Word Count: ~17,000
Rating: PG or so, mostly for language
Summary: In the aftermath of "Sunday", no one is dealing well, least of all Rodney. But what if an Ancient device can give him back what he's lost?
Notes: This is the very last of the stories that I owed from last year, this one for susnn who provided the plot (details at end). Obviously, as this is a "Sunday" tag, there are huge spoilers for that episode! Also, there's a line in here from NotTasha (used with permission).
It took him a week to find it again.
During their three years in the city, the Atlantean scientists had discovered literally millions of artifacts, the function of most of which was entirely unknown. When you didn't have an easy way to tell if a given object was a grenade or a toilet brush, it only made sense to proceed slowly and with caution.
Which, of course, despite Rodney's frequent admonishments, they didn't. As a result, an ever-expanding number of closets and abandoned Ancient labs in various parts of the city were overflowing with heaps of potentially lethal Ancient artifacts in assorted potentially explosive combinations. Most of them existed in various intermediate stages of being catalogued: some were tagged with inexplicable notations that probably had made sense to someone who'd long since shipped out on the Daedalus; some were correctly tagged but weren't on file anywhere; some had copious files on them but weren't tagged, so could never be found again. Quite a lot of them had been passingly seen and identified by Rodney or Zelenka, the only two people who had enough familiarity with the Ancient database to look at an object and recognize it as something they'd once seen in a random file.
Which was what had happened with this particular one. It had been about a year ago, during an all-nighter when he, Zelenka and a couple of shanghaied Marines were pulling artifacts out of a series of rooms that Elizabeth wanted to convert into housing for a team of research biologists who would be stationed out on the West Pier to take readings on the marine wildlife.
As usual in a case like that, the rooms had to be stripped of anything unfamiliar and checked for whatever might seem like innocuous technology to the Ancients but would actually turn out to be a lethal trap for an unsuspecting human being -- like that one room they'd discovered with a trap door in the floor leading straight to the incinerators (perfectly logical place to put it by Ancient standards, no doubt) or the one where the ceiling would occasionally lower to the floor for no reason they could ever figure out.
In any case, they'd been sweeping the rooms for artifacts and loading them carefully into crates for removal. In the process, they played the "name that artifact" game to keep from going out of their minds with boredom. Most of what they were finding appeared to be ordinary household objects of various kinds -- the Ancient equivalent of toothbrushes and orthopedic shoes. There were a number of things that might actually be nothing more interesting than pieces of art. But there were a few unusual ones.
"I recognize this from the database; it's a device for making peace with the dead," Zelenka said, picking up a small box about the size of his hand. Due to the headphone-like apparatus attached to it, the thing made Rodney think of an Ancient Walkman. Not that he would admit to such a Sheppard-like thought.
"It's a what?"
"Lets you make peace with dead loved ones," Zelenka non-explained.
"Well, that's stupid."
Even now, a year later and about as sleep-deprived as a person could get and continue to function, Rodney could still remember Zelenka's exasperated look over smudged glasses. "I know how you feel about life after death, Rodney ..."
Rodney snorted, exasperated. "What? Life after death is entirely possible! Just look at Doctor Jackson!"
"I don't think they're talking about Ascension; it is more like a ...a device that reads your mind and gives you the ability to talk to the dead. Anyone you've loved who's died."
"You mean like holograms, or what?"
Zelenka shrugged. "It didn't say."
"It probably did; you just didn't translate it correctly, since obviously it's not talking about the actual dead. Being as, you know, they're dead. And might I say, for the record, that talking to dead people in a virtual environment is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard, which is really saying something around here."
"It is for making peace, Rodney. Getting past survivors' guilt. Like a -- a --"
"A mechanical Ancient Heightmeyer?" Rodney interrupted with all the scorn that particular notion deserved.
"Well, I wouldn't have put it that way --"
"Just put it in the crate, Radek." Due to Rodney's ATA gene, he was doing as little touching as possible. Much safer to have Zelenka and the Marines handle the actual lifting and carrying; Rodney would do a final sweep at the end to make sure he hadn't missed anything that might be accidentally turned on by a gene-bearer.
Zelenka gave him a look, and lowered the box into the crate with notable reluctance.
"What's wrong with you now? You look like your puppy died. Or is that exactly what happened? Your puppy did die and now you want to use that box to commune with it."
"I am just thinking, Rodney, that it might be useful to many people in the city, especially the newer ones. Many have lost someone here --"
"Excuse me, but hell no. See, this is the exact same thing I hate about religion: the way it gives people a false hope to cling to. It keeps them from accepting reality. You'll be doing no favors to those people if you let them wallow in the past rather than moving forward."
Zelenka had fixed him with a look. "Are you telling me you have no regrets, Rodney? For the dead?"
"Regrets? Of course I do!" Griffin. Collins. Grodin. "Regrets that they're dead, sure. But the idea that talking to a -- a simulacrum is going to do anything but blur the lines between fantasy and reality ... that's just asinine."
"The database seemed to indicate that it often helped as a form of grief counseling --"
"Oh bullshit. Put it away. If you find one that raises the dead, get back to me."
He never would have imagined that one day, he'd be going out of his mind trying to find the damn thing. Just on the chance that Zelenka was right and that it might be more than just a holographic projector.
Returning from Earth to Atlantis felt like coming home to a ghost town, although that could be partly because John hadn't run this long on this little sleep since the Wraith siege. Two of the past four days had been spent flying from Colorado to Scotland and back; the other two had been a whirlwind tour of Carson's impossibly huge family. Somewhere in the middle of it, a wake must have happened, but he remembered little more than dozens of identical sitting-rooms occupied by identical old women who wanted to know how Carson had lived and how he'd died. John had lost track of how many times he'd told the same vague and polite lies, smiling until his mouth hurt and his throat ached, hating himself a little more with every lie he told.
Rodney had gone to Scotland a day earlier, and John hadn't seen much of him while they were there; Rodney was off on his own tour of elderly relatives, and the few times John had glimpsed him from a distance, he'd looked crumpled and exhausted, very much like John himself felt. On the plane coming back, they sat twelve rows apart, and Rodney fell asleep almost instantly against the window; John would rather have jumped out of the plane without a parachute than wake him up, so he spent the trip staring with burning eyes at a Sudoku puzzle that never quite resolved itself into actual numbers.
As soon as he stepped through the Atlantis gate, Elizabeth took one look at him and ordered him off duty. He wasn't sure if Rodney got the same treatment or not, because he went straight back to his quarters, drank half a bottle of whiskey and passed out facedown in his pillow.
Over the next few days, he spent a lot of time in the gym, sparring with Ronon or just working himself to exhaustion on the machines. It was the only place in the city that was nearly the same as it had been before; no one in the gym talked much anyway, and all personnel, military and civilian alike, were still required to report for their standard fitness regime. He wore himself out in the gym, and buried himself in paperwork when he couldn't sleep, which was often. Sometimes he went out, late, jogging with Ronon, who never seemed to sleep and never tried to talk about things he didn't want to talk about.
Ronon understood the importance of silence for grief.
He had to admit to himself that he was avoiding Elizabeth. He'd sometimes felt her eyes on him in the cafeteria, stripping him naked with her well-meaning sympathy. She would want him to talk; she would make appointments with Heightmeyer, which at the moment he thought might go beyond torment into a new circle of hell. Heightmeyer and Carson had been close -- he'd glimpsed the counselor in the cafeteria occasionally, her eyes rimmed with shadow, sipping tea by herself in a corner.
And Teyla would be worse yet. He'd hardly seen her since returning from Scotland. Due to her injuries, she was still on restricted duty; John told himself that he wasn't arranging his mealtimes to avoid her regular-as-clockwork schedule. Elizabeth, at least, was clumsy and obvious in her attempts to be comforting -- especially now, awash in her own grief. Teyla, though, would be subtle; she'd always been able to softly, gently, tease out the things he'd spent a lifetime hiding. He couldn't face that, not now.
He didn't see Rodney, either, except from a distance, but that was really all he could take at the moment. Rodney wore his heart in his eyes. John didn't think he could experience Rodney's grief without drowning in his own.
With Teyla down, it only made sense not to resume offworld missions for his team yet. The other teams still went out, and John oversaw the mission roster, and revised it when men and women on the teams were, inevitably, injured.
In the past, he'd always gone to see his people in the infirmary on a daily basis. These days, it seemed there was always something more pressing that needed his attention elsewhere. He kept telling himself he wasn't avoiding the infirmary; it was just that he wasn't needed there. It had nothing to do with Carson. Nothing at all. He drifted through a city of hollow-eyed, grieving ghosts, and resented them for reminding him of his own losses.
As the days went by, the ghost-town feeling began to vanish; the babble of conversation in the mess resumed its usual proportions, and Elizabeth began to lose her bruised look. John found himself resenting them, now, for being able to move on, when something in him had been broken and couldn't seem to heal.
He began to wonder -- with the rustiness of resuming a habit long discontinued -- what Rodney would say about it. But Rodney had hardly been seen outside the labs in days. He could have barged in, and in the old days, he would have done exactly that. But now, with the hurt still so fresh and raw, he didn't know if it would be appreciated. John respected others' need for space; if Rodney had holed himself up in his lab, then it wasn't too different from John retreating to the gym.
Rodney would come out when he was ready, as John had.
In the meantime, whenever he got the urge to break into Rodney's private mourning, John went jogging instead.
The device lay buried in a storeroom off the labs, one of many. Rodney only found it by the expedient of sheer brute-force searching. Wrapping his fingers around it, he jammed it deep into a pocket, and sleepwalked through the rest of his day, yelling at lab techs until Zelenka took him by the shoulders in a hard grip. "Rodney. Go. Sleep."
"I'm not tired." And he really wasn't. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept; he was jittery, nervous, strung out on caffeine.
"Perhaps not, but the rest of us are." The softness in Radek's eyes took the sting out of his words. "I'll finish up for you here."
Anger and hurt, he could push back against, but sympathy always knocked him for a loop. He never expected it, never saw it coming, wasn't entirely sure if he liked it when he got it. "Thanks," he said, not knowing if he meant it, and found himself walking to his quarters with his hand buried in his pocket, worrying with his fingertips at the suckerlike interface studs on the device.
He knew he ought to head down to the cafeteria for lunch (or was it dinnertime?), but didn't feel up to dealing with people. Instead he broke out a few candy bars from his secret stash, and then lay back on his bed with the device resting on his chest. The safety protocols ran through his head, the ones he himself had developed for use in the labs: Never test a new device without a partner. Never test a device without cataloguing it and looking it up in the database first.
But those things were meant to apply to his underlings, not to Rodney McKay, certified genius. The rules were designed to keep idiots from blowing up Atlantis. He, himself, was obviously not an idiot, and he trusted himself to test new technology without making stupid mistakes.
A device that reads your mind and gives you the ability to talk to the dead. Anyone you've loved who's died.
Rodney swallowed, and settled the headphone-like apparatus over his head. The little sucker-tips attached themselves immediately to his temples with a vaguely disquieting sensation, like tiny little mouths. Closing his eyes and pushing the unease away, he thought, On.
A sharp cold spike shot through his head from temple to temple, making his sinuses hurt like an ice cream headache, and the world tilted dizzily under him -- and then he stood at the edge of one of Atlantis's piers. A breeze off the ocean rustled his hair, and the crashing of breakers, unnervingly far below, made him take a startled step backwards. The only thing that kept him from total panic was the continued awareness of his body lying on the bed -- although he could feel the metal decking under his feet and the wind in his hair, he could also feel the nubby texture of the blanket on his bed, the pressure of the contact studs against his temples.
Virtual environment, he thought, and looked around. The spires of Atlantis rose behind him, gleaming against a sky awash in the golds and pinks of sunset. He couldn't quite pinpoint the location of the sun, if there even was a sun; the brightness behind the drifting clouds seemed to be omnidirectional. As he stood gazing at the spires, a feeling of peace and relaxation washed over him; he wasn't sure if it was due to the solitude or the beauty of the scene, but it was the first time in what seemed like forever that he hadn't been knotted up with grief and guilt. The pain was still there, but distant; he could feel his tense muscles relaxing to the sound of wind and waves, allowing curiosity to bubble up in its wake.
How far did the simulation extend? If he were to walk to those spires, would he make it all the way, or would he find himself looping around back to the start? The only other experience he'd had with Ancient virtual technology was the Aurora, a complex but geographically bounded environment. The real Atlantis was similarly limited in scope, but much larger; could even the Ancients design a simulation complex enough to encompass the entire city?
Turning back around to get another look at the ocean, he jumped violently at a movement next to him. There hadn't been anyone there a minute ago. He turned his head and found himself looking into Carson's blue eyes.
Carson smiled at him.
Rodney screamed, and fell off the bed. The sunset-bathed simulation of Atlantis spun around him and became the ceiling of his quarters. His leg was folded painfully under him; he took a moment to sort himself out, and then another panicky moment to make sure that he hadn't damaged the device when he fell. It seemed to be intact. Breathing hard, he sat on the floor, staring at the object in his hands. A wild urge swept over him, to throw it out the window into the sea.
What did you THINK it was going to do, McKay? Slowly calming down, he placed the headphones over his head, and leaned back against the side of the bed. Closing his eyes, he slipped back into the virtual environment.
It was easier this time, without as much disorientation, and a little less stressful since he knew he could get out anytime he wanted. His initial unease dissipated completely as he was flooded with the same sense of general well-being that he'd gotten before. This time, the thought crossed his mind that the device might actually be doing something to trigger that sort of response. Endorphins, maybe? He found it much harder to worry than it really ought to be; the unnatural mellowness, combined with curiosity about the function of the device, left him unable to muster sufficient concern to pull himself out of the simulation ... yet.
He turned slowly, and failed to avoid a flinch at the sight of Carson sitting on the edge of the dock, swinging his legs slowly in midair.
"Should you really be doing that?" were the first words out of his mouth. Waves crashed far below them.
Carson smiled, and a bolt of pain went through Rodney's stomach, penetrating the cushioning effect of the warm sense of well-being flooding him.
"I'm not really here, Rodney," Carson said, and the soft brogue was the same, everything was the same. "I can't fall."
And that -- that hurt even more, in a totally different way. He hadn't realized until that moment how, even knowing it was impossible, he'd allowed his hopes to rest on the device doing as advertised: bringing back someone lost.
"Not here," he said, through lips thick and stiff.
Carson shook his head, and stood. "I'm drawn from your mind, from your memories of Carson."
The simmering anger burst out of him, shattering the fragile, tenuous peace that he'd managed to find in this place. "Then what the hell good are you?"
"I'm here for you to talk to." Not-Carson spread his hands. "I'm here so that you can tell me the things you couldn't say to me when I was alive. I'm here to listen, and help you through this."
"Fuck you," Rodney said quietly, trembling, and thought himself out of the device as hard as he could. He tore off the headphones and let them fall into his lap. His hands shook so violently that it took him several tries to pick them back up and slide them onto his temples again.
When he reappeared on the edge of the sunlit pier, he was alone. Swiveling completely around, he saw no one else -- only the spires of the city, the pier sweeping back until its far end blurred in the golden light.
"Carson?" The only answer was the sound of the wind keening in the spires. An intense, unreasoning panic sickened him. "Carson?" he repeated, louder.
The figure faded in slowly, next to him, like a developing Polaroid. Rodney took a step backward, and glowered at the Not-Carson image suspiciously as it smiled at him.
Rodney found his betraying hand raising in a little wave before he caught it and yanked it back down. Stupid hand. "Why would anyone want you?" he demanded bluntly, without preamble. "You're a lie. A -- a fake."
Not-Carson raised a shoulder. "A photograph is also fake ... in a way. But you've got pictures of me. A few. And you treasure them."
Rodney's fists clenched, both within and without the simulation; he could feel his hands curling against the bedcovers. "How the hell do you know that?"
Not-Carson tapped his own forehead. "Your mind, Rodney -- your mind, remember? I'm drawn from it."
"I don't want you in my head!" Even though he knew it was irrational to argue when he'd put on the device voluntarily.
"I'm not in your head," Not-Carson explained patiently in his all-too-Carsonlike voice. "The device scanned your mind when you first put it on, and created this simulation. At this point, you'll need to tell me what you want me to do."
"I want you to leave!"
"If you want to get away from me," Not-Carson said softly, "all you have to do is will yourself out of the device. It's not possible to become trapped here."
"Fine," Rodney said loftily, and exited the program into his quarters.
He sighed, and sat for a moment in silence, staring bleakly at the boxful of Carson's things sitting at the foot of his bed. Some of it was stuff from Carson's quarters that he wasn't sure what to do with and couldn't bear to throw away, and others had been pressed upon him by Carson's mother: an old photograph album that she thought he might want to look through, a chess set that had belonged to Carson's grandfather. He hadn't been able to understand why she'd done that, until thinking about it later, he realized that she might see him as some sort of proxy for Carson -- the last thing she had left of her son.
"I'm not your son," he said aloud, to the box. "Your son is dead. Because of me." And he put the headphones back on and let his quarters fade away into the sunset.
Not-Carson was waiting for him. "Do you feel better?" he asked, solicitous as the real Carson would have been.
"No," Rodney said shortly, but actually he did, as a sense of warm relaxation spread through him. Thoughtful, he sat down on the edge of the pier. Not-Carson joined him a minute later.
"What's this place doing to me?" he asked, keeping an eye on the simulacrum out of the corner of his eye.
"Doing to you? Nothing -- well, nothing much."
"The device causes your brain to release endorphins and other chemicals that enhance relaxation and make you more receptive to the input from the machine," Not-Carson explained.
"Ha! I knew it. And that's it? Just natural chemicals from my own brain, nothing funky? Or dangerous?"
"No. And you have control over the levels of endorphins that you receive. Right now it's set to the default."
"Really?" Rodney closed his simulated eyes and experimented. Sure enough ... if he wanted to be more relaxed, a flush of warmth spread through his body. He opened his eyes and grinned loopily at Not-Carson -- or, hell, call him Carson, why not. "That's nice," he said.
"Don't overdo it," Carson warned.
"I thought you said it wasn't dangerous." Somehow he wasn't that worried, though. It was hard to worry about anything.
"It's not, but you may develop a dependency if you're not careful."
Rodney narrowed his eyes at the simulacrum. "In what way is that not dangerous?"
"You can't overdose, but this device is designed for temporary use only."
A shiver worked through him. "Stop it."
"Stop ... talking like a machine." Even through his warm endorphin high, his stomach turned at the deep, horrible wrongness of hearing product warnings coming out of Carson's mouth.
The simulacrum's manner shifted immediately -- rather than holding itself stiff, it leaned forward in a casual human pose. "Well, what the bloody hell do you expect me to do, Rodney? Can't make up your mind, act like Carson or don't act like Carson, daft bugger..."
Rodney stared at him, eyes wide. "Carson?"
Carson ... Not-Carson ... whatever it was leaned forward, looking at him gently. "Rodney, I want to help you. Seriously. You wouldn't have come here if you didn't need a friend, and you've got a lot of grief and anger to work through." He reached out, a bit awkwardly. Rodney tensed for the hand to go through him, but instead it patted him lightly on the arm. That's right, virtual environment, one part of his brain said, while the rest of it wanted to scream. He scrambled to his feet, withdrawing from Carson's reach.
"Rodney, are you all right?" And, God, the sympathy -- it was Carson, Carson through and through.
"I've got to go," he said stiffly, reaching up to his head as he would for his radio -- an automatic response to the mental command to disengage the device.
"I understand, but I'll be waiting if you need --" and that was the last he heard of Carson's voice. Night had fallen while he was using the device; for an instant, he was startled at how much time had passed, until a hard wave of shivering rolled through him. He laid the device gently down and then wrapped his arms around his legs until the shaking stopped.
It took a long time. He didn't sleep that night -- just lay awake, gazing at the ceiling, his eyes aching with tears he didn't know how to shed.
"Good morning, John."
Elizabeth in the breakfast line. He thought for a brief, rebellious instant about ignoring her, then looked back and saw the exhaustion in her eyes, the half-concealed, slowly healing grief that he recognized all too well, and the wall that he'd unconsciously begun rebuilding around himself developed a crack or two.
"Hey," he said, and offered a somewhat rusty smile as he took a muffin. He started to reach for an extra one for Rodney, out of habit; then paused, and took a bagel instead. He wasn't sure anymore if Rodney was avoiding him, or if he was avoiding Rodney; he wanted to give Rodney space to recover at his own pace, but he really never saw Rodney these days, and even though he'd thought he wanted that, it was starting to bother him. His instinctive flinch at the sight of Elizabeth, the automatic urge to flee, bothered him more.
You try to avoid pain by avoiding situations that cause you to feel pain, a hospital-appointed counselor had told him, after Holland's death. Looking him in the eyes, her own expression carefully veiled, she'd asked, Does it work?
And he'd looked back, and slapped a careless smile over the yawning gulf inside him. Yup, he'd said, leaning back in the hospital bed and grinning at her. Works great.
"I was wondering when you think your team might be ready to resume field operations," Elizabeth said as they threaded their way to an unoccupied table.
Conversation about work. Casual. Safe. Maybe she needed it as much as he did. "Teyla's on New Athos with the Athosians, while she recuperates." They'd had a terse and slightly awkward goodbye in the jumper bay before Lorne had flown her there. Rather than the traditional Athosian farewell that he was expecting, she'd pulled him into a genuine hug, and it had been all he could do not to crumble right there. He'd never felt this close to the emotional edge for so long. It would go away, it always did if he ignored it long enough, leaving him just a little bit emptier each time.
Antarctica. The ultimate escape ... the ultimate punishment.
Elizabeth was talking again. "... be a good, easy trip for just the three of you, to ease back into it."
"Sorry?" He put on his best "John Sheppard is an idiot" expression. "I wasn't listening."
Elizabeth sighed. For an instant, a flash of the old exasperated humor danced in her eyes. "I just said that maybe while you're waiting for Teyla, the rest of you could go see how the Taranans are doing with their crops, on their new world. We've taught them some agricultural techniques from Earth, and the last time they checked in, they seemed to be doing well."
"Isn't that more of a botanist mission?"
"John, I thought you and Rodney would be eager to see Noreena again." Now her eyes were dancing for real; she really was teasing him. A little of the ice inside him melted -- something letting go with a tiny pang.
"Rodney's busy in the labs. How about I just take Ronon?"
Elizabeth looked as if she wanted to argue, but then nodded. "Whatever you think is best. It's your team."
It was, John thought. He hadn't felt this estranged from all of them since Ford had died, back in the pre-Ronon days. A sudden mental image came to him, of the group of them -- his team plus Elizabeth -- clinging to individual pieces of flotsam drifting on a dark sea. Their little scraps of wood drifted towards each other, carried by the eddies in the black water, but rather than reaching out a hand, they kicked the other makeshift rafts away and went spinning off on their own lonely journeys yet again.
It was a metaphor that another of his officially-mandated therapists had used. Reach out a hand for the other swimmers, John. Together you can pull yourselves to shore. Apart, you'll drift endlessly, alone.
Idiotic metaphors that nonetheless managed to work their way into his subconscious ... Reason No. 493 Why John Sheppard Hates Therapists.
He realized that Elizabeth was looking at him, her head cocked to one side just a bit, the lines in her face looking deeper than he'd ever seen them. He just had time to think, Oh crap, I let the conversation lapse and now here comes the --
"John, before you go back out in the field, have you considered that it might be a good idea for each of your team members to have a session with Kate?"
Considered it, decided against it, because having a bunch of grieving people counseled by a woman who's also grieving is a terrible idea, and how can you NOT see this? But of course, they were in another galaxy; therapists didn't grow on trees. Around here, you either went to Heightmeyer or you went without. And some of his men really did need it -- he'd seen Marines half-broken, going through sessions with Heightmeyer and coming out with their heads screwed on straight again.
However, it was always voluntary unless Elizabeth chose to go over his head and overrule him. He'd been through enough therapy in his life to swear that he was never going to order anyone into counseling, regardless of the reason.
"I think Teyla's getting all the therapy she needs on New Athos," he said, taking a bite of his sandwich and chewing without much interest. He was just tired, perpetually tired, worn out from the effort of presenting a normal face to the world. As the leader of a broken team, he was responsible for them, and he didn't know how he could deal with that when he was broken himself.
"And the rest of you?" Elizabeth's eyes were too penetrating, despite her obvious exhaustion.
"Ronon's been to see Heightmeyer before -- remember? According to her report, he sat without moving or speaking for an hour and a half. She kept wanting to poke him to make sure he was alive."
"All right, Ronon isn't really the therapy type, but Rodney --"
"Is an adult, and has the right to make up his own mind, as far as I'm concerned."
Elizabeth sighed. "And you?"
The idea of being shut in a room with Kate Heightmeyer, watching her nod and offer fake sympathetic looks while fragile things shattered like glass behind her eyes, made his stomach twist into knots. He put down his half-finished sandwich. "I guess I'll put it this way: if you're planning on ordering me to see her, then I guess we have a problem."
"I'm not going to order you," Elizabeth said, sounding unutterably tired; and he wondered, suddenly, who she talked to, because he was pretty sure she didn't go to Kate. "Just ... keep an eye on your team, John, and yourself. All right?"
"Yep," he said, and began systematically breaking the muffin into pieces to make it look like he was still eating the meal he'd lost all appetite for. Does it work? Yep ... works great, doc. Works great. "I always do."
The chess set that Carson's mother had given him was set up at the foot of Rodney's bed: carved marble pieces, beautiful and probably expensive. Sometimes he ran his hands over the pieces before dropping back into the peace and warmth and light of Sunset Atlantis. He tried playing chess with Carson in the simulation, but it didn't really feel right, even though he could conjure a board that was a perfect replica of the real one. In life, he and Carson had never played chess -- the doctor claimed to be terrible at it, that he didn't have the right kind of brain for it, and never would so much as pick up a pawn. In Sunset Atlantis, he and Rodney were evenly matched; their games went on and on, usually ending in stalemate. Which, Rodney thought, was unsurprising when you were actually playing against yourself.
He didn't like doing things that reminded him Carson wasn't real.
For the most part, the simulacrum respected his wishes not to be reminded of that inescapable fact, although every once in a while he/it gave Rodney a gentle nudge that the device was really supposed to be used to say goodbye. To apologize for wrongs done in life; to let go of the dead.
He tried, he really did. He said goodbye in a number of different and increasingly maudlin ways. For Sunset Atlantis Carson, each time may as well have been the first time -- he accepted Rodney's apologies, reached out with sympathy, gave back the answers Rodney wanted to hear. Told him he was forgiven; told him they'd see each other again; told him it was possible to Ascend in a split second -- which Rodney knew it wasn't; told him that there really was an afterlife and that everyone they'd loved was there. Carson reassured him that yes, they had been friends, because Rodney continually doubted that ... with Carson and with everyone else he knew. God, when was the last time he'd actually seen and talked to any of his so-called friends on Atlantis? Teyla seemed to have vanished; Sheppard had ducked his gaze the last time their paths had crossed in the cafeteria. He wasn't even positive if Ronon was still on Atlantis.
"Carson, do you think you were my best friend?" He didn't even know what that meant, what would be involved in it. He only knew that something vital was gone from his life, something he didn't have a name for. He wanted to name it, quantify it, explain it, because maybe then he could get it back.
"Do you want me to be?"
"Yes," he said, and dialed up the endorphins. "Yes, oh God yes."
And Carson reached out and squeezed his arm, one time, a dozen times, a hundred times. "Of course I am, Rodney. I've always been."
His best friend, his only constant friend, was a damned hologram. Because Sunset Atlantis Carson was always there. He didn't have other needs, other friends. He never said the wrong thing, the careless and clumsy thing; what he said was usually what Rodney wanted to hear.
And yes, Rodney knew that on some level, it didn't matter. This wasn't Carson, it was a hologram, and the simulated Carson could forgive him ninety times a day, could tell him that they'd be best friends forever a hundred and twenty times a day, and it didn't really mean anything -- any more than kissing Carter at the bottom of the ocean had meant anything.
"You're just telling me what I want to hear."
"That's what best friends do," the device lied. Rodney didn't know much about friendship, but one thing he'd learned over the last couple of years was that very often, it meant saying the hard, cruel things that the other person didn't want to hear. That the simulated Carson refused to give him a metaphorical kick in the pants was the biggest indication of all that it wasn't really Carson.
But right now, he didn't think he could handle that kind of truth. He'd never depended on words; words lied, and talking about feelings was a girl thing. But he also knew he was terrible at figuring out human relationships, and the dread that gnawed at him, deeper even than the guilt, was the awful, ever-present fear that he'd read Carson all wrong, and he'd never meant as much to Carson as Carson had meant to him.
Somehow it helped just hearing someone say it, even if someone in this case was really something.
He found himself spending more and more time in his quarters, in the simulation. It was starting to cut into his work time, and he knew Zelenka had noticed. But it was just so damned hard to leave, and all he could think about was coming back. He was positive that he wasn't addicted; he'd been through that with the enzyme, and he didn't feel any physical withdrawal symptoms. It was just so much nicer there. No doubts and questions -- just certainty and companionship and pleasantness. He wished that friendship in real life could be like this, rather than the messy, awkward, bumbling minefield that it usually turned into for him.
"I never thought I'd ever, I don't know, want something like this," he confessed to Carson, sitting on the edge of the dock on Sunset Atlantis, looking down at the gold-tinted waves. The wonderful thing about Carson, this incarnation of him at least, was that he'd listen to Rodney say anything, no matter how soul-baring, and he'd never judge, never make fun. He'd just listen, and sometimes prompt.
"What do you mean?" Like that.
"Knowledge," Rodney said, a non sequitur, because it wasn't the answer to the question, not really. He wanted a rock to throw ... and then there was one, right by his hand, even if it didn't make much sense that it would be sitting on the bare metal surface. He flung it and watched it arc like one of Sheppard's golf balls, vanishing beneath the gently rolling waves, before finally he began to explain. "Knowledge was always enough for me. Understanding things. Looking under the hood of the universe and figuring out what made it run. It's what I wanted out of life. It's all I ever wanted out of life."
"And?" Carson prompted after a moment.
"I don't know when that changed. I want to go back." His voice sounded tiny and broken to his own ears. He looked down, found another convenient and unlikely rock, and began to toy with it in his lap. "Carson, I never want to feel the way I did when you ... when you, you know." It seemed a bit impolite to say when you died with the man sitting right there, even if he was only a hologram. "I never knew what it was like, what people went through, when .... It's not worth it, I mean, being here, not feeling that, it's, it makes me think of how it used to ..." He swallowed thickly, eyes on the rock. "If Sheppard ... if Teyla, Ronon ... any of them ... and our lives are so dangerous, it would be like that again, and I can't. I just can't. Maybe it makes me weak, but I just can't. It would kill me."
"What do you really want, Rodney?" Carson asked softly.
"I want to stay here," he said, because it was true. He liked it here. It was nice here. Comfortable.
"You can't, Rodney," the simulation said gently. "This isn't real. You're alive."
Rodney just snorted, because it was only in Sunset Atlantis that he actually felt alive. He hadn't written an equation in weeks, hadn't taken pleasure in any of the discoveries in the newly explored labs. The last new thing they'd found had killed Carson.
"I know I can't live in here," he said, flinging the rock and watching it vanish in the sea. "That's just stupid. I know it isn't real; you don't have to remind me. But ..."
Furious with himself, furious with Sunset Carson for not offering him a solution, he yanked himself out of the simulation and felt the weight of reality come crashing down onto him. He was exhausted, and so hungry that he was shaking. Ripping the end off a Snickers wrapper, he wolfed down the instant sugar pick-me-up, even as depression folded him in its familiar leaden embrace. The longer he stayed in the simulation, the harder and less pleasant it was to come back.
"Antidepressants," he said aloud, and began to pace as the sugar hit his system. "This device is a natural antidepressant." And he was a genius; there had to be a solution. He couldn't live in the simulation, but maybe he could somehow get the antidepressant effects in his daily life? He had always hated the very idea of mind-altering drugs, but this wasn't really a drug; it was just his body's own endorphins, kicked up a notch.
He stopped pacing and stared thoughtfully at the device. What if it could be modified so that he could start the engagement into Sunset Atlantis but stop without fully entering the simulation? It should be possible, because he knew that he could move back and forth easily between the simulation and the real world. Theoretically, he should be able to start the simulation, then step back out, but keep the machine running, supplying a low level of endorphins to his brain -- just enough to stave off the worst of the everyday unpleasantness until he didn't need it anymore.
He decided to try that. Lying back on his bed, he hooked the little sucker-cups to his temples and closed his eyes for the spike of coldness and rebounding warmth, then the slide into Sunset Atlantis. He opened his eyes on the familiar end of the pier. For an instant, he felt regret at stepping back out immediately. It was so warm and nice here. But, no, indulgence later; scientific experiment in progress now. Exerting all the mental control that he could, he gently disengaged himself from the simulation and opened his eyes onto the dim ceiling of his quarters -- but focused on leaving himself ready to slip back to Sunset Atlantis at any moment.
He lay for a few minutes ... or maybe it was a lot longer than a few minutes; Rodney was normally acutely aware of the passage of time, but something about wearing the device (the endorphins maybe?) made it harder. The way that he felt was similar to the warm lassitude that one feels when just waking up from a nice dream. Lazy and relaxed, a tiny bit buzzed, a tiny bit high. It worked.
Slowly and carefully, keeping his mind focused on leaving the connection to the device open, he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. The device, which had been sitting on his chest, slipped down into his lap; automatically he reached out and caught it, in the process breaking his connection. The warm lassitude seeped away and the familiar, sick knot in his stomach crept back in.
"All right, try it again," he murmured. This time he put the device in his pocket, and remained sitting up, bracing his arms against the edge of the bed while allowing himself to slip back in.
He only stayed in Sunset Atlantis for a fraction of a second, just long enough to see it start to coalesce around him before he pulled out again. He nearly toppled over, but caught himself on the edge of the bed; this, of course, jolted him back to full wakefulness.
"Damn it!" The Ancients hadn't made this easy.
Experimentation and practice eventually got him to the point where he could slip into Sunset Atlantis while lying down, and then move freely about his quarters, as long as he didn't move too quickly. Conversation was an immediate mood-killer, he found when one of his scientists called him with a question; he bit back at her viciously, "Ask Zelenka or else grow a brain!" and then ripped off his radio, furious at being interrupted in the middle of an experiment.
If he couldn't talk to people, he obviously he couldn't go out in Atlantis like this ... not without more practice, anyway. But he could start wearing the device all the time while he was in his quarters. The benefits of this seemed perfectly clear to him -- he'd be much more productive when he was out of his quarters if he could spend enough time free of the mind-numbing effects of grief and guilt.
Despite their screw-ups, the Ancients could be damn smart sometimes.
If Rodney had been the terror of the labs before, he was about ten times worse now.
Zelenka was pretty sure that he was the only person who could still stand to work with him. Rodney had never been an easy man to work for, or with; he was touchy, egotistical, perfectionist, petty ... you name it. But it was clear enough to Zelenka that most of what Rodney did, he did for the good of the city and the other scientists themselves. He was absolutely vicious when he chewed someone out for a mistake -- but in this place, mistakes could easily kill, and it was a fact that no one in Rodney's labs made the same mistake twice. Even though he always seemed to be yelling at someone, he always had a reason for it. And on those rare occasions when he felt that someone deserved praise, he gave it ... and the scientists lived for it, soaking it up like parched flowers in the rain.
Rodney was feared in the labs, but he was also respected and probably far more well-liked than he realized.
Now he simply tore into anyone who tried to speak to him, with or without a reason. Merely approaching him was reason enough. His verbal stabs were vicious, calculated to hurt. It didn't take long before no one came near him; he was left to work alone in his own bubble of silence and anger. Even Zelenka took to leaving him alone. It was just easier that way. He wanted to help; he knew that Rodney was hurting, probably more than anyone else in the city. He wanted to offer a sympathetic shoulder, to give the man the distraction of a movie night or a pleasant lunch in the cafeteria. But Rodney simply wouldn't accept it, and his ferocious rejection of any sort of friendly overture had left Zelenka unwilling to try more. Radek had the hide of a rhino where Rodney was concerned, but he also knew that his stubborn boss and friend couldn't be led, cajoled or dragged into something he didn't want to do. Right now, it was obvious that Rodney was working out his grief through anger, and Radek thought it might be best to simply leave him alone and let him do that.
It took him a while to notice that Rodney's time in the labs was gradually dwindling. Rodney used to virtually live there; now he'd come in for a few hours at a time, then leave, and come back later.
One thing Zelenka did notice was that when Rodney returned, he was a little easier to get along with for a short while, even though it tended to lead to even more vicious behavior later. Radek guessed that Rodney's absences were probably the result of Heightmeyer, or Elizabeth, ordering him to take it easy. And therapy, maybe? He hoped so; he thought about asking Elizabeth, but figured that it wasn't any of his business.
As long as Rodney was getting some kind of help, Zelenka was willing to put up with the grouchiness in the short term. Radek tried not to pay too much attention to how pale Rodney was, to the dark circles under his eyes. He didn't seem to be getting better yet, but sometimes you had to go down before you could go up. And he always had his team to lean on; Zelenka knew how close they were. With that kind of support, Rodney was bound to climb out of his pit of misery sooner or later. Radek only hoped, for everyone's sake, it could be sooner.
The slap of John's running shoes pounded away the miles -- from the central spires of Atlantis to the distant piers. I oughta go back to Earth and try out for a marathon, he thought, grimly amused, because he couldn't ever remember a time in his life when he'd spent this much time running. So much for "naturally lazy"; all it had taken to beat that out of him was the death of yet another friend.
He put on the speed, running faster, harder, until he lost himself in the burn of his lungs and the sharp sting of what he was pretty sure were incipient shin splints.
"Hey." Ronon fell in stride beside him, keeping pace and barely breaking a sweat.
"Hey." John paused for a breather, leaning against the wall and taking a swig from the water bottle at his hip. He felt lightheaded, dizzy, and sharp pains shot down his legs. Overdoing it. Again.
When he set out again, walking with a long swinging stride to work out the soreness, Ronon paced him. "You've been running a lot lately," he remarked.
"Guess so." John passed him the water bottle. Ronon drank, and they walked in silence for a while before he spoke again.
"Teyla's back from New Athos."
"Really?" John felt guilt stab him sharply; he hadn't even checked.
"Worried about you."
He stumbled involuntarily, was caught with a stab of pain that made him gasp. Yeah. Definitely running too much. "Who? You or Teyla?"
"Both of us," Ronon said, passing the water bottle back. "Worried about all of you."
"All of us."
"You. McKay. Weir."
"Why?" he asked, pausing to stretch out a cramp. The muscles in his legs quivered with fatigue.
"You don't know how to lose people," Ronon said, simple and blunt.
John looked up at him sharply. "We lose people all the damn time, big guy. What do you mean?"
"I mean ... Carson." It seemed very strange to hear Carson's given name in Ronon's low voice; when he was alive, John didn't think Ronon had ever called the doctor by his first name. "He meant a lot to you. All of you. And me, too. But he's gone. Teyla and I ... we know how to get through this. I'm not sure you people do."
John paused in the act of offering the water bottle again. Of all the people he wasn't expecting a lecture from ... "I don't need anyone telling me about loss," he said, his voice harsh. "I've been there. Trust me."
"Yeah," Ronon said. "That's why you're running your feet raw every night and haven't gone offworld since the funeral. 's why you haven't talked to McKay or Teyla in weeks."
"I'm fine, goddammit." John started walking again -- it was involuntary, as if words could be left behind as easily as passing from one corridor to the next. "And for your information, I saw Rodney in the cafeteria yesterday. Chatted a little. He was cheerful."
"Cheerful's not normal for McKay."
John snorted. "Gotcha. Cheerful is bad. Not being cheerful is bad. You taking lessons from Heightmeyer?"
"McKay's not usually that happy," Ronon said, "and you aren't usually ..." He paused, obviously searching for the right word. "Hostile," he finished.
"I'm not hostile!"
Ronon just looked at him.
"All right, that came out sort of hostile. Because you keep asking me questions. Which, by the way, isn't normal for you." John shoved the water bottle in Ronon's direction. The other man took it, then paused and seized John's wrist when he tried to withdraw.
"What happened to your hand?" Ronon asked softly, turning John's hand over. The knuckles were split and swollen, streaks of color fading from vicious purple to sickly green.
John tried to extricate himself; his hand might as well have been swallowed by cement for all the leverage he could get. "Nothing. Just overdid it in the gym the other day."
"Uh-huh." Ronon let go. "Normal. I got it."
John picked up his pace, anger picking away at the fractures in his tenuous self-control. "Look, it's been a long day and I'm going back to my quarters. Tell Teyla I'll see her tomorrow."
Ronon just grunted. John escaped, back to the peace and privacy of his quarters, where he stared at the walls until his hands stopped shaking.
Then he went down to the gym and busted his knuckles open on the punching bag again.
Yeah. Perfectly normal. But getting better, he told himself, running water over the back of his hand and watching blood swirl away down the drain.
With practice, Rodney learned to adjust the dosage on the device. It was just a matter of being in tune with its finer functions, and the longer he wore it, the more in tune with it he seemed to get. He learned how to dial back the dosage in ever-greater increments, so that he was fully functional in his quarters -- allowing for a certain amount of haziness, but he found that the higher levels of endorphins helped him realize that being absolutely, one hundred percent mentally functional at all times wasn't actually as necessary as he'd always believed. Happiness was better. Funny how he'd never figured that out before.
He also learned that giving himself a much higher-than-usual dose of endorphins before leaving his quarters enabled him to function in that pleasant state for quite a bit of time afterwards. It left him miserable when it wore off, but all he had to do was go get another dose. After all, it was medicine and he did need it. The nice thing about being the boss was that no one tracked your movements. He could come and go from the labs at will. As he learned to dial back the dosage and, increasingly, to be more high-functioning at higher doses, he found that it made more sense to work in his quarters. Not only could he keep himself emotionally balanced with the device, but he didn't have morons pestering him all the time -- though, actually, they'd been much better about that lately, which was good considering that they'd also been stupider than usual.
What he really needed, though, was a way to wear the device all the time. And he couldn't help wondering if that was a really good idea, considering that Carson had been fairly adamant about not using it for prolonged periods.
Sitting at his desk, he slipped into Sunset Atlantis and asked Carson about it.
"I don't know any more about medicine than you do, Rodney," his friend said gently, sitting with him at the edge of the balcony. Their feet dangled into the abyss. "And you know I'll tell you what you want to hear."
"Don't say that," Rodney snapped. "Look, you might have just been a construct of my mind at first, it's true. But everything that made you Carson has been pulled out of my brain, including all the stuff in my subconscious. I'm sure there's a lot of medical knowledge down there that I never was aware of. That's true, isn't it?"
"Basically true," Carson agreed.
"So will it hurt me to wear the device all the time?"
The doctor smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "No, you'll be fine. Go do it."
Rodney pulled back a little, glowering at him suspiciously. "That was too easy. Carson wouldn't say that."
"I told you that I tell you what you want to h--"
"Then you should damn well know that I don't want to hear that!"
There was a pause, almost like a reset, and then the other man stiffened a bit. "Well, if you want to be a bloody fool about it, Rodney ..."
He spent a timeless time arguing with Carson about the device, and came out of it with the exact same answer -- that Carson didn't think it would hurt him -- but the bickering beforehand made the answer more meaningful, more likely to be true. He told himself that he really did have a lot of medical knowledge buried in his brain, and that whatever conclusions the simulation drew were likely to be accurate. Never mind that it was programmed to be comforting and not to upset the subject. It was Carson. Even if it was just a hologram, he could still trust Carson.
His hands trembled a little as he set about modifying the device so that he could wear it without being obvious about it.
He ended up redesigning the headphone-like apparatus so that he could wear it under his collar, connected to his neck at two pulse points. It wasn't quite as sensitive as the previous interface and he had to dial up the dosage a little bit to compensate, but after a little practice he started getting the hang of it.
Up to this point, going out in public had become an ordeal. He couldn't stand being around other people; they were intrusive and annoying and they all wanted something from him. He couldn't concentrate on working because all he could think about was getting back to the peace and quiet of Sunset Atlantis, with no one but Carson for company ... the only friend that he had left, and the only friend he wanted. Every minute he was away from the device, he missed Carson more desperately than before. He'd even taken to carrying it in his pocket sometimes, just to have the comfort of knowing that Carson was nearby even if Rodney couldn't talk to him.
But now he could take Carson with him everywhere, and it was wonderful. He felt warm and content, not disconnected and angry. He was even hungry, for the first time in ages, now that the knot was out of his stomach. He didn't fly off the handle when people wanted to talk to him; he just chatted with them a little, enough to make them go away.
Working was difficult, though, in a way he'd never really found it before. He couldn't concentrate, and on some deep level, that scared him -- scared him a lot. And yet, somehow, he just couldn't get that worked up about it.
He'd been going out in public with the device for a couple of days when there was some kind of crisis; he wasn't even really sure what it was, just that suddenly people were running around in a frenzy -- he found it vaguely amusing -- and then Zelenka was saying, "Rodney!" over and over.
"What?" he demanded, annoyed to be jarred away from staring at his computer screen, mesmerized by the screensaver.
Zelenka stared at him for a moment. "Didn't you hear Dr. Weir? Aren't you wearing your radio?"
Rodney reached up, slowly, to touch the side of his face. Huh, must've forgotten to put it on. He never wore it in his quarters anymore -- it was distracting.
And Zelenka was talking, rattling off something about the city's stabilizers. It didn't really make sense, so Rodney didn't try. At the end there was a question, and he realized that Zelenka wanted to know something.
"What? Fine, fine," he waved a hand, "yes, that sounds fine, do it."
Zelenka stared at him for a moment longer, then grabbed Esposito and Coleman and went running off. Rodney went back to staring at the screensaver, lightly overlaid with the gleaming towers of Sunset Atlantis, and then realized that he was hungry, so he wandered down to the cafeteria.
Once he'd absently piled a tray and found a quiet table in a corner, he let his eyes unfocus and found the cafeteria in Sunset Atlantis. He was getting much better at overlaying the simulation with the real world. Soon he might be able to --
"Anybody sittin' here?"
Rodney blinked and looked up, taking a moment to get the "real" world (he thought of it now with the quotes, since Sunset Atlantis seemed so much more vivid) to come into focus. Sheppard was standing there, holding a muffin and looking awkward.
Once, he wouldn't have asked; he'd just pull up a chair and fling his loose-limbed body into it. A sharp stab of pain went straight through Rodney. He dialed up the dosage a bit to compensate, without even thinking about it; by now, it had become nearly automatic.
"Sure, sit, whatever, I don't care."
Sheppard sat. He began picking apart the muffin, not eating any of it. Rodney's eyes drifted to a crude bandage wrapped around Sheppard's right hand, obviously a self-applied first-aid job.
He's seen Sheppard around the cafeteria a few times lately, usually one of them going when the other was coming. They'd said hi, but they hadn't really talked. The fact that Sheppard was here, now, looking at Rodney with that too-intelligent gaze, made him feel like squirming in his seat; he felt guilty, as if he had something to hide.
"So, Zelenka said you guys solved the stabilizer problem?" Sheppard said, lining up his muffin crumbs on the table.
Sheppard gave him a long stare; it might have looked blank, disinterested even, to someone who didn't know him. "Oh, I don't know, Rodney -- the one that was threatening to send us all to the bottom of the sea?"
Rodney found himself mesmerized by the dark circles under Sheppard's eyes. He looked like he hadn't slept in years. He felt vaguely guilty about that, and wasn't sure why.
He kicked the dosage up, just a little more.
"Zelenka took care of it," he said finally, because Sheppard seemed to expect a response.
Sheppard's lips tightened. He leaned forward across the table. "Rodney, you look like shit. Zelenka said you're walking around in a fog. I hate to say this, but Elizabeth might be right -- have you thought about ... therapy, I dunno, antidepressants? Something?"
"I'm taking antidepressants," Rodney said mildly.
Sheppard's brow furrowed. "You are?"
"Yes," he said, and stood up. "And they're working fine. Nice to see you, Colonel. Was there anything else?"
Sheppard was still staring at him, with a similar look to the one Zelenka had worn in the lab. "No," he said.
"Well, then, have a nice day." He was already out of the cafeteria before he realized that he'd left his tray on the table, with most of the food still on it. Oh well; he couldn't be bothered to go back for it.
Continued in Part Two.