Spoilers: Through "Common Ground"
Summary: "He touched something he shouldn't have, and it killed him." But in the Pegasus Galaxy, death is not necessarily the end ... not when you have friends prepared to do whatever it takes to get you back. McKay/Weir/Sheppard friendship.
Elizabeth tilted her head back, looking up at the moss-laced gray towers of the building that was officially known as P3M-7R2-002: the second complex of buildings that the survey teams had discovered on P3M-7R2. Sheppard had taken one look and immediately dubbed it Castle Grayskull. It had seemed funny to all of them at the time. Not a whole lot about the situation was funny now.
"The science team are -- were working on the level below the surface, ma'am," Lorne told her. The correction was so swift that she might not have noticed it, if not for the flicker of some indefinable emotion in his eyes, before his brows lowered in a frown. "The stairs are on your left. You know that the Colonel's orders --"
"Thank you, Major. Yes, I know." Elizabeth stepped over a fat power conduit lying on the ground like a fat gray snake, and slipped through the building's tall double doors, hanging loosely on broken hinges. Vines crawled up their carved surfaces, climbing over the once-beautiful friezes depicting fantastic hydra-like monsters.
Inside, the ruins were illuminated by the harsh white glare of portable arc lights, powered by a generator outside. In some ways the lights concealed as much as they revealed, casting impenetrable pools of shadow in corners and behind crumbled statues. Part of the ceiling had collapsed at some point in the distant past, letting in rain and weather and more questing vines. Although it was mid-afternoon on Atlantis, night had just fallen on P3M-7R2, and a slim white thumbnail of moon was visible through the gap in the roof.
Elizabeth picked her way through puddles and around a fuzzy purple fungus that stood nearly as high as her chest. A white tag was visible where the botany teams had marked it for later study, back when this was just another ruin to study, and not a tomb.
Leaving Atlantis, on the rare occasions when the situation was desperate enough to warrant it, always left Elizabeth with mixed feelings. In a way, she liked to have an opportunity to contribute on the same level as the gate teams -- to show her people, and herself, that she stayed cloistered safely in her tower out of necessity and not cowardice. That she didn't ask anyone to do anything that she wasn't willing to do herself. But maybe she really was a coward, because there was also the lingering fear that she couldn't quite shake -- damn it, she read every single one of the teams' reports, and no one knew more thoroughly than Elizabeth how dangerous this galaxy could be.
The stairs are on your left. She found them easily enough, a wide flight of cracked stone steps. Even if they'd been more subtle, though, she could have followed the sound of muffled but strident arguing coming from below -- the words indecipherable, but the stress, exhaustion and anger coming through loud and clear.
Another power conduit snaked down the steps. She followed it, and the increasing volume of the argument, into a long gallery lined with two parallel rows of statues alternating with waist-high metal pillars holding glass globes atop them. Elizabeth's eyes skimmed over the pillars -- they were clearly technological, and she saw far too much alien technology on Atlantis to feel like staring at it on another world; that was the scientists' area, anyway -- and lingered on the statues. Each was unique and all of them depicted strange, fantastic beasts, executed with skill that would have put Michelangelo to shame, and yet with an ethereal, exotic feeling to them. The anthropologists wouldn't even venture a guess as to who or what had built this building or the others they'd found; the unknown builders had left plenty of art and technology behind, but nothing of themselves. However, Elizabeth didn't think they had been human. She couldn't even say why she was so sure. Something about the building, and the art in particular, made her think that it was not designed to be viewed by human eyes, human minds.
Not for the first time, she wished that they had a Daniel Jackson on their expedition -- someone who was a genius for understanding alien languages and behavior the way that Rodney was a genius with technology or John for flying things. Teyla was good enough, a genius in her own way, but her knowledge was too limited to help in a situation like this one. Not in time, anyway.
She ran her fingers lightly over the inscription on one of the statues, brushing away dust and mold. It was a derivative of Ancient, she was fairly sure. Zelenka had people searching the database, but she'd still been up all night, poring over the gigabytes of photos that the scientists had taken of the ruins and the inscriptions before John chased them out. The writing in the photos, blurred by moss and time, would have been difficult to decipher under the best circumstances. Still, she thought she might have begun to get a grasp on it, and what she had learned from the inscriptions in the photos made her wonder whether to fear or hope.
She passed the final statue and stepped out into a wide round room with a dais in the middle. John was pacing atop the raised area, short choppy steps that took him from one side to the other and back again, all the while punctuating his words with quick, hard motions of his hands -- particularly the hand holding the gun. Elizabeth knew him well enough to read the signs of manic exhaustion in his too-fast movements and his too-loud words. The dais was small enough that he had to detour around Rodney with each circuit. Rodney, of course, was completely unresponsive to that or anything else.
"We've been through this, Carson, and I'm going hoarse from telling you. I'm not going to say it again. The answer is no."
Carson stood at the edge of the dais, one step from falling off -- he'd apparently retreated as far from the Colonel as he could get. His back was to Elizabeth, but as she approached, she could see the exhaustion in the slump of his shoulders, too. It amazed and impressed her that he was still up there. After the first time John pointed a gun at him, she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd left, as the others had -- but he was still there.
"You think you're getting tired of --" Beckett swallowed, drew a deep breath, and started over. "Colonel, he's dead. I don't want to believe it any more than you do, but I don't think there's any way around it. He has no vital signs and he's been that way for nearly twenty-four hours. Whatever that ... stuff is currently doing to him, it's not keeping him alive."
John stopped in his next circuit to pick up one of Rodney's limp arms. Something fine and silvery was visible, briefly, trailing from the slate-colored jacket sleeve to the floor; Elizabeth saw it flash in the harsh glare of the arc lights. This was the first time she'd seen it for herself, since it was too fine to show up in the pictures that had been transmitted back to Atlantis. Allowing Rodney's arm to flop back to the stone floor, Sheppard straightened and glared defiantly at Beckett. "I've seen dead people, Carson, okay? I've seen people in all stages of death, believe me. And someone who's been dead for over a day is going to experience rigor mortis at some point. You're a doctor, dammit. I shouldn't have to tell you--"
"So what's your explanation, then, Colonel?" Carson's voice rose above Sheppard's, cracking with weariness and pain. "He's not in a stasis chamber, he's not on any form of life support that we can detect, he doesn't have anything strange in his bloodstream, he's simply dead. A few minutes without oxygen, Colonel -- that's how long it takes brain cells to begin to die. You told me yourself that you think he may have been like this for as long as half an hour before Teyla found him. It really doesn't matter how long you performed CPR after that. He touched something he shouldn't have, it killed him, and now we're arguing about whether or not to -- bloody hell." He raised his hand to his face, his shoulders slumping further still.
Sheppard started to turn away, something dark and dangerous in his face; but as he turned, looking past Carson, he saw Elizabeth. She'd thought he'd been tense before, but now his whole body went rigid as a board. "Damn it, Elizabeth! I told you not to come here. It isn't safe."
"That's not why you don't want me here, and we both know it." Seeing his finger twitch on the trigger guard, she held out both her hands so that he could see she held nothing in them. John wasn't crazy, she reminded herself, just frightened and grieving and angry. She was confident that he wouldn't shoot at a friend. So was Carson, obviously, or he wouldn't have stayed.
John's voice rose, furious. "Elizabeth, we have no idea what happened to Rodney or how he triggered it -- there is no way in hell I'm letting anybody else run around loose in this room! I told Lorne to --"
"Yes, I know. But I am in charge of this expedition, John. Your orders don't apply to me."
"Yes, you're in charge, which is exactly why you can't -- damn it, Elizabeth!" He ran a hand across his face and whirled away, turning his back to her.
Elizabeth nodded to Beckett, who was staring worriedly between the two of them. "Carson, I'd like to talk to John alone, if you don't mind."
"Elizabeth ..." He sighed, then, and wearily dropped down from the dais to the floor. "Fine, please. Be my guest. If you can make him see sense ..."
"Carson." She caught at his hand as he went past her, stopping him. "Carson ... how sure are you? About Rodney?"
The eyes that met hers were red-rimmed and haunted. "About as sure as a person can be sure of anything in this bloody galaxy ... which is to say, no, I can't rule out the possibility that there's some force at work here that we don't understand. Clearly, he's connected to something, and someone or something must have done that for a reason, although Zelenka says that he can't find anything resembling a computer down here, and there's nothing alive on this planet that's more advanced than a plant."
"But it's still possible that he could be --"
"He's flatlined, Elizabeth. No brain activity, no metabolic activity at all. We haven't put him on life support because there's simply no point. It was much too late for our technology when we got here. Right now, it's some sort of alien miracle or nothing." His lips curved slightly in a sad smile. "Rodney might call medicine a pseudoscience, but it is a science. I'm a scientist. And I can tell you that there's no scientific process I know of that can bring him back to us."
"I see," she whispered, her throat tight. Her eyes went up to John, standing rigid at the edge of the dais, not looking at her.
"At some point, one of us has to make the call." Carson looked away from her, staring at the wall. Maybe it was just the harsh light that made him look ten years older than the man she knew so well. "John won't let go easily. Nor should he. What about you?"
Her breath caught. In her office, staring at blurry photographs on her computer screen, she had thought her hopes and fantasies impossible. Here, surrounded by shadows and alien statues, it was a little easier to believe in miracles. "I don't know, Carson. I've begun to decipher their language and I've made a few guesses about what these people were trying to do here. I'm not ready to give up yet."
She hadn't realized that she still held his fingers trapped in hers, until he squeezed lightly. "If there's something you want to try, dear ... please, try it. And if I can help you in any way, call me. I'll see that you aren't crowded. Just remember that the needs ..." His voice broke a little. "The needs of the living outweigh the needs of the dead, by a long shot, and John's been down here for over a day without food or sleep. You're probably not in much better shape."
She returned the hand-squeeze, and let go. "I did bring a couple of sandwiches with me. I'll see if I can get him to eat something. Fair?"
He tried to laugh. It wasn't very convincing. "Fair enough, but give me a call if he -- if you need -- if anything changes, Elizabeth."
She turned her head, watching him leave, and then walked up to the base of the dais, tilting her head back to look up at Sheppard's tense figure. "He's hurting too, John."
"Funny, that's not how it looks from here," Sheppard said without turning around. "Looks to me like he's the one who's trying to drag Rodney off to the morgue."
There were no stairs leading up to the raised area, that she could see. It was about waist high. Still, she did spend three days a week in the Atlantis gym, and she hoisted herself up without difficulty. John spun around, facing her across Rodney's still form. The gun remained down, pointing at the floor, and the arm that held it trembled with strain. "Elizabeth, leave."
"I'm sorry. No."
He took a long, shuddering breath and for a moment, she could see the weariness that he must be feeling come down upon him, nearly crushing him. Carson had told her that John had performed CPR on Rodney, nonstop, for three hours. And none of them had slept in nearly two days. There were fine tremors in her own legs as she stood, facing one of her two closest friends across the body of the other.
"I won't let them take him, Elizabeth."
"I know. I agree with you. I don't think he's dead either, John."
Shadowed, wary eyes raised to meet hers. She could see suspicion in their depths, and she didn't blame him. He'd chased Zelenka, Beckett, his own team out of the room at gunpoint; he knew, had to know, that Elizabeth had come to talk him down.
At least, that was what she'd told the others. It was what she'd told herself, back on Atlantis. But here ... here it was easier to believe that the things she'd read in those blurry photos might actually be truth, and not myths.
"I'm not lying to you, John. I believe you. I've been deciphering the inscriptions and I think I know what this place is for, and why it affected Rodney but not SGA-4 when they originally surveyed the planet."
His face, normally difficult to read, was open to her now -- she could see hope and suspicion chase each other across his features. "Tell me."
Elizabeth folded her knees and sat down, cross-legged, beside Rodney. A quicksilver bolt of fear went through her, because if she was wrong about the mental component to the system's activation -- but nothing happened, and she felt nothing other than cold stone under her hips. Without thinking, she placed her hand on Rodney's arm. It was stone-cold to the touch. No wonder Carson was so insistent that he was dead. Doubt swept over her, but she swallowed it back; she had to believe, or they were all lost. "Come here and sit down, and I'll tell you."
John stepped over Rodney's legs and sat next to her. "Okay, Elizabeth, give."
She shoved a sandwich at him. "Carson made me promise that I'd make you eat something. You eat, I talk."
Reluctantly he unwrapped the sandwich, while Elizabeth folded her hand tightly over Rodney's arm, and spoke quietly. "The inscriptions refer to this place as a judging place of the gods. At first I thought that it referred to a belief that their gods governed over the application of justice -- not at all an uncommon belief throughout the history of many worlds, including our own. But as I continued to read the inscriptions, I came to believe something entirely different."
She ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. Vividly, she remembered the moment of realization. It had come to her as she sat in her office, eyes burning from lack of sleep and from the tears she would not shed, decrypting inscriptions because she could do nothing else to help, and silently monitoring the chatter over the radio as John's men dealt with an increasingly violent and irrational Lieutenant Colonel. Feeling her life spin out of control, as one of the two men she relied on lay dead on an alien world, and the other slipped beyond her ability to reach him.
It was then that understanding had struck her with the force of a thunderclap.
"It's not a judging place of the gods, it's a judging place for the gods," she explained. Her fingers chafed lightly at Rodney's still arm, though she assumed he could not feel it. "A subtle but important grammatical difference. The inscriptions go on to speak of judging and punishing gods who had committed crimes against mortals. I think this place is designed to trap gods -- Ancients -- and put them through some form of trial. Not to kill them, but to hold them until a judgment could be reached."
She risked a look at John. The gun lay in his lap, apparently forgotten, beside the untouched sandwich; he was leaning forward eagerly, his hazel-green eyes fixed on her face. "So Rodney's in some sort of stasis ... or something?"
"Or something," she agreed. "If I am reading their language correctly, this would have been the judging facility only. The actual prison was somewhere else, on another world. So this place was not designed to hold an Ancient for very long."
"But why does it think Rodney's a -- Oh. The gene." He frowned. "But Carson and I both have the gene, too. Why hasn't it affected us?"
This, at least, was easy to answer. "It can only hold one at a time. Rodney had to be the first person who came in here with the gene. SGA-4 has only one ATA gene carrier, their pilot, and he was running aerial surveys in a puddlejumper while the rest of the team explored on foot, as your team did. He never came close to this facility; I checked."
That was part of it, at least. The other part was pure conjecture on her part, and John didn't need to know it. Didn't ever need to know it.
John was rubbing his hands together, as if trying to warm them. "Okay, so we know what happened to him -- sort of -- and we sort of know why. Now how do we get him out?"
Ah yes, that was the question, wasn't it? Elizabeth looked away from his too-hopeful eyes, glancing instead down at Rodney's pale face. There was a blueish tinge to his skin. She had to fight off an impulse to reach out and brush the scattered strands of short brown hair from his forehead. Dead or not, the Rodney McKay that she knew wouldn't have appreciated the gesture.
"I haven't got a clue, I'm afraid."
Actually, she did have a clue, but she wasn't about to say anything until she was a little more sure of her facts. The answer, she hoped, would lie on the frescos and carvings scattered around the room.
There was a solid-sounding smack and she looked up to see that John had struck his thigh with his fist. "There's got to be some way."
Elizabeth pushed herself up off the stone floor. "I'm sure there is, and I intend to find it. I'm going to take a closer look at some of these carvings. Surely there are instructions or at least some mythic references. Carson said he'd buy us some time."
John snorted. "A few minutes ago, Carson was ready to sedate me and cart me off to the infirmary while Biro started carving up Rodney. How do you do it? Do you have a self-help course out there that I could take? The 'Elizabeth Weir Method' ..."
"Eat your sandwich," she said, smiling -- and she thought it might be the first time she'd smiled in all the hours since the call had come in, yesterday, through the suddenly activating gate, Ronon's harsh, breathless voice speaking the words they all dreaded: Atlantis, we need a medical team ...
Jumping down from the dais, she began to walk around the room. She carried a small flashlight in her pocket and she used it to examine the carvings more closely. As she'd hoped, it was much easier to read the inscriptions in person rather than through the photos. Drawing out a notebook, she began to scribble notes on the letterforms in her own personal shorthand. It was easy to lose herself in this, to forget that Rodney's life -- assuming he still lived -- hung in the balance. She could have been a simple linguist, and been happy. Instead, she was responsible for the fate of a city, and equally, for the fates of a handful of people who meant more than the world to her.
One of them lay on the dais in the middle of the room, not breathing, not moving. Another sat next to him, slumped loosely on the stone with an outward casualness that didn't fool Elizabeth for a minute. He was watching her like a hawk. When he noticed that she, too, was watching him out of the corner of her eye, he took a self-conscious bite of the sandwich and tried to grin at her.
Oh, John, I want to find a way to undo this. For you, for me, for all of us.
She allowed herself to sink back into the simple pleasure of puzzle-solving, tuning out the world. The crackle of her radio jolted her out of her reverie.
"Dr. Weir? It's Kate."
"Kate. Hi." She tucked the flashlight in the crook of her shoulder so that she could use her free hand, the one not holding the notebook, to wipe mold off a particularly weathered fresco.
"How is it going down there?"
"Fine. No problems." Stealing a peek at Sheppard, she saw him watching her with a furrow between his brows. He'd taken off his radio hours ago, when Elizabeth's own voice had joined the chorus of those insisting that he get his ass back to Atlantis now.
"Is the Colonel ready to come up willingly, do you think?"
"I didn't come down here to coerce him into doing anything, Kate."
"I take it that means 'no'."
She sighed, scribbled another quick note in the rudimentary grammar that she was putting together. This would be so much easier if people weren't talking to her. She had a fleeting instant of sympathy for Rodney's habitual rudeness at being interrupted. "I'm working on it, Kate. And I ask you again to let me handle this. I know John well, and standard techniques aren't going to work on him."
"I respect that, Elizabeth. Really, I do. But it's also my responsibility to protect the mental health of everyone in this city, and ..." The psychiatrist's voice trailed off; she seemed uncharacteristically uncertain of her words. "You are very close to this situation."
"I can do my job, Kate."
"I never said you couldn't. Please also let me do mine."
"As long as yours does not involve coming down here before I give you permission. I'm serious, Kate -- that's an order. I know you're just doing your job. Let me do mine, please."
"I respect that, Elizabeth. I do. But please understand that I will act as I see fit to fulfill my responsibilities to the people in this city. Just as I'm sure you will."
"Thank you, Kate. I'm sure we'll both do our best."
On that ambiguous note, she signed off and looked over at Sheppard. He couldn't have heard the conversation from where he was, at least not most of it, but he guessed, "Heightmeyer?"
"She's about ready to come down here and sedate us both, I think. And really, John ... I can't blame her. Looking at it from her point of view, our behavior does seem a bit irrational."
Sheppard bristled, the tension back in his shoulders. "You giving up too, Elizabeth?"
"No," she said simply, and went back to translating the inscriptions without another word, turning her back on him. After a few minutes, she heard the soft clatter of boots hitting the floor, and sensed the familiar presence behind her.
"Elizabeth..." His voice was rough and tired.
Briefly, Elizabeth found herself wishing that John was ... someone else. Not anyone specific, just someone she could lean into, someone who would support her and push her back up. Her throat ached with unshed tears, with the fear that she was wrong and Rodney was truly, irredeemably dead. She wanted someone to hold her and share her fear and tell her that it would be all right. John might be as terrified as she was, in fact she was sure of it, but he wasn't a person who would give in to that kind of weakness. Obviously he'd come over here to offer her something, maybe try to struggle through an apology or a thank-you. However, navigating through the uncertain waters of John Sheppard emotions was not something that she had the strength for right now. Nor, she suspected, did he.
She swallowed and turned to give him a small, strained smile. "Hold the flashlight for me?"
He nodded and took it, obviously glad to have something useful to do, no matter how small. Elizabeth went back to studying the inscriptions, occasionally making notes in her book, but less often now. It was starting to come easier to her.
She was vaguely aware of John studying her profile. "Find something?"
"Maybe." She didn't offer more than that, hating to give anything away before she was sure. He let her alone and held the flashlight in silence. When Elizabeth turned and walked briskly back to the dais, he followed her, still silent, though she could sense impatience and curiosity coiling inside him like a tightly wound spring.
For the first time since entering the temple, she looked at Rodney -- really looked at him. He lay sprawled on his back as if the tension had gone out of his muscles and he'd simply collapsed. Not visible at first glance were the fine, translucent fibers that came up through nearly microscopic cracks in the stone of the dais, forming a web across Rodney's limbs, back and head. The scientific and medical teams' scans had indicated that the fibers weren't connected to anything, and didn't seem to be doing anything. They merely terminated in the stone, a few inches down. Similarly, though they penetrated the outer layers of Rodney's skin, they didn't seem to be connected to any vital systems. They were inorganic -- mainly silicon, Zelenka said -- but resembled nothing so much as the fibers of an overgrown mold. Except they didn't appear to grow or change or engage in cellular respiration. They just ... were.
She could definitely see why Beckett had been willing to give Rodney up for dead. There was simply no logical or scientific way he could be alive. His skin was so pale that it was nearly blue, and as she'd seen for herself earlier, he was as cold as the stone upon which he lay. It was entirely possible that the myths she was interpreting as fact were actually just myths, after all. It was also possible that technology designed for a different sort of physiology would not work on humans, and that Rodney was dead even though the system wasn't designed to work that way.
Her eyes traced the soft line of Rodney's jaw, the sweep of his light eyelashes against too-pale skin. She had noticed before, on her all-too-frequent infirmary vigils, that there was something very vulnerable about Rodney when he was unconscious, with all his layers of well-fortified emotional defenses stripped away.
Damn it, these people were co-workers and subordinates, fellow exiles in a new galaxy; they were never meant to be family, people that she would sacrifice herself for in a heartbeat. What she was about to try was foolhardy, stupid and probably wouldn't work.
And she was going to do it anyway.
"Elizabeth?" John's voice carried a whole world of worry and hope. She didn't dare look at him. Instead, she opened the notebook on the dais in front of her, and began to speak.
"Like I said before, John ... this place was specifically designed to bring to justice Ancients who had committed crimes against mortals. It's all couched in very flowery, mythic language, but as far as I can tell, the trial itself was -- is -- conducted by the facility itself. However, the Ancient who was on trial had to have an ordinary person -- that is, a non-gene carrier -- speak for them. Represent them to the non-Ancients of the world, if you will."
Sheppard wasn't a slow man. "You're saying someone without the gene has to go in after him."
"There's no way I can go?" he asked hopefully.
"No. It wouldn't work. One gene carrier at a time, remember?" She ran her hands over the notebook pages. "The inscriptions speak over and over of how the 'god must stand alone' -- I gather it's some kind of safety feature to keep other Ancients from intervening in the trial." Frowning, she looked up at the temple around them. "I can't believe they got away with something like this, honestly. That the Ancients let them do it."
Sheppard shrugged a little. "Maybe the Ancients didn't know. Heck, maybe they didn't get away with it. Notice they're all gone now."
A wry smile twisted her mouth. "You do have a way of getting to the heart of things, John." Gripping the edge of the dais, she hoisted herself onto it.
Sheppard's face had gone a few shades paler. He looked almost as white as Rodney. "You're really doing this?"
"I can't ask anyone else to take a risk I'm not willing to take."
"I sure as hell can! Atlantis needs you."
"A minute ago, you were willing to do it."
He glared at her. "That's different."
"Different? I don't think so." She lay down on the dais, having very little idea how to proceed, but knowing that John would be a lot more likely to accept her decision if she looked like she knew what she was doing. She told herself that he couldn't hear her heart pounding against her ribs. It was only audible to her. "The myths say that the speaker for the accused -- they call it an Advocate -- can enter and leave the 'place of judging' at will. I should be able to get out easily, if I need to."
"You're putting a lot of faith in a myth, Elizabeth."
Turning her head to the side, she met his eyes squarely. "I know that, John. But it's all we've got. It's all he's got."
He leaned a hip against the edge of the dais. Mr. Casual, Mr. 'I Don't Care' -- except for his eyes, his betraying eyes giving him away. His eyes broke her heart. "If this puts you in the same state as Rodney, Elizabeth, I don't know how long I can hold off Carson and his medical goon squad."
"Carson's on our side, John. I'd be more worried about Kate, if I were you."
He chuckled weakly. "Never thought I'd have you for a co-conspirator, Elizabeth. I kinda like you this way."
"Don't be thinking I'll make a habit of it." She closed her eyes and told herself that she wasn't putting one person's welfare above the safety of Atlantis. She was doing this for Atlantis. They couldn't survive without Rodney. Pushing aside worry and guilt, she tried to do what she imagined that John and the other gene carriers did when they used Ancient technology, and willed it to happen, willed herself to be with Rodney, wherever he was.
There was a sensation not unlike falling asleep, but with full, conscious awareness -- in a matter of seconds, her limbs grew heavy and tingling and numb, and she felt as if she was falling. Gasping, she tried instinctively to struggle, and found herself crouching on a cold stone floor.
"John --?" she began, raising her head, and froze. She was in the same room, and yet, it wasn't the same. Gone were the stark electric lights, the millennia of mold and seepage on the walls. Instead, the frescos were bright and new, the walls clean, the statues undamaged. The place was lit by warm, omnidirectional golden light that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The dais still stood in the middle of the room -- currently some twenty feet or so in front of her -- but on top of it was a startling contraption that instantly made Elizabeth think of some kind of medieval torture device, except that it didn't seem to be designed to hurt, only to contain. It was glassine and transparent, only slightly larger than its sole occupant, with rows of wicked-looking spikes pointing inward. And inside ...
"Rodney!" Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and took a quick step forward, only to be brought up short as if she'd hit an invisible wall.
"Are you the Advocate who speaks for the Accused?" The voice, like the light, was soft and warm and seemed to come from all around her.
Elizabeth straightened. "I am," she said, and as her hands went instinctively to smooth down the sides of her uniform, she discovered that she wasn't wearing her uniform at all. Instead, it had been replaced with a soft gray robe that whispered around her legs.
Rodney was wearing something similar; it looked shapeless and rumpled on his slumped body. He'd stiffened a little in his glass cage upon seeing Elizabeth, only to slump again when her forward motion was halted. She couldn't tell how aware of his surroundings he really was; his eyes had a glazed, drugged look to them, and he hadn't tried to speak -- which, with Rodney, was a major warning sign.
"State your name and relationship to the Accused."
"My name is Dr. Elizabeth Weir. The, er, Accused works under me in a place called Atlantis. I'm his boss." Clearing her throat, she asked, "And may I ask, who am I addressing?"
"We are the Voice of Judgment."
Curiosity bubbled up in her -- was it (they?) a computer, a person, an Ascended being? Was she talking to the builders of the temple themselves? Clasping her hands in front of her, Elizabeth reminded herself that the important thing wasn't to assuage her curiosity, but to get Rodney and herself out of this place.
"May I ask what the Accused is accused of?"
"The crimes of the Accused are as follows." Elizabeth, looking straight at Rodney, saw him stiffen again, as the omnipresent voice began a litany that made Elizabeth, also, stiffen in horror. "In reverse chronological order: abandonment and subsequent death of John Sheppard. Deaths of over a hundred civilians, formerly Wraith. Giving away location of Earth to Wraith. Death of James Griffin. Death of --"
As the voice droned on, Elizabeth thought, with a sinking feeling of horror, I was right. This was the part she hadn't mentioned to John. Various parts of the myth stated things like "The crimes of the guilty are read from the pages of the book of the heart" and "The strongest cage is made of guilt." Elizabeth had feared -- accurately, it seemed -- that this meant the facility worked off of a person's own feelings of guilt over their actions, rather than any sort of objective ideal of justice. It had captured Rodney because it detected his feelings of guilt over the things he'd done in the Pegasus Galaxy -- including the many that weren't his fault.
Looking at Rodney, she saw that his eyes were closed and he'd sagged within his glass cage until he was nearly touching the spikes. She wondered if the cage was a tangible manifestation of his perceived guilt over his actions. Half-listening to the Voice of Judgment, she noticed that it had listed Sheppard's death at least three different times, and she'd heard Teyla and Ronon's names in there as well.
This is ridiculous. Half these things he hasn't done, and the other half aren't his fault. But guilt wasn't rational; it paid no heed to facts or actual culpability. Which makes it a very stupid thing to base a system of justice upon, Elizabeth thought. Perhaps, she mused, it was a measure of the psychological differences between the builders of this facility and the humans who came after them. Maybe to these unknown aliens, the idea that a person might feel guilty for something which wasn't their fault was an entirely unknown concept. The idea that feelings of guilt might be separate from actual, objective guilt might never have occurred to them.
It made her wonder, again, that the Ancients had allowed the construction of such a place ... but perhaps they hadn't known. Perhaps it had never been used for its intended purpose at all, only built and abandoned, like so many other things, on so many other worlds in this galaxy.
The terrible litany finally stopped. After a moment's silence, the Voice of Judgment said, "You may now speak in defense of the Accused."
"Certainly." Elizabeth tried not to look at Rodney. His eyes were still shut; his face, his posture, all screamed of utter defeat. "The charges that you have listed are all false. I will proceed to refute them."
This would have been so much easier in a human court. She wondered what arguments would sway this alien entity, with its unknown ideas of justice. What sort of evidence, if any, it would accept in Rodney's defense.
"I will begin with your first charge, the abandonment and death of John Sheppard. John is not dead; he is very much alive. His team did not abandon him. He was captured, through no fault of their own. They -- we -- worked tirelessly to find him, and eventually did." In a way, she found that she was having to convince herself as much as her audience -- she still had nightmares of John withered and aged, dying before their eyes -- before her eyes -- while they could do nothing to help him. It didn't surprise her to learn that it still haunted Rodney, too. "Your second charge, the deaths of the Wraith, ignores the fact that Rodney was, first of all, acting under orders, and second, that by performing that action, he saved Atlantis from discovery and therefore saved the lives of everyone there, as well as the entire Milky Way Galaxy ..."
As she spoke, Elizabeth couldn't help worrying about Rodney's continued lack of reaction. It was as if he'd already given up. And, if she was right about the nature of this place, it might not be the Voice of Judgment who had to be convinced of Rodney's innocence -- but Rodney himself.
Paradoxically, it was a little easier watching Elizabeth go limp and boneless and, eventually, start cooling off, just like a corpse, just like Rodney. At least in this case, Sheppard knew what to expect. He didn't know if she'd wake up again, but at least he knew it was going to happen.
Not like yesterday. He and Ronon had been poking around the surface levels of the temple, while Teyla and Rodney explored the lower levels, when Teyla's worried voice had come across the radio. "Dr. McKay? Rodney? Come in, please."
Sheppard had keyed his radio with a slight grin. "Come on, Teyla, I give you one job ..." He knew from experience how hard it could be to keep track of Rodney at times. It was still funny, all funny, just a big joke. "C'mon, McKay, you're freaking out Teyla. Say something."
Amusement had changed quickly to worry, and the scientist hunt was on in earnest. Somehow Rodney had gone one way while Teyla had gone another. She was beside herself with guilt; she'd been fascinated by the carvings on the walls, and hadn't even noticed that he wasn't with her. She had no idea how long he'd been missing.
"Not your fault. There's no animal life on this planet; unless a plant got him, he's gotta be down there somewhere. Probably so engrossed in some piece of Ancient crap that he's not answering his radio. I'll kick his ass when we find him ..."
But there had been no ass-kicking, just Teyla's uncharacteristically panic-stricken voice over the radio: "Colonel, I have found him -- we will need a medical team, now." And he'd sent Ronon running for the Stargate; damn it, they hadn't brought a puddlejumper because SGA-4 had reported that there was nowhere near the ruins to land one, which meant a two-hour trip back to the gate even for Ronon ... and meanwhile, he and Teyla performed CPR on Rodney's limp body; and they must have broken just about every rib in his chest, but Sheppard didn't care, if only it helped, if only they weren't too late.
Now Elizabeth was sprawled next to Rodney, like a marionette with her strings cut, and Sheppard was so goddamn tired. He slumped down on the edge of the raised platform-thingie -- there was probably a name for it, Elizabeth or Rodney would have known, and what he wouldn't give to have either one of them wake up and tell him. He rested his aching head in his hands.
The soft voice was Beckett's. Sheppard's head snapped up, driving a shallow spike of pain through the base of his skull. He focused bleary eyes on the doctor standing in the open doorway, hands spread at his sides in a clear attempt to appear non-threatening. Sheppard felt a slight grin curve the corners of his mouth. "Time's up, huh, Carson?"
Beckett stepped into the room, cautiously, as if he were approaching a wild animal or a frightened child rather than a friend and equal. His eyes went from Sheppard to the two bodies lying beside him, and he let out a soft breath. "Oh, Colonel, what have you two done?"
"Elizabeth thinks Rodney's being held prisoner." Sheppard's hand closed lightly over the cold butt of his Beretta. God, he didn't want to point it at a friend, but he would if he had to. "She went in to retrieve him. Couple of hours ago." He glanced at his watch and smiled thinly. "More like six hours, I guess."
Carson approached slowly, stopping when Sheppard's hand grew tight on the gun. "She told me that she had an idea. Something she thought could help. Did she tell you what she was planning?" At Sheppard's slight nod, the doctor asked, "Want to tell me?"
"It's some kind of ... prison for Ancients." And once he started talking, the words came pouring out in a rush. While Sheppard told him about Elizabeth's speculations, Beckett came closer with one cautious step after another, finally sitting down with a comfortable buffer of space between them.
When he finished speaking, Sheppard stared at his hands for a moment, clasped on his knees with the gun resting between them. Then he looked up at Beckett. "You haven't tried to jump over here and sedate me yet, Doc. That's gotta be a good sign."
Beckett gave a small, unhappy-sounding laugh. "Elizabeth said she'd try to get you to eat something."
"She gave me a sandwich."
"And you ate it, then?"
A flash of humor managed to surface, despite the situation. "Yes, I ate it ... mother." The smile dropped away, and he asked, "So how close are they to sending in a contingent of Marines to drag me out of here?"
"It's nowhere near that point yet, Colonel, though there's some talk around the city -- well, you can guess the content of it." He looked away.
"Sheppard's snapped, basically. Not firing on all cylinders. The cheese slid off my cracker. A few pickles short in the ol' pickle jar."
Beckett winced. "I wasn't going to quite put it like that."
"Carson, I'm holed up in a dungeon guarding a corpse; I know what it looks like. Two corpses," he amended, looking at Elizabeth's still form.
"And you're going to stay down here, until ...?"
"Until they come back. And I know how it sounds, Carson. I know how it looks."
He risked a cautious sideward glance at the doctor, braced to see pity looking back at him. Instead, Beckett wore a slight but genuine smile.
"We got the latest labwork back, Colonel. Rodney's cellular structure is definitely not showing the kind of degradation that you'd expect in someone who's been dead at room temperature for thirty hours. I don't know how, I can't explain it, but it does seem as if his body's been -- stopped, somehow. I imagine that we'd find the same in Elizabeth."
Something deep within Sheppard went weak and shaky. "You're saying it is some kind of stasis."
"Nothing like any sort of stasis that we know. Even the Ancient stasis capsules merely slow down metabolism to its barest level; they don't halt it. When metabolism stops, by definition that is death, Colonel. Yet in this case, it's stopped and it hasn't progressed through the usual stages of ... decay." He winced a little as he said it. "We've already tried to resuscitate Rodney, more than once, and he didn't respond -- as you're well aware -- which means it's still out of our hands. But there is certainly something going on here that we don't understand."
"There's hope," Sheppard said softly.
"Aye, Colonel. There's hope." Carson attempted to make himself comfortable on the edge of stone. "And it happens that I don't have anywhere else to be at the moment -- the infirmary's empty, my patients all being located down here. Want some company?"
Had to cut this in half; it turned out to be too large to do as a single post on LJ. Continue to Part 2.