It's on AO3 if you want to read it: A Clear and Different Light.
naye was talking about it just recently at her journal (posts here and here) and this led to talking about the version of it that almost happened. Originally we had planned to cross over this 'verse with the canon 'verse, but when we hit that point in the plot (about 50K in) we started writing it, got about 7K into the crossover part, and realized that (for a number of reasons) it wasn't going to work; this was not the story that we wanted to tell, and the plot had to go a different way instead.
schneefink asked if she could see the alt-version, which we never actually posted anywhere, so rather than posting in naye's comments, I'm posting it here. This goes AU from the existing AU in Chapter 8, in which Rodney and Jeannie are constructing a gate to try to find Rodney's missing teammates. Originally it was going to have a very different outcome.
Arms crossed, Ronon sat at one side of the cave and watched them go through their portal preflight checklist. "North cables!" Rodney barked, ticking off items on a tablet computer.
"North cables, green light, sir!" Jeannie bellowed back, and added in a more normal voice, "I'm standing twenty feet away from you, Mer. I can hear you fine."
"This gonna take much longer?" Ronon wanted to know. "Teyla --"
"-- is the First Whale only knows where, and it's not like an extra half hour is going to make the slightest bit of difference if you go flying off looking for her." Rodney felt like a cad, but damn it, it was true. Wherever Teyla was, they had to assume she could handle herself until they could open a portal to her. "South cables!"
"Power circle one!"
"Green! I swear to goodness, Mer, if you don't stop yelling at me like a drill sergeant --"
Somehow they managed to get through the checklist without killing each other. Rodney gently, very gently, added the final line to each of the power circles. Even without magesight, even without checking his instruments as the gauges and digital readouts began to tick upwards, he could feel it -- a tension in the air, like the electricity that heralded an oncoming storm.
"Power is flowing," Jeannie reported. "Mer, should we try for Sheppard or Teyla first?"
Good question. He patted his pockets, turned to Ronon. "Hey, you got anything of Teyla's?"
"What, on me?" Ronon said, startled. "No."
"Sheppard it is, then." Back on Atlantis, near the beginning of this whole thing, he'd slipped into Sheppard's quarters and stripped some coarse black hairs out of the man's hairbrush. They'd been in a small plastic baggie in his pocket ever since. Now he slipped it out and laid it in the middle of the empty circle in front of the portal, then poked two wire leads into the ground at each side of the circle and hooked up his laptop. He could feel the fine hairs on his forearms bristling as the power in the cave ticked up another notch. "Ready? Where's the camera? Jeannie?"
"Here." She passed him the digital camera they'd brought from Earth. Sadly, it wasn't like they could walk off with a MALP without someone noticing -- but there was no way they'd be able to get a MALP up to a portal that was hovering fifty feet off the ocean, either.
One end of the camera bristled with a little antenna, very clearly a McKay after-market addition. Rodney turned it on and switched to video feed, then checked his laptop. In a small corner of the screen, a jolting display of the cave ceiling came up. He handed it off to Ronon. "Okay, I don't know how long we'll be able to hold a stable portal. When it opens, you --"
"Chuck it through and fly away like the shadow walkers are chasing me."
"Right ... more or less."
"Mer," Jeannie said, a note of alarm in her voice. "We're already getting some power instability. Should we abort?"
Rodney checked the readouts. The power was slightly unbalanced between the power circles; he typed into the laptop, adjusting the balance, and it began to settle down.
"I think we're good to go."
"Look at these fluctuations. It's going to be very hard to hold a stable portal for very long," Jeannie said. "I suggest we open the portal, throw the camera in, and close it as soon as we get a few seconds of whatever's on the other side. Otherwise we risk burning out everything."
"All right, yes yes, stating the obvious again. Can we proceed?" Rodney turned to see Ronon poised on the verge of launching himself from the cave. "Hold on there, cowboy; I want you out of the way while we establish the portal -- there's no telling how far out the event horizon is going to go." He sent out a wordless plea to the whales, but they'd already caught onto the proceedings and retreated to a safe distance.
"Ready?" Jeannie said.
"Ready." His finger poised over the key that would execute his hastily-written program, throwing open the power conduits and attempting to establish a lock on Sheppard. "Executing ... now."
He tapped the enter key.
For a moment, nothing visible happened; the only change was a sudden spike in the power readings. Then sparks cascaded from the hastily-constructed portal ring, little bolts of lightning chasing each other around the circle. The power readings began to flare wildly.
"Jeannie -- the fourth ring -- I've got the first --"
His fingers flew across the keyboard, manually balancing the power load as the portal sizzled and a sudden beam of blue light stabbed out from it, streaking across the water to be joined by another, and another. Rodney smelled the sharp scent of ozone and, more ominously, burning electrical insulation.
"It's drawing more power than we estimated," Jeannie gasped.
Rodney felt a sick, sharp twist in his stomach -- not just nerves, but the power circles sucking down ambient energy, including their own.
"We've almost got it," he breathed. "Just give it a minute more, let it establish a lock -- there!"
The McKay-Whale Portal didn't ka-whoosh like the Ancestral portals. Instead, it flashed, a quick bright flare of light -- and there was an open portal, shimmering above the ocean. Something in the ring gave a sharp, ominous pop and Rodney smelled smoke.
Ronon sprang from the cave and winged towards the portal. Rodney had a moment's panic that he was actually going to fly right in, but instead he veered off at the last moment, cocking his arm back and throwing the camera. It was a perfect pitch; the camera arced in a parabolic trajectory towards the rippling surface of the portal. At the same time, Rodney reached for his communication pendant, set to Sheppard's frequency.
"Sheppard! Sheppard, come in! Do you read me?"
No answer. His eyes were fixed to the tiny, tumbling shape of the camera, a glittering dot falling into the portal --
-- and pinging off the surface of something emerging from the portal. Something large, dark and completely unexpected.
What the hell?
"Mer!" Jeannie cried, as there was another loud, metallic pop from the ring. "We're losing power containment -- we have to shut it down!"
"Wait!" Something was half in and half out of the portal, something big and dark -- not as large as a whale, but larger than a city bus. It was gleaming and very obviously metal. Man-made. He'd never seen anything like it before and he had no clue what it was. It came free of the portal and fell exactly like the giant rock it resembled, hitting the water with an incredible splash. The tremendous cascade of water obscured the portal briefly.
"Sheppard!" Rodney shouted into his pendant one final time, but there was no answer, none at all. The camera was lost in the water somewhere, and the big dark pod, or whatever it was, was sinking into the sea. The cave reeked of electrical smoke.
The portal winked and died. There was a sudden, weird feeling that Rodney could only describe as a rush, like cold wind blowing over and through him, as the residual power was released into the environment. As he sat on his knees, stunned, the ring gave another loud popping sound and part of it burst into flames.
Jeannie shrieked and grabbed a fire extinguisher; Rodney joined her after a frozen instant, using his jacket to beat out a flaming cable. Even the sad little wad of Sheppard's hair had burst into flames. Rodney stomped on it.
"That was ..." Jeannie trailed off. There were smudges of soot on her face and her hair askew.
Rodney didn't answer. His head was cocked to one side. The whales were talking to him ... and, for the first time since he'd known them, they sounded freaked out.
Very freaked out.
Chapter Eight: Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto
John Sheppard was not having a good day.
It had started with no hot water in his quarters, which Rodney had assured him was a temporary malfunction and only affected his particular wing of the residential district of the city. It continued when the mess turned out to have just run out of all the chocolate muffins when he got there, half an hour late after having to go down to the gym to shower. Supplies had messed up on the last Daedalus run and given them four crates of the wrong caliber of ammo, which meant suddenly they were looking at a shortage until the next shipment, and screwed the hell out of the training schedules that he'd just spent an entire day drawing up. And then Rodney reminded him that he'd promised to take out a jumper for a flight over the Lantean ocean to test some new thing Rodney and Zelenka had been screwing with in the jumper's navigation systems.
"If we get lost, Rodney, so help me ..."
"We're not going to get lost, Colonel. Don't get your underwear in a bunch."
He was tempted to tell Rodney to just fly the damn jumper himself, but if something did go wrong and it did crash into the ocean, he didn't really want to have to fish a half-drowned scientist out from under 4000 feet of crushing seawater. Again. Once was more than enough.
And then Teyla wanted to come along, because the Athosians had apparently tasked her with going back out to the old village site to look for a few keepsakes that had been left behind in their all-too-hasty move to New Athos a few months earlier. And Ronon wanted to come because ... who knew, because he was bored, maybe. When Dr. Galeni, one of the hydrologists, asked if he could come too ("Just a short run up the coast, to check on some instruments we've deployed, it won't take a minute, Colonel") he finally drew the line.
"Everyone but me and Rodney gets dropped off on the mainland," he said over his shoulder. "Then we fly around, do these tests, and come back and pick you guys up. That way, if we drown, at least we won't all drown."
"We're not going to drown, Colonel," Rodney said in an exasperated tone from the shotgun seat.
"My experiments are a thousand miles farther north," Galeni complained. "What am I supposed to do, walk there?"
John clenched his jaw for a ten-count. "We'll make a run up the coast after I pick you guys up, how about that?"
"What am I supposed to do in the meantime?" the hydrologist whined.
"Have a picnic?" John offered.
"Or how about, I don't know, you could shut up," Rodney snapped over his shoulder.
John opened his mouth to say something about pots and kettles, but just then the windscreen and all the instruments whited out in a brief flash, and everything went dead. Stomach lurching, he yanked the controls, but he may as well have been piloting a very large brick. Luckily, they weren't very high, and they weren't going fast; they hit the water with a bone-jarring slap, but the jumper didn't break apart. Instead it began to turn slowly nose-down as it started to sink.
"Everyone okay back there?"
"No!" Galeni wailed. "I think I broke my finger!"
"We are fine, John," Teyla reassured him.
The words So, Rodney, nothing will go wrong, huh? hovered on the tip of John's tongue, but he wasn't cruel enough to actually say them aloud -- from the look of pale, frozen terror on Rodney's face, the scientist was reliving his previous jumper-and-ocean experience in living detail. There would be time to mock him later; right now, they needed to get out of the jumper fast. All that was visible out of the windshield was dark blue water. John prodded Rodney hard in the shoulder. "C'mon, McKay, move."
Shaking visibly, Rodney swung out of his seat. The floor was now canted at a steep angle. The controls were utterly dead, but John still tried the radio. "Atlantis, this is Sheppard. Come in, Atlantis."
No answer. He hadn't expected it. As he raised his head, for an instant he caught sight of a movement in the translucent water -- there and then gone, a giant body coursing through the deeps.
Great. More whales. Just what they needed. Probably best not to point that out to McKay. The faint beginnings of a headache stabbed at John's temples as he joined the rest of his team (plus a whimpering Galeni) at the uphill end of the jumper.
"Why don't we carry life rafts in these things?" Rodney demanded. "From now on, life rafts are going to be part of the emergency gear. On every jumper. No exceptions."
"Good idea," John agreed, feeling for the emergency release. He could hear the edge of panic in Rodney's voice. The headache was worse, pressing behind his eyes like a dull icepick. He only hoped that these whales kept their distance; bleeding from the nose and ears and passing out in the water would be bad. Very bad. "Okay, guys -- ready to swim?"
"What are we going to do, tread water until they send a rescue party? It could take hours!"
"Unless you think you can turn the cloak into a shield before we hit a thousand feet, McKay, that's our best option."
Rodney didn't say anything else. Out of the corner of his eye, in the jumper's dim interior, John saw Teyla slip a hand into Rodney's and give it a reassuring squeeze.
"We're all going to die," Galeni wailed.
John gripped the emergency hatch release and threw it. Deep within the jumper's systems, gears began to grind. For an instant, he thought the pressure differential would be too great; then the door cracked open and water poured in.
"I can't swim!" Galeni moaned.
"And you're just now mentioning this?" John demanded as water cascaded down on them from above.
"I got him," Ronon said, and at a whimper from the hydrologist, "if he shuts up, that is."
Galeni shut up.
John gripped the edge of the hatch frame, holding his breath as the jumper rapidly filled with water and his team drifted free along with a huge cloud of air bubbles. When the last of them was out, he kicked his way towards the sunlit surface of the water, following the cluster of dark bodies ahead of him.
His head broke the surface into brilliant sunshine. Blinking water from his lashes, he did a quick count of the dark heads bobbing around him. Team all present and accounted for, along with odd bits of gear that had floated free of the jumper: a first-aid kit, a seat cushion. And Galeni, who was clinging to the neck of a scowling Ronon.
"Do we look okay?"
Well, Rodney was fine. Treading water, John turned around and saw something that almost made him lose his rhythm. Cliffs. The mainland. What the hell? They hadn't been that close, he was positive.
"Rodney, were we --" he began, then broke off as a dark shape flashed through the water near him.
"Oh God," Rodney said in a voice pitched somewhere below -- but not much below -- a scream. "I can't believe I've survived everything I have only to be eaten by whales."
John's headache came back with a vengeance, stabbing brutally at his temples. Damn things are way too close. He caught a brief flash of flukes as one of the whales broke the surface and then vanished beneath again. Obviously, the animals had been drawn to the jumper crash site, just like Rodney's "Sam". Heck, maybe it was "Sam".
Teyla had paddled close to Rodney and was trying to calm him down; John caught a glimpse of her face and saw that her eyes were crinkled up in obvious pain. Not freaking AGAIN. Not out here. Looking around, he saw that Ronon had his hands full with the panic-stricken Galeni.
John was the only person who was looking around, and so, the only person looking up when a long-winged shape swooped overhead. Hawk? Eagle? He couldn't get a good look; he hadn't even realized that Lantea had anything birdlike other than a few gliding lizards on the mainland. But this damn thing was huge. He watched it bank and circle high above him, and then --
What happened next made John Sheppard think he'd lost his mind.
A whale breached the water not twenty feet away from them. Rodney gave a startled yell and even Ronon cursed softly. The whale didn't move towards them, didn't move at all -- it was so close that John could see small imperfections and ancient scars in its glistening gray skin.
The bird swooped down out of the sky and landed on top of the whale's head. Except -- it wasn't a bird.
It looked exactly like Ronon. With wings.
Nobody said anything. The only sound was the slap of water against the whale's sides and the low murmur of the surf against the cliffs some quarter-mile away. The winged man who wasn't Ronon studied them with a very Ronon-like intensity. His torso and arms were bare; tattoos, or maybe just paint, marked his golden skin in dark winding patterns, curling around his biceps and arms. Like the real Ronon, he wore ornaments of leather and bone around his neck and wrists and in his long hair. One hand rested on the butt of a pistol that was, once again, alarmingly similar to Ronon's.
John shot a quick glance at his teammate. "You got a brother?" he hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
Ronon looked about as stunned as John had ever seen him. "Not that I know of," he murmured back.
For what it was worth, the winged Ronon clone had a similar expression to the real Ronon's. "McKay's not gonna like this," he said and took off with a huge downdraft of his wings. The whale did not submerge; it continued to stare at them, disturbingly, from its saucer-sized whale eyes.
"Alternate universe," Rodney said with a slight quaver in his voice.
"You think?" John didn't mean it to come out quite as snide as it did. Still ... there was coincidence and then there was -- this.
"What color do you think your wings are, McKay?" Ronon asked.
The whale continued to stare at them, bobbing slowly up and down with the waves. John stared back at it. At least this way, he knew where it was, he supposed. It wasn't like there was anything any of them could do about it, if it decided to eat them.
Rodney was already halfway down the steep path to the beach before Jeannie caught up with him. "Meredith, if you don't stop and tell me what's going on right now, I'm going to tell everyone in Atlantis that you used to wet the bed!"
He couldn't even rise to the bait. "The whales -- the whales say that Sheppard came through the gate, and that he brought more of us with him."
"So you found your friend! It worked! That's good, right?" Jeannie stopped on the edge of the beach, while Rodney splashed right in; working in the cave, he'd stripped down to his swim trunks for comfort, since there was nobody around to stare at him, except Jeannie and she didn't count. "Mer, wait -- what do you mean, 'more of us'?"
"The question isn't what I mean, it's what do the whales mean." Rodney hit deep water and started swimming. One of the whales, an elderly matron with a notched fin, came up under him and scooped him up on her back. "They keep saying there's another me out there!" He looked back and saw her dwindling on the shore, a small blonde shape. "Come on!"
"I'll get wet!" she protested, shouting over the widening distance between them.
"You're not made of paper!"
A moment later, another whale pulled up alongside the notch-finned lady, bearing Jeannie (wet to the waist) on its back. "I don't know how to live in your world anymore, Mer," she said.
Luckily, Ronon saved him from a discussion that promised to be even more awkward than Dad's attempts to teach him about the "facts of life" (which he'd already learned from the whales years earlier, anyway). The winged Satedan alighted on the head of Rodney's whale. "They're us," he said without any preamble.
"I know," Rodney said impatiently.
"You planned this?"
"No! Whales told me! It's, what -- you, me, Teyla and Sheppard and another guy, right?"
"Do you know what this means?" Rodney demanded. "It means I'm even more of a genius than I thought! I didn't just build a portal to another part of our universe; I built one to a whole other universe entirely!"
"Don't you mean we built it?" Jeannie inquired with her arms crossed, sitting on the back of her whale like a small, annoyed Buddha.
"What? You only came in at the end! It's the McKay-Whale Portal, not the McKay-Whale-McKay portal."
"That second McKay had better be you, not me."
The whale with the notched fin wanted to know if Rodney really felt it was an appropriate time to have this discussion.
"Yeah," he said, resignedly. "You're probably right."
Jeannie stared. "I am?"
"The whale! Not you!"
Rodney's slightly bemused whale gave a final, exasperated thrash of her flukes and floated up beside a younger whale whom Rodney thought of as "the fluid dynamics whale" due to his area of expertise. None of them had anything resembling human-pronouncible names; Sheppard had tried naming them at one point ("Bob", "Todd", and so forth) which had sent Rodney into a fit of apoplexy at the very idea that you could just assign a name to a person. Sheppard had mildly replied that the whales didn't seem to mind. "Fine, if it's such a great idea, from now on your name is Edelweiss," Rodney had snapped. "Want to play a round of Doom II, Edelweiss?"
... But he didn't want to think about Sheppard right now. Especially since there was a wet and confused and entirely wrong Sheppard staring at him from the water a few yards off the fluid dynamics whale's nose.
"Um, hi." Somewhat self-consciously, Rodney swung his bare legs over his whale's side and let his toes dangle in the water. "Er, sorry about the, you know. Thing. Why aren't you levitating, by the way?" He snapped his fingers. "Oh, wait, different universe! Are you even a mage?"
The other universe's Sheppard had opened his mouth to say something, but now he shut it, and they all stared at him in wet, baffled silence.
"You people can talk, right?" It would be just typical if he'd made contact with another universe and it turned out to be the one where everyone's IQs had dropped by fifty points.
"Of course we can talk," the other Rodney said snippily.
Rodney studied his alternate-universe self -- pale, with no discernible tattoos and his hair cut so short that his scalp was visible. "Well, get on a whale and let's get to shore and we can talk."
This earned him more blank, stunned stares.
The thoroughly sodden alternate-universe group squished ashore with uniform freaked-out expressions. No one had talked much on the ride back to shore. The alternate Rodney, in fact, had had to be dragged onto his whale by an exasperated Sheppard. Rodney found it quite rude -- the whales had only been helping out, after all.
They stood on shore wringing out their clothing and staring around them, and Rodney studied them as he waded slowly ashore. They were recognizable, yet different. None of them bore runes anywhere he could see, except for a few on Ronon, but the lack of wings made him strange, alien. This Sheppard's hair was much too short, and he bore himself in a way that was indefinably different -- Rodney couldn't quite put his finger on it, but where the Sheppard he knew was a scholar and mage, this one had a dangerous edge to him that Rodney had never associated with "his" Sheppard. He was also wearing a thigh holster, which was deeply disconcerting.
The fifth guy looked vaguely familiar -- Rodney was pretty sure he'd seen him around Zelenka's labs -- but he couldn't quite put a name to him.
Teyla had brought her hair over her shoulder and was wringing it out. The other Rodney shrugged off his tac vest -- water poured from the pockets. Sheppard reached for the holster on his leg and then let go with a yell.
Everyone jumped, and both of the Ronons had their guns out before Rodney even saw them draw. "What's wrong?" Jeannie asked.
Sheppard stared down at his gun lying in the sand, then at his hand. "It burned me," he said in shock.
"What?" The alternate Rodney crossed quickly to the weapon, knelt to look at it. "Some side effect of, uh, whatever happened to us?"
All of them looked at Rodney and Jeannie as if the siblings could explain. Jeannie, in her turn, looked at Rodney.
"Sheppard, you've never been able to touch iron." He heard an intake of breath from Jeannie. Oh right, people on Earth cared about that sort of thing. He'd never been able to figure out what was such a big deal about it.
Sheppard stared at him like he'd grown a second head. "What the hell? Why not?"
"What do you mean, why not? Because --" He deliberately did not look at Jeannie. "Because you're part fae. None of you can."
There was another, very loaded silence. Then Sheppard said slowly, "Because I'm what?"
"He said you're a fairy," the other Rodney supplied helpfully.
"I know what he said. What I'm trying to understand is what he means."
The other Rodney smacked himself in the head. "Oh, my God, this is a dream. This is a dream, right? This is what happens when you play too much Nethack in college. This is what happens when your ex-roommate hosts late-night D&D tournaments." He lowered his hand and glared balefully at Rodney and Jeannie. "So what's your character class, anyway? Sheppard is clearly an elf of some sort. What are you? Druid? Ronon's a -- actually, I don't even know what Ronon is. Must be from one of the supplement books."
Alt-Teyla, looking exasperated, stepped past them both and picked up the gun. "It does not appear to be hot, or harmful to me in any way."
"That's because you're not fae," Rodney said impatiently. Really, what was wrong with them?
Teyla held out the gun, butt first, to Sheppard. He touched it cautiously and jerked his hand back with a hiss.
"See?" Rodney snapped. "Fae! How can you possibly have gone this long without noticing? You people don't have amnesia, do you?"
"Wait, wait, wait," alt-Rodney broke in impatiently. "When I took off my vest, I got shocks off some of the buckles. Let me see that." He started to take the gun from Teyla, then let out a yelp and dropped it. He stared at it like it had turned into an imp declaring a song of animosity.
Sheppard looked between him and the gun, his mouth tilted in that particular way that meant he had the solution to a problem at the tip of his tongue. A slight frown creased his forehead for a moment, and then he blinked. "I'll be damned. It's the ATA gene."
At the bright spark of realization in Sheppard's eyes, Rodney's breath caught. Final proof that this wasn't a pale copy from some terminally stupid universe, and that there had been no drop in IQ in transfer. That was a look he knew so very well, and he responded automatically to it, turning to Sheppard with one hand already moving with the force of his own brilliant insight regarding the subject at hand -- except Sheppard didn't catch his gaze. Didn't curl his lips in that slight smirk that usually followed any comment that would get Rodney into an argumentative mood.
He just looked at the other Rodney, who squawked a "What?" which sounded totally different from anything Rodney had ever responded with.
"We've both got the gene, Rodney." Sheppard said it like he was pointing out the most obvious thing in the world, and Rodney was almost glad that he hadn't spoken to draw Sheppard's attention, because he really didn't know what to say to this. Sheppard shared genes with the alt-Rodney?
Alt-Rodney answered before Rodney's own brain had processed all the implications of Sheppard's statement. "And in this reality it's reacting to metal? It doesn't make sense! It shouldn't work like that; it's idiotic to even consider it." And there was a glimmer of that smile, Sheppard managing to look both amused and teasing as they continued arguing, despite having just fallen through a hole in the universe.
It was almost right, was almost enough to make Rodney keep soaring on the high of his own brilliance. It wasn't even the big things that brought him down -- it wasn't the short hair, or the intact earlobes where an earring should sparkle, or even the way Sheppard's eyes were the color of a forest pool on a cloudy day rather than new-leaf green. It was like wearing a burnt-out memory charm, trying to bring the image of something he recalled into sharp focus, only to have it slide away when he kept registering what was really in front of him. Sheppard, but not his Sheppard. Rodney's stomach took a sudden plunge, like he was the one tumbling between realities.
There were only six other people on the pebble beach with him, but for a dizzying moment it felt like a milling crowd had swept around Rodney, wide-eyed tourists staring at whatever tourists usually stared at, moving about and talking and gesturing. Strangers wearing stolen faces, and Rodney was never speechless, but right now he didn't know who to talk to. This Sheppard's gaze slid away from his. The Ronons were glaring silently at each other, and Jeannie was almost bouncing where she stood. Her face was flushed with the same triumph that had turned to despair and plummeted to the pit of Rodney's stomach. She didn't get it. None of them did.
"It didn't bring him back." Rodney said, and the words raw and quiet, feeling like he had dragged them out with barbed wire. Next to him, Jeannie faltered in mid-exclamation.
"But the portal worked. It more than worked -- Mer, our calculations for the power consumption, the energy conversion efficiency -- we got it to bridge a universe!" Her eyes were shining, and from the corner of his eye Rodney could see his own double zoom in on their conversion, but he just shook his head.
"No. It didn't find Sheppard, we didn't..." More eyes on Rodney now, as he refused to follow the thought through, refused to consider why the portal would have chosen to cross universes rather than open on the closest Sheppard. The one who should be here now, if he was still --
"What?" It was Sheppard -- the other Sheppard. Stepping close now, that unfamiliar, hard edge in his narrowed eyes. Even the tilt of his head felt hostile. "I'm sorry to break up your party here, but -- you were looking for me? You did this on purpose?"
Ronon appeared by Rodney's shoulder, and his wingless double silently mirrored the motion with Sheppard. It seemed that whatever shock and confusion the newcomers had suffered was beginning to shift to anger. Rodney knew these weren't the same people as his friends, not at all, but seeing the suspicion and accusation in Sheppard's eyes still tightened the barbwire twist in his guts. "No. No, it's not like that."
"Then what is it like?" That was the other Rodney. Meaning Rodney was now having to defend his actions to himself. That was just not right.
"An anomaly. The portal should never have breached your universe; the power extraction process shouldn't have allowed it at all." Rodney said, fumbling for an explanation that could ease some of the tension in the air. He hadn't forgotten the way this Sheppard had carried a gun strapped to his leg, and maybe worrying about IQ and amnesia was stupid when he could have been worrying about the aggression levels and homicidal inclinations of people dropping in from neighboring universes. "We never calibrated it to have that kind of scope! It was intended for a planetary search -- well, this and other planet, but still local, much more local than most regular portals really --"
"Our Sheppard's missing." The words came from somewhere above Rodney's shoulder. That would be Ronon, blunt and to the point, fed up with technical talk. Or maybe fed up with babble. Right now Rodney wasn't above admitting he may have been babbling just a little. "McKay's portal was supposed to find him."
"But you found us instead," Rodney's pale, short-haired mirror image remarked, a breath before Sheppard and Teyla each asked a different question, and the guy whose name Rodney couldn't recall muttered about the impossibility of transforming an inter-universe Lorentzian something to an intra-universe one. It was surprisingly coherent for a guy who was still throwing frightened glances at everything, including his own Ronon.
Rodney caught himself a second before he was about to inquire about the theories nameless guy was referring to. "Okay, that's it! We're not going to stand around here and have a damn conference," he snapped at them.
"It's not a conference if you kidnap the participants," the annoying version of himself remarked snidely.
"We didn't kidnap you! We don't even want you!"
"Then you shouldn't have--"
"Mer!" Rodney and his overdressed alter both turned to stare at Jeannie, who stood with her hands planted on her hips. "Shut up," she continued helpfully. "We go to the cave. We give these people a chance to dry off, and we sit down and we talk. Now."
There was an outraged splutter in disconcerting stereo from Rodney and the other Rodney, but Ronon -- the winged one, the right one -- put a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Do what the lady says." Rodney could hear the smirk in Ronon's voice. Traitor. He could have argued about that order, but just then Ronon gave him what probably passed for a light shove among ridiculously muscled warrior types, and he almost went sprawling.
Jeannie beamed at Ronon, and showed the offworlders -- off-universers? -- up the steep path to the cave. Rodney wasn't going to let the doubles bumble around his portal without supervision. He stuck close. So did the other Rodney. They would have picked up their discussion where they left of, but a glare from Jeannie forced them to reconsider.
"Do I even want to know what she is doing here?" Alt-Rodney asked furtively.
"No, you don't," Rodney answered honestly. Not only was the subject of having to ask your little sister for help still slightly humiliating, even in their current circumstances, but a protective big brother might object to dragging your little sister into Wraith-related danger.
"You didn't kidnap her too, did you?"
Rodney was still working up a properly outraged response when Jeannie spun on her heel and fixed them both with her best stare of outrage-quelling, icy disapproval. "Meredith."
Even with his back to them, it was hard to miss the others' amusement. Rodney felt the first stirrings of solidarity with his intra-universe clone when the man turned to ask his companions if they were really trying to be as juvenile as possible, or if it came naturally with their minuscule brains.
"It's a gift," Sheppard replied with a smirk, and there was no edge at all in his voice when he addressed the people he knew. Rodney turned away from them, and didn't speak again until they were at the cave.
"What is that?" The other Rodney stood frozen in his tracks for a second or two, and then shouldered his way past Rodney and into the cave.
"It's the portal I built." Rodney had barely finished speaking before he rediscovered how very sharp Jeannie's elbows were.
"Uh. Jeannie helped with the last bits." Jeannie was also stronger than she looked. "Ow! Will you stop that?"
"We built it," she corrected him with a sweet smile that showed too many teeth.
"But what is it?" Alt-Rodney had bent low to stare at one of the power circles. It was a singed and flecked with foam from the extinguisher. A faint curl of smoke rose from the one intact part.
Rodney shared a confused glance with Jeannie. How could the other him not recognize a power circle? Maybe the truth was that while he seemed in possession of his full IQ, this double was actually a -- a biologist, or something. "It's a power circle," Rodney explained patiently, saying the words slowly and carefully, the way he would if he were addressing an acolyte of the soft sciences.
"And those are...?" The alt pointed at the wilted remains of one of the bundle of herbs. That one had been mostly lemon grass and snake root, Rodney thought, with a few yarrow flowers, but he didn't want to confuse the frighteningly ignorant alt with too many details.
"Herbs," he said.
"Herbs," the other Rodney repeated. By now, everyone had crowded in behind him, and from the hush that had descended in the cave, they were all watching the two Rodneys.
"For the gate."
"Portal. Yes." Maybe the other Rodney wasn't even a biologist. Maybe he was a -- an English major.
"You built an inter-dimensional portal using spices?"
Ronon's wings snapped open. That drew all their attention. The Satedan was standing at the edge of the cave, and he twisted to look out. Out and up. "Someone's coming."
"What? That's not possible, they can't -- the whales would have said something!" Rodney pressed his way through the small crowd, and held on to Ronon's arm as he leaned out of the cave to look himself. There were figures moving on the cliffs over the beach. "Oh, by the First Whale--" He pulled back inside.
There was quite a commotion. Sheppard's hand went to his hip, and hovered there, ineffectual. Teyla held his gun in a manner that suggested she knew how to use it, and she gave him an apologetic smile. The Ronons were now standing next to each other, looking out with their guns drawn. The nameless guy looked as anxious as Rodney felt, and Jeannie's face was grim. "How did they find us?" she asked.
"They couldn't have. They shouldn't have. It's impossible." Unless Woolsey had managed to requisition a small seven league shuttle. Unless he'd had a shuttle stashed away, along with a sample of Rodney's hair ... "Oh, crap."
"They've got a shuttle," Jeannie said, shocked, having come to the same realization as Rodney. "They didn't come by boat at all. That's why the whales didn't warn us." It was already too late to run.
John had been lost trying to follow what the whaleriding McKay had been saying back when their only problems was that they were in the wrong universe -- one where people with the ATA gene apparently couldn't handle metal. Fine. That was the kind of thing they could all sort out later, and he was only a little freaked out by it. But now they seemed to have the kind of problem that couldn't wait for later, and John still couldn't make sense of what this Rodney and his sister were talking about. "Who is coming," he demanded to know, "and what do we do now?"
"We can't --" the other McKay was frantically looking from his sister to John to the weird contraption in the cave.
"I said, what do we do?" John took a step towards the strange Rodney, his team's attention on him, Teyla and Ronon watching his back.
"I don't know! This wasn't part of the plan -- none of this was part of the plan! You shouldn't be here. I don't know what they'll do -- we could pretend you're them!" For a second, the other Rodney sounded like Rodney, committing feats of brilliance under the threat of impending doom. But then crumpled on himself. "Except you're all wrong, and they would know -- it would never work."
"Make something work!" John snapped out of him, more out of habit than anything else. The terrified look he got in return was nothing at all like Rodney -- or if it was, it was Rodney back before he got in the habit of dealing with situations where his choice was to solve a problem or die.
"Mer! We have to do something, we can't let them--"
"I know! I'm thinking, I'm --" the panicky Rodney launched himself at the winged Ronon.
"You have to get away from here."
"I'm not running away," Birdman Ronon said with a scowl, and John caught a hint of approval in his Ronon's face.
"You have to. You're the only one who can! Take Jeannie, and find Teyla."
Ronon's scowl deepened, but he nodded shortly. "Let's go." He gestured at Jeannie to join him.
She took a step away from him, arms crossed over her chest. "No way. I'm not leaving. Mer, you can't be serious -- I'm an official consultant, they wouldn't --" Her protest turned into a shriek when Ronon ducked into the cave, grabbed her by the waist, and swooped out, diving as fast as the bird of prey his wings made him resemble, if not faster.
"Not that I do not appreciate your concern for your Jeannie, but do you think your next plan could involve a little more us?" the familiar non-panicking, highly annoyed Rodney asked.
"They're coming," Ronon announced. "Should I shoot them?"
"No!" Rodney exclaimed. "No, no, that would just make things worse. Much, much worse."
"So what do we do?" John thought he knew how to handle McKay freaking out, but this felt like gripping the gun had -- something familiar turned on its head.
"Are they not the enemy?" Teyla asked tightly, having already brought John's pistol up.
"Yes. No. Not really. Maybe -- I don't know. But you -- just tell them you don't know anything --"
"That should be easy, since we don't!" Rodney snapped.
"I know! I'm sorry. This is all wrong -- it wasn't supposed to happen like this at all, I never wanted -- I'm sorry," the words spilled from other Rodney with such broken honesty that it took some of the edge off John's anger. But he could hear footsteps now, and being totally in the dark about what was going on -- he was still not having a very good day.
"Okay. I'll talk to them. You... " The swimtrunks-wearing Rodney glanced back at John and his team. "You just -- stay behind me. And try not to look too threatening, okay?" He drew himself up, and stepped out of the cave.
John followed, because it was better than staying in the cave and waiting for this Rodney to negotiate on their behalf. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the bright daylight, since he was unable to wear his sunglasses. His fingers stung where they had brushed the metal in them. But he didn't need to see clearly to know that Teyla moved with him, Rodney at her side, both of them keeping as close as the lip of the cave allowed, while Ronon hung back to cover them all. Galini was doing the smart thing, and staying out of the way.
The sunlight reflected off the water at a bad angle, and John had to blink before he could see more than the unfamiliar Rodney's back to him. What he saw then caused him to freeze up. He stopped moving so suddenly that Teyla bumped into him, and he could hear her ask if he was okay, but that was all a distant distraction compared with the shock it was to be facing Colonel Marshal Sumner, unaged and alive.
It almost snapped John into a salute, because how else do you react to seeing your deceased superior? Fortunately, not-quite-Rodney's gesturing arm almost caught him in the face, and he managed to turn the impulse into a flinch. It wouldn't do to give these unknown people more information on him and his team than necessary. He knew that, and yet he couldn't help but stare. Sumner was maybe a little older, but aged naturally, his eyes as cold as John remembered them. There was something a little different about his uniform, though this Sumner was clearly military, and clearly a colonel. There was definitely something different about the assortment of jewelry the colonel had about his person. In the circumstances, the familiarity of the P90 in his hands wasn't the least bit comforting.
"Sheppard." Sumner stared right back at him, ignoring the Rodney between them. His eyes narrowed as he studied John. "How very interesting."
"Yes, as I was saying --" the local Rodney tried to pry Sumner's attention away from John. It worked. Sumner shot Rodney a look that actually shut him up. John was a little impressed, despite himself.
"Doctor McKay. I will have to take you into custody."
There was the expected protest from Rodney, but Sumner's attention had already moved back to John and his group. "Put down your weapons," he ordered.
John glanced behind him, and nodded at Teyla and Ronon. Teyla bent to lay John's pistol on the ground. Ronon hesitated. "Do it," John ordered. Ronon glared at him, holstered his gun and slid the belt off. When John looked back, Sumner smoothed an expression of surprise from his face. Surprise at what, John couldn't guess.
"Good. Now, back in the cave." The way Sumner was casually training his submachine gun on them gave them little choice in the matter, no matter how much John hated to give up the tactical advantage of their position. But things could get very nasty very fast if John didn't let Sumner herd them into the cave, where his soldiers could crowd them up against the far wall.
"You can't just arrest me!" Rodney was still protesting. "I haven't done anything!"
"Consorting with hostile non-humans is a crime, Doctor McKay."
"I-- what?" Rodney's general outrage turned to the kind of outrage he usually saved for really special occasions. "Non-humans? There are no non-humans here! You can't arrest me because I'm a genius who--"
"Changelings," Sumner said, his voice sharp.
"Your companions. Anyone can see that they must be changelings."
"What? Are you really that stupid? They're not changelings -- look, I told you what happened, and besides, nobody has seen a changeling since the war, even I know that! And that was over fifty years ago -- you can't arrest me for consorting with paranoid delusions!"
Sumner gave him a polite smile. "Then you won't mind if we secure them with cold iron?"
Rodney made an angry noise that John could have sworn was an actual squeak at that. "You know Sheppard is fae! You can't..."
And that's where it stops as we floundered to a halt in a sea of too many characters and the plot took off in a completely different direction. This chat transcript and this companion transcript at Naye's DW suggests where things went from there ...
This entry is also posted at https://sholio.dreamwidth.org/1165161.html with comments.