Dasha read and encouraged without complaining despite the six month hiatus in the middle of this story -- Kitty listened to me whine for as many months and then corrected careless writing as well. Golly.
Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate ...
(The Tragedie of Macbeth 2.1.56)
"So," John said. "Have a fun mission without me?"
He was quite certain he sounded jaunty and devil-may-care, and not like he was pouting, but just to be sure, he lifted his book a little higher. He wanted McKay to know he had been completely absorbed all afternoon. Certainly not lying here counting the minutes until McKay stopped by to report.
"What?" McKay said.
"The mission," John repeated. Patiently, he was sure, and tried to shift his ankle on the bolster. "With Lorne and his people." Moving hurt, and he broke off with a moan he might not have been trying too hard to suppress.
"What are you doing?" McKay snapped. "Just stop. Do you need me to call Carson?"
"No, I don't need Carson." John reached awkwardly down the bed, trying to adjust the bolster without jarring his ankle again. "I just wanted to know -- oof -- how the mission--"
"Oh for pete's sake." McKay pushed John back in the bed. "Hold still." He curled his left hand behind John's calf and lifted it so he could straighten the bolster and gently reposition his wrapped ankle. "There. Are you comfortable?"
John moved carefully. "Uh, yeah. That's better."
"Like taking care of an eight-year-old," Rodney pronounced unreasonably and plucked John's paperback out of his hands. "Clifford Simak? You know, I think I was probably about eight when I read City." He flipped back to the beginning, holding John's place with the fingers of his other hand, reading in silence for a few moments before looking critically at John over the edges of the paperback. "Hmm. Explains a lot, now that I think about it."
McKay handed the book back. "The mission was a bust. Nothing but dust storms and CO2. We got pictures from orbit that look like there might have been a city at the north pole, but there's only rubble and some foundations left now. The archaeologists are excited, but that crowd really needs to get out more."
"How old was the city? Like Atlantis-old?"
McKay snorted. "Yeah, by a factor of around a million."
"So wait -- what are you talking about? A city more than a billion years old?"
"I told you the archaeologists were excited."
"C'mon, Rodney, maybe with reason. What was going on in Pegasus that long ago? The Ancients hadn't even come to this galaxy yet, had they?"
"Still in the Milky Way as far as we know," McKay agreed calmly.
"And that doesn't blow your mind? A race that predates the Ancients?"
"A billion years," Rodney repeated, less patiently this time. "There's no hint of technology left. No spaceships, not even a wheel or a lever. There aren't any clay tablets with laundry lists, much less computers. You can't even tell there was a city unless you look at the surface from orbit so, no, somehow I'm managing to contain my excitement."
"You know something? Atlantis has really spoiled you for interstellar exploration. A billion years. Jesus. Did you even go to the surface?"
"For all the good it did us. That reminds me, I brought you a present." McKay fished in his pocket and produced an irregularly-shaped black pebble with a sheen like hematite. "For your scrapbook. From the oldest city discovered to date in the Pegasus Galaxy."
John took it, feeling absurdly pleased. "Thanks. That was actually kind of thoughtful." The stone was smooth and heavy in his hand, warm from McKay's pocket.
McKay lifted his eyebrows. "I was just trying to avoid your moping over Lorne taking the mission."
"I don't mope."
"Of course not, Colonel." He stood up. "I need dinner before I go to the lab for a couple of hours. Today's mission put me behind on everything, per usual."
John was still rolling the stone in his palm. "You mind bringing me back a sandwich? Maybe a salad? Carson's people inevitably serve casseroles, and there's only so much green bean casserole I can eat in one lifetime."
McKay scowled. "Very busy man here."
"Aw, come on."
John was pretty sure he wasn't trying to look pitiful, but McKay's expression softened. "I'll see if I have time."
And suddenly the black stone in John's palm began to vibrate. It was only a gentle thrum, but it startled the hell out of him. "What the --" He opened his hand and McKay leaned in.
"What is it?"
"I don't know. It almost feels like it's throbbing."
"It's probably your own pulse reflected back," McKay grumbled dismissively, but he extended his own hand to take it from John.
Then the sound started, high-pitched as the struck rim of crystal stemware. "What are you doing?" McKay squawked.
"I'm not doing anything!" The ringing grew louder, swelling to the edges of the room. He reflexively dropped the stone into McKay's outstretched hand.
"Gah!" McKay jerked his hand away violently. The stone hit the wall behind John's bed and rolled a short distance across the floor. The ringing sound became so attenuated John couldn't tell whether the stone itself was still ringing, or if it was just his ear drums continuing to vibrate. It was a crawlingly unpleasant feeling, making him want to stick his fingers in his ears and somehow drag out that thin worm of sound. McKay was violently shaking his hand as though he'd been burned or stung, and calling on his headset for a hazmat team.
"Are you all right?" John asked. He could still hear the ringing, though it was growing fainter.
"Who knows what that thing may have done to my hearing! And what did you mean by throwing it at me like that?"
"I didn't throw it at you. And you're the one who brought an untested device in here in the first place."
Carson stuck his head in the door. "Rodney, I told you the colonel needs peace and quiet."
"Get out!" John and McKay bellowed simultaneously. Carson leaped a foot backwards.
"We have a team on the way," John said, at the same time McKay exclaimed, "It was not untested and it is not a device. It's a rock. Iron oxide, trigonal system crystals, conchoidal, not radioactive and definitely not a mechanism."
Which was when the team arrived in orange, level-A, full encapsulation suits. John never did get a sandwich or a salad, but around 1900 hours Corporal Brandstetter brought him a serving of broccoli casserole with Cheez-It cracker topping. There was tapioca pudding for desert.
Elizabeth was breakfasting by herself at a table by the windows, watching the rain slash across the empty balcony when Dr. Zelenka approached, his own breakfast tray in hand. "May I join you?" he asked with the slightly exaggerated courtesy he always seemed to use around her. "I have a preliminary report on Colonel Sheppard's singing stone if you are interested."
"Colonel Sheppard's-- oh! The artifact Rodney brought back from M9X-963."
"Please, have a seat."
"Thank you." He pulled up a chair. On his tray was a bowl of yogurt made from milk from the Athosian herd animals. Someone else who didn't care for chipped beef and powdered eggs, even if they did come from Earth. "First of all, it is definitely a rock, not an artifact. Despite the unusual resonance it appears to have demonstrated in Colonel Sheppard's infirmary room, we have found no evidence that it was an artificial construction."
"Ah, well." Elizabeth's shoulders slumped. "Hard not to be disappointed, isn't it? At least a little bit. Imagine an artifact from a race who were here before the Ancients."
"Well, we have found their planet and the foundations of a city. Perhaps there is more to be found." Dr. Zelenka stirred a handful of the wild blackberries they imported from M7G-677 into his yogurt. A sudden gust of rain smashed against the window panes, startling them both.
"This is an awful storm," Elizabeth said. "I don't remember it being forecast." The last two years, they had been very careful about monitoring the weather.
"I believe it blew up very suddenly yesterday evening. Dr. Hinkle thinks it may be related to an unseasonable low pressure system in the eastern hemisphere."
"I had the weirdest dream last night," Rodney announced loudly, walking up and dropping his tray beside Elizabeth's. His plate brimmed with reconstituted scrambled eggs and creamed beef ladled thickly over four slices of toast.
"Dr. Weir and I were discussing the weather," Dr. Zelenka said mildly.
Rodney glanced up. "Yes, it's raining. That's fascinating. As I was saying, the weirdest dream. I was walking down a corridor at World Con. I had my badge on, but I'm not sure if I was in Denver or Los Angeles. It would depend on the year." Rodney stopped to fork a bite of toast, sagging with peppery white sauce, into his mouth.
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth asked,"'World Con'?"
"Right," Rodney agreed, talking around the bite in his mouth."I was hurrying to a Larry Niven panel which narrows it down by what, only about fifty years?"
Dr. Zelenka made restrained get-on-with-it motions with both hands.
"The funny thing is, Sheppard was on the way to the same panel, but he was walking a little bit behind me so I couldn't quite see him. Finally I asked him about Wavyhill's null magic defense, and when he didn't answer I looked back and it wasn't Sheppard at all. Or it sort of was, but his face wasn't right. He was wearing scrubs from the infirmary, and he was hopping and staggering like his knees were jointed backwards."
Rodney went back to his creamed beef. Elizabeth exchanged a glance with Dr. Zelenka. "And then?" Zelenka prompted at last.
"And then I woke up. I'm telling you." McKay spread his hands across the table, evidently as an illustration of his emotional upset. "Completely freaked out."
"Perhaps your dream was related to the rock from M9X-963?" Elizabeth suggested. "I understand it gave both you and John quite a surprise in the infirmary last night."
Rodney bristled. "Well, it might have been the relic of a billion-year-old civilization, and it's not like the Ancients haven't left behind a nasty surprise or three themselves."
"No one is questioning your bravery," Dr. Zelenka said with a smirk that obviously did.
With a suspicious glance in Zelenka's direction, Rodney snapped, "And by the way, what kind of a report is that on the rock's crystal system? It's rhombohedral. Where do you and Dr. Pretense get off claiming it has a face-centered lattice?"
"The woman's name is Preiss, and yes, we acknowledge the seeming irregularity in the crystallographic point group."
"Is that John's rock you're talking about?" Elizabeth asked.
"Irregular?" Rodney snorted. "Try physical impossibility."
"Yes." Dr. Zelenka tried to answer her. "We have some questions about its atomic structure, but there's no question it is in fact a rock, not a device or an artifact. Rodney, there are an infinite number of possible 3D points, and just because --"
"Thank you for the geometry lecture. So glad to know you're a crystallographer now. "
"Dr. Preiss is a crystallographer --"
"In that case, gentlemen, I leave you to it," Elizabeth said as she rose to go, expecting her leave-taking to be ignored. It was, save for an apologetic half-smile from Dr. Zelenka.
"In what universe would those points not be compatible with discrete translation symmetries?" Rodney snapped.
"We are talking, at most, about a minor aberration in the axial system."
Rain smashed against the windows, drowning out the men's voices as Elizabeth moved away. She had just decided she would go to see when Dr. Beckett would be releasing John from the infirmary, when someone brushed past her in the corridor outside the mess. She stumbled in surprise and turned back to see John had already been released. He was standing in white scrubs behind Rodney's chair.
All right, that was odd. Elizabeth wondered if Carson had really released him. It seemed far more likely that John had simply wandered away on his own.
"Elizabeth," Laura Cadman met her in the doorway. "Poker tonight at 2100. Tell me we can count on you to be there."
"Oh, no, I'm sorry. I think I need an early night this week."
"Aw, come on. You're the best hope we have of stopping the Katie Brown steamroller."
"You'll have to manage without me, I'm afraid."
"We'll save a seat for you in case you change your mind."
"Thank you -- oh. Where did Colonel Sheppard go?"
"Ma'am?" Suddenly at attention, Laura looked over her shoulder and then back at Elizabeth.
"I could have sworn John was right there. At Drs. McKay's and Zelenka's table." Their argument was still going strong, words like "Bravais lattice" and "primitive centering" drifting across the half-empty mess hall, but of John Sheppard there was no sign at all.
"I'm pretty sure he's still in the infirmary. I heard Carson say he wasn't going to let him put any weight on his ankle for another day or two."
"That was my understanding," Elizabeth agreed slowly. There was no way anyone could have vanished so quickly, far less a man on crutches. The rain threw watery shadows over the diners, a gloomy half-light seeping to the farthest corners of the usually bright and airy room. "My eyes must be playing tricks." She smiled at Cadman. "See? I told you I needed to get more sleep."
"Good grief, Jinto! Have they been putting magical grow-weed in your vegetables?"
Six feet tall and gawky as a scarecrow, all knees and elbows, Jinto scuffed at the floor. "No such thing," he muttered, and John couldn't tell if he was smiling or not. From a guileless, wide-eyed kid, Jinto had grown into a teenager over the past two years.
"And who's this?"
The toddler clutching Teyla's hand buried his face against the side of her leg, but when Teyla said, "This is Signy," he looked up again. John waved, and Signy cautiously waved back. "He is Jinto's little brother."
"No kidding? That's great. Give Halling my congratulations when you return to the mainland. Teyla, you're letting me down. I didn't know Halling had gotten married again."
Jinto's head came up, and he stared at John in open dismay. Teyla was more politic, but her brows drew together. "Halling has not accepted a marriage proposal. Though the years have passed, he still grieves the loss of Jinto's mother."
"Right. Of course," John managed, thinking blackly that Teyla might have warned him. Remarriage? Obviously not cool. Having babies with your girlfriend? Apparently A-OK. One of those moments that reminded John that, just maybe, diplomacy was about more than the maddening tendency to veto an imminently reasonable military response.
"Signy," John tried again, hoping to move past his faux pas. "What do you think of Atlantis so far?"
The child pressed closer to Teyla. "I don't know," he whispered.
"Well, it's a lot to take in at once. What are your plans for today?"
"I don't know," Signy said again, even more softly than before.
Teyla prompted gently, "Signy, you remember what we talked about. Flowers? The sun?"
Signy shook his head.
"Dr. Parrish is going to show us the plants blooming in the arboretum, and then Dr. McKay is going to let us look at the sun through a special telescope. Do you remember?"
The child shrugged.
"Wow." John grinned. "McKay actually volunteered for that?"
"Once we discussed the matter, Dr. McKay agreed that Athosian children needed education in astronomy as well as botany." Teyla smiled slyly and John laughed out loud.
"Good deal. Signy, you and Jinto be sure and ask Dr. McKay lots of questions, all right?"
Jinto was still looking at John like he was seven kinds of a jerk.
So apparently John was just going to have to bite the bullet on this one. He closed his eyes briefly. "Look. Jinto. What I said before about your dad. I didn't mean to insult Halling, or you and Signy, or anything like that. It's just that our people have some different customs, and I jumped to a conclusion I shouldn't have made. Hey, I grew up in a different galaxy. You'll just have to cut me a break sometimes."
Then Teyla shook her head. "No, John, the mistake is mine. I had forgotten how severely your people restrict terms of kinship." She turned to Jinto. "Among Colonel Sheppard's people, 'brother' means only --" She thought for a moment. "'Litter-mate,' really. So when I introduced Signy as your brother, he assumed Halling must have sired him."
"Thanks, Teyla," John said, trying not to wince. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a conversation about Halling siring anyone.
Jinto looked just as uncomfortable, but he covered by reaching down and swinging Signy up onto his shoulders. The little boy gave a yell of delight. "We both have an aunt on our mothers' sides who is of Charin's line," he explained to John. "That is what makes Signy my brother."
"Right, it's obvious now."
Teyla smiled. "It would not be polite to keep Dr. Parrish waiting."
"You guys have fun. Jinto, don't be a stranger, and Signy, you listen to your brother. He's a good guy."
That made Jinto beam. As they walked to the door, Signy still on Jinto's shoulders, Teyla said, "And you're looking much better, John."
"Yeah, feeling better, too. But not good enough to ask what the Athosians mean by 'aunt,' or God forbid, 'second cousin'."
Radek took his time getting to the mess that evening, taking a transporter to the top of one of the observation towers, then following the breezeway that crossed over the western pier. The rain was still pouring down, and the ocean was a wild and angry shade of green as it swelled against the pilings far below. The wind in his face was wet and cold, but the water on the causeway reflected all the lights of Atlantis back to him.
How glorious to be back in the city, he thought, not for the first time. And just a few months ago Atlantis had seemed lost to them forever.
Radek prided himself on his practicality. He was no starry-eyed romantic like Rodney McKay, always baying after the next great discovery, but there were moments when even he felt almost overwhelmed by the promise of this place. He tried sternly to remind himself that he was just as likely to die here as he had ever been, but it still felt like home.
He heard footsteps pounding up the breezeway behind him and moved forward without looking back to get out of the way. This was a popular route for runners. But the heavy footfalls slowed to a stop and Ronon appeared beside him at the railing, glowing from exercise and in high good humor. "Doc," he laughed, rain in his hair, sweat on his face. He slapped Radek on the shoulder. "McKay finally let you out of the dungeon?"
This was a very old joke. "Rodney McKay is my supervisor, not my taskmaster," Radek recited dutifully, and Ronon roared with laughter.
"Right, just don't tell McKay that. He's been supervising with a hell of a vengeance today, hasn't he?"
Radek cracked a momentary smile. "Where did you hear that?"
"Ran into Haidara who had lunch with Simpson who said McKay'd been biting off heads all morning. They're talking about taking up a collection to bribe Carson."
"Bribe him to do what?"
"Release Sheppard for offworld missions so he'll take McKay with him."
"Broken leg and all," Radek said. "Yes, that seems so very likely."
"Just his ankle that's busted. He'd be OK."
"Oh, yes, Dr. Carson is sure to sign off on Colonel Sheppard on crutches just to get Rodney out of the laboratory. Besides," Radek shrugged, "Rodney is not so bad. There was an incident with an Athosian child this morning that unsettled him, I think. He will be fine by tomorrow."
"Teyla said something about that," Ronon remembered. "She talked McKay into showing the kids a telescope, right? What went wrong?"
"Something always goes wrong with children. That is why they have no place in the laboratory. Do you know if they are serving barbecue chicken in the mess tonight?"
A wing and a thigh, a serving of green bean casserole, fruit cocktail and two ersatz, slightly soggy oreo cookies for dessert. John ate it all, but he sulked about it. McKay would have brought him barbecued legs and chocolate pudding, but he hadn't been by all day. Ronon came to see him after dinner and brought him an apple. John thanked him even though it didn't make up for green bean casserole, and Ronon filled John in on the latest gossip.
Teyla looked in on him just before bedtime, mercifully interrupting a screed from Corporal Brandstetter, who was accusing John of stealing the scrubs he'd been wearing yesterday.
"I told Dr. Carson if we switched to white we'd start losing the gowns and the scrubs. I spent five years in a teaching hospital. I know how people are. Tell people they can't have something, and suddenly everybody and his brother is walking out with them. We didn't have that problem when we put the patients in red."
"In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been walking anywhere lately," John defended himself and shot a beseeching look at Teyla.
"Indeed, John has not been walking unassisted since he stepped in a gopher hole on M7K-234 while attempting to demonstrate a 'forward pass.'" Teyla agreed altogether too readily.
"It wasn't a gopher hole," John protested, betrayed. "The ground was unstable."
"Gopher holes will do that to the ground," Brandstetter said, "And if you don't produce your scrubs, we can't launder them for you. It's your decision, sir."
"Thank you," John growled back, but at least the corporal left him in peace. He turned his glare on Teyla. "Way to back me up, there. What happened to standing up for your team?"
Her smile was far too innocent. "But we were not discussing standing up."
"I think you've been hanging out with Rodney too much lately. Speaking of, what happened in the lab this morning with Jinto and Signy? I heard it didn't go so well. McKay pitch a fit? I hope he didn't upset Signy too much."
Teyla frowned. "Although McKay was somewhat impatient with Signy and Jinto, I thought he restrained himself admirably. In fact, he was almost as enthusiastic as the children to be showing off the solar telescope."
John was smiling."On his best behavior, eh? I would have liked to have been there."
"The problem came while we were in the observatory. It is a large, dimly lit space, and Signy claimed to see you, John, walking behind Dr. McKay. There was clearly no one there but ourselves, but Signy became so upset at our questioning him, I was afraid he would make himself ill. He was fine as soon as we returned to the mainland, but I believe Dr. McKay was quite disappointed."
"Oh, damn," John said. "The poor kid must be really upset with me for misunderstanding the whole brother thing. Now I'm his personal boogeyman."
Teyla sighed. "Children are often very sensitive to the smallest matters, but Jinto and Signy will return in a few days. Rodney will demonstrate his telescope then, and all will be forgotten."
Evan Lorne looked up, startled. For such a loud guy, Rodney McKay could actually be pretty damned sneaky when he put his mind to it. "Dr. McKay. What can I do for you?"
McKay scowled and crossed his arms over his chest, doing a fair job of filling the door to Lorne's office. "As if you really have to ask."
Oookay. Evan pasted a smile on his face. "You know you can always call me if you have a concern. I want to be sure everything runs as smoothly as possible while Colonel Sheppard is off duty."
"Really?" McKay snorted. "I'm giving you one chance for amnesty here."
Evan blinked. "Is this a joke?"
"Do you see me laughing, Major? You tell me who thought it would be funny to gaslight Atlantis' chief scientist, and depending on your degree of culpability, I might decide to go easy on you. Otherwise, I assure you, you're about to find the entire Pegasus Galaxy a very cold and lonely place."
Lorne realized his jaw was hanging open and snapped it shut before squeaking, "Excuse me?"
"Wrong answer." McKay was out of the office and halfway down the corridor before Evan bolted out of his seat and flew after him, planting himself in front of McKay before he could step into the open transporter.
"Dr. McKay! Would you please hold on for just --"
"Out of my way, Major."
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about."
Another dismissive snort from McKay. "That's part of the joke, isn't it? Getting me to explain what's going on. Well, no, thank you. I've already had one sleepless night, and I'm not in the mood to play games any more."
McKay stepped to one side and Evan stepped with him, continuing to block his path when McKay gave a little hop in the opposite direction. It would have been funny, except for the way McKay's hands were curled into fists, his eyes so red he could have been on the verge of tears.
"If you would just calm down a moment--"
He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but by then the damage was done. Twin spots of color appeared on McKay's cheeks, and his hand darted up to his comm. "I'm calling security."
Evan took a step back, though he didn't get out of the way. This was not going to escalate to the point where he had to summon Col. Sheppard. It just wasn't.
"You're going to call the Marines," Evan said in his most reasonable voice. "To report a security problem with me. Do you really believe Sergeant Kushner is going to be easier to talk to than I am? Seriously?"
McKay glared, but he didn't snap back an immediate answer, which gave Evan hope. He pressed on. "Right now I don't even understand the nature of the problem. Someone is gaslighting you? What does that even mean?"
McKay finally blinked. "You've never seen Gaslight? Ingrid Bergman? Joseph Cotton as the policeman who finally believes her crazy story?"
Lord give me strength, Evan thought. Or really, just patience. Lots and lots of patience. "I guess I don't get out much, Dr. McKay."
That finally seemed to work. This time McKay sighed in exasperation instead of rage. "Is that what the Air Force does to all its best and brightest? I found out the other day that Colonel Sheppard hasn't even seen Kiss Me Deadly. Please. A man that infatuated with atomic nihilism?"
By this point, Evan was more than half wondering if he should steer McKay down to see Dr. Heightmeyer. "Gaslighting?" he tried again.
McKay gave him another sharp glance, but in the end he turned and stomped back towards Evan's office anyway. "This doesn't mean I believe you," he cautioned direly.
Evan followed him. "A cold and lonely galaxy awaits. I know, I know."
Six hours later, Evan was sitting at Dr. Weir's desk. Half a lifetime of military training kept him starkly upright in his chair, when what he really wanted to do was bury his head in his hands. But he gratefully accepted the cup of tea Dr. Weir poured for him. She smiled and took a slight sip from her own cup. Then she got down to business, polite and brutal. "You've been very careful so far not to give me your own opinion of the matter. But as I understand you, we either have a potentially serious malfunction here in Atlantis, or our chief scientist is suffering from delusions." She didn't lose her smile, but the crinkles around her eyes were not laugh lines.
"Three options, actually. Dr. McKay first believed he was the victim of an elaborate practical joke."
"And do you think that's a possibility?"
"No ma'am, I don't. I don't believe Dr. McKay seriously considers it possible either. He was just a little on edge when he came to see me this morning. He had gotten it into his head that some of the military personnel had it in for him."
"And once Drs. McKay and Zelenka reviewed the type of programming that would have been required, they decided this couldn't be the work of military personnel?"
"As I understood them, they thought it was beyond the ability of most of the scientists on Atlantis as well."
"And yet somehow, Major, I do not find myself feeling entirely reassured. Tell me, is there any reason Dr. McKay would jump to the conclusion that certain members of the military contingent 'had it in for him'? Especially in Colonel Sheppard's absence?"
That was the first easy one all day. "No, ma'am. The men here would follow Colonel Sheppard to the end of the world. To the end of this galaxy and the next one."
Dr. Weir's tight smile became a little rueful. Seeing it, Evan wondered if he needed to be saying this at all. Everyone knew there had been chain of command issues. "All his joking aside, it's perfectly clear Colonel Sheppard holds Dr. McKay in the highest possible regard. So honestly, ma'am? That's the end of the story as far as the military is concerned."
"I'm very glad to hear it. That said, when can I expect the official report?"
"Dr. McKay advises he plans to report at 0900."
"And you find that timetable acceptable?"
So much for the easy ones. "Dr. Zelenka concurred that they would need at least that much time to complete their review."
Dr. Weir remained as pleasant as ever. "It's not Dr. Zelenka's judgment I'm concerned about right now. I would like to know if you think Dr. McKay has been compromised in any way."
Evan thought of Ingrid Bergman, gaslighting, and Dr. McKay's jittery and not- entirely-coherent account of his sleepless night. Compromised? At this point, heaven alone knew.
By the way, damn Colonel Sheppard for choosing now of all times to bust his ankle.
On the other hand, McKay was a scientist out of the SGC. They were all a few nuts short of a fruitcake. And after a tour of duty on Atlantis, it wasn't just the scientists.
Evan chose his words carefully. "It's entirely conceivable the phenomena Dr. McKay is reporting could be the result of malfunctions in the city's programming."
Dr. Weir finally saw fit to let him off the hook. She set aside her own tea cup. "Thank you, Major, for keeping me informed."
"I was just wondering," Ronon said altogether too casually. He was sprawled in the far corner of John's infirmary room, tossing a Koosh ball from hand to hand. When John nodded that he was ready for it, Ronon pitched it easily underhand across the room to him. John caught it without falling out of bed and threw it back. "That thing you told me about dueling. How it's not allowed."
"Uh, right," John confirmed a little worriedly. "Still not allowed."
Ronon threw the ball back. "Even with all the new guys? Elizabeth said we had to be sensitive to different cultural mores."
John missed the ball, and it rolled bumpily under his bed. The Daedalus had brought twenty members of the Canadian Armed Forces on its last run. Somehow he had not expected the culture shock to be quite that severe. "Dueling is still right out. What's going on?"
"Nothing." Ronon straightened his long legs and heaved himself out of the chair, loping slowly across the room to retrieve the dropped ball.
"Nothing is going on," John repeated incredulously. "You just want to challenge someone to a duel."
"Didn't say that," Ronon disagreed calmly. "So how about an accident in training? Say somebody walks in front of the firing range targets."
"All right, stop right there," John snapped. "Jesus, Ronon, what the hell is going on with you?"
"Nothing. Besides, Teyla said I wasn't supposed to tell you about it."
John silently counted to ten. Actually, he only made it to three before saying in a voice he thought was impressively level for the circumstances, "Before this goes any further, no, you are absolutely not allowed to hurt any of your fellow soldiers. Furthermore, as your commanding officer, I am officially countermanding Teyla's suggestion, and ordering you to tell me what's going on."
"Thought Lorne was my commanding officer while you were off-duty."
"This is not negotiable! What's going on that has you so angry you're ready to challenge someone to a duel?"
"You won't tell Teyla I spilled the beans? She'll kick my ass."
"You don't tell me what this is all about, and I'm going to help Teyla do it," John fumed.
Ronon's expression clearly indicated that he would like to see John try. Then he shrugged. "The story is somebody has been messing with McKay, and I just want to know what my options are when I find out who it is."
"The hell? One of our people has been bothering Rodney?" John swung around in bed and reached for his crutches. "Who is it? Why hasn't McKay been to see me about this? Dammit, I can't reach," he growled as his outstretched fingers fell short.
"See," Ronon said, making no move to hand John his crutches. "I think this is why Teyla said I wasn't supposed to tell."
The laboratory was in darkness save for the desk light next to Dr. Zelenka's computer. He didn't bother to raise his head, saying mildly, "Next stop, Atlantis Ops including life support and sewage treatment. Please to stay near the tour bus."
Ronon didn't blink. "Hey, Dr. Z. Long day?"
John did blink, but he found a chair and leaned his crutches against the adjacent desk before asking. A single trip from the infirmary to the lab, and his foot and ankle ached, and his underarms were already sore from the pressure of his crutches. "I guess that means you've already had a visitor or two today?"
Zelenka had his glasses pushed up his forehead, making wisps of hair stand up like a halo around his brow. "Rodney has been angry for two days now because he does not believe the electron density map which Dr. Preiss generated of your singing rock, Colonel Sheppard, and nothing will do but I must record the reflections all over again, but when I come to the lab this morning what do I find?"
Nothing good, John suspected.
"Rodney again wishes me to drop everything, this time to investigate impossibly subtle variations in basic architectural functions in the living quarters. And he brings along Major Lorne for moral support. But my day is not yet complete! Dr. Weir is also fascinated by programming aspects of the city that no one has ever been concerned with before now, and so she too must pay us all a visit. While normally I would be nothing but delighted at Dr. Weir's charming presence, she is not very conducive to forward progress.
"Meanwhile, Rodney is looking over my shoulder the entire day and making suggestions that have little to do with sound engineering and much to do with peevish bad temper. I finally succeed in convincing him that he would do us more good catching up on lost sleep than continuing to pester me, and now I have the pleasure of your company." Zelenka managed a very weak smile. "But do not misunderstand me, Colonel. It is good to see you out of the infirmary. How are you feeling?"
"Uh," John was still processing Dr. Zelenka's verbal explosion. "Ankle's still broken, actually. Ronon and I were looking for Rodney. I take it he's gone back to his room?"
Zelenka cocked his head to the side and adjusted his glasses back over his nose. "We have not yet pinned down the source of the problem in Rodney's quarters. He is sleeping in a vacant room on another level until we can figure out whether it is a programming glitch that makes doors open and close in the dead of night, or whether Rodney has simply been working too hard."
"I heard it was somebody playing a practical joke," Ronon growled.
John turned around in his chair to stare. "Wait a minute. You mean this is all about a practical joke? Ronon, we don't kill people over practical jokes! The way you were talking, I thought somebody had it in for Rodney."
"You, my friend, listen to too much gossip," Dr. Zelenka said to Ronon. "Whatever the reason for poor Rodney's unhappy night, it was not a joke. I have been examining schematics for many hours now, and I have yet to determine whether it is even possible to program the doors and windows of the living quarters to behave in the way Rodney described."
Ronon shrugged. "Joke or not, it wasn't very funny. The man looked rough today."
"Yes, he did." For the first time, sympathy crept across Zelenka's own tired features.
"Excuse me." John had the unnerving sensation that he was sinking in a pool of blue Jell-O, everyone and everything around him becoming increasingly indistinct and making progressively less sense. "Would somebody please just tell me what's going on? What exactly happened last night?"
"Sounds to me like that's what the doc is still trying to figure out," Ronon said unhelpfully.
"Rodney himself is not sure," Zelenka said. "My own hypothesis is that the door to his quarters malfunctioned, along with the windows, or perhaps the ventilation system. He reports that more than once during the night, he awoke to find the door to his room standing wide open, even after being locked. The last time it happened, the windows were opened as well."
"Oh, for -- and that's what everyone's going nuts about? A malfunctioning door?"
"It is not a happy mystery," Zelenka said resignedly. "And I am sorry to say, I doubt anyone will sleep well until it is resolved."
Rodney lay curled on his side with the bedclothes pulled up to his ears. He was not sleeping. Instead, he was trying to distract himself from the dull pain in his back (damn the wholly inadequate mattress in this room, anyway) by mentally composing a new heuristic for Radek's componentry search. Obviously Radek needed help, because the man had been stumbling around like a fuzzy-headed idiot all day long, and still hadn't been able to provide the faintest smidgeon of objective proof that Rodney hadn't simply dreamed his open door and window last night.
Somewhere within Atlantis' sleekly byzantine guts had to be the programming for the operation of individual doors (approximately 8.1 million of them in Atlantis proper, excluding maintenance hatches, access panels and the like, an exclusion which might or might not prove to be warranted, depending on the results of his still hypothetical heuristics).
He was also thinking about the singing rock he had brought back from M9X-963. So far, their view of its atomic structure remained completely muddled, even though he was certain the Ancient goniometer could tell them what they wanted to know. At least, Rodney was pretty positive it was a goniometer. They just needed a better way to mount the stone to show more reciprocal space.
Even if Dr. Preiss hadn't been able to do it so far. That idiot.
In the furthest corners of his mind, Rodney was also running the hailstone sequence. As a boy, it had been a way to calm himself when the real world became too frantic and cruel. As he grew older, it evolved into a nervous mental habit, and now, here in Pegasus, it had once again become a calming meditation.
No surprise, considering how quickly their first, long step into this galaxy had catapulted them straight into a late season of Buffy. One of the really bleak ones, with Buffy working in a fast food joint and a de-fanged vampire as her only friend.
Not such a leap to the Edwardian ghost story his life had become last night.
Dammit, why had he thought about that?
He could feel his heart beating faster at the remembered instant of terror, and he flailed for distractions. Maybe he and Radek should consider every access panel in Atlantis instead of clearing the doors first after all. It might be a little clumsy on the front end, but at least they wouldn't run the risk of accidentally ruling out the very answer they were looking for.
And it was probably time to bring in Dr. Nazimuddin to try quantum tunneling on that damn singing rock. The man was as dull as a rock himself, but at least he wasn't completely useless with a scanning tunneling microscope.
And behind everything, soothing and neverending, The numbers tumbled down like the storms that had raged over Atlantis ever since his return from M9X-963.
He had awakened last night for at least the third or fourth time, felt a breeze on his face and realized in annoyance that the front door must have popped open yet again. He had still been thinking of the problem as something on the order of a screen door with a broken latch as he hauled himself out of bed. Apparently he was going to have to wake up enough to pull the crystals out of the damn door panel if he wanted to get any sleep the rest of the night. The breeze felt stronger as he stood up and seemed to bring with it wisps of rain, almost as if his windows were open as well.
He'd turned on heel and sure enough, seen his curtains blowing merrily in the breeze from the open windows.
It had taken him almost a full second last night to remember that he didn't have curtains.
The hailstone sequence calculations fell apart like rocks as Rodney sat bolt upright in the uncomfortable bed. He was being an idiot. There had been nothing there last night. As soon as he blinked, it had been gone. He had picked himself up off the floor, and spent the rest of the night taking apart the door and window panels, spreading crystals across the entire room.
When it finally became obvious around dawn that there was nothing wrong with the crystals, he'd been so angry he'd had to step away for fear of fracturing one of the--yes, definitely intact--crystals. Because the doors and windows had been programmed, and that meant somebody had done the programming.
He hadn't talked about what else he had seen, because he'd been certain once he tracked down the prankster messing with his doors and windows, he would discover the origin of that trick of the light as well.
OK, trick of the dark. Whatever.
Except it hadn't happened that way. Here it was almost twenty-four hours later, and he wasn't sleeping in his own bed because he couldn't figure out what was wrong with his own doors and windows. It verged on being completely mortifying.
Or even worse than that. Because he wasn't actually getting any sleep at all, and his memory of half-glimpsed, billowing fabric still made his palms sweat. If it turned out there really was a prankster behind all this, Rodney was going to make sure that unhappy individual never got a good night's sleep on Atlantis again.
Rodney lay down, his arms stiff and straight at his sides. He still couldn't bring himself to shut his eyes again, which honestly. Sheppard would never let him hear the end of it. Which was precisely why Sheppard wasn't going to hear the beginning of it.
Eyes still open, he started the hailstone sequence again. He had barely tripled 18,014,398,241,046,527, (he liked going by Carol primes), when he realized with a completely sickening sense of deja vu that he could feel a breeze on his face. He was so angry he heard himself whimpering softly (and really there was no question it was in anger, not fear.) The door must have popped open. That meant the phenomenon had followed him to another room and dammit, that proved there was somebody behind this. Rodney flung back the covers and got out of bed, reaching for his headset.
Then he saw the figure who stood outlined in the faint light from the corridor.
Rodney squeaked and stumbled sideways, fumbling so frantically that when his outstretched fingers finally touched the tip of his headset, it skittered away from him across the table. He sucked in his breath for a manly screech for help, when he finally realized there was something very familiar about the silhouette in his doorway.
"Oh for chrissakes, Sheppard!" Rodney shouted, furious. "Were you trying to give me a heart attack?"
A rumble of thunder drowned out Sheppard's reply, but Rodney suddenly had a new realization. "Goddammit!" he raged. "What have I been telling everyone?" He whirled around, remembering phantom draperies as he did, but brave in Sheppard's company. Besides, there was nothing there, just the streaked lights of a rain-soaked Atlantis and a blast of cold, wet air. "The window's open again! Well, for the first time, but this is exactly what happened in my room last night, so I don't want to see any more of those snide looks from Lorne and Radek and Elizabeth because they think I dreamed the whole thing!"
He turned back in triumph, arms crossed. He still couldn't hear what Sheppard was saying, but in the flash of lightning, he finally saw him clearly. For some unfathomable reason, Sheppard had his shirt pulled over his face and was waving his arms in the air like a demented rag doll. There were smooth, dark hollows where his eyes and mouth should have been, and his outstretched fingers seemed long enough to touch the ceiling. His sleeves fluttered madly in the wind.
Obviously, that thing wasn't John Sheppard at all.
Nothing came out of Rodney's mouth when he tried to scream. The backs of his legs hit the bed as he tried to back up. Sitting down hard, he yanked up his knees to scuttle crabwise away across the bed. Thunder rumbled endlessly as he rolled off the other side, his head hitting the floor with enough force to make spots dance in front of his eyes. He dragged himself under the bed, wheezing in terror. He couldn't see anything in the darkness as he peered out, but then lightning flashed, and in the stark instant of steely white light, the empty floor stretched away to the far wall. There was no sign of anything else as darkness crashed in again like thunder.
He clamped both hands over his mouth to keep himself from shrieking. The thunder was constant and so violent Atlantis itself seemed to be ringing. Lightening flashed again. The floor was still bare. Then an empty sleeve fluttered down to land like an autumn leaf on the floor before Rodney's eyes.
Which was the moment Ronon bellowed, "What's going on! McKay!"
The lights came on at the same instant. Rodney screamed for help, and he kept screaming as Ronon reached under the bed and grabbed his wrists to drag him out. In fact, he didn't stop until John, who was braced heavily on his crutches in the doorway, shouted, "Dammit, Rodney! Are you hurt?"
Rodney yelled back, "There's an intruder!" and "I'm probably scarred for life, thank you very much!" and "why are you just standing there?" or perhaps all three at the same time, because Ronon simply pulled him to his feet like he was a child and said to Sheppard, "There's no blood," as though Rodney wasn't right here beside him.
"It was in my room!" Rodney protested. "Don't try to tell me you didn't see it!"
"We saw it." Ronon said. "At least, I think we did."
"Oh, thank god," Rodney meant it to be sarcastic, because there couldn't be any question that thing had been here in his room not thirty seconds ago, but the effect may have been spoiled by his legs suddenly giving out.
Ronon didn't stop him from hitting the floor; he was poking at the linens on Rodney's bed. "It looked like something was crouched up here just before the lights came on."
"What was it?" Rodney demanded, not trying to get up again. At least not yet.
"Dunno," Ronon said. "It was dark."
Sheppard was dragging himself into the room on his crutches. "Rodney, are you sure you're all right?"
"When did I do anything to give you any indication that I was all right?" Rodney sputtered at the same time Ronon turned from the bed and asked, "These yours, McKay?"
He was holding a bundle of white material in his hands. Shaking it out revealed a pair of hospital scrubs.
Sheppard was the one who said in an odd voice, "I think they're probably mine. They've been missing since the day before yesterday."
"What's that noise?" Ronon interrupted, and now that he'd mentioned it, Rodney was hearing it too. It was the ringing sound that he had vaguely assumed was Atlantis under the force of the storm, but that couldn't be, even though the sound grew more pitched as the thunder rolled. Ronon dropped the scrubs and picked up up something Rodney couldn't quite see. "Sheppard!" Ronon had to yell to be heard. "Is this your rock?"
He was holding the stone Rodney had brought back from the city that predated the Ancients, and there was simply no way it could be on Rodney's bed when it should have been stored in a vault in the x-ray crystallography lab half-way across Atlantis. The noise was still building, reaching excruciating levels, and even if Rodney had known what Ronon was about to do, he couldn't have made his protest heard over the scream of the rock itself.
Ronon drew back his arm and threw the rock out the open window, two hundred stories up.
Monday was another sunny morning after a week of sunny days, but the sight of warm white sunshine through the windows of the mess was no less welcome for its familiarity. Elizabeth smiled as she chopped a pear-like fruit into chunks and stirred them into her yogurt. It was too bad they were out of the blackberries, but the pears were good, too, and besides, it was such a beautiful morning. When Dr. Zelenka walked by carrying a tray that was also loaded with fruit and yogurt in addition to a brimming mug of black coffee, she called to him, wanting to share her good mood.
"Dr. Zelenka! Please, join me."
She was rewarded with a surprised smile. "Thank you," he said immediately. "Thank you, yes." He sat down at once, still beaming, and with evidently nothing at all to say.
They ate in silence for a few moments before Elizabeth essayed that it was a beautiful morning. Dr. Zelenka agreed and turned his attention back to his bowl of yogurt. Then Elizabeth tried, "Has Dr. Hinkle found any evidence that Colonel Sheppard's singing rock was responsible for last week's stormy weather?"
''Beyond the coincidence of the storms ending as soon as it was lost? No, he has not. It is quite possible we may never know for sure, especially since we have been unable to locate the artifact itself. Given the profound effects it seems to have exerted on its surroundings in other ways, I suspect the possibility cannot be ruled out entirely."
"But making people see phantoms -- even animating a set of hospital scrubs -- seems a long way from actually whistling up a storm."
"Yes, I grant you that,'' Zelenka said.
Elizabeth sighed, unsurprised when the conversation again lapsed into silence. Well. It was still a beautiful morning.
She noticed at length that Dr. Zelenka was watching someone over her shoulder, and she turned her head to see who it was. At first she didn't notice anyone in particular, just scientists and military personnel, largely self-segregated as they tended to be. Then she saw Rodney at the far end of the room, where the morning sun poured in like last week's rain. He was sitting by himself, one arm stretched along his tray like he suspected someone might try to take it from him, and determinedly shoveling food with his other hand. The only unusual thing was the lack of an open laptop or tablet. Instead of working, he kept darting baleful glances around the mess.
"Oh, I'm sorry." Elizabeth turned back to Dr. Zelenka. "Were you planning to meet Rodney?"
"No!" Dr. Zelenka said quickly. Then he decided he must have sounded a little too emphatic and said in a different voice, "I do not believe he would welcome my company this morning. Yesterday he learned that some of the scientists have been referring to the artifact as the cell phone of the Great Old Ones. Rodney . . . was not amused."
Elizabeth frowned. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Well, 'cell phone' because we are working under the assumption that those increasingly solid avatars of Colonel Sheppard were an attempt to convey a message. Admittedly, one that we were either technically or physiologically unable to understand."
"No, I get that part," Elizabeth said. She had sat through the entire briefing too. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a minor commotion at the other end of the mess. It was Colonel Sheppard, making an appearance at breakfast even though he was still on crutches. He was surrounded instantly by a small group of well-wishers. "'Great Old Ones'?"
"Lovecraft jokes do not seem very funny to me since we reached Pegasus Galaxy, either," Dr. Zelenka said solemnly. "But Rodney is taking this quite hard, I believe."
"Is he all right? I thought he just had a good scare."
Radek didn't answer, giving Elizabeth a moment to think about what she had said. "There's no such thing as a good scare," she amended. "Especially not here." She saw that Sheppard was making his way to the back of the mess, evidently having drawn a bead on McKay.
Dr. Zelenka was watching too, and he smiled ruefully. "The day before yesterday when Rodney came back to the lab after lunch, he saw Dr. Kusanagi's lab coat hanging on the back of her chair. For an instant his face went so white, I was afraid he would faint."
"Oh, dear. I should talk to him about taking a few days of leave."
"As you see fit," Zelenka agreed respectfully. "But I confess it would surprise me should he take advantage of the opportunity. Good morning, Rodney."
Her first thought was that Rodney must have overheard their conversation and was coming to upbraid them both, but he stomped by their table without stopping, muttering only an indistinguishable response to Dr. Zelenka. He filled a tray at the serving line and passed their table again on the way back. Elizabeth didn't turn her head to watch his progress, but when a slow smile bloomed across Dr. Zelenka's face, she finally had to look.
Rodney had placed the tray in front of Sheppard and was sitting down next to him. As Sheppard picked up his fork, he elbowed Rodney in the side.
Rodney just smirked and rolled his eyes, but his whole face was so open with affection that Elizabeth had to look away, not trusting herself to control her own expression. Dr. Zelenka appeared to be entirely involved in his breakfast tray, but then he said quietly, "Or, perhaps Rodney was not physiologically incapable of receiving the message after all," and finished his bowl of yogurt without another word.
So it seemed like it ought to be simple enough to retell M.R. James' classic "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904) in the SGA universe....but six months down the road with only this story to show for it, I pretty much have to wonder what I was smoking.