John's military career, best described as a yo-yo, was characterized by high points and low points and nothing in between. It took him ten years to realize that every "Yes, Sir," he uttered had a sneer and a smirk attached to it, but damn if he could say it any differently. He tried, but no matter how he said it, the smirk remained. Fortunately, there were COs who said to themselves, "Christ, that Sheppard. What an asshole. But he can fly." Unfortunately, there were a corresponding number of COs who said, "Christ, that Sheppard. What an asshole. I don't care that he can fly." After he had ignored his last CO's express orders to leave Mitch and Dex behind, he'd grounded John, put him on the first plane leaving Qandahar for stateside, marooned him at Beale, and recommended him for scanning duty in the hopes of breaking his defiant ass. This wasn't John's first stint at scanning duty, and it probably wouldn't be his last.
Despite astonishing advances in technology--satellites can now tell the make of a gun a soldier is holding and then shell the shit out of him if it turns out to be Russian PKM--back in the hinterlands of various bases, it's nothing but miles and miles of gray steel-case desks and paper invoices with actual signatures. All these invoices needed to be scanned.
Rather than having him rub elbows with other miscreants who had their own scanners to feed, his former CO hated him so much that he insisted that John perform scanning duty by his lonesome. The other poor bastards paying for their alleged sins with weeks and months in scanning hell had day duty. John? Not even worthy of graveyard, he got a seven-to-three shift. Some of it was because it looked bad for the brass to have majors doing scanning duty, but John suspected that his former CO chose that exact time because he wanted to fuck up John's bio-rhythms. By this point in his military career John could fall asleep on command, wherever, so no problem. One of those unbelievably charismatic people who drew people to him, he was something of a loner. The solitude was okay by him.
Funny thing about charm. It's equally effective in keeping people at a distance as it is in captivating their interest. When his ex-wife handed him the divorce papers to sign, she snapped at him, "Did I ever know you?" He signed and handed the papers back to her without saying a word. Because he was damned if he said yes and damned if he said no.
Most air force bases are plopped down in the middle of some wasteland, and the towns that sprout up around the bases have no other function other than to serve the limited needs of the troops stationed there. Because soldiers are poor, these towns are populated with fast food joints, dollar stores, and the obligatory Goodwill. The only businesses with a feeling of permanence are the gas stations. Beale was located just outside of Marysville in the Gold Country of California. A cut above the usual military-shithole towns, it had some history, so it wasn't solely a product of the base. Unlike a lot of small towns in that part of California, the meth trade hadn't overwhelmed the culture. Yet.
There wasn't much open at 3:30 am when John went looking for dinner. After hitting the drive-through windows at Wendy's, Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Arby's enough times to raise his cholesterol a hundred points, he was seriously debating just giving up dinner when he saw this diner behind the Arby's. He'd passed it a number of times, assuming it was a business that had gone belly up. The windows had that grime that looked baked on (like they hadn't been cleaned since 1945), a sign saying "Joe's" that was only one good wind away from falling off, and the sidewalk in front was more gnarled tree roots than concrete. But there was a light on, and a sign in the window was flipped to "Open." How bad could it be?
In 1952 this place probably had been the joint for the high-school crowd. Stools lined the counter, and menus were tucked between napkin dispensers and those old-fashioned glass jars with spouts that contained sugar. If this place were located in Berkeley, it would be considered chic. Now it only contained hints of its former glory, from the faded plastic squirt bottles--red for catsup, yellow for mustard--to the obligatory leather booths that lined the walls. Most of the leather had cracked in places, and the cracks had been repaired by duct tape.
Except for a man asleep slumped over the counter next to a cash register, the place was empty. So maybe not open. John was about to turn and exit when he heard someone say, "Oh, you beautiful integral, you." The voice came from the direction of the kitchen, which was open to the dining room.
"Hey," John said in a loud voice.
"What in the hell do you want?" snapped a strangely muffled male voice.
"Uh--" John was about to say "dinner" when a head appeared in the gap between the high counter between the kitchen and the dining room. Sort of a head. A head that was wearing a paper bag. Someone had cut eyeholes, used a marker to fashion eyebrows, which were slanted in a direction that hinted at irritation, two large dots for a nose, and a slant for a mouth, which left no doubt that the person inside the paper bag was pissed off. John hadn't survived a bazillion combat missions without pretty much putting the "cee" in cool. "Food?" he said in his usual sarcastic drawl. "Sign says you're open."
"Oh, for God's sake. Radek! Did you forget to flip the sign?" The paper bag rattled a bit, like the person inside of it was having a massive hissy fit.
"Rodney," said the man who'd been crashed out next to the cash register. His voice, heavy with sleep, couldn't disguise what was obviously a heavy Czech accent. Not old, not young. John would say he was in his middle thirties. His glasses were smudged from days worth of fingerprints, and his button-down shirt said absent-minded professor, not cashier. "I did not forget to flip the sign precisely because we are open, you impossible man." He yawned, stretched, and then gave John a sleepy smile. "We are only serving breakfast. Is that okay?"
"I hate being open!" screamed the voice from the kitchen.
"Sure," said John, ignoring hostile paper bag guy from the kitchen.
"We are out of sausage," apologized cash register guy. "Is bacon good? Two eggs? Hash browns?"
"No hash browns. I refuse to make hash browns!" screamed paper bag man and stuck his head out again. With a gigantic Sharpie in hand, he went back and forth over the mouth so that it was a gigantic frown in an extremely angry downward slant. "You'll just have to make do with toast."
John hiked a thumb in the direction of the kitchen. "He's a peach. How about toast, two eggs sunny side up, and a side of bacon?" John sat down at the counter. "Oh, and coffee."
Cash register guy shuffled to the coffee pot, which John could see was empty. He frowned and then held up the empty coffee pot. "Rodney, you drank all the coffee."
"Cry me a river," came the voice from the kitchen. "I solved that bit in the third order equation of motion that was hanging me up."
"Good, good," said cash-register guy. "Was it that missing exponential I pointed out?"
"No," paper-bag guy said with a belligerence that convinced John that it was precisely the missing exponential that was the problem.
"It will just be a minute." Czech guy pointed to the coffee pot that was now dripping; he shoved a couple of slices of white bread in an ancient toaster.
"You get many customers?"
That got a real smile. "What do you think?"
John sat there for a couple of minutes, checking the place out. It was old but it was clean. There was a juke box in the corner that might be worth a look on his way out the door. The clatter of a plate on stainless steel got their attention. Cash register guy buttered the toast and then added it to the plate.
"He broke the yolks," cash register guy said in a whisper. "Always, he breaks the yolks. I apologize."
Two pieces of bacon that looked like they had been heated up sixteen times that night lay next to two eggs. Yes, they were sunny-side up, and, yes, the yolks were broken. John hated broken yolks. Okay, this had been fun up until now, but John was beginning to get pissed off. How hard can it be to fry up a couple of eggs?
John stood up. Plate in hand, he walked past the counter and into the kitchen, and then held out his plate. "My yolks are broken, Rodney."
"Rodney" was facing a large white board that was filled with equations. Whoa. Genius-type of equations. They were a form of Lorentz transfers but extended much farther than John thought possible. Who was this guy? From the back he looked pretty solid. His shoulders were broad, and if he'd had ever thought about working out could have turned that his natural build into something formidable. John took another look at the white board. So we have a mathematical genius who has a thing for paper bags and can't fry up eggs. This was motherfucking weird.
Rodney turned around. He was wearing a black tee-shirt, stretched over a paunch that screamed triple-bypass in his future. Splayed across the front was a gigantic rendition of the Pac Man logo. Through the eyeholes, John could make out vivid blue eyes.
"Suck it up, flyboy." The voice might have been muffled by the paper, but there was no mistaking the hostile, arrogant, and condescending tone.
John grabbed his two pieces of toast and then frisbeed the plate into the garbage can. On his way out the door he heard Rodney say, "He won't be back."
Right before he slammed the door shut, John said in a loud voice, "Suck it up, asshole."
In such a fantastic mood that he whistled through his entire shift, John debated giving the diner a miss that night just to set up the total outrage for the next night, but he decided that Rodney was so certain he wouldn't turn up that the outrage either night would be about equal. John eased the diner's door open so that the bell wouldn't ring. It was a repeat of the previous evening: cash register guy was slumped over the counter asleep, and Rodney was at the white board writing equations. John watched him for about twenty minutes.
John learned early that hiding one's intelligence often paid more bonus points than crowing about it. People constantly underestimating him had served him well through life. It kept him flying, as opposed to being promoted up to some stupid desk job, and it often meant that he was the one breaking someone's collarbone rather than the other way around. But in moments like this, when the beauty of the math was so freaking elegant and right, and the integrals marched down the board toward a graceful, logical conclusion? Man, it was so sweet. Nearly as sweet as breaking the sound barrier.
"Need a minus sign." John couldn't help but grin when the markers Rodney had clutched in his hand went flying.
Rodney spun around to face him. Tonight's eyebrows had been drawn with a slightly pensive feeling to them, and the slant on the mouth looked tired. The blue of the eyes was the same.
"You! What do you want? And no, I don't need a minus sign."
"Sure you do. Right here." John walked over and pointed to an equation halfway down the board.
Through the cut-outs John could see Rodney's eyes rolling. "Like you'd know. I doubt you can even balance your checkbook. This is--"
"He's right, Rodney," said cash register guy through a yawn, as he leaned against the doorway to the kitchen. "You want some coffee, Mister? I will put on a fresh pot because Dr. McKay, as always, has drained it."
"Yeah. Great." John bent down to pick up the markers scattered all over the floor. "Here."
Rodney flapped a hand in dismissal and then put both hands on his hips to face the white board again. Soon cash register guy appeared with cup of coffee.
"Radek Zelenka," he said as he handed John his cup.
"John Sheppard. Some pretty high-faluting math going on there." John pointed to the board and handed the markers to Zelenka.
"If you want breakfast, I suggest you fix it yourself," said Zelenka, ignoring John's comment and then pointed to the grill. "Do you want some toast?"
John nodded and hovered a hand over the grill. Hot, probably hot enough for eggs. John's cooking skills were on par with most chefs. That's what came of spending most of his childhood in the kitchen, helping the various cooks his parents had hired over the years. Peeling potatoes was a lot better than listening to his father detail his shortcomings. Or seeing his mother slumped over in a drunken stupor with an empty martini glass in her hand.
At the sound of the bacon sizzling, Rodney still didn't turn around but snapped his fingers three times. "Eggs. Scrambled. Six slices of bacon. Radek, four slices of toast!" he shouted.
Five minutes later John wadded up some aluminum foil into a ball and threw it at Rodney's back.
Rodney turned around. "You know, you are very annoying."
John held up a plate and handed it to Rodney. "That last integral needs an exponent. Zelenka, food's up," he said in a louder voice.
John led the way into the diner and was a little surprised that Rodney followed him when he slid into a booth. "Zelenka, come on. Hope you like your eggs sunny-side up."
Zelenka shuffled over to the booth with a plate stack high with toast in one hand and the coffee pot in another.
This was going to be interesting. How do you eat when you have a paper bag over your face? But Rodney had the mechanics down. He ripped a tear in the bag to just to below his nose and began shoveling in scrambled eggs with a rapidity that either reflected his hunger or his lack of manners. John was betting the latter.
"So," said Rodney around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. "Where did you go to school? Because you have that ubiquitous slouch endemic to all air force pilots, and all of the flyboys that I have met have an I.Q equivalent to a kumquat. Since you understood the gist of those integrals..." Rodney stopped eating and turned to Zelenka. John was amused to see that Rodney's mouth in real life also had something of a slant. "Oh my God," Rodney said in a whisper to Zelenka. "Are they going to kill him now that he's seen the white board? Why didn't you turn the sign? This is terrible. He makes decent scrambled eggs..."
Zelenka and John rolled their eyes at the same time.
"Chill, Rodney. I've got SAP clearance, grade 8. Is that good enough?"
Rodney's shoulders relaxed just a fraction. "Maybe?" Rodney turned to Zelenka, who shrugged. "Let's hope for the best."
"Your concern is touching."
"Hey," Rodney pointed his fork at John. "This is your fault, not mine. The kitchen is off-limits to customers."
"What part of 'I just made you breakfast' are you not getting?"
Amazing. Even through the cut-outs John could tell that Rodney was glaring at him.
"Thank you for the breakfast, uh..." Zelenka then paused, his eyes hunted around John's person for some sort of insignia.
"Major John Sheppard."
"Thank you for breakfast, Major Sheppard. And call me Radek."
Rodney slammed down his coffee cup. "You can't possibly be a major. You're too irritating."
John raised his coffee cup in a half-assed toast and finished his coffee. "Better get used to me. See you tomorrow night, boys."
An outraged shout of "WE'RE CLOSED! FOR THREE DAYS!!!" followed him out the door.
It was pretty routine; get busted for defying orders, gear up for the weekly psych evals. Until the brass acknowledged that he'd scanned enough documents or, more to the point, they needed someone who could fly Chinooks in a snow storm. John endured these sessions with the same amount of ennui and stoicism as he did scanning. The process was eerily similar. Feeding pointless invoices into a scanner that would store all this bullshit data as worthless terabytes in some server located in the hinterlands of Utah. The pointless record of his therapist appointments would end up in his file as worthless terabytes in some server located in the hinterlands of Utah. Because John had yet to say anything in a psych eval that wasn't basically a "fuck you."
It didn't make sense to him. They were perfectly cool with him killing people--in fact, they wanted him to. If he had refused to kill people, they would have court marshaled him. But his refusal to obey orders and let his men die was evidence that he had "issues with authority." That he had "unresolved Oedipal conflicts, whereby his hostility toward his chain of command was a manifestation of transference of said conflict." Basically, he had "daddy" issues out the ass. Sure, he had daddy issues. His father was a first-class jerk. A lot of his COs had been jerks, too. That didn't mean he had "issues." It meant he had a low threshold (pretty much non-existent) for jerks.
The brass didn't see it that way.
In place of the bored middle-aged flunky that they normally had him see--a man who was clearly counting down the seconds until he could collect his military pension--was someone who was not counting down the seconds. This guy's shirt was not only pressed, but it had enough starch in it to stand upright. He didn't just have a military crew cut, the standard "2" on the sides, "3" on top. This guy went at his head every single day with a clipper; it was that perfect a "shave."
Within twenty seconds, John realized that this might not be a psychiatrist at all. That this was actually someone with some cred. Maybe real interrogation cred. Of course this was always where the military bites itself on its ass, because John had done a considerable amount of training on how to survive interrogations. Now all that training was proving to be very successful. This guy got nothing out of him, but John had a weird feeling that was okay. That the guy was actually sort of happy that John had done an end route. Just like he was trained to do.
Oh, it was a somewhat friendly exchange. Questions about where he was living (a one-bedroom furnished rathole about ten minutes from base, furnished as in a bed, a dresser, a table, two chairs a couch, three plates, two glasses, five forks, one spoon, three knives, and a large pot and a small pot). What did he do in his spare time (sports, computer games when he had access to an X-box; he was a fucking god at Halo). What sports did he like (John couldn't think of a sport he didn't like, but he said golf). Did he like Beale? No, he was scanning eight hours a day; why in the hell would he like Beale?
There were the inevitable questions about the time he spent a week of leave helping an Afghan village put in some crops. That got nothing more than "Hearts and minds, sir," out of John. And then the question about Mitch and Dex. That got his standard response. "We don't leave people behind. Ever." Which is the bullshit line they feed you until you actually didn't leave someone behind, and then they got up your ass because, hey, you were told to leave people behind. That answer, which usually was met with glares and frowns and a few curt lines written on a pad of paper, elicited a small smile from interrogation guy.
Of course, the real tell in the whole damn thing was he didn't ask a single question about where John ate in town. Or about Rodney. Or Radek. It's often what they don't ask that matters.
John never saw him again.
Even more curious, the other sessions stopped as well.
John went by the diner that night after his shift, but the lights were out. Like Rodney had bellowed, the sign said they were shut on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. Okay, that gave John some time to figure out who in the hell paper bag-over-his-head man, aka Rodney McKay (assuming that was his real name) was. John got some sleep, ate breakfast at McDonalds, and then targeted a teenager who'd stopped to pick up an Egg McMuffin on his way to school, frantically checking his smart phone as he walked out the door.
John caught up alongside of him and said quietly, "Twenty bucks." John waved a couple of ten dollar bills in his face. "Let me use your phone for fifteen minutes so I can search for a used car to buy."
Maybe sixteen years old, the kid had that lazy, goofy grin of the perpetually stoned, but his clothes were standard mall issue and looked fairly new. He probably got the phone for his birthday, his parents not realizing that the kid was using it mainly to score drugs.
"Library's that way." Stoner kid hiked his head to the right. So he wasn't as stupid as he looked. Or as stoned as John was hoping.
"Oh, thanks." John smiled and turned away, hoping that the kid would realize that it wasn't John walking away but twenty dollars. Enough to buy his weed for the week.
John turned back.
The kid began to hand him the phone and then pulled it back a little, not sure that this was a good idea. John thought it was a pretty bad idea, and had he not been trying to scam him he would have told him so.
"I'm not going to steal it." John pointed to a bus bench a few feet away. "How about you sit on the end of the bench and I'll sit on the other end. How about only ten minutes?"
The kid shrugged a yes and John walked over to the bench first. Again, the kid hesitated, not liking the situation but wanting the twenty. Eventually he dropped the phone in John's lap and parked himself on the other end of the bench. Ten minutes wasn't a lot of time, but it turned out to be enough. John could have used the library or one of the desktops on base, but fifteen years in the military had honed John's instincts to the point that they were razor sharp, and his instincts told him--it was almost a form of ESP, except he had relabeled it EPS: extra perception of shit--that using a military or a public computer was a bad idea. They weren't tailing him just yet, but another few visits to the diner, and he assumed that they would be on him twenty-four seven. Mathematical geniuses didn't get graveyard shifts at crappy, down-at-heels diners.
Rodney's Internet trail screamed military contractor. He'd done a double Ph.D. at M.I.T. in astrophysics and engineering mechanics, which was pretty hilarious. They must have just missed each other. Based on the tee shirt, John was guessing that they were close in age. John had done his M.S. in applied math at M.I.T., and there was a lot of overlap between the disciplines at that level of math. Given McKay's charming personality, he'd have a reputation the second he stepped foot on any campus.
Google images of Rodney at various conferences showed a very slender, very young man who slowly began to morph into what was now an older man with something of a paunch. John wondered exactly how bald Rodney was by now, because it was obvious that even at twenty-five, his hairline was on a determined march to the back of his head. And the blue eyes. Yep, not even crappy grainy photos taken with a cell phone could hide the clarity of that blue.
It was the publication list that screamed military involvement. Like clockwork there was a two-year gap here and there. Rodney would publish like crazy and then stop. There would be no mention of him for months and months and months, and then he'd be everywhere. Based on those equations on the board and the trajectory of his publications, Rodney was working on wormholes--a "shortcut" through spacetime. Jesus, this was big. Searches of Radek turned up very little, but John expected that. The Soviets had an iron grip on the scientific community, their satellites no exception. Five years ago their publications stopped altogether, and there was a huge blackout on anything to do with Rodney McKay.
Why? And what were they doing in a diner in Marysville, California?
Scanning had never felt so pointless. The millisecond the second hand reached the "twelve" John was out of there heading to the diner. He didn't realize he was holding his breath until he saw the dull light through the grimy windows and then he let out his breath in a relieved whoosh. Half expecting to see Radek taking his usual nap over the counter, John was surprised to see him awake, mopping the floor. The place had that sweet, pungent smell of Lysol. Radek must have been scrubbing the place clean for hours.
"Major." Radek squeezed his mop dry and then propped the mop up against a wall. "Coffee?"
Something was wrong, very wrong. The coffee pot was full. John hiked his head in the direction of the kitchen.
"Rodney, Major Sheppard is here," he called out. No answer. Radek didn't push for a response; he just sighed and began mopping again.
John stuck his head around the entrance to the kitchen.
The white board was white. All the equations had been erased. Rodney was backed up against the reach-in refrigerator, surrounded by pages and pages of engineering paper. John squinted and from what he could see, it looked like they were covered in equations. Rodney was wearing a paper bag like always, but he was sitting with his knees up against his chest and his head touching his knees. John didn't need to see the "face." McKay's body language was shouting utter despair. He didn't look up when John said, "McKay?"
No answer. McKay's head remained slumped against his knees, but his hands frantically began to crumple the paper all around him, trying to destroy months and months of work.
"Buddy, hey. It's okay. Hey, hey, don't. Just..."
At the sound of John's voice, McKay stopped and his hands fell to his sides. Throwing his head back against the stainless steel of reefer's door, John could see that Rodney had marked tears running down the paper, the mouth not a slant but an "o" in a crude, but unmistakable howl of frustration.
"You want some coffee? Radek's made a fresh pot."
He didn't answer but got up, snagged another paper bag from a stack stashed next to gallon containers of Frymax, and headed toward the bathroom. John guessed that maybe that was a yes. John gathered up the sheets of paper and uncrumpled the ones that McKay had tried to destroy. There was no sense in trying to put anything in order, but John wanted to save what he could.
Radek must have been listening because when John entered the dining room, there were three coffee cups already on the table. John pointed at the juke box. "That work?"
Radek nodded and John fished in his pockets for some quarters. Not many, but enough to get them through a couple of cups of coffee. Small towns like this liked their country music, and John loaded up enough Johnny Cash to last them a good forty minutes.
When Rodney appeared the paper bag was oddly non-descript. The slanted mouth was there and the eyebrows had their usual peaks of irritation, but it was muted irritation, as if McKay were exhausted and his fatigue couldn't help but also be reflected on his paper bag.
Before he sat down, McKay pulled a Sharpie from his pocket and exaggerated the peak of his eyebrows. "Why am I not surprised that you like that hillbilly crap?"
John and Radek grinned.
"Nothing better than Johnny Cash."
McKay ripped the bag enough so that he could drink his coffee. McKay didn't sip his coffee, so much as inhale it. John timed him. It took him forty seconds to empty the cup.
"You want another?"
"Has that music destroyed your brain cells? Of course, I do."
It was like they'd known each other for years.
"Have you always been this much of an asshole?"
"Of course I have."
At the same time, Radek said, "Of course he has." The Sharpie was grabbed once again and clicked open with a decidedly irritated thumb. The slant became very defined, and John could feel the glare McKay directed at Radek even through the paper. "He is infamous," added Radek sotto voce.
"I am famous, not infamous." McKay banged his empty coffee cup down on the cheap Formica. "When you're surrounded by idiots twenty-four seven, it's completely justifiable..." and then his voice trailed off. He began staring at the stack of paper next to John's coffee cup.
"I can never get beyond... I know..." McKay never finished what he was going to say. He got up and headed back into the kitchen. A second later he appeared with his coat on and walked out the door without saying another word.
"Yes and no. It's always hard when he gets to this point. He will start from scratch again tomorrow and hopefully three months from now this will not happen again."
John flicked his eyes over the stack of paper. 'Do you know where the error is?"
"Yes and no."
John rolled his eyes. "Come on. Radek."
Radek ignored him and then finished his coffee with a series of tiny sips in what was clearly a time-delaying maneuver. John decided to wait him out; he had time. How many times Radek been through this? McKay starting at point "A" and yet never getting beyond point "M" over and over again. How long had they been here? And what was Radek's role in all this?
With a grimace and then a fierce expression that said volumes of why Radek had survived the brutal Russian oversight of the Czech scientific community, he said, "This is not my story to tell, Major Sheppard. Aside from the security issues." He gave the papers a thoughtful glance. "You should not have those in your possession. It could be fatal. To you, of course."
John scooped them up, straightened them as best he could, and then shoved them behind the juke box.
"I don't have them in my possession. So no worries."
Radek gave him a sly smile of approval. "It seems that we understand each other, Major. All I can say is that Rodney is both wrong and right. We all know where the error is. The problem is that once he fixes the error, then it doesn't converge. If he doesn't fix the error, it converges but it's off by two orders of magnitude. We wait."
No need to say who "we" was. It was even beyond Black Ops, at a level of security John hadn't even known existed.
"The paper bag? Did they bounce him or did he--"
Radek held up his hands as if to say, back off. As he brought his hands down to the table, he asked, "And you, Major? What is your story?"
John held up his hands.
John returned to his craptastic apartment, and it wasn't until he was sacked out on his lumpy mattress that he realized he hadn't eaten in about fifteen hours. Too whacked to get up and too hungry to sleep, he lay there hoping that at some point soon his exhaustion would overwhelm his appetite.
He hated nights like this. The sheets were scratchy and the room too dark or not dark enough and the elastic of his shorts cut into his waist or the elastic was too loose and he had trouble keeping them on his hips or... or... It was the type of night where all those missions that had gone FUBAR played over and over in his head. Just like McKay's equations, it was all good until it wasn't.
Except that in his case, when a mission didn't converge it usually meant body bags and people bleeding out and heat and blood and the screams of the wounded and the sobs of the dying. John military career was largely about Point "A" to Point "M." On a good day if he flew fast enough and high enough or low enough, he would get to Point "S." John's big goal was to make it to Point "T." Of course he didn't know what Point "T" exactly meant, because Point "S" was a sliding scale, but he'd know when he got there. And if he could get to Point "T," then maybe Point "U" was also possible.
Some of his COs thought he was one of those egotistical bastards who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. They were wrong. Others thought he was suicidal because he was so cocky that he couldn't wrap his mind around the concept of his own mortality. Some pilots were like that. John was cocky all right, but not in the way others thought. Some of his CO's assumed that he just didn't give a flying fuck about anything, which made him suicidal by default. They were wrong, too. It wasn't that John didn't care. It was that he cared too much. It's like when you take a bullet. First you're numb and then you're not. And then you're numb again. Because it hurts so fucking much.
John went back the next night and was surprised and stupidly a little miffed that there were actual customers, two guys who looked like truckers--baseball caps pulled down tight on their heads and worn but clean windbreakers were thrown over the back of their booth. He parked himself at the counter and raised a questioning eyebrow at Radek. He got a cup of coffee in response.
"Hey, we gonna get breakfast anytime soon?" shouted one of the truckers, a heavy-set man with a florid complexion bracketed by graying muttonchops.
"I'll take care of it," mouthed John to Radek.
He slipped through the door into the kitchen. McKay hadn't even heard. He was standing at the white board, markers in hand. He'd written "Equation 1" and that was it. He was starting over. John felt a rush of some emotion that he couldn't quite name. He wasn't sure that he even liked McKay, but what he was feeling at that moment was almost admiration, maybe something as powerful as esteem. Because John understood that need, that compulsion to get it right. How you strap in and how this time he was going to fly fast enough and high enough and low enough and ease up on the throttle just right. This time is going to be different. This time he would save everyone.
The order slip was on the carousel still on the "diner" side. McKay hadn't even spun it around.
Two hours and eight customers later, after John had served up two "Specials," five stacks of pancakes, and a Denver omelet, McKay finally noticed him.
"Oh, hello." The mouth was level. The eyebrows, too.
The Sharpie came out and McKay drew a slanted smile. By that point McKay was on Equation No. 43. He probably only had five thousand to go. John peered through the kitchen window to the diner. Empty.
"Radek! Put on a fresh pot."
This became the pattern for the nights to come. John would do Rodney's shift while Rodney labored over the white board. On the nights the diner was closed, John would jimmy the locks and sit in the dark in the bathroom, a flashlight propped up on the toilet paper dispenser as he reordered Rodney's pages. And once they were reordered, John began to go through the math.
Now he understood what Radek meant. The math was both all right and all wrong, and damn if he could figure out where the bust was. He hit the same wall McKay did. There was a leap of genius that needed to be made, Christ knows where. Between orders--not that there were that many, although business was picking up as the truckers began to spread the word--John would study the board, following McKay's math. Which was beautiful and clean, and it made John sad that he had felt that he'd to choose between math and flying.
One night, while McKay was on a bathroom break, John ostensibly went to fill his coffee cup but in reality to ask Radek a question.
"Hey, why don't you ever help him? Mopping floors a hell of a lot more fun than Lorentz transfers?"
Although a little too close to the questions-that-must-not-be-asked territory--like why in the hell were two genius astrophysicists working graveyard at a greasy spoon in a base town in the middle of nowhere--John thought it was worth a shot.
Radek looked up from his own pad of engineering paper that was covered in equations."Major. I am a very brilliant scientist, but I am not as brilliant as Rodney. Not that I will ever admit that in his presence. He is insufferable enough."
"Yeah, he can be a real tool."
Radek gave John a stern visual reprimand and it was only with great difficulty that John held back a small blush of shame.
"He's kinda cranky," John amended.
"He is better than he used to be." John's eyes bugged out a little because, wow, this was McKay somewhat subdued? "You have no idea. Anyway, we need the scientist but we cannot ignore the man. He must solve this himself. For the project, yes, but more for himself."
"The paper bag?"
"More coffee, Major?" Which was as effective a way in shutting down a conversation as any.
Was he being watched? John wasn't sure. They never got much traffic, but some nights the customers' baseball hats were too new or their shirts looked like they'd just been pulled off a hanger from the local Wal-Mart. Other nights, nothing. Just the occasional trucker passing through or the stoners with the munchies who wanted milkshakes at 2:00 am. Radek whipped up a pretty mean-ass malted. John figured that whoever was watching was moving people in a couple of nights a week just to keep an eye on the situation.
Three months, fourteen arguments about Superman versus Batman, twenty-four fights about flux capacitors, and thirty-five laments about the stupidity of the Nobel Prize committee later, McKay asked him if he wanted to share a pizza on their night off. John glanced at Radek to see if this was okay. John didn't know all the rules yet; maybe this wasn't allowed. Radek kept filling the catsup containers without so much as looking up so he figured that it was cool.
"Sure. I'll get pizza at the Round Table on Main, okay? I'll come by about seven? Pineapple and pepperoni?"
"Are you insane! Do you know what a single sliver of pineapple could do to me!?!?!" Only Radek seemed to get that John was yanking McKay's chain. Yet again.
John's upbringing had been all unspoken rules and unspoken obligations and expectations. Basically, most things were inferred; the rest was conveyed by subtext, well-timed coughs, and/or looks. Or euphemisms. Yep, his family was really big on euphemisms. His mother never got drunk; she got "headaches." His father was never an asshole; he was "dynamic." They were Sheppards. They had history. Their ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. They also were involved in massive stock swindles and illegal land grabs and they operated sweat shops and called out the Pinkertons to break the backs of the unions. One branch had owned slaves and another had owned factories that employed children, and it was all marvelous and nobody talked about it because it earned everyone a lot of money.
John learned not to talk, too. His problem was that if he couldn't call his father an asshole, fine. He just wasn't going to call him dynamic instead. If he couldn't name his mother's alcoholism, then he wasn't going to play the game and pretend that she got headaches seven nights a week.
John was a self-confessed jock, but there were some games that he wouldn't play.
Initially John went into the military thinking he'd found a world whose stock in trade wasn't loaded ambiguities punctuated by euphemisms. Officer school doesn't really dispel you of that notion because you're at the top of a small heap, and the brass encourage you to think you're bad ass and somehow above the messy business of killing people. It didn't take long for John to realize that the military had its own fondness for euphemisms and meaningless protocol. His personal favorite was "friendly fire" for when they obliterated one of their own.
So, yeah, he was back in the land of euphemisms, which sucked, but whereas John couldn't ever wrap his mind around his family's insistence that they had a right to make obscene amounts of money because their great-great-great whatever had sold slaves to Thomas Jefferson, John was still proud to be a soldier. Keeping that integrity intact was getting harder though. The odds were stacking up against him with every passing year.
And maybe that was why he kept going back to the diner night after night. Oh, sure, it was fun to tease McKay about flux capacitors and play prime not prime, but really, it was just so fucking easy to be around him. McKay didn't play games either. Not out of choice, mind you, but just because he was incapable of it. John thought that maybe McKay's genius was so profound that his social skill set was naturally sacrificed as he matriculated into situations far beyond what his emotional age could handle. Or maybe he was just naturally a jerk by nature, and his genius gave him carte blanche because those sorts of brains just opened doors whether people liked it or not.
Pretty much every time he opened his mouth, McKay's insulted people. Even his compliments were insults: "Major, you really are an anomaly. All of the fly boys I've met to date have the I.Q. of a lettuce leaf. What fortunate rock did you crawl out from under?" McKay was often deliberately vicious, but most of the time it was thoughtlessness on a grand scale.
It was kind of endearing.
Not surprisingly, McKay had the best and latest game console. Surprisingly, McKay ignored all the electronics in favor of a chess set that was so dusty that John insisted that they rinse off all the chess pieces before they started. Holding a piece of pizza in one hand and moving the chess pieces with the other, John had one of his most enjoyable nights in years. The Sharpie marked various highs and lows in the game, so much so that it was impossible to tell exactly what McKay was feeling when John finally drawled, "Checkmate"; McKay had basically run out of space to display his frustration at being defeated. In desperation he put two exclamation points on each cheek. John laughed so hard that he got a stomach cramp.
"Has anyone ever told you that your laugh sounds like a donkey getting a hand job?"
"Yeah, maybe not as creatively, but it's been commented on."
"I can't imagine why." Then there was the sigh of a loud yawn from behind the paper bag.
"Need some shut eye myself, buckaroo. See you tomorrow night." John swallowed a yawn of his own and made for the front door.
John's hand was on the door knob when McKay said, "You never ask. About the paper bag."
McKay picked at an edge and rattled the paper a little.
"Figured it's none of my business."
McKay turned his head to the side and then faced John again. With both hands he ripped the bag completely in half and threw the pieces on the floor. All those weeks with the Sharpie delineating his various moods had expressed, somehow, exactly how McKay should look: strong jaw, receding hairline, those blue, blue eyes, flushed cheeks, and a broad forehead. All was strangely familiar.
"Have you ever been so ashamed that you literally never wanted to show your face again?" Rodney ducked his head as he said this, his voice soft with embarrassment.
John suspected that Rodney was talking about his failure to mathematically prove the existence of wormholes versus John's own most painful failure, which ended military funerals at Arlington, but maybe McKay's genius was unforgiving of failure as John's sense of honor was of betraying his ideals.
That was another thing the military and his family had in common. You never admitted failure. It was a sign of weakness and sloth and an arrogant, uncalled for, unjust, unwarranted questioning of authority.
John's hand, now wet and slick, gripped the doorknob a little tighter.
"Yeah, Rodney, I have."
As he turned, in an even smaller voice Rodney said, "Don't go. I thought we... I'm really bad at this sort of thing but... I'm normally not attracted to men but... Okay?"
John's forehead clunked against the door. Had they been heading this way and John had just refused to see it? Had he done anything to give McKay the idea that... Christ. Even if he had or even if he hadn't, there was no mistaking the thickening of Rodney's voice, both tentative and tender, and the want and need around the edges.
"I can't," he said in what he knew sounded hostile and ugly and he didn't mean it that way. He just meant that he couldn't do that sort of thing and fly. That he'd decided a long time ago, like decades, that he wasn't like that. He'd proved it over and over again in bars in crappy military base towns and gotten married in his dress blues and had really loved his wife. And, dammit, that marriage was a big mistake, but not because of what Rodney was offering or asking for. Not at all. Nope.
The sudden rustle of paper caused him to whirl around and he saw McKay frantically trying to put the paper bag back on, trying to bring the two ripped pieces of paper together so that John wouldn't see the avalanche of humiliation contorting Rodney's face.
"Don't!" John hadn't meant to shout, but he must have because the humiliation blanketing McKay's face turned to fear, and Rodney began to back away from him until he reached the wall and couldn't go any further. John didn't even know how he made it across the room. One second he was at the front door and then he was smack up against Rodney, their chests touching. "Don't," John said in a gentle voice, almost a whisper, and then placed his hands over Rodney's and slowly began lifting the paper bag off of Rodney's head.
Rodney turned his head to the side, trying to hide that he was crying. John could feel the thump of Rodney's heart through the fabric of their shirts. John crumpled the paper bag once and for all and then winnowed one hand between them so that he could feel Rodney's heart beat; with his other hand, he turned out the lights.
God, awkward didn't even begin to describe it. John was nearing forty and McKay couldn't be that much younger, and yet it was like they didn't know how to kiss or what to do with their hands. Their teeth kept smashing into each other and sweaty hands kept trying to clutch shoulders except they both couldn't do that. In the end John grabbed Rodney's ass and Rodney held on to John as they rubbed against each other in the dark, gently pressing, searching for friction, because some masks need to be taken off very, very slowly, inch by inch, millimeter by millimeter. Reveling as his personal and emotional defenses crumpled--because, god, he was feeling and he wasn't rejecting that feeling--he couldn't help but send Nancy a mental note of apology. This is what she wanted, and he just couldn't give it to her.
McKay tasted of pepperoni and smelled like coffee.
John hadn't had sex with anyone since his divorce, and it didn't take long for him to go over. Given that Rodney had the personality of a pit bull, John imagined that he hadn't had anyone in a long time either, because he came on the heels of John's orgasm.
"I haven't come in my pants in twenty years. How fifteen of us," Rodney panted out.
John huffed out a little laugh because it was so true.
"Stay. We don't have to do anything else. I just... Well, you know."
John had no idea what Rodney was getting at, but he mumbled an okay. They stripped down to their shorts and fell into Rodney's bed, which smelled like stale Cheetos. Rodney threw one leg over John's, stole all the covers, and then promptly went to sleep. John lay there listening to Rodney snore and thought about masks and paper bags and Lorentz transforms. His final mental visual was the curve of the Earth seen from 40,000 feet.
John considered just sneaking out before Rodney woke up, but John wasn't that much of a jerk. He'd tell it like it was. They couldn't do this again. He was military and he had no intention of getting dishonorably discharged because his dick all of a sudden decided to get frisky. Yeah, he'd just lay it out and McKay would have to deal.
After Rodney woke up, he propped himself up on his elbow and said, "I'm starving. How about getting donuts and coffee? I doubt you want to shower here. All my towels are dirty."
John would have pegged McKay as a chocolate old-fashioned kind of guy, but as Rodney never seemed to do anything in halves, in addition to his old-fashioned, he ordered a cruller and a crumb donut.
"The coffee here sucks," he complained as he wolfed down his cruller.
"Donuts are good."
McKay looked up from the table, crumbs from his donut all over his chin. "Yes, worth the crappy coffee. You coming by the diner tonight?"
It was a question that had about nineteen million layers, and John was sure he was going to say no, that he was getting transferred out, or that he was being shifted to days, or any number of excuses that McKay would accept. Rodney's head was cocked at a slight angle, and he had that googly eye thing going on, like John was being an annoying superscript that should be a subscript. John felt like smiling but didn't because he suspected Rodney would interpret that as mocking him. When he didn't respond, Rodney threw a sugar packet at his forehead.
Maybe John was the luckiest son of a bitch on the face of this Earth. Maybe he had finally met someone who didn't play games and who might be a total bastard because his brain just couldn't or wouldn't hide behind a bunch of fucking euphemisms. Maybe someone who'd worn a mask of sorts and then had had the total balls to shed that mask for him. Stand up anyway you slice it. Yep, a total, in your face asshole who was totally stand-up. Oddly enough, John could relate.
Rodney smiled. Man, his eyes were the color of sky.
The disappearance of the paper bag set it all in play, so maybe they'd been watching them all along. John had barely stepped outside his front door before a team followed in behind him, immobilized him, and had him stashed in a covered jeep with a speed and efficiency that if he were in different circumstances, he might have admired.
They went back to the base. John kept expecting them to uncuff him but they didn't. Which was a very bad sign. They didn't take him to the brig, where he was convinced he was going, but to a transport that took off the minute he was buckled in. Before they'd even lifted off, he was blindfolded and his watch was removed. They kept tacking back and forth so rapidly that John didn't have a clue where they were when they landed. They could even be back at Beale. This time they took him to the brig.
He got some shut eye, ate an MRE, and waited.
They came for him the next day. He half-expected a tribunal with a phalanx of generals, their uniforms weighted down with medals and insignia. What he didn't expect was an elegant woman in civilian clothes who ordered the soldiers escorting him to leave.
"That was dumb," he noted. "Even cuffed I could kill you before they even put a foot over the threshold."
She smiled, a genuinely amused smile. "I have no doubt that is true, but I'm not worried. I'm Dr. Elizabeth Weir."
"Can't shake hands." John smirked and jerked his head over his shoulder. "These pesky cuffs.
"Yes, well, I trust you, but I'm not stupid," she said, followed by another smile.
She studied him for a minute, which gave John ample time to study her. She seemed intelligent and wore simple, superbly tailored clothes, obviously expensive. Just as obvious was that she wasn't military. Emanating an ingrained calm, she was either very sure of herself or had a tremendous amount of clout. Or both.
"Dr. McKay is a member of a highly classified project." She waited for John to respond but when he didn't, she went on. "At a critical point in that project, he had a nervous breakdown and disappeared. It took us a year to track him down. Based on a psychiatrist's evaluation, it was deemed," she paused, "unwise to suggest that he return to his position. We brought in Dr. Zelenka, a former colleague, to provide companionship and intellectual support, and we bought the diner where Dr. McKay was employed. He was about to be terminated, and it seemed as safe a place as any other while he healed mentally."
This must have been her doing. Given the security clearances and mojo it must have taken to insist that McKay stay at the diner instead of hauling him off on a transport to places unknown, she had some powerful people backing her. That old intuition, which had never failed him to date, was now on red alert. Because why was she telling him this?
"While risky, it seems that this strategy worked." She wasn't smug about it, and John's assessment of her went up a bazillion points. This woman was good, and the fear gnawing at the edges of his stomach now blossomed into full-blown terror-induced nausea. "To a point. He began to solve the math again, but he couldn't work without wearing the paper bag over his head, and he couldn't get beyond a certain point, the exact point that had precipitated his initial nervous breakdown. And then one night you walked in." The more she talked, the more fucked John realized he was. Because he shouldn't hear these things. He couldn't know these things. "You've been wonderful for him. I'm very grateful, Major, because basically I'd run out of time. Thank you." She paused and looked right into his eyes.
"None of this will make sense to you, but I am leading a team that has been charged with exploring distant planets in the Pegasus Galaxy. We are hoping to find the City of Atlantis, which was built millions of years ago by an advanced race of humans known as the Ancients." John was pretty close to having the dry heaves at this point because she kept on talking. "The Ancients were brilliant people, and they left various artifacts here on Earth, including a device called a Stargate, which, hopefully, will allow us to travel between galaxies. We need Dr. McKay to fix the Stargate. He's one of a kind, Major Sheppard."
John bit back a sarcastic, "Duh."
"I'm sorry. I will try to give you back what fate gave you and that I must take from you." He didn't see, but she must have pressed a button, because all of a sudden the room was filled with soldiers. "Another Ancient device we've discovered can be used to delete memories. I've read your file, Major. I would like you on my team. I will only take those memories that pertain to Dr. McKay and Dr. Zelenka. They will lose only those memories that pertain to you. I will have you transferred to McMurdo where the project is based. Perhaps you will decide to go with us and perhaps you won't."
John was barely of his chair, a scream of "No" on his lips, when the prick of the hypodermic needle bit his shoulder.
John watched the coin spinning in the air...