Before she had come to live on Atlantis, Teyla had had no knowledge of the concept of "days off." Every day on Athos was very much a day on. Here, however, she had become familiar with the Earth custom of regular days set aside for relief from one's regular duties, and had come to enjoy them. Attempting to shift the crate in her arms so that she could brush her sweat-soaked hair out of her eyes, she wondered yet again why she was giving up her "day off" for this.
All she succeeded in doing was getting more hair in her eyes. With a sigh, Teyla called across the lab to Rodney, "Where would you like this one?"
"I can suggest a few places," Ronon grumbled as he passed her in the other direction, casually carrying a massive metal pole over his shoulder that most people probably would not have even been able to lift.
"Anywhere," Rodney called absently, making notes on his computer as he hovered over a pair of lab techs with their arms buried up to the elbow in some sort of crystalline machine.
Teyla heaved the crate up onto the nearest countertop. Seeing her out of the corner of his eye, Rodney bellowed, "No, no, not there! Can't you see that's an Ancient diagnostic table for specimen analysis?"
With a sigh, she moved the crate to the next table over.
"No! That's where we're going to put the microscopes!"
"How about the floor?" Teyla inquired, her deep reserves of patience starting to exhaust themselves.
"Sure, whatever." Rodney was buried in his note-taking again.
She set the crate down and straightened up with a grimace. Despite her excellent physical shape, a day of heavy lifting and carrying was starting to take its toll.
They were in one of the most recently opened Ancient labs, far from the inhabited wings of the city. An exploratory team had unsealed it just a few days ago, unearthing a treasure trove of artifacts. With many of his scientists offworld and the rest of his staff stretched extremely thin, Rodney had needed muscle for moving and categorizing objects, and had been inexplicably unable to find any Marines willing to help -- at least not without a direct order (which Sheppard had been, equally inexplicably, unwilling to give).
His team was off duty, however, and in a moment of weakness, Teyla had said that she would love to help. She wasn't entirely sure why Ronon was there, unless it was simply that the former runner hated to be idle and had gotten bored beating up on Marines in the guise of teaching them hand-to-hand combat.
As for Sheppard ...
"Does not the Colonel normally help you with these things, Rodney?" Teyla asked as she helped one of the lab techs move a boxed-up microscope onto the table she'd nearly used for the crate. She knew that Sheppard loved exploring the city and often took advantage of his days off to poke around unexplored corners of it with Rodney, under the guise of "helping".
"Yeah, I'd like to know where he is too." Ronon dropped his pole with a massive clang, nearly braining a scientist who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"The reason why Colonel Sheppard isn't helping with this is because I can't trust him not to touch anything," Rodney said absently. "The two of you don't have the gene, so at least I don't have to worry about you accidentally activating -- Don't do that!"
Ronon looked up from a small crystalline structure on one of the tables, which he'd just nudged with his fingertip. "Why? Can't turn it on."
"No, but you can break it, you oaf. Do not. Touch. Anything."
Ronon met Teyla's eyes; she gave a slight smile, and a shrug. Ronon gave the little snowflake-fragile object a final tap and then straightened, not noticing that next to it, on the table, something else had begun to glow. Teyla saw it, however, and her eyes widened.
"Ronon, look out!"
The runner spun around. So did all the nearby scientists, and a startled, furious-looking Rodney.
The fist-sized object, now glowing with a reddish light, had risen off the table until it floated at Ronon's head height. Like most of the Ancient technology they had found, there were few external cues as to its function. It simply looked like a many-faceted ball with a red light at one side.
"Do not move," Rodney snapped, "and for God's sake, do not touch anything." He began forging his way towards them, his laptop tucked under his arm. He stopped halfway, though, when a beam of red light stabbed out from the floating ball and played up and down Ronon's body. It was clearly scanning him for some unknown purpose.
"I'll take care of it," Ronon said, and before the others could react, he drew his sword in a single lightning-fast movement.
"No!" Rodney, Teyla and several of the scientists yelled in unison. Ignoring them, Ronon continued to swing his sword downward.
And the ball moved -- faster than the eye could see, faster even than Ronon's reflexes, although he tried to compensate and change the angle of his swing. As it moved, it opened like a flower, unfolding two wings from either side that whipped around Ronon's throat and locked behind his neck.
The sword continued through its swing and crashed into the table, clearing a swath of destruction and sending priceless artifacts scattering in shards to the floor. Rodney made a tiny whimpering noise in his throat, his eyes glued to the mess. Then he looked at Ronon with an expression that made all of the nearby scientists take a hasty step backward.
Ronon stood, stunned, with the sword hanging from his hand. He appeared to be unharmed, just surprised. The metal collar he now wore around his neck fit it perfectly, and the red light had changed to green. As he reached up cautiously to prod at it, Rodney descended on him.
"Don't touch anything, I said! Leave it alone, I said! I didn't think this was possible, but you're worse than Sheppard!"
At Rodney's fast approach, Ronon instinctively raised his arms. The light on the collar flashed briefly red; this was accompanied by a white spark and a loud FZZZT! Ronon jerked convulsively and then stood still, his limbs twitching.
Rodney had also stopped moving. So had most of the other people in the room. Teyla spoke first. "Ronon, are you all right?"
The big man shook his head to clear it. "Yeah. It shocked me."
"So we guessed," Rodney muttered. He came a few steps closer, looking ready to flee at the slightest hint of electric discharge. "What did it feel like?"
Ronon's head snapped up. "What did it feel like? You ever been electrocuted, little man?" As he took a step forward, raising his hands, Rodney froze. And the collar did it again. FZZZZT!
Rodney uncoiled from his reflexive crouch, and started to grin. He snapped his fingers. "It's doing it whenever you try to attack me."
"I wasn't," Ronon rumbled.
"Oh, the hell you weren't! What were you going to do, give me a love pat?"
Ronon bristled, and the light flashed red again. This time the shock was of longer duration. FZZZZZZT!
Weir closed her eyes at Sheppard's matter-of-fact statement. "What?" he asked, looking around the others in the lab -- currently consisting of the base's command team plus a smattering of scientists, Beckett, and, of course, Teyla and Ronon. "It is."
"Thank you for that, Colonel." Rodney made no effort to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "May I continue?"
"As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted, the device appears to administer an electric shock through two small electrodes at either side of the neck. It may have been used for training animals" -- Rodney happened to have his back to Ronon and he barely flinched at the sudden FZZZT! that resulted from this statement -- "but considering the way it responds to violent impulses, and apparently only to those, we think the Ancients used these to control criminals."
"By 'we', obviously, you mean you," Sheppard said with a quirk to his mouth.
"Obviously, yes." Rodney crossed his arms. "It's quite fascinating, because it seems to be able to actually respond to neural impulses even before they're acted upon. All he has to do is think about committing violence and it delivers a shock. Of course we'll have to conduct exhaustive testing on him in order to be sure ..."
"See?" Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed at Ronon. "Case in point!"
The Satedan glowered back at him, but judging from the lack of electric shocks, must have been managing to control himself.
"Is it hurting him?" Weir asked. "I mean, obviously it's causing him pain, but is it actually doing damage as well?"
Everyone turned to look at Beckett for an answer. The doctor looked uncomfortable to find the attention of the room suddenly on him. "Well, not as far as I can tell. I checked his vitals and they look fine -- blood pressure's up, but that's not surprising considering the circumstances. There's no sign of any sort of fever or systemic reaction. We'll know more when we get the full blood work back from the lab, but at this point, I'd say he's as healthy as he always is."
"The shocks aren't harmful?"
Carson shook his head. "They're much too low-powered -- they're just intended to deter, not incapacitate. I've noticed the amount of current seems to go up a little bit on subsequent shocks, but not quickly; and I'd guess there would be some kind of failsafe to keep it from going up to lethal levels."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "You don't know that."
"Why, thank you for thinking positively, Rodney," Carson retorted.
"I don't think we should assume it's entirely safe," Elizabeth said, "but at least we know it's not immediately harmful, which is a relief." Turning to Rodney, she added, "I imagine you know what the next question will be. Can you get it off?"
Rodney took a deep breath and released it in a sigh. "I haven't had much luck yet," he admitted. "Of course, it would be easier if Chewbacca would let me actually try."
"No one's getting that close to my neck with a screwdriver," Ronon rumbled.
"Ronon." Elizabeth looked him in the eyes. "You know you can trust Rodney."
"Still don't want him that close, especially if he doesn't know what he's doing."
"Hey!" Rodney spun around to fix him with a pointed finger. "Look who's talking! Who poked at alien technology when I specifically told him not to? Answer me that? Hmm?"
Elizabeth heaved a sigh, rubbed at her forehead. "Please. People. We're on the same side here."
"Have you had someone with the ATA gene try to turn it off?" Sheppard asked suddenly. "I mean, if it was the Ancients who built this, maybe it just has an easy off switch."
Rodney shook his head. "Thought of it, tried it, but it must be more complicated than simply thinking 'off', because that didn't do anything. And believe me, I tried."
Sheppard smirked and nudged his way past the scientist. "I said the ATA gene, not a bastardized artificial copy of it."
"Ah, that must be the alleged Sheppard sense of humor I've heard of," Rodney sneered as he stepped aside to allow Sheppard access to Ronon.
Ronon stood still with surprising patience and allowed Sheppard to probe the collar. He had no more luck than Rodney, however. Nothing visibly changed; the light on the collar continued to glow a steady green, and the rest of it remained solid and unyielding.
"Well, well. Looks like it's time for me and my bastardized gene ... and my other friend here, Mister Screwdriver." Rodney picked up a tool kit off one of the counters. "Now hold still and don't be a big baby about this."
"This bodes well," Rodney murmured, as he approached Ronon with the wariness of a hunter stalking a wild beast.
Weir heaved a sigh and turned to Beckett. "Carson, please continue working on this from your end. I want to know at the very first hint that some sort of physical trauma may be involved."
Beckett nodded. "I'll keep you informed."
"Is there anything we can do?" Teyla asked anxiously, hovering at Sheppard's elbow. It was clear from their body language that neither one of Ronon's more action-oriented teammates liked having to sit still and wait for the scientists.
"I'll let you know if I need you, but at this point, I think all any of you can do is just be supportive."
A loud FZZZZT! from Ronon's side of the room made them jump.
"Ow!" Rodney recoiled in pain, clutching his hand. "Damn it, you Neanderthal, can't you possibly think of anything other than maiming people for five minutes?"
Ronon flinched again as the collar shocked him once more, apparently at his mental response to this.
"I'm trying to help you," Rodney added, shaking his fingers briskly in the air to restore circulation.
After a moment, the Satedan rumbled, with apparent sincerity, "Sorry."
"Sorry doesn't restore feeling to my fingers," Rodney grumbled, reaching for the collar again.
"Frikkin' hell, Ronon!"
"Sorry," Ronon growled again, not sounding terribly repentant this time.
"Think about ... puppies and kittens. Sunsets. Little fluffy baby rabbits."
"I'm trying!" he protested defensively. "They're good eating ... baby rabbits."
Rodney looked him up and down. "You are a sick man."
Watching from across the room, Weir leaned over towards Sheppard and suggested as tactfully as possible, "Do you think it might be a good idea to have someone other than Rodney conduct this procedure? Someone, er ..."
"... a little less likely to cause violent impulses in people around him?"
"Um, yes. Zelenka might be a good choice." Weir winced at another loud crackling sound and Rodney's yell of "Dammit, Ronon!" "On the other hand ..."
"... Rodney's probably the only one who can do it," Sheppard finished for her, glancing across the room at Rodney sucking his singed fingers. "Not just the only one who can figure it out, but the only one who'd actually be willing ..."
"... to put up with that." Now it was Weir's turn to finish his sentence. "That's no slight to Zelenka; he's just not ..."
"... he's not Rodney."
They looked at each other.
"Please stop doing that," Elizabeth said, with a sparkle in her eyes. "I know we spend a lot of time together, but you're frightening me."
Sheppard grinned. "Same here."
"Can we sedate him, please?" Rodney yelled across the room. This was accompanied by another burst of electric discharges of longer duration.
Sheppard and Elizabeth's eyes met again. The sparkle was back. "Your team," she said. "Your problem."
"That's it, back me up." With a sigh, Sheppard crossed the lab to find that Ronon had drawn himself up to his full height and crossed his arms, which severely hampered Rodney's ability to get at the collar. "All right, kids, what's the problem?"
"What do you mean, what's the problem?" Rodney demanded. "The problem is clearly him."
"He doesn't know what he's doing and he keeps stabbing at my neck," Ronon explained.
"Well, how am I supposed to find out how the damn thing works if I can't even examine it because Fido here won't sit still for the veterinarian?"
FZZZZT! The culturally specific references no doubt sailed right over Ronon's dreadlocks, but the tone came through loud and clear.
For about half a second, Sheppard considered channeling his inner Elizabeth and gently working them around to his point of view, until they ended up doing what he wanted and thinking it was their own idea. Then he thought, Nah, too much trouble. "Ronon, the only way that damn collar is coming off is if McKay gets it off, so sit down and let him work on it. That's an order."
Ronon looked at him for a moment, and then leaned his weight on the edge of the nearest lab table -- sitting, in essence.
And Sheppard, realizing that Ronon had just obeyed a "sit" command, very nearly lost it. Somehow he managed to keep a straight face, though he couldn't stop himself from thinking, Wow, that shock collar's working already! He was going to have to have a good long discussion about this with Rodney later ... when they could laugh as much as they wanted without causing Ronon to go into heart failure from the nonstop series of electric shocks that would no doubt ensue if he ever figured out the joke.
Rodney cast Sheppard a very suspicious glance -- despite his notoriously awful people skills, there were times when he could see right through a certain Air Force Colonel, and this appeared to be one of those times. To Sheppard's relief, however, he kept his mouth shut and focused on tinkering with Ronon's collar.
Sheppard decided that he'd better get far, far away before he gave in to the temptation to ask Ronon to shake hands or roll over. Turning around, he nearly tripped over Elizabeth. "I really don't think there's anything else I can do here, is there?"
"I doubt it." Elizabeth glanced over at Beckett, who nodded absently. "This is really a job for the scientific and medical staff. But don't go far, Colonel -- I want you on call in case this turns out to be more serious than we thought."
A little bit of ego surfaced. "It's not that I can't get it off; just that I haven't figured out how yet. I haven't even gotten it open yet. Of course it would be considerably easier if Fido would develop a little self-control." He looked ruefully at the reddened skin on his fingertips.
Weir managed, with effort, to suppress a smile. "Calling him Fido is helping the situation, I'm sure."
"It was perfectly fine until Sheppard, the black-souled bastard, wandered into the lab and told him what the reference meant. I thought he was going to go into convulsions from the resulting shock."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "Is he all right?"
"Ronon, or Sheppard?"
Somehow she managed to contain her grin ... mostly. "Either. Both."
"Sheppard's just fine, I hope; Teyla dragged him off somewhere to beat the crap out of him with her sticks, in the guise of giving him something to do. And Ronon seems to be perfectly unharmed. He's in the infirmary right now so that Carson can count blood particles or whatever it is that he does. He's worried that the electric shocks may have some kind of long-term effect." He waved his hand.
"And you're not?"
"Of course not. You have to have brain cells to lose them; nothing divided by any number is still nothing." At her look, he sighed and said, "I don't really think the shocks are powerful enough to do any harm. We may even get some good out of this, if he learns a little bit of restraint. He's receiving a lot fewer shocks now than he was at first, so obviously, he's learning. In fact, he was getting downright polite to me."
"You can't actually think this is a good thing, Rodney."
"No, no ... well, not much ..."
"You can't take him offworld this way."
"Yes, yes, I know ..." He paused as their radios crackled.
"Dr. Weir? This is Beckett. Is Rodney with you?"
"He's with me, Carson. What is it?"
There was a pause ... a slightly ominous pause, Weir couldn't help thinking. Then Carson said, "Elizabeth, I think both of you should come down to the infirmary. We may have a problem."
There were no scurrying nurses, no crash cart or still, comatose Ronon. The patient was wearing scrubs and sitting on the edge of a bed, a sheet draped over his lap and a number of electrodes hooked up to his scalp and running under his scrubs to chest and shoulders. As Rodney and Elizabeth entered, a nurse holding a clipboard was asking him a series of questions, to which he answered in a low rumble. Sheppard, Beckett and Teyla were clustered at a respectful distance. Elizabeth noted that Sheppard had a few new bruises and Teyla was covered in a light sheen of sweat.
"How in the hell did you get him undressed?" Rodney demanded as they joined the group. "You can't even get him out of his clothes when he's got a broken arm!"
"Yes, well, that's ... one reason why I called you. Come here for a minute." Carson turned and approached the bed, the others trailing after him. Ronon glanced up with a sleepy look in his half-lidded eyes.
"Ronon, I need another vial of blood." The doctor revealed a syringe that had been hitherto hidden in his hand. "Raise your arm for me, there's a good lad." Ronon obeyed, instantly. "No, not that high. Need to get a better angle." The arm went down. "Little higher -- yes, that's good."
"Carson, is there a point to this?" Rodney demanded. Sheppard, a frown on his face, shushed him.
Elizabeth watched Ronon as Carson drew the blood. It was obvious that he'd been given some sort of mild sedative; he had a loopy expression, and gazed off into the distance, not really looking at any of them. After Carson finished, Ronon continued to hold his hand out for a moment before the doctor took it and gently lowered it back down. "Thank you, Ronon," Carson said.
The former runner's forehead twitched as his brows came together; he looked as if he was trying to remember something.
"Why don't you lie down for a while." Carson gently guided him down onto the bed.
"Okay," Ronon agreed, lying down, as Rodney's face displayed his shock.
Carson handed the vial of blood to the nurse and led the little group away from the bed.
"What did you give him, and why didn't you give it to him earlier?" Rodney demanded, not bothering to wait until they made it out of earshot. "He nearly shocked my arm off this morning."
Sheppard and Teyla didn't respond to this, except that the concerned frowns on their faces deepened. Elizabeth had a very bad feeling even before Carson responded, "I haven't given him anything."
"What? Wait. Why's he ... uh-oh."
"Well said as usual, Rodney," Carson remarked with a wry twist of his mouth. "What appears to be happening is that as the collar adjusts to him, it's actually redirecting the neural activity of his brain. It seems to be capable of ... well, reading neural impulses and understanding what they mean, and it suppresses the ones that lead to violent activity, instead stimulating a controlled release of endorphins to reward what it considers good behavior."
"So he's ... high?" Elizabeth guessed.
"More than just that. It's also damping down on the brain's overall activity. He's somewhat confused and disoriented, and it's getting worse."
"Does he know what's happening to him?" Elizabeth asked.
"Does he ever know what's happening to him?" This just slipped out, and Rodney looked somewhat embarrassed and shut up, especially when Teyla glared at him.
"On some level, I'm sure that he does," Carson said, "but it's hard to say how much. He's definitely not in any discomfort or pain. The shocks seem to have stopped once the collar developed enough control over the neural interface to directly affect his brain."
"Can we stop it? Reverse it?"
"I wish I knew," the doctor sighed. "It certainly isn't slowing down on its own, at least not at the moment. If it continues at this rate ..." He trailed off.
"Carson, you're not saying ..."
"He's going to wind up brain-dead, isn't he?" Rodney said shortly. "Notice I avoided the obvious joke. I do have some tact, you know."
"I can't say I care for your terminology, Rodney, or your attempt at tact, but you have the right idea. Obviously it's impossible to say for sure." Carson cast a glance over at Ronon's bulk, lying placidly on the bed. "We're dealing with a gigantic unknown here. We have no idea if the neural remapping is permanent or if autonomic functions will eventually be affected."
Elizabeth said softly, "You mean like breathing."
"Aye." He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "All I can say is, the sooner you get it off him, the more likely he'll recover."
Several pairs of eyes swiveled to Rodney. "Yes, yes, working on it. No pressure, of course."
"Keep me posted," Elizabeth said.
Teyla circled Sheppard as he went through the well-practiced motions. When he failed to complete a move accurately and with appropriate speed, she corrected him with a quick tap from one of her sticks on the offending limb. This leg had not moved back quickly enough -- tap. This arm went down, rather than up -- tap. It was a familiar ritual to both of them. Today, however, Teyla found that she was having to correct him as if he were a novice. He hadn't enacted the forms this poorly in many months.
"Perhaps we should break, Colonel -- it appears your mind is not on the task at hand."
Sheppard wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and went to get a drink from the bottle of water resting on a nearby bench. "Kinda distracted. Sorry."
"I understand." Teyla tucked her sticks through her belt and sat down on a nearby bench with a foot tucked up under her. "It is difficult, being unable to help."
"Thing is, I know there's nothing really ... wrong with him." Sheppard paced the room, toweled off his sweaty hair. "At least nothing permanent. Having something like that stuck to you, though ..." He shuddered, and Teyla recalled that Sheppard's past experience with having unwanted things attached to his neck. "I can't really imagine anything worse than that, Teyla ... having something invading your thoughts, rearranging your brain. And believe me, I'm the local expert on that."
Teyla watched him pace like a caged lion. She understood his anxiety; she, too, hated sitting, waiting, worrying. She was simply too disciplined to display her feelings as openly as he did. "Do not forget, I have had Wraith invade my own thoughts, Colonel. I understand, also."
Sheppard paused in his pacing, and the usual crooked grin asserted itself. "Hey, I'd forgotten about that. Actually, Ronon's about the last of us to have something like that happen to him, isn't he? Between me with the ... bug thing and with having a 10,000-year-old criminal take up residence in my brain -- and then Rodney with Cadman ... This kind of thing isn't normal in the Pegasus Galaxy, is it?"
"I have not heard of such things happening to others," Teyla said seriously.
"Guess we're just lucky, then."
"John, Teyla?" It was Elizabeth's voice on the radio. "Could the two of you come up to the main conference room, please? We're going over the results of Rodney and Carson's testing and I think you should be present."
They looked at each other. "Doesn't sound good," Sheppard said grimly. He grabbed his jacket on the way out the door.
Carson sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that I think this is likely to be entirely reversible if we get it off him -- at least if we get it off him soon."
"Tell him the bad news," Rodney prompted in bleak tones. His laptop was set up in front of him and he typed as he spoke; Sheppard caught a glimpse of a three-dimensional model of the shock collar rotating on the screen.
"Thank you, Rodney, I'm getting to that. The bad news is that it does seem to be entirely capable of affecting all his body's physiological functions. In fact, it's doing exactly that. His heart rate's slowing, his body temperature's dropping. I'm not sure if this is its intended function or not, but it's killing him."
"How long do we have?" Elizabeth asked quietly.
"I'm guessing in a few hours, we'll have to put him on a ventilator. He's already having difficulty staying awake."
"Can we see him?" Teyla wanted to know.
Rodney shuddered. "You're not missing much. I never thought I'd say this, but I kinda miss the old Ronon. He's creepy like this. All he does is stare at you, and not his usual kind of staring, either -- it's like the lights are on but nobody's home."
Elizabeth rubbed her hand across her face wearily. "Have you found anything in the Ancient database regarding devices like this?"
"No. I've got a team of people working on that, but there are no guarantees. We've only deciphered a tiny part of the database so far, and the damn thing's huge." Rodney closed the laptop and placed his hands on it. "In the meantime, I do have another idea. But I'm not sure how safe it'll be."
Elizabeth looked around the table at the expectant eyes of Sheppard's team and Beckett. "I think 'safe' is increasingly being weighed against the risk of losing Ronon's life, or his mind at the very least. What's your idea?"
"See if we can find another one of those shock collars," Rodney said. "We haven't explored a fraction of that complex of labs yet. If I had another one to experiment with, I think I could find a solution much faster. As it is, I can't try most of the experiments I'd like to run because of the chance of, well, decapitating Ronon. We're having to work with simulations, which are nearly useless because of all the unknowns. I'd like to take a small team and do a quick search of the labs."
"But the risk is that you still don't know how he activated it, which means anyone searching the labs could end up like Ronon."
Rodney nodded. "Exactly. I'm thinking about taking a small group--"
"I'll go," Sheppard interrupted, and then, "Ow!" as Rodney kicked him under the table.
"Thank you Colonel, for not even waiting until I'm finished speaking to once again prove willing, nay, eager to commit suicide by whatever means presents itself."
"Anytime," Sheppard said.
Elizabeth frowned. "I don't like this. From what I've heard, that thing came out of nowhere and latched onto him. It was so fast he couldn't respond. How are you going to prevent that?"
"It didn't come out of nowhere; clearly, he activated it somehow. We'll simply be very careful and avoid touching anything. We also have the advantage that we know what we're looking for -- and what to watch out for."
"No," Elizabeth said.
"Excellent, I'll just choose a -- What do you mean, no?"
Sheppard wore an incredulous look. "Elizabeth, we're talking about Ronon's life!"
"I'm aware of that. Believe me, I'm well aware of that. But considering how dangerous this thing has turned out to be, and since we have no idea how they work or what they are capable of doing, I cannot allow you two to put yourselves and possibly the entire city at risk."
"There's not that much risk!" Rodney snapped. "I doubt if these things can possibly be activated that easily; we had an entire team of scientists running around in that lab for hours. Ronon did something -- he had to have done something, unless it was on some kind of ten-thousand-year time delay, in which case it doesn't matter if we send people down there or not."
"Look, Rodney and I can go and be back before you know it," Sheppard said. "We don't have to put anybody in danger except ourselves." He ignored the look that Rodney shot him. "Give us a time limit -- one hour, two hours. If we find nothing, we'll come back."
"The last time I allowed the two of you to override my better judgment was Doranda," Elizabeth said quietly. "And believe me, I hate to bring that up, but you have to understand why I'm not liking the idea of you two going off on your own on a mission I have severe misgivings about."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "It isn't a mission, Elizabeth; it's two or three hours of exploring a lab in the city. Eventually we're still going to have to explore the lab no matter what, unless you think we should just seal it up until the end of time and let all that knowledge go to waste. We'll just be doing it while there's still time to do Ronon some good. Believe me, we'll be painfully careful: touching nothing, activating nothing. Rely on my acute sense of self-preservation if nothing else."
"I, too, agree that the risk is worth the gain," Teyla said quietly. "I would like to go on such a mission."
Elizabeth heaved a sigh. "Two hours. That's how much time I'm willing to give you down there. Touch nothing, activate nothing, and call me the minute you find anything."
"Me?" Sheppard opened a cabinet, waving his hand around his face as dust floated down. His other hand rested on his P90, which he had insisted on bringing -- just in case. "Where'd that come from?"
Rodney nudged the lid off a crate, recoiled as it slid to one side, then cautiously leaned forward to peer into it. "Remember what she was like when she first got here? So quiet and cautious. Look at her now. She's still quiet, but her sense of self-preservation has gone totally out the window."
"Teyla? She hasn't changed. She's the same Teyla she ever was."
"Teyla can hear you," Teyla said from the other side of the room. She was using her fighting sticks to open drawers and poke into cabinets.
Rodney pointed. "See? Sarcasm! Q.E.D., my point is made. You're affecting her."
"What makes you think it's me?"
"Ah, so you admit I'm right." Rodney picked up a glass rod about as long as his arm; it looked as if it was supposed to light up, but was currently dark. After tilting and shaking it to make sure it wasn't going to try to blow his hand off or turn him into a penguin, he began using it as Teyla was using her sticks: to open doors and boxes from a safe distance. Sheppard was using the tip of his P90's muzzle in the same way -- which definitely struck Rodney as an unsafe use of a firearm, but it wasn't as if pointing that out would make any difference.
The lab complex turned out to be huge. After about an hour, they had opened everything that would easily open and were starting on the harder stuff -- locked cabinets, rooms with doors keyed to the ATA gene. Rodney, the only one of the three who knew how to electronically "pick" a locked Ancient door, was in constant demand from both his teammates.
And then they suddenly struck paydirt. Rodney opened yet another cabinet lock for Teyla and was turning away, allowing her to investigate the contents while he moved on to the next one, when her gasp caused him to spin back around in time to see her take a quick step backward. Her fighting sticks were held in front of her defensively.
"I believe I have found them." Her voice sounded calm, but her body was tense and balanced lightly on the balls of her feet, as if poised to flee.
No kidding. She'd stumbled upon a whole cabinet full of the things. Rows of them, sitting on shelves. All of them were dark and inert, just as the other one had been until Ronon did whatever it was he had done.
Rodney drew a deep breath. His every instinct urged him to flee. Even the threat of the Wraith paled next to the horror of being electronically lobotomized. However, his rational mind told him that they were only machines, no more or less evil than their users, and eminently understandable. An inactive machine, no matter how ominous its intent, could hurt no one.
"How shall we move them without touching them?" Teyla asked.
"I'm not planning on taking them anywhere." Cautiously, Rodney leaned closer. The machines continued to remain dark and still. "This is the perfect place to study them -- isolated, far from anyone or anything that might be damaged."
"Aside from us," Sheppard said as he approached them.
"Indeed." Rodney looked around thoughtfully, gnawing on his lip. "I didn't know there would be so many of them. My original plan was to do the initial tests from a safe distance, at least until I can figure out just what exactly does activate them -- touch, sound, some other cue -- but I hate to risk setting all of them off at once."
"That would be bad," Sheppard agreed, leaning between them.
"Kindly keep your distance, Colonel."
"You think I'm going to turn them on? I'm not that much of a loose cannon, Rodney."
Teyla made a small sound in her throat. Sheppard and Rodney both swiveled around and froze in mutual horror.
Every single one of the little balls had come to life, its red light blinking on. They were now lifting in a cloud, like large, horrible mosquitoes.
"Run!" Sheppard yelled, propelling his teammates towards the door. He followed them at a stumbling run, bringing up the P90 and strafing the room with bullets, over Rodney's screamed protests. Glass-fronted cabinets and various priceless artifacts shattered into a million pieces. Several of the cloud of flying robots also exploded or fell to the floor, proving that bullets did indeed harm them. The remaining ones, however, converged on the three humans fleeing towards the door. Baleful beams of red light stabbed out and swept across random body parts -- Teyla's arm, Sheppard's head, Rodney's leg.
Rodney reached the door first and turned to grab Teyla; then Sheppard plowed into them and they all tumbled out the door in a heap. Rodney managed to slap the door release as he fell, and yanked his foot free just as the doors slammed shut, cutting them off from the mass of robots.
"Okay, that was about the most disturbing thing I've seen in ... hours," Rodney panted, sitting upright. "What the hell did you do?" he demanded, turning on Sheppard, but the rest of his tirade died on his lips when he saw the Colonel groping hesitantly at a metal band around his throat, glowing with a steady green light.
"Oh, shit, Sheppard."
"You'll get no argument from me," Sheppard agreed darkly, giving up on prodding and prying at the unyielding metal. "One of them got me as we went through the door."
"Why you?" Rodney demanded, furious and frightened and intensely confused. "They didn't go after me or Teyla -- at least until we started running. And those damn things were so fast, I'm sure they would've gotten us too if they wanted to. Why you?"
"He is the only one of us with a gun," Teyla offered quietly.
Rodney fell quiet, thinking about it. None of the scientists had been armed, nor had Teyla aside from her fighting sticks, which it might not view as weapons. Ronon and Sheppard were the only armed people who had been in close proximity to the devices. And the device hadn't latched onto Ronon until he'd actually attacked it.
"Maybe," he conceded. "Teyla, call Elizabeth and give her a status report. I want to take a closer look at that, Colonel."
They were all three still sitting on the floor; Rodney scooted closer to Sheppard and tilted the Colonel's head back with a not-especially-gentle hand under his chin.
"Ow!" they both yelped, and Rodney recoiled, shaking his hand with an aggrieved look.
"Sheppard, we just went through this with Ronon, so could you please try to keep your violent impulses to yourself!"
"You'll excuse me if I'm a little freaked out here, Rodney," Sheppard retorted as Rodney began carefully examining the collar. "You know, Ronon's right: that really does hurt."
"Believe me, I'm well aware of that." While Sheppard did his best to hold his chin out of the way, Rodney opened a small toolkit and began gently probing at the collar. "It looks like the design's identical to the other one. Which means we don't have to waste time repeating our efforts on the two collars -- we can get twice as far, twice as fast."
"Twice nothing is still nothing," Sheppard murmured.
"Funny, I said something similar to Elizabeth earlier, regarding Ronon's I.Q." The comment hovered in the air between them, a leaden reminder of both Sheppard and Ronon's eventual fate if the collars weren't removed. Rodney swallowed convulsively and his voice dropped so that Teyla -- a few feet away, talking to Elizabeth -- couldn't hear him. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?"
Rodney refused to meet his eyes. "Sorry for having this stupid idea about getting another collar, and dragging you two down here to risk your lives. Sorry for not being able to figure it out -- sorry for not realizing that you'd trigger the things -- just sorry, basically."
"I don't blame you for this, Rodney."
"I didn't think you would. That makes it worse, in a way." Rodney's hands moved swiftly, mechanically, probing at the collar with tiny tools. He still wouldn't meet Sheppard's eyes. "I'm going to fix this. I swear I will. I'll find a way."
"Of course you will, Rodney. You're a genius, or so you keep telling us."
Rodney tried to laugh, but choked on it instead.
"John," Elizabeth greeted him. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine." The answer was a little too hasty, a little too bright. Looking at him closely, she noticed a slightly glassiness in his eyes, a dazed slowness to his movements.
"It's affecting you already," she said quietly.
He nodded, grinned; then the grin fell away, as if it had taken him a minute to figure out that it wasn't something worth smiling about. "Rodney says ..." He had to stop and think; she could see the frustration in his eyes until it finally clicked. "Says it's probably got something to do with the ATA gene. Collar works faster on me." He hesitated, then said, "Rodney thinks he'll figure it out in time." She couldn't tell if he was trying to reassure her, or himself.
"I know that he will." She smiled at him, feeling slightly ill and hoping that it didn't show on her face as she turned away. Unlike the scientists, Sheppard wasn't a man who usually displayed his intelligence openly; in fact, she had known him for quite awhile before she had understood how quick his mind really was. And she hadn't realized, until now, how clearly that sharp intelligence showed through in his eyes ... didn't notice it until it began to fade. This person was like a shell of the real Sheppard. She remembered what Rodney had said about Ronon: The lights are on but nobody's home.
She was unsurprised to find that Rodney was working here, rather than in his own labs. He'd commandeered a table against the wall, and had spread out a variety of items and tools that she didn't recognize. Several different computer screens all showed diagrams of the collar in various stages of dismantling, and sheafs of printouts were spread around and defaced with scribbled notes in Rodney's indecipherable handwriting. At the moment he seemed to be constructing a snarl of wires, referring frequently to a hand-drawn circuitry diagram scrawled on the back of one of the printouts.
"How are you doing?" Elizabeth asked, leaning over his shoulder.
His blue eyes came up to meet her own -- tired and desperate. "Well, at the very least, I think I know why these devices are acting the way they are. As far as I can tell, the problem is that their circuitry has degraded over the last ten thousand years. They're not supposed to latch onto anybody who walks by with a gun, let alone lobotomize people. They're just trying to fulfill their primary directive, which -- as I correctly guessed -- is to subdue violent impulses, but they've become ..."
"Overzealous?" Elizabeth offered.
"They're inanimate objects; they aren't really 'zealous' about anything. Still, it's vaguely accurate." He shrugged, looking away from her.
"And can you make them let go?"
"I'm trying. The circuitry is horribly complex to begin with, and now, obviously, it's no longer functioning as its makers intended, which makes matters exponentially worse. The collars are entirely capable of frying Sheppard and Ronon's brains if we make a false move."
"John said that the ... process was moving faster with him than with Ronon."
"It is." Rodney put down his circuit model and ran his fingers through his hair. "My best guess is that it's because he has the gene -- the technology just works more efficiently on him. It's also possible that it's because Ronon's more resistant to trauma in general. Ask Carson; that's his area of expertise, not mine."
"Where is he, anyway?"
Rodney pointed at a closed door leading to one of the infirmary's labs. "He's been locked up with his staff for the last half-hour or so. As I understand it, they're exploring options -- putting the two of them in deep-freeze or stasis to slow the process, for example."
"That sounds reasonable to me."
"Yeah, except we haven't got the slightest idea how that would affect the collars. Especially considering the instability of the collars' AI's. Anything we try along those lines is about as likely to kill them as help them. Not to mention that it would cut us off from being able to do any sort of testing without taking them out again. If it gets to the ... end" -- his voice faltered slightly; Elizabeth pretended not to notice -- "and we have no other options, we could try it, but only as a last resort."
The door to the lab opened and Beckett paused in the doorway, startled to see them both looking at him. "Elizabeth. Rodney."
Elizabeth folded her hands behind her back and tried to keep the strain out of her voice. "Carson, Rodney said you've been looking for ways to slow this thing down?"
"Aye, we have." With uncharacteristic abruptness, he brushed past her en route to one of the lab computers and quickly called up a set of files. "And before you ask me, no, it isn't going well." He spoke without looking at her, scanning quickly -- Elizabeth, looking over his shoulder, saw that he was looking through Sheppard's fairly extensive medical records, particularly the MRIs from his bout with the retrovirus. She couldn't understand all of what she was looking at, but she did understand the look in Carson's eyes when he finally closed the files and turned back to give her his full attention.
"Elizabeth..." She could see how hard he was trying to be the detached professional, while the frightened friend underneath kept struggling to break through. And she was aware that Rodney had rotated his lab stool around, listening while pretending not to, while his fingers turned the half-finished circuitry model over and over in his lap. "I haven't got a magic injection that'll fix this. I've never seen anything that can remap the brain's neural pathways like this bloody thing's doing. I don't know how it's doing it." She could see how much that admission had cost him. "Anything I try to give them could make it worse. A depressant or neural inhibitor could suppress their brain's own ability to fight it off. A stimulant would most likely just speed it up. Rodney says it's got fairly powerful mechanisms to keep it from being removed, and I'm worried that putting them in stasis might trigger those."
As he trailed off into a frustrated silence, Elizabeth opened her mouth, but Rodney spoke first. Strain cracked his voice. "Well, you've got to do something, Carson! I'm nowhere near figuring out this circuitry yet. There isn't time."
"What do you want me to do, Rodney? Tack up all our options on a dartboard and blindfold myself?"
"If that's what it takes!"
An uncharacteristically soft voice interrupted them: "You guys are noisy." Sheppard had slipped off his cot and made his way over to Rodney's worktable. He moved with a deliberate slowness that reminded Elizabeth of something, but it took her a moment to place it: the way a drunken man would walk when he was trying hard to look natural.
"Well, excuse me for disturbing your beauty sleep while trying to save your ass," Rodney grumbled. "Get back in bed before you strain something."
Sheppard's only response to this was to lean his hip against Rodney's worktable and fold his arms. When he wasn't moving, he looked like his usual self ... except that something was still wrong. Tension, Elizabeth thought suddenly -- He's not tense. Normally, energy coiled tightly beneath his skin. Even sleeping, he didn't lose that panther-like readiness. But it was gone now.
The look on Rodney's face was one Elizabeth had never seen there before -- somewhere between horror and pity. "Go back to bed, Colonel," he said harshly.
"Don't want to." Sheppard's voice was just slurred enough to add to the overall sense of wrongness that hung over him like a shroud. Elizabeth thought he'd gotten noticeably worse just since she'd been in the infirmary; the deterioration was happening that fast. "Had an idea."
"That's great, and your I.Q. is what right now, 80? Get the hell back to bed and let the grown-ups figure this out."
"Rodney," Carson said softly. He nodded to Sheppard. "Go on."
The Colonel frowned, and his struggle was evident as he fought to remember what it was that he'd wanted to say. "This thing on my neck ..." He raised his hand to the collar, touching it. "Reminds me of having that other thing on my neck. That ... bug, in the puddlejumper, that time." His eyes lifted to McKay's, and he seemed to focus all of his remaining mental presence on the physicist, as if trying to will him to understand. "We made it go away. Fooled it."
"... by making it think you were dead," Rodney finished for him, his brow furrowed.
Elizabeth spun around, to see Carson with a speculative look on his face. "Would that work in this case?" she asked.
He thought about it and finally, reluctantly, shook his head. "If Rodney's right about the anti-tampering mechanism, anything we do to their bodies to simulate a death state -- electric shock, drugs -- could set it off. It's the same reason we can't use the stasis pods."
There was a sharp smack! from Rodney's general direction. Startled, Elizabeth turned to see that he'd hit himself in the forehead.
"Oh. My. God. I'm such an idiot. Carson! It's a machine!"
"I know that, Rodney," Carson said in a tone of exaggerated patience. Get to the point and stop assuming the rest of us know what you're talking about, he seemed to imply.
"It's a machine! All that a machine knows about the world is what inputs it gets from its sensors ... now, technically that's true of a living organism too, but they're so much more complicated and, well, analog, generally -- and it's harder to fake analog input -- not impossible, obviously, but digital's a whole different story." Seeing the blank looks on his listeners, Rodney waved his hand impatiently. "I think Sheppard might actually have the right idea -- and please don't tell him I said that," he added in a lower voice, throwing a look at the drugged-looking Lieutenant Colonel leaning on his worktable. Sheppard just flashed a crooked grin. "I've been going about this all wrong. I've been trying to trace circuit paths until I can figure out how to get it to give itself the 'let go' signal. But all that it might take is convincing it that it's not needed anymore -- and we can do that by giving it erroneous input."
Carson was now leaning forward eagerly. "Such as ...?"
Rodney's eyes met his, and they both said at once, "A flatline."
"Maybe even simpler than that," Rodney continued. "Just make it think it's latched onto an inanimate object. All we have to do is convincingly feed it signals that create the impression it's holding something other than a living human being's neck."
"There are a lot of things that could go wrong with that, Rodney."
"So we'll anticipate them, fix them. It's a lot more than we had before. This ... this we might actually be able to accomplish in the time we have."
"Forgive me for sounding dense, but I don't understand how this is so much easier than what you were doing before," Elizabeth said.
"You explain it to her, Carson; I'm working." Rodney snagged one of the nearby laptops and was already typing with his other hand as he dragged it towards himself. Sheppard watched him, leaning on the table; it was hard to say how much he understood of what he was seeing, but Rodney didn't try to chase him away.
"Why certainly, Rodney; would you like a cup of coffee as well?" When Rodney ignored the sarcasm, Carson turned to Elizabeth. "Think of it as ... a computer. What Rodney was trying to do before was to understand the inner workings of the computer so that he could manually cause one of its programs to execute a command. But all you really need to do is figure out how to type on the keyboard."
"Painfully inadequate as always, Carson," Rodney said without raising his eyes from his frantic typing on the keyboard. "But vaguely similar to reality."
Elizabeth sensed a certain amount of danger in Carson's expression. Both men were stressed to their limits. Drawing a deep breath, she said, "I'm going to head up to my office; I'm only in your way down here. But when you're ready to go ahead with this, I want you to call me."
"It is done," Zelenka's voice said, next to his ear.
"Yeah. Done." Rodney sat back; Zelenka did likewise. The two scientists stared at their handiwork for a moment, then Rodney looked over at Beckett. "Carson ... ready to go?"
Carson nodded. "I've let Elizabeth know that we're going to begin, but I'd prefer to do it with essential personnel only. No visitors."
Because if this went wrong, a medical team might have to spring into action, and he didn't want non-medical people getting in the way or being traumatized by the sight of their friends being, say, explosively decapitated. He didn't have to say it. Rodney's overactive imagination was doing enough for both of them.
"Do you need help?" Zelenka asked him quietly.
Rodney shook his head. "Strictly a one-person job." Glancing sideways at Carson, he admitted, "Well, maybe two."
A simple nod. "Call me if you need me." With that quiet comment, which could be taken more than one way, the engineer slipped out of the room.
Only Rodney and Carson remained -- along with a handful of medical staff and, of course, the two patients. Sheppard was lying on his cot again; he'd watched them work, quiet and attentive if slightly glazed-looking, until his muscular coordination deteriorated to the point that Beckett steered him into bed to make sure he didn't hurt himself. He had gone without complaint, but after being settled into the bed, he rolled his head to one side on the pillows and continued to watch Rodney work.
Ronon was in a coma now, lying so still that only the lights of the monitors attached to his body and head revealed that he still lived.
Rodney approached the two beds like a man going to the gallows ... a thought he immediately wished he hadn't had. One hand was curled loosely around the makeshift interface that he and Zelenka had just built; in his other hand he held a small tool kit.
"I'll assist you in any way I can," Carson said quietly. "Just tell me what you need me to do."
Rodney nodded, a bit absently. "Just stay out of the way, mostly." He paused between his two teammates, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Sheppard's head slowly moved to track him. "Ronon's the worst; probably best to begin with him."
"Me," Sheppard said.
Rodney looked at him in surprise. He had been so quiet that Rodney had assumed he'd already lost the ability to talk. Seeing Rodney looking at him, he said again: "Me."
Rodney sat down on the edge of Sheppard's bed. "Colonel, you do know what you're asking for, right?"
"Leader," Sheppard said. "Should take risks. Me."
"Ronon's tougher," Rodney snapped. "I'm sorry, Colonel, but there it is. If I screw up, and there's a very real chance that I will, Ronon's got a better shot at surviving ... whatever I do to him."
Sheppard shook his head. "Leader. My choice." Sounding almost like his old self for an instant, and with a hint of humor that might only be wishful thinking on Rodney's part, he added, "That's an order."
"You can't give me orders; I'm a civilian." It was all he could think to say. Because what he wanted to say was, It can't be you. I don't think I can do this, not if I might kill you. I don't know Ronon as well as I know you. I can turn off my emotions and work on him. You ... I can't do that with you.
But he couldn't say that. And it wasn't as if he wanted Ronon to die -- of course not. It was just ... Ronon's death, he could deal with. He could live with it, just as he lived with the accusing eyes of Gaul, Abrams, Griffin and all the others. The idea of being responsible for Sheppard's death, though, was a special circle of hell.
The worst part was that Sheppard was right, and he knew it. This was Sheppard's responsibility, Sheppard's decision. Damn the man. And it wasn't as if Ronon's tougher constitution would really make all that much difference if any of Rodney's myriad worst-case-scenarios came true.
"Raise your chin so I can see what I'm doing." It came out rough, harsh.
After a moment's delay while his sluggish brain processed the command, Sheppard obeyed, docile.
"I could use some light here, Carson."
Carson swung a lamp over him. "You want to move into surgery for this?"
Rodney hesitated, shook his head. "Not unless you think we should. If it works, I won't even break the skin." And if it didn't work, then it would probably fail so spectacularly that being in the operating room wouldn't help, but there was no need to say so.
The collar was under his fingers now, and he flipped open an access panel to reveal its infinitely complicated inner workings. Sliding a finger down the inside of the collar, between the slick metal and Sheppard's neck, he felt the small contact points of the sensors that he and Zelenka had identified. Sheppard's skin was warm against his hand; he could feel the light flutter of a pulse. The idea that his own actions, in the next few minutes, might stop that fragile heartbeat, made him swallow.
He'd never really thought about what Carson did for a living. Never thought that Carson Beckett was a brave man. But in that instant, Rodney knew that he could never do what Carson did on a daily basis. He would never, ever say so out loud ... but he simply didn't have the courage. As the head of the science wing, Rodney held people's lives in his hands every day -- intellectually, he knew it -- but he couldn't feel them.
He didn't dare look at Carson, didn't want Carson to see what was in his eyes at that moment. "Move the light to the left," he muttered, and the shadows moved slightly, rippling on Sheppard's pale skin.
Sheppard swallowed and shifted his head. "Hold still," Rodney snapped, and the motion stopped instantly. He saw Sheppard's eyelashes flicker as he blinked ... listening, waiting. Trusting.
"You do realize that you're dying, right?" Maybe it was a cruel thing to say, but working in silence was just too hard -- he had to say something. The wires were horribly tiny under his fingers, and he kept having to stop and wipe off his damp hands on his pants.
Sheppard grinned a slightly loopy grin. "I know. 'Sokay."
"Dying and lobotomized," Rodney groaned as he slid the miniature leads of the interface under the edge of the collar.
"Not your fault."
"I know it's not my fault. I never said I thought it was my fault."
"Didn't say it. You ... thought it."
Rodney snorted, not looking up -- not daring to look up -- from the circuitry of Sheppard's collar. "What, so you're psychic now? That's all we need. Lobotomized, dying and psychic." He heard a strangled sound from Beckett, as if the doctor had just barely managed to suppress a laugh.
"Didn't mean to say it that way. Things are all ... jumbled up." Sheppard sounded frustrated, but in a distant, fuzzy kind of way.
"I know. Don't worry about it." Rodney didn't want to think about what Sheppard was currently going through, assuming he was cognizant enough to be aware of his crumbling thought processes. Beyond a doubt, this whole situation was Rodney's worst nightmare -- just the idea of something like that happening to your brain gave him cold chills. When he'd read the short story Flowers for Algernon in grade school, he'd had nightmares for a week.
"It'll be all right." Sheppard's voice sounded dazed and sleepy now.
"Because your psychic powers tell you so."
Sheppard's voice faded lower; he sounded as if he had to struggle to stay awake. "Trust you. Trust you to figure out what's wrong and fix it. Always trust you."
He should have had a snappy retort for such a maudlin comment, but it couldn't make it out past the lump in his throat. Rodney just swallowed a few times and connected up two more tiny wires. He tried to pretend that Carson wasn't hovering at his shoulder, hearing every word. He tried to do what he did on tough engineering problems -- to narrow the entire universe down to just his hands and the object underneath them. He was a creature of pure will; his will acted through his hands, distilled and coldly precise. Maybe it was stupid, but it had worked for him in the past. His fingers were the universe. There was nothing else; he blanked out the rest of it. Just his fingers, and their tiny, oh-so-important detail work.
The last wire slipped into place. At this point, the artificial interface should take over, feeding the collar a simple set of signals to convince it that it was currently encircling an object made of Atlantean metal.
This was the moment when they'd know if he had made a fatal mistake -- if the collar was smarter than they thought; if they had missed a sensor; if he'd miscalculated and was currently giving it information that would trigger some kind of meltdown; if their entire theory was flawed; if the 10,000-year-old damaged circuits were incapable of --
Just like that ... the green light went out and the collar uncoupled from Sheppard's neck, folding back up into a ball.
Rodney sank backward with a soft gasp.
And Carson was moving with more speed than Rodney had ever known he possessed -- grabbing the small metal canister that they'd found for this purpose, scooping up the little metal ball and slamming the lid. The scientists occasionally found these canisters in the labs and theorized they were meant to be used for storing dangerous waste. The canisters were impervious to radiation and unable to be penetrated by an armor-piercing bullet -- they knew that last bit of information because Sheppard had once tried it on a dare. That little metal ball was never getting out.
When the collar detached from Sheppard's neck, it also released Rodney's little circuit assembly, which dropped onto the pillow. He picked it up with a trembling hand and watched as Carson checked Sheppard's vitals. The Colonel's eyes had closed; his breathing was regular.
Carson looked up at Rodney, tried and failed to suppress a grin that spread over his whole face. "As far as I can tell, he's asleep, and his EEG is already picking up. Probably sleep is the best thing for him right now. If his brain has to restore its usual functions, sleep would be the time when it would happen most easily."
"Mmm." Rodney looked over at Ronon. "Well ... one down, one to go."
As he got up to go to his other teammate, his hand rested very briefly on Sheppard's chest -- just long enough to feel the rhythmic rise and fall, before letting go.
Ever since they'd discovered it several months into their stay in the city, though, the door had worn a large, prominent sign. It read:
HAZARDOUS STORAGE! VERY DANGEROUS!!!! DO NOT ENTER UNDER PAIN OF DEATH.
-DR. RODNEY MCKAY, PhD
Under that, in only slightly smaller letters, it read:
YOU THINK I'M JOKING ABOUT THE DEATH? I DON'T MEAN I'LL KILL YOU; I MEAN THIS ROOM WILL KILL YOU. IF YOU WANT TO TAKE THE CHANCE, FINE, GO RIGHT AHEAD. IT'S YOUR FUNERAL.
This room was where they stored everything they'd found in the labs that was too dangerous to keep anywhere else in the city. The first couple of times they'd found something that tried to kill them, Elizabeth had ordered it sent to the most uninhabited world they could find and then locked out the planet's gate address. Eventually they'd had a staff meeting and decided that this wasn't a good idea -- there was just too much of a chance that anything they sent through in that fashion could come back and try to kill them again later, possibly being wielded by Genii or Wraith, or just on its own.
So this room had been designated a storage area for Atlantis's own version of hazardous waste. It was protected by a lock that Rodney had found in one of the labs, which could be coded to specific people's DNA and was presently keyed to open only to himself, Beckett, Sheppard or Elizabeth. The rule was that no one went to the room without telling someone else on the command staff where they were going, no one went in without leaving at least two Marines standing guard outside, and no one came out without submitting to a medical examination.
"Last one," Rodney said, placing one final canister into a stasis pod that was already stacked high with them. Stepping back, he activated the pod with a regretful sigh. "Elizabeth, are you sure --"
"Positive," the dry voice said over his headset. "You are not keeping one to experiment on, Rodney, no matter how deactivated you think it is."
"Thank you, Elizabeth. I second that motion." This was Sheppard, standing back at a safe distance to cover Rodney -- or, more accurately, the canisters -- with his P90. He and Ronon had awakened about twelve hours after their ordeal, suffering from headaches but otherwise apparently normal, and had been released from the infirmary shortly thereafter.
"You people have no sense of scientific curiosity," Rodney grumbled. But his regret, as he turned his back on the stasis pod, was short-lived. After all, as much as they could have learned from those collars, there was a whole lab complex full of untold curiosities yet to explore. He dusted his hands off briskly. "Well, shall we get out of -- Sheppard don't touch that!"
"Huh?" Sheppard looked up in surprise. Getting a trifle bored, he'd bent over to peer more closely through the semi-transparent surface of the stasis pod nearest to him.
"You're worse than a child!" Rodney took hold of the Colonel's shirt and yanked him away from the pod. "That's Pod 9 -- the one where we put the -- which was it? Oh yes, the genetically modified squid creature that latched onto Dr. Chiu's face and tried to suck out her brains. She was in the infirmary for a month!"
"Really?" Sheppard asked curiously, bending over to get a better -- though cautious -- look. "And what's in the next one ... Pod 10, is it?"
Rodney mumbled something under his breath.
"What was that?" Sheppard asked, and leaning closer, he added with a wicked grin, "Rodney, you're blushing!"
"I said it's an Ancient sex toy, and I am not blushing, Colonel."
"Yes, you are." Then he did a double take. "Did you say it's an Ancient --"
"Yes, yes, you heard what I said." To his annoyance, Rodney saw that Sheppard, looking delighted, was nearly going cross-eyed trying to see into the stasis pod. "It's just a box with some flashy lights. I'm sure that anything your perpetually adolescent imagination could come up with would be far more interesting. And we're only guessing at its function; for all we know, it could affect us very differently from the Ancients."
"What's it do?"
"What do you think it does? Do I need to spell it out for you? It produces a vibration that causes anyone within about a 20-foot radius to experience a spontaneous -- ah, yes, I see, you're getting the idea."
Sheppard had taken a step or two backward from the pod. "Dare I ask who was in the room when you discovered this?"
"Not me, if that's what you're thinking. The lucky parties were Zelenka, Kavanagh and Miko, who's the one who actually turned it on -- I mean, touched it with her gene -- I mean, performed the act of -- would you quit grinning like that, Colonel, it's making it very difficult to avoid picturing a scene that's already given me enough nightmares. All of them needed some lengthy sessions with Heightmeyer afterwards, I might add, and if this keeps up, so will I. Now what's that look for?"
"I think I'm going to have to start attending the scientists' parties."
"Oh, funny, Colonel ... funny. Come on, let's get out of here."
"I want to see what else you have hidden down here, Rodney."
Rodney got hold of his arm and started dragging him backwards. "None of us wants that, Sheppard, least of all you. Damn it, we're leaving! Ronon! Teyla! Help!"
Their other two team members were waiting just outside the door, along with Lorne and a couple of other Marines. Rodney arrived red-faced and panting, while Sheppard seemed to be enjoying his role as immovable object. "The scientists have Ancient sex toys in there," he informed the others, jerking his thumb back at the room with a face-splitting grin.
Teyla looked exasperated, but Ronon perked up and peered into the room over the top of Sheppard's head. "Really?"
"He's lying," Rodney said flatly, shutting the door so quickly he nearly caught a couple of Ronon's braids as the ex-Runner jerked his head backwards to avoid having his nose cut off.
"I always wondered what they kept down here, sir," Lorne said.
"Yours is not to wonder why," Rodney snapped. "You know, I have six critical experiments in progress back in my labs, I have an entire complex of rooms to explore and catalog, and none of that is getting done while we're sitting here discussing the sexual habits of the Ancients."
"You're the only one doing that, Rodney," Sheppard smirked as they all started off for the procedure-required medical checkup. "The rest of us were just talking about technology."
"It's not too late to open up that canister and put that collar back on you, Colonel. In fact, that sounds like a very good idea to me. Polite, docile, obedient -- remind me why we took it off you, again?"
"Oh, I don't know, Rodney ... because it was destroying my brain?"
Rodney waved his hand in the air as the group turned a corner, leaving behind the empty corridor and the room with its lethal inventory. "Details, Colonel. Details. One has to weigh the trade-offs in a situation like this. And I must say it was awfully nice having a version of you that did what he was told."
Sheppard stopped walking suddenly, bringing the rest to a halt. "Hey, I just thought of something."
They looked at him warily. "What is that?" Teyla asked.
"I don't think Ronon and I should resume active duty yet," Sheppard said. "I think we need another couple days of medical leave."
Rodney spun around, his teasing manner falling away completely to reveal open worry and a bit of anger. "What? Why? I knew you weren't ready to leave the infirmary! It couldn't possibly be that easy! It's never that easy! Are you in pain?"
"I feel fine," Ronon said, also eyeing Sheppard with concern.
The object of their worry raised his hands, half-grinning. "Hey, hey, calm down, everybody. I feel perfectly fine -- well, except for a slight headache, but Carson said that should go away in a day or two. But my point is, we don't know, right? I mean, for all we know, going through the gate could trigger a severe relapse. And we can't risk Ronon's health either. I think it would be best to make sure that we've thoroughly convalesced before we take the chance. Light exercise is very healthy for that, and I've heard the surfing's great out by the east pier."
"In other words," Rodney said, "you intend to take advantage of your situation to scam Elizabeth into giving us a couple of free days off."
"You gotta admit, Rodney, that as a weekend goes, this one has kinda sucked."
Teyla tilted her head thoughtfully to the side. "It is true that we have not been able to truly relax in some time. I have not even had an opportunity to clean my quarters lately. I really do need to do that."
"Wouldn't hurt to get a little extra sparring practice," Ronon mused. "I'm getting kinda rusty on chokeholds."
"I could definitely use the extra time to work on cataloguing the contents of those new labs," Rodney admitted.
"Guys, guys!" Sheppard spread his arms wide. "You're missing the whole point of actually taking a vacation! You're not supposed to work. You're supposed to forget about work and relax."
Rodney snorted. "It doesn't exactly relax me to know that my workload is piling up by the hour while my lab is in the hands of morons --ow!" Sheppard had whacked him in the shoulder. "All right, fine," Rodney grumbled, rubbing his shoulder and glaring reproachfully. "I'll come along and contribute to my lifetime melanoma risk while watching the rest of you idiots waste your time when you could be doing something useful. But I'm bringing my laptop."
"That's the spirit, Rodney." Sheppard turned to look at Lorne, who was struggling to look straight ahead and not break into a most unmilitary grin as he listened to the team's friendly bickering. "Hey, Major, if we do go out to the pier, we're definitely going to need a security detail. Ronon and myself are clearly unfit for active duty, and you never know what we might find out there."
"Will this involve surfboards, sir?"
"It might." Sheppard's own grin widened a notch or two at the barely suppressed glee on Lorne's face. "Pick a couple of men and meet us by the cafeteria in an hour, Major."
"You seem awfully sure that Elizabeth's going to agree to this," Rodney remarked as they began walking again.
Sheppard just smirked. "You know we've got her sympathy vote right now. She can't say no."