They meet the Paria in space, their ship part of Larrin's fleet. At first Rodney's a little wary (who wouldn't be, after what Radek's told him about the nature of Traveler "engineers") but these people have real science aboard their ship: remnants of labs and experiments and technology, some of it Ancient, some of it their own creation and more advanced then the Hoffans' stuff. He takes a tour of one of their labs, which is filled wall to wall with racks of large glass jars. Rodney peeks into one of them, and sees only a murky watery substance.
"They're filled with something purely Paria," explains his scientist guide, a small blonde woman named Nim who has proven to not only be intelligent and quick, but to have a easy familiarity with Ancient tech as well. "Something our people leave behind when they die. Their thoughts, their memories. We are still experimenting with psychic phenomena at a very scientific level - "
"Oh, right," Rodney says, and he tunes out and hightails it out of there as soon as he can. Nim is more-than-agreeable company and she's pretty hot, too, but brain waves in a jar? Yeah, no.
These people are a goldmine in another way - not only do the Paria fabricate glass, they also run a group of stills. The ship's cargo bays are filled with glass jars and glass tubing and artistic pieces and boxes of empty bottles. The stills pump out whatever the Paria feel like making at the moment, and then they bottle it and trade it. Even better, they've taken the small wrinkly fruit Lorne's team traded for on PR-909 and made a beverage so close to apple beer it could make grown men weep and children bearable. Apparently, it even has an effect on Woolsey, who after extensive meetings and discussion with the SGC has declared the Paria welcome in Atlantis.
"Pariahs aren't welcome anywhere," Radek murmurs and Rodney snorts, which earns him an elbow in the ribs from Sheppard.
Naturally, once Woolsey gives the all-clear some slobbering PR-dim bulb organizes a Welcome to Atlantis! party, to which the Paria arrive lugging gifts of bottled ales and a huge still complete with red gift bow. Rodney hides in the lab during decorating time, as it is spearheaded by Simpson, Ronon and a couple dozen Marines all united with the single purpose: it's Halloween back on Earth, so shall it be Halloween here on Atlantis. At first he doesn't get Ronon's interest, but he's forgotten about pumpkin carving, the most knife-friendly Halloween activity. The smell of pumpkin and popcorn is starting to drive Rodney a little nuts, and when Sheppard brings a bowl of fun size Aeros (where he finds this stuff, Rodney will never know) and Athosian nuts and a pile of ridiculous jack o' lantern pinups into the lab, it's the last straw.
"Will you get that garbage out of here?" He snakes an Aero anyway. "Some of us are still trying to work."
"It's the wrong season for Scrooge, Rodney. Anyway, the festivities are starting, you guys should get down to the party."
He's been stuck on this device for a week now. He can't just walk away now (to beer! To apple beer! Hard cider, maybe!) when the answer might be lurking right in front of him like a giant squid or a giant jellyfish or -
"It looks like the flying spaghetti monster," Rodney mutters to no one.
John claps him on the back. "You know what they say. It's never too late to become a Pastafarian."
The device is another one of those they can't imagine why they missed for so long. Radek was particularly suspicious, commenting that first: the device seems to "appeared" for their examination the same time the Paria arrived, perhaps there is a connection somehow? And second, the device looks weird, almost hybrid – unlike any Ancient tech they've fiddled with before. Rodney gave him a few why-do-I-keep-you-around eyerolls, and singsonged "JA-nus. Secret lab. Enough said." And that was that.
The FSM is ridiculously huge. Vast and creeping, it spreads no less than forty-one flexible metal tentacles that snake from a strange (but everything with Atlantis is strange – no need for things to possibly get familiar or commonplace, oh no) cylinder partly sunken into the lab wall. Radek has long given up on examining the clacking noodly appendages and occupies himself with inserting Ancient color-rotating light sources inside Ronon's elaborate jack o' lanterns. It was only the first one that exploded, but the rest of the science team left early anyway.
Rodney would like to give up, too; he's been salivating as privately as possible ever since Sheppard mentioned something about popcorn balls flavored with the Athosian equivalent of rum, but there's something about this device, a sort of geek's come-hither he hasn't felt since he found the personal shield in the early days. He's managed to keep this to himself, but Radek has still been making the occasional disturbing comment about tentacle porn.
"I am going to get the real cider from the outcasts," Radek announces. "You want?"
"Nah, go on," Rodney says absently. He hadn't realized John had left already, and he doesn't really hear Radek go. There is something bright and clear underneath all this metal, it's like it's just barely bleeding out around the edges of all the stuff; it's a thin trickle of light that apparently only he can see. Which is stupid, especially with all the carriers around now, not to mention John's Mr. Universe gene that seems to be constantly present, flexing its massive biceps and generally annoying the shit out of everyone else. Someone should be noticing this, someone besides him; although he is exceptional and probably more observant than anyone else in Atlantis.
He tries tinkering around with the life signs detector for a while. Nothing happens apart from an unpredictable blip that probably means someone's making out in a closet somewhere nearby. He tries an Ancient tool that looks like a backwards screwdriver. Nothing. Finally he gives up and presses his hands against the sunken cylinder, seeking a crack or a break or even a rivet somewhere in all that smooth cold metal. There is something – his fingers find a dime-sized divot. Rodney pokes at it for a few moments, but there is no answering hum of light.
"Waste of time and brain cells better spent on cider," he mutters.
Something clanks softly behind him, and Rodney turns. A faint prickle runs up his spine. The noodly appendages have shimmied silently up behind him to hang like spider legs, curved predatory and close. They are not moving. Jeeeeesus.
"Prank?" Rodney says hopefully. "Ha ha? You've had your fun, now let's all come out and laugh at the pitiful shaking-in-his-space-boots but undeniably pissed-off scientist?"
But there is not a whisper of response. No snort from Radek, no honking laugh that betrays John, no palpably silent humor emanating from a hiding Ronon. No hint of sound...except perhaps a faint rasp of metal on metal.
"Okay," Rodney says, clenching his fists. His palms are sweaty, big surprise. He will not whimper. "Machine. Ancient pasta roller. Whatever you are. What do you want?"
These are some of the most oft-uttered words in Atlantis, closely following "We're all going to die!" and "Ten bucks on Ronon." Rodney regrets them the moment they leave his mouth, because suddenly the cylinder hums behind him and the silent tentacles finally move.
He wakes up in the infirmary.
"Dr. McKay," Woolsey booms, and oh oh too loud - his voice is ricocheting inside Rodney's skull like a marching band in tap shoes. Rodney winces.
"Shh," Keller says. "There might be permanent hearing damage."
"What?" Rodney says, and clutches his head because, damn. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Jesus, Rodney," John is gripping the end of the hospital bed, but at least he's managing to whisper. "Those - tentacle things were everywhere - on your face, your arms, in your ears. Unless this was something, uh, special you had planned - "
"WHAT?" Rodney almost shrieks. "God, no." He can hear the soft metallic clattering again, and his ears itch. His audience stands there looking stuffed. "Well, don't just gawp at me, tell me what they did."
Keller exchanges a look with John.
"Look, all right, fine, I was fiddling around with the thing, but as embarrassing as it is to say, I still don't have the faintest clue what it - what they do."
John scrubs a hand through his hair - like it isn't manic enough already. "McKay, as far as we know, it's not working. I went up to it and poked around and nothing happened – so it doesn't seem to an Ancient gene thing."
Rodney rolls his eyes, and oh boy, was that a mistake – even that hurts.
"Radek's checking it out, but we've quarantined that section of the lab."
"As of right now," Woolsey says, "we have no idea what it did to you, or why."
In the silence that follows that cliffhanger gem, some machine next to the bed beeps and Keller starts poking at it with a frown. "He needs more sleep. I don't quite understand the brain scans yet, Rodney, but there's a severe drop of the activity in your prefrontal cortex. Like you're sleep deprived. But you're not displaying any symptoms, you know, hallucinations, temporary insanity -"
"Great. Great. I don't suppose those delights are prefaced by blinding headaches?" The pain has lessened some, but it still feels like someone's driving pins into his face. "Why can't the Pegasus galaxy just learn to stop being intimidated by my genius and leave my brain alone?"
John snickers. "Maybe you should stage an intervention."
Keller adjusts something on the machine, and something cool pushes through the IV tube into the crook of his arm. "I want you to get some rest before I run another scan."
And then he's falling asleep again, though it's not as instantaneous as the last little blackout. Rodney tries to protest, but all that comes out is a croak. Keller stands above him, the lights picking up the golden tints in her hair. Then more light, like when the cylinder opened - but he didn't see the cylinder open, did he? - and then there's the shadow behind her, creeping hunched in a skittery spider's walk, with the smoky suggestion of claws and pale sightless eyes in an oversized head. It is behind her but Jennifer doesn't see it. Woolsey and John don't seem to see it either; they turn and walk toward the corridor without a second glance. But it is there, and Rodney tries to say something, to sit up, to warn her.
"It's all right," Keller says. She pats his hand, and the last thing Rodney sees is the creature's hand as it descends toward her neck.
He does not dream of the thing. Instead he dreams of the FSM machine, and of Sheppard standing beside it, a hand stretched out toward the cylinder, and strangely, of the way Doranda looked when they first flew over it in the jumper: silvery blue and veiled in debris.
He wakes up in the dark, disoriented and groping at nothing. At first, he wonders why they've turned off the infirmary lights, and then the muzzy outlines of the furniture in his quarters slowly sharpen and reassert themselves. At least his head no longer feels like someone's driving a stake through it. Cursing, he fumbles around on his nightstand until he finds his earpiece and pages Keller.
"Yes, Rodney?" She sounds harried.
"Why am I in my quarters?"
"Why? Because I released you this morning after the last scan showed nothing anomalous and you threatened to break the bonds of oppressive medical tyranny, along with the scanner."
Rodney is speechless. He spent the whole day asleep in his quarters? Unlikely.
"And then you all went down to the lab and talked to Radek, and you got that weird spaghetti monster thing working again."
"What, I what?" Scratch the "asleep his quarters." He tries to recall something, anything other than the infirmary and the slipping-away pieces of his dreams, and he draws a blank. The absence gives him a nervous pang. "Wait wait wait, who is 'you all'?"
"You, Mr. Woolsey, Ronon, Colonel Sheppard, and Teyla was there, too, I think...Rodney? You do remember this?"
"Not so much, no." And yet he does remember something, a figure in the infirmary behind Keller, and then the long hovering shadows of the thing – the FSM machine from the lab.
"All right. Get down here."
"Oh, come on."
"I'm serious, Rodney! I must have missed something. I don't care if - "
Keller keeps talking, but her voice has dwindled to a high buzz. The thing is there in the room with him. He can't see it, but he can feel it, a sense of it; and he can smell it. It stinks of ozone and smoke and burnt meat. The stench makes him nauseous, and at the same time it's a familiar nausea, like a yearly flu, or the time he threw up on Jeannie's new Rainbow Brite sleeping bag.
Curling claws peek up over the foot of his bed, and an icy cold spreads up his legs and over his belly. Rodney clutches the bedclothes to his chest and tries to hyperventilate more slowly. The claws are followed by the swollen heavy head. The filmy eyes open and pin him cold, and the thing crawls up onto the bed. The eyes are blue. Do not scream like a girl, Rodney thinks. Scream like a man if you have to oh godgodgod and this reminds him of a story, one his dad read him ages and ages ago, about the little old man living in the woods, who shoots at an odd creature creeping around his cabin only to nick off the tail. He cooks it and eats it and goes to bed. In the middle of the night he wakes up to a scritching sound at the door, and then a low moan, and - god, can't his brain just shut up?
The freakiest thing is the way Rodney can sense the creature. It skitters toward him slowly, inexorably; and yet it doesn't seem to know he's there. It doesn't acknowledge his presence. No - and Rodney feels this suddenly in a hot frightened rush of blood - it doesn't care about him. It's as if he's a number in one of his own equations; no, scratch that, he's the whiteboard marker, the lights in the lab, the inconsequential oxygen he breathes as he works. All necessary to the whole, sure, but nothing he cares or thinks about. This is more frightening than the eyes, the feeling that even he Rodney McKay is only a cog.
the risks are nothing, the thing smiles at him, and then he oh god he's burning alive in those eyes, the claws are sinking deep and sharp into his belly, shredding through him -
There's banging on the door. The next thing Rodney knows, John's shaking him and Teyla and Ronon are there, and also a pair of Marines with their Halloween masks pulled down around their necks.
"Whoa," one of them says dopily. He holds a big stick. The other soldier has an empty Paria bottle in her fist. Rodney wants to scream at them, don't just stand there, bludgeon it, beat it, kill it! But they look comfortably tipsy and unperturbed, like this is all a great joke, jumping uptight McKay in his quarters. His team, however, is another story.
"Did all of you see that?" Teyla whispers. She lifts a trembling hand to her throat.
"I saw it," John says. His hands are heavy on Rodney's shoulders. "You all right?"
Rodney tries to nod. Ronon at least has his gun out. He also has fake spiders in his hair. "I saw it, too."
"What?" says Bottleneck Marine. "I didn't see anything." Big Stick Marine shrugs at her.
"I will inform Mr. Woolsey we have an intruder." Teyla taps her earpiece.
Wonderful. Rodney figures that the absence of frightening specters that are no longer invisible to everyone else should probably relax him, but instead he's just crabby far beyond normal parameters. At least he didn't piss himself, thank God for small mercies.
He's back in a hospital bed and considering how tight-lipped Keller looks, he's really lucky to be there without restraints. She's convened the senior staff in the infirmary. The continuing festivities are now on hiatus and the city is on alert, though the life signs detectors haven't picked up a creepy creature hiding in any closets. Nim the scientist is there, hovering behind Woolsey.
"Your new scans are still off the charts," Keller grates out. "I don't understand it. Everything in your brain looks right, your sleep patterns are normal, except for the contradictory evidence in the prefrontal cortex, again. You're sleeping fine, and you're not getting any sleep. And you're seeing this thing now..." She rubs her neck. "I think we can assume that the common denominator here is the spaghetti thing. I want scans from everyone who has been in contact with it."
"FSM," Rodney says automatically. "And I told you, I don't remember any of that."
Sheppard shifts in his seat. "Come on, Rodney. We all went there together."
"Excuse me." Nim clears her throat. "May I be escorted to my ship? I would like to help, but I require equipment."
Ronon jerks his head. "Let's go."
"It is not human," Teyla muses. "This creature we saw in Rodney's quarters."
"Well, obviously," Rodney snaps.
"But it feels familiar to me. It is very strange – and very fleeting," she says hastily.
"Really? Familiar how?" Woolsey asks, and maybe it's because he's not really getting any sleep and probably hallucinating or going insane, but sometimes Rodney has such difficulty remembering that Woolsey is in charge of the entire expedition.
"I am not sure," Teyla says, but her gaze darts to Rodney and away so fast that, for a moment, Rodney's almost sure he imagined it. He looks at John, who is also avoiding his eyes.
Woolsey puts his foot down and Jennifer gets her scans, which are consistent across the board: whatever the FSM does, it's done it to John, Teyla, and Woolsey, too, and probably without legal consent.
"My ears are kinda itchy," John complains. Rodney leans over to smack at him.
Nim and Ronon return in time for the results (and for Ronon took go grudgingly under the scanner for another affirmative). They are both out of breath and rosy-cheeked. Nim is clutching a large cylindrical object – one of the psychic brain jars. Oh, hell no.
"Please. I have perfect, well, almost perfect - what's perfection, anyway? Unattainable! Er, what I'm saying is I have pretty strong confidence in Jennifer's abilities as a doctor, we really don't need any Paria psychic juice jambalaya to figure this out, this is an actual thing stalking me here - "
"Doctor McKay," Woolsey snaps. Teyla sighs.
"Rodney. You did not believe in Davos and his abilities, yet he proved them to you without hesitation."
"Sure, fine, I accept I was wrong about Davos, but in what way does that require me to take on faith, sight unseen, every single crackpot ritual and theory from the dregs of the Pegasus Galaxy? We don't even know what she wants to do with that thing!"
Nim lifts off the top of the jar and sets the whole sloshing thing on the foot of the bed. "We do not understand this phenomena fully, either. But the creature Doctor McKay describes is not unfamiliar to the Paria."
"Is it alive?" Teyla asks.
"No one knows," Nim says solemnly, and Rodney wants to snort, because where's the Twilight Zone theme when you need it? "Many of our people have been haunted by it, but not all fatally."
John mutters, "How much is 'not all?' "
Nim continues as if he hadn't spoken. "With the psychic leavings we have collected, we have formulated a theory: the creature is related to the destruction of our homeworld."
Rodney really does snort this time, and earns a collective glare. "What?! Seriously!" He has a fleeting mental image of Frankenstein hooking up the electrodes.
"We believe these jars contain the final essence of our lost people. After our planet was destroyed, we returned to the system and searched for the essence with the equipment we had salvaged. All of the jars contain the same recurring figure - this blind insidious thing bent on destruction, on sucking us dry and then moving on when we are stricken and can provide nothing more."
"Sounds like Wraith," says John.
"True," Nim says. "But there is no hunger and no feeling of sport or hunt, just discovery. It is as dispassionate as it is implacable."
"Pardon me," Woolsey says. He looks like he's just tasted sour beer. "But we know so little about the Travelers' origins. You are the first to formally exchange hospitality with us."
Nim frowns and straightens her shoulders. "We are Paria, not Traveler. They allow us to traverse space with them because of mutual knowledge and resources sharing agreement. But we are separate. We discussed this in our initial talks, Mr. Woolsey."
"But - the Travelers have only told us about one permanent settlement, and you did say you joined their fleet recently. If not the Traveler world, then, what planet do you speak of?"
Something thick and painful rolls over in Rodney's chest as he watches Nim's face - it's a mix of emotions, flitting memories of pride and sorrow.
"Our homeworld. It was destroyed several years ago. I was part of a long-term scientific mission with my crew, and we returned only in time – in time to – " Nim cuts herself off. Her face suddenly looks sharp and weary in the harsh infirmary light. "Now we return once a year, to gather more Paria memory. This is why we have not yet solved the mysteries of this phenomena - there simply haven't been enough time or resources to understand this nature of our people." She seems to recover somehow, in the refuge of science. "No outsiders to our race have ever claimed to see the creature."
Except Rodney, and now the others. "Because of the FSM."
"Dr. Zelenka is still investigating," Woolsey frowns. "But he thinks the Ancients created it to work as a bridging device, a machine that opens the mind, so to speak, for educational purposes."
"Oh boy." His headache is returning. Rodney rubs his temples. "So, the weird brain sleeping but not-sleeping stuff? Help?"r32;r32;
"Reaction?" Keller tries. "The incidence of activity is getting smaller. Maybe it will just go away."
"Is that wise?" Teyla asks. "To just wait and see? There is no way to treat this?"
Keller looks a little put out, as in Hey, who's the CMO here, sweetie? but then the infirmary lights go out.
John curses, Ronon's gun starts charging, and Woolsey's on the radio to Chuck in the control room to suspend operations and lock down the computer now. The scanner is still working; weak light leaks out from the console.
The jar on the bed is also giving off light, a pale grey glow that seeps up the bed and bleaches the faces of his team, and Rodney is suddenly and deeply afraid.
"We were in space," Nim says, her voice low, "and we made a hyperspace jump back. We were fully stocked and the mission had not been fruitful. Which is why we have the capabilities on our ship we do."
"The still?" Woolsey asks.
"The lab," Nim corrects him with a withering look. "We have extensive evidence of psychic phenomena among our people, but our society had been more concerned, in the past, with making physical advances rather than understanding the mental riches and powers we possessed. And we have - had - so few ships. We were returning with resources to further these neglected studies. When - "
Something is crawling slowly out of the jar.
"I could feel them," Nim whispers. "I never had experienced it so strongly before, the feelings of others. They screamed. They were terrified and in agony. They said the sky was blazing, that people were flying apart." She puts her hands to her face. "And we saw the lights and the weapons and the explosions and – we left. We jumped to hyperspace and left them. It killed them all. It does not care. It is the death bringer."
The creature, the thing is out of the jar now, the literal elephant in the room, and this time it's huge, looming over the bed. John's got his gun out, Woolsey has ducked down and is nearly under the bed, but Nim stares up at the creature, and Rodney does too, at how it hunches over them with such fascinated intent and yet does not see or hear them. He looks into the insubstantial face, the watery blue eyes and he sees - he sees numbers, Ancient writing, greed, ego, quick fingers, inner misgivings brushed aside, dear lord is he projecting? Is this real? and he officially makes the connection his brain has been muttering since Teyla would not look at him, since Nim started talking. It is his face – monstrous and terrible and familiar.
The creature smiles. it's worth it I'm sure trust me. It is more unbearable than ever, the heavy sense of evil disconnection from life, the rushing stink of roasted flesh, of light and screams and god, the things coming out of the jar, the death he has wrought - though he is not quite this awful thing, this Death hanging over them. It does not have his imperfections – yes, his inconsistencies, his errors, the bits and mistakes that make him a man, a genius, yes, and a man. But he is responsible.
I have never asked this of you before it's not an exact science. Five-sixths of a solar system, supposedly uninhabited.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't know. I - I should have known."
The lights come back on and the creature is gone. Nim is crumpled over the end of the bed, her arms wrapped around the jar.
Nim takes the jar back to the Paria ship. She returns while Keller is drawing up a storm of blood from everyone, and sits down by Rodney's bedside with a bundle.
"The Paria have worked on creating a block for the nightmares. I do not know how it will work with this Pasta machine, but it will block images during sleep."
Pasta machine? Of course: John. They really don't have to worry about any prime directive in Pegasus; Sheppard practically runs everything he says through his own personal Babel fish.
Nim opens the bundle and pulls out a tiny silver node. "You place it on your head like so," she says, indicating the middle of her forehead. She presses it into his hand, and it's surprisingly warm against his skin. Her nails are trimmed neat and short like his. Rodney wants to cup his hand around hers, to say something meaningful or just, well, something. It must show in his face, because Nim's mouth tightens, and she stands up and leaves without saying anything else.
It takes another full checkup and some thorough examination of the little node before Keller proclaims him fit until his next scheduled scan. Rodney takes the hint and practically gallops to his quarters, the node clenched hard and uncomfortable in his hand. He locks the door behind him.
There's a small scratching sound and Rodney turns, half-expecting to see the creature again – but it's only Sheppard sprawled out in one of the chairs by the window.
"I'd say you nearly gave me a heart attack, but I doubt anything's going to shock me. Today, anyway. Make yourself at home, why don't you?" Rodney flops down on the bed and his pulse makes a liar out of him when John stands up and crosses the room to sit down beside him.
"So. What are you going to do with the FSM in the lab? Zelenka still can't find any usable info in the database. It seems that as long as we keep away from the tentacles, no one gets forcibly, uh, opened."
Tentacles. Noodles. Opened. Right. "I dunno," Rodney says. "Maybe I'll start a cult. Or maybe the Paria can use it, what with all their psychic research."
There's a long awkward pause before John speaks again.
"You have to tell them."
Rodney tries to be flip. "Oh, hey, sure. What's another ally down the tubes, eh? Woolsey will be thrilled. Besides, I'm not entirely sure, but I think Nim might have an idea or two."
"Or maybe it's a way to finally make reparations. For Doranda. For – hell, for Collins. For a planet full of people we never met."
Rodney's faintly surprised that John remembers Collins. He wouldn't expect that. He's supposed to remember the man's name, the man's screams, the way his fingers had melted and fused together.
He also doesn't expect the hand on his arm, or the distinct lack of space between them, or the way John's breath is hitting his neck.
"You're not on par with the Wraith, Rodney. You're not a vampire. You made a mistake."
"Yeah." A mistake that destroyed a solar system and a planet and almost an entire race, and then gave the remaining survivors nightmares for who knew how long, maybe life. Just a simple mistake. John's warm hand has replaced the breath on Rodney's neck, and Rodney really can't process that right now, he can't stand back and say, Wait. John. What is this, here? He's so tired, he can't think about what he wants or doesn't want. He can only think of the thrum of the weapon, the blazes of energy discharging around the outpost, the jumper. Of John saying, if you really wanna try.
John's face is hidden, but his voice is light. "They did give us our own still. If things go south, we can brew up something really strong, kick back and forget about it."
Rodney tries to smile. "Sure." Okay, he's not sure at all. But he thinks that, somehow, John really does finally trust him again. Why now? Who knows? He feels like it's an old thought, something he forgot to acknowledge somewhere along the line.
"All right," he says, and stands up. "Let's go, then."
A teeny A/N: The story Rodney remembers (oh so clearly under pressure, heh) is one of the Tailypo retellings. My mom read me the Galdone version, which looks pretty tame these days but scared the bejesus out of me at the time. It's North American folklore, but I'm gonna assume that great creepy kids books know no boundaries. Also, all the lifted dialogue of the thing and in Rodney's memories comes from "Trinity," of course.