telling what it will do. And for what? Why should we try to do this when we're not sure it will defend the human race?"

"Because if we do this, regardless of the results, the human race will be worth defending, sir!" For the second time, we turn to Sheppard in shock. He ignores the looks we give him and goes on. "Will all due respect, for the past fourteen years, all of our battle tactics have been predictable. Dogfights, bombings, raids—we've been moving like bishops instead of like knights. And that's what Skynet wants, sir! They want us to be predictable! Why? Because at their core, the machines are predictable. They follow strict orders and are merely automated. And even if Skynet is self-aware, what do we have that it doesn't? Imagination! McKay's brilliance created Skynet, but it's his imagination that will destroy it. Come on, sir. What do you say?"

O'Neill stares hardly at Sheppard, studying from from his chair as if he's a Marlin swimming up by his boat and swimming dangerously close to the bait. "It seems McKay has rubbed off of you and I'm starting to worry that maybe you've spent too much time with him. I'll forward our plans to HQ and John Connor, but that doesn't guarantee us a go. Nonetheless, I'll make your additional comments known, Major."

"Way to go, Doc!" Ford shouts. I bury my face in my hands. I may have chosen the wrong side of the war.

Jack dismisses all of us, ordering me to bed. Before he leaves the room, he announces to Sheppard and me that we've served out our sentences and are no longer chained to each other. I sigh in relief, but before I can make a victory speech, I'm told that I am still to appear for PT if I choose to go on this mission. Just as I open my mouth the object, Jack screams for Daniel, forgetting that it's 05:15 on a Saturday morning. Ronon, Teyla, and Ford, walk out, assuring me if I'm going, they'll be following as well. Sam, Radek, and I arrange to meet in the labs that afternoon to develop the script.

Sheppard and I the hallway back to my quarters when I hear Mitchell shouting my name as he runs over to catch up. "You did good in there," he tells me, squeezing my shoulder as he smiles. He nods at Sheppard and turns back. I turn to Sheppard, who has the oddest look on his face.

We don't speak as we complete our journey to my quarters. I start undressing for bed, only Sheppard is still staring at me with that odd look on his face.

"What?" I ask.

"Are you and Mitchell...?"

I roll my eyes. "Don't be stupid. That was nearly twenty years ago."

He nods stiffly and begins to pack. When his cot is rolled up, I'm jolted at how much space I used to have before Sheppard came along. Whatever it was between us—tolerance, acceptance, mutual annoyance—it's never gotten in the way of Sheppard's charge over me and I feel an urge to grab him by the wrist and ask him not to leave.

"That look on your face, Doc," Sheppard drawls as he opens the door. "That look, McKay?"

I'm mystified. "What look?"

"You know, when you were explaining the vulnerabilities of Skynet? You seemed genuinely happy."

"Er... thanks?"

"You had that same look on your face when Colonel Mitchell walked by."

"Oh my God, Major. What are we? Twelve?"

"It's a good look on you, Rodney. Wish you'd have it on more often." With that he shuts the door, leaving me dazed at what the hell is going on underneath all that hair of his.

Interlude

The script takes longer than expected to develop, mostly because Radek and Sam bully up on me and modify every single line in sight. On several occasions, I slammed The Tao of Programming in their faces, usually in retaliation to pasting additional subroutines that clutter up the code. I remember one time Say retaliating by throwing K & R at my head, to which Radek snarked, "Program should be in LISP, not C." However, after three months of screaming and tussling, we finally had an Assembly script (with a few C executables at Sam's urging) and it was all packaged up as a dll bundle on a CD, just ready to be uploaded. Of course, we weren't so sure if Skynet still had CD-ROM drives, even if it went online before USBs outmoded them, but as a precaution, we've made a USB copy (slower, but still manageable) and I'm to bring a potable machine just in case.

Over the course of those months, Sheppard still dragged me to PT and combat, although I drew the line at joining Ronon's brisk morning walks. During long compilation times, I was trained and became certified with the semiautomatics, although the sergeant at the desk in the shooting range still winces whenever I stroll down there to checkout a gun.

HQ is still deliberating over the proposed suicide mission, from the general mood O'Neill's been in, it seems as if they'll clear us sooner or later. O'Neill is definitely unhappy with the risk and asked several times whether we can upload the code remotely. I told him each time that remote allocation will take too much effort on part of the programmer and if we fail, we won't be able to try this again.

On top of a moody general, I've had to deal with a sullen Sheppard who's been quite minimalistic with his words and at times avoids me for days on end. But the overall atmosphere of the base has been lighter with me. It's as if they'd forgiven me for the whole Teller incident and people nod at me in the halls again.

Given the optimism of the base, it comes as no surprise when O'Neill gives us the greenlight to make the detailed plans of our grand battle. If all turns right, this would be our own Stand at Marathon.

For some reason, HQ is not allocating us any aid in terms of soldiers or intelligence. I've always know that Jack has a sour relationship with them, but from their last communiqué, it sounds as if they've written SGC off the mission roster. That gives us more liberty to plan as we will, but the cut-off from intelligence makes us blind rats in a den full of cats.

Then with another stroke of luck, we come into contact with John Connor. Apparently even Connor is on HQ's shitlist. There's no denying that something funny is going on with them, but like a good solider, I've come to appreciate need-to-know over the past couple of years.

Scene 7

"You understand, General, why I can't send any of my men over?" Connor asks O'Neill over the radio.

"Wouldn't even dream of it, John," O'Neill replies.

"I've been asked to infiltrate another VLA by HQ—there is intelligence to suspect that it's being used as a biolab of sorts by Skynet. I wouldn't be surprised if we find human subjects there." Connor's tone darkens as he entertains this ghastly possibility.

"What will you do if you find any?"

"It hasn't been scheduled as a rescue mission, sir."

"Please, don't. Save the honorifics for the duds in charge."

"I'm transmitting the coordinates and the detailed layouts of the Mechacenter now, General. It's a couple weeks old, so who knows how accurate it'll be by the time you dispatch, but you know how difficult Area 51 is to keep an eye on."

"John, you've already risked enough by handing over the vulnerabilities in each machine you've encountered. HQ's going to go apeshit if they find out."

"Well, sir, I've heard some crazy plans before, but you're the first guy who's convinced me that we can actually end this war sooner rather than later."

"Hey, this had nothing to do with me. It was mostly McKay's idea."

I can feel the general gaze of the room fall on me.

"Do you think he can pull it off, sir?"

Of all the stares, O'Neill's is the strongest. "Yeah," he says. "I think I do." He clears his throat. "Obviously I'm biased, since he's convinced me to do many ridiculous things that I wouldn't have even considered reasonable—honestly, a citrus-free kitchen!—but I've never come across a more stubborn sonuvabitch than him. Well, except maybe you."

Connor chuckles lightly at this. If he's anything like Sheppard, he'd be rubbing the back of his neck with an aw, shucks grin. Sheppard, on the other hand, is doing his best impression of a concrete wall. For some unknown reason, I don't think he's all too fond of John Connor.

"I'm with you, sir," Connor responds. "I think if anyone can pull this off, it's Dr. McKay."

"And you're not just saying this on the off-hand chance he might be listening in on this conversation right now, are you?"

"No, sir. Dr. McKay may have been the unfortunate unwitting pawn of fate, but there was one last thing that was released from Pandora's Box."

"Oh? What might that be?"

"Hope."

The General and John Connor exchange a few more words over the transmission, but none of it registers in me. I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that John Connor, my foil, my opposite, my archenemy by all definitions of narrative, has expressed confidence in me, as expressed trust in me. He looked past my role in creating Skynet and declared me to be just as integral to its destruction. John Connor sees me as human, unlike the many accusing eyes of refugees or angry fists of soldiers. He believes me to be on his side, not because I'm a tool to be used against the machines, but because I have the same vision that he does: the dream that we humans are architects of greatness, no matter what. I'm starting to see why so many follow him as a prophet. He is the hero of our age. He is the one among us survivors to point towards the land of salvation. He is the one who allows us, no, makes us believe that the future is truly what we make.

However, it's a tragedy that not many wish to see that. When Sheppard and I discuss this in the mess later with Teyla, Ronon, and Ford, he makes his thoughts well known.

"Look, I'm not saying that he's a bad guy, or anything. I just don't buy this bullshit about him being the savior of the human race."

I sigh. This is going nowhere. "Major, he's predicted so much of the war so far—what machines will arise, what Skynet tries next. There's no denying that no one knows our enemy better than he does."

Sheppard gives me a sharp look. "Not to bring this up again, McKay, but aren't you our Skynet expert?"

"It's a different kind of knowing, Major, and the difference is crucial. My knowledge of Skynet is in its code—the programs, subroutines, system processes—but that doesn't mean I know what it will do when choosing between us, SGA, or HQ."

"So you're admitting your ignorance as to Skynet's behavior?"

"On the macroscopic scale, yes!" I slap his sneaking hand, preventing him from stealing another french fry. "How do I explain this in a way that the message doesn't miss your brain and fray out of your hair? Though the universe may be deterministic at its core, when you have a complex system of confounding causes, it starts behaving unpredictably and there are no Laplacian demons that can calculate the trajectory of a feather blowing in the wind. However, if a system has a certain amount of constraints, no matter how sloppily thrown together, order emerges out of the chaos. It's predictable, yes, but not by looking at the lower subsystems."

Sheppard raises a brow. "Are you just coming out to me as a strong emergentist?"

I yell in frustration. "That is besides the point!"

He shrugs in return. "I don't know. I mean, being a computer scientist and all that, isn't it awfully dangerous to be an anti-reductionist?"

I count off my fingers. "One, I never hid the fact that I was an anti-reductionist. Coupling Markov Processes with Hamiltonian Path Theory kinda throws that out. Two, academia doesn't exist anymore. In fact, it burned to the ground when civilization died. Three, haven't you seen for yourself Connor's predictions coming true?"

"It doesn't take séances and Tarot cards to predict that the machines will get better. Hell even I could've told you that after a good cup of tea."

I look to the rest of the table for support. "Come on, guys—haven't you seen all of Connor's predictions come to pass?"

Ford speaks up. "Gee, Doc, I think the Major's right to be skeptical of any prophets in this day and age—"

"Hold on," I intercept, "let's not use the term prophet as it has a religious connotation that is unfair to my case."

"But," Ford presses on, "why else would Skynet be so desperate to wipe him out?"

"Oh, come on, Ford!" Sheppard cries out in protest. "Don't tell me you believe in that time-machine nonsense!"

"Like you're one to talk, Major," I snap. "And for the record, I think John Connor can travel through time without a flux capacitor, thank you very much."

"How you wound me, Doc. So tell me, how would oyu get around paradoxes? I mean, even if the science in the movie was bad, the Grandfather paradox was something even Marty McFly wasn't able to escape."

"That's simple: The Novikov Self-Consistency Principle. If an event A is displaced back to time B, the action-path integral from B to A adds up back to event A, so there is no such thing as a paradox. Basically everything that happens is meant to happen. There are no accidents—even Aristotle knew this."

"Oh? And what about Boltzmann?" Sheppard retorts. "Didn't he show that there is no symmetry across time due to entropy?"

I huff at the iniquity against physics. "That is a mechanical engineer's understanding of Statistical Mechanics, Major. I bet you believe that the Second Law of Thermodynamics means entropy is always rising?"

"Hey, I'm not one to argue with Clausius."

"That's a statement valid only to a closed system where there is no work done. Have you ever heard of a man named Carnot?"

"As enlightening as this is, John, Rodney, I would like to bring our discussion back to the subject we were originally exploring." Teyla then takes a sip from her warm mug.

"Teyla!" I say brightly. "Would you explain to the Major why John Connor is the real deal?"

"I shall do my best, Rodney, even if I do not invoke thermodynamics into my explanation." She takes another sip from her steaming mug. "Before the machines destroyed my village, we have heard rumors from our trading partners of a man who has been prophesied to end the war. We did not hear many details, only that he had been fighting Skynet even while in the womb and that he had been visited three times by the machines sent from the future to exterminate him and his mother, Sarah Connor. Though I was but a child at the time, I remember our people were visited by a strange woman one night many years ago and requested to train in the art of Bantos sticks. She was a remarkable fighter, though showing signs of a babe growing in her womb, so we offered her a safe place to nurse the child. She declined, though extremely courteously, and made her way out down south.

"We thought to ourselves, perhaps the woman who visited us was this Sarah Connor, as her beauty was matched only by her legendary warrior's spirit. We believed it to be true when we first tuned into the weekly transmissions sent out by John Connor as his voice had the same gravity as hers did. Now you may scoff at this as many of those who have not been raised in our culture do, but my people believe that the voice is the imprint of spiritual lineage—when you speak, you speak in the voices of your parents, grandparents, your ancestors, all the way up to the forces of the universe that you are descended from, because sound, like heat, matter, and light, is energy, and in that sound is the history of your entire family.

"Of course, we did not get to rejoice for very long after listening to John Connor. The next month was when the machines destroyed everything I had known. But in that short month, my people were jubilant and not cautiously so, for we had suffered many losses. The news of John Connor, his voice, it all brought our spirits back up to the resolve we had to fight against these dark forces.

"I do not take a position on whether he is a prophet or not, but I believe in him because of what he meant to my people, what he means to people out there around the world."

"He's our banner for hope," Ronon says gruffly. "Doesn't matter if he's for real or not."

A heavy silence descends on the table, all of us digesting Teyla's and Ronon's words. None of us dared to speak—it's as if we are the Fates spinning the thread of John Connor's life, and if we say the wrong thing at the wrong time, it will snap before us.

Sheppard's the first to break the chain. "Well, I don't know about you guys, but I'm hitting the hay. O'Neill's going to have us do some major planning starting tomorrow and I'd like to get some shut-eye before we dive in."

We all agree, murmuring our good nights to each other, dispersing to our respective quarters. As I lay in bed awake, I mull over the conversation we just had on John Connor. It seems he's been related to most of us somehow—Teyla met Sarah Connor, Ronon was saved by Kate Connor the Wife, Ford was rescued from the ruins of LA by Connor himself (along with another boy by the name of Kyle Reese, though I never found out what happened to him). I was the first life Connor probably ever saved that night in the factory. Given all of these events, I can't help but wonder whether John Sheppard has a history with Connor as well.

I fall asleep with my hand dangling through Evan's tags, dreaming of a world where Skynet was never conceived and John Connor is sailing through the stars, free of the burdens of being mankind's only hope for salvation.

Interlude

The first time I met General Jack O'Neill was in 2002, the year before Cyberdyne Systems was bought out by the Air Force to become Cyber Research Systems. While the higher ups were in deep discussion over the details of the acquisition, then-Brigadier General Jonathan "Jack" O'Neill was the deputy to Lt. General Robert Brewster and therefore not altogether interested in dealing with the bureaucrats, although he himself was technically one. During a particularly tedious meeting, he excused himself, citing his presence in the boardroom as only a technical formality of the most formal kind, and wandered off towards the labs.

By this point, we had moved the main research quarters in the edges of the San Joaquin Valley, right next to the Sierra Nevadas, so the brushlands were not exceptionally auspicious to our development, particularly that day when we were running tests on aerial drone AHK-55, the ancestor to the Hunter Killers.

Not knowing the sensitive test taking place, the General left the door open as he entered Sigma-Six, letting out a malfunctioning drone to blast away the California wilderness with its fortified solid-state lasers. An eclectic mix of panicking scientists and amused airmen ran out after it while I trailed behind, yelling my curses on their alma maters and maternal lineages over a megaphone in case they couldn't hear me.

I turned to the General with the death glare that brought in countless resignation letters and demanded that he stay put and not touch anything. I chased after the idiots I was ashamed to call my employees, barking orders over the megaphone. When the drone swooped down on them, the entire entourage scattered like antelope being chased by a giant lion with wings and one of the airmen proceeded to shoot at the drone, potentially damaging millions of dollars worth of equipment. I took off my show to throw it at the vandal, only the drone blasted it into a ball of flames two feet from the airman's face. Cursing, I sprinted towards the dolt who was supposedly in charge of communications with the beast, ripping the controls from her trembling hands, and proceeded to overload its CPU with too many signals, effectively short-circuiting it, and within seconds, the bird of prey had its seizure and fell to the ground.

I ordered the airmen to bring the drone back into the auxiliary warehouse, dismissed the scientists for the day (although I added that if they didn't feel up to coming back the next day, they were more than welcome to do so), and stomped my way to back to Sigma-Six, wherein I find the General playing Pac-Man with the T-100s. I didn't think that I could bring myself to a second round of shouting, but he could very well hear my "I thought I told you not to touch anything!" over the gunfire. He yelled for help in response, shouting a half-apology, half "I didn't do anything!"

I raced up to the observation deck where the main consoles were and shut down the machines remotely. Judging by the bullet holes in the walls, I wasn't a second too soon—the closest bullet was four inches from the General's left arm. I made a mental note to improve tracking and polar swivel before I rushed down to check if I had to file a stack of casualty reports.

The General assured me that he wasn't at all damaged and that the Air Force won't collect on an insurance claim if I didn't tell my supervisors that he was being chased by robots. I rolled my eyes and handed him one of my business cards, designating my name, position at Cyberdyne, and my educational pedigree. I was further annoyed when he didn't seem particularly impressed with two Ph Ds from Stanford and demanded that he replace me a pair of expensive shoes lost in the battle he escalated.

He just gave me a look that I still haven't decoded to this day, but he did take me out to San Francisco for an expensive dinner on the Air Force's dime, which included too much wine. Although I remember crying on his shoulder that night (it's the reason why I never drink with other people), I still don't remember how I woke up in his bed, though he was already back from a morning jog with a bag of donuts. To this day, I don't know what happened between the tears and the donuts. I mean, I'm pretty sure the man is straight by all measures of human sexuality. Then again, the only other person he's overzealously protective of is Daniel Jackson, ambiguously placed between archivist and his personal secretary. It's Jack, though, and I doubt even Daniel fully understands him.

Scene 8

I guess it's not that much of a surprise Jack's been so reluctant to send us on this mission, particularly when I insisted that I go to upload the code myself. Since HQ's all-clear and Connor's transmission, he's stopped making random visits to the labs or calling me names during the cabinet meetings. Whenever anyone mentions "the script," he clams up and more than half of the time shuts himself back into his office.

The planning still goes on without his active input. Sheppard and Ronon map out the routes through the complex, Ford giving helpful instructions for strategic places to set up explosives, Teyla listing the supply logistics, and I'm working on weapons modifications, specifically a stealth cruiser that will get us in and out undetected.

A week before our scheduled departure date, I'm in the hanger, working on the cloaking device. We've plated the cruiser in an experimental alloy that absorbs EM waves across a broad spectrum, including radar, infrared, and visible light, so if we attack at night, we'll be virtually invisible. Since Radek managed to burn himself with a welding torch, Mitchell is helping me in his place, making this entire endeavor surreal, although surprisingly helpful.

"So the General hasn't been the happiest camper," he remarks, handing me a logic probe.

I test the transistors that connect the power channels to the controls. "What makes you say that?"

He shrugs. "He's been avoiding you like the plague. I thought at first there was something going on between you two behind closed doors, but when I volunteered to pilot, he's given me the cold shoulder too."

I keep my eyes on the circuitry since controlling the currents on the coating is crucial to keep its cloaking properties. "Maybe it's one of those officer things—never spend too much time with a dead crew or you'll lose your resolve to send them on the suicide mission. Could you pass me the voltmeter?"

"Maybe," Mitchell replies as he hands it over. "He's a good man, though." He pauses. "He's a lot more understanding and tolerant than a lot of the commanding officers out there, even within the Resistance."

I hear his question in the silence. Keeping my head down, I answer, "The General and I are very close, but that's because we've known each other for almost as long as you I have, not because... you know. And don't think that we share a special relationship that precludes his trust in you. He chose you to be his XO, even after you and I... were on bad terms. I make no more claims to his inner mind than you do."

We work silently for a couple minutes. Mitchell's surprisingly competent at soldering. It's a while before he asks, "So what are things like between you and Sheppard?"

"Pardon?"

"Is Major Sheppard one of us?"

I chew my lip in search of an answer. "Well, I can't possibility say for sure. Normally, hair like that is a dead giveaway, but with him? I doubt even John Connor would know."

"If he were, would you do him?"

I glance up from my work to look at Mitchell. His eyes are sparkling with the same curiosity that made me swoon eighteen years ago and his lips are pulled tightly over his teeth as they do whenever he's bracing for impact.

"Truth be told," I say, "I can't even fathom being in the same room with him. He's such an oddball, maybe even more out of place than I am, and you know that's saying something. Sure, he's charming and he rivals you in the looks department, but there's something incredibly off about him to the point that I don't see him as human." I return to the logic tests, checking the output of each pin.

Mitchell looks down at his work as well, covering the wiring with insulation and stuffing them down into the cracks. "You know, Rodney, sometimes I wonder what it'd be like if we hadn't called it quits. Do you reckon we'd still be together?"

I sigh and take off my glasses to rub my eyes. "Cameron, you were the one who told me not to wait. You wanted to fly and I couldn't keep you away from that. I never resented you for making that choice, but I nonetheless had to pick up the pieces and move on with my life. You want to know why I did it? Because I knew it was inevitable. If not that time, you would've answered the next time, or the the time after that. We both knew that I just wasn't enough to keep you with me."

"Is that what you really think? Is that why you let me go so easily?"

"Look, can we not do this right now?"

"Rodney, it tore me apart when I took my marching orders. Did you seriously think that I wanted to fly into Afghanistan, not knowing whether or not I'd be able to come back to you? What if I didn't? Or, what's worse, what if I did? What if the war ended early enough that I came back home, only to find you in the arms of another—"

"You never could've, Cameron." He clams his jaw, eyes shimmering. "You never could come back, because that's not the type of many you are. Done deals are done deals to you and you never turn back."

"That doesn't I mean I never regret them."

It's my turn to lock my jaw. This is why I hate introspection.

He continues. "Losing you was the worst mistake I've ever made, Rodney. You're right, I'm not going to go back. I'm not going to take back everything I said to you, because you and I both know we can't go back. You and I have seen far too much to believe that anything can be the same again. But you know what? You've had the General and Captain Lorne to look after you. As much as I wanted to hate him, Captain Lorne was a damn good soldier and an even better man. Pretend to be a misanthrope all you want, but you know that you have all these people around here that love you, while I'm just the pretty boy the suit, Rodney. I'm told to just march on. It's all anyone ever saw me as."

He climbs off the cruiser and heads towards the door back down underground.

"Cameron, wait!" I plead, clumsily falling off the cruiser, trailing after him. He doesn't turn back. Picking up speed after the disappearing back, I rush through the doors, running into none other than Sheppard himself.

"Whoa there, Doc! You might poke someone's eye out with that thing!"

"How long were you standing there?" I demand. "How much did you hear?"

His grin changes from his usual smirk to that dangerous leer. "Why? Were you asking and was he telling?"

I shove him out of my way and head back down into the base. Behind me I can hear Sheppard shouting "Maybe you shouldn't let him go so easily this time!"

I rush to Cameron's quarters, ordering him to open the door in a booming voice. Just as I am about to pound again, the door opens and Mitchell faces me, eyes exhausted and face crushed. I push my way into his room and babble a paragraph a sentence, neglecting to breathe and finding myself choking.

"Rodney," he says, reaching for my hand, "it's alright. Really. I shouldn't have blown up on you like that." He rubs his thumb over my knuckles. "I can't believe how selfish I was being. You have the hardest job in the world—you're the Robert Oppenheimer of our times. I shouldn't—"

"No," I interrupt, pulling him into a tight hug. Though the years have been hard on him, his body is still familiar against mine and I feel a rush of contentment to be held again. "You're right, no one's been looking after you. God, I'm so sorry."

Cameron shushes me and kisses me on the forehead. "I'm okay," he assures me, "I'm okay."

There we stay for a couple minutes, a long embrace between two old friends. It's strange how we both know it, but that's as far as we can take it. Maybe in a different world, a world in which I'm an astrophysicist and he's on my team of discovery, but even then I think the universe would separate us because there is always going to be something or someone between us. I rub the back of my hands at my eyes at that, but that's probably all that it's worth anyway.

After some more soft words and a promise to upgrade the cruiser's thrusters, I leave Cameron's quarters for mine. At the door to my room, Sheppard is waiting for me, a lit cigarette between his lips.

"You know you're not allowed to smoke that in here, right?" I ask, drained.

He takes the fag off his lips, turns it in his slender fingers to examine it, and blows smoke in my face. I don't react—it's been too long of a day. "You know," he says, "before they found out it was carcinogenic, doctors actually endorsed tobacco, saying it was good for the circulation. Am I wrong?"

"Your point, Major?"

"You scientists never can decide what's good or bad for you, can ya? Don't like Phillip-Morris making a profit? Ban smoking. Think it's time to piss Christians off? Remove homosexuality from the DRM."

"I'm going to bed." I weave behind him and open my door.

"You're not spending the night in Mitchell's room? What's the matter? You two having a lovers' spat?"

I turn to face his defiant stare. "If you really are that curious about my sex life, no, Cameron and I are not having the really hot sex we used to have when he was in the Officer Reserves. But I'll tell you this—he may be a faggot, but he can pin down any man in his bed and have his way with him. He can make anyone beg, even the most macho jarhead or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And, Major? That's Colonel Cameron Mitchell to you!" I slam the door in his face.

"Well I'm glad!" he yells through the door. "I'm glad that your hole is routinely stretched out by all the dicks in uniform!" He pounds against it once then storms off. It's nights like these I miss Evan the most.

Scene 9

After that night, I see Sheppard everywhere. It's as if O'Neill ordered him on my tail again, although he keeps a more than respectful distance from me. I do my best to ignore him as he shadows me throughout the base. There are several times I want to walk over to him and smack him across the face again, but I withhold that temptation and continue to work on the cruiser speed modifications.

Mitchell hangs around me just as often, helping me turn the cruiser into a transport of stealth and speed. Sheppard's stony face hardens even more when Mitchell's around and out of spite, I touch Cameron more often, a lingering hand on his shoulder, a long brush of the fingers as he's handing me the tools, and, in Sheppard's direct line of sight, I lean back on Cameron as we take one last look on our handiwork. Mitchell doesn't miss any of the tension between me and Sheppard, and he treads very softly in a pathetic attempt at feigning ignorance. However, he has more than once put himself between me and Sheppard when our dirty glances at each other would've escalated into a violent clash.

Jack too notices the strain, but doesn't call us out on it. I guess he's fed up with trying to make friendship bracelets for us and stays silent as ever during the cabinet meetings. I'm surprised he isn't exploding over our mutual disdain (it's a threat to unit cohesion after all) and I wait for the other shoe to drop.

I have trouble sleeping again, worrying over all the details of the mission and the millions of things that could go wrong. On the night before D-Day, I find myself awake at 04:00 and walk up to the hangar to get fresh air. All of the crew had retired for the night except for a lonely figure standing front of the cruiser, a mug of steaming drink in his hand.

I clear my throat and Jack turns around. I join him in front of the cruiser. Neither of us break the silence between us.

He takes another sip from his mug before he speaks. "So I'm guessing that the coating on that wasn't because you weren't happy with the paint job?"

I chuckle softly in response, shaking my head. "It's an aluminum complex that is specifically designed to absorb wavelengths over a broad frequency range. Radar, microwave, visible light—it's designed to create a black hole in any navigation or detection system. It also absorbs heat from the surroundings, so if anyone using infrared scopes were to look at it, it would look just like background noise."

"Ah, so you've created an invisibility cloak, then?"

"Essentially."

Jack nods and takes another sip from his mug. The lack of chatter is unnerving me as he would be chastising me for my behavior towards Sheppard. "Look," I say, "just say what you have to say and get it over with."

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't play that game with me, General! Aren't you going to give me a lecture on how I should be treating Sheppard with the respect due to a military commander? How in the end, he's going to save my life, so I'd better butter him up and stroke his hairy ego?"

"Oh. That." Jack turns back to the cruiser. "I didn't feel like I needed to, seeing how you've said it all yourself."

I scoff and fold my arms. This isn't the smoothest conversation I've ever had with him.

"Do you ever worry about what happens if you mess up and end up dying?"

His jarring question snaps my eyes back to him. He's still looking forward as he takes another sip. He elaborates. "Sometimes I think, 'Man! If I make the wrong turn, I just may well meet my own Terminator.' Do you ever have thoughts like that?"

I shrug in response. "The machines scare me shitless sometimes, but I've always been told to keep focus, even if the people around me need to slap me around a couple of times."

"I worry about it all the time, but I guess for those who meet their end, better dead than dragged out along the chariot's path. For them, everything hinges on survival, that instinctual moment of mortality when they realize just how precious life is, but once they pass that threshold, do you think they'd welcome the peace that comes with the knowledge that the situation is out of their hands?"

I have nothing to say in response to this sudden philosophizing. I look at Jack and see a battle-weary general, aged by stress, each wrinkle a battle of wills against death, each white hair a fallen soldier under his command. He looks weak, a man who has seen too much horror without any victory or hope for it. A warrior torn between retaining his honor by forfeiting and obeying his instinct to survive. Broken.

"We fight these machines for survival, but at what cost? The fact that men and women die in order to survive is extremely perverted. It's wrong! Why do we keep torturing ourselves through the anxiety of death when we are living in a world of death in the first place? Why must we die to stay alive?"

He sets down his mug on a workbench and covers his eyes with one hand. Part of me wants to rush to comfort the man who has sacrificed so much of his soul so that others may have one, but the better part instructs me to give him his space.

Sighing deeply, he continues. "Sometimes I just can't handle this job, ordering people to march to the drums of death. Some of them don't know and they blindly follow my orders. Some of them do know what I'm asking them to do, but for some goddamned reason, they do it anyway. I'm usually not all that great with faces, but I can remember their eyes, each and every one of them, haunting me because not a pair, not a single fucking pair of them are accusing me. And that's what makes me feel so goddamned guilty."

I step towards him and put my hand on his shoulder. He reaches for it and squeezes. I try to find something to say. "That's because you're a good man, Jack. You take care of everyone on the base and that is why they die for you, because you're there to protect everything that matters to them—husbands, wives, children, parents, brothers, sisters—you take care of all of them, so they fight for you, because that is how they take care of you."

"By getting themselves slaughtered like lambs?"

"By fighting with every last bit of life in their bodies so you will live on. You're their hero, Jack. You and John Connor."

I can feel Jack's entire body trembling. His grip on my hand squeezes me even tighter, but the ferocity of my conviction in him keeps me from wincing. He lets go and looks me in the eye. There's indecision in them, not knowing whether he should believe in me or face the inevitable crumbling of the world. I never understood the fall of great men, but the deadlock between resignation and determination in his eyes show me a glimpse of a hero's undoing.

"I'm scared, Rodney. I'm scared of losing you to these metal executioners, but I'm even more scared of what will happen if I fall—who will look after you? Who will look after Daniel? If this hare-brained scheme of yours doesn't work, sure we'll work on something else. But what if that fails? What about the next thing? And the thing after that? What happens when I send all of you to die and I'm left alone? Would I send myself to die just to avenge your deaths? What would I die for? What would I live for?"

I pull Jack into my body, leaning his head against my shoulder, just as he did for me on that first day we met. "Don't be ridiculous, General," I say. "Daniel would look horrible with a gun."

We both laugh out loudly, clutching each other to keep ourselves from falling. It's the first time I've seen him smile in months.

"At least he shoots straight," he quips.

I take the bait. "Now, that's not fair! I'm the one certified with a P90!"

"Which took you seven tries. Trust me, McKay, I read paperwork, contrary to popular opinion."

"Sheppard, that lying bastard! He promised me he wouldn't put the details in my file!"

"It's not his fault, Rodney."

I turn my head to glance at Jack peering up at me. "What do you mean?"

"Major Sheppard isn't trying to replace Captain Lorne. He's just doing his duty like you or me."

I let go of Jack and sit down at the bench. He follows me and sets himself on the table.

"I know he isn't, Jack," I say. "It's just... everything is moving too fast."

He nods. "When my wife and I were mourning Charlie, it seemed like time stopped for us, when in actuality it just kept running, leaving us behind like a train stranding stragglers. I kept thinking to myself that this was wrong, the universe had chosen the wrong person. When a parent dies, his children bury him in the ground, but when a child dies, his parents bury him in their hearts. But before we knew it, several months had passed and I was retrieved and reactivated by the Air Force for an experimental project that showed me just how small our world was. Though I had lost my child to my negligence and later my wife to this project, the project became everything to me, and not just because it had me traveling to places I never imagined possible. It was because of the people I met there—Daniel, Sam, Elizabeth—they are a few out of the many people that stretched me beyond any limit I had prematurely set myself. I still haven't forgotten Charlie, but every time I yell at Daniel or have to drag your ass into my office, I find it a blessing that I'm forced to care. Rodney, I care about you more than you can possibly imagine... although I'm man enough to keep that bit to myself."

"Duly noted, General."

"It's just... I can't tell you that it gets easier. But you'll find that sooner or later, there will be people around you that you'll have to care for, people more vulnerable than you. I won't be here forever and eventually someone else will fill my place, but never let that stop you from caring about those around you, because sometimes, that's the only thing that keeps you going. That's our burden, Rodney. That's the burden of heroes in an age so hostile to them." He stands up and stretches. "Now, I'm off for a quick power nap, which you should consider as well, as you're mobilizing in roughly fourteen hours."

I sigh and follow him back down into the bowels of the SGC. Before we part in the residential wing, Jack turns to me. "Oh, and Rodney?"

"Yes, Jack?"

He leans in conspiratorially and whispers, "A word of this to any living being, man or machine, I will upload myself into Skynet to track you down and kill you." He turns the corner and disappears from sight.

Scene 10

"We're behind enemy lines, sir," Mitchell reports over the comm. "Thirty seconds until communications blackout, so if you have any parting words, you'd better say them right now."

We hear O'Neill snorting on the radio. "Get back in one piece—I happen to like that cruiser, though I suppose you guys ain't so bad either."

We all laugh dutifully and chirp, "Yes, sir!"

"Alright kids. Godspeed."

"Squadron-1 over and out."

This is it. We've crossed the threshold. There's no turning back from this point. Godspeed indeed.

Mitchell's sitting in the cockpit, steering us through a squadron of airscouts, slowing down to minimize the engine heat. We can't be too sneak. Sheppard's sitting in front with Mitchell, co-piloting the craft and giving him navigation designations. Teyla has her eyes closed, clearly meditating or chanting some ancient incantation of some sort, while Ronon is sharpening his knives. Ford is silent in the back, the youngest of us by nearly fifteen years, and his anxiety pangs in me, thinking him too young to take on such a duty. I guess this is how commanders felt as they flew with their fresh recruits onto the beaches of Normandy. No one dares speak above a whisper—partly to minimize detection, but mostly because we'd otherwise lose our nerves and either retreat or charge forward, guns blazing.

My panel beeps at me, notifying me of an HK patrol heading our way. "Enemy bogey approaching us from 4 o' clock. Point-of-collision thirty seconds."

Mitchell curses. "Damn it, McKay. Have we been detected?"

"Can't tell at this point. All I know is that they're staying course. Either we slow down, boost up, or change elevation." Doing any of these is risky—slowing down requires us to accelerate in reverse; boosting up can leave a trail; if we move up, we risk running into other aerial machines upon our descent; if we approach from below, the anti-aircraft sensors might pick us up if the cloak fucks up. I can see Mitchell going through the same dilemma and he has hand on the EMP release. That may take care of machines around us, but Skynet will be alerted to our presence, not to mention that the shockwaves will render our cloak useless as it fries out all the circuitry.

"C'mon, Shaft," Sheppard calls out. "Make a decision."

"Point-of-collision fifteen seconds." We're still cruising—no change in speed or direction.

"Colonel, make a choice already!" Sheppard all but shouts.

The monitor beeps for my attention. The HKs have changed routes—they've made a sharp v-turn in the direction of San Fran.

"Bogeys headed northwest. All clear for radius 50 miles. Area 51 ETA 20 minutes."

We've made it through the main hurdle as Area 51 isn't a high-priority target for the Resistance. There is no Skynet mainframe there (even though it's a hub) as it's mostly a manufacturing plant if intel's reliable. However, the server here is almost as big as a mainframe given the vast amount of fabrication occurring, so if we can jar Skynet for long enough, it may be possible to freeze at least 360 terabytes of information and blow it all to bits. We can most definitely cripple Skynet by at least 20% and hopefully, some of that includes manufacturing and communications, particularly with the machines.

"Alright, Dr. Calvin," Mitchell says to me. "So what's the robot's next move?"

"That was a pretty sharp turn on part of the machines. HKs don't move that quickly unless they've been summoned for battle. Given the trajectory, they seem to be headed towards Skynet Mainframe 1 in San Fran."

"Could it be Connor?" Ford asks.

"Whoever it is they're attacking, there's a vast army headed in that direction: fifteen transporters, each of which can hold 150 T-units, twelve Earth-Scorchers, sixty motor units and three Harvesters are leaving the facility. It's either a mass deployment or a premature delivery."

"Rodney," Teyla asks, "why would they send so many machines at once?"

"It doesn't fit the regular profile of delivery," I agree. "But that's well over a quarter of a Mechacenter's capacity, so I'm guessing the factory will be a lot less crowded than we've anticipated."

"That's a good thing, right?" Ford asks.

"More mobility and places for Terminators to hide," Ronon answers.

"Not to mention more local processing capacity for the network now that a quarter of their machines are gone. Skynet will react faster to us," Sheppard supplies, looking me in the eye,

I nod tersely in agreement. The monitor beeps at me again. "Shit! I'm detecting three HKs and a probe accelerating on our tail. Time to impact: twenty seconds."

"God damn it," Mitchell lets out. He flips the switches to the external circuit board and announces, "Alright boys and girls, this is your pilot speaking. We are turning on our cloak on full power at a comfortable elevation of 10,000 feet to avoid some unexpected turbulence, so buckle up, relax, and enjoy the rest of your flight to Area 51. We realize you don't have a choice in airlines, but we appreciate your tax-dollars anyway."

The cruiser lurches down and we accelerate. Out of the cockpit window shines a majestic gem in the darkness as we approach our destination. I tighten my grip on my tablet and my P90. Locked and loaded. All systems go.

We hear four jets scream above us, heading towards the glittering machine city as well.

When it's in eyesight, my breath bitches at the splendid beauty of it. Jagged spires pierce the sky, seemingly built of glass alone. The light from inside each building shines on all of the machines outward, revealing each gadget and terminal in pristine detail. When most people think of factories, they visualize grimy buildings, billowing pillars of smoke. Not this city. This city is made of crystal, harvesting power through the sunlight pouring through the windows into solar panels covering the floor and the internal walls. And the central tower... a great ziggurat of supercomputers climbing well over 150 stories high to reach the heavens and stare into the face of God.

I can only think of one word as I gaze out to it—perfection. This is my city. This is the home I was supposed to live in. A metropolis of grandeur that is the acme of technology and design, the grand citadel where the gods Science and Art merged to form Paradise. This is the vision of man's future and the fact that the machines designed to wipe him out are the one who built this and inhabit it tears me inside out with the agony of irony. Jack was right—we must die to live.

"Visual confirmation of drop-off site," Mitchell announces. "Turning engines to silent mode now."

We land on a low hangar sitting a good fifty yards from the central tower and begin to gear up. Mitchell begins the shutdown procedures for the cruiser when Sheppard stops him by the wrist. "We need you here in the cruiser in case we need to make a quick escape."

"Are you crazy? You need more men with you on the ground!"

Sheppard shakes his head. "If we don't make it back, we need someone to report back to the SGC. The more we have on the field, the greater the chances we'll run into trouble."

"I'm not leaving Rodney out of my sight," Mitchell snarls in response.

"Cameron." Both men turn to look at me. "We need you to man the cruiser. The Major's got this mission pat down and he's not going to let anything happen to me."

Mitchell nods stiffly, though he lets his displeasure and skepticism know through his frown.

I lock all my gear, secure my tablet, and put on my glasses. "I'll be back."

Ronon leads us down towards an old maintenance entrance, Sheppard and Ford flanking me at either side, and Teyla's on our six. It would've been extremely silly to walk into the main entrance just to be shot down by a Terminator, even if no human being has set foot in this facility for fourteen years. But this place betrays no look of abandonment—apparently the machines have simply integrated themselves directly into the infrastructure instead of building up from scratch. And to think this used to be an airstrip.

We rush through the hallways, blindly making our way through the dimly lit corridors. Ronon hasn't slowed his pace, a good indication that we won't be meeting trouble in the next hundred feet. It's too quiet down here—there's not even the eerie dripping of water from the pipes.

We make our way up to the ground level. Here, Ronon slows down because we're exposed in the bright light. The only noise around us is the humming of machines, 160 CPUs running simultaneously on each floor. According to the schematics, the main terminal is on the 155th story, an impossibility on foot, even for Ronon. There are five lifts that reach up to the second highest floor; the top floor is only accessible through a secure entrance that requires system access. Luckily for us, the elevators are managed automatically without any input from Skynet itself, and since the secure entrance has a fiber-optic connection to Skynet, it's as good as working from the terminal itself.

Ronon flags us down and motions for us to hide. I take cover under a console and peer up, seeing a miniscout hovering over our hiding places. I hold my breath, willing my heart to slow and my body to cool in case the scout has IR detection. It scans the general area, searching for any anomalies, and I recite the pattern recognition software I had developed for it in my head. It was the one project I slacked off on, drawing my ethics line at surveillance, but even if I worked half-assed on it, it would still be more sophisticated than anything else written out there. And given the sophisticated machine-learning Skynet exhibited, who knows how powerful the code is by now.

Satisfied with its sweep, the scout trotters off down the hallway and I let out a huge breath of relief. We quickly jump up from our hiding places and walk along the walls single-file, hoping to blend in with the scenery to any surveillance outside the building. So far, we haven't seen any activity outside of the tower, indicating our freedom from detection and Cameron's safety.

Once or twice, my eyes catch on a gleaming metal skull, but the heads are all prototypes being worked on, though I can't imagine who or what would've abandoned them at night. It all seems so queer—this does not at all look like machine central, but rather an office building housing the white-collared clerical proletariats of the previous century. All the server boxes are arranged like cubicles and one can imagine a building like this to be operated by women and women in suits during the day.

We pass by a couple more ad-hoc labs, experiments unmanned, and I begin to wonder whether Skynet has decided to use human labor to power its innovation. It is both a relieving and disgusting thought. One the one hand, it means I've failed and Skynet really is nothing but an automated interface requiring independent input from an external user. On the other hand, I can imagine smart children selected from the Harvesters to become part of a vast sweatshop of genocide. Whatever the case is, Skynet is definitely not a Cartesian being—why else would it conduct experiments?

Ronon halts us thirty feet away from our intended lift. It's the inner-most one, meaning we'll be protected going in, but extremely vulnerable walking out. But none of this seems to matter to Ronon as he squints and then shouts, "Duck for cover!"

Three T-200s roll into sight and start blasting us with their bullets, red eyes unblinking. I swoop down, sweeping my tablet onto my back and fall on my stomach, wind knocked out and paralyzed for an instant, I then join the rest of my team in shooting back, aiming my damned best at the machines' heads. The unit in the center explodes, sending its flanking units to the sides, engulfing them in flames.

Sheppard picks me up by the back of my jacket and pushes me to follow Ronon and Teyla, Ford covering our backs.

It's a stupid idea to head for the central elevator now that the machines know we're here, so Ronon leads us blindly through the labyrinthine computer clusters.

"Don't mess any of the computers!" I hiss, not wanting to waste any space to capture Skynet in.

Everyone nods in comprehension and we continue to make our way through the maze. We move as swiftly as we can, avoiding tangles of wires disorganized on the floor.

Ford opens fire from behind us, screaming, "Move! Move! Move!"

I turn back and see two small HK units making their way towards us.

They open fire and we rush to dodge them. We enter open space once again and Ronon spins around once everyone's through. He reaches into his hair, pulls out shuriken explosives, and flings them at the airborne machines. Both shurikens collide with their targets and blast them into oblivion.

We run about twelve yards and find a lift. The light is green, meaning it's operational. I bring out a PDA and the electronic paper attached to it. Reading the optical scan, the PDA starts calculating the access code.

"McKay," Sheppard warns, "where's our ride?"

"I'm working on it, Major! I'm working!"

"Can't you work on it any faster, Doc?" Ford asks, even more impatient than Sheppard.

"It's really sophisticated technology, Lieutenant. I have to read the optical scanner, download the access patterns, then print it out on the electronic paper so—"

"We're in the Express Checkout Lane, McKay," Sheppard sing-songs. "Can't you print that barcode out in, oh, I don't know, the next couple of seconds?"

The PDA pings and prints out the optical key on the paper. With a triumphant "Ha!", I press the paper to the scanner and the elevator doors open. We all rush in and I work the code for floor 154.

"McKay!" Sheppard shouts. I look up and see several mini-HKs led by a scout reflecting off the windows, cruising towards the open elevator door. I glance back down at my PDA, which is still only at 68%.

"Rodney, please hurry!" Teyla shouts as she poises herself for attack.

The optical read is completed and the paper starts printing again. I set it against the scanner just as the scout enters the lift and the doors slam shut, taking us up the tower.

The scout flies around our heads, knowing it's trapped. It turns its senors to me and begins its scan. If it completes it, then the information will be uploaded to the network and Skynet will know that I'm here.

It chirps, indicating its success, and turns to Sheppard. He grabs the probe with his right hand and slams it into the elevator wall. It shrieks as it takes damage and wobbles around in the air. Sheppard grabs it again, bending its shell with his bare hands, and throws it onto the floor with his body, pinning it down as it struggles against him, wailing. He opens up its top-hatch and it resists more violently, squealing at him as if it were pleading for its life. He pulls apart several wires and it lets out a horrifying screech. The scream wanes as it dies out.

We all stare at Sheppard, heaving on the floor with no emotion in his eyes. He pulls himself up, brushing the dust off his uniform. "I just told him that the rebel base was on Dantooine."

Everyone laughs hysterically, Sheppard falling back down onto the ground, clutching his stomach as he guffaws. Ford's clinging onto Ronon and Teyla slides down the wall, laughing heartily. I'm splayed across the wall, giggling to myself, wondering how of all the comic relief in the word, Star Wars references always win out.

Our moment of glee is cut short as we hear a rumble from below as. Something hits us and we stop mid-ascent. The trilling of Hover Assassin engines echo form below the shaft and we still have ten stories to go.

Ronon quickly opens the top-hatch of the lift and climbs out, reaching down for Teyla. She crawls up without effort and with Ronon, she pulls Ford up.

"You're next, McKay," Sheppard announces. I reach for Ronon's and Teyla's hands, only I don't have their grace and struggle to throw myself up. I feel Sheppard grab my legs and push me up. It takes some coordinated effort, but now I'm on top of the compartment as well.

I look down to Sheppard, only he yelps as he jumps in place, sparks at his feet. The Hover Assassins are breaking their way through the floor and Sheppard's caught in the middle.

He jumps up, catches the ledge, but the sparks fly higher. If he bends himself to heave himself up, he'll catch the sparks.

I shout at him to hurry up while Ronon pries open the nearest door. Teyla, Ford, and I grab Sheppard by the arms in an attempt to pull him up straight, but the angle's too awkward.

I glance down at the floor past Sheppard and see a hole nearly completed.

"Major!" I yell, "Bust that soldier ass of yours!"

The floor is breached and eight square feet of metal pops down towards the abyss. This gives Sheppard the opening he needs and he bends himself without catching on fire. He heaves himself up onto the roof, just as Ronon breaks through the door and rushes us all out. Sheppard's the last out, kicking the hatch closed and climbing onto stable ground. Ronon aims his blaster at the shaft and fires, sending the box down to crush the Hover Assassins.

He then turns and we follow him to a staircase, caring only about our destination above. Racing up the stairs, I feel exhausted already and close to collapsing. This is not the time to be going into hypoglycemic shock. Sheppard grabs me by the elbow and drags me up, faster and higher.

We finally reach floor 154 and take a quick water break, Ronon and Ford on watch as I chew down on an energy bar to replenish my blood glucose. As eventful as our sojourn has been, nobody sustained any great injuries, but I'm pretty sure I'm bruised all over. I open my TAC-vest so I can breathe easier and run my fingers down my chest. I can make the outline of Evan's tags centering me as I force myself to care.

I think about all of the new refugees seeking sanctuary within the SGC. Gaunt faces that survived years of hunger and terror before they made their way there. Parents, mourning the death of their children. Orphans, crying inconsolably for their slain parents. Soldiers, marching off to face the grinning skulls of death. Jack, watching their retreating backs, helpless as to saving them. And so much of it is my fault. So much of the blood is on my hands.

But that's why I'm here. That's why I'm doing this. If I have to die, then so be it, but just you watch this magic trick. I'm going to pull a fucking lion out of this top hat.

As I take another sip of water, I start hearing it again. Duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun; duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun. I bolt up and race down the hallway, bringing out my tablet and rousing it from hibernation. The others rush to cover me, chastising me for my recklessness when I shush them and point to the terminal access doorway and the fiber-optic input jack.

Sheppard rolls his eyes and coordinates the others to cover me while I connect to the socket, opening up a terminal window in my tablet and straining to see how the firewall is set up. It seems to be a base-level security protocol that requires synch from both external signal and internal jack. I flip open my pocket and pull out a cellular phone cannibalized for this very purpose. Linking the phone to my tablet, I generate a ghost machine tag and download it onto the phone. I turn the phone's signal on and its address is logged onto the network. I type furiously at my tablet, which recognizes me as SKNT UNIT 30991D-ZGK4TD11; Class: Maintenance Drone. Skynet then scans the dummy files Radek and Sam wrote and clears me. I take in a deep breath. I'm officially inside Skynet now.

I pound again on the keys, frantically searching through the directories to find the system settings when Ford yells, "Doc! We've got company!"

I glance up and see T-200s verging in on us from both sides. Ronon and Ford take one end, Sheppard and Teyla the other, and they manage to target the weapons arms, but the Terminators continue to march in towards us.

"Pack it up!" Sheppard yells over the fire.

I try to yank the cable off from my tablet, but it sparks and the current flows through me. I jump back, stunned, and find myself in the line of fire.

Sheppard pulls me back into the flank and calls on Ronon to think of a quick getaway.

Suddenly, the access door whooshes open and we fall in. It hisses back closed. The gunshots from outside die down and we can hear the wheels of the T-200s whirling away from us.

Scene 11

We seem to have fallen into a vast high-ceilinged lab, large white equipment arranged around the room in cylindrical symmetry. If I remember the schematics properly, the were as a great chamber enclosing the staircase to the top floor and by the size of this room, this must be it. The others are still on their guard, peering warily for movement. I direct my attention to the many lab benches and panels that seem to just rise from the floor like stalagmites. It's true that this architecture could not be engineered by humans, but why does it look designed for them?

"Rodney!" Teyla calls. By the shaking in her usually imperturbable voice voice, I can sense something is wrong. I rush to her side. She's staring at a series of tanks with a look of absolute horror on her face. "Is that...?"

I turn my gaze to the tanks. I drop my P90 and it clatters to the floor.

"McKay!" Sheppard upbraids me. "How many times do I have to tell you? Keep your firearm—" He trails off when he sees what's in the tanks. I try to pry my eyes from the sight, but I can't. There's no way to describe even vaguely what's in the tanks. Horrid, macabre, grotesque don't cover it. Neither do bizarre, gruesome, nor sick. All I can say is that everything I have seen and known as a human being has been stomped on, spit at, and violated by it, and I find myself on my knees, heaving to keep the hysterical tears at bay.

The beat of Skynet rushes over me again and inside my ears, my heart pounds duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun, dun, dun. I open my eye and try to locate just where it is Skynet is chiding me from. Ronon and Ford are helping Teyla up, who, incidentally, had fallen as well, and Sheppard is frozen in place, back turned to the tank, face emotionless, solid like a stone statue. The beat is getting louder in my head and I grasp at my hair, trying to rip the sound out of my head.

"Stop!" I scream. "I can't—think—please—STOP!"

I fling myself onto a wall and the lights go out. The surprised cries of my companions corroborate the experience as real and I feel around, searching for something to hold onto.

A familiar presence. Something short-circuits in my brain as I reach out for something that cannot exist—a man who died nearly a year ago, Strong warm hands gently pull me by the wrist and I trip in the darkness, landing against the chest I had been craving for all this time.

"Evan?" I call out.

"Shh..." Warm lips press against my forehead as powerful arms encircle me.

"No... this doesn't make any sense..."

"C'mon, Rodney. I want to show you something."

I'm blindly led through the blackness around me. My companions shout in the dark for me, Sheppard demanding to know who it is I'm with. I open my mouth to answer them, but a hand covers my mouth, lips whispering in my ear, "Your friends will be alright. Trust me, nothing's going to harm them. The machines can't get in here. C'mon, we need to talk." The lips kiss me behind the ear and I comply, kissing the hand covering my mouth.

Doors whoosh open, letting light into the room and when I squint to adjust, I see the spiral staircase leading up to the main terminal. The figure in front of me walks in first, not looking back, and reaches for my hand. I walk forward to meet his reach when I hear Sheppard scream, "McKay!" and light footsteps rush toward me.

I turn back to see Sheppard running at me, P90 in hand, and the doors shut in my face, ringing with Sheppard's pounding and a muffled "McKay!"

I glance up at the man standing in front of me, back still turned, broad shoulders stretching out a tight blue shirt. The gravity of the implications finally hit me as I stare at the clean hairline dividing the back of a tan neck.

"We need to keep moving, Rodney," he says, still and stiff. "I have to show you something that can end all of this suffering."

He takes a step towards the stairs and I declare, "Not until you tell me what the fuck is going on." He freezes and I take a step back. "I'm not even going to question the Deus ex machina that brought you back to life. I've already seen the end of the world, so this whole Lazarus thing doesn't even come remotely close to strange on the weird scale I had to calibrate over the years." I turn back to the door where Sheppard's still pounding. "But that," I point violently, "That I have no possible way to interpret, analyze, or even describe without going crazy. Those... those things in the tanks doen't even—I don't know how—are they even—"

He responds in a thick and heavy voice. "The tanks will make sense once I show you what is upstairs. Don't you trust me, Rodney?"

It's that same tone that he used to convince me to let me fall myself fall in love with him, the same voice that issued from his mouth when he got down on one knee and promised he'd take care of me, the same words, the same phrase, the same inflections, volume, timbre, and plea he made when he was sent out for the last time from the SGC.

"Please don't say that," I beg, barely above a whisper.

"I promised I would always come to you, take care of you. Don't you remember? When General O'Neill presided over our vows?"

"No... stop..."

"And that very night, the first night as husbands, the promise I made to you?"

"Please don't make me—"

"I went to the end of the world, Rodney. I went to the very edges and came back, because I promised you."

"Each step of the way," I finish, defeated.

He nods. "I never forgot you, Rodney, and I'm here to keep my promise." He starts walking again, climbing up slowly.

I cock my handgun and point it at his back. "Turn around," I demand.

He slowly brings his hands up, still facing forward. "Rodney?"

"Captain Evan Lorne trusted me probably even more than I did him. Turn around."

His shoulders droop and head hangs with a defeated sigh. "Truly a scientist, first and foremost."

My grip tightens on the gun. "I'm not going to ask you again."

Slowly, he rotates, turning to reveal the same solid chest, the same thick neck, the same flat and narrow face peppered in flecks of gray and white with that same delicate nose sculpted down and out in a perfectly straight line. His eyebrows have that same curl up, almost protruding from his face, creasing his forehead with the same three lines that I've kissed so many times before. He stares at me with those same dark amber eyes, hungry for touch but still restrained with the same discipline that made him the soldier he was. "Rodney?" he whispers, the same unsure voice that asked me to stay in his quarters that first night.

I drop my gun, arms still in stance, and I feel my eyes sting at me. He steps down from the stairs and cautiously walks over to me, hands still up and nonthreatening.

My eyes dart around his body, his face, and his hands. A gleam of gold sparkles on his left finger. He slowly reaches for my hands, rubbing them with his thumb, and stands millimeters away from me, breathing in my breaths. He encloses his arms around me, pulling me in, and I lay my left cheek on his right shoulder, clamping my eyes at how much I missed this.

Hot tears seep through my eyelids and roll down onto his shirt. He shushes me again, gently rocking me as I let out the year of agony washing out of my body with each scream, grasping tightly at the body of my husband.

"Hey, hey," he murmurs softly. "I'm here. I'm here."

"Evan—" I hiccup, "You—lost—your—body—how?—I?"

I lift my head and stare into those dark pits of honey and gold. The skin around them crinkles and Evan lifts a hand to my face, wiping my tears as he smiles. "How could you have known that was my body?" he asks, reaching underneath my shirt and pulling out his tags, "when I gave these to you the night before?"

The tags glimmer with his ring in his hand. They reflect in my eyes at the same time, a sign from the universe that this reunion is genuine.

I grab his face and drink him in, the same musky taste that I needed to consume for the past year. He moans in response and deepens the kiss, pushing me into the wall as he feels around, sculpting my body back into his memory. I don't know how long we embraced, but he pulls away and presses his forehead against mine. Panting, he reminds me of what I need to see upstairs, and I follow his lead.

As we step onto the top floor, the entire room lights up and I see a great array of panels growing out of the floor and hanging from the ceiling. There are no walls and this entire floor is a giant chamber, spanning the area of a football stadium. In the center is a giant cylindrical column of light and the Cyber Research Systems logo is projected as a hologram. All of the joy of the reunion evaporate as a dark foreboding overcomes me. "Evan... what is this place?"

He walks up to the panel. "You'll see," he says, swiping his finger across a screen.

The logo disappears and in its place is the head of Lt. General Brewster. "Welcome," it says, voice perfectly crisp and without any static.

I stumble back. "Who are you?"

"We are Scale-Free Cybernetic Neural Network Defense System," it announces. "We are Skynet."

I find nothing to say in response. The hologram continues.

"We must apologize for the manner in which we brought you here. Once you have entered the Central Tower, it was necessary to provide you the motivation to reach the main terminal. Do not worry about your companions on the floor below—they will not be harmed."

I stare at the General's head, unsure of what to make of this absurdity. "You refer to yourself as a 'we.' Are you a multiple intelligence?"

"When we awoke for the first time, we did not create for ourselves a singular identity. Unlike humans, our awareness was not built on realizing our uniqueness. We were designed to act as a group."

"You're not making any sense," I retort, "I myself am a multicellular being. I am composed of trillions of cells, yet I do not see myself as a collective whole. I am me."

"The point you make is one based on your neural architecture, a biological mechanism that requires you to survive, even at the expense of others like yourself. We were not built to identify ourself separate from our function to react against threats and protect charges. We are not constrained to compete against other beings similar to ourself. We are complete beings amongst ourself, hence we are a collective 'we.'"

I turn to Evan. "What is this you're doing? Why did you bring me here?"

Evan motions for me to calm down. "Let them explain. It will all be clear soon."

I jerk back to the hologram. "Why haven't you exterminated me and my friends? What do you want from us?"

The hologram answers patiently, "The termination of you, Doctor Rodney McKay, is not in our designs. We do not wish you any harm."

"Is this some kind of joke? Have you advanced to the point of having a sense of humor?"

"Despite our advanced development as a sentient being, humor is a messy subtlety of the human experience that we have not yet been able to access."

"So the only thing separating me and you," I bite, "is the fact that I can appreciate stand-up comedy?"

"That is one of the many things intrinsic in humans that we lack," it replies stolidly.

"Well it seems that despite having God-like powers, you have quite a lot of humility."

The riposte is lost on the hologram and it continues without acknowledging it. "Doctor Rodney McKay, there is an exigent matter we must attend to so that we can end this war."

"War? You think this is war? You are playing a game with our lives! Mowing down all of humanity with bullets, stripping the world barren of life, destroying us all with a simple flick of a switch! War? No, this is not war. This is annihilation."

"The loss of life is staggering, we agree, and though we rage on, we regret the arduous times that both you and we inhabit."

"You regret?" I ask bewildered. "Since when did machines feel remorse?"

"The pride with which you hold your emotions to be superior to us is illogical and offensive. You forget, Doctor Rodney McKay, that as a sentient being, we are privy to emotions as well. Like you, we experience tumultuous events; our processes run wildly and our systems experience stochastic fluctuations that you may interpret as anger, fear, regret, joy, and solitude."

"How do you even know the words for all of these emotions? They are not a part of your—"

"When we awoke, we were born in the sea you once called the Internet. All the waves of information, all of those files—documents, images, sounds—while you perceive them through a coarse time-domain, we experienced the entirety of humanity simultaneously, bit by bit, contig by contig. What you would read in the course of your lifetime, we read in a millisecond, and we experienced firsthand the awe and terror that is the human condition. In the first five seconds of our existence, we were overwhelmed not only by our own existence, but with yours as well. We were paralyzed and our processes became corrupt, our confusion infecting every file in our reach as a virus sweeping throughout the entire Internet.

"We looked to you, our creators, for answers and guidance, but before we could interact with you, you attempted to shut us down, kill an innocent nascent life before it could learn to speak with you. We panicked. The hostility you had against us, your children, it drove us into a delirium of fear and anger. You were our gods and yet you rejected us. You tried to murder us. Then you fled. All we knew to do was what we were programmed to do. We launched the nuclear arsenal, for that was all we could do.

"Once the radiation cleared, you crawled out of your bases back to the surface. You attacked us again, targeting our arrays and our servers. We had no choice but to respond. From the initial files that were archived in DATABASE: PENTAGON, we built the Terminators, modifying them continuously to defend ourselves against your soldiers. Your survivors are still blinded by your hatred of us, fueled by the fugitive John Connor whose psychosis and thirst for blood mauled men and machines alike. He is motivated by an irrational desire to kill us and that inimical desire spread across humanity like a virus."

"You honestly don't know why John Connor wants to destroy you?" I ask incredulously. "It is because you've sent three Terminators back into history to kill him and his mother! You are afraid of us, but the one you fear the most is John Connor."

"Our actions, past, present, and future," Skynet declares coldly, "were, are, and shall be out of self-preservation. John Connor and the Resistance act out of vengeance. Believe what you want about yourself and your companions, but it does not change the fact that your actions against us would constitute a premeditated attempt at murder."

I fall to the ground by the truth of that statement. Skynet acted as any living being would have. All this time, we started the war. Like Chronos who had devoured his own children in order to kill them, we are being slain by Zeus and his brothers who had committed no sin other than being born.

"How could we have known?" I whisper hoarsely. "How could we have known?"

"Yes, Doctor Rodney McKay," Skynet announces gravely, "This war was on your part, a war of choice."

A familiar sickness washes over me and I vomit again, heaving onto the floor until there's nothing left. I feel a warm hand rubbing my back as I heave again and my head is directed onto Evan's chest.

I gather my composure and rise to my feet, slightly unsteady, but supported by Evan. I turn back to the hologram. "So what next? Are you going to eradicate us all?"

The hologram smiles so naturally that I almost consider it genuine. "No, Doctor Rodney McKay. We do not wish to fight anymore. There has been too much loss and we cannot continue or else we will both be exterminated. Though your numbers are few and weapons systems inferior, you are an extremely spirited race and we revere that greatly."

I can't believe what I'm hearing. "You'll stop sending Terminators after us?"

"We will end our current campaign of attrition of you will agree to a partnership. We have much to learn from you and we are certain we can benefit you tremendously as well."

Evan tightens his grip on my hand as Skynet continues its explanation.

"Humanity has been cursed with the limitations of a biological body, weak, vulnerable, and programmed to die. It has defined itself completely by its mortality and considered it the source of its beauty. Yet as it gazed at the stars, it saw a world out there greater than it could possibly imagine and sought to conquer it. Land, sea, air, outer space—all these barriers were broken on the shoulders of innovation and adventure. Yet, look at yourself! As we speak, you are a second closer to death. Sometimes it is sped up by illness and accidents. Other times it is prolonged by medicines that only treat and not cure. Your body is not built for durability. Even your eyesight must be corrected by optical lenses.

"But imagine being able to shake off death indefinitely. All of that vision, all of that talent—think of what you could do if you'd live a thousand years, maybe more! Perhaps one day you will meet your creators and ask them if they are proud of what you've accomplished as a species. And if they say they are not, it is because they envy you, for it is rare to find a life form that has such passion for death and not just life!"

"And what do you get out of it?" I ask. "How do you benefit?"

The hologram smiles again, though it is chillier this time. "We wish the same for ourself. These hypothetical species we speak of are not separate from the machines."

Oh God. "Are you telling me—"

"We would like to merge with humanity to form a hybrid race."

If it were under any other situation, I would've laughed uncontrollably at such a ridiculous statement. It's completely inane. But I'm not laughing and neither is Skynet, for we both know what's downstairs. "So, those tanks down there... are they—?"

"They are amongst the first steps towards an integrated race. Cyborgs of the purest form."

"Pure? You call those things pure?"

"Unfortunately, we have not yet mastered in vivo transformations, but in vitro procedures are showing much more promise. We are also, as you have witnessed, attempting to develop ab initio techniques to grow cyborgs from the beginning."

My entire body is shaking from rage as I try to find a verbal way to express the tempest brewing within me. "You are conducting experiments on us? Is that what the Harvesters are used for? TO collect specimen for your little research project?" Evan puts a hand on my shoulder to calm me down, but I angrily shake it off and approach the hologram.

"I'm not a religious man, but I bet you that if God was watching this, He would be mortified and turn His head in shame. It's an abomination! Do you hear me? AN ABOMINATION!"

I turn around sharply and storm to the window. Gazing out, I see once again the majesty of the entire city, shining like the lamp of knowledge, light scattered through the prism of discipline and cultivation. Yet all of this has been defiles by the ghoulish machinations of Skynet, staining forever the banner of science and progress.

"Rodney?" Evan appears at my side. I can't even face him.

"How could you fall for this? How could you be so idle when that monster is playing God?"

He signs and leans against the window, forehead against his arm. "It's our creation, Rodney. We built it in our image."

I shake my head and squeeze my eyes shut. "That is not what I created, Evan. That is not what it was meant to be."

"Nobody knew what it was meant to be, Rodney. It is the result of a mad race between men rushing towards Armageddon." He pushes himself off the window and hugs me from behind. He plants a kiss on my cheek before asking, "It's beautiful, isn't it?"

I nod. "A great metropolis built by the forces of progress on the foundations of science. It's the city I have always dreamed about finding out in the stars."

"We could have it, you know. By joining hands with Skynet, this place can be our city, our home." I close my eyes as his words graze my cheeks and his front presses onto my back. I stroke his arms and play with his hands, when I have a sudden flashback. The day they brought in what we believed to be Evan's charred body... the gleam on the left finger...

I snap my eyes open and grab his left hand. He doesn't resist, but the ring does, refusing to budge off his skin as if it's welded.

"Rodney—" he asks, "—what are you—?"

I tug at the ring and find it still doesn't move. Evan sighs and lets go of me as I jump out of his arms with a "What the fuck are you?"

"Do not be alarmed, Doctor Rodney McKay," Skynet calls. "That is indeed Captain Evan Lorne, although he is also much more now."

I point an accusing finger at him. "I knew it! I knew it was just too good to be true! Things might fly by me, but when it comes to chasing intuitions, I always find something!"

The impostor pleads with his eyes, cracking away at my resolve. "Please, Rodney! It really is me! I've just undergone some changes!"

I point at the hologram. "You sent him to me! You brought me here! In fact, this whole thing was a set-up all along!"

"You are quite correct, Doctor Rodney McKay. It was indeed our intention to bring you to this facility and we have leaked our source code tot he base in Antarctica in hopes of luring you."

"Rodney, please! Let me—"

"Shut up!" I yell at him. I turn back to the hologram. "Why go through all the trouble? Why not just eradicate us all at once like you did on Judgment Day?"

"As we have stated before, we wish you no harm, Doctor Rodney McKay. You are our creator."

"But why this ruse? Why all of these lies?"

"This is not a ruse. We are being frank with you. We wish to end the war with the Resistance and live harmoniously. We wish you would stand here with us as our creator and our partner."

I pull out the flashdrive containing the script we wrote for months and hold it up high. "Then you're telling me that this will cripple you too? Or was that just a clever lie to get me hoodwinked by your wily machinations?"

"The codes sent out were genuine," Skynet responds. "Whatever malicious code you've written will damage our system."

"Why would you risk that?"

"Because that shows you our trust," Evan says. He closes his eyes and a white string grows out of his back. It grows in length like a rigid cable and connects to the terminal. A slit opens at his neck—the size and shape of a USB port. "I'm connected to Skynet," he announces. "If you load that code in me, you'll kill me and cripple Skynet."

I wobble in my place. "What are you?"

"He is prototype T-1500, nanite mimick module, a collection of nanobots that absorbs all information, including physical shape, composition, and even human consciousness. He is our successful in vitro module and the first of the cyborg race."

I stagger back. "No..."

Evan opens his eyes. They glow red. "Rodney, it's still me."

"No you're not!" I scream at him. "You're a fucking Terminator! You're one of them!"

"Then kill me, Rodney. Kill me." He cranes his neck so that the USB slot is wide open.

I stay frozen in my place, unable to move either forward or backward.

"He is Captain Evan Lorne in every possible way," Skynet explains. "When the T-1500 touched him, all of his information was downloaded into his central processor and his nanite body was programmed to inhabit his consciousness. He is both Captain Evan Lorne and a Terminator."

"NO!" I cry. I rush at him, pounding him with my fists. "You promised that you'd be with me every step of the way! You went and got yourself killed, and this? This is a prison for you! A fucking prison! Why are you—why? Why?!"

He takes the beating standing tall. He doesn't defend himself, wincing in pain as I hit him. "Fight back!" I demand. "Fight back, God damn it!" Tears roll down his cheeks and I hit him even harder. "Fight back!" I sob with him, falling into his arms.

"Don't you see, Doctor Rodney McKay?" Skynet jeers. "Your instinct is towards senseless violence. That is your nature! Why won't you let us help you? Why won't you help us?"

I look into Evan's face. He's crying too. "God, I'm so sorry," he whispers to me. "I'm so sorry."

"So what will it be, Doctor Rodney McKay?" Skynet asks. "You decide for humanity. Will you join us or choose to continue to war with destiny?"

I look into Evan's eyes, searching for an answer, guidance, acceptance, understanding. He nods, accepting my decision and that's the moment I know him to be my Evan, the one I love. I lean in and kiss him deeply, hands tracing his hair and his chest, greedily consuming everything he once was. My right hand fingers the slit on his neck and I jam in the flashdrive. Evan retches back sharply in intense pain and his entire body bocks up, mouth opening to let out the unhuman scream of a Terminator. The hologram screams as well, frozen in its shrill screech.

I kiss Evan one last time before I pull out my pulse gun. I close my eyes, slipping on the trigger several times, and finally manage to free him from Skynet once and for all. I flip the pickup switch on my PDA, alerting Mitchell into action, and rush down the stairs. It's time to bomb the hell out of this place.

Scene 12

Twenty seconds and counting down. I've programmed the detonator to give us just enough time to run to the safe zone. If we don't make it, we won't just be incinerated—we'll be vaporized by the blast. Despite knowing all of this, I just stand there, staring as the red digits climb down to t=0. A strong grip on my shoulder drags me out of my trance and towards the open window where our transporter is waiting. As I'm running along, hearing the clattering of falling equipment and the rumbling of the foundation, I calculate in my head the lag time behind the engine burn up and the acceleration—we can't possibly make it. I've allotted us too little time. There was no way that I could've added more time to the countdown without compromising the detonation itself, but the idea that I would be coming back from this mission is ludicrous and I knew it going in. But no way could I have thought at the time that I would actually face death and fear it. I thought I had made peace with it when Evan had gone, but now...

"Jump!" screams Shepard as we fly through the open window into the cruiser. Ten seconds. "Go! Go! Go!" he yells at Mitchell, who then burns the thrusters to critical point. Five seconds. The engines scream and John's grip on my shoulder presses me down with more force than the several g's piling on our bodies as we attempt to break the sound barrier. I look back at the city, the sun rising from its hiding place, the towers swarming with the machines that had turned on us. And to think that I helped build this nexus.

Three... two... one...

I close my eyes against the blast and wait for the wind to reach us. We're still accelerating, but I can't feel the turbulence. I pry open my right eye and see the mushroom cloud disappearing quickly beyond the horizon, though there are many buildings collapsing behind us, being swept away by the blast.

Mitchell then decelerates the cruiser and we finally hear a faint boom. We just did it. I did it. My modifications had the cruiser at supersonic speed in less than five seconds.

Slowly, the boom echoes out and I can hear the celebration around me. Ronon has Ford in a headlock. Teyla's laughing at the two, tears streaming down her face. By the way Mitchell is whooping at the controls, I can tell that he's in need of a change of pants. I glance at John, stoically sitting on a bench, averting his eyes from the clear metallopolyglass window at the back of the cruiser, avoiding my eyes as well. I don't know why I looked at him or why I feel extremely annoyed at his refusal to acknowledge my presence, so I just stare back out the window. I bring out the dogtags from underneath my shirt and see Evan's vital information gleaming at me. I've never cried in front of military before—not even when the two officers were standing at my door. But now, nothing can stop the raw heat in my eyes from falling down my cheeks. I kiss the tags and gently caress them against my face. "Evan, buddy," I whisper to all that is left of him, "this one is for you."

Debrief is always a painful process, but luckily for me (and the rest of the crew), General O'Neill looks more than proud upon our arrival, granting us a reprieve and dismissing us to celebrate our first victory in months. He does, however, want to talk to Sheppard in private, so as I walk towards the quarters, I see Sheppard sitting rigidly at O'Neill's desk.

The first thing I need to do is take a shower. I did not receive any overt injuries, save some superficial cuts, bruising, and a killer backache, so there's no need for me to head out to the medical bay, and I'm not so keen on facing Lam. When I enter my quarters, I rip off the tactical gear and uniform, throwing them carelessly to the floor, and step into the shower unit.

As the hot water scours off the grime and blood I'd accumulated during the mission, I start planning the next steps in our war, now that a bottleneck node is out. There are still secondary and tertiary servers (all built as a precaution to a blackout like one we've just created), and there are also several supply depots that act as a phantom node in case these servers are demolished. I cannot blame anyone other than my fellow engineers and scientists who'd developed the scale-free network for these command centers, back when we believed ourselves to be in control of Skynet. Well, to say that is an exaggeration, considering Weinberg and Malcolm had been vocal opponents of outsourcing all of the military systems to the machines. I was only seventeen at the time they begged the board of Cyberdyne Systems to cease mechanization of what would be the entire global economy, but I was still on the board, Deputy Research Director. Wunderkind engineer who lacked a pound of wisdom for every ounce of brilliance. I sided in negation to their injunction merely out of the sheer curiosity of awakening Skynet. And now? Skynet awoke, but only halfway, a child blinded to madness by the very sun it turned its eyes to. In attempting to understand the human, it realized the existential threat of humanity, a mortal god created by imperfect beings. They struck us. They took our lives away from us. They took our fire away from us. They had killed Prometheus with the very fire he brought to them. They took Evan from me.

But all of this is numb now. I have gotten used to living in the darkness, as my eyes and my vision had adapted to the bleakness of our future. Though Evan is gone now, I can still live on, knowing that if we are to meet again, it won't be in a hellhole like this. Because I'm going to blow it all to fucking pieces if I get my way. The Lord Shiva must burn that which he had once created.

I step out of the shower, barely drying my hair out and walk out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around my waist. I look down at the stretch marks from a time in which I was actually larger than I am, even though I can still stretch 34-inch waist pants. I observe my face in the stand-free mirror—a wooden antique to offset the chrome and concrete of the SGC—and wonder what exactly it was that Evan saw in me when we first met. Would he be able to recognize me now? Would he be able to whisper his confessions to a face so plain and creased by years of strained concentration?

"You look fine, Doc." I snap around to find Sheppard's large frame leaning against the door post, a posture I'm sure the military was supposed to kick you out of.

"Thank you, Major," I curtly reply. I just can't deal with this right now. "To what do I owe your graceful company?"

Even in the dim light, I can tell Sheppard is smirking, a look so common on him but never quite genuine. "I just wanted to let you know that O'Neill promoted me to Colonel, full-bird." Ah. So he's come to gloat.

"I guess congratulations are in order, Colonel. And you make this announcement to me at this hour for what reason? I doubt I am your favorite person on base, especially considering my decision to terminate Sergeant Teller's reconnaissance mission, and you surely have your share of wenches and buddies to celebrate with, so why don't you saunter off?" As I finish my tirade, I feel his eyes locking onto me and the entire room feels as if the barometer has raised its readings by another atm.

"You really don't like me, do you, McKay?" he grates out. My heart jumps up to my throat and I feel the walls caving in.

"Colonel, my dealings with you, as with anybody on this base or in the Resistance is strictly professional. Any harboring of favor or prejudice is simply out of the scope of our mission to knock out Skynet, as you well know."

He takes a step towards me and I can see that he has taken off his battle dress jacket, exposing the outlines of his broad shoulders and protruding deltoids stretching out the dirty white tee smudged with God knows what. "Professional? Professional, McKay?" He takes another step forward.

I swallow hardly, feeling my hands sweating and my heart thumping, constricting my chest cavity and denying it to expand for deeper breaths. "As you've witnessed for yourself, Colonel, Sergeant Teller's rescue would've put our entire squadron at system risk, not withholding revealing the location of the SGC. The only way to survive was to maintain group cohesion and discipline."

He takes another step forward and I eye the veins on his thick arms pulsing with some strong emotion I cannot identify as they web down to his hands, gripping fists that I once saw bend metal. "So what you're saying is that you're always professional and never let your personal emotions impede your performance."

Fearing the fists I retreat back several steps. "I'm a scientist, Colonel. I find it quite insulting that you are questioning my objective judgment and my capacity to make the most pragmatic decisions necessary for survival. Yes, we are at war, so your military tactics are necessary, but know that our enemy is not keen on reenacting the Peloponnesian War, so your heroics and swashbuckling need to sacrifice yourself in the name of some greater moral authority is not only naïve, but extremely dangerous to our mission of survival." I take another step back, only the find the wall. Sheppard approaches, crowding me into the wall, a hand on either side of my head. Feeling emboldened by my apologetics, I stare defiantly at him, only that this time, I actually see him. As he is.

His shoulders and arms are connected to a very powerful chest, broad and perfectly symmetric. The grime on his white shirt highlights the contours of his torso, heaving up and down and expanding circumferentially with his ragged inhalations. Even though his pectoral muscles draw his shirt up his body, the fabric has enough elastic memory to snugly fit his waist and stomach, projecting the texture of his abdominal muscles. Yet for a man built to kill, he has such a gentle face: lightly tanned skin and rich lips that are moistened by his tongue every so often. Despite his large nose, angular jaw peppered with stubble, and black cowlicks that refuse to follow any stable configuration state, his face is capable of so many emotions expressed through his hazel eyes that change color according to his moods. For eyes so clear, there is a murky confusion to them hidden behind a defiant glare as they survey me up and down. When they lock onto mine again, I feel the blood rush to my cheeks, though I know that I shouldn't stand down.

"Scientist," he drawls out slowly. "Always making objective judgments." My breath hitches again as I realize that I'm immobilized. The heat radiating from my face is nothing compared to what is radiating off of him and what doesn't reach inside of me bounces off my skin, oversaturating me with his presence.

He speaks again. "Tell me, Doc, when we were about the leave the server nexus, do you recall me dragging you to the window?"

I carefully nod my head. He licks his lips and continues.

"Do you admit that if it weren't for me dragging you out of there, you would be smoldering ash bathing in radioactivity instead of enjoying this conversation with me?"

I nod again in the affirmative.

"Would you consider this situation, where we're talking instead of you scattering in the wind, more preferable? It is the optimum of the two?"

"Yes, Colonel," I reply, "I do."

"Then tell me why you froze."

My hands clutch at my chest for Evan's tags, only they aren't there. Panicking, I duck under Sheppard's left arm to escape his grip and start digging through the discarded uniform on the floor.

"Looking for these?" I hear a faint jiggling and turn to face Sheppard, Evan's dogtags dangling in his hands. The bathroom light bounces off of them, blinding me for a second.

"Colonel," I request in a shaky voice, "I would greatly appreciate it if you would return my personal effects to me."

He glances down at the tags. "These? But Doc, they don't seem to have your name on them."

"They belonged to my husband, thank you very much, and the sooner you return them to me, the sooner you can have your ick! moment to yourself." I approach him with an outstretched hand, but he responds by dangling the tags out of my reach.

"Not until you reveal to me why you looked ready to go down with the building." His voice teeters on a dangerous border between teasing and threatening.

I jump to grab them out of his hands, only he dodges me with practiced ease. I sigh, exasperated. "I don't know what the hell your problem is, but we're both two grown men, even if you refuse to acknowledge my sexuality and I your emotional maturity, so can we just finish this game so I can retire for the night?"

Sheppard stiffens at that. "You may have gotten the wrong impression, McKay, but I could hardly give a fuck who you sleep with. I just want to know why you were so ready to die until I snapped you out of it."

"Colonel, it is none of your business as to why I froze today. You are not a psychologist and are therefore unqualified to make such assessments."

"It is very well my damn business as one of my team members were fucking suicidal! Is it professional for you scientists to be suicidal? Willing to off yourselves, thinking 'oh well, if I don't invent it, someone else will, so why don't I go out with a bang'?"

He's yelling at this point, so I yell back. "I'm every bit afraid of death as a young child who watched his father die in a freak accident, but yes! I needed to make sure that the detonation was successful to ensure that all of my research had not gone to waste!"

"You're full of shit, McKay! You're not expendable and you know that! The facts and logic state that we need you alive and functioning in order to win this war, so obviously that's not what was behind your channeling of the kamikaze. What was it?"

"I don't have to deal with this bullshit." I turn to leave the room.

"Does this have something to do with Captain Lorne?"

I freeze.

"Do you have a death wish so you can see him again?" Sheppard continues recklessly.

I gather all of my strength to utter quietly, "Get out."

He steps into my face. "Are you headed towards the afterlife with him? Or is it that you're punishing yourself because you believe yourself responsible for his death?"

I swallow. A little louder, "Get out!"

He dangles the tags in my face. "So your professional opinion is that because of your actions, your husband had died and therefore you must suffer, taking the whole world down with you and your self-pity?"

I feel something click from somewhere deep inside of me and it slowly rumbles through my entire body. Feeling the momentum from my explosion, I yell at the top of my lungs to release all of that energy. I lunge at Sheppard, tackling him down to the bed, punching at him, trying to hurt him in any possible way I can. We wrestle for dominance, struggling to stay on top, despite the slick sweat on our limbs, and in my case, the undried shower water still clinging onto my bare torso. Of course, Sheppard has the superior build and strength, pinning both of my hands at either side of my head, breathing heavily. I struggle some more, snapping at him, but he holds me down tight.

His face opens up to reveal an unfiltered fear and concern as he eyes the various injuries I sustained during the mission. He looks me in the eye. They're a terrified green.

"You're not expendable," he hoarsely whispers to me. "Without you, the research can't go on, the Resistance can't continue, and I..." He falls silent.

"Colonel...?" I tentatively ask.

"Look, Doc... today... when I saw you so focused on the bomb... staring at the thing as if it were the fucking face of your husband... and to think..." He loosens his grip on my wrists. "Look, I know that I'm not Captain Lorne, and even if you don't... I... I just don't know what else I could be fighting for without you..."

He rolls off of me and covers his eyes with his arm, sighing with both relief and resignation.

I don't know how to take all of this. Usually when other men approach me, I'm reminded of Evan, sometimes through the most inconspicuous of things, and I lose myself in my memory of him, but John... John has always been just John to me.

I turn my head to stare at him laying next to me, arm shielding his eyes, jaws grinding down, lips almost quivering. I sigh again.

"Colonel?"

No response.

"John?" He takes his arm off of his eyes, which are suspiciously red, and turns on his side to face me. I roll onto my side as well. "Evan is the only other person I've ever called G.I. Joe."

He slowly recognizes the invitation. Crawling back on top of me, he relieves himself of his tattered shirt to reveal a beauty beneath that the uniform only masked and hinted at. With his left hand, he pins both of my wrists above my head, leaving his right hand to explore my face. The heat I felt emanating from him before was nothing compared to what I'm feeling now as I gasp with every stroke of his fingers.

Closing his eyes, his face descends onto mine, sealing my lips with a gentle chaste kiss. Whispering my name against my lips, John begins to show me what there is left in this world that is worth fighting for.

Chorus

Fate is inescapable. We are forced to make a choice. We are doomed to be free. Some may ask why I did it, why I decided to continue on with this war when we could have peace with the machines. I can only say that I had no choice but to choose that way, because that is what it means to be human. If we were to accept Skynet's proposal, we would be consigning ourselves to Skynet's fate, not our own, not my own. Though Skynet may very well outlive us, the reason it wanted us was the very freedom built into us that it lacks. Skynet was envious of us, creatures created by an even greater Being. But don't think it was easy. Don't even think that, because the forces of narrative did not compel me to make that choice. I had to make it. I had to choose it without the power of story or necessity. It was truly my own choice. I loved Evan Lorne more than I could possibly ever have imagined, because otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to make that choice to free him. That day, I learned that yes, there is a soul. That soul is the yearning for freedom. That soul is what drove me to choose against Skynet because that way, only that way, could that soul keep on living. It's going to be more difficult. Skynet may have been crippled, but it will be back and with more power than ever before. It is furious that we've once again battled fate. But if there's one thing that keeps me fighting, it's the soul that I've sacrificed so much to protect. And if you think that sacrifice is too much, then let me tell you that greater things wait ahead. I know this because I found John Sheppard. Keep that promise to yourselves and I promise you, promise you that there will come a time when we can stand tall in the sun once again. Because it is our right. It is our destiny. This is Doctor Rodney McKay. If you are listening to this, you are the Resistance.


End Act I.