Title: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology, Part 3/3
Author: Quasar (quasar273 )
Summary: Years ago, John recruited a famous wizard for a project that went bad. Now he's asking for Rodney's help again.
Author's Notes: Written for the Away Team in mcshep_match , to the prompt "Call of Duty." Special thanks to argosy for story advice and beta, and to my beloved spouse for discussing this story with me week after week!
Back to Part One
Back to Part Two
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"You remember Elizabeth, right? Dr. Weir?"
"Of course. She saved my life."
John swallowed at the images that flashed through his memory. "Right. Well, she works -- we both work at a place called the SGC. You might have heard, um, rumors about them?"
"No," said Rodney blankly. And that was a pretty good sign that he really had done what he said, gone cold turkey on the physics and the magic and turned himself into an unassuming musician.
"Okay, well, she sent me a letter to give to you. It's --"
"Wait, wait. You're saying Elizabeth knows about you being alive? She's been lying to me too?"
John winced. "No, she thought I was dead, and she was almost as angry as you when she found out. She didn't punch me, though," he reflected, rubbing his jaw. "That was about a month ago when I, uh, bumped into her in Antarctica."
Rodney squeaked. "You want me to work in Antarctica?! I'll stick with the music gigs, thanks."
"No, no, the Antarctica thing was sort of a side project. The SGC is based in Colorado. But we're planning a trip -- we -- it's complicated." John ran a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose you'd agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement before I tell you about this?"
Rodney snorted. "So when someone comes out of nowhere and kills me, no one will know you had anything to do with it?"
"It isn't like that, Rodney!" John scowled. "Okay, look, I'm going to tell you anyway because you deserve to know. And we need you, even Elizabeth admits that. Just, uh... hear me out, all right? It's a long story and it sounds kind of crazy right around the middle. And the beginning. And the -- um. Just, it's all true, okay?"
Kiev, Ukraine, May 1992
John hadn't indulged in wine, but he was feeling pretty mellow anyway. They had finished their mission and disabled an impressive number of warheads without anyone guessing what Rodney was doing. This morning, finally off the clock, they had slept in and eaten a big breakfast, then Rodney had spent the better part of an hour stroking and teasing all over John's back before fucking him long and slow. Now they were refueling with a delicious lunch, with more sex likely to follow, and tomorrow they would be heading back to the States. John had told Maybourne the plans were copied, and the colonel sounded pleased enough that John might actually be getting back in a cockpit sometime this century.
Elizabeth had recommended this restaurant, Pantagruel, saying it was for people with big appetites but fortunately more cultured than its namesake, whatever that meant -- Rodney seemed to understand it. Maybe it was the warm glow of good humor that prompted John to let Rodney babble on about things he really shouldn't discuss in public. They were sitting on the terrace with a fountain nearby and the babble of other diners all around, and if Rodney's voice sometimes rose above the hubbub, probably no one would figure out what he was talking about anyway.
"It's the fundamental problem of our time," Rodney was saying around a half-chewed mouthful of pasta. John didn't look too closely. "Of any time, really. Magic could do so much, but it's limited to parlor tricks and stage shows -- why?" Rodney took another bite and this time, mercifully, chewed and swallowed it instead of talking.
Busy with his own steak, John didn't bother responding. He knew Rodney would continue without a prompt.
"Because they can't count on magic when it's really needed," Rodney said with an emphatic fork-stab. "When you're really desperate, when the chips are down, suddenly you discover you can't concentrate and the magic just isn't there. We need a way to change that."
John hesitated as he realized where this conversation was headed. "And you're the man to do it?" he asked.
"Yes. Yes, I am. I've already published a proof of concept, and I'm working on building a thaumatron."
John choked on his steak. "A whatathon?"
"A device that can do magic."
John frowned. "That's a dumb name. But don't they make those already? Firestarters, things like that?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Right, so you can shell out a couple hundred bucks for something that replicates the function of a match. Or a flashlight, or a battery. I'm not talking about something that can perform one simple spell that most schoolchildren already know. I've figured out the secret to controlling what particles the thaumons turn into. You control that plus the intensity, spread, and rate of conversion, and you can reproduce any kind of magic, every time, reliably and repeatably. No emotions involved."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" John said slowly. He wasn't supposed to discuss this with Rodney -- in fact, he'd been specifically ordered not to. But if he could make Rodney see what he was really doing here and what the risks were, the rest of Maybourne's plans would be unnecessary.
"Come on, have you listened to anything I've been saying for the last hour?" Rodney said. "I'm talking about overcoming the single biggest limitation that keeps magic from its full potential."
"You're talking about overturning our society and putting superweapons in the hands of anyone who can afford one."
Rodney blinked. "What?"
"Don't you get it, Rodney? What prevents people from using magic for violence? Because anger prevents magic. All those kings and generals throughout history who tried to get magicians to win battles for them -- it never worked, not in a useful way, because of the emotional limitation. Your machine would change all that."
Rodney's brow was furrowing up. It would have been cute if the subject matter weren't so serious. "But... this could be a huge benefit to, to everyone!"
"Like nuclear power?" John asked. "You just spent three weeks disabling a fraction of the warheads that could destroy our planet. Still think it was worth it for the sake of not-clean, not-safe, not-cheap energy?"
"The thaumatron could be used for defense as well as attack!" Rodney protested.
John snorted. "Even I know magic shields are just a legend. At best, your thing could be used for counteroffense, and that just leads to another arms race. We just finished one Cold War and now you want to start another -- only this time it would be on a personal scale."
"No, no, it wouldn't be like that!" Rodney protested. "This is to help people."
"Don't be so naive, McKay. Look, you're a Canadian living in New Jersey. What do you think about America's gun control policies, huh?"
"They're a joke, but what does that have to do with --"
"It's the same thing. People claim they need guns to 'defend' themselves, but by nature a gun is not a defensive weapon. So what happens when the guy down the street has a device that can kill you or set your house on fire, or fry the electronics in your car, all without leaving a trace? What can you do except buy a bigger, better device and threaten him back? You make this thing, it will give a whole new meaning to keeping up with the Joneses."
"Hang on here, you're military. Aren't you supposed to love guns and the latest powerful weapons and all that?"
"Because I'm military, I have a pretty good idea of just how bad it can get. You realize, they don't even teach us about dealing with magic in combat? Because it hardly ever happens. But you're planning to change all that."
Rodney's mouth was tight and slanted, his eyes blazing blue. "So that's why you copied my notes, is it?"
"That was what you were doing when you 'accidentally' dropped my papers, right?"
"It's all right. I was expecting it. Well, at least half expecting it. I'm not surprised, anyway. Maybe a little disappointed. Was it all just an act?"
"The sex, I mean. Are you even attracted to me, really? Obviously, you've been with men before -- is that why you got this assignment? You were supposed to seduce me and distract me and copy all my work?"
"No, wait, Rodney --"
"So, how does copying the plans for the thaumatron fit into your little theory about an arms race? Oh, I get it! You want to make sure the military -- the American military -- will get their hands on it first!"
John quoted the official explanation: "We need to know about it so we can have an effective defense ready in advance. If that's not possible, at least laws to prevent large-scale production or sale to minors. That sort of thing."
Rodney's glare was withering. "Is that what Maybourne told you? And you believed him?"
John bit his lip, because he'd worried Maybourne might be lying. But he could hardly tell Rodney about the real plan, the one he actually believed in -- the plan to discredit Rodney's research and sabotage his prototype so that no one would ever agree to manufacture the device. It wasn't a nice scheme, but John had figured it was better than the alternatives.
He sat frozen, unsure what to say. The appearance of a friendly face just at that moment was perfect timing. "Elizabeth!" He half-rose in greeting.
Rodney's face twisted in annoyance.
She came to their table, an uncertain smile on her lips. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. It looked like you were discussing something important."
"No, no, just a little, um, political debate," John managed. "Here, sit down, join us." He looked around for an empty chair, but the restaurant was crowded.
"Oh, no, I'm here with Dr. Pappathanapoulos; I wouldn't want to abandon him. I just came to see if you were enjoying your meal." She looked at the congealing food on their plates with a puzzled frown.
"It's great!" John popped a piece of broccoli in his mouth to demonstrate. "Rodney loves it, right Rodney?" He blinked. "Rodney?"
Rodney was hunched over in his chair, gray-faced and shaking.
Elizabeth reached for him. "Are you choking?"
But John could see he was panting for air, a fist curled against his chest. "I think it's... my heart?" Rodney gasped out.
"You're not even twenty-four!" John objected, pushing his chair back with a squeak. "Do you have a heart problem?"
"No. Checkup... before coming here." Rodney groaned in pain.
"It's an attack," John realized, and straightened from where he had bent over Rodney. He started looking around at the other diners, mostly tourist types staring back in alarm. "A magical attack. Can you block it?"
Rodney blinked at him, dazed. "What?"
"Someone is disrupting the electrical signals to your heart." At least that was how it usually worked in spy novels.
"Are you sure?" Elizabeth asked. Now she was looking around as well.
"Rodney, can you stop it, counter it?"
"Fear, upset... emotion," Rodney ground out.
Waiters were converging on their table, about to block them in.
"Line of sight," John muttered. "Come on, let's get out of here." He caught Rodney by the arm and hauled him out of his seat.
"What? Wait, ow..."
Elizabeth was reaching out, either to help John or stop him.
"Elizabeth, deal with them," John snapped with a jerk of his head at the waiters. "Come on, Rodney. We need to get you out of sight." He pulled Rodney's arm over his shoulder and started plowing through the crowd of bystanders: a sour-faced woman, a man in an expensive suit, an older couple in garish clothes.
"Line of sight... doesn't work," Rodney protested weakly.
"It works if they're not sure where you are." John half-carried Rodney up the steps to the restaurant proper and down the little hall to the restroom. With the door locked behind them he propped Rodney against the sink and quickly checked to make sure no one else was in the room.
Rodney's breathing was still fast but deeper now, his face less pinched. Color was flooding back into his cheeks.
"Better?" John guessed.
Rodney nodded. "The pain just stopped. What was that?"
John swallowed. "Someone was trying to kill you."
"But -- violence and magic don't mix!"
Someone knocked on the door.
John considered. "In books, there are psychopathic assassins with no emotions."
"Those are stories, not real!"
"Well, yeah, that's what I always thought. But I guess sometimes it is real."
The knocking turned into thumping.
Rodney was definitely looking better now. "See, this is why we need thaumatrons -- to be able to fight things like this!"
John shook his head. "You make your invention, and it doesn't matter what stupid name you give it -- an attack like that could come from anyone, not just one-in-a-million weirdos with defective brains."
"Of course you would say that. You probably called in the hit!"
"What? I'm trying to protect you, here!"
"Sure, that's what you want me to think. You phoned Colonel Maybourne, didn't you? Told him you copied the plans?"
"Um." John had done that when Rodney was in the shower this morning.
"They don't need me any more, so they sent an assassin."
"No, it isn't... he wouldn't..." It was horribly plausible. It would save Maybourne all the effort of his complex plan to discredit Rodney.
Rodney stabbed a finger into John's chest. "You call the colonel back. Tell him the plans are useless. The photos didn't come out. Tell him he needs me alive, and to call off his fucking assassin!"
"Rodney, I didn't have anything to do with this! I don't control Maybourne or this killer, whoever it is!"
Rodney glared. "That would be a lot more believable if you hadn't been lying to me since day one, Lieutenant. Now, I'm getting out of here." He flipped the lock on the door and pushed it open to reveal a mob of people. "I'll go back to the hotel with Elizabeth. You stay away from me. If you really want to help, make that phone call." Rodney pushed his way into the crowd.
John followed only to be swamped by people jabbering at him in multiple languages. From the clothes, one was a restaurant manager and two were police, and many others were bystanders. If any of them were speaking English, John couldn't make it out through the noise.
"Rodney, wait!" John reached for him, jacket flapping open.
A woman in the crowd screamed something and pointed at John. At his shoulder holster, he realized, a moment before the policemen spun him around and pinned him up against the wall. By the time they removed his weapon and hauled him away, Rodney was gone.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
Rodney's grip on the music bag had eased. He stared at John over the top and closed his mouth slowly. "Aliens."
"Sort of, yeah. They looked human, but --"
"Aliens built a device for instantaneous interplanetary transport thousands of years ago. And no one has known about it until recently."
"Well, it was buried --"
"And these same aliens experimented on our brains?"
"Hey, that part actually makes sense to me. Haven't scientists been wondering for years why we're the only animals on Earth with a phaba in our brains letting us do magic? And there's no evidence that humans had phabas before about ten thousand years ago?"
"This is crazy!"
John grimaced. "Yeah, it sounds that way at first. I just heard all this stuff for the first time about a month ago, you know. But I've seen the Stargate. It's real. And it looks alien, all right."
"So why are you telling me all this? You thought I should work with this Ancient alien technology stuff?"
John took a deep breath. "We're mounting an expedition to go through the Stargate to another galaxy. The place the Ancients came from. We don't know exactly what we'll find. And because it takes a lot of power to travel between galaxies, we, um... might not be able to return. Right away."
Rodney was clutching his bag tightly again.
"The expedition needs people with the Ancient gene, like I have. That's why I got roped into this. But we're also going to need scientists. People who know almost everything about almost everything. And really powerful wizards."
"I don't do that stuff anymore."
"But you could. You still know how. Rodney, we need you. I know how good you are in a pinch. We need what you can do."
Kiev, Ukraine, May 1992
It took a couple of hours and almost all of John's cash in bribes for the police to admit that his carry permit was probably genuine, and they still hadn't given him back the gun. His face was aching where it had been 'accidentally' slammed into a door frame -- three times. So he was already in a bad mood when he got back to the hotel to find that Rodney and Elizabeth had never returned.
He tried calling Maybourne on the satellite phone, but there was no answer on the line where the colonel was supposedly always available. It wasn't likely that Maybourne could do anything helpful at a distance anyway, or that John could get him to admit a connection with the assassin, if there was one.
Stymied, he grabbed his backup Beretta from the suitcase and some extra ammunition clips, then went to the front desk to ask them to let him into Elizabeth's room so he could look for clues there. He was still trying to explain the situation to the clerk when Elizabeth staggered into the lobby, flushed and panting, her hair in disarray.
"John!" she gasped. "Thank god you're here!"
"Elizabeth? What happened?"
"I was kidnapped! We both were, Rodney and I. Two men grabbed us as we were leaving the restaurant and took us in a car. They stopped at a train crossing and Rodney -- he kicked the door open and we both ran. But somehow we ended up on opposite sides of a moving train. Rodney yelled at me to keep going. I -- I think they must have caught him again."
"Where?" John demanded urgently. "Where was this? And how long ago?"
"Nearly an hour -- it took me a while to catch a cab. I can show you the train tracks where I last saw him, but I'm not certain where they were planning to take him. Look, shouldn't we call the police?"
"Oh, no. I've just had an object lesson on how ineffective and corrupt the police are here," John growled.
"The army, then," Elizabeth urged. "I heard the kidnappers talking -- I think they're Transnistrian separatists."
John boggled. "Trans-whosiwhatsis?"
"Transnistria -- it's a breakaway republic on the border between Ukraine and Moldova. They've been at war for nearly three months now; I'm sure the army would react quickly to the news that Transnistrians had kidnapped two prominent foreigners here on a diplomatic mission."
"I just bet they would," John said. "But why do these guys want Rodney, for chrissakes? It doesn't make any sense."
"Ransom. They think all Americans are rich."
"I doubt they can tell the difference."
"This is going to be a hell of a big splashy international incident, isn't it?" John said slowly. "What if... what if that's exactly what they want?"
"To draw attention to their cause?" Elizabeth said doubtfully. "I suppose that's possible, but they were talking about money."
"Not the Transwhovians," John corrected. "I'm guessing those guys are just flunkies, with no idea what they were really getting into. The real culprit is probably the same person behind the attack at the restaurant."
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "There was a woman in the car with them. Giving the orders."
"She's the one, then."
"She was speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian, with a terrible accent."
"I... couldn't tell. She didn't speak English where I could hear, and I didn't let them know I understood what they were saying."
"Good thinking. So she's a foreigner, anyway. She must have hired or manipulated these Transylvanian guys to do the dirty work. Look, I think a diplomatic incident is exactly what they want. Let's not give it to them."
"But -- what about Rodney? We have to help him!"
"We will. I will. Tell me where you saw him last."
"You can't go by yourself!"
"Call in anyone else and we're giving them what they want, CNN on a platter."
She crossed her arms. "I'm going with you."
"Do you want my help finding him, or not?"
"All right, all right! But you stay out of the way. If I can't get Rodney out of there, then you go get the army or the cops or whoever will listen to you."
They caught a cab from the stand outside the hotel, one of the nearly identical fleet of black vehicles that crawled Kiev's streets. Elizabeth started to explain something in halting Ukrainian, but the driver just sighed and said, "Stick to English, lady, I'm from New York."
John was diverted momentarily. "What's a New Yorker doing in Kiev?"
"Gee, you know, no one's asked me that before," the man retorted sarcastically. "My wife's from around here, okay? She's got family, and the cost of living is a hell of a lot lower here. At least rent is -- you never really know about food prices these days."
"Well, uh, good. That will make things easier. Elizabeth, can you tell him where we need to go?"
"I don't know the name of the road," she said. "It's south of the main part of town and it crosses the train tracks, heading towards the Dnieper."
"Oh, that's helpful," said the cabbie, but he pulled out into the street anyway.
"I'm sorry -- I'll know it when I see it!"
"Did they say anything about where they were taking him?" John asked.
"I think I heard the word for factory," Elizabeth said, "but I didn't catch a name or anything specific."
"A factory?" John mused. "It would have to be empty."
"There's a bunch of those between the river and the train tracks," the cabbie offered.
"This would be someplace isolated, probably," John pressed. "They wouldn't want any witnesses."
"Wait a second, buddy, are you talking about something illegal here?"
"Our friend's been kidnapped," said Elizabeth before John could stop her.
"Geeze, why didn't you call the police, then?" After a beat, the cabbie went on, "Okay, yeah, so I guess you know they're not totally reliable."
"If we can find out where our friend is being held, then we'll call for help," John temporized. "We think we can work faster without a lot of questions being asked. Especially if you'll help us."
"Okay, tell me what you got."
Elizabeth described what she could and the cabbie pressed her for extra details -- how many tracks running together, freight trains or passenger trains, how far from the river. After fifteen minutes or so they started driving parallel to the railroad, the cabbie pausing at each cross street so Elizabeth could see if she recognized it.
"Wait, up there!" she said after a long series of negatives. "I think I recognize that church. Keep going. Yes, that's right, this is the area where I caught a ride back to the hotel. I walked up from --" She pointed. "Head that way."
Five minutes later, they found the crossing where Rodney and Elizabeth had escaped their captors. There was no one there now, no trains moving -- just late afternoon sunlight baking the trees and the pavement.
"They were going east, right?" the cabbie asked. "And headed for some kind of abandoned factory?"
"We think so," Elizabeth confirmed.
"So unless they crossed the river there's not too many places they could be going. Let's see what we got here." Once across the tracks the cabbie turned south again. The view was uninspiring, as they passed several brick buildings with faded signs and weeds growing in the lots. One larger multi-winged factory was still active, with people and cars around and smoke rising from the chimneys, but there were too many others that showed no signs of life.
"Okay, maybe I was wrong about not too many places," admitted the cabbie. "Man, I knew the economy was tanking but I didn't realize it was this bad!"
"We're looking for a place with just one or two cars parked outside," John said.
"Unless they parked out of sight from the road," the cabbie pointed out.
"Elizabeth, what kind of car did they have?"
"Well... it was black."
"There's a surprise," John murmured.
"A little bit older, dusty and banged up. Oh -- the front bumper was crooked!"
"Like that one?" the cabbie pointed. They were passing an abandoned building, smaller than some of the others, with a boxy Lada sedan tucked in close to the wall. It was only really visible after they'd gone past the building.
"I think so," Elizabeth murmured. "Yes, that has to be it!"
"Pull into the next lot," John urged. He was already picking out a line of approach that avoided most of the windows. One car was definitely a good sign -- he might only be facing the two Transi-guys and the woman in charge.
The woman who might be a highly trained, ruthless assassin-wizard. But John would worry about that when the time came. John pulled out his gun to check the clip.
"Hey, no guns in my cab!"
"I have a permit for it." John jacked a round into the chamber. "What do we need to pay you to wait here?"
"Wait? I'll do that for free so long as no one comes shooting. But I'm not going with you."
"I am," said Elizabeth, but her chin was quivering.
"No, you're not," John snapped. "You're going to stay here and call for help if it gets bad. You see Rodney, you get him to safety, got that? Don't worry about me."
"Dammit, Elizabeth, I'm supposed to be a fucking bodyguard! It's about time I did some guarding." John omitted the part where the bodyguard role was just a cover. He was piecing some things together and realizing Rodney was right about Maybourne. "Look, Rodney thinks I betrayed him. Lied to him."
"He mentioned something about that," she admitted. "At the restaurant."
"I need him to know it wasn't all a lie. I need to do this for him. It's important -- in more ways than one." If Maybourne wanted an international diplomatic incident, John wasn't going to give it to him.
"Just be careful," she said, her dark eyes shining. "I want both of you back safely, okay?"
John couldn't think of anything to say so he just nodded at her, slipped out of the cab, and headed around the building.
There was a stretch of bushes and grass between the two abandoned lots, but they were too sparse for real cover. John was counting more on the design of the factory, which had windows only on the sides and not on the end facing him. He paused in the shadow of the last bush, checking all the vantage points he could see.
He had to be fast, and smart, and stealthy. He'd been pretty good at this kind of stuff during training, but when he realized that being too good might get him assigned to ground duty he had bombed the final test. He wondered if Maybourne had seen those test grades and chosen a disgraced Lieutenant on purpose to be a lousy bodyguard. But the truth was, acing the course wouldn't really have prepared him. This wasn't like training, and not like anything John had done in real life. It felt like there was a hummingbird lodged at the base of his throat.
He ran across the open space before the building and flattened himself against the wall.
No shots, no yells.
John edged along the wall to the factory entrance near the black car. Fresh scrapes were visible in the paint around the lock. He hesitated a moment over the possibility of squeaky hinges, then gritted his teeth and pulled the door open.
It wasn't squeaky, but it wasn't completely silent either, especially the clunk when it closed. John glanced around quickly -- he was at the edge of a big, dusty room with bulky machines arrayed across the floor -- and darted into the shadow under a staircase.
Footsteps and cigarette smoke announced the approach of a guard. John crouched deeper, breathing open-mouthed for silence. A stocky man descended the stairs, AK-47 held out in front of him. He went to the door first and opened it to check outside, then yelled something up the stairs. Another voice responded after a moment, in the tone of a command. Sighing, the man headed out into the shadowy room, checking around each piece of machinery.
Wishing he had a silencer, John flicked on the safety, reversed his grip on the gun, and sprang, using the weapon as a club. The guy went down with a groan, but he was still moving; John had to hit him again and this time he felt something crunch. Swallowing hard, he moved back a step. But he knew the next thing he had to do and there was no point in wasting time; he bent and rolled the man over to pull free the strap of the Kalashnikov, slinging it around his own neck. He checked the ammo; a full clip. Slipping his handgun back into the holster, John started up the stairs. After the first few steps, he toed off his shoes and continued in sock feet.
He thought the guard had only come down one flight, but he wasn't certain, so he paused to listen on the landing. There was a dark hallway with doors into what seemed to be offices, and a woman's voice murmuring from one of them. Suddenly someone yelled, and John knew this voice intimately. The pain in Rodney's cry drew him halfway to the door before he thought about whether it was a good idea.
The woman laughed. "Amazing what the nervous system can do, isn't it? No need for high voltage. Just a tiny jolt of electricity causes the most exquisite pain." Her English was smooth, but the accent wasn't quite native. Possibly Scandinavian, John thought -- not that it mattered.
"How can you --" Rodney gasped out brokenly. "Shouldn't be possible --"
"Oh, I'm not bound by ordinary human limitations," the woman cooed. "When I was little they thought there was something wrong with me. But later I found my calling in life. This is what I was made for, do you see?"
"But killing's such a waste," Rodney protested, his voice ragged and slurring. "Especially killing me! I could -- I could be doing great things, helping people! Wouldn't you rather do something constructive with your magic?"
"You want to study me, Dr. McKay?" she said. "Take me apart and see why I don't tick? I doubt I would find that enjoyable."
"No, no -- AAAH!" Rodney yelled again.
Once again John was pulled forward by Rodney's pain, peeking around the edge of the doorframe. Rodney was tied to a chair, facing away from the door. Over by the window lounged another guy with a Kalashnikov, and leering at Rodney was a woman -- it was the sour-faced blonde from the restaurant, the one who had blocked their path and pointed at John's gun.
Her eyes glittered coldly as she smirked at Rodney. "I assure you, I find much creative satisfaction in my work. For example, the goal here is not merely to kill you but to do so in a way that will accomplish a particular goal. A goal which Andrei and Yevgeni will help me reach."
She was standing too close to Rodney for the uncertain spread of the AK-47. John let the big gun hang from his chest and eased out his Beretta instead.
"I gather they don't know you're setting them up?" Rodney spat.
"Not at all. They are very simple boys, and they speak no English."
Andrei -- or Yevgeni, whichever it was -- stirred and spoke to the woman. She glanced back at him and they exchanged a couple of phrases, then the woman gestured toward the doorway -- and looked straight into John's eyes.
He fired from not more than twenty feet away. She didn't duck or scream, merely narrowed her eyes. The first shot missed. So did the second and third. Then a spray of bullets from Andrei's Kalashnikov made John duck back out of the way.
He knew he'd had her dead in his sights, but he'd missed. Either the gun had been messed up when he used it as a club, or the woman was using magic to deflect the bullets somehow.
Andrei's heavy footsteps were heading for the doorway; John poked his gun around the corner and fired once, blindly. He wasn't trying to hit the guy, just make him hesitate. The woman snapped at Andrei, and John used the distraction to roll across the doorway and get a new line of fire, not so close to Rodney's back. He came up with the stolen AK-47 in hand and sprayed.
Apparently magic didn't work so well at ten rounds per second, or maybe the woman just wasn't bothering to protect Andrei. He went down hard and ugly, and John ducked back into the hallway, breathing hard.
There was silence for a moment, then the woman said, "Come out. Or I kill him."
"You're planning to kill him anyway!" John yelled back, his voice higher than usual.
A pause. "Come out, or I hurt him."
"Don't do it, John!" Rodney yelled. "I'm -- AAAH!"
Without conscious will, John found himself stepping into the open, his hands lifted free of the Kalashnikov.
Rodney stopped yelling, slumped over and panting.
"Good boy," the woman said with a quirk to her mouth. "You have interfered with my plans. But I think I can compensate." She held out her hand, and John's gun -- the Beretta he had dropped in the doorway -- flew to her. It floated in the air just in front of her, then spun around to face John. He could see straight down the barrel.
The muzzle flashed.
John waited for the pain, but there was nothing.
Frowning, the woman triggered the gun again. This time, John heard the bullet pass his ear.
She looked down at Rodney. "How did you --"
"Guess I learned something," Rodney growled, and lunged out of his chair as the ropes crumbled away. He hit her in a flying tackle and she went down with a grunt. But a moment later Rodney was flying through the air to tumble at John's feet.
John leveled the Kalashnikov and strafed a two-second burst right across her torso. The bullets splintered the wooden floor on either side of her. She smiled and the gun jammed. He snatched up the fallen Beretta and it twisted in his hand, turning in spite of everything he could do to stop it. Once again he saw the muzzle foreshorten --
Rodney's hand clamped on John's arm and hauled him through the door. "Run!" he gasped. "I can't -- I don't know how to stop her!"
"You can do what she does!"
"But I can't -- I can't kill! I don't -- I wouldn't --"
"Fine. You distract her and I'll kill her. Just keep her from turning my gun against me."
"But I don't know how to do that!" Rodney glanced back down the hall. "Oh god, she's coming!" He pulled John through a door and slammed it behind them.
"No, wait, this is a dead end -- oh shit, she's between us and the stairs!" John realized.
Rodney hunted around frantically -- for a weapon or a place to hide, John wasn't sure. The room was empty, with only one door.
"I really don't know how I was able to do that," Rodney babbled at high speed. "It shouldn't be possible, actually. I think maybe I went numb, sort of overloaded on fear, or went through and came out the other side, something like that. But I'm not sure I can do it again."
The door handle turned slowly. John aimed the Kalashnikov at the wooden door, but the moving handle didn't guarantee she was standing on the other side.
"You have to do it again, Rodney," John snapped. He tried to think of something encouraging to say. "I know you can. I trust you."
Rodney gulped. "Come on, then." He grabbed John with one hand and with the other made a throwing motion. The window shattered, and a moment later John and Rodney went flying through after the falling glass.
John yelled. It felt like freefall to his gut, so it took him a moment to notice they weren't moving very fast. And then they landed on their feet, so lightly the glass shards didn't even cut through John's socks.
"Jesus, Rodney!" he choked out.
"Sorry. There wasn't time to warn you."
"Okay, come on, we have a few seconds here." John hustled Rodney around the corner of the building, back to where he had entered. "How can we stop her? What are her weaknesses? Line of sight -- what else?"
"I don't know!"
"Fine, think of it the other way -- what do you know that she can do? Telekinesis..."
"Electricity," Rodney said miserably.
"Chemistry? That quantum stuff you do?"
"I don't think so."
"So she's not as good as you."
Rodney found the energy for a derisive snort.
"I noticed she hasn't levitated out of the window, either. She must be taking the stairs --" John whirled and pointed. "Can you lock that door? Hold it closed?"
Rodney stared at the door. "I -- I don't know the mechanism of the lock. But maybe I can..." He frowned, and the door handle suddenly drooped, elongated, dripped onto the ground. The lock melted into slag, then a moment later hardened again.
"Good," said John. "She won't get through that. Is there another door?"
"I'm not sure. Other end of the building?" Rodney guessed.
"All right, that buys us a couple minutes." John turned in place, assessing his resources. He had two guns, but she could deflect bullets. What else could he use?
"Rodney, can you hotwire a car?" John pointed at the black Lada.
"If she can't levitate her own mass, I'm betting she can't stop a car." John ran to the driver's side and tried the door, pleased to find it unlocked. He slid into the driver's seat. "Okay, start this baby for me."
"I need to see the ignition." Rodney leaned in through the door.
"I thought line of sight was --"
"I need to know where the ignition is," Rodney snapped. "Steering column?"
"No, dash." John pointed.
The car rumbled to life as if his finger had awakened it.
"Perfect." John caught Rodney leaning across his lap and pressed a hard kiss to his lips. "You were right about Maybourne. I swear I didn't know." Then he pushed Rodney away, out of the car. "Now get out of here. There's Elizabeth over there waving -- go with her."
"Wait, John --"
John slammed the car door and hit the gas. Rodney probably knew some tricks that could stop a car, but John was betting he wouldn't use them.
He circled around the building, looking for doors, looking for -- there she was, stalking the brick perimeter unhurriedly as if she knew there was nothing they could do to stop her. John's lips pulled back from his teeth as he swung the car through a wide arc.
She stopped, watching him come. Her eyes widened a moment as she realized what John was doing; then that same steely look came into her gaze that she had worn when John had fired at her. The car had too much momentum for her to divert, though -- the steering wheel didn't even twitch in John's grip. Was she trying something else?
He recognized the smell of smoke a moment before he wrenched the door open and bailed out.
The gas tank blew in a roil of flame the instant before the car crunched into the woman and the brick wall.
The second explosion was brighter, whiter, and the whump tumbled John across the curb at the edge of the pavement and into the weeds. Blearily, he thought he should have guessed that a terrorist's car would be packed with Semtex. His ears were ringing from the blast, or maybe that was a concussion.
Dimly, through veils of drifting smoke, he saw Rodney yelling and crying, and Elizabeth drawing him back away from the flames. "Thanks, Elizabeth," John muttered as he let his head fall into the overgrown grasses.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"I don't think I can," Rodney said. "Magic, physics -- I've left it all behind me."
"Really?" said John gently. "So tell me, what are you hiding in that bag?"
Rodney froze. Slowly, he said, "This place you're going -- is it dangerous?"
"We don't know. It might be."
"The aliens they've found so far, do they do magic?"
"Some do, some don't." John dredged his memory for the reports he'd read. "A lot of them were humans transplanted from Earth, you know. So it depends if they were moved before or after the Ancients did their little genetic experiment on us."
"Then... maybe this will help." Rodney unsnapped the top of his bag and reached inside. The object he handed John was about the size of a cell phone, with a sliding switch along the side.
"What is it?"
"It's a prototype. I've been working on it since..." Rodney swallowed. "You wear it on your belt or carry it in your pocket. It creates a sort of a buffer zone, about one meter in every direction. It prevents thaumons from converting, so magic won't work inside that volume."
John started to smile. "It's a magic shield?"
"I wasn't sure I should call it a shield. It only works against magic, not against bullets or, or rocks or whatever. I... I didn't want to give it a stupid name."
"It's a defensive weapon," John mused.
"That's the idea, yes. It burns through batteries pretty fast, though -- I still have to work on that part." Rodney paused. "I left magic because of you, you know. Abandoned my career, destroyed the plans for the thaumatron because of you. Because you died rescuing me from the consequences of my discovery."
"Maybourne threatened you," John blurted suddenly. "That's why I let you keep thinking I was dead. It was to keep you safe."
Rodney closed his eyes, lines springing up on his forehead.
"I didn't give him the plans," John husked. "I destroyed the film."
Rodney blinked. "You destroyed the film?"
"Exposed it to light."
"But... I destroyed the film!"
"I fried it while it was still in the camera. While you were sleeping, the night after you took the pictures. I messed up the unexposed film too, in case you took more."
John stared. Then he started to laugh. A moment later, Rodney joined him.
Washington, DC, June 1992
Lieutenant Colonel Maybourne smiled at John across his desk. "Lieutenant Sheppard. It seems reports of your death have been exaggerated."
"I'm fine, sir," said John, standing at parade rest. "Ready to fly again."
"I'm afraid I can't allow that, Lieutenant, since you failed in your assigned mission."
"We completed the mission. Nearly three hundred nuclear warheads disabled, and no one knows we did it."
"Except Dr. McKay. Who is still the only one with the secret to his magic machine. The film you gave me was useless."
"Sorry, sir," John muttered insincerely.
"I ordered you to get copies of those plans, and you failed. How am I supposed to recommend you for flight status if you can't carry out a simple job like that?"
John took a breath. "Because if you don't, sir, I'll spread the word about what you tried to do. Trying to stir up political unrest in the former Soviet bloc -- I guess that peace dividend hasn't been working so well for you? And then there's the kidnapping and attempted assassination of a Canadian citizen."
Maybourne stared at John, lizard-like. "You can't prove any of that."
"Prove it to the standard of a court-martial, no. But I have enough evidence to make some generals pretty suspicious of you. Enough to make sure your career doesn't go anywhere from here." John let those words hang for a moment. "Or, I could go back to active flight status, and Dr. McKay could go on peacefully with his life, and no one would have to hear about all this."
Maybourne leaned back in his chair, considering the offer. "Dr. McKay believes you're dead."
John bit his lip.
"He resigned from Princeton and withdrew several of his papers from press. He's gone to live with his sister in Canada." Maybourne leaned forward suddenly. "So long as you stay away from Dr. McKay -- and he leaves his mad scientists' inventions alone -- you've got a deal. That way we can all have a little peace of mind."
John thought his heart might be breaking, but it was no more than he deserved, after all. If he hadn't had the good sense to die rescuing Rodney, the least he could do was stay out of the way and ensure the safety of the man he'd come to love.
Stiffly, John saluted.
Montreal, QC, July 2004
"Maybourne's gone, you know," John offered. "Apparently he was involved with the SGC too, for a while, but finally he fell into one of his own traps."
"That's good to know," said Rodney.
"I'm sorry you turned your life upside-down because of -- what happened. But here's a chance to turn it back."
Rodney shook his head. "It wasn't just because I thought you were dead. You were right about the thaumatron. Too vulnerable to abuse."
"But you can't leave it all behind you, can you?" John held up the little box Rodney had given him. "This proves you still have what it takes. The magic, the physics -- you can't stay away from it. It's time to get back in the game, Rodney."
"I don't want to be the Oppenheimer of magic."
"What about using your abilities and inventions to fight aliens? To save the Earth? From what I've heard, they could really have used a thaumatron or something like it these last few years since they found the Stargate."
Rodney swallowed. "It sounds pretty dangerous out there."
"Uh, yeah. It might be." John recalled how reluctant he had been to join the program when he first found out about it. It seemed strange to be pushing Rodney to do something he'd been so unsure about himself. Maybe it was time to take another approach. "Look... Elizabeth didn't send me here. I asked to come. I'm the one that persuaded her to offer you the job."
Rodney's mouth tipped down at the side. "You mean, she doesn't really want me on the expedition?"
"No, that's not what I meant -- she thought you wouldn't want it. She was sure you'd say no. For all the reasons you just gave me -- you're rusty, you don't do magic or physics any more, all of that. She said we should respect your decision."
"Then why --?"
"She did say that you would be a real asset, if you agreed to come. But I think the reason she sent me here -- let me come here -- was to let you know I'm still alive. She was almost as angry as you about that, and she insisted you should know the truth."
"She was right about that. Obviously, she has more sense than some people," Rodney said with a lift of his chin.
John ran a harried hand through his hair. "You're still not getting it. Elizabeth will be very glad if you come. I'm sure she thinks I should be pitching this to you as your duty to humanity and the future of scientific discovery and all that. But I want you -- need you -- to come with us. For me. I don't know if I can do this without you."
"You've lasted twelve years without me!"
John supposed mentioning his occasional secret surveillance wouldn't help his case any. "But I always knew you were there. I knew you were safe. Now... I'm going to another galaxy, Rodney. It might be a one-way trip. And I can do that, I can say goodbye to all of this -- pizza, football, a family that never talks to me -- no problem. I can even take the chance I'm giving up flying. But I can't leave you. I can't..." It sounded sappy even before it came out of his mouth, but John pushed it out anyway. "I can't live in a world that doesn't have you in it."
Rodney's expression had softened as he listened, but then he went grim again. "That's exactly what I've had to do for over a decade. What you made me do."
"I know. I thought it was better than the alternative."
"Me mourning you was better than you mourning me?"
John swallowed. Having one person believe the other was dead was surely better than having one person really dead, wasn't it? "I'm not as strong as you are, Rodney. Not... not that way."
Rodney sighed and looked at the envelope John had given him, still unopened. "Save the world?"
"Good chance of it. And the pay is definitely more than triple what you're making now."
"No, but plenty of other scientists for you to rant at."
Rodney's lips quirked. "Well... I suppose it couldn't hurt to read Elizabeth's offer, at least."
It was just like their first meeting; Rodney might play hard to get, but John could tell when the bait had been taken. He felt a grin trying to come out. "For Elizabeth? Not even a little bit for me?"
Rodney tried to look stern, but after a moment he relented. "Maybe a little. Oh, all right, come here already!"
He still tasted the same -- like home, like flying. John could go anywhere if he had this with him.
"This make-up sex had better be good," Rodney growled into John's mouth. "I've been waiting twelve years."