Mathématique: Lantean Dream Team
To create a machine that feels is a cruelty.
Revised Author’s Notes: This is a piece of fan fiction. It’s a trope-twisting, epic-length, crossover AU that spans all three series of Stargate. There’s a lot of science. A lot of plot. A lot of emotions. Timelines have been slightly altered so that season 4 of Stargate Atlantis (without Carter in command) occurs contemporaneously to season 10 of SG-1, which occurs in the year prior to season 1 of SGU.
Disclaimer: I’m not making money from this; please don’t repost to other sites.
Warnings: Stressors of all kinds. Cruel math trials. Traumatized people and cities.
Lantean Dream Team
John Sheppard swept a hand through his hair.
The projection of the woman flickered before them, pale against the shifting pastels of land and sky, her hair a washed-out approximation of darkness, her hands open. Sheppard’s eyes moved out over the long, windblown grass. The sage-green of the leaves bent in turbulent eddies around the regular gleam of low-set metal that glimmered in a mostly-hidden radial pattern around their position. The grass, the sky, the occasional gray surface of a rock—all of it seemed bleached, as if every surface accessible to the harsh light of this world had been stripped of its color. The shadows beneath the grass and their own dark silhouettes were a deeper, sharper black than seemed appropriate.
There was something about the place that set his mind on edge.
Something in the elevated contrast between light and dark that seemed—unnatural.
Perhaps it was. Perhaps someone’s virtual contrast needed tweaking. Nothing should be ruled out.
“State the nature of your requirement,” the woman said.
“I require you to state your nature,” Rush replied, without looking to him for any kind of guidance, without waiting for clearance or advice, without considering what he said—but with a such a wry twist to an already deft turn of phrase that Sheppard couldn’t help but admire the man’s style. Hopefully it wouldn’t get them killed.
In almost any other circumstance he would have let it go, let Rush push things forward, but—
Sheppard stepped in, his hand closing around the mathematician’s arm just above the elbow. He didn’t take his eyes away from the woman that hovered before them, and so he didn’t miss the almost imperceptible lightening of her expression that Rush’s comment had produced. It was so fleeting that he wasn’t positive it had been real. But it might have been.
“Careful,” Sheppard murmured, feeling the other man tense. “I’m not sure this is what it looks like.”
“I am an adaptive recording,” the woman said.
“Are you, though?” Sheppard murmured.
“State the nature of your requirement.”
Rush said nothing. He angled his head toward Sheppard.
The wind hissed through the grass.
Sheppard cleared his throat. “What did you mean when you said ‘welcome home’.”
“This is one of several default greetings. State the nature of your requirement.”
“Uh huh.” That sounded, perhaps, a little too convenient to be plausible. That, or McKay was rubbing off on him.
He wished McKay were here.
“Where are we?” Sheppard asked.
“This is Altera,” the woman replied.
At the sound of the word something snapped into place in his mind, a feeling of rightness and oneness and wholeness that he fought against embracing because he recognized it for what it was. An external influence. It had to be, because his home was California, where the sun was gold rather than white, and where the only thing that pressed against the mind was the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
The name rang through the air and through his thoughts like something to be warded off.
Even if he hadn’t known from the databases, from McKay, from Dr. Jackson’s meticulous accounts of the Ori, he’d have been able to feel the true identity of this place. It was inherent to the touch of the word on his thoughts. This had been their home, with its irradiating light and deep shadows, with its seas of grass where silver borders hinted at concealments he could only imagine.
Beside him, Rush stood as if he had been affixed to the ground, the muscles of his arm rock hard beneath Sheppard’s grip. Could the mathematician feel it as well—whatever it was that dragged at his thoughts? Did Rush have the gene, or had the other man been pulled along with Sheppard’s instinctive, projective intent to find the cypher?
There had been something else in his mind.
Something beneath the request for the cypher.
This could be his fault.
Sheppard hadn't been able to shake the nearly unbearable urge go home that seemed haunt him every time he left the city. Of course, he'd been thinking of Atlantis, but unless one was very specific in one’s intent, Ancient technology had a way of warping the subconscious. As if it had its own desires. Almost certainly, it did. It was best not to think of such things here. Best not to think of them now.
“Nice place,” Sheppard said, looking up at the woman, “kind of underdeveloped.”
“State the nature of your requirement.”
“What are you concerned about, exactly?” Rush asked him, almost too quietly to be heard over the hissing of the wind through the grass.
“Oh, lots of things.” Sheppard marginally loosened his grip on the other man’s arm. “For one, there’s something about this place that seems a little too—”
“Familiar,” Rush said. The word had a lilting gravitas that was difficult to pull apart from the resonant echo it produced in his mind. A low-grade vibration that he’d always associated with Atlantis thrummed beneath and through the sound of Rush’s voice. It would require only a half-turn of Sheppard’s thoughts to bring him into an alignment that he’d always resisted but only just; a mental independence he suspected was partially his own and partially allowed by Atlantis itself. He wanted to communicate something of this to Rush, who already seemed a part of this planet or of its hidden technological architecture, but he couldn’t think of a way to verbalize a warning.
Perhaps he was imagining the resonance between the planet and the other man’s voice.
Did Rush even have the ATA gene? The LTA gene?
Maybe the mathematician couldn’t feel any of this. Even Beckett, who was, who had been, a natural positive—
“Let’s keep in mind that we’re not Ancients,” Sheppard said, pulling the eyeteeth out of the thought before it could complete itself.
“Yes yes,” Rush whispered back, “but we are looking for something.” He tipped his head in the direction of the projection.
“We require a key,” Rush said, raising his voice to be heard above the wind, “to the cypher that brought us here.”
The word unfurled like a microcosm into all that it represented and much that it should not. Sheppard’s hand tightened again on Rush’s arm—not in warning—but, this time, as a form of reality testing. Rush pulled away.
“Correct,” the apparition replied. “You may proceed.”
“Proceed where?” Sheppard asked.
“You have missed seeing,” she said.
Silence fell as they considered her words. The wind died away.
“I confess—this is not what I envisioned,” Rush murmured.
“Eh. This kind of thing happens more often than you might think,” Sheppard said, watching the woman with an expression that he hoped projected more neutrality than distrust. “Can you determine anything from the DHD?”
Rush vanished from his peripheral vision. Sheppard kept his eyes fixed on the image of the woman. She looked down at him with an unwavering intensity. He wasn’t sure he could conclude anything about her nature from studying her. To him, their technology had never seemed anything but wholly alive.
Sheppard glanced back at Rush, who was examining the crystal array, glowing with a pale brilliance under the white light of the star. The other man’s hands passed over metal and circuitry with a delicate drag-and-sweep that was intimate, proprietary, and difficult to watch. In the bones of his own hands he could feel a strange longing for the metallic grades and curves of Lantean controls—a physical manifestation of an incompleteness of soul.
There were times that he—
There were never those times.
“They’re going to think I abducted you,” Sheppard said, the words as slow and dry as he could make them. He ran his fingers over the strap of his rifle, trying to dispel the strange and empty sensation in his hands that matched the directionless ache of his thoughts.
“Did you?” Rush spoke without looking at him.
Young had been pretty explicit regarding the warning signs of impending panic on the part of his neighbor. Sheppard was unclear as to how exploding DHDs followed by surprise space-and-or-time translocation did not seem to rank on Rush’s list of things to panic about, but he wasn’t inclined to question his good fortune; nor was he about to draw attention to an advantageous psychological oversight.
“Only a little,” Sheppard said, feeling the truthful undertone of the words. “This is probably my fault.”
He continued to watch the woman.
She continued to watch him.
“You think so, do you?” Rush asked, the question so dry that it nearly concealed its curiously understated arrogance.
Sheppard glanced back, briefly, but Rush did not seem to expect any kind of response.
When he was in the city, Atlantis existed always at the edges of his thoughts, a gentle resistance against the instinctive spread of his subconscious out and down through the corridors he walked. It waited with a patient receptivity for whatever he might need. It called to him with a subtle pressure while he stayed silent. Sheppard could feel this place as well—laid out against his mind—but beneath that same resistance was something much vaster, much darker, and much emptier than his city.
Atlantis was not his.
He glanced again at Rush.
He wished he had asked more questions during the too-short briefing at Homeworld Command, because nothing like this had seemed as if it had been on the table. He’d had an entire checklist of security protocols to follow and ten minutes of information on how to avoid upsetting the Earth’s most preeminent cryptographer, all of which was only marginally helpful in assessing the threat level of his current situation.
He suspected that threat level was quite high.
“I can’t determine much without a software interface,” Rush said, one hand sweeping out in a graceful arc. “My experience with DHD circuitry is more theoretical than practical.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard said. “I get that.”
The wind hissed through the grass.
Rush had one hand hooked over his shoulder and was staring out over the shifting green waves with his head subtly cocked—as if trying to ignore something.
“Can you—” Sheppard trailed off, unable to verbalize what he wanted to ask, one hand coming up from the strap of his weapon to gesture vaguely next to his temple. “Feel—”
“Yes,” Rush said.
“Do you have the gene?” Sheppard asked.
“I have all of them.”
They were quiet, watching the grass hiss around the metal structure surrounding them.
“This might be kinda teleological for the middle of a mission-gone-wrong, but, do you have a feeling about whether this might be—” Sheppard hesitated on the cusp of the question, and then tipped over into the decision he’d already made. “Real?”
“I wish you hadn’t asked that,” Rush replied, one hand trailing through thigh-high streamers of grass. His fingers closed around a long, thin leaf, and he broke it free, as if testing the consistency of the world.
“Yeah, me too,” Sheppard said.
“What makes you think it isn’t?” Rush asked, examining his broken stem of grass.
“I’m getting a very—Ancient-techy-vibe from a planet that doesn’t look like it has much of it to speak of.”
“Is that what it is,” Rush murmured, one hand coming to his temple.
“That’s what it is,” Sheppard confirmed, trying to avoid the raw edges of his own thoughts.
“Shall we proceed?” Rush asked.
Sheppard turned to look back at the DHD, glittering under the harsh light of the white star.
They could wait here for McKay to figure out what had happened, but as there was no way of determining where they were or when they were or whether they had been corporeally or only consciously transported, he didn’t feel comfortable waiting for rescue. The other option was to attempt a reversal of the process that had brought them there. It was possible that by touching the DHD with intent, they'd be able to transport themselves back. Of course, if they did that, they wouldn’t have what they came for. The chances of successfully making it this far again were far from one hundred percent.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, “but don’t touch anything.”
“Fine,” Rush replied, starting forward toward the radial perimeter of metal that was just visible over the tips of the grass.
Sheppard glanced once more at the still-watching figure of the woman before matching his stride to Rush’s. He kept the distance between them to less than a yard as they paced out the perimeter of the ring. There was only one opening in the low metallic wall.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Sheppard asked.
“I’m certain.” Rush spoke without looking at him.
Sheppard raised his eyebrows.
“I’m certain,” Rush said again, looking at him.
“We go through together.” Sheppard took Rush's arm. “On three.”
“What, exactly, do you think is going to happen?” Rush’s words had a disdainful edge, but there was an undertone of unease that the man couldn’t entirely conceal.
“Let’s just say that I’m going to be surprised if we end up standing in a patch of grass beyond this ring, holding hands and feeling stupid,” Sheppard said grimly. “Think about the cypher key, and nothing else.”
He eyed the gap in the metal, aware of the barrier pressing against his mind with disquieting expectancy, as if it could feel his presence. Beside him, Rush shifted, one hand coming to his temple.
Sheppard focused on the cypher, on its key, the concepts unfolding in his mind with more detail that should have been possible. He held onto them, linking them to a visceral desire for opening that couldn’t be entirely his own.
Atop images of unlocking he layered in an instinctive directive to stay with Rush as he stepped forward into a flash of white.
Room 1, attempt 1
Sheppard opened his eyes to find himself next to Rush in a long, narrow, windowless room. Planes of silver gleamed under blue-white lights that flared at the junction between the ceiling and the walls. They stood within the bounds of a semi-circle inlaid into the floor, flush with the wall at their back. Directly opposite them, at a distance of approximately fifty feet, was a door.
He no longer had his gun.
“Don’t move,” Sheppard said, one hand extended in front of Rush.
His nerves tingled in warning, offsetting the mental draw of the opposite door.
There was only one way out.
Glowing Ancient text threaded its way in an irregular pattern over the floor between where they stood and the room’s only exit. A single phrase, repeated over and over again.
“Yearning hurts, and what release may come of it feels like death,” Rush read.
Sheppard’s hands reached instinctively for the strap of his rifle, but there was nothing there.
“Great,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets as he studied the script to confirm Rush’s translation. “That doesn’t sound ominous.”
Rush looked over at him, his expression locked. “Your gun is missing.”
“Yep,” Sheppard said.
They looked at the far door.
“I think this is one of those—prove yourself kind of things,” Sheppard said. “This happens sometimes with Ancient tech. Usually—" He broke off, wishing intently for McKay. “Usually they just reject you if you fail. They don’t kill you.”
“Usually?” Rush echoed.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said. “Usually.” They looked across the floor in silence. “But we’re committed now, so—”
Together they stepped forward, out of the inscribed circle. The sides of the room flared an immediate, brilliant blue as force fields snapped into existence along both lateral walls.
“Aw crap,” Sheppard said, rocking forward onto the balls of his feet. “Go. Go.”
The two fields began to close in on them.
He pushed off, feeling himself gather speed over the course of just a few strides. He shoved Rush ahead of him, but the mathematician was fast—faster than he was—as they tore through the long, narrow room. The breath burned at the back of his throat. Even as he pushed himself for every last increment of speed, he knew that this couldn’t be the answer.
And whatever the choice had been, they'd chosen wrong because they weren’t gonna make it to the far door before the fields met.
Rush slowed, likely coming to the same realization.
The fields were already so close that Sheppard could feel the static charge on his skin, see the blue-white glow in his peripheral vision. He reached forward to grab the back of Rush’s jacket and did the only thing he could think of that might help, which was to press his mind into the waiting presence that bordered on his thoughts and shout into that unknown, voracious mental space.
Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop—
But it was Rush who stopped, his hands coming up as the fields moved in.
Together they fell as energy crashed down on either side of them, waves of electricity that his own internal biological circuitry could do nothing in the face of—not even scream—when his heart stopped and his nerves lit up and his conscious mind was slapped straight out of existence.
John Sheppard fell.
He gasped for air.
His heart hammered out a terrified rhythm against his ribs, against his throat. His hands twisted into the grass that surrounded him, into the material of someone else’s uniform, as he blinked, trying to ground himself against the remembered shock of death by electrical discharge.
He looked down.
“Rush,” he said. “Rush.” The other man was beneath him, his eyes open, his expression horrified. Sheppard climbed off him and pulled him into a sitting position and they sat for a moment in the shadows cast by the long grass near the base of the metal wall.
“I think we actually died?” Rush murmured, looking at him, his expression full of uncertainty.
“Can we conclude anything from that?”
“Regarding the nature of this experience?” Sheppard asked. “Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Computational reset or reset courtesy of ascended beings are going to feel pretty similar I think.”
Rush nodded. They listened to the wind in the grass.
“We should try it again,” Rush whispered.
“Nope,” Sheppard replied, struggling to keep his voice even. “No way. We’re outta here. Someone else, who isn’t an international, intergalactic, intellectual resource, can get the magical chevron. Mitchell loves this kind of thing. Proving himself. Right up his alley.” He pushed himself to his feet, feeling his muscles rebel against his weight, shaking under him as he stood. He reached down and pulled Rush up. Together they walked back to the center of the metal circle and to the DHD that waited there.
Had been waiting there.
“Shoulda seen that one coming,” Sheppard said into the wind, the words slow as he tried to brace himself against his own rising fear and against the omnipresent pull of Ancient technology that soaked the edges of his thoughts.
“Was it ever there?” Rush asked, quietly, “or was it shown to us? How much of this is happening? How much of this is a computational application of—fucking ontological phenomenology?”
Sheppard shot Rush a sharp look. What he was about to say wasn’t exactly his usual style. But this was turning out to be a not-so-usual kind of day. Colonel Young probably wouldn’t approve of Sheppard’s complete lack of sugar-coating, here, but it was time to indicate they were on the same page.
“There are three possibilities that I can see,” he replied, stitching his words together with all the casualness he could muster post death-by-force-field. “One—all of this is virtual, meaning we’re completely, even now, decoupled from our physical bodies. Two—some of this is virtual, meaning that we were transported here, we’re currently—" he paused to clap a hand over Rush’s shoulder, “corporeal, but when we stepped through the barrier, we had a virtual experience. Three—none of it is virtual and we physically died in there but got some kind of reset, maybe a temporal one.”
Rush took a deep breath, evidently reassured by substantive analysis.
“At the very least,” Sheppard said, “there’s more to this planet than meets the eye. But we had a sense for that already.”
“Yes,” Rush said. “True. And, for our purposes, the exact nature of our circumstances isn’t necessarily relevant.”
“I wouldn’t mind knowing,” Sheppard said dryly, “but I think we just—have to make it through this thing.”
“Agreed,” Rush said quietly, looking back at the gap in the wall.
Room 1, attempt 3
“Well I don’t see that we have much of a choice,” Rush snapped, one hand on his hip, the other hooked over his shoulder. “There’s clearly no way to outrun the fields. We’ve tried it twice now, and frankly, it’s not exactly an elegant solution.”
“And your solution is?” Sheppard countered. “What if I weren’t here?”
“Who knows how that would affect things?” Rush said. “If we can’t even assume this place exists, then I don’t think we can assume it’s the same for every participant or set of participants.”
Sheppard shot him a dark look but bent low, bridging his hands. Rush stepped into his grip and then onto his back, his fingertips contacting the wall for stability as Sheppard straightened slowly, allowing the other man to get a look at the shallow recess housing the lighting that ran the perimeter of the room.
“See anything?” Sheppard asked, his palms flat against silver metal. He was careful to keep them within the bounds of the semicircle in which they stood.
“Lights,” Rush said dryly. “I’m going to—“
There was a snap of an electrical discharge. Rush was knocked back with enough force to pull Sheppard over. They hit the floor at the same time, the mathematician’s head impacting against the metal with a sickening crack.
The fields flared to life.
“Rush,” Sheppard hissed urgently.
There was no response.
His peripheral vision was a menacing wall of blue.
His heart hammered wildly in the face of anticipated agony. The sound of the approaching fields already prying up a primitive terror from the back of his mind. He knelt next to Rush, pressed one hand to the floor, one hand to the mathematician’s forehead, and focused on halting the progression of the fields using nothing but his thoughts.
It would have worked on Atlantis.
He wasn’t sure why it wasn’t working here.
Rush shifted and opened his eyes.
“Put your hand on the floor,” Sheppard said, speaking quickly and clearly. “Close your eyes, touch the floor, and try to force them back.”
A menacing hum progressively rose in pitch and intensity.
He shut his eyes and concentrated.
Room 1, attempt 5
He stood next to Rush, a subtle tremor in his muscles that he could not suppress.
“Do you think,” Rush said, his voice uneven, “that there’s a limit?”
“To what?” Sheppard asked, shifting his weight to minimize the shaking of exhausted muscles.
“To how many times we’re able to attempt this?”
“Yeah,” Sheppard replied. “Yeah, I think there might be. It—ah. It feels like there might be.” He looked over at Rush, pale in the blue light of the room. “Let’s—“ his throat contracted, swallowing the rest of his sentence. He tried again. “Let’s sit down.”
He couldn’t control his own descent to the floor, and Rush didn’t fare much better. They both dropped against the wall, knees giving out within the confines of the inlaid metal semicircle.
“Is this a—typical day for you?” Rush asked.
“Usually I try to avoid dying before lunch.”
Rush smiled faintly.
“You’re taking this pretty well,” Sheppard said.
“Whatever Young told you—“ Rush said, one hand coming up to press against his eye socket, “is almost certainly wrong.”
Sheppard shrugged. “He said you were pretty scrappy.”
“Direct quote,” Sheppard replied.
Rush managed to pack an impressive amount of derision into his sigh.
Sheppard looked at the opposite door, feeling it pull against his thoughts.
“Let’s try to be smarter, maybe,” he whispered.
“Lead the way,” Rush replied, with an expansive hand gesture.
“Running isn’t fast enough,” Sheppard said. “Messing with the walls was a no go, psychic projection got us nowhere.” He looked at the script on the floor. “How good is your Ancient?”
“Only passable,” Rush said, leaning forward to look at the repeating phrase that glowed along the floor, “and highly skewed toward technical vocabulary and constructions. Yours?”
Sheppard made an equivocal hand gesture as he leaned forward to study the line of text. “Desiderium,” he said, looking at the flowing script. “‘Yearning’ was what you went with, but it could also be also maybe ‘want,’ or ‘desire’. Then we have ‘vulneo’, which is—” Sheppard broke off as his shoulder twitched involuntarily, “a bit of an odd choice.”
“Maybe not,” Rush said slowly. “It’s used in a technical sense to indicate the distress or warping of field lines.”
Sheppard sat forward. “Hang on. This has to be it.” He looked over at Rush, grinning. “The letters proceed directly from this circle to the far door. An unbroken line. They must warp the oncoming field.”
“I don’t think so,” Rush replied, shaking his head once.
“Why not?” Sheppard asked.
“Explain to me, mechanistically, how such a thing might work,” Rush said, shifting to lean against the back wall and shutting his eyes. “The letters form a continuous path between here and the far door. True. But that’s not warping a field. That’s breaking it. Besides, the fields are visible and their approach is uniform.”
“You’re making enough assumptions regarding field boundaries that I still think it’s worth a shot,” Sheppard countered.
Rush cracked an eye at him. “I’ve met enough colonels to know that you’re atypical.”
“Don’t out me,” Sheppard said, hauling himself to his feet before extending a hand to help Rush up. “It would crush McKay.”
“In that case,” Rush replied, “I’m sorely tempted.”
Before he could think too much about it, Sheppard stepped out of the semicircle, planting each foot along the line of text like he was walking a sinuous tightrope, struggling to keep his balance as the field advanced with a terrifying buzz.
He could sense Rush following him.
They were closer to the left lateral wall this time and he could feel the presence of the approaching energy warming the side of his face, his hand. It rushed into his peripheral vision like wave. He held himself steady. He kept walking, foot by halting foot, fighting the temptation to flinch as it bore down on them.
“This is not going to work,” Rush said.
“Probably not, no—”
The field slammed into him, sending him to the floor with a slap that was subsumed in a shriek of agony as it passed over him, stopping his heart and stopping his—
Room 1, attempt 6
They sat against the wall, shivering in reaction, looking toward the opposite door.
“I was sure that was it,” Sheppard whispered, shutting his eyes. “How could that not be it?”
“Yearning hurts, and what release may come of it feels like death,” Rush said.
“That’s just mean,” Sheppard said, one hand pressed flat against his chest, looking at the string of words trailing across the floor.
“There must be an alternate translation,” Rush said.
“I hate puns,” Sheppard said. “So much.”
“I concur,” Rush said. “I find them intellectually punishing.”
“I see what you did there.” Sheppard closed his eyes, right hand fisted in his jacket over his sternum, as if that could do anything for the fluttering feeling in his chest.
“Release is a noun,” Rush broke off, shivering. “Related to discharge.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, his eyes half-closed. “Discharge. Avoiding discharge would be nice. I would be in favor of that.”
“Stay there,” Rush said. “I want to try something.”
Sheppard’s eyes flew open just in time to see that Rush had gotten to his feet and stepped forward.
The walls lit up with their blue-white glow and immediately began to advance. Rush stepped back inside the confines of their semicircle.
“Rush,” Sheppard hissed, not even bothering to stand.
“There must be a way to avoid it,” Rush said. “This is the only remaining possibility I can see.”
The fields advanced, bearing down on them with a familiar crescendo that Sheppard was sure would be haunting his dreams for nights to come, presuming he got out of here alive. He watched the approaching walls of brilliant blue, wishing for the familiar solidity of McKay’s panicked, earnest arrogance with enough intensity to close his throat.
The fields skirted the inlaid semicircle on the floor and crashed into each other, energy passing through energy, splitting into greens and yellows in shifting irregular patterns.
“Well this is fair fucking embarrassing,” Rush said, surveying the glowing interior of the room.
“Oh yeah,” Sheppard said dryly, still sitting, his back against the wall. “Humiliating.”
Rush glanced down at him.
“You don’t think this is still going to kill us once we step out there?” Sheppard asked, giving the words a slow pull, trying to calm the racing of his own heart. “I don’t see how our situation has improved.”
“Oh, I’m sure the extant energy field is still capable of killing us, but I think now you’re correct about the path through the room,” Rush continued. “The two overlaid fields must be destructively interfering, and I suspect they do so in a predictable way.”
“Great,” Sheppard said, taking Rush’s proffered hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
They wended their way along the sinuous track of letters, passing through air made thick with the glow of energy that fluctuated around them, tugging at their hair and sparking in their clothes, but they made it to the opposite door. Sheppard grabbed Rush’s arm, and hit the door controls.
Beyond the opening was a terrifying blackness.
They stepped forward together.
Room 2, attempt 1
The room was circular, with unadorned walls. Sheppard reached behind himself to press a hand against the featureless wall at his back. Already he felt sick, past fatigue, his muscles unwilling to support him against gravity, against the pressure on his mind, against the sight of a triple-bladed weapon suspended over a blue column. From the look of the thing, it was meant to be worn like a glove and wielded like a knife.
There were times that he didn’t understand them.
They had created beautiful things. Things that welcomed listeners into symphonic energies. Things that could subsume a limited sense of self into a universal harmony. But it was a mistake to think them benevolent because they had created something that could call to him. They were capable of callousness, of violence in absentia. Their technology had always been demanding—never to him—but to McKay, to Beckett, to O’Neill, to Jackson, to all of those that got in its way. It demanded a rigor of purpose that matched a people who adhered so strongly to their code of conduct that they would sanction their own destruction.
“Maybe it’s not what it looks like,” Rush whispered.
“Oh,” Sheppard said, feeling his face twist with the word. “I think it is.”
There was no exit from this the room.
“I don’t understand this,” Rush said, and the words were nearly soundless.
“It’s a test,” Sheppard replied, still looking at the weapon.
“Of what,” Rush asked, high pitched, “the ability to solve problems by trial and error? By dying? What kind of metric—”
“Resolution,” Sheppard said.
“This isn’t a test,” Rush hissed with a venomous edge that Sheppard found oddly comforting. “It’s a criterion. A benchmark. Like the genes. Who are they to judge the rest of existence?”
“The guys with the keys, I guess,” Sheppard said, giving Rush a wan smile. He crossed the room and walked around the weapon, examining it from all sides. It was made of a delicate, silver metal. The grip consisted of a contoured bar, meant to be held in a closed fist. Above the back of the hand, three scythe-like blades radiated out from a metal guard.
He was certain that as soon as he picked it up, he was going to have to fight something.
This was going to be messy. This was going to be slow. This was going to be—incredibly awful.
He looked over at Rush, who stood opposite him.
“I’m probably not going to make it,” Sheppard said, the words like flint on flint. “Not the first time.”
“Please make an effort,” Rush replied.
Sheppard gave him a short nod and reached forward, threading his fingers through the weapon’s grip. He snatched it out of its suspension field with a clean, quiet tone.
“Left,” Rush shouted, and Sheppard turned, bringing his right hand up and around in a fast, instinctive arc.
Blade met blade with a clanging sound. He stumbled backward, so startled that he nearly dropped the weapon. His opponent was dressed in black—unfamiliar clothes in an unfamiliar cut. But—
He was facing himself.
He was facing himself—well rested, unsurprised, and artificial.
Sheppard pulled in a slow breath, trying to calm his nerves.
“I don’t suppose we could—talk about this?” he suggested, as Rush edged around the perimeter of the room, lateral quiet step after lateral quiet step.
“And what kind of resolution would that give you?” his double asked, as they began to circle one another. “This isn’t a talking room. This isn’t really a talking planet. John.”
They closed with a brief flurry of blows and blades before separating again.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, breathing heavily, trying to ignore his own fatigue, resolutely keeping his eyes off Rush. He spat blood onto the floor of the room. “I’m getting that.”
With considerably more coordinated viciousness than was customary for mathematicians, Rush tackled Sheppard’s opponent. Or—he would have, had the man not passed straight through the projection and slammed into the central dais, unable to engage.
Sheppard, tracking the other man’s fall, brought his guard up too slowly to counter his double’s move.
The blades passed straight across his throat.
He didn’t feel it at first, he wasn’t aware of falling, the only thing that existed was the instinctive press of hand to neck, the graying of his vision, the attempt to fix something that couldn’t be fixed, as warm liquid spilled between his fingers.
He couldn’t breathe.
The last thing he heard was the slow drag of a metal blade across the floor.
Sheppard sat up, gasping, beneath a twilit sky. His hands flew to his throat, feeling the burning echo of the triplicate sweep of metal as he clamped his jaw shut on everything that wanted to come out of his mouth.
He took a deep breath. Then another. It hadn’t been real. It had been a simulation. The Sakari seed carrier on the ocean of Atlantis. Not real. Not real. Sure. He could breathe. He’d always been able to breathe. Sure he had.
“Rush,” he called, but it wasn’t anything more than a hoarse whisper. His left hand remained closed around his neck, his right hand pushed him to his knees. “Rush,” he called, louder this time.
“Rush,” he screamed, feeling the word tear through raw vocal cords.
It was dark and it was cold and maybe Rush was dead, maybe they both were, had been all along—
A hand fell on his shoulder and he jerked, every muscle in his body contracting in reaction as Rush dropped down next to him in the long grass, an opaque, trembling silhouette against the pale red of the sun, setting behind a thin atmosphere.
“Hey,” Sheppard said, trying for casual but failing. Failing.
He looked again at the sun, and wondered how long it had taken Rush to—
“Next time,” Sheppard said. “Next time I’ll do it.”
“Next time,” Rush replied in a choked whisper, “I’m going first. You can give me some pointers.”
Room 2, attempt 4
Sheppard stood, back to the wall, watching, nearly unable to stand, but equally unable to stand the idea of collapsing to the floor.
“Rush,” he said.
“And what kind of person does that make you,” the black-clad version of the mathematician hissed, “if you can even call yourself that. You’re the worst kind of ideologue. Unfeeling. Uncharitable.”
“I thought this wasn’t a talking room, asshole,” Sheppard snapped.
“Incapable of anything but the basest of human sentiment. It would have been better if she had never met you,” Rush’s alternate hissed.
“Rush,” Sheppard said. “Close with him. Get it over with. Don’t listen.”
“You made her miserable. You tortured her. She followed you, and for what. To die in a place she never wanted? Separated from everything that was important to her?“
“Rush,” Sheppard said. “Don’t listen.”
“Left, at the end, with nothing but you, absorbed in yourself, absorbed in the mathematics—“
“Don’t listen,” Sheppard whispered.
Room 2, attempt 5
His breath burned his throat. He stumbled, fell, and turned it into a sloppy roll as he evaded another swipe of the blade.
“Do you think of Elizabeth?” his double asked, as casual as Sheppard might have been, sparring with Teyla beneath silver filigreed windows, “or do you think of her as an ‘it’? Is that how you justify it to yourself?”
Sheppard felt the bite of the blade across his right shoulder as he tried to get under his opponent’s guard.
“You sent her to her death,” his double said, his eyes hard, his tone almost friendly.
Sheppard tackled him, bringing the blade up too slowly to make contact. He was flipped onto his back, his head cracking against the metal floor.
“But it was worse than that, you know. Worse than death.”
Sheppard swiped upward with the blades, felt them connect and lock as fingers closed over his throat.
“Because she won’t die out there in the vastness of space. Can a machine go mad?”
He couldn’t breathe.
“Unable to move. Unable to hear herself speak in a vacuum.”
Sheppard clutched at the fingers around his throat and tried to free his trapped blades.
“Isolated. Forever. Kept conscious by a power source that will last for eons.”
His vision was graying.
“Eternal torment,” he heard himself whisper, casually. “To create a machine that feels is a cruelty.”
Icy fingers closed over his right hand, pressing up, interlacing with his own. The pressure around his throat eased abruptly and he breathed in, looking up at the blurring of his own face, as his opponent became a blurred, directionless blend of himself and Rush. The pressure on his throat began to ease.
Rush was kneeling next to him, his fingertips wrapping past Sheppard’s to make contact with the gauntlet.
It was Rush who twisted their grip. Rush who braced himself against the floor. Rush who held on as Sheppard slashed up and across and into a sickening, realistic resistance that faded at last to empty air.
The blade itself vanished as they both collapsed back, entirely spent.
Sheppard brought a hand to his throat, trying to breathe past spasming vocal cords, trying to find the energy to sit up, to face whatever awaited them, trying to think of something to say to Rush that could mitigate anything about their current situation.
Of course, there was nothing. “We probably should have thought of that earlier,” Sheppard said, his voice uneven.
“Probably,” Rush whispered.
For a long moment they were silent, lying on the metal floor.
“Sheppard,” Rush said.
“We just killed an amalgamation of ourselves. You can call me John.”
“The vacuum of space is approximately four degrees Kelvin.”
Sheppard turned over onto his side to look at Rush. “Yeah.”
“At that temperature, processor speed would likely slow to almost nothing.”
Sheppard brought his hands to his face, turned his face into the floor. When he could speak, he said, “doesn’t that make it worse?”
“No,” Rush said. “It makes it better. Her—subjective experience prior to system failure would be—shorter.
“Yeah okay,” Sheppard said, breathing raggedly until he was able to follow up with, “thanks.” He pulled himself to his knees and looked over at Rush.
The mathematician was looking back at him, pale under blue lighting, his eyes haunted and dark, a muscle twitching in his cheek.
“I’m positive,” Sheppard said, “that whoever she was, she—”
“Don’t,” Rush said.
“Okay.” Sheppard dropped his eyes. His throat spasmed, and he brought a hand up to his neck, his fingers resting over unbroken skin. “Just so you know,” he said, his eyes flicking toward the gaping black of a door that had appeared in the far wall, “you’re pretty—underrated by command.”
“I am,” Rush said, leaning back against the wall, “unsurprised by this information.”
“What’s the deal with you and Everett?” Sheppard asked, trying to work up enough self-control to smile, but failing. “He seems to have a warped perspective on, uh—” he waved a hand in Rush’s direction. “Your capabilities.”
“I developed heat exhaustion in my own apartment,” Rush admitted.
“Huh,” Sheppard said. He shut his eyes. “Come to Atlantis, maybe. You’d like it.”
“No,” Rush said whispered hoarsely. “I wouldn’t.”
“They disgust me,” Rush said.
Sheppard said nothing.
“They circumscribe intelligence with genetics. They fail to intercede when it’s ethically demanded. They create places like this one. Even now I can feel it pulling on my mind, courtesy of some quirk of convergent evolution.” Rush drove the heel of his hand against his eye socket.
“That’s—not who they are,” Sheppard whispered.
“How can you be certain?”
Sheppard’s fingers brushed against his own temple. He shook his head. “Walk away then. Go back to reinventing human math for humans.”
Rush looked away.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, forcing himself to his feet. “Not as easy as it sounds. I hear ya.” He overbalanced, but caught himself on the central pillar in the room. “Come on. Let’s go get killed. One more round and we’ll split a power bar.”
“Fantastic,” Rush said, allowing Sheppard to help him to his feet.
Room 3, attempt 1
“This is ridiculous,” Rush said, looking at the colored projection arrayed in front of them, a continuous, fluctuating swirl of color that stretched from floor to ceiling.
“This looks very—math-y.” Sheppard said.
“It’s a zeta function.”
“And how—lethal would you say zeta functions generally are?” Sheppard asked, leaning against the back wall.
“They’ve destroyed many an aspiring academic career,” Rush replied dryly. “I’m going to be extremely annoyed if this requires proving the Riemann hypothesis.”
“Me too,” Sheppard said, sliding to the floor, feeling like his legs were made of water. “You know, when SG-1 has to take these kinds of pan-skill-set tests they end up having to—” Sheppard waved a hand, “demonstrate that they understand the concept of pi and fight knights with broadswords. And we get hit with evil doppelgängers and then a Millennium Prize problem?”
Rush looked back at him, one eyebrow lifted. “Pi. Pi? Are you fucking serious?”
“Yeah. Want that power bar?”
Instead of answering, Rush turned around and stepped back, sliding fluidly down the wall to sit, shoulder-to-shoulder with Sheppard.
Sheppard unzipped a pocket and fished around. His fingers closed around a chocolate bar. He pulled it out, opened it, snapped it in half, and handed a piece over to Rush.
“This isn’t a power bar,” Rush pointed out.
“In the Rodney McKay Universe it is,” Sheppard replied. “Ugh I would kill to have that guy here right about now. He’ll talk your ear off, but he’s got a way with pulling it out of the fire.”
Rush shrugged and started in on his chocolate. “It must be adaptive.”
“What?” Sheppard said.
“This test. Trial.”
Sheppard had to file a wild edge off the smile that comment elicited.
“We,” Rush said, his hand opening to gesture at the multicolored representation of the complex plane facing them, “are a truly nightmarish combination.”
“Okay, well, try to be stupider,” Sheppard whispered.
“Try to be less lethal,” Rush whispered back. “Think about fucking kittens or something next time.”
“Oh you know that one would turn out badly,” Sheppard said.
“So how does the Riemann hypothesis kill you, do you think?” Sheppard asked, taking another bite of chocolate.
“Oh,” Rush replied, “in some horrific, topological way I’m sure.”
“Great,” Sheppard said. “I hope it lasts a long time.”
“Maybe we can just—pass through at the critical line.”
“The critical line being—”
“R[s]=1/2,” Rush said, his hand tracking through the air in a vertical line to their right. “In the complex plane.”
“Nice,” Sheppard said.
They finished McKay’s chocolate bar in silence.
“Fucking pi,” Rush said. “I don’t believe it.”
Room 4, Attempt 3
“If you already know the candle light is fire,” Rush shouted over the hiss of blue flame, “Then—what?”
Sheppard struggled to breathe in the searing, oxygen-poor air, pressing his hands to his head, trying to dredge something, anything up from his subconscious, from the place Atlantis occupied when he sat in the chair—
“Farinam decocta fuerit pridem,” Sheppard screamed at the walls, aligning his voice and mind. “Farinam decocta fuerit pridem, farina decocta fuerit pridem, farina decocta fuerit—”
Room 5, Attempt 5
“How many of these rooms,” Sheppard said hoarsely, “do you think there might be.”
“You would know better than I would,” Rush replied, in a cracked whisper.
“I’ve just—I’ve never heard of a one of these trials lasting so long.”
“When we began—I assumed that there would either be seven rooms,” Rush said his eyes shut, “Or ten.”
“The gate,” Rush whispered, without opening his eyes.
“Okay,” Sheppard said. “Any second now. I’m going to get up, and—"
“No,” Rush said. “I’ll do it. I almost had it last time. There’s a trick to it. I think I can get us through.”
Sheppard nodded. Rush stood, one hand on the wall, then squared his shoulders and stepped out of the semi-circle on the floor.
There was a faint buzzing sound as voltage began to run through the walls. Rush cocked his head, as if listening. The air in front of him exploded into an intricate, familiar pattern of light. The mathematician raised his hands, palms outward, and, with a twitch of alignment that torqued the edges of Sheppard’s thoughts, he mentally reproduced the pattern with a differential activation of the low level force field generated over the room. Quickly, Rush stepped laterally moving into a dead spot in the room before the next pattern flashed.
Flash, reproduce, reposition. Flash, reproduce, reposition.
It iterated eight times before a door appeared in the opposite wall.
“Nice,” Sheppard said, getting to his feet, half staggering forward.
The mathematician shut his eyes, pressing both hands to his temples.
“Rush,” Sheppard said. “Rush.”
“I can’t—" the man doubled over. In the dim, blue-white light Sheppard could see that he was sweating even though the ambient temperature was cool. His hair clung to his temples in delicate tendrils.
“What’s wrong?” Sheppard asked, his hands closing around Rush’s arms. “Talk to me.”
“You don’t hear it?” Rush gasped. “I can’t shut it out. I can’t shut it out.”
“There’s nothing to hear,” Sheppard said, trying to snap him free of whatever the latest test had left in his mind.
“Of course there is,” Rush said, “how do you think I predicted the positioning for each iteration? There were eight rounds but we’d only seen five. It was tonal. It is tonal, the end of each round predicting the next—” he broke off, his jaw clamping shut.
“I would know,” Sheppard said. “I would hear it—"
“You don’t know that,” Rush said, replied breathless. “You don’t have all of them.”
“D minor,” Rush whispered, his hands coming over his eyes as he tried to twist away from Sheppard.
“Rush,” Sheppard shouted. “Look at me.”
Rush looked at him, his eyes wild and dark.
“Oh screw this,” Sheppard whispered, and yanked the other man across the floor and through the gaping doorway into blackness.
Room 6, attempt 1
They fell into the next room, straight out of the protective inlay of the semi-circle and into dark water. Sheppard inhaled in poorly considered surprise. His vocal cords spasmed shut as brackish water hit his airway. He struggled for the surface, fighting his way back to the platform, trying to drag Rush with him, trying to gain any kind of purchase on smooth metal before he realized—
Something was actively pulling him down.
Next to him Rush struggled furiously. Sheppard tried to twist away from whatever it was that had a grip on his ankle, his calf, his waist, but he could feel his movements slowing, could feel himself lose his orientation as he was pulled further away from the faint blue light of the surface.
A roaring began, deep and low in his ears.
He kicked wildly, with decreasing coordination, trying to free himself, his hands tearing uselessly through the dark.
His lungs ached.
The stars spread out above him, dense and thick and unfamiliar. Sheppard coughed, turning onto his side, trying to retch up the memory of dark water. He pulled in small sips of air around the constriction in his throat.
His clothes and hair were dry.
“Rush.” He tried to speak, but he could barely breathe, and no sound carried. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, reaching forward into the dark, his hands closing on the familiar texture of BDU’s in the dark.
Rush wasn’t moving.
“Rush,” he tried speaking again with more success this time. He clicked on his flashlight. He swept it over the other man briefly before giving the mathematician a subtle shake.
“Hey,” Sheppard said.
Rush’s eyes were open.
“Hey,” Sheppard said again.
Rush looked at him.
“It will be—" Sheppard couldn’t finish.
“Yes,” Rush whispered. “Yes I know.”
Room 6, attempt 3
The room was dark, barely illuminated by a rim of blue lights in a recessed hollow some distance above their heads. It was cold. Beyond their protected semicircle stretched a plane of black, lethal water.
“You know,” Sheppard said, “I was thinking.”
Rush looked at him without saying anything.
“We’ve died, like, a lot of times.”
“Yes,” Rush agreed.
“I feel sort of disinhibited,” Sheppard said. “I mean, nearly dying is sort of all in fortnight’s work for me, but this is a whole—a whole different level.”
“I really—I don’t understand how or why you people do these things,” Rush said.
“Oh. That. Well, me neither, really. I flipped a coin. But that’s all in the past. Would you—want to get coffee sometime, maybe?”
“You flipped a coin?” Rush asked.
“Yah. What about coffee though?” Sheppard asked, hearing the slur in his own words as he watched dim light flicker over the rippled surface of the water. “Yes/no? After this? One time, and then maybe again, on an ongoing basis? I’ll buy. I have so much Earth Money. I’m never here. There. I never buy anything.”
“What?” Rush asked, the word nothing more than the faint snap of its final consonant.
“Or not—no pressure. Forget it. It would be weird. Would it be weird? I hate leaving Atlantis. I’m never leaving again, actually. Except maybe to have coffee with you. You let me know. It’s not friendship coffee, though,” Sheppard clarified. “Or, it’s not not friendship coffee, but it’s a little bit more like dating coffee. As a prelude to dating chess. Date Chess?”
“I’ll consider it,” Rush said.
“Technically, I’m not supposed to hit on the civilian consultants that I accidentally transport through space and time, but I’ve died about sixteen times today and, I’ll be honest, I’ve always wanted to date a Fields Medalist.”
“Colonel Young told me I’d like you,” Rush said, looking as amused as one could look in the face of probable, incipient drowning. “He was unequivocally correct.”
Sheppard smiled faintly at the ceiling. “Any time now, Rodney,” he whispered. “Rescue us any time.”
“How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape?” Rush read the faintly glowing text that wrapped around the perimeter of the ceiling for the third time.
“I feel like this one’s just—mean-spirited,” Sheppard replied, shivering.
“Agreed,” Rush whispered.
“Are there any science-y disambiguations of ‘fire’?”
“Stellar fusion?” Rush suggested.
“And how would you escape from the fusing core of the sun?” Sheppard asked.
“If you had mass, you probably wouldn’t.”
“Unless,” Rush said.
“Unless—“ Sheppard prompted.
“Unless you were ejected as a result of magnetic reconnection in the form of a stellar flare.”
“Well all right then,” Sheppard said. “No problem. We’ll just do that.”
“I’m a cryptographer,” Rush replied, “not a plasma physicist.”
Room 6, attempt 4
“What did you hear?” Sheppard whispered, his hands braced against the wall as Rush balanced on his shoulders, his hands wedged into the depression near the ceiling that housed the lights.“In the last room.”
“Resonant frequencies,” Rush replied.
“In D minor?”
“Do you hear anything now?”
They nearly overbalanced as Rush tore a strip of lights free of the wall and cast them into the water. There was a bright flash that travelled around the periphery of the room, creating a complete loop before portions of the lighting gave out entirely.
“So much for simulating fucking flux.”
Sheppard bent down, trying to control the vibrating of his fatigued muscles as Rush fought to retain his own footing. Despite their care, they both nearly overbalanced into the water.
They collapsed back against the wall, staring at the pattern made by the now irregular lighting reflected in the water.
“Is that—“ Sheppard began.
“There are mirrors,” Rush whispered, “in the ceiling.”
There was only one path unbroken by lines of lights. It began at the right lateral edge of the semi-circular dais and glittered in the shifting pane of dark water beneath them. They waited until the string of lights that Rush had liberated had sunk out of their view and the water was motionless, its variegations slowly smoothing into unbroken, uncrossing lines that fanned like field lines.
Sheppard didn’t stand, couldn’t stand in the absence of necessity. He dragged himself over to the rim of their semi-circular platform and looked down into opaque water that was dark and still, itself a mirrored surface.
“We’re going to disrupt the pattern,” Sheppard whispered, “as soon as we get in the water.”
“Come on,” Sheppard said.
Rush didn’t move.
“Come on,” Sheppard said again. “And remember how much sense it would make for there to only be SEVEN rooms.”
They stood, soaking wet and supporting one another, blinking in the white glare of natural light. The curved walls of the room were transparent, shot through with arcing silver lines that met overhead in a closed corolla.
Around them stretched an abandoned cityscape, familiar enough to inspire a substernal ache. Barely visible geodesic shielding arced over soaring arcologies with a discreet and friendly glow.
They were in a tower.
The floor was transparent, and, below them, silver spires rose in organized, radial clusters, bunching like crystal flowers, transparent and light and shimmering in the sun. Far in the distance, they could see the glitter of the sea beyond rolling waves of grass.
It pressed on his mind.
It rang like an echo through his thoughts.
It focused on him with an alien yearning that made the pull of Atlantis seem sedate by comparison and Sheppard knew that he had only to will it and the room would come apart for him, separating into panes that would expose them to the open air.
He had only to wish it so.
The city was abandoned; bereft in the way that only abandoned Ancient technology could be bereft—where systems yearned subsonically for those who had left them behind. Altera saw him the way Atlantis saw him—as a polarizing element, as something to align to, a calibration set for a technology just self-aware enough to know that it needed such a thing.
Beside him, Rush crashed to his knees, unable to stand beneath the mental pressure of external, technological grief, his hands spreading over the glass of the floor. The room cracked open in response, unfurling with a delicate pink flare of semi-permeable shielding as the walls broke apart beneath a white star.
“We can’t,” Sheppard whispered, dropping into a crouch that he was too exhausted to hold as the sea breeze swept over them. He fell out of it, unable to catch himself with muscles pushed past the point of endurance. He lay for a moment on the transparent floor, feeling the rhythm of the city below him, before he managed to sit, his hands braced against the glass, inches from Rush’s own.
“This is why,” the mathematician said.
“I knew if you came to Atlantis,” Sheppard said, “you would understand. The genetic requirement—it’s not elitism. It’s for this. For this. So that what they built—could know them.”
“Yes,” Rush said.
The call of sea birds carried faintly on the wind.
Sheppard could no more prevent it than he could prevent the pull of gravity and so, around them, the silent city began to power up, shields activating, lights coming on, generators whirring to life in painful anticipation.
Rush had one hand pressed against his temple. “How much of this,” he asked, “can you hear?”
“How much of what?”
“Creare machina id potest sentio est crudelitas,” Rush whispered.
The words rang in Sheppard’s mind like something remembered rather than heard and he swallowed, resisting the urge to engage with the dense pressure around his mind.
One could not comfort a city.
“To create a machine that can feel is a cruelty?” Sheppard echoed. “You—can hear that?”
“Everywhere,” Rush said. “It’s everywhere.”
“We can’t—do anything for this city,” Sheppard said, “for this planet.”
“Except to stay,” Rush replied.
“No,” Sheppard said. “We can’t do that either.” He looked to the center of the room, and only then did he notice it—suspended in a force field and shining with a red translucence in the open air. It was a crystal, carved into a stylized, three-dimensional representation of what could only be a gate glyph.
The wind hummed around the open edges of the spire, ruffling their hair.
“This place isn’t ours,” Sheppard said.
“But it wants to be.”
He could feel the truth of Rush’s statement—something he’d always known about Atlantis but never quite given himself over to—this proprietary, eternal longing for fulfillment of purpose on the part of a city.
They built you too well, he thought. They built you to last too long. He could feel a ripple of acknowledging mental pressure against his mind in response to the thought.
“This isn’t what we came for,” Sheppard said, struggling to stand against his exhaustion, against the pull of abandoned circuitry, against vertigo and the bleakness of his own thoughts.
“No,” Rush whispered.
“What would you do?” Sheppard asked, a desperate edge to the words. “Stay here? Alone? With immortal electronics pulling on your mind until you finally—”
He stopped, his mouth going dry as he felt the mental wrench of a concealed neural interface chair shatter his thoughts and yank his mind aside. As if it had been listening. As if it had heard the subconscious desire beneath his words. He could feel it here; there was a chair here, of course there would be—Rush didn’t understand, couldn’t possibly yet understand about the chair, he couldn’t know about the shuttles; he couldn’t conceptualize the logistical sequence of events that would seal them here because if he’d been able to do that—
It would have already happened. Sheppard wasn’t strong enough to put a stop to something he already wanted. Wasn’t strong enough to resist the draw at the glittering heart of this city. Not if Rush caved. Not if they stayed too long.
“It will wait,” Sheppard said, half-doubled over, his hand on the nearest transparent petal of wall. “It will wait for you. And when—you’re not—needed anymore, then, maybe—”
“You can go home,” Rush finished, like permission granted in advance.
Sheppard nodded, unable to look at him, unable to speak, his teeth aching with the acuity of his desire to stay. He pressed his hand to glass. “Take it,” he whispered. “Take it.”
Rush stood unsteadily, out of energy, half-paralyzed with some incarnation of the battle that Sheppard was fighting, even now, against the activation of ZPMs, against the opening of shuttle bay doors hundreds of feet below.
He could hear the distant sea.
Rush crossed the floor, a dark silhouette against the reflected light of the sky and city. Sheppard watched him snatch the physical manifestation of his cypher key straight out of the air.
With a rending in his mind, the cityscape bleached to white.