michelel72: Suzie (Default)
michelel72 ([personal profile] michelel72) wrote2009-08-10 11:59 pm

Remorse (page 1/1)

Title: Remorse (SGA/SG-1)
Author: [livejournal.com profile] michelel72
Genre/Rating: Gen; PG/Teen for themes and mild language.
(Might be considered an AU of "48 Hours" -- I'm not sure how to apply the terminology in this case.)
Wordcount: Approximately 18,500.
Timeline/Spoilers: Begins at SG-1 5x14 "48 Hours"; includes spoilers throughout both series.
Warnings: None. 14 Sept 2009: Part One may trigger on the emotional abuse axis.
Notes/Credits: Part One is titled from Aimee Mann's "Invisible Ink"; Part Two is titled from Shawn Colvin's "Another Plane Went Down". Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] aurora_novarum for beta duties, especially major SG-1 characterization advice. Remaining mistakes mine; plot mine; Stargate characters and environments not mine.
(A/N 1 Sept. 2009: Corrected technical error regarding gate symbols.)
Meta: Discussion at SGA Talk
Policies: All feedback of any length, including constructive criticism, always welcome. If my warnings for triggers/squick are inadequate, please let me know.

Summary: The truest punishment Sam knows is guilt … and she knows McKay doesn't feel that. Yet.


Part One: Invisible Ink


Sam waited until she was alone in her lab to let her anger show. That son of a bitch!

I just wanted to give you my honest analysis, Major. Calling her a whack job, accusing her of letting her feelings cloud her judgment. Teal'c is toast. All the while, so arrogant, so smug, so damned ignorant, waving off Teal'c's life as if it — he — was nothing. She had pushed it away, but seeing his insufferable smile again brought it all roaring back.

It was walk away or attack McKay where he stood, and she wasn't ready to sacrifice her career because of him. He wasn't worth it.

She still ached to do something to him. Much as he might trigger a desire for violence in her, though, this wasn't a military situation. He hadn't broken any written laws or regulations, so there were no official ways to punish him. He wasn't even part of the SGC proper, so unofficial methods were out as well. Sending him to Russia got him out of their sight, sure, and he probably wouldn't enjoy the experience, but he probably wouldn't learn anything from it either.

That was what got to her. The real problem was that there just wasn't any way to make him understand. The truest punishment she knew was guilt — utter comprehension of one's trespasses. Guilt was a torment, a torture … but only to those capable of feeling it. Remorse required compassion, sympathy, humanity — all qualities McKay spectacularly lacked. He could never possibly atone because he would never feel even the slightest remorse.

Unless ….

She carefully pushed her anger down. A lot of that had to do with his treatment of her, which rightly pissed her off, but none of it was exactly new. She had been dealing with that particular brand of idiocy, from scientists and soldiers both, for most of her life. If she took that out of the equation, she was left with the problem of McKay's lack of human feeling.

She could ignore it — and him. She could wave as he left for Russia and hope that they didn't cross paths again. Unfortunately, the Pentagon thought he was the expert on the gate. She was used to that sort of thing, to being dismissed so easily, but it still stung — no, focus. Regardless of which of them was better or of how much theory mattered compared to practice, he was one of the few people in the world to have an advanced knowledge of gate technology. Even if they shunted him off to Russia for a while, the odds that no one in the program would never have to deal with him again were too low to count on.

And that worried her, because he clearly hadn't learned a thing. What would happen the next time there was a problem and someone trusted him to fix it? Whose safety or life would be disregarded or written off as irrelevant the next time he was called in?

And she could do something about that.

If she dared.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Sam called Hammond first, because he did not waste time when he was angry, and once McKay was on a plane her suggestion wouldn't be enough to have him brought back. Hammond agreed to delay that much, at least, but he wanted a full explanation from her before he would agree to anything further.

She had to look up the device she wanted in the computer logs to find it — it had long since been assessed as unimportant. She took it and the testing records with her to Hammond's office and explained what she wanted to do.

He was skeptical. When she pointed out the likelihood they would eventually need McKay again, though, and what his lack of understanding had nearly cost them this time, he considered for several minutes but finally told her to go ahead.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Back in her office, she opened the case and lifted out the wrapped device. She set it on her desk and very carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal the device itself, not letting her skin touch any part of it.

And then she hesitated.

The Valentine, as they had taken to calling it, was perfectly harmless. It was small, somewhere between a grapefruit and a cricket ball in size, and looked a little like a miniature communications satellite. Its recipient was subjected to a few minutes of unconsciousness — she still remembered Daniel's agitation that first time, because the locals hadn't warned him of that — but it didn't hurt at all and didn't cause any damage or injury as long as it wasn't interrupted.

The problem was loading it.

That didn't hurt, either. Not physically. The sort of bravery it required was a different sort entirely.

The locals of P5X-992, Kaiau, had been remarkably vague about it. They had shown Daniel exactly how to hold it and then asked him questions about Sam. Nothing embarrassing or sensitive — which was fortunate for all of them, since she'd been sitting right there — just general questions about their relationship and feelings for one another.

Daniel had been his usual careful self in his answers, trying to fit the idea of a field team into their terms. Then they took the device from him — using a cloth to do so — and placed it in the hands of a man Sam had been pretty sure was napping in his seat. The group had talked of other things for several minutes. When the napper awoke, though, all the locals had fallen silent and turned to him, only to droop with disappointment when the man shook his head.

When Sam asked, the man denied anything was wrong but added, "You are good friends." Sam didn't see how that related to the sudden dismal mood. The man then gestured for the cloth-bearer to take the device from him and give it to Sam. The moment she touched it she felt a flood of warm affection that she couldn't exactly explain, followed promptly by disorientation as she blinked back to consciousness. Daniel's tense demands for an explanation came from inches away, since he was kneeling next to her chair and checking her pulse, and he sighed with relief when he determined she was fine.

When they finally got the explanation, they both had to fight not to snicker. It turned out the locals had heard them enthusiastically discussing the apparent function of the archaic mechanism at the edge of the settlement and thought they would make a good couple. The Kaiauia turned out to take pride in their matchmaking skills, which were augmented by means of devices like the one they'd handed Daniel. They had hoped to strengthen their fledgling relationship with the Tau'ri by gifting them with a free match — a service they usually charged for, providing one of their more significant sources of tourist income.

Jack had teased them both about that for weeks.

The device was their way of checking matches they meant to recommend. It recorded emotions when held as they'd directed Daniel, and it evoked the same emotions in anyone who touched it otherwise. The warm affection she'd felt was what Daniel had felt at some point when answering questions about her. It was flattering and a little awkward, but fortunately — for her and Daniel, if disappointingly to the Kaiauia — it wasn't the physical desire or amorous attention that inspired a Kaiau-certified betrothal.

The device itself, one of about a dozen the Kauauia had, became their alliance gift. Further investigation and testing at the SGC determined that the emotions loaded into it could be directed consciously by the user, rather than randomly inspired by questioning.

Unfortunately, that meant she would have to experience those emotions as strongly and truly as possible … and then reveal them to McKay. He wouldn't necessarily know they were her feelings any more than she had first known she had been given Daniel's, but the thought of exposing herself to him like that still made her skin crawl.

She couldn't pass it off to anyone else, though. This was her idea and therefore her responsibility. More specifically, she was the closest person to McKay's function. If they did need him again, they would need him to have her perspective as a scientist and a team member, both able to take direct action to resolve gate issues and motivated to want to. Since he was apparently incapable of normal human emotion, it would have to be personal.

It would have to be her.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


It was hard.

She cared about her team. She honestly did. She had her hands positioned carefully on the device, touching only the input contacts, and she knew she needed to let herself feel what her team meant to her.

As she tried, though, when it wasn't thoughts of McKay himself making her tense up, it was years of military training shutting down her reactions almost instinctively. She didn't dwell on this stuff and she certainly didn't go advertising it.

She had meant what she had told Hammond, though, so she had to find a way to make this work.

McKay had criticized her for spending time on fieldwork, as if that was some unrelated dalliance, so she took a deep breath and started by focusing on what fieldwork really meant — the practical results of theory, the confirmations and refutations, the need for improvisation and adaptability. The urgency of deadlines and countdowns, not just as low scores on some test or simulation but as the measure of risk and lives.

She brought up every mission she could remember, every injury, every long hour waiting for a trace or a medical report or rescue. She summoned every team-inspired emotion she could think of, doing her best to feel it all again so the device would pick it up. To her surprise, that grew easier with each memory, her self-consciousness falling away.

She considered the team as a group, and she thought of them singly, trying to tease out her own reactions by concentrating on how an outsider like McKay would see them if he would only look. Jack — the leader, naturally charismatic, trusted and trusting, underplaying his own intelligence, charming and witty, seemingly easygoing … but with a steel core and a ruthless streak. Teal'c — the warrior, the outsider, graceful and strong, compassion camouflaging a subtle sense of humor. Her heart stuttered as she thought again of losing him forever, and suddenly this was simple. Daniel — the specialist, so earnest and enthusiastic. Even herself — the technician, the fixer, staggering sometimes under the burden of producing impossible solutions in inadequate time but fiercely proud that this duty was hers.

They didn't always get along, but they pulled together when it mattered. They did what was necessary to protect each other — such as the way Daniel had gone to speak to the Russians, and Jack had put aside his dislike to work with Maybourne, and, well, she had worked with McKay. They considered every option when it came to saving a friend.

But it was more even than that. It wasn't just the team, it was the whole of the SGC. Hammond, open to alliance but unyielding when pushed, loyal defender of those under his command, always worrying as he waited for his teams to come home. Janet, standing by to put them back together, equally prepared to coddle them or cow them. The gateroom staff. The other teams, military and scientists both. All of them united against a vast, implacable alien force, keeping earth safe, searching the galaxy for allies and tools — bonded not merely by duty or even friendship but by something very like a sense of family.

She poured it all in. All the wonder of gate travel, all the thrill and excitement, the fear and anxiety, the elation and guilt, the duty and honor. Everything.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Sam came back to herself abruptly, surprised at how easily she had let go in the end. She took several minutes to compose herself before she gathered the device carefully and set out to find McKay.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


"Well, well, if it isn't the beauteous Major Carter." McKay abandoned his exploration of the small conference room and smirked. "Come to apologize for that little tantrum of yours earlier?"

Sam kept a small smile firmly on her face, not letting him see the way he made her grind her teeth. If the smile turned a bit feral, well, it wasn't like he would ever notice, not when his eyes spent so little time on her face. "Don't worry, McKay, we just had to reschedule the flights. We'll still get you to Russia in plenty of time."

"You don't need to make excuses to keep me around," he smugged. Until that second, she would never have imagined that smug could be a verb. "Genius here. Consulting with a Goa'uld for hare-brained schemes? You obviously need someone who can think clearly under pressure. And I have to say I like the scenery here."

If she wasn't so disgusted by him, she could have laughed at his pathetic lines. "I think I'd rather hire the Goa'uld. You're going to Russia, and they're welcome to you." She waited a few seconds for his smirk to dim before she added, "Unless …."

She had the device cradled in one hand, safely wrapped in the cloth. It was perfectly natural to unfold the layers of cloth, revealing the device gradually, letting the cloth drape down around the supporting hand.

She meant to make him an offer, to give him a choice between the device and Russia, but he was too arrogant to give her the chance. "Ha! I knew it! You need me!" He bounced, he actually bounced. "Do you even know what it is yet?"

"You tell me." She had intended to explain, she honestly had, but one look at his condescending smirk made it so easy to lob the device gently at him, forcing him to catch it. He did, clumsily, one of his hands making sufficient contact to trigger the device's output phase.

The Valentine nestled into his hand, adhering gently, and he crumpled. She barely had time to catch him and ease him the rest of the way to the floor.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Daniel had passed the open doorway before he really registered what he had seen from the corner of his eye. He doubled back and leaned in the door. "Sam?"

She looked up at him from her odd position. She sat cross-legged on the floor, just barely visible since she was on the other side of the conference table. He moved into the room. "Why are you —" He broke off when he moved close enough to see the civilian gate consultant sprawled next to her, his confusion turning to worry. "Oh, no, is he —"

She put out a hand to ward him off and he stopped immediately, confused again. "Sam?"

"Everything's fine, Daniel."

"I'm sure it is," he said doubtfully. "You know, you really have to do a better job of hiding the body than that."

"He's not dead," she countered.

The consultant — McKay, that was his name — looked like he was still breathing, at least. "Okay, he's not." McKay wasn't moving either, though. After a few seconds Daniel added, "Still, shouldn't we get a med team in here or something?"

Sam sighed. "He's fine. Should be almost done, actually."

"Almost done?" Daniel repeated. He looked at McKay again and frowned more deeply when he recognized the object in the man's hand. "That's not that Valentine thing, is it? Because really, Sam, you can do a lot better than —"

"He's not feeling my love for him right now, Daniel," she said, irritated.

"Okay," he said slowly. "So what is he … Sam. You did tell him what you loaded that thing with before he started it, didn't you?"

She might have flinched slightly.

"But even then," Daniel mused, "he wouldn't … oh, Sam. You tricked him into touching it, didn't you? And you didn't even get him to sit down first? You know what effect that thing has." That must be why she was sitting on the floor herself to monitor him, when they both really ought to be in chairs.

"So it's a little uncomfortable," she sighed. "It's not like I'm obliterating him in the gate or anything."

He squatted down to look her in the eye. "What did you load it with?" he asked her.

She looked insulted. "Not how I feel about him. As tempting as that was."

He nodded. "Okay. Then what?"

"He didn't get it, Daniel. He had no idea what he was asking us to do — what that deadline he imposed was risking. It was all just equations and theory to him. He didn't care. No matter what we do, no matter where we send him, he'll never get it. I can't … I can't accept that. I can't accept him just walking around free, thinking it was just some simulation, not knowing — not caring — that this is about people. That this was about Teal'c's life."

"So then you loaded it with …?"

"What we are. What he was risking. What he needs to care about if we're going to have to rely on him."

Daniel studied her for a long while. He saw her point, but it didn't really explain the situation he'd walked in on. He'd heard that the two of them hadn't gotten along, but he hadn't gotten any details about that yet. She looked drained, too, in a way she hadn't just a short while earlier, and he wasn't sure she realized that.

Regardless, he couldn't change what she already had done. He settled back to sit on the floor, keeping her company as she waited for McKay to recover. If McKay hadn't been warned, sticking around to help Sam explain what had happened might be a good idea.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


It really should have ended quickly. Daniel remembered the device triggering no more than a couple of minutes of unconsciousness, and Sam told him that the effect had never lasted more than five minutes in extended testing.

She bit her lip when she noted the five minute mark passing.

"Any second now," she murmured at the six minute mark.

She just gave Daniel a worried look at the seven minute mark.

When it hit eight, she closed her eyes for a moment and then called in a med team.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


"Talk to me, Dr. Fraiser," Hammond said.

Janet looked up from McKay's still form and eyed the trio crowding her infirmary. Hammond stood at the foot of the cot, with Sam and Daniel flanking him. Sam fought not to squirm.

"I can't really explain it," Janet told him. "From what we know of this device, it only acts for a short period. It should have shut down by now. I can't tell what it's doing to him — his pulse is racing and he shows signs similar to REM sleep, but I can't find anything else to explain why he isn't coming out of it."

"Is it hurting him? Is he in any pain?"

"There's no way to tell. The pulse rate might suggest that, but his respiratory rate and blood pressure are normal. He may be agitated or simply … excited." Sam really, really hoped Janet was wrong about that. "All I can do is guess, though."

"So the device is still affecting him? Can't we just take it away?"

"No," Sam said hastily, nearly drowning out the doctor's calmer voicing of the same word.

Janet eyed her for a second before continuing. "The testing records indicate that interrupting the device's function triggers a neurotransmitter crash in the subject, resulting in crippling depressive episodes that can last days. I don't want to risk that, not yet."

Hammond frowned. "So what do you recommend, Doctor?"

"At this stage, the safest option is probably to wait and monitor his condition. If it lasts much longer I can set up an IV to keep him hydrated, but he doesn't seem to be in any danger at the moment. If more than a few hours pass, or if his condition changes, we'll probably want to look into removing the device, but I can't recommend that course of action yet."

"Very well, Doctor. Keep me informed." Hammond turned to Sam. "Anything else she should know, Major?"

Sam winced. He wasn't dressing her down — he was good about handling that privately — but the others already knew this whole thing had been her idea and that Hammond wasn't happy about the outcome. "This shouldn't have happened, sir," she protested. "It's never done this before. It's harmless."

"Apparently not," Daniel muttered. He hastily added, "But no, she's right. It's never done anything like this before. It's really not much more than a toy —" He had started into lecture mode, drawing attention away from her, but he broke off as McKay emitted a soft groan.

Sam looked over and was relieved to see that the device had fallen away from McKay's hand. Janet swiftly moved over to pick it up with a small towel. She passed the bundle over to Sam and went back to her patient. "Mr. McKay? Mr. McKay, can you open your eyes for me?"

His face twitched. "Doctor," he muttered irritably, his eyes still closed. So he still had his oh-so-charming personality, then, and that suggested he hadn't really been affected. Sam felt a rush of relief that left her almost dizzy.

"I need you to open your eyes, Dr. McKay," Janet persisted.

McKay waved a limp hand as if trying to swat her away but then sighed deeply. "First sleep I've gotten in — oh, ow." He sat forward abruptly and drew his knees up to cradle his head in his hands.

"Tell me what you're feeling," Janet prompted.

"Headache," he answered offhandedly. "Hardly surprising, since some people won't let me get five minutes of sleep. Just bring me some aspirin and about a gallon of coffee and I'll be fine. I have to …." He raised his head, looking confused. "Be in the infirmary, apparently. Huh. Well, as much fun as …." He trailed off again, his expression turning bewildered. "All right, would someone please explain what I'm doing in this infirmary?"

Janet glanced at Sam before turning back to McKay. "What's the last thing you do remember, Dr. McKay?"

"Um. Recalibrating the … no. Rebuilding a console. I don't remember coming here at all." That shouldn't even be possible, dammit. "Was I injured? Was it something our infirmary couldn't handle so they had to transfer me here?" He was starting to sound panicked. This was the same man who managed to complain of two different medical conditions as he insulted her. Of course he would be a hypochondriac.

"Not at all," Hammond said smoothly. "We brought you here to the SGC to help us with a problem with the gate."

McKay looked over at him, still frowning but growing calmer. "Well, that makes more — oh, hey, Sam." He gave her a warm, brief smile before starting to look at Hammond again, but then he glanced back. "Oh, you cut your hair. It's, um, it's nice." She had no idea what function of the device could have put that thought into his head. She didn't remember having any stray thoughts about needing a haircut. With his words he smiled at her again, almost nervously, his cheeks turning a bit pink, but that creepy possessiveness of a few hours earlier was almost entirely missing and his eyes had barely even flickered down towards her chest.

Instead his smile quickly turned back to a puzzled frown. "But if you're here, I don't see why you'd —" His expression abruptly cleared as he snapped his fingers rapidly and pointed at her. "Primacy, of course. Not that there's much to be done about that on this end, but if I already did most of the reconfiguration, it would probably be faster for me to do the rest here, too. Huh, I really don't remember any of that."

Sam stifled a sigh. Clearly the device hadn't done what she meant it to, if he didn't even remember why he was at the SGC to start with. He certainly didn't seem to be consumed with guilt. Still, it seemed to have had a positive effect on him. His manner was completely confusing and not exactly reassuring as to his mental state — but it was also marginally less obnoxious.

So far, anyway.

McKay clapped his hands together. "Well, you haven't gotten me into any embarrassing gowns or impaled me with an IV yet, so clearly it can't be anything all that serious. Are you sure I wasn't just taking a nap?" He hopped up out of the cot easily. "So did I finish … whatever it was I was working on here?"

"Yes, you've certainly done enough," Hammond said wryly.

"Good, good, then you can send me back —" He broke off with an appalled double-take. "Wait a second. Aren't you, you know …." He patted briefly at his own chest. "Dead? I mean, I thought we heard that. And actually —" He looked over at Janet sharply. "Now that I mention it, Carson always cited you when he had to go offworld. So how … what, did we start a fad? Was there a two-for-one clone-your-CMO sale?"

Janet got the steely look with which she faced down unpredictable patients that had just bought themselves an extended date with her equipment. "Dr. McKay, if you'll just sit back down, I need to run some tests —"

McKay avoided her reaching hand easily, not possessing the hard-won wisdom to give in to Janet early. "Oh, no no no, my vampire friend, I think I'll wait to see my own improbably resurrected witch doctor, thank you very much. I feel fine, other than …." He started patting at his clothes.

"Something wrong?" Janet asked.

"Hungry. Hypoglycemia, remember? I should have …." His hands slowed and he looked down at himself. "Okay. That's different. Um, where are my clothes?"

Sam's stomach sank further. The bizarre pronouncements were one thing, but if she had actually broken him ….

Finally Daniel spoke. "You're wearing them," he said carefully.

McKay's head snapped up and he rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious, I'm wearing clothing." He looked back down, gesturing at his shirt. "I meant where's my clothing, my uniform, not this blast … from …."

He went very still.

After several seconds he slowly reached up towards his head, but his hand flinched away as soon as he touched his hair. He took a deep breath, his head still lowered, and asked, "What year is it?" in a low, tense tone more appropriate for a question like How many died?

After a few seconds, and after Janet gave him a slight nod of approval, Hammond spoke. "It's 2002, Doctor."

McKay looked up again, his eyes wide. "What? Oh, no no no, this is — this is … well, not good, obviously, but how —"

"What year do you think it is?" Janet interjected, smooth and professional.

"As far as I know, 2008. Wait, no, 2009? It's kind of hard to keep track where we are."

"And where is that?" Janet sounded much more patient than Sam could ever have managed.

"Atlantis," McKay said, his tone suggesting the answer was obvious.

Oh, hell.

It made no sense. It simply made no sense that the device could make McKay think he was in another year and from some mythical place. What the hell had happened?

After a long, stunned pause, Daniel ventured, "The Lost Continent?"

"City," McKay corrected, his tone suggesting he thought Daniel was the crazy one. "Ancient outpost? Pegasus? International expedition? Anyone?" He closed his eyes for a moment in sudden realization, but Sam's hopes that he was just still waking up didn't even have a chance to form. He just said, "Which, right, 2002 is too early. So again, how and why the SGC in 2002? I wasn't here then, I was in Siberia. And I was at Area 51 before that. I didn't come here until — oh, wait, except — Teal'c. In the gate. Is this then?"

There was another pause before Hammond confirmed, "We brought you here to help get him out, yes."

"And is he out yet? Is he still stuck?" McKay looked at them all with such earnest worry that Sam considered hoping again. Maybe this was all just a complex, roundabout way of satisfying what she'd tried to load into the device?

"We got him out," Sam told him. "No thanks to you."

"Good, good," McKay said, actually looking relieved. That lasted a few seconds before shifting to a mild annoyance. "Right, and that would explain why you've all been looking at me like something you wiped off your shoes, too. Lovely. So, again, why this? Why drag me back here?"

Everyone looked at Sam.

"We didn't drag you back from anywhere, McKay," she said. "You were … affected by an alien device. It's normally harmless, but it kept you under for longer than usual. It may have caused some kind of hallucination, or maybe you just had a really vivid dream, but it really is 2002 and you haven't gone anywhere."

"Well, that's obviously completely wrong. What's this device you're talking about? What does it do?"

"Not much," Sam told him. "It just shares emotions and feelings — at least usually. I'm not exactly sure what it did to you, but you are still here and it is still 2002."

McKay was quiet for several seconds and then assumed a very fake smile. "Okay, great joke, very funny. I'm laughing on the inside. Hysterics, really. You're all very clever. Now, joke's over, okay?" The phony smile slipped, leaving only an uncertainty that verged on desperation.

He really believed it. He really thought he was from some mythical place in 2009.

Sam sighed. "Look, I don't know how we're supposed to prove this to you, but we’re telling you the truth here."

"She's right, Doctor," Hammond added.

"We really haven't seen this happen before," Daniel said. He looked over at Janet. "Is there some kind of scan you could do?"

Janet tilted her head, considering. "I don't think anything I have would be appropriate," she said, "but maybe we —"

"I don't need any scans!" McKay backed away, one hand warding them off. "Don't — just — just give me a minute." He locked eyes with Daniel, of all people. "My perceptions are being affected by an alien device of unknown function," he said, deliberate and forceful. "I am, understandably, somewhat disoriented. That does not make me crazy," he emphasized.

Daniel regarded him for a few seconds and then nodded, frowning. "He's got a point. Back off, guys. Give him some space."

The only thing Sam could think of that met McKay's description and had to do with Daniel was that thing with Machello. Only how had McKay known about that? It wasn't exactly public knowledge. Then again, plenty of Machello's little toys had gone over to Area 51, and all it took was one person.

They held back and McKay collected himself slowly. After a couple of minutes he took a deep breath and gave Sam a determined look. "I want to see this device you're talking about."

Janet started forward. "Actually, I should —"

McKay jerked further away. "Oh no you don't," he snapped. Sam realized that his movements weren't as purely reactive as she had first thought, because he had nicely shifted himself around towards an exit. "No exams, no tests, no scans, no touching. Nothing. I want to see this device, and that's going to happen somewhere that's not here."

\_/\_/\_/\_/


They went from the infirmary to the nearest conference room. Hammond moved into the lead, with Sam and McKay next, and Daniel brought up the rear. He noticed that McKay kept looking around at the hallways suspiciously and gave Sam more space than was strictly necessary.

When they reached the conference room, Sam set her bundle down carefully, making sure the device was steady before she pulled the towel straight around it.

McKay frowned. "That's the device." His tone was flat, disbelieving.

"That's it," Sam agreed. "It conveys emotions. It doesn't seem to be good for much except sharing feelings."

"And that's how you normally carry it around? With a towel?"

"Not usually a towel, no, but touching it directly activates it, so we have to use something to prevent contact."

"Oh, no." McKay pinched the bridge of his nose. "No no no no no. There is absolutely no way the real SG-1 was ever this incompetent."

"I really don't think you should be calling anybody incompetent, McKay," Sam said coolly. Something about McKay brought an edge to her tone that Daniel almost never heard from her.

McKay's gesturing hands were as outraged as his voice. "Your containment protocol is a towel! Seriously, what the hell is this thing even doing here? Where is the full analysis? What are the tolerances? You don't know how to handle anything safely, you treat it like a toy — this should be at Area 51, not left lying around to ambush visiting geniuses. There are actual protocols about this sort of thing, and I know no device anything like this ever made it to Area 51 when I was there."

"How would you know that, McKay?" Sam challenged. "You're gate, not xeno."

"Oh, please, as if I have that kind of luxury." His voice was slightly distracted as his eyes studied the device. "I'm everything. The gate, the jumpers, Ancient tech including the database — and every half-brained experiment they left littering the galaxy, Wraith tech, Genii tech, civil engineering but only because everyone else is completely incompetent so I don't want to hear it, zero-point energy and naquadah generators and shielding and I really need a raise, come to think of it. But even in —" his hands waved sarcastically "— 2002, I put in time in the artifacts lab."

Considering Sam's increasingly bewildered expression, Daniel expected her to ask what several of the things McKay named were, but she went a different direction. "I thought you were busy being the 'world's foremost expert on the gate,'" she told McKay.

"That was my primary assignment, yes. Everyone needs a hobby, and it's not as if there was a shortage of random offworld crap coming in. But this is definitely Ancient-derived, if not directly Ancient, and that's exactly the sort of thing I watched for. And I went back through the records and reviewed every report of every object that even looked as if the designer might have been thinking about Ancients, back when we were exiled back here." He glanced up at Sam. "This never came through Area 51, and don't think I won't be mentioning that little lapse to the IOA."

He looked back down at the device and rubbed at his forehead. "Oh, I have not missed Decline-era script. Like a badly designed captcha, with the hidden bonus that a misinterpretation might actually kill you."

Daniel frowned. "You can read it?"

"Of course I can read it. Or recognize the script, at least. Maybe I don't have all day to spend learning obscure languages or — or Ascension poetry or whatever it is you spend your time on, but it would be surprising if I couldn't make out even corrupted technical Ancient by now."

"How do you translate it?" Daniel asked.

McKay immediately pointed to the markings, identifying the script more quickly than the physical scientists usually ever did, his hands never moving closer than a good foot away from the surface. "Two clusters. The first looks related to twopair or couple, maybe, or join. The second one is more vague. Delay or time … or forecast? That's the one that would be trouble. But you've had this thing for a while, so let's skip the pop quiz. What does it say?"

"Well, we're still not certain," Daniel said, warming to the topic, "but that's actually very close to what we found. You're right, that second term is the harder one. I think prediction or forecast is the best fit, but we weren't able to find any supporting artifacts, so it's still tentative. We've just been calling it 'the Valentine,' though, based on what it does. Or what we thought it did, at least."

McKay gave him a disgusted look. "All right, that does it. Please stop pretending linguistics is remotely related to science. You see something that could be related to pair and something that could be forecast, so of course you decide it's a Valentine's card. It could just as easily mean quantum entanglement!" With that he stomped over to the whiteboard, grabbed a couple of markers, and slashed a line down the middle of the board.

Daniel was starting to understand that edge McKay inspired in Sam's voice. "It's actually just a nickname," he said. "The people who gave it to us were using the devices as matchmakers, but they had scavenged them from an abandoned civilization that died out or drifted away thousands of years ago. That society was probably pretty close to a true Ancient influence on their technology, based on what the analysts here say about the design of this object, but the writing shows clear signs of drift. We have no way to know how much their version of the language itself had changed by then, especially if they were only using it as a scientific language, which we've seen before. For that matter, we can't be certain whether the original designers included those markings or whether some other group added them later. We have several viable interpretations, but as I said, we weren't able to track down any supporting artifacts and only have a few fragments of any form of script from that society."

"Whatever." McKay had started writing some sort of header on either side of the dividing line as Daniel spoke. "I'm sure this has been entertaining to someone, but I'm done. I'm ready to get out of here now." His headers equated c to the traditional circle-and-cross Earth symbol on one side and to what was either the home gate symbol for Earth or a stylized lambda on the other. He wrote capacity/memory - scale in red under the lambda. Then he switched to blue and wrote Replicators under the Earth symbol, followed by mist people. He took up a black marker briefly to add cartoon sci? after that last one.

Daniel and Hammond both turned to Sam, who made a face at them for leaving it up to her to ask. "If you want to leave, what are you doing?"

"Working out how to leave, of course," McKay snapped.

"It's called an elevator, McKay," Sam said. "We have a few." Her expression indicated that McKay's notes made no more sense to her than they did to Daniel.

"And if this really were the SGC, that would be useful," McKay replied. He added VR and then gave that item its own sub-list: Aurora, quantum, other.

Sam's eyes widened. "You think you're in some kind of constructed reality," she said. "You think we're not real."

"Oh, well done," McKay said sarcastically. He added medical. "Keep up that kind of brilliance and you might eventually fool somebody into thinking you're really Carter."

Sam sputtered as Hammond protested again that they were all real and Daniel tried to figure out how exactly they could prove that. McKay just ignored them as he gave medical a sub-list, too: poison, fever, parasite, virus. Sam joined Hammond in the attempt to persuade McKay, who just waved a dismissal as he added time travel to the list. When Daniel tried to get his attention, McKay finally snarled that if they felt like being useless and distracting, they could go do it somewhere else and let him work.

Sam, Hammond, and Daniel moved over to the doorway for a quiet conference. Sam suggested they all leave McKay alone for a while to get it out of his system. They both looked surprised when Daniel said, "I'll stay." He pointed out that he had some idea what McKay was probably going through, reminding them of Shifu.

Hammond said he would have Dr. Fraiser arrange to have Dr. MacKenzie on standby, just in case, and Sam offered Daniel a wry, "Good luck." They left and Daniel settled into a chair. He had taken the "simulated life as object lesson" ride himself, thanks to Shifu, and he knew how disorienting it was to wake up with all those years and experiences undone. Once McKay actually let it go, Daniel was probably the best person to help him.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


McKay really didn't want to let it go.

After about ten minutes of watching McKay scribble on the whiteboard, mutter, and massage his temples, Daniel left the room briefly, nodding a greeting to the airman stationed quietly just outside the door of the conference room. Anyone whose first request on waking with a headache included "about a gallon of coffee" was almost certainly prone to withdrawal headaches, and Daniel knew what those were like. It couldn't help that no one had been getting much sleep for the past couple of days. He went to the commissary and brought back a couple of cups of coffee.

McKay's expression lightened slightly and he reached out, saying "About time," but then he snatched his hand back and scowled. "Oh, right, of course, because I would trust anything any of you people hand me. Nice try."

"It's just coffee," Daniel said, taking a drink of his own in testament.

"So you say. Then, when I'm sprawled on the floor not breathing, you'll laugh with your buddies that you spiked it with lemon or something like that, because obviously McKay was exaggerating about that whole deadly allergy thing, and he'll shake off that little bout of asphyxiation he's doing any minute now."

Okay then. "I'll admit I don't know what to say to that," Daniel said. He left the second coffee where McKay could reach it easily and sat back down. "If you're that convinced we're all out to get you, anything I could come up with would be just as likely to make things worse as it would be to help. I don't think I understand why you believe that."

McKay just narrowed his eyes and turned back to the whiteboard. If nothing else, though, Daniel succeeded in destroying McKay's concentration. The man kept shooting little glances over at the abandoned cup, each more desperate — and, frankly, pathetic — than the last.

Once he'd finished his own coffee, Daniel couldn't take it anymore. He went to his office and brought back the coffeemaker, coffee, and filters, as well as a small stash of disposable cups, and then went back out for water. He set it all up where McKay could easily see what he was doing, poured a stiff pot's worth of grounds directly into the lined basket by eye, and started it brewing.

By the time the carafe was a quarter full, McKay had abandoned his pretense of ignoring and just stood there watching the liquid drip down.

When it finished, Daniel poured himself a cup and took a drink before gesturing that McKay could take his own, if he wanted. McKay did but then only barely touched his lips to the liquid before setting it aside, as if he truly did expect some sort of contamination.

He held out for about five more minutes. Then he downed the cup and continued steadily through most of the rest of the pot — limiting himself to most only because Daniel wrested it away long enough to get a little more for himself.

McKay turned less hostile after that, the coffee not only easing his headache and bracing him against weariness but also loosening his tongue. He kept poking at his cryptic notes, but as the hours passed, over a few more shared pots of coffee and around a field trip to a vending machine for food, he started telling Daniel about the missing years he claimed. He started with offhand comments, but as Daniel gently prompted for explanations, he expanded. Soon he was sharing stories about his team, his lab staff, and the city he called Atlantis.

Daniel encouraged him at first because he had begun to wonder whether McKay's vision was an interaction with Oma Desala or her kind. There was certainly precedent. Daniel had no idea how McKay, of all people, would have been the one chosen for such a thing, but it could have been a matter of opportunity.

McKay's stories proceeded to reveal a person Daniel hadn't expected, one he thought Sam would explicitly disbelieve. As McKay shared the details, he revealed warmth and affection, at least for some of his subjects. He revealed a surprisingly strong sense of responsibility for both his duties and the lives of his staff and friends. He occasionally retreated into a defensiveness that clearly was meant to conceal guilt and failures that he seemed to feel deeply. Even with those moments, he gave an overall sense of belonging and contentment.

Unfortunately for McKay, every word just gave Daniel further proof that none of it was real and more reason to think it was all due to Sam's device.

He worked extensively with myths and legends, tracing them back to the inspiring events or people. Finding common traits and tracing drift were second nature to him. He didn't know how much of McKay's creation was inspired by the rumors of SG-1 that circulated at Area 51 — and Daniel knew for a fact there were legends about them — and how much came from Sam's contributions with the device, but the connections were pretty plain.

Some details shuffled around, of course, in the way of all legends. Some came from other, unknown sources, or possibly McKay's imagination. And some, like this Sheppard who featured prominently, were pretty obvious. From McKay's details, Sheppard was a younger Jack with crazy hair — and a flirtatious manner that McKay found exasperating. Daniel had to wonder which of Sam and McKay that bit was contributed by. Sheppard also had an unfortunate compulsion towards taking missions that amounted to suicide, to hear McKay tell it in jokes that covered his bitterness and distress poorly. Oh, Sam. Daniel might once have described Jack that way, long ago, but he hadn't imagined that Sam might harbor that kind of worry about Jack, even unconsciously.

Daniel tried speculating on the possible symbolism of shepherds, not bothering to keep the thoughts to himself because he hoped McKay would catch on to his own invention. All he accomplished with that was provoking McKay into writing out the "correct" spelling of the name in blue at the bottom of the Earth-symbol side of the board, as if the different spelling alone disproved any possible metaphorical interpretation. Daniel realized too late that he should have asked for the spelling first, because now he had no way to know whether McKay's choice of spelling was a defensive confabulation.

And then, just to throw him for a loop, McKay pulled a Wizard of Oz on him: And you were there, and you, and you. He gave Sam a promotion and a year of command of this Atlantis. He told, with some disdain, a story of Teal'c visiting and fight-bonding with someone he named Ronon, emphasizing their similarities so much that Daniel couldn't believe he wouldn't make that final connection. He spun a strange tale of Jack's involvement in retaking the city from some kind of complicated takeover involving rediscovered Ancients, of all things, and beings McKay called Replicators but described as humanoid. And he had Daniel visiting, too, as the culmination of wanting to go there for years but being thwarted.

McKay had certainly painted enough details to make it sound like a fascinating place, but he really didn't know Daniel, despite his newfound attitude of familiar rivalry. If the place was as irresistible as he implied, Daniel wouldn't have simply sat back and twiddled his thumbs for years.

"Of course, there was the whole being-kidnapped-by-rogue-Asgard thing the second time, and you nearly died again, but …." McKay shrugged as if that was inconsequential. "You seemed to enjoy it other than that."

Rogue Asgard? Daniel raised an eyebrow at that idea — McKay had a strangely active imagination — but he decided to comment on something else. Two themes featured prominently in McKay's ramblings. One was water, particularly people being trapped or having to work underwater. Daniel had heard that McKay hadn't seen the real gate in action before his arrival at the SGC a few days earlier, and the gate's event horizon did look a lot like water. Could that be linked? And as for the other … "You seem very preoccupied with death," he pointed out. McKay kept mentioning deaths — not just this strange comment about Daniel himself or his words to Hammond and Janet, but numerous other members of this putative expedition. Was that the manifestation of Sam's fear for Teal'c?

McKay scoffed. "Oh, please, you're the Weeble of mortality." The what? Daniel made a mental note to share that one with Jack. "And mentioning one time out of your, what, dozens is hardly … oh. Right. Look, it's not as though I wanted the other two to die. Hammond was … well, okay, he never liked me, and sending me to Siberia was completely unnecessary, but, well, I suppose he occasionally listened to reason. And that doctor person was apparently pretty good — as voodoo-practicing bloodsuckers go, that is. And Carson liked her. Of course, Carson liked everyone, but … still." He scrubbed at his face, but the expression he seemed determined to wipe away was less one of weariness and more one of muted loss. After several seconds he turned back to the whiteboard, squaring his shoulders. "Right. Time to figure this out."

McKay studied his notes quietly for a long while. Daniel finally decided to take advantage of his silence and explained his own experiences with Shifu. Daniel had barely started when McKay set down the markers and assumed a very defensive posture, but McKay said nothing for the entire story — or for a couple of minutes afterwards.

Daniel was seriously considering mentioning Sam's experiences with Orlin as well, even though they didn't really seem to apply in the same way, when McKay finally spoke. "So you're saying everything I remember was all just a dream to teach me a lesson. How very Christmas-movie of you. The problem with your theory is the spectacular lack of a tour guide for this alleged Afterschool Special you seem to think I'm in. Unless …."

"Unless?"

McKay frowned at him thoughtfully, the first signs of doubt creeping into his expression. "Unless you're meant to represent my own personal quasi-Ascended spirit guide. That would actually make a strange kind of sense."

Before Sam's experiment, Daniel had only seen McKay in passing, just long enough to link the face to the name. They hadn't even spoken. "It would?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know why.

"Obviously," McKay said, freeing one hand to gesture at Daniel. "Because of your whole —" He clamped his mouth shut suddenly and recrossed his arms. When he spoke again, it was warily. "Because of that thing you'd already know about if you are."

Daniel wondered if there really was a reason or if McKay was just unconsciously defending his own construction. "I'm pretty sure I'm just myself," he said, figuring the truth to be the safest option.

"Right." McKay's mouth twisted with a sour humor. "Thank you, then, for that delightful and ultimately useless diversion." He turned back to his notes, dismissing any consideration of Daniel's actual point with the gesture.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Sam came back several hours later, apparently having napped because she looked much more rested. "You guys are still here?" she asked, clearly surprised. Daniel just shrugged to signal his lack of progress. Sam's eyebrows climbed further as she saw the whiteboard.

McKay had added quite a lot to the board in those hours. He had listed types of time travel in blue: wormhole diversion, jumper, psych. displ. — though that last had the note sci fic! in red after it. Next was the phrase android download, also in blue, but with a red note of pulse and a black note of magnet?. Below those were several symbols and abbreviations Daniel couldn't assign any meanings to. The lambda side of the board was sparse, with only two additional notes: Ancients = insane in blue, and a red Sam ≠ evil that McKay had added with clear hesitation.

"You still think we're not real?" Sam asked, her disbelief clear. She glanced at Daniel, who could only shrug again.

"Not real or not right, at least. I mean, not right for me, not the same temporal offset, whatever. I'll figure this out," McKay insisted, weary but stubborn. "Alone if I have to." The look he gave her was unguarded and pleading.

Sam either missed that or chose to ignore it. "Honestly, McKay, there's no trick. It was just some kind of hallucination. Whatever you're trying to get back to, it's not real."

"You think I made up seven years? Dozens of — no, hundreds of people, new races, an entire galaxy? I'm not that creative, Sam," he said earnestly. "We talked about that, remember? The piano …?" He watched her expectantly for several seconds, but then his face fell. "Oh, right, that 'hasn't happened yet.'" He turned away from her, his expression shutting down, closing them both out.

"Look, you're just confused," Sam said gently. "I guess that device gave you a pretty intense experience. I am sorry about that. I just wanted you to understand what you tried to do to Teal'c."

"I didn't do anything to Teal'c," McKay snapped. "You're just angry because I'm the one who came up with the deadline — and, okay, yes, it's possible I may have been slightly rude to you about it. But I ran the calculations based on the information I had and gave an honest answer. My conclusions may have been off, but I had no way to know that, and at no point did I act with malice or even negligence. Someone else used that information for political ends. But because the information came from me and you don't like me, suddenly the whole thing is my fault. Except I didn't do anything.

"And it's not even really about Teal'c. If you hadn't known him, he would have been just some random offworlder, and if he got caught in the gate, well, that's sad but these things happen sometimes. You might not have liked it, but you would have accepted it. There wouldn't have been any deals with Russia. What you're angry about is that you almost lost who he is to you, the person he is in your head. And …." He stared at her with growing horror. "And by that measure, you're taking credit for killing my whole team. For murdering them — the whole expedition, hundreds of people, you killed them all." He backed away from her, looking gutted.

Sam reached toward him, but her expression was skeptical. "McKay —"

He drew back and his eyes narrowed as he regarded her with loathing. "Get away from me." He had one hand up, warding her away. The other hand clutched at the outside of his thigh for a few seconds but then stilled as he took another step back.

Daniel could see Sam was about to protest, so he drew her over towards the doorway. She frowned at him instead. "Hammond wants me to bring him —"

"Give him a minute, Sam." He guided her a few steps further towards the door. "You know, for all his mockery of the 'soft sciences,' he made a pretty good point there, psychologically speaking," he added quietly.

"What? Come on, Daniel. None of it was real. He made the whole thing up. Nobody really got hurt here."

He studied her closely, but he saw only conviction. He remembered her words from earlier: He doesn't get it, Daniel.

And now she didn't get it.

Daniel could try to explain, but McKay had the better claim to that and he had already tried. Each had a grievance; each felt misunderstood. Where did it end?

He sighed and let it go. He turned back, meaning to call McKay over, only to see the man seated at the table, his face buried in his hands.

"McKay?" Sam prompted, worried.

McKay shifted his hands so that his forehead was braced against them but his words were clear. "I made it up, didn't I?" he said, his tone flat and dull.

Daniel and Sam glanced at each other, surprised. "Yeah, I think so," Daniel ventured finally.

"I made it all up," McKay repeated, his head still lowered. His voice turned vicious. "Stupid McKay, so desperate to think anybody might actually like him he has to invent a whole new galaxy, and then the only person he manages to convince is himself."

They both winced at that. After several seconds Sam prompted, "So you get that we're real now?"

"Yes, yes." For a moment McKay sounded as he had before, but then he sighed deeply and went back to sounding defeated. "Look, can I go now?"

"Hammond wants to talk to you first, but probably after that," Sam said.

"Right." McKay finally lifted his head and stood. He nodded sharply and started towards the door, not looking either of them in the eye, but as he reached Daniel he paused. "Look, you, um …." He made a face. "You've seen the second Star Trek movie, right? Wrath of Khan?"

Daniel blinked at the non sequitur. "Yeah, I think so."

"So … Spock made an … interesting choice, in the end." He watched Daniel intently, as if he was willing Daniel to understand more than the words themselves.

"You want to talk philosophy? Ethics?" Daniel hazarded, considering both that element of the movie and McKay's earlier observations to Sam.

"No, of course not, it's —" McKay broke off with a shake of his head. "You probably won't even remember anyway," he muttered, low and bitter. He headed for the door again. "Come on, let's get this over with." He left the room.

Daniel caught at Sam's sleeve. "Take the long way," he said quietly. Sam made a face but nodded.

Daniel used the extra time she was giving him to call ahead to Hammond. McKay clearly meant to leave and didn't want their help, but someone should make sure that McKay would get the support he needed when he got back to Area 51. He shouldn't have to deal with this alone.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


Hammond seemed to want to settle things between them all, but McKay, predictably, was still being difficult. "Look, let's forget this whole thing. All I want is to go home. So if you'll just call off the guards …." McKay shot Sam a dirty look.

"Actually, Dr. Fraiser has recommended that you speak with Dr. MacKenzie first," Hammond said.

"Let me guess. Some kind of headshrinker, right? Let me think about that. No."

"We do have a responsibility to ensure that you're medically fit —"

McKay sighed and folded his arms. "English, no. French, non. Russian, nyet. Feel free to stop me if I hit one you recognize. Czech, ne. Japanese —"

"You do have the right to refuse medical treatment, but I don't recommend you do that," Hammond said.

"Yes, right, whatever, you've covered your ass. I'll even sign the paper that says you begged and pleaded but I refused your magnanimous offer. If I change my mind, I'm sure I can find someone in the general vicinity of Groom Lake, but for now, I'm leaving."

Hammond studied him. "If that's what you want, Dr. McKay. We can have you on a plane —"

"Oh hell no. I get on one of your planes, the next thing I know I'm eating borscht three times a day and discovering just how many body parts are at risk of frostbite inside what is laughably called an advanced research facility. I'll rent a car, thank you."

"Don't be ridiculous, McKay," Sam said. "You haven't slept. There's no way we're letting you drive all the way back to Nellis."

"No means no, Co- Carter." He really didn't make it easy to feel sorry for him. "I'm not stupid enough to fall for one of your shell games. I am not going to Siberia. I am still a civilian, and I'll resign from my contract first."

Sam never thought he would still expect to be sent to Siberia, but if he was willing to just go away, they wouldn't have to worry about whether they could trust him to consider the human side of the equation.

"That won't be necessary, Dr. McKay," Hammond said. Dammit. "I've already requested someone else to fulfill our agreement with the Russians. You can go back to your lab. We'll fly you straight back to Nellis."

"And I'm supposed to trust you because …?"

"I give you my word, Dr. McKay," Hammond said levelly.

McKay started to protest again but then sagged, running a hand over his face wearily. "Fine, whatever." He looked up again to glare at Hammond. "You screw me on this, and the Russians discover the joys of an uncontrolled reaction in a facility they can't afford to lose." His voice was low and vicious, and he couldn't possibly mean that.

"It won't come to that, Doctor. We'll have you on your way back home in just a few minutes. First, I need to know whether you're planning to file a legal complaint over this incident."

"What?" Sam and McKay said together.

Sam felt sick. She hadn't hurt McKay, and she had never meant to hurt him, but he could call it assault. He could — oh, god.

"A legal complaint?" McKay continued. "For … for what, a court-martial? Please," McKay spat. "That guy everybody in the entire program hates against SG-1's golden girl? No thank you. I think I've already met my humiliation quota for the year."

Sam had never, ever expected to feel a flash of gratitude towards him.

Hammond frowned. "It's my responsibility to —"

McKay crossed his arms again. "No. It's a remarkably simple concept, but I am willing to repeat it as many times as necessary until you all manage to understand it: no. Just drop it. Leave me alone. Just … just let me go home."

Hammond studied him again. "As you wish, Dr. McKay." He picked up his phone and called for an airman to escort McKay out.

McKay looked startled. "Oh. Well. Good."

An airman appeared within moments. Hammond gave him instructions for repackaging the device and getting both it and McKay back to Area 51. Apparently he had decided the device should be studied further there and he might as well make use of McKay as a courier. McKay listened closely, scowling throughout, but found nothing to object to. With one last suspicious look at the airman, he straightened, raising his chin as if steeling himself, and then nodded to Hammond. "General."

He turned to Sam and opened his mouth, but nothing came out before he closed it again. His eyes searched her face, his expression so hurt that her breath caught. But that lasted for only a second before he narrowed his eyes, scowled, hiked his chin back up, and left the room without another word.

Hammond let out a long breath and then turned to her. "Major." His tone had her snapping to attention without a thought.

"Sir. I made a bad choice. I honestly thought it was safe, but I made a mistake." The least she could do was own that.

"You did." Sam carefully didn't wince at that. "I did authorize it, but this sort of thing can't happen again, Major. We're all very lucky nothing worse happened to McKay. He's actually Canadian. The situation with the Russians is tense — we don't need a second international conflict. We're also very lucky that he didn't insist on terminating his contract just now. Area 51 was already lodging a protest about losing their primary gate expert and one of their best naquadah researchers to the Russians."

"Wait — we were sending someone else with McKay, sir?"

"No, just him. Apparently he's both. There's a reason we brought him here in the first place, remember. I think the complaint is as far as they would have taken it if he had gone — they don't seem to like him any more than we do, but they needed something on record. They would have taken a pretty big hit from our decision. Now we're sending another of their leading naquadah researchers to the Russians, though, so if we lost Dr. McKay from the program entirely in addition — we can't afford that."

"If it's that bad, couldn't we still have sent just him, sir? Do you really think he would have quit? He gave in pretty quickly before. "

"Yes, he did," Hammond said dryly. She could have kicked herself for walking right into that one. "No, Major, I couldn't push him. Apparently there are now security concerns. His ties to Canada are weak, but the Stargate program is his only real tie to the US. Remember, the Russians have their own gate, and they're still not satisfied about leaving us in control of the active gate. There's no evidence that McKay has any connection to them now, but if he was actually living there … let's just say certain people have expressed reservations about that possibility."

Sam was careful to keep her tone mild when she said, "He's just one man, sir."

"He's one man the Pentagon considers the authority on Stargates, Major. McKay would be hamstrung professionally if he wanted to go into civilian research, even if he left on good terms. The Russians are the only other place he'd be able to continue his work. They don't have the resources to challenge us right now, and they don't have a DHD anymore, but didn't McKay say he knew your dialing program? They do have scientists of their own, and McKay might be able to give them enough to make a play for control of gate access if the situation gets bad enough."

Sam doubted it, but her judgment didn't matter in this case. She knew once the suits got an idea, they would cling to it. "I understand, sir."

Hammond didn't put her through much more before dismissing her. He made it clear she had disappointed him, though. That was the worst part.

Though the prospect wasn't exactly appealing, she considered McKay as she took the long way to O'Neill's office, to … be out of the way until McKay had left. She found herself wondering about his specialization. McKay did know the bare theory of the gate system, the cold dry equations, and he knew just what to challenge her on. He might well be the best Area 51 had. They valued his naquadah research, too, though — and McKay had suggested he dabbled in alien artifact research, in his spare time.

Modern scientists specialized. It was nearly impossible to excel in most fields otherwise. The researchers within the Stargate program were generally more flexible than most, but very few worked extensively in more than one or two very narrow subfields. In fact, Sam was one of those few. If McKay was so multi-talented, why wasn't he on a gate team, or at least working directly at the SGC, learning about teamwork and responsibility firsthand? For that matter, why hadn't she heard about him already?

Then again, understanding the wormholes of the Stargate system did require at least a decent understanding of the properties of naquadah. So even if his expertise was unusually broad, it was still only one general area of study, aside from whatever he actually knew about the potentially vast field of xenotechnology. Half of the long list of other responsibilities he'd rattled off consisted of made-up terms, so she was inclined to dismiss all of that. Even the most brilliant lab researchers were often disasters in the field, and McKay would have been strangled by any team forced to work with him within their first three missions, so his not being assigned to one made perfect sense.

But … maybe he could adapt. He seemed to have gotten something out of his experience with the device. He hadn't shown any sign of interest, but with time, he might be worth considering the next time they needed field scientists. She would just have to keep an eye on him from now on.

That less than thrilling line of thought was interrupted when Jack poked his head into the office. "Nice hiding place. So what'd the commissary do?"

She smiled at him. "I think I'm going to need a little more than that to go on, sir."

"Well, they did something to that McKay guy, but nobody knows what."

Sam sighed. "I thought he was finally gone. What's he complaining about now?"

He gave her a confused frown. "No, he — come on, I'll show you." He led her to the conference room McKay had been using and pointed to the whiteboard. "What, did they sneak lemon in it or something?"

McKay's bizarre notes were still there, but a new message had been scrawled across them in what looked like sloppier version of the same hand: THE CAKE IS A LIE.*

Sam wondered how many days it would be before she could stop wincing. "I maybe, kind of, sort of … broke him a little bit, sir."

His eyebrows rose. "With cake?"

"No, sir. I don't know what that's about."

"Well, why don't you buy me some cake and tell me all about it." He swept an arm towards the door. "After you, Carter."

As they headed for the commissary, Sam decided to ask Teal'c to join them. Daniel already knew what had happened, and he probably wanted to catch up on some sleep, but she might as well tell both of the others at once. Besides, she wanted to see Teal'c again anyway. She knew he was fine, but she would feel better if he was there at the table with them, solid and warm and alive.


Part Two: Intact among the Debris


Rodney squinted in the sudden brightness. He knew that in a few seconds it would resolve into the artificial lights outside the chamber as the VR pod opened, or of the holding cell as the Replicator pulled away, or of the lab as the random device he must have triggered accidentally ran down, releasing him from this nightmare and back into reality —

He flinched as it instead resolved into the daylight outside the Cheyenne facility.

He was acclimated to Atlantis. Not even a day earlier, he had been rubbing his arms at the chill of San Francisco Bay. The coat he barely remembered felt wrong, the Colorado winter landscape alien.

He knew most people thought he couldn't lie or keep secrets. Anyone who believed that was an idiot, because he had obviously worked with classified materials for years. Maybe he wasn't all that great at resisting actual torture, and he tended to babble when he was dealing with anything personal, but he found it useful to let the idiots think that meant he couldn't lie at all. It meant they didn't expect him to try, even though he had won a drama festival award once — as he had mentioned to Sheppard when they took the city back from the Replicators.

He knew he was most convincing when he was able to hide his expression, whether that was by pretending to pay attention to some kind of readout or simply covering his face. He also knew that people tended to believe what they wanted to hear anyway. He had fooled Woolsey about the plan to retake the city, and he had fooled Kolya about the last stages of saving Atlantis from the storm. This lie was almost simple in comparison.

It got him out — but unfortunately, it hadn't yet gotten him out.

An airman guided him to a car, drove him to a plane, handed him paperwork, gave him instructions. He obeyed numbly, watching only enough to make sure he was seeing names like Nellis or Nevada and not Russia or Siberia, trying desperately for once in his life not to think.

They didn't want to let him carry the case with the alien gadget in it onto the plane. He looked around at the flags on every surface, at the twitchy armed people every few paces, and bit his tongue. He just presented the paperwork over and over and over, never once letting his temper slip, because foreign national carrying bomb-like device onto plane was not a phrase he wanted anyone putting together. Not in the time period everyone kept telling him this was. He had spent entirely too many hours in cramped, badly lit airport offices the first time around, just for simple absent-mindedness. He hadn't known then just how bad it could have gotten, and he didn't have any illusions that his importance to the Stargate program would be sufficient protection now.

He meant to stay awake for the flight, not trusting this "Carter" or her friends an inch. He was exhausted, though, and the droning kept lulling him into a doze — only for minor bits of turbulence to shake him back awake, startled, ready to demand that Sheppard explain what the hell he'd done to the inertial dampeners. Every time, he found himself in a cramped and dingy airplane that reeked of hydrocarbons, where jumpers and dampeners and Sheppard were all supposed to be just some fantasy. Every time, the reminder stabbed just a little deeper.

By the time Rodney staggered off the plane, he felt tattered and raw. He eyed the stringy military kid waiting for him and seriously considered telling the guy to go to hell, but his eyes were crossing too much for him to be quite willing to drive himself the rest of the way. Desperation had him feeling reckless enough that he almost hoped the kid was Trust. Everyone else was blaming him right now, so why wouldn't they?

Rodney pulled the case jealously close when the kid reached to take it and warned him off with a glare. Apparently it didn't fit the face he was wearing right, though, because the kid, who still had that peeled-egg look typical of shockingly young recruits, just gave him an unimpressed smirk.

He watched the passing scenery through drooping eyes. It was years since he had been here for any real length of time. Trying to reconcile the few changes he'd noticed then with what he was seeing now made him dizzy.

Then the military guy was opening the car door for him, outside a depressingly familiar building. The kid called him "Mr. McKay" and didn't bother to hide his dislike, even though Rodney hadn't said one damn thing about his driving or the American military, so Rodney didn't bother to hold back the curse that came to his lips. The kid just sneered at him, got back in the car, and drove off, leaving Rodney swaying on the sidewalk.

He walked up to the building slowly, shifting the case to one side to put the other hand in his pocket … and oh, yes, this particular set of keys. Not the ones he first thought of when he thought of this apartment, the ones he'd found the first time he did laundry after they had retaken Atlantis — no, the ones from before Russia. The ones for this apartment, and the few he'd had for the labs back then, and the ones for the car he had sold in the one week they allowed him to come back and settle his affairs after months in that frozen hellscape.

He clutched them tightly because he wanted to hurl them away and scream. The teeth bit into his palm, asserting real, real, real. He loosened his grip again.

He let himself in through the front door and trudged down the hallway, past the doors of Old Lady Fish-on-Fridays and of the Harder-Faster-Harder-You-Horse couple, of Little Miss Insomnia and of what should have been Stoner Jock but the skunky smell was missing — oh, right, he was later. It was Mysterious Guy Who Was Never Around now. Theoretically.

He had hated this apartment — well, no, he hadn't really cared one way or another. It wasn't Atlantis, but he hadn't known what home was back then. It was somewhere to live without a roommate always in the way. It was convenient to the lab. It was a vote of confidence in himself that he would find a way to connect Atlantis back to Earth before the five years he prepaid right before they left ran out. It was what kept him neighbors with the woman who had taken —

His cat. His cat, oh god, running up to him the second he had the door open, complaining. His cat, the fur feeling exactly the way he had remembered, the claws scraping lightly against his arm as they kneaded air, the grudging purr. Max hated to be squeezed, Rodney knew that, but he couldn't help himself, clutching him tightly as he shook.

Max squirmed free after about a minute, dropping a little awkwardly to the floor that wasn't as far down as it should have been. Rodney didn't remember falling to his knees while holding him, but there he was. Max started away but then turned back, watching him expectantly. Rodney bent down further and Max bonked heads with him the way he liked to do sometimes, a little like Teyla's Athosian thing, and Rodney had forgotten but this was the first thing he'd thought of when Teyla had first done that with him, which might be part of why his mental image of Catwoman had started to look an awful lot like her —

He pressed his fist firmly against his mouth until he stopped shaking again.

Max had moved away but trotted back to him again, demanding. He got up and Max led the way to his dish, where he still had plenty of food, but he liked an audience when Rodney was home. Rodney ran a hand along his back and Max took a few bites of food before wandering away again. Rodney stayed, staring at the dish, at the level of food — a couple of days' worth eaten, still enough left for a few more days because he hadn't known how long he'd be away.

He had spent those extra few days frantically calling everyone he could think of in the lab until he tracked down that PETA sympathizer and guilted her into looking in on Max while she found someone to take him indefinitely. Rodney had gotten drunk the night after she called to report that she'd placed Max with one of Rodney's neighbors, and he owed her a few hundred dollars for her trouble, and she never wanted to hear from him again. He got drunk again the night he finally had a set of checks on hand and had made one out to her, because signing it felt like he was somehow agreeing that having Max taken away from him was okay. He had been even more of a vicious bastard in the Russians' idea of a lab than was usual for him, even back then, for the following month.

To this day, he missed his cat most when he was stupid enough to drink vodka in quantity.

He went to try to pet Max again, not caring at the moment that he didn't want him to be real, but now that he had gotten as much of Rodney's attention as he had wanted, Max avoided him. Punishing him for leaving for a couple of days. When he hadn't come back, that first time, Max must have —

Exhaustion was making him emotional.

The security of the apartment had never seemed so pathetic before. He had brought classified materials back to this? He took the case into the bedroom with him, figuring that way at least he'd hear if someone came for it.

He stripped just enough that he wouldn't wake up miserable, flicked the alarm on, and fell into bed. Right, dammit, this was the crappy mattress, the cheap one, the one he'd refused to spend much on because he resented needing to sleep at all and hadn't yet realized what it was doing to his back. He sighed and considered moving to the floor, but this was better than that, if only barely.

Despite his weariness, he lay there for what felt like a long time, tense and uncomfortable and miserable, so homesick he could barely breathe. Eventually he felt Max jump onto the bed, stalk his length a couple of times, and then flump against him, apparently satisfied that he had been sufficiently punished. Only then did Rodney finally fall into sleep.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


If it had been "I Got You Babe" — or Huey Lewis and the News, for that matter — Rodney really would have started killing people, but the sound that woke him was the alarm clock's simple, grating beep.

He was still in the apartment, though, so as scorecards went, the one for this day was already deep into negative figures and he hadn't even sat up yet.

He had no idea how long he'd slept, but he wanted to close his eyes again, and again, as many times as it took to find his real life there. A couple of tries didn't do any good, though, so he went to make coffee and then take a shower.

He spent a good twenty minutes freaking out about the minor nosebleed, thinking that stupid device might have caused brain damage after all and flinching as that same brain replayed that clip from "Scanners" in all its gory glory on infinite loop. Then he remembered that this apartment, stuck in a winter desert, had somewhat lower native humidity than an island-city in a near-tropical ocean. He was relieved for a moment that no one he respected had seen his little panic, and then depressed for much longer for the same reason. He refilled the industrial-sized humidifier and cranked it up, apologizing to Max for forgetting about it and zapping him half the times he touched him. To hurry the process along, he turned the shower on hot and used a desk fan to exhaust the air into the apartment. Five minutes after that, he remembered that this place, unlike Atlantis, did not have functionally unlimited hot water and undid that setup.

As he finished the first pot of coffee, his brain finally came fully online. He checked the clock and contemplated reporting to work — to Area 51, where he didn't have his own department yet, where he barely even had his own lab, and that not on merit but on personality. He polished off a quick breakfast but then continued to sit there, thinking about plans and options and contingencies, for long enough that he would have to rush if he didn't want to be late.

Well, that hadn't been part of his plans, but it would work. He gathered the device, still in its case, and headed out, yawning ostentatiously several times as he stowed the device in his trunk and as he drove to the lab. He let the breeze ruffle his hair and didn't comb it back down, and he tried to get his clothes as rumpled as possible without being obvious. The iffy job he had done of shaving had more to do with not wanting to see this face in the mirror than any plan at the time, but it would fit just fine.

He had to show his pass to get through the gate, but then he left it in the car, "remembering" it and doubling back to retrieve it after about five steps. He still felt too alert, so he worked shield equations in his head as he made his way to the lab.

He didn't exactly plan to get lost on the way, no matter how nicely that suited his goals, but it had been a very long time. He had worked in several different rooms in this facility over the years, and he kept automatically heading wrong directions. He heard snickers from somewhere the second time he had to retrace his steps, making him scowl as he looked around to find the perpetrator, but he couldn't tell who it was. He stomped away and found his lab after only one more wrong turn.

He spent an hour and a half making careless but harmless mistakes — not too many, and subtle ones, because he did have a little pride. Then when his supervisor came to check on him — and to dig for dirt on the SGC with much less subtlety — he rambled. He followed any tangent he came up with, wandering far off the topic at hand, blinking slowly as the supervisor — Jablonski? Jones? Jarvik? — kept trying to steer him back. He'd worked while sleep deprived so many times that this mode of conversation was almost second nature. His people knew that his work really wasn't affected when he was in that state, however addled he might sound.

Jingleheimer finally frowned and asked if he needed some time off to recover from his trip. Rodney was pretty sure the guy had never been especially solicitous, so he protested that of course not, he was perfectly fine, he might be able to finish this set by the end of the day if he didn't keep being interrupted. It was a ludicrous claim based on the stopping point Rodney had found when he started, though it was perfectly in character. As he hoped, it inspired Jeeves to take a look at what he'd worked on that morning.

Rodney protested, because he would have, but he began to worry he'd been too subtle as the seconds stretched. Finally Javert turned, though, and told him to take a few days.

Rodney couldn't help narrowing his eyes at that — he was pretty sure no one had ever been that lenient with him here, so either this was too easy or someone had told the man to play nice. Luckily Jakes took that for professional paranoia and assured him that he would personally ensure that no one else messed with his project while he was gone. He added a smile that looked like it hurt and said Rodney was very valuable to the program and he wanted to make sure Rodney was in good condition.

Rodney-of-2002 would have waved off the flattery as restating the obvious and taken offense at the implication. He didn't really buy the concern so it wasn't hard. Whats-his-name — Rodney was running out of Js to guess — simply pointed to two of the most obvious mistakes, though, which let Rodney slump and admit he was a little tired after a couple of all-nighters. Fifteen minutes later, after a sympathetic smile that Rodney didn't buy any more than he did the accompanying strained wish that he feel better soon, he was headed back to his car.

When he got back to the apartment, he grabbed a snack and played with Max for a while, because this next part was going to suck. Finally he knew he couldn't put it off any more, so he made himself get up and find the number.

That took some digging — he didn't usually write phone numbers down, because they were easy enough to remember. This one was old, though, and he didn't quite trust himself to have it right, so he hoped he had written it on something when he first got it. He finally found it scrawled on an envelope that was tucked inside the cover of the phone book. An actual, bound phone book, and he hadn't spent more than a couple of weeks on Earth in years but he wasn't sure anyone had those anymore, but here this one was, and the verisimilitude was driving him stark raving mad.

He was relieved to see the area code. He hadn't quite remembered where she was at this point. This would be easier than the alternative, at least.

He picked up the phone and gathered the courage to dial the whole number after only three aborted attempts. As he listened to the other end ring, he realized that the time of day was all wrong and very nearly hung up, but suddenly somehow her voice was there.

He jumped in immediately. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm a jerk and I'm sorry, just please don't hang up."

There was a pause. "I'm sorry, who … Mer?"

"Yes, sure, yes, just please don't hang up, please?" He didn't know if they'd had their final fight yet. Like a volcano, there had been several significant tremors before the big eruption, and he didn't remember the dates because he hadn't wanted to remember any of it. Considering Madison's age, though, odds were high he had already said things he had long regretted.

"I'm not hanging up, Mer," Jeannie said, but her voice was wary. "What's wrong? What do you want?"

"I, I just …." He swallowed and took a deep breath. "Look, you'll probably laugh, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I … I just have this feeling, all right? I got this really, really awful feeling that if I didn't call you and make things better between us we might just stop talking completely and … and then whole years might go by and we wouldn't see each other at all and I — I don't want that, I never wanted that, I just —"

"Mer! Mer, okay, fine, just stop talking. Please."

Rodney bit his lip and waited.

"Huh," she finally said about thirty seconds later. "That never works. Are you feeling all right?"

"I mean it," he told her quietly. "I just want us to be okay." He knew she really wanted those three words he hated above all others — at least in combination — but he couldn't quite make himself say them yet and he was pretty sure she wouldn't believe him if he did. So instead he said, "It's your life. I won't say I like it, I won't say you're not — that I don't think you're — no. How about I just not say anything? Which is probably what you really wanted all along. I — I can do that. Okay?"

"We're not —" she started, but then she went quiet for a few seconds. "Yeah," she said finally, sounding more serious. "We're okay. Really."

"Good," he said, shaky with relief. "Good, that's good."

"Mer, please, what's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing's wrong, it's just I've had a really, really bad —" Day? Week? Seven years? "— couple of days, and I really needed to talk to you." He swallowed again. "Look, I've got a few days off, and I was wondering, can I come see you?"

She didn't answer right away.

"Please? Just for a little while? I'll be nice to Kaleb, I'll eat your tofu and not even mention it's not actual food, I can stay at a hotel or something so you don't have to see me for that long or anything, you'll hardly even know I'm there, please —"

"Okay! Okay, fine, you can visit, just stop!" She sighed and then laughed softly. "At least I know it's really you, though. I would almost wonder if you were my brother's evil twin or something, with the whole 'wanting to visit without being blackmailed' thing and the 'getting Kaleb's name right on the first try' thing. Well, I guess that wouldn't be the evil … Mer? Mer, are you crying?"

Even Sheppard had seen that he was afraid Jeannie liked Rod better than him. He couldn't be Rod, he wouldn't, not even for her. But he could at least do better this time around.

Even if he was also using her.

Especially because he was using her.

"No," he answered. "Allergies."

"Right," she said, unconvinced. He let that go and just confirmed her current address. They didn't talk much longer than that, not really having much to talk about at this point, or at least not much that didn't risk starting the arguments all over again.

Right at the end, after mutual see you soons, he took a deep breath and blurted, "Love you."

Several shocked seconds passed before she answered, "Love you too, Mer," her voice all choked up like she was crying, and hung up.

\_/\_/\_/\_/


He had to be careful.

He had always assumed his phones were tapped, even before the Americans lost their damned minds. He just hadn't ever been threatened by that, not at the time. He worked for the good guys and he was important.

His laptop went in his backpack — his ratty old backpack that felt like a toy compared to a field pack — along with all his legal documents. Travel papers, work permit and residency papers, classification clearances, everything. Oh, hey, the title to the car, that might be useful, too. And veterinary vaccination certificates. After a few minutes of consideration, he took the degree certificates and awards and pictures down from the wall — not as many at this point as he remembered — and took them into the bathroom, emerging with an unremarkable pile of paper that he put in with the legal documents. He didn't need those, but they were his, dammit. Everything else he couldn't do without went in, too, not that there was much, and enough clothing for a couple of days.

He looked around for a box and finally settled on a laundry hamper. He loaded that with a bag of cat food, Max's dish, and a few bottles of water. The litter box fit, too, just barely nesting across the top, which helped. He took the hamper down the car first, climbing into the back seat before he settled the litter box on one floorboard and the food dish on the other. He could stop a couple of times on the way.

Vancouver made it workable. He might make it there by the next evening if he drove straight through. He hadn't been entirely positive whether Jeannie would have been there yet until he found her number, so he had worried. Toronto would have taken another half day at the absolute minimum, plus sleep, across the automotive equivalent of Ambien and passing far too close to the SGC for his peace of mind.

Besides, Vancouver was on the ocean. His memories of Toronto's lake felt all wrong. He suspected being landlocked would be better than living near such an imperfect reminder of home.

He didn't think to corner Max before he dug the carrier out of the closet, so he had to spend about fifteen minutes trying to extract him from under the bed and out of the closet and from behind the couch and from under the bed again, because Max took the carrier's particular rattle to mean the vet. Rodney cursed him absently but didn't give up, because there was no way in hell he was giving him up again.

He took Max and the backpack down at the same time, locking the apartment door on the way out. He threaded the passenger-seat belt through the handle of the carrier, tucked the backpack into that floor space, and headed out.

He itched to check the trunk, but that would blow his pretense of having forgotten. The odds were better than even that he was being watched. If the device had been taken, he couldn't do anything about that, but he needed that part of his cover story.

He stopped for fuel and was obvious about checking his wallet, so that the slight change of course to stop at the bank wouldn't look unusual. He went inside for the transaction and withdrew as much as he dared, careful to notice who was around him before and after but not seeing anyone worrisome. The transaction itself would look suspicious, but he had to have something liquid on hand. He maintained a credit card and a small account with a Canadian bank, just for ease when he went back, but most of his assets were in American banks and funds, and he couldn't trust those to remain accessible much longer. He could only hope it would take a day or two for anyone to pay any particular attention to this transaction.

He had to leave Max alone in the car for that part — he couldn't risk a scene if the bank people objected to a pet even in a carrier — and he hated that fiercely even though he parked to keep an eye on the car as much as possible and took as little time as he could manage. The fact that it was winter was a meager excuse, but he clung to it all the same, and he took a few seconds to slip his hand into the carrier and pet Max in apology afterwards.

When he finally got onto the interstate he relaxed, just a little bit, because now he could start the countdown.

He had meant what he said to Jeannie, every single word. He still privately thought her a fool to abandon her studies, but she seemed happy. If she wasn't, he had never seen any sign that she had taken that out on Madison, which was a worry he hadn't even known he'd had until years later. He could find a way to stay in Jeannie's life, and he could keep her current until she was ready to come back.

In the meantime, he was going to build something for her to come back to.

If this was reality, the Americans could go to hell. He was sick of dealing with them and their politics, and they had crossed lines that couldn't even yet be proven to exist with whatever Carter had done to drag him back here. He was done letting them profit from his work.

If this wasn't reality, though, as he desperately hoped, he had to game the system. He hadn't yet seen a way out — dying might work, but that was by definition a last resort. A VR system would probably just keep reinterpreting to counter him, so there wasn't much he could do about that. Replicators were both his greatest fear and his best option, perversely enough. He knew from Elizabeth that they would happily simulate a mental institution, and he really wasn't interested in playing into that game. His own memories of their incursions told him both that they could put him through something even darker and that it was possible to resist them. He had to play within the rules set out before him, act as if this was all real, and find a way to beat it anyway.

So in the end, his goals were the same for any workable hypothesis: hide what he hoped to be true, treat everything around him as real, and stay the hell away from certain research areas. The confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements he had with the Americans limited a lot of what he could do — a lot — and Replicators would want either access to Atlantis or, improbably, the more advanced areas of his knowledge about Ancient technology. That meant a lot of topics and significant areas of research he had to abandon, possibly for a very long time.

But it didn't cover everything. Using only the more basic knowledge he had gained from Atlantis and some of the later stages of the Stargate program, he could drag some university's physics and engineering departments into something approaching an age of intelligence, building from twentieth-century knowledge to whole new realms that were beneath the Replicators' contempt without ever touching on anything that could be directly linked to his documented work in the program. Not right away, anyway, not for years, and then not until others started to see the holes he carefully left to be filled in.

He just needed a decent physics department — well, no, actually, he didn't. He could make a decent physics department in his own image. He could make Douglas worthy of respect.

But it was damn well not going to be an American school.

He would need help, protection. He was basically going to have to apply for asylum from his own damn country. That was his biggest leap of faith — that his own government would have the resources and the will to shield him from the Americans. They hadn't when he built the model nuclear bomb, just letting the CIA come waltzing over to terrorize a kid, and he fully intended to remind them of that.

This was a really crappy time to expect them to deny the Americans anything, but he knew how to make it worth their while. The Americans had been profiting wildly from the program for years, and he knew for a fact Canada hadn't seen much from that despite their loyal support. Hell, he could simply hand them the fundamentals of the naquadah generator program the Russians would spend the next couple of years developing — along with mention that the Americans were helping the Russians with that but, hmm, not the Canadians, their allies of much longer standing.

Of course, they would have to find a way to get the actual naquadah, but they could figure that part out. They could just turn and offer his information to the Russians or Americans, or both, in exchange for being cut into that action.

He had at least twenty hours of driving to prioritize what he would offer under what conditions.

He would need to build his own capital, too, make himself untouchable against the day he brought public science to the doorstep of the Stargate program. Apparently he had it in him to be a software magnate, from what Sam — the other one, the one he respected — had said. He had always found software development too simple to stand, but it was easy money and he knew what types of applications to focus on. A few intuitive productivity tools, a couple of flashy social networking applications, maybe a few games. Those typically didn't go together, but he could be the driving force behind all of them. He could bigger than Jobs and Gates together, just in the weekends and coffee breaks of his rewriting of modern science.

This place wasn't Atlantis. These people expected weekends and coffee breaks. He could change the world while they were puttering and plodding through their lives.

The third time a Johnny Cash song came on the radio, making him clutch the wheel so tightly he nearly ran off the road, he had been driving for hours, so he paused at the next rest area with services. He wished he could see some significance to the music, but that was just what radio was like in this part of this country. If he hadn't spent time in the Northeast and in California, he would have thought American radio stations were required by law to play Cash and his cohorts.

He took Max in with him, in the carrier, as well as the backpack. Those were the things he couldn't risk letting out of his sight. He used the restroom quickly, apologizing to Max for involving him in that. Then he bought some fast food and a carry-tray full of coffee, trying not to look at the trucker in the next line, the one who reminded him a little of Ronon.

Back in the car, Rodney let Max out to eat and do any business of his own, pouring him a little of the bottled water he'd packed. As he waited for that, he rested his head on the steering wheel. Come on, guys, if you're there, get me out of here. Maybe it would show up on the monitors of the system holding him captive; maybe he could make the body he was trapped inside the head of speak the words. Get me out. Please. I'm here. I'm here.

The only sounds that answered him were the soft pings of the cooling engine and the crunch of Max's food.

When both sounds had stopped he turned to locate the cat, so he could put him back in the carrier. Max was flopped over on the back seat, lying in a patch of late afternoon sun, eyeing him reproachfully. Rodney knew he should put Max away, but the cat had been crying the whole time he drove — which was why Rodney even had the radio on in the first place, because he couldn't bear to listen to the complaints — and he looked content now. Besides, to get to him, Rodney would have to open a door, which Max might escape through, or twist around in ways likely to hurt his back. It wasn't all that safe, but he decided to let Max have his way, at least for now. No real need for both of them to feel trapped.

Why me? He could practically hear Sheppard's scorn at the question, but he meant it. Why did he have to be the one to start over all the time?

The piano had been his life, but then that was suddenly yanked away from him. He picked himself up and switched to science. Then the Stargate program came along and derailed his plans to become famous for his research if not for his music. He finally got Atlantis, and came to love it, and then the Ancients kicked him out. He fought his way back and now here he was, kicked out again. And that wasn't counting the timelines in which he drowned or gave up the second half of his life to find a way to bring Sheppard back.

He was sick to death of being toyed with, of having everything he loved snatched away.

And then there were all the times he held the city only by superhuman effort, like the Genii attack during the storm, or the siege, or that awful flight from Lantea. Or the many, many times he personally had nearly died. Why the hell did his entire life have to consist of being jerked around on a vast scale?

With a deep breath he started the car and got back on the highway. The road stretched away ahead of him, not endless but tediously long, just like this new life he didn't want. He swallowed a surge of anger and grief. He would make this work.

He had bridged realities. He had rewritten time. He had developed technologies the Ancients hadn't managed. He would damn well fix this.

He would build himself a solid foundation of national value and reputation and commercial stardom, giving him the reach and backing he would need. He had Carter's cursed device to take apart, to find his way home; if that didn't work, he would make a new home. If he was captive to the Replicators, he would bore them into letting them go. If he was in some VR, he would work on breaking free whenever no one was watching him.

And if he was really, truly in 2002 somehow, by some as-yet-unknown quantum anomaly or any other explanation, he would get home again or prove it a fantasy to his own satisfaction. He would track down the people who mattered, if they existed. Air Force pilots weren't secret — was Sheppard in Afghanistan yet? For the first time he regretted never having given a damn about anyone's life before Atlantis. Was Zelenka actually in Prague now? Was he publishing? And Grodin, god. Elizabeth and Carson. Ford, if he was out of high school yet. Griffin. Gall, Abrams, Dumais, Lindstrom. The rest of that entire grim roll call. But Jennifer, too, and Simpson and Kusanagi, Esposito and Campbell. Even Parrish and Brown, the botanical Wonder Twins. He had hundreds of names, and he could check if they existed and if there was any way he might have heard their names but built a fantasy around them. If he could find evidence that he hadn't made up the versions he knew, he could keep an eye on them, make sure they ended up with the program — and make sure that if the program found the clues to Atlantis, he could force his way back in.

That option would only give him a few years to work with, so he would have to make them count. Everyone thought he had an ego before? He was going to explode into public consciousness with so much in so many fields so fast they couldn't possibly silence him. A real research program would take too long to establish, so he would have to start with software, and maybe internet publication of some basic concepts. He should probably knock out an introductory text early on, so that could make its way through some publisher's process while he built his reputation. Once he had enough material to establish credibility, he would work out a deal with a university and get the basics of a real program in place, just in case Atlantis wasn't found by the time it should be.

Sadly enough, the remedial education he was about to give the world was more likely to produce the Nobel he deserved than any of his real, legitimately groundbreaking work. He was shocked to realize that he would give that up in a heartbeat if doing so would get him home. The man he had been in 2002 would have laughed himself sick at any such suggestion — and really, he wasn't sure he would have believed it himself even a few days ago, looking out over San Francisco Bay.

Maybe it took losing everything that mattered for him to see, but he understood now. And he was going to fight like hell to get it back.

I'm coming. He sniffled and cleared his throat, and added allergies in the hope he needed to. I'll find a way back, somehow. Wait for me. Help me, if you can, if you're there to hear me. I'll make it back. I'm coming home.


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