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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2005-07-05 11:33 am

The Difference Engine 3/3

...and sulfur represented the soul.


"You have to reprogram me."

Radek, alone in the lab, looked up sharply when he heard the voice; Sheppard was standing next to him, in that silent catlike way he had.

"We will put a collar on you with a bell, or perhaps with a little beeping thing," he replied. "Why reprogram?"

Sheppard's fists clenched at his sides. Radek looked down at them, and they eased open again.

"There's a protocol," he said. "I know, I can access it now. I can read my code."

"But not reprogram yourself?" Radek asked, intrigued in spite of himself.

"It's function-locked. It's about -- Dr. Weir."

Radek nodded. "The Executive Routine."

"I can't overwrite it."

"For good reason. It..." Radek spread his hands. "It is for the safety of the commander of Atlantis."

"Every minute I want to take a Jumper and go back there and rescue her, and there might not even be a her anymore," Sheppard said.

"Ah," Radek said, and felt a pang in his chest. "Colonel, what you are feeling, this is grief."

"Make it stop!"

"I cannot. It is natural, the way of things. It will fade."

"Now!"

"No." Radek frowned at him. "Is not right, and if you have come to ask me, this means McKay has already said no. McKay has told me many times, no more reprogramming, and I have agreed."

"Dammit, Radek!" Sheppard's fists clenched again.

"Hitting me will not bring Elizabeth Weir back," Radek said placidly, and he knew this because he had been very tempted to destroy something, even to hit McKay or Sheppard, when news came that she was dead, left to be cannibalised by the Replicators.

"It won't stop!"

"No, but in time it will only be every hour, and then every day, and then less on less. What would you have me do?" Radek asked. "Every time someone dies, I must go into your head and rewrite for you? What if I die and McKay dies? Better this way, to learn it once and know for the next time. You are capable of learning; we have hard proof of this."

"And what am I supposed to do until then?" Sheppard demanded.

"Grieve," Radek said. "There are books. Also there is work. Speak to those around you -- "

"Heightmeyer?" Sheppard drawled. "She's an ineffective diagnostic device, and let me tell you, I wasn't all that happy when I found that line in my code."

"Intriguing, but hardly topical," Radek said. "Many suggest one should write about it. Pluck," he said, touching his ear, "out of your head, put on paper -- in pixels. Busy yourself. Fight with your sticks. Be patient."

"Yeah, that's not really my strong suit."

"Well, now you must learn."

***

John Sheppard was a very efficient man, capable of multitasking and invigoratingly good at time-management. It was how he'd always had so much spare time to wander around Atlantis like a king, strolling into labs, talking to people in hallways, turning on that lovely, beautiful Charisma Circuit, which he always pictured as a little metal disc with three LEDs and a spiderweb of wires around it right in the middle of his brain.

"What is this, John?" Teyla asked him.

He decided that if nobody was going to reprogram him, and he couldn't reprogram himself, he would take all of Zelenka's suggestions to heart. He would talk to someone, write about it, and keep himself busy, if not in that order.

"It's a book," John answered, knowing that he looked sheepish, feeling a small spark of shame but mostly just the usual numbness, undercut with the ever-present urge to find Elizabeth, which was slowly fading as he got to know Sam Carter.

"Any good?" Ronon inquired, looking at his own copy.


The anger started with the mission report, which he'd spent hours wrestling with, tapping out a few words, wandering away, coming back when he felt less homicidally inclined. This wasn't exaggeration; when he left the computer he would lean against the wall and think about getting both fingers around a Replicator's neck and squeezing. This was pretty irrational as a form of murder for a machine, so he upgraded it to shoving both of his hands directly into the Replicator's head and forcibly rewriting its code. But when the report was done he felt better. So, maybe it would work for other things.

"You tell me," John said. "I sort of...wrote it."

"You wrote a book?" Ronon asked, amused and sort of impressed.

Sometimes while he was writing or taking a break from writing he thought about Rodney. Rodney actually had rewritten the Replicator code, more than once. He thought it was pretty amusing that everyone thought he was the ruthless one, when Rodney was the guy who basically brainwashed an entire race to throw themselves into battle against the Wraith. Rodney didn't lose sleep over it, either, not until the Replicators began killing humans.

Teyla traced her fingers over the plain printed cover. It had cost him to get it printed and bound, and he'd had to go through O'Neill and a military publisher. "Is it a story?" she asked, meaning, was it fiction. In the Pegasus galaxy sometimes fiction and reality got a little mixed up.

"It's about me," he said. "And partly about some other stuff, too. I thought you should know, that's all."


Sometimes when he thought about it he hunted up Rodney and unspun his code under Rodney's hands until the binary pushed him over the edge, seeking reassurance that he wasn't the machine, he was John, and Rodney didn't hate him.

Ronon came up to him the next day. "I finished it. I want to translate it into Satedan. Lemme do it."

"Why?" John asked.

"It's an epic," Ronon answered. "It's a warrior's story. There were lots of books like this on Sateda. Well, maybe not exactly like this."

"I have to ask McKay and Zelenka," John said, feeling a surge of something, washing over the numbness, for Ronon and all the burned books and the dead on Sateda. He suspected he would have really liked Sateda before the Wraith.


When he was finished he didn't give proofs to McKay or Zelenka to look over, because it wasn't technically a spec manual for his brain. It was what he'd want to have read if they'd told him at the start what he was -- it was the talking-to-people part of Zelenka's prescription. It was about him and Frankenstein and Rodney McKay and Isaac Asimov and Carson Beckett and Radek Zelenka and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and Elizabeth Weir and C-3P0 and Jack O'Neill with maybe a few disparaging remarks about the Butlerian Jihad thrown in for good measure.

"This -- what was done to you -- is not common practice on Earth," Teyla had said, when she finished it a day after Ronon.

"I'm the only one," Sheppard answered.

Teyla slid her hands up his arms and bent forward invitingly and he touched his forehead to hers.

Oh, he thought. I remember this. This is joy.


There were charts and diagrams too, but he'd redone them all so that they made sense to him.

"You did what?" McKay asked, looking at the book as if it might bite him.

"It's probably not very good," John said, setting it on the table.

"And breaks about eight million confidentiality agreements we all had to sign!"

"I didn't have to sign anything," John replied. He glanced at Rodney and grinned. "I say nice things about you in it."

"Well, you'll probably have gotten all the cybernetics wrong," Rodney muttered, but he picked up the book and started to read and when John came back a few hours later both he and Zelenka were speeding through it, totally ignorant of his presence.


The slim book was titled The Modern Prometheus (why mess with a good thing?) and on the author page it listed Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, Dr. Carson Beckett, Dr. Rodney McKay, Dr. Radek Zelenka. Rodney predictably bitched about third-place billing, but he did it while John was curled around him, skin on skin as close as possible, so John ignored him and thought about how beautiful and elegant his base code was instead.

"How's the translation going?" he asked Ronon, who offered him a paper notebook filled with words he couldn't read.

"I'm leaving out the science-y parts," Ronon told him.


He had meant to collect the books up again and burn them when they were done reading them; after all, he had the PDF if it was ever needed. The books were just to explain to Teyla and Ronon how he felt, really, and as a present to Rodney and Radek. Instead, with John's permission, Rodney gave a copy to Samatha Carter, who "forgot" to ask permission before giving it to Lorne, who circulated it among the Marines -- trusted ones, Pegasus veterans -- who passed it on to their pals, who mentioned it to the scientists, who stole Zelenka's copy. Zelenka furiously demanded a replacement, so John went and intimidated the book back from Miko and gave her the damn PDF and said they could all go to hell. Miko gave it to Dr. Keller, who put it on the shared medical server.

He expected suspicion and fear and maybe even pity; certainly he expected curiousity from the scientists, but instead the ranks closed around him and the scientists pretty much ignored him like always. The few Marines who said they didn't want a robot leading them into battle never got close enough to the Colonel to express their sentiments, what with being in the infirmary and all.

The worst it got was Lorne at mess asking, "Hey, so can you shoot lasers out of your eyes?" and winning almost three hundred dollars off of various Marines when McKay looked up from his meal and said, "Why is it always lasers? What is it with you people? He can't shoot lasers out his eyes or his ass or any other part of his anatomy. Go fondle your sidearm."


General O'Neill found out and, while John was still on Earth after being recalled to oh yeah rescue McKay's baby sister, thanks, Rodney, he gave him a twenty-minute dressing-down about confidentiality in the military, which left him skinned and hollow. Dr. Jackson, catching him in the hallway afterwards, offered him a printout of his PDF annotated in red pen, a worn copy of The Tin Woodman Of Oz, and a slightly awkward, slightly absent grin.

In the SGC compound, out of his hearing, they murmured about the machine man. He fed a man to the Wraith, they said. He didn't even look unhappy about it.

"Well, he's not like us," one of the Marines said, as if that explained anything. "Computers don't have feelings."


***

It was true, sometimes. Others, not so much.

They found Elizabeth again, only she wasn't Elizabeth, only his stupid base code didn't know that.

And they also found...him. Himself and Teyla and Ronon and Rodney. He wanted to ask his other self if he knew whether or not he had a cybernetic brain, if maybe the Replicators had built him a new human brain, but that was a little too Pinocchio for his tastes. Are you a real boy?

It was easier to let Elizabeth go the second time; he'd had months to imprint on Sam Carter as his mission commander and her rule overrode Elizabeth's. Still, he felt pain and loss and impatience and fear as Elizabeth abandoned him again.

After that, back at Atlantis, John threw himself into work. Any spare minute that he didn't know what to do with, he worked hard. He was grateful to Radek for this, at least: he knew now how to grieve. He did paperwork, he drilled the Marines, he worked on the book. Once he'd added Dr. Jackson's annotations and fixed some grammar, he spent hours staring at the document.

Finally, he added a frontispiece:

Remember, I am not recording the vision of a madman. The sun does not more certainly shine in the heavens than that which I now affirm is true. Some miracle might have produced it, yet the stages of the discovery were distinct and probable.
-- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

You aren't my pet machine or my brainchild. You're a person, damaged like we all are, and you have to rewrite your own code the same way we all do.
-- Dr. M. Rodney McKay

Then he tabbed to the end, inserted a page, and began work again on a new chapter.

Epilogue: Dr. Elizabeth Weir

There are certain lines of code that are function-locked away from me, but that's true of anyone. I can't stop breathing and I can't stop my heart from beating any more than any other person can. I was programmed to protect the next place I would be stationed, which I have done like a soldier should. I was also given an Executive Routine, an imperative to protect my mission commander at that station.

Technically the Executive Routine allowed me to accept any person fulfilling her position, but I imprinted early on Dr. Elizabeth Weir. Dr. Weir was a diplomat and scientist, and my direct superior for three years following my return from Afghanistan...


***

Destroying the Replicator planet made him so high that he just sat in the workout room, legs pulled up to his chest, head on knees, and flew and flew and flew.

It wasn't until he came down that he realised there was an empty aching place where the hate used to be
.

***

"This is so cool," McKay said, holding the bullet up.

He was lying on John's bed, shoes off, rumpled trousers and shirt testament to the fact that McKay had mastered "laundry" but not "folding". John looked up from the desk, looked over at him, frowned.

"Well, yeah, who doesn't love getting shot offworld?" he said, pecking out an email with his single functioning hand.

"Yes yes, heart in my throat, pulse fluttering, visions of myself weeping over your lifeless body passing before my eyes," McKay said, still studying the way the bullet caught the late-afternoon sun through the window.

It looked a little like a dime that had gone through the garbage disposal. It was still vaguely bullet-shaped, but there were gashes across the metal and missing chunks too large to be explained by ballistic scars (or impact with his shoulder). He adjusted the sling immobilising his left arm, fingers twitching at the memory. The surgery had gone well and he was perfectly fine, but he hated not being able to use his hand.

"Did you ever consider the fact that my components were going to wear out?" he asked McKay, who rolled his eyes.

"Your brain is composed predominantly of alien alloys and parts -- "

"Great, so I'm an alien robot."

"My heart bleeds for you. Returning to the point, we had no idea how long your parts would last, but it was a good bet we wouldn't have to worry about buying the extra-long warrantee coverage, metaphorically. And self-diagnostics would have made you contact the parallel program on the server and notify us."

"My brain would email you."

"Gross simplification, but yes. Instead..." McKay twirled the bullet across his fingers. "Your brain has begun to heal itself, when and how it can. It explains why you've been craving certain foods. Your brain is sending impulses to your body to intake minerals, even trace amounts, transport them via the bloodstream, and incorporate them into minor repairs as needed. When it got a big hunk of metal at once, it started ripping out anything it could get to before Keller removed it."

"This is all very creepy," John observed.

"I thought you'd come to terms with your inherent creepiness," McKay replied.

"I would, but every time I do, new creepy pops up," John said, moving to the bed, easing himself down into a sitting position. McKay, who perhaps had been a little conditioned by now to what John wanted, rolled to the side and curled around him, knees tucking up against his thigh. McKay held up the bullet and John took it, rubbing his thumb across the rough cannibalised metal before setting it on the side-table with a soft click.

"What happened to you is an open secret at Cheyenne Mountain now," McKay said, looking more serious. "I'm surprised there hasn't been a call to have you replaced."

"There has," John said before he thought about it.

"What?"

"Caldwell."

"See, I don't get why he even wants this job. Is he really that eager to get, I don't know, turned into a bug or stranded in fucking Middle Earth for six months or -- "

John pressed his thumb to McKay's mouth. He'd tried, a few times, just telling him to shut up; except on missions, it never did any good. This was the easiest way.

"Caldwell brought it up to the IOA. O'Neill found out and said that if I was recalled because of Tria Prima he'd resign, and Dr. Jackson said if O'Neill went, he'd go, and Carter got hold of that and told the SGC that she wouldn't support any replacement that was sent and she didn't think the Marines would either, and got Lorne to back her up. Lorne threatened to sic you on them. I think really that's what did it," John mused, easing his thumb away.

"You didn't tell me," McKay accused.

"I didn't see you. By the time I heard about Caldwell, everything was already happening. It was over in a few hours. Must've been a fun afternoon at Cheyenne Mountain. I really owe those guys a beer," he mused.

"You could have told me after."

"I've got the emails, if you're interested. Dr. Jackson BCC'd me on everything."

"Spare me the wank of soldiers and scientists," McKay replied. "TL;DR."

"Yeah." John pushed his shoulder with his good hand, but McKay nudged him with a knee and didn't roll. Instead he slid back and let John lie down, then curled around and over him, nuzzling his face into John's neck. His hands skidded his shirt up, and the familiar Want Lust Listen Protect Mine kicked all other thought out of his head.

***

He didn't feel much when his father died. He'd never built code for anything even remotely connected to love, when it came to his family, not that he'd had a whole lot even before.

What he wanted to say to his brother was, Do you think he would have been happier if I'd died in Afghanistan?

No, what he wanted to say was, You didn't have to stay either, but I'm not the prodigal son. You have to come back while they're still alive to be the prodigal son.

Actually, really, what he wanted to say was, I'm sorry, Davey.

Maybe what he wanted to say was, I'm not like you anymore.

Really, okay, what he wanted was for his father to be alive, and he wanted to say to him, I have seen what you couldn't imagine. Do you know what it's like to fly? Do you really get how it feels to have speed and distance and space to move in? Have you ever seen the mountains in Antarctica? Do you know that I have a computer instead of a brain in my head, and I'm sleeping with the man who put it there? Do you want to meet Rodney, Dad? He saved my life and I wrote myself a computer program just so I could be in love with him.

I've seen men who feed through their hands. I've seen a planet implode. I've lived in a floating city and I've made her fly. I've traveled across the void between galaxies. I've deposed kings and dictators. I speak the language of a race that's no longer alive.

Do you see, Dad? Do you understand what I've seen? Do you understand who I am? Do you get that I'm not the disappointment, that while I could have been a junior VP in an office building I chose to risk my life for a planet that's not even my home anymore? Do you see?

Just as well he was dead, 'cause saying all that would have gotten him in so much trouble with the IOA.

He ended up with a day to kill on Earth, before he and a handful of new arrivals were scheduled to ship back to Atlantis, and he finally managed to buy General O'Neill and Dr. Jackson their beers. Dr. Jackson sat across from him with a small paper pad, taking hasty notes while he asked question after question about the worlds he'd visited and the people on them. He bought the second round to make up for all the questions, and of course O'Neill insisted on buying the third round.

Jackson leaned forward, notebook set aside now, restless eyes shifting first to O'Neill at the bar and then back to Sheppard.

"Tell me about Atlantis," he said.

"It's great," John answered. "You've read the mission reports."

"Yeah, but that's..." Jackson made an unsatisfied noise. He was another like McKay, constantly curious, picking at threads to see where they'd lead. Unlike McKay in any other way -- abstracted, well-mannered, and of course his curiousity was for history and people, not for the future and the stars. Still, something inside him twisted with the familiarity of it all, and he found that he actually liked Jackson.

"Do you miss it?" Jackson pressed.

"Her," John answered.

"Huh?"

"I miss her." He made a face -- reluctance, confusion, lips pressed together, trying to put it to words. Before he managed it, Jackson nodded.

"Oh," he said. "It's that way."

"Yeah."

***

That year he saw a lot of Earth, more so than usual for life in Pegasus. It used to be that a return to Earth was only for dire emergencies but, these days, he occasionally got called back to Cheyenne Mountain for a few days just so some IOA bigwig could have a face-to-face with the Colonel. This wasn't all bad; he could load up on junk food from Earth which was good barter in Atlantis' still largely trade-based economy. So, when he saw the email notification that he was scheduled for a quick trip across the bridge in a couple of days, not too long after visiting for his father's funeral, he didn't really pay much attention.

Rodney, on the other hand, swore in three languages when he saw his name and Zelenka's on the manifest, shoved someone away from the nearest computer in the gateroom, and checked the infodump they'd just had from weekly dial-in. Then he looked up at John, who looked back at him with amused expectance.

"Who'd you piss off at SGC?" he asked, leaning over his shoulder, keeping his voice low.

"Nobody," Rodney said. "Well, lots of people, but nobody especially badly. They're calling us back to assess Tria Prima. Your five years are up."

John blinked. "You make it sound like they're going to execute me."

If Rodney intended the look of cold, naked fear to reassure him, he'd miscalculated.

"They're not going to execute me, are they?" he asked.

"Not intentionally," Rodney answered, still staring at the screen.

"Rodney -- "

"Not here," he said, closing the laptop and walking away. John ran to catch up with him in the corridor.

"Hey, what the hell?" he asked, trying to dodge around people in the hallway, keep up with Rodney's pace, and turn to face him at the same time. "You're freaking out, Rodney."

He managed to drag him off course, into a side-hall that wasn't often used, and kept hold of his arm as they faced each other.

"So they ask me a bunch of questions, I'll give them the book, big deal," he said under his breath.

"This isn't some post-traumatic stress evaluation," Rodney answered. "The final analysis of Tria Prima -- " he looked aside, haplessly. "Did you read that far in the proposal?"

He hadn't actually read the grant proposal for the project at all, just the specs for installation and the medical reports.

"We have to go into your head again. Physically," Rodney said. "Investigate how the circuitry's functioning. And all your code." He gave John a mirthless smile.

"But that's not going to kill me," John answered, uncertain.

"It's not exactly a papercut, so excuse me if I'm not comfortable with them scooping your brain out of your head again," Rodney hissed. "Besides, it's not that simple to get into your code anymore. It's organic, it's probably incredibly disorganised because you're a crazy person, and -- "

"And they're going to see my code about you, huh?" he asked. Rodney stared at him, stunned.

"You have code about me?" he asked.

Oh. Maybe that hadn't been where he was going with this.

"Listen, Rodney, I can get out of this. They can't order me to have brain surgery. There must have been some kind of...listen, did they think...they can't just switch me off," he said lamely.

Rodney looked down. "Oh, and also, we could totally reprogram you. You know. Take out Elizabeth and -- other things. Like you wanted."

John felt his fingers clench and forced himself to let go of Rodney's arm so that he wouldn't bruise him.

"Take you out?" he asked. "Is that what you think I want?"

Rodney looked miserable. "I don't know what you want. I -- we didn't think this far ahead when we started. We certainly didn't think we'd be in another galaxy when we finished."

"Is there anyone you'd trust to do the surgery?" he asked. "Anyone here or on Earth?"

"I can look up the attendings Carson used -- " Rodney shook his head. "Keller's the only one I'd trust to know how important this is, and she's not exactly the world's greatest surgeon."

"But once this is done, that's it, right? It becomes someone else's problem, I'm just the test subject." John let his head drop slightly, almost forming the Athosian gesture. He was thinking, surprisingly for the first time, of the guys he'd known in combat. Some of them went home hooked up to a respirator, and their eyes weren't ever going to open. Not like his had. "When this is done -- "

"Phase II. Multiple human trials," Rodney's voice was almost a whisper.

"Other people getting tin brains?"

"It's not -- "

"I know." He drew a deep breath. "If it hadn't been for Tria Prima I wouldn't be alive. I kinda owe the project to see it through. Back on Earth we could be fixing people like me."

"They could break your brain."

"They're not gonna break my brain, Rodney."

Rodney, to his surprise, butted against his chest with his head, forehead just below his collarbone. It was weird and intimate and not something he wanted to do or have done to him in a public place, but he just let him do it and kept an eye out for anyone wandering the halls.

"Of course you're not frightened," Rodney said, finally, with a sigh, and stepped back.

"I can't help it," John muttered.

***

"No, no, and no, you idiots," Rodney said, and the room fell quiet around him. "You can't use general anaesthesia on someone who hasn't got a chemical brain. Christ, I'm a doctor of Physics and I know that."

"But all reasonable indications -- " one of the others at the conference table said, and Rodney snarled back.

"Would you really like to base the success of Tria Prima on reasonable indications? Hell, let's flip a coin! I'll call tails, since reasonable indication has shown it comes up five percent more often." He rubbed his forehead. "There's no way of knowing how it would affect the neural net. Just because he's had hallucinations and virally-induced reactions in the past doesn't mean it's safe."

The august assembly of medical professionals and cybernetics specialists seated in the tiny, cave-dim room under Cheyenne Mountain had grown progressively more combative as they discussed the surgical procedure. Sheppard, sitting in a corner, had gotten quieter, withdrawing further into the shadows, until finally Rodney had made the executive decision to shout them all the hell down.

"I am the project manager of Tria Prima and unless you really want to have General O'Neill come in and mediate this you are going to have to go through me."

"And me," Zelenka added, without looking up from the tablet he was retrofitting to interface directly with the cybernetic brain.

"Yes, of course," Rodney said irritably. "You," he added, pointing at Doctor Whateverhernamewas, "We can do this with local, it'll be a matter of timing. Last time it didn't matter what we used because his brain had effectively been switched off, and oh yeah, guess what, we're going to switch it off again."

"Are you certain you won't -- " Doctor Bigmoustache began.

"How simple do I have to make this?" Rodney said wearily. "We can uplink wirelessly from the tablet to the brain. As soon as we're certain we have a secure connection we can switch off the pain-receptor circuitry. Zelenka and I will document our coding while you voodoomen shake your bone saws and very, very carefully engage in the physical examination of the -- "

He broke off, because Sheppard was standing up; he shot him a questioning look and got a bland, blank smile in reply.

"Just getting some air," Sheppard said, picking his way through the mess of chairs and scientists. Rodney watched him leave, faint anxiety flitting through his head, but then Doctor Annoyingquestions took this as an invitation to speak without being spoken to, and Rodney had to slap him down.

***

It wasn't like you could ask Dad for the keys and take an F-15 out for a spin, but John's high security clearance and command of Atlantis did net him a few perks, one of which was immediate access to the base helicopters and a pilot to fly him somewhere if he wanted.

He did not want. He borrowed a flight suit, ran through preflight with his pilot, then kicked him out on the tarmac and took the yoke himself.

Right around four thousand feet, his head started to clear.

He'd been accustomed to the occasional strange look in Atlantis, and Lorne's good-natured one-offs about laser eyes or tin soldiers. None of the doctors here were hostile at all, either, but they were curious and rude. Which in McKay was a sign of genius and also not half as annoying as you'd think, but in these people made him feel like he couldn't quite connect to his own body. They looked at him and thought robot-brain microwires neural-net charisma-circuit what-do-you-think-would-happen-if-we-poked-him-with-sticks?

And they made McKay think that way too. There was no other way to say "I'm going to set this computer up to talk to your cybernetic brain", of course, but McKay didn't seem to think he cared, either, wanted him in the room for these discussions. He was nervous enough about them taking the top of his head off.

Nobody was ever going to award John Sheppard for outstanding introspection or mental well-adjustment (and if he wanted to be well-adjusted he'd need one of those tiny screwdrivers, hahaha). He'd be the first to admit that even before three mad scientists transplanted his brain he hadn't been that great a guy. But nobody on the outside ever looked at him and thought, not a person.

McKay had never treated him as anything less than a person. Until now.

His radio crackled, and then a familiar voice came on.

"Colonel, you are the only asshole I know that chooses to sulk in low geosynchronous orbit."

"General O'Neill," he replied.

"Get your butt back down here, son."

"Copy," he said, and regretfully turned the chopper back towards base.

When he was through with postflight and wearing his own clothes again, he slouched and dawdled towards O'Neill's office, aware that whatever he'd done he was probably in trouble. O'Neill was leaning back in his chair, studying a file folder.

"Have a seat," he said, gesturing to the other chair. When John sat, he tossed the file across the table at him.

Inside were a handful of small photographs, dwarfed by the large manila spread of the folder. A guy sitting on a rock with an enormous dog at his feet; a woman holding Fourth-of-July sparklers; a random, awkwardly-posed family portrait; a young boy.

"Just in case you're losing perspective," he said, as John turned each one over. The guy with the dog was an Air Force Captain; the woman was an Army Sergeant; someone in the family portrait was a Marine Corporal; the boy didn't have a name.

"Those three are on life support in Cheyenne Mountain, awaiting a procedure I think you're familiar with," O'Neill said, voice low and dangerous. "If they don't get help, they'll stay that way for the rest of their lives. If they do, they could be up and around in a couple of weeks."

John nodded, wondering if he was supposed to be feeling guilty.

"Who's this?" he asked, flicking the photograph of the boy up between two fingers.

"My son." O'Neill said, face carefully blank. "Accident when he was nine. He shot himself. Unlike them, it's too late for him."

"I'm sorry," John murmured, and was startled to discover that he was. It hurt Jack O'Neill, obviously, it would hurt anyone. John could share in that hurt, at least. He tucked the photographs back into the folder.

"I think Dr. McKay has shouted everyone into submission," O'Neill said, avoiding his eyes as he took the photos back.

"I should make sure he doesn't bite anyone during dinner," John sighed. He was at the door before it occurred to him, the enormity of what O'Neill had just casually done. He stopped, though he didn't turn around. "Thank you, General."

"See you post-surgery, Colonel."

***

Three days later he was seated in some bastard form of dentist's chair, sterile and swathed, surrounded by medical equipment and doctors. In one corner of the room there was a tented-off area, clear plastic curtains protecting a desk with two laptops and a tablet on it. He could see Rodney and Zelenka in scrubs and thin latex gloves, already tapping out commands.

"We're going to do this nice and easy," the lead surgeon said, face already blocked away behind a mask. "How are the restraints?"

John flexed his fingers. The straps holding his wrists and ankles were tight enough that he couldn't even flex much, let alone pull away. He felt like he was about to be executed after all. The strap holding his head in place was itching against his forehead.

"Fine," he said.

"All right. You'll feel a series of pinpricks, that's the local. As soon as we've established it's in effect, we'll signal to Dr. McKay -- "

"I know the procedure," John replied impatiently.

"Let's get started, then," the doctor said, gesturing for one of the nurses to bring a tray of instruments forward.

John closed his eyes, tried not to struggle against the restraints, and hoped like hell Rodney would turn everything off quickly.

***

"Taking down higher cognitive functions," Rodney said, brushing a knuckle against his cheek to move his mic closer to his mouth. "Pain receptors are...out."

There was a buzz from the general area of the surgery table.

"Not yet! Jesus, give me ten seconds to make sure before you go cutting his head open, okay?" he studied the readouts, more to make his point than anything, and finally nodded. "Okay. He's unconscious. Pain centers are down, only the basic subroutines are online and we are...receiving information. Uplink's fine here. Now you can go."

He tried to ignore the coppery smell of blood over the antiseptic and the burr of saw on bone as he watched the data flow. The uplink was dumping the old code first, the stuff that was easier to sort out because it had never been rewritten or incorporated into active operating code. Breathing, heart-rate, all the good stuff that had been such a pain in his ass and Zelenka's when they were writing it.

"Ah, I have so much nostalgia," Zelenka said, grinning at him from the other laptop.

"Mm, I prefer not to remember spending fifteen hours a day on code," Rodney answered. He tried not to look at what they were doing to John's body, strapped into the chair. The night before, after the final cold-run and the last evening debriefing, he'd gone to the room they'd assigned John in the crew quarters of SGC and found it locked -- they'd hardly seen each other since they arrived, except in meetings, and even then John wasn't fully...there, was checked out to some inner world.

The scrolling code grew more complex in front of his eyes, subdividing and diverting, cross-referencing itself, John's conscious thought patterns beginning to emerge. Zelenka, at the other computer, was studying his facial-recognition routines.

With the potential exception of Carson, may he rest in peace, none of the leaders of Tria Prima had actually been interested in the practical application of the AI software. It had been a challenge, an intellectual puzzle, an experiment -- like seeing how high you could build a tower out of blocks before it tumbled. Of course it was nice they were going to be able to help people and all, but that wasn't the point. The program was an end in itself, and the result was --

Rodney narrowed his eyes at the computer screen, flicking back several lines. Here, everything was organic and jumbled, like trying to read stream-of-consciousness, but he could see familiar things -- a touch protocol, an emotional reaction, an override on all but the most basic imperatives. And his name, over and over again in the code.

Then the screen flickered, briefly, and Zelenka swore, and the doctors began shouting.

"Oh my god," one of them said. "Dr. McKay! Dr. McKay, he's -- "

"Waking up," McKay breathed. "Shit, no, nononono, Zelenka, his cognitive functions are coming back online!"

Zelenka was already typing, swearing under his breath in Czech, trying to shut down the neural net, but every circuit on the board was lighting up and when he raised his head John's eyes were open. Some basic self-preservation instinct John had written into his code --

The pain receptors flashed back online. John began to scream.

"Shit shit shit shit shit," Rodney chanted, trying to close down the self-preservation code that was making John's arms tense, his heels drum against the chair in a stacatto beat.

"We have to shut it down!" Zelenka called.

"We don't know what -- "

"Rodney, we must cold-start!"

"Okay, no, wait -- it'll dump -- Jesus," Rodney swore, as John's screaming went on. "Download it. Download it all. Back it up, Radek!"

He bolted from the desk, shoving the doctors out of the way and grasping John's hands on either side of the chair.

"Colonel, Colonel, look at me, we're going to shut you down -- "

"Thirty seconds!" Zelenka called.

"Come on, John, hold on for thirty seconds, if we don't get you all into the computer -- "

"Dr. McKay," one of the doctors said.

"Shut up," Rodney snarled, fingers fumbling for John's. His eyes were rolling back in his head and he was struggling, straining against the straps.

"Fifteen seconds!"

"Fifteen seconds, John, look at me, look at me."

"Cardiac arrest," one of the nurses called, right as Zelenka shouted "Done!" and there was a very loud click, and John's eyes closed. The screaming stopped but the dead, ringing silence wasn't any better.

"Get him on a respirator, his brain's not telling his body to breathe," Rodney said, moving out of the way so they could move in with the defib machine. "Zelenka, what the hell happened?"

"Busy!" Zelenka called, and Rodney bolted back to the laptops. "Look, here is what I do, remove consciousness, basic code only, re-upload -- "

"Do it," Rodney said.

"Rodney -- "

"Clear his memory and do it! We have the backup!"

Zelenka's hands moved eerily fast over the keyboard, dumping all the complex, beautiful code out of his memory and replacing it with something new, a basic algorithm that let him breathe and keep a pulse and that was about all.

While the doctors were still trying to jumpstart John's heart, he opened his eyes and inhaled and sat very, very still.

Rodney lowered his head and rested it on his folded arms, trying not to break down.

"Dr. McKay?" one of them asked.

"Keep going. We might have just killed him. We'd better make it count," he said, in a voice that was not as steady as he would like.

"No file corruption," Zelenka offered. "His memories are untouched. His operating code, I have it on this hard drive. He will be fine, Rodney. We will upload when it is finished."

"We just downloaded John Sheppard to a Dell. Give me a minute, okay?" Rodney said shakily. Zelenka watched, all anticipation and curious eyes, until he pulled himself together and sat up.

"Send it to me," he said dully.

"Are you certain -- "

"Radek. Send me his damn code," he said, and a few seconds later it started scrolling past again. "We need to document it."

"You could go sit with him," Zelenka said quietly.

"He's not out there. He's here," he replied.

***

Jack stood in front of the man lying in the intensive-care bed, a thin pink line all that was left of the surgery the day before.

"How are you, John?" he asked.

"Systems functioning," John said. He didn't open his eyes, and his voice had an odd toneless quality to it, not quite metallic but not quite human.

"See, now that's what I thought he'd be like when you suggested this," he said to McKay, who was seated at the bedside, working.

"General, I say this with all due respect, if you are going to be an asshole you can leave," McKay replied. Jack blinked at him, then smiled a little.

"Well, it was that or tell you I have faith in your genius, and you don't need to be told that," he replied. "What's the holdup?"

"I'm sorry, I'm about to upload a man's entire personality after we dumped his buffers, excuse me for wanting to ensure that it's going to function properly before I bother," McKay snapped.

"I prefer Sendspace," Jack offered. McKay snorted and tapped one last button on his tablet, circling around and setting it next to Sheppard's legs on the bed.

"John," he said, with a gentleness Jack hadn't been aware McKay could possess. "I'm going to start the upload now."

"Acknowledged."

McKay flinched at the single, uninflected word.

"It'll incorporate as it uploads," he said, talking to the tablet but apparently addressing Jack. "He should start to...if it works, he'll be disoriented for about five minutes. Then he should be fine."

Jack watched, interested, as McKay started the uplink. The good doctor didn't seem to know what to do with his hands; they hovered above the screen, then touched the blanket lightly, skipping over the hospital-grade wool, drawing back every time his fingers made contact.

Sheppard's eyes opened and, for a moment, he simply stared at the ceiling. Another moment; he swallowed and opened his mouth. Jack wondered if he should fade back, not witness whatever the Colonel was going through -- but after all, Tria Prima belonged to Jack O'Neill as well.

"McKay," Sheppard rasped, turning his head.

"Hi, John," McKay said quietly.

"I don't know what you did," Sheppard said slowly, "but I can't move my fingers."

"You were cold-started," McKay grinned. "We had to control-alt-delete your uppity ass. Give it a minute or two, you're still running system checks."

"Oh," Sheppard mumbled. "General," he added, with a nod. "Scuse me if I don't salute."

"In your own time, Colonel."

Sheppard looked down at his hands, fingers finally twitching, and lifted an unsteady arm to lay his palm across the tablet.

"This is weird," he said slowly. He walked his fingers across the tablet's case to McKay's wrist, uncoordinated muscles clenching as he gripped it.

"Give it a few minutes," McKay replied. Sheppard sucked in a breath sharply. "What?"

"Just -- new code coming online. Old code. Coming back," he said, and Jack watched as he turned back to McKay and stared intensely at him.

Well. So along with reasoning and bodily functions and higher cognitive skills, a man with a clockwork brain could be programmed to love. Good to know.

"I'll want your report this afternoon, McKay," he said, but neither of them even acknowledged him as he slipped out.

Epilogue