Force over Distance: Physical Chemistry (A Molecular Approach)
McKay’s watched enough Star Trek to know what happens next.
Chapter warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Loss of autonomy. Physical injuries. Boundary violations.
Text iteration: Sunday afternoon football.
Audio status: Proofing.
Additional notes: It’s a real book, kids.
Physical Chemistry (A Molecular Approach)
Rodney McKay sits in an underused corner of Samantha Carter’s lab, next to the liquid chromatography unit that no one’s needed for half a decade. His face is in his hands, mostly so he won’t have to look at Eli Wallace, who’s wearing someone else’s body like a change of clothes.
“Nooooo,” McKay moans, straight into his palms.
“He’s integrated with the ship,” Eli whispers, earnest-junior-varsity-chess-team vibes emanating from the poor airman he’s wearing like a meat suit. “Fully. Integrated. You guys swap someone with him and the ship comes with.”
“Okay, first of all, I object to the term ‘you guys’,” McKay says, still mostly into his hands. “Second of all, I hate this.” He looks up. “I hate Colonel Telford, I hate you, I hate military assholes who leave inconvenient scientists for dead, I hate Earth, I hate the Milky Way, I hate wherever you guys are, I hate mathematicians (both generally and specifically), I hate unexpected code-level modifications (be they computational or genetic), I hate body swaps, I hate Adventures in Consciousness, I hate saving the day twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five because frankly I could use a weekend, I hate secrets, I hate disease, I hate bodily injury, I hate torture, I hate developing weird and unexplainable powers, I hate cryptography, I hate discovering AIs within essential computer systems (because it makes me worry about moral obligations towards life in silico), I hate Millennium Prize Problems, I hate Fields Medalists, I hate Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I—
“That’s kinda random,” Eli interjects.
“Is it?” McKay hisses. “Is it, mathboy? He and Bill Nye think they’re so great—”
“Okay, against all odds, I really do wanna hear about that one day, but today,” Eli says, “I’d like to not die when the SGC decides they need to question Rush about his life and his choices?”
“All right,” McKay drops his voice and glances at Carter, resplendent in welding goggles. She’s ignoring him, despite his moderate-volume monologue, probably because she’s wielding a blowtorch. “First question is: do we agree with Young’s assessment that my unredacted report would do more harm than good?”
Eli sighs. “Rush’s track record is really bad when it comes to, uh, communication. For some reason, he doesn’t trust the SGC, or anyone in command. At all. Like, at-all at all.”
“Yeah, so that’s a fun fact,” McKay says, “but I fail to see how it’s relevant.”
“One—he won’t cooperate and never has, so they might feel like they don’t have a choice other than to pull him back. Two—it makes you wonder if they did something to lose his trust before any of this started.”
McKay rolls his eyes. “‘Might feel?’ ‘Makes you wonder?’ What is this? Amateur hour?”
“Uh.” Eli’s borrowed airman blushes faintly. “Well, kinda, actually.”
“Oh.” McKay says. “Right. Sorry. So in the Colonel-Young-Might-Be-Correct Column we have nothing concrete. Your theories have been noted. I’d also add that the climate around here is NUTS because the Lucian Alliance has infiltrated just about everything in the Milky Way, including people’s literal brains.”
“For what it’s worth, they’ve also infiltrated Destiny,” Eli says.
“Yeah. Great. Okay. So everywhere from Washington DC to our farthest-flung, semi-accidental amateur outpost. From our computational networks to our neural networks. That’s where the LA is. It makes people paranoid. And when you have the precedent of documented cognitive insurgency? I can see playing hardball with people’s consciousnesses on a governmental level.”
“So you agree with Young?” Eli asks.
“Kinda,” McKay admits, watching Carter determine the melting point of a new naquadah alloy. He could bring her in on this. She’s standing meters away.
But, if he does that, they’ll start a full-on SGC Science Mutiny. He can feel it. In the Milky Way, divisions between the Science Side and the Military Side are deeper than ever. Part of that is the LA’s fault, but another big chunk of it is the water-cooler gossip about what’s been going on halfway across the universe.
The Rush-As-Cesium/Young-As-Water dynamic is a crystallization of every fight that every scientist has ever had with their commanding officer.
McKay rests an elbow on Carter’s most underused lab bench and looks for Eli beneath the guy he’s wearing. “I asked around after I swapped back in,” he admits. “Telford’s already gotten a formal go-ahead from the IOA. They’re working out logistics. Carter tried to kill the plan when she excluded it from her Resupply Mission, but she couldn’t stop it.”
“So we think Young’s right?” Eli whispers. “If we advertise Rush’s link with the ship, it’ll trigger the swap sooner rather than later?”
“I’m surprised Young cares,” McKay says, grudgingly. “From what I’ve heard, he’d be glad to bench Rush’s consciousness on Earth for a while.”
“Well,” Eli shoots McKay a wry look, “I’m sure he would, but not at the expense of, y’know, everyone dying. So. What’s the plan?”
There’s science, and then there’s politics. On the science end of things, he knows exactly how far he can go. In fact, he’s even laid some of the groundwork with Carter already. But on the political side of things? That’s much trickier. Maybe Elizabeth would have—
McKay swallows. There’s an ache in his chest. “Kid, I don’t know if I can stop this,” he confesses. “I’m not even from here anymore.”
“From where?” Eli hisses. “Earth? First of all, yes you are. Second all, who cares! If this plan goes forward, it’s probably your brain on the line.”
“Not if I say no,” McKay fires back.
“Well that’s just great. For you. You know how often I’ve said ‘no’ over the past two years? Like, a lot of times.” The kid’s voice breaks. “You know who else has said no? Rush. And how much has it ever meant? We can’t quit. We can’t leave. And the way things seem to work around here? If you say no, it’ll just be someone else.”
And, uh, it kinda snuck up on McKay, but the kid is crying.
“So can you please help?” Eli whispers. “Please?”
McKay’s weak to human tears.
It’s a flaw.
“Whatever you think we need to do,” the kid continues, “tell them everything, tell them nothing—I don’t know these people. I just know we need to put a stop to forced swaps. Rush is gonna drag half a starship with him if you pull him out. It’ll fry someone’s brain! Yours? Carter’s? His? And then?” The kid’s voice breaks. “If he dies, or gets taken out, or whatever? It’s all on me. All of it. On me.”
McKay’s soul shreds a little bit. God, the kid is, what? In his early twenties? A college dropout with a flair for math? Trying to save lives on a deserted starship?
“I was always going to help,” McKay whisper-hisses.
“Oh.” Eli sniffs, then wipes his eyes with a determined nonchalance that crushes McKay’s viscera a little more. “Well, why’d you make me cry with someone else’s face? I hate that.”
McKay hands him a tissue. “Sorry,” he says, a little stiffly, around the chasm in his chest.
“Thanks.” Eli wipes his eyes and blows his nose, then looks expectantly at McKay.
McKay glances at Carter, who’s melted halfway through her alloy bar. She looks annoyed. Melting too fast? Melting too slow? Who can say. He stands and shouts, “You want coffee?”
Carter looks up at him and shakes her head.
“C’mon,” McKay whispers to Eli, and leads the way out of the lab.
“We’re doing it now?” Eli says under his breath, as they enter the ugliest underground hallway McKay has ever seen. “The plan?”
“No time like the present,” McKay says through his teeth, smiling at a passing airman, who gives him a suspicious look. Probably because he looks suspicious. He tries to relax his body and dig into those old Sears Drama Festival skills. “Pro tip” McKay says, in his best didactic tone. “In a situation like this, before you swing for the fences, you’re gonna start with a failsafe. We can’t control humans or their usually bad choices. But sometimes, you can limit the fallout.”
People are ignoring them again. That’s good.
“Leadership,” McKay says, as they head away from the elevators, toward the room housing the Ancient Communications Array, “in science, is about prioritization. If you want to start regularly saving the day? You’ve gotta learn the basics.”
A passing airman rolls her eyes. Okay, this is going pretty well.
“Uh yeah,” Eli says. “Tell me more.”
“Reversibility,” McKay says loudly, as he stops in front of a closed door off the main hallway. “Coordination. Communication.”
“Are you just saying words you’ve seen on motivational posters?” Eli whispers.
“These rooms have cameras,” McKay singsongs quietly under his breath as he swipes his badge to open the door.
The delicate lines of the Ancient Communications Array make it look like an exotic bird, trapped in a windowless box. It sits on a table. A tangle of wires and home-designed adaptors connect it to an array of computer terminals near the wall.
“Hi there,” McKay says, and, very subtly, it brightens. Nothing compared to what it would do if John paid it any attention, but still. He’s had his hands on enough Ancient tech over the years that it’s come to know him, even if only a little, through the threadlike conduit of his artificially conferred LTA gene.
“Tell me more about, uh, leadership,” Eli says.
McKay crosses the room and logs into the SGC program that monitors the array. He drills down until he gets a terminal window that will show him Ancient code. He points to it. “This is a perfect example of leadership,” he says.
“It is?” Eli replies.
“Samantha Carter,” McKay says, unable to help himself from glancing at the camera in the ceiling as though it’s a person with a watching eye, damn it, “is a great leader.”
“Oh yeah.” Eli nods earnestly. “I’ve heard so much about her.”
“She pointed out that we should build some safety protocols into our end of the terminal.”
“Anticipating the unforeseen.” The kid delivers the line like an extra in a B sci-fi movie, but it’ll have to do.
“Right,” McKay says. “So, let’s build in some protection for human consciousness, shall we?” He pulls up the data logs for the array, and settles into a more natural tone of voice. “We’re looking at the magnitude and rate of data transfer for each recent use of the stones.”
“Why?” Eli asks.
“The idea is to cap it,” McKay says. “Build in a protocol that protects our Earth-based personnel.”
“So with a data flow above a certain threshold,” Eli stares at the running lines of Ancient code, “the device will shut off automatically?”
“That’s the idea.” McKay pulls a solid state drive out of his pocket, then points to the screen. “Here’s our range. Notice anything, mathboy?”
“We’ve got an outlier.” Eli points at a unique ID. “This person has a transfer rate an order of magnitude higher than the others.”
“Yup,” McKay says softly. “Take a look at the dates.”
Eli scans the screen, then looks up at McKay, eyes wide.
McKay gives him a nod, then opens the safety protocols and makes a small edit. It’s just a few lines of code—elegant enough to make Zelenka proud. “Think you can remember the structure of this program? It might not be a bad idea to rig up a safety protocol like this on your end.”
Eli swallows. “Yeah. Thanks. Uh, why do you think data transfer has such a high rate of variability?”
McKay doesn’t answer the question directly. “These are just the most recent logs,” he says. “Carter and I went back over the entire device history at the SGC. You know who has the highest data requirement of all time?”
“Who?” Eli asks.
“Daniel Jackson,” McKay replies. “We think it might have something to do with the fact he’s ascended. And then descended. And then ascended again. And then descended again. In other contexts, we’ve seen quantifiable changes in the EM fields in the brain along the Ascension Spectrum. Sometimes, those changes correspond to physical realities. Jackson, at one point, had the ability to interconvert.”
“Mass into energy,” McKay says, his voice deliberately light, “energy into mass.”
They look at one another. Beside them, the array hums delicately against McKay’s awareness, like music he can’t quite hear.
“So that’s really a thing,” Eli says flatly.
“Yup.” McKay replies.
“Great,” Eli whispers.
“Let’s get you back to your real body,” McKay says quietly. “You’ve got some modifications to make on your end.”
Eli nods. “Thanks, Rodney.” Gratitude and anxiety swirl over his borrowed features, and McKay feels a pang of sympathy so strong he can barely tolerate it.
He grabs the kid’s shoulder. “Don’t rely on this,” he whispers. “In fact, pro tip: don’t rely on anyone. For anything. As much as you can help it. Figure out how things work. All the time. From minute one. From second one. Every room you walk into, every system you map—ask yourself: where’s the power coming from? Where’s it going? Trace power. That’s how you’re gonna survive this thing, kid. That’s how you help other people survive. Look for capacitors. For flowing charge. For resistors. For lines of force.”
Eli swallowed painfully. “I really wish you were coming back with me.”
“Well,” McKay gives him a weak grin, claps him on the shoulder, and lets him go. “That makes one of us.”
After Eli swaps back to Destiny, McKay gives Carter a (very) limited update on his implementation of their safety protocol, then heads straight for VIP Suite #4.
He opens the door, passes through the kitchenette, and rounds the corner to find John in bed, wearing a white T-shirt and boxers, drinking a beer, and reading an emerging cult classic amongst the SGC science staff. Physical Chemistry: A Molecular Approach.
It’s comprehensive. It’s elegant. It’s heavy on the math. It’s heavy in general.
McKay’s heart stops for a few beats so it can take a good look at the way John Sheppard is frowning at Chapter 12.
He’s across the room and couldn’t see the interior of the book to save his life, but he knows it’s Chapter 12 because of where the book is open and because Sheppard loves Group Theory.
“It’s 3 PM,” McKay says witheringly. “Little early, isn’t it?”
“It’s five o’clock somewhere.” Sheppard looks up, managing to channel rumpled-sunny-Sunday-morning-in-a-floating-city-made-of-glass underneath a fluorescently lit pile of dirt on a weekday afternoon. “Give me a break, Rodney. I have the day off.” Sheppard shrugs. “Plus, everyone knows you can drink after noon.”
“I meant it’s a little early for the quantum.” McKay rolls his eyes. “Shouldn’t you be with Mitchell, pretending you like football?”
“I do like football.” Sheppard smirks at him. “I’m good at it. Strategy. Angles. Momentum. Spin.”
McKay feels his expression do something that he tries to discourage, which then makes Sheppard’s expression do something he tries to encourage, and they’re smoldering at each other across the room, and, uh, despite the laborious progress he has made over the years, McKay has no natural gifts in this realm.
Not a single one.
“Here’s the thing.” McKay falls back on a confidently instructional tone. “I’m a little bit in love with you. But not that much. Don’t let it go to your head.”
Sheppard gives him the kind of smile that maybe actually does have the power to put McKay off hot blonde women for the rest of his life.
McKay isn’t sure what his own face is doing, but it must be doing something, because—
Sheppard’s expression cools like liquid nitrogen poured over a bottle rocket. “What’s wrong?” He asks, because yeah, it’s true; that’s absolutely the kind of life they have. Rodney says something nice so Sheppard assumes the world is ending. Problem is, the guy’s not usually wrong.
“Oh nothing,” McKay says weakly. “I talked to the kid. Implemented the failsafe. But I think a body-swap between yours truly and Nick ‘Fields Medal’ Rush might still be in the cards. Small chance that, despite our best efforts, his brain melts my brain.”
“What?” Sheppard uncoils out of the bed like he’s already stalking the long grass for delicious herbivores. “What do you mean ‘melts your brain’?” He slides an underarm holster over his T-shirt, checks his sidearm, and starts digging through the tangled bedding for his jacket.
This is apex John Sheppard right here. McKay finally manages a pretty good off-the-cuff statement of feeling, and the guy goes straight for his gun.
No one’s perfect.
“I’m against body swaps.” Sheppard grabs his pants and pulls them on.
“Me too,” McKay says. “Highly highly anti.”
“What’s wrong with Fields Medal Guy?”
“Nothing,” McKay says, out of solidarity. “Eh, okay, more like everything,” he amends, out of honesty.
“I meant why is he going to melt your brain,” Sheppard clarifies, mostly into his BDUs.
“Oh. Right. Well, mathboy confirmed it—with the full genetic upgrade came full integration into Destiny’s systems,” McKay says. “His interface with Lantean tech makes yours look like mine. Imagine what would happen if you got swapped out with the Ancient Communication Stones while using the Lantean chair.”
Sheppard pauses, combat boot in hand. “I’d drag the city into someone’s head. So, hosting his brain on your network, or vice-versa, is going to be—what? Capacitor overload or buffer overflow?” He shoves his foot into his boot, then ducks down to fish the other from beneath the bed.
McKay tries not to look too impressed at Sheppard’s snap on the uptake. “Definitely a buffer overflow situation, but we could get some capacitors in the mix. Hard to say. The point is, we need to talk them out of this plan.”
“Yeah. Obviously. Why do you think I’m getting dressed?”
“Ah,” McKay says. “Right.”
“Don’t worry. We got this. We’re the most convincing people I know,” Sheppard finds his second boot, gets it on his foot, and starts tying laces. “What’s the angle?”
“I was thinking we go to Jackson and beg?”
“Beg? Rodney, no one’s gonna force you to use this thing.”
“I like your optimism; then again, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish ‘choice’ from, uh, ‘obligation,’ but that’s a different conversation. Specifically, we’re begging Jackson to kill the whole plan.”
“Doesn’t seem like a hard sell.” Sheppard settles his jacket over his shoulders.
“Don’t get cocky.”
“Did you just tell me not to get ‘cocky’?” Sheppard smirks at McKay. In tandem, they head for the door.
“Are you taking this seriously?” McKay asks.
“I put on my gun, didn’t I?” Sheppard fires back as they step into a hall just as ugly as all the other ugly halls. “So. We’re Team Fields Medal?”
“Yes we’re Team Fields Medal. But we’re not calling it that.”
“Because Team Fields Medal sounds cool. Mathematicians aren’t cool. At all. Physicists are cool.”
“Mmm.” Sheppard heads for the elevators. “Okay.”
“Just because a guy wins a Fields Medal it doesn’t mean he’s any good in the field. Or with fields, frankly.”
“Always wanted to date a Fields Medalist,” Sheppard says.
“Yeah. So you’ve said. About a thousand times.” McKay feels the edge in his voice. “You realize it’s just a budget Nobel Prize.”
“P=NP though.” Sheppard sounds impressed. “I mean, from what I understand, people were pretty sure P wouldn’t equal NP. ”
“Yeah, well, enjoy the inevitable collapse of global cryptosystems.” McKay tries not to feel annoyed. It works about as well as it usually does. “Maybe you can take Rush to coffee if it turns out his consciousness gets displaced across billions of lightyears. He’s super personable.”
Sheppard shrugs, overly casual. “My current working model is that I’m taken.”
“Hm.” McKay’s irritation evaporates. “Well, uh, sounds promising.”
“I like to think so.” Sheppard smirks. They separate to let little knot of an SG-team pass between them. “Any idea what Everett thinks about this?”
“Ugh. That guy? You know him? He said he knew you, but then he told me you’d said good things about me.”
“Hey. Most of what I say about you is good,” Sheppard protests. “And yes. Everett and I are friends.”
“But like ‘military friends,’ right? Not actual friends?”
“Rodney,” Sheppard says.
McKay rolls his eyes. “What does ‘Everett’ think? Couldn’t tell you. What I can say is that he threw a lot of orders around. Used a lot of overbearing body language. Seems to have a fondness for telling people ‘how things are gonna go’.”
“Huh.” Sheppard furrows his brow. “I could see it, I guess. He does seem like the type that might clamp down under stress.”
McKay shoots Sheppard a look full of as much disbelief as he can pack in. Which, for the record, is a lot.
“You realize you clamp down under stress.”
“Nah,” Sheppard says. “You’re just spoiled. I’m as laid back as they come.”
“Okay, well, agree to disagree on that, but, to be totally fair to ‘Everett’,” Rodney pauses. “Between you and me? Nick Rush can be a little bit of a handful.”
Sheppard shoots McKay a wry look. “Even so, Everett is anti-swap?”
“Yup. Everyone on Destiny is anti-swap. We’re anti-swap. Carter’s anti-swap. Telford is pro-swap and, according to Carter, Jackson is pro-swap. So, to really stop this? We need Jackson to defect.”
A distracted airman, moving at a near run, clips Sheppard’s shoulder and knocks him off his stride. “Don’t think we count for much around here.” Sheppard rubs his arm.
“Hey, watch it!” McKay shouts after the guy. “Do you know who we are?”
Sheppard does a terrible job stifling his laugh.
“We count if we sway Jackson,” McKay says, regrouping.
“Sounds right,” Sheppard steps gracefully to one side to avoid another airman in the crowded corridor. “And then, afterwards, maybe—dinner?”
McKay tries to be suave about this.
“Uh, yeah,” he says, after a long, awkward pause, in the most unsuave manner possible.
They hit one of Jackson’s humanities departments, coming like a wave—Anthropology or Linguistics or Comparative Wall Carvings—who knows. They’re stressed. Carrying books. Speaking a mishmash of languages.
“We don’t have to,” Sheppard says, when they’ve reformed on the other side. The man is flustered enough to throw a wrench into the grinding machinery of McKay’s brain. It’s—well, yeah. It’s cute. A little sad. Definitely horrifying. “I just thought—” Sheppard trails off.
McKay tries to remember Teyla’s advice for situations like this. It had gone something like, “Stop saving face so hard that you crush other people’s skulls,” except it has been much nicer and more eloquent.
McKay comes to a stop.
Sheppard also comes to a stop.
“Sorry,” McKay clarifies. “I was surprised. Yes. We should go to dinner. I want to. Definitely. There’s no point in being on Earth if we don’t take advantage of the food. I heard there’s a nice Italian place around here—”
“Italian’s good.” Sheppard grabs McKay’s jacket and starts walking again, dragging him along for the first few steps.
“Italian is unmissable on an Earth trip.” McKay tries to make this whole thing less awkward. Ideally, pretty soon John will lose the please-kill-me-now-and-end-my-excruciating-suffering look. “While we’re here, maybe we should actually go somewhere. Like, somewhere real. New York or San Francisco or—”
“We could visit Jeannie.” Sheppard’s still rattled. He doesn’t look at McKay.
McKay hasn’t yet told his sister that he and John are kind of, a little bit, maybe, sort of A Thing Now. Then again, Jeannie’s pretty smart. She’d seen McKay’s consciousness run out from between his fingers not all that long ago, so she’s probably put 2 and 2 together and gotten 22.
It turns out he wants to tell her. Maybe because he wants her to know he’s not quite as rigid as everyone seems to think. Maybe he wants her to know he’s changed. Maybe he wants her to know he’s capable of, uh, human relationships.
Maybe he wants her to know because he just does. She’s his sister.
“Okay, well, Kaleb only cooks vegetarian food so we’d still have to eat out.” McKay watches tension drain out of Sheppard’s shoulders. “But yeah. If you’re up for it, I mean—”
“Visiting Jeannie also gets you outta here,” Sheppard says, as they arrive at the elevator. He hits the down button. “At least for a few days.”
Oh. Right. And then there’s that. “Good point,” McKay replies.
Jackson’s office is open, gold light spilling into the hall. It looks—real. But of course Jackson would have day-spectrum lamps down here. He’s Jackson. They edge around stacks of books and, ugh, is that a skull?
The archeologist is bent over his desk.
McKay clears his throat.
Jackson looks up, squinting at them like he’s never seen a human before in his life.
It’s a little unsettling.
And it goes on.
“Hi?” Sheppard tries.
Jackson’s expression turns fifty percent confused, fifty percent concerned. He scans the room, as though hoping for a clue as to what’s going on.
“Oh my god,” McKay whispers. “He doesn’t remember us.”
“What?” Jackson says, if anything, even more confused. “Of course I remember you. Hi. What’s up?”
“Everything okay?” Sheppard asks.
“Oh. Sorry. Yeah. I was—y’know. In the zone.”
“The zone?” Sheppard asks.
“Translating,” Jackson says. “For hours. Hours and hours and hours. Ancient has gotten a little sticky for me over the past few years. I was trying to remember what language I should say hello in. But then Rodney spoke enough English that I was sure. Hi guys.”
“Sticky?” Sheppard echoes.
“Yeah, like, ‘sticky’ in that it doesn’t want to detatch from my brain. It’s hard to flip away from if I’ve been in it long. What’s up?”
McKay glances at Sheppard.
“Okay, so if we tell you a classified thing, what would you say the chances are that you court martial us?” McKay blurts out.
Sheppard rolls his eyes and shuts the office door.
“I believe only Colonel Sheppard can be court martialed.” Jackson looks amused. “But the odds I flip on you two are are, oh, I’d say about zero percent.”
“About zero percent?” McKay repeats.
Jackson shrugs. “There’s a small theoretical allowance for the possibility that I’m not me or you’re not you.”
Sheppard makes a “fair enough” face.
“Ah. Yes. Well, presuming we all are who we say we are,” McKay says, “You’ve gotta stop this Nick Rush body swap plan.”
“What ‘Nick Rush body swap plan’?” Jackson’s poker face is really strong.
McKay, now hesitant, glances at Sheppard to find Sheppard already looking back at him. They have a wordless eye conversation. This time, it’s McKay who nods.
“Daniel,” Sheppard says. “Rodney was just on Destiny. Something happened with Rush to interface him with the ship. We’re pretty sure that if you drag his consciousness into someone else’s brain—he’ll bring Destiny with him and it’ll fry whoever’s on this end.”
“And guess who’s first in line,” McKay adds.
Jackson’s poker face doesn’t drop, but when he looks at McKay, he says, “Tell me everything.”
And so? McKay does.
He starts at the beginning, the way he’d been recalled to ostensibly assist Carter with the resupply mission, the way Telford’s been dropping by the lab when McKay’s around, trying to strike up awkward conversations about extracting zero point energy from subspace, the recent call for assistance from Destiny, Nick Rush’s forced interface with the chair, Young’s suspicions, Eli’s plea for help.
When he finishes, Jackson sits at his desk, scraping the paint off the pencil in his hand with the edge of his thumbnail. He looks up at McKay. “I can’t stop the swap,” he says.
“What?” McKay’s indignation breaks containment. “For the guy who’s supposed to be the ‘conscience’ of this place you seem weirdly fine with violations of bodily autonomy.”
Okay maybe that was a little harsh.
Jackson fixes McKay with a stare like a laser, leaking from blue all the way into the UV band, probably. “My wife,” he says, “spent years stripped of her bodily autonomy while she was host to the Goa’uld Amaunet. Suffice it to say that I recognize its value.”
“Well—” McKay begins.
Sheppard grabs McKay’s forearm before he can continue. Joke’s on Sheppard though—McKay had absolutely nothing on deck in response to that.
“Why can’t you stop the swap?” Sheppard’s voice is apologetic.
“Because the order to bring Rush’s consciousness back to Earth for questioning comes directly from the Congressional Oversight Committee that the late Senator Armstrong used to head,” Jackson replies. “It has the backing of the IOA. And David Telford is hell bent on it happening.”
“So you can’t stop it because—Congress?” Sheppard clarifies.
“That and,” Jackson looks down at his hands, “a few other reasons. But. I’m pretty confident that, once they do it, I can swing the whole thing as a human rights violation and get it turned around fairly quickly.” He shrugs. “In the meantime, I wouldn’t mind the chance to talk to Nick.”
“That’s all well and good,” McKay begins, really getting fired up, “but with Rush tied to a starship the risk to the person on the Milky Way side—”
“Send me,” Sheppard says.
“What?” Jackson drops his pencil.
“No,” McKay says. “No. No! NO. Absolutely not.” He looks at Jackson. “He always does this. Oh, here’s a suicide mission, we need a volunteer. Oh wait, no we don’t. Why? BECAUSE SHEPPARD STOLE A JUMPER FIVE MINUTES AGO AND IS ALREADY HALFWAY INSIDE THE CORONA OF AN EXPLODING STAR.”
“Okay, well, that never happened,” Sheppard whispers.
Jackson lifts his eyebrows at the pair of them.
“I have the best chance of successfully hosting his brain,” Sheppard says, like the most reasonable guy in the world.
“OVER. MY. DEAD. BODY.” McKay says, like the least reasonable guy in the world.
Sheppard gives McKay a weak grin.
Jackson smiles a sad little smile. “I may not be able to stop the swap,” he says. “But I can probably convince most volunteers to say no. It’ll at least make the plan harder to implement. Ultimately, they’ll get around me. Or Telford himself will do it. But it’ll buy them a few more days.”
“What about Fields Medal Guy?” Sheppard asks. “Doesn’t this work out better for him if I’m on the other side? As opposed to Telford? Plus, you wanted to talk to him, right?”
“Are you seriously arguing for this?” McKay hisses.
Sheppard shrugs. “You said we were Team Fields Medal.”
“Yeah well true but THAT ONLY GOES SO FAR.”
The room is silent.
McKay misses Teyla. She would be saying something super reasonable right now. Instead, he’s behind closed doors with two self-destructive lunatics.
“Team Fields Medal?” Again, Jackson smiles his small smile. “I like it.” His expression shifts, turns serious, and he looks Sheppard dead in the eyes. “Don’t help Telford,” he says flatly. “Just—don’t.”
Sheppard shifts in his seat. “Okay.”
“Good.” Jackson relaxes. “I’ll just do that a bunch more times, and that’s how we’ll buy them a few days.”
“You’re not gonna convince Telford,” Sheppard says.
“I know,” Jackson replies. “I have no plans to try. It’s his risk to shoulder.”
“And Fields Medal Guy?” Sheppard asks.
“John,” Jackson says. “What would really happen if you were sitting in the Lantean Control Chair and someone tried to use the stones on you?”
“I don’t know,” Sheppard says.
Jackson gives Sheppard a skeptical look. “Yes you do. Say it was you Telford was trying to swap. Straight out of the heart of Atlantis. Do you really think that either the city or the Ancient communications array would allow a technological battle that shredded your mind? Someone’s mind, sure. But yours?”
Slowly, Sheppard shakes his head.
The three of them look at one another.
“Awful lot of assumptions you’re making,” McKay says, into the quiet.
“True.” Jackson smiles at them. “Kinda my thing.”
“I know you’re upset,” Sheppard says, when they’re back in the VIP Suite. “But, in my defense—”
“No,” McKay says. “Uh uh. I do NOT want to hear it. I can accept your compulsion to run toward anything that’s on fire, I guess, mostly because I have no choice about it. But that doesn’t mean that I like it or respect it or—”
“I’m just,” Sheppard speaks over him, digging deep into his Kirk-shaped reservoir of personal magnetism, “tryin’ to make the universe safe for math.” Gently, he reaches forward and straightens the lines of McKay’s jacket.
This gets to McKay. The whole thing. The message. The delivery. The physical chemistry. The molecular approach. The sex appeal straight out of Star Trek. McKay happens to love Star Trek.
“I—” McKay says. “You—“
Sheppard raises his eyebrows encouragingly. His hands are on McKay’s upper arms.
“The universe is math,” McKay manages.
“Well exactly,” Sheppard says.
McKay’s watched enough Star Trek to know what happens next.