"It appears that transferring an illness from one person to another is the purpose of the device," Teyla notes as I scan through the data on the translator screen.
The Ancient lab is much as it was the last time we came to Marcotia. Power is limited in the facility, provided by one of the smaller naquadah generators supplied by Altantis, but it’s enough to power the control console and its link to the Ancient database and have the doors opening and closing along with a few other basics like lighting and environmental controls. When we were first arrived to search the lab earlier in the day, there were crates filled with straw and Ancient devices stacked neatly along the back wall and another crate near one of the work tables that was obviously in the process of being packed. That one was surrounded by clumps of the packing material as if someone were digging through the box searching for something without regard for the mess they were making. Now all of them are in the same condition thanks to our own frantic searching.
I raise my bandaged hand to silence Teyla as I reach a significant bit in the database. "Huh. It looks like this was some sort of early experimentation into the Ancient’s ability to heal."
"What? You mean like a doctor heals someone?" Ronon asks.
"No," I correct. "The Ancients could actually touch someone and cure them."
Ronon seems shocked by the news. "With just their hands?"
"Yes." I continue to read even as I go on to tell him. "SG-1 ran into an Ancient back on Earth who had been frozen in ice for about a million years."
"Frozen? In ice?" Ronon scoffs at the idea, and if I hadn’t seen all the things I have over the years and read all the reports out the SGC, I might be in agreement with his next accusation. "You’re just making this stuff up."
Before I have a chance to contradict him, Teyla does. "Actually, I remember reading that particular mission report. The woman revived when she was thawed from the ice, and when the team fell ill, she was able to heal them."
Ronon still doesn’t look too convinced as I take up the summary from Teyla. "By absorbing the disease and then healing herself… until it became too much for her and she died." The last I rush through and dismiss with a wave of my hand, wincing at the twinge the act causes in my injured appendage. "This device appears to be their first attempts at transferring the disease from one person to another."
Teyla voices the conclusion I’ve already come to about how Sheppard became sick in the first place. "You believe the illness was transferred from Fara to Darik and now from Darik to John when he touched the cube."
"But Sheppard can’t heal himself," Ronon points out needlessly.
"Hence the life or death dilemma we find ourselves immersed in at the moment," I say in exasperation. "These things were never meant to be used by humans, but those of us with the gene can obviously fool the equipment into thinking we’re Ancient enough to handle it, even when we’re not."
Teyla steps in before Ronon can do more than glower at me. "Does the database say anything about how to stop the transfer?"
"Hold on," I order as I turn back to reading.
I’m still going over the data when Keller’s voice sounds in my ear. "Rodney, this is Jennifer. You were right about the nanites…"
"Obviously," I murmur to the room in general, although I don’t key my radio.
"Both Darik and Colonel Sheppard have them in their systems. However, the readings are different for each."
"That’s because Darik’s are transmitting, and Sheppard’s are receiving," I tell her, eyes still glued to text scrolling across the screen of my tablet.
Jennifer is clearly baffled by the news. "What? Why would…?" But she’s pretty bright and eventually catches on. "Darik is transmitting the disease to John?"
"That’s what it looks like based on what we’ve found," I confirm and fill her in on our conclusions about Darik using the devices to save Fara and John unintentionally falling prey to the same fate when he touched the cube.
"Well, that would explain why both of them went into convulsion when the connection between them was severed," she reasons. "It would also suggest there is no way to break the link."
"The link was apparently broken between Fara and Darik when Fara recovered."
Teyla’s observation has me shaking my head. "You mean when the transfer was complete. And since then, Darik has had time to grow sicker before he started transmitting it into Sheppard."
"So we wait until Sheppard takes the disease completely from the kid and then what?" Ronon asks with arms crossed across his chest.
"Then," Jennifer admits with reluctance through the radio, "I’m afraid it’s going to be too late. Like I said before, if I had more time to find a drug combo that will work against the infection, then maybe we’d have a chance. But with just a few hours…"
"Then stop it now," Ronon tells us simply. Like we haven’t been trying to do that anyway.
But I don’t remind him of that fact because what I’m reading about the devices doesn’t make any sense. "It says here that the link is initiated and the rate of receipt of the disease is controlled by the person receiving it."
Teyla’s brow furrows in puzzlement at the news. "But John did not initiate anything. He simply touched the cube."
"Do you think it could have been something as simple as wishing there was something he could do to help Darik?" Jennifer suggests.
"I suppose," I relent. "He’s always thinking crap like that."
My observation has Teyla rolling her eyes at me. "Unlike others who were thinking about how not to contract the disease."
"Hey, I’m not sick, am I?"
"So if he initiated the link, can’t he terminate it?" Jennifer asks through the coms.
"No," I tell her as I read more. "Since the device is meant to be used until the disease is completely removed from the host and turn off automatically, the shut down can only be triggered from the transmitting half."
"That seems rather dangerous to the person attempting the healing," Teyla notes.
"Hellllooo. We’re talking about the Ancients here. They’re not exactly known for thinking about anyone but themselves. And seeing as they could heal themselves…"
"The risk would have been minimal," Teyla concludes.
I simply grumble, "Stupid Ancients," under my breath.
"Then have Darik turn it off."
Leave it to Ronon to come up with the overly simplified answer. Although, at times like this, I suppose someone has to step in and fill Sheppard’s oversized boots in that department.
"It’s not that easy," Keller tells him. "He’s not responsive."
Considering how Ronon starts for the door, he doesn’t seem very impressed with Jennifer’s explanation. "Let’s wake him up."
"How?" Keller challenges. "As much as we all want him awake, I don’t think giving him a good, strong shake is going to cut it."
"You haven’t seen me shake someone," Ronon counters.
"Ronon, even if he opened his eyes, he’s probably not going to be coherent enough to understand what we need him to do." I can hear Jennifer’s frustrated sigh though the radio. "Let me try a few things. But in the meantime, I think you should all come back to the house."
The way she says it has a knot twisting in my stomach because it doesn’t sound good.
"Jennifer?" Teyla pries warily.
When Jennifer lowers her voice, it’s obvious she’s in the same room as John. "Colonel Sheppard’s condition is worsening. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be lucid enough to know you’re here."
In other words, if you want to say goodbye, now is the time.
Ronon turns and kicks the nearest pile of packing materials, launching strands of straw into the air. Teyla looks to me questioningly to see if I’m ready to leave, and I nod, already disconnecting the electronic tablet. I’ve downloaded everything about the device anyway and don’t need to be here to study it further.
* * * *
Sheppard is sleeping when we return, face ashen and hair damp with sweat, and I can hear how labored his breathing is when we step closer to his bed. When the nurse taking John’s blood pressure finishes her task, she moves out of the way, making room for Teyla to sit next to him. Ronon crosses to the opposite side of the large bed. Darik’s family has given us use of the master bedroom seeing as they are gathered around Darik’s sick bed anyway. John flinches when Teyla brushes a wet cloth across his forehead, fevered eyes cracking open, and he does his best to return the smile she gives him.
"Figure it out?" he manages to mumble before coughing weakly.
"We have determined the purpose of the device," Teyla tells him. "And Rodney believes he knows how it operates, at least in theory."
"Can he turn it off…in theory?" John’s gaze slides sluggishly toward where I stand behind Teyla, and I expect to see the sardonic glimmer that usually accompanies a comment like that. Instead, my own breath catches at the desperation I see there.
"I… uhm… I’m working on it," I evade, retreating to take a seat at the table to study my electronic pad once more as Teyla continue to fill him in on what we’ve discovered.
"The second device, we believe, is in Darik, and it is somehow transmitting the disease into you. As the receptor, you cannot turn the device off. It is up to the one passing the illness on to stop the transfer. Since Darik is currently unconscious, he is unable to stop it."
"Why did he…?" Sheppard’s question becomes lost in a cough, and I watch as Teyla and Ronon steady him.
"We believe it was unintentional," Teyla tells him. "It seems Darik healed Fara, but since he was unable to heal himself as the Ancestors could, the device stayed in him. When you touched the second cube, it automatically started the process again, only transferring the disease from Darik into you."
John’s face twists as he asks, "I can’t stop it?"
"Apparently not," Teyla confirms.
Sheppard stares up at the ceiling in fatigue. "Stupid Ancients."
"Yes," Teyla grimaces. "That was Rodney’s assessment, as well."
"Now what?" John practically pants the question, struggling with every breath he takes.
"Jennifer is doing her best to wake Darik so he can understand that he must stop the device."
Teyla’s assurance has Sheppard asking, "Will it reverse? Go back into Darik?" I’m honestly not sure if he finds that possibility a good one or a bad one.
The three of them look to me questioningly, and I shake my head in regret and more than a little irritation. "No, it won’t go back." Sorry, but I know exactly how I feel about the fact Sheppard is stuck with this damn disease.
"Well… good." John’s conclusion is accompanied by another cough that does nothing to clear his lungs. "He’s just a kid… not his fault."
Teyla places a hand on John’s chest as if she could take on the illness in his place with her touch. "You should rest. Talking is too much of a strain."
"Yes, Mom." This time there is the flicker of humor in his eyes before he closes them, resting one hand on top of Teyla’s. "You’re a good one. Torren and Kanaan are lucky to have you."
"As we are fortunate to have you," she practically whispers to cover the way her voice threatens to crack. "Now rest."
Sheppard evidently does as he is told because he remains silent even though Teyla stays sitting by his side. Ronon has moved to lean against the wall, alternately looking back at where our team leader lies on the bed and staring out the window of the room. The ache in my own hand is growing, but I do my best to ignore it and concentrate on the data, trying to learn more about how exactly the transfer works, unable to keep myself from periodically glancing over at Sheppard.
Jennifer stops in to check on John at one point, letting us know Darik is in and out, and while they have tried to explain what he must do to shut down the device, he just isn’t alert enough to understand.
Teyla joins me to allow Keller to complete her exam and remains sitting across the table even after Jennifer leaves to try to talk to Darik once more. Teyla can’t seem to keep from looking back to John’s bed like Ronon and I are both doing. "Have you had any luck?"
"Maybe," I tell her before turning the screen for her to see. "Basically the nanites in Darik’s body are removing the infectious organisms molecule by molecule and transmitting the data to the nanites in Colonel Sheppard’s body."
"Why are they transmitting and not simply repairing as the nanites we have encountered before?"
"That’s not their purpose." I explain. "The main reason the Ancients wanted to be able to transfer a disease from one person to another was to somehow train their bodies to do it without the need for nanites. So they designed them to act as a sort of microscopic fax machine that breaks it down in one location and transmits it to be reformed in another." I pinch my fingers together and move them from one side of the tablet to the other in demonstration.
"Can we not, somehow, intercept the transmission?"
I nod at Teyla’s suggestion. "That’s what I’ve been thinking. Problem is, coming up with that elusive somehow you mentioned. The receiving nanites need a living biologic host for the basic building blocks it needs to regenerate the disease. So, I was thinking maybe we could transfer it into an animal."
"An animal?" Teyla seems alarmed by the idea.
"Well, I wasn’t thinking of using a kitten or anything too cute and cuddly," I clarify in querulous resignation. "More along the lines of a tree slug or something."
"I am simply confused as to how an animal would be able to be the receptor if the cube requires an ATA gene to operate it."
I sigh as I admit, "Yeah, well, that’s where I run into problems, too. I mean there are the mice Carson used to develop the gene therapy in the first place, but they’re so small they would be killed before we could transfer enough of the disease to even make a dent in Sheppard’s condition."
"Have you not been able to bypass some of the Ancient gene protocol before?" she asks.
"Yes, but only on some minor systems and those took days."
Teyla counters my argument with one of her own. "Then you have learned from your experiences."
"Yes, of course, but I’m sorry. You don’t understand how huge an undertaking this is. It took me and Jeannie hours working together to rewrite the code on the nanites Wallace had created, and those were created using an Earth-based code. These are Ancient devices. You seem to think I can just override their primary purpose, not to mention be accepted by a much simpler biologic entity than a human or Ancient that will be killed within a matter of minutes before the transfer is complete."
Teyla appears unfazed by my rant. "If you do not, there is no hope for John."
"You think I don’t know that," I snap, pulling the electronic pad away.
Before Teyla can argue with me further, Sheppard starts to cough again. Ronon straightens from his position by the wall and moves to the bed, bracing John until the spasms pass. "You want some water or something?"
I’m hit by a sudden bout of déjà vu to hear Ronon speak because his voice has softened like it had when I was afflicted with a parasite in my brain and we were all convinced I was the one who was dying. And to hear that resignation in Ronon’s tone just makes my heart sink a little more.
John shakes his head even as he fights off another cough. "Stick around."
Ronon sits on the bedside. "I’m not going anywhere."
"Atlantis," Sheppard clarifies. "Stay in Atlantis. They need you."
It takes me a second to realize what he’s asking of our Satedan teammate. Sheppard saw an alternate future for us all when the gate spit him out forty-eight thousand years in the future. Exactly what happened to each of us is something he holds pretty tight, but he did admit that Ronon left Atlantis after John vanished and Teyla was killed by Michael. And apparently, John’s worried Ronon might do the same if he dies now.
Ronon gives a weak snort. "Of course I’m staying on Atlantis. I’m on your team, right?"
"Lorne… he’d take you on his team, too."
"Why would I want to be on Lorne’s team? You kicking me off yours?"
Ronon cuts off Sheppard with an adamant shake of his head. "We’re a team. The four of us right here in this room are a team. Nothing’s changing that."
Teyla stands and crosses over to the bed. "Ronon is correct. We have faced hardships before, but we have always found a way to overcome them together. Is that not true, Rodney?"
"Yes. Absolutely." I try for a confident grin as I join my teammates, but it falls flat as I mumble. "So far, anyway."
Sheppard manages to raise his eyebrows in inquiry. "Find a way out yet?"
"Almost," I promise and pinch my index finger and thumb together on my good hand. "I’m this close."
"Don’t…" John’s breathing has taken on a sickening wheezing as he struggles to speak. "Don’t… kill yourself… trying to fix…"
"John," Teyla pleads, "please, do not try to speak."
But Sheppard ignores her, intent on telling me this, even as his heart monitor starts to beep erratically. "Can’t… can’t fix…every…"
"Seriously, Sheppard," I try, reaching around Teyla to push on his shoulder as he tries to sit up, "just lie still."
The wheezing stops, and for a split second, time seems to stop as well. The room is silent enough that I can hear children playing outside the house. Funny how life goes on. No matter how bad things might be for you, it’s just another normal day for the rest of the universe. Life just fucking goes on out there even when it’s coming to an end in here.
For that split second, John is suspended, balanced between going on and coming to an end. We all are, the team, our team, his team… trying to pull in one… more… breath…
And then John is falling back limp against the pillow, and the world goes on without him.
"Sheppard!" Ronon yells at the same time I turn to call desperately out the door.
Our combined voices are drowning out the alarm on the monitor. I’m not even sure how I end up in the hallway, still calling her name, but Jennifer steps out of the room where Darik is being treated. "Rodney?"
"It’s John. He’s not breathing. He’s…"
I can’t say it. I can’t bring myself to say the word.
Jennifer pushes past me, and I follow on her heels as she and the nurse reach John’s bedside.
"Do something!" I order as Keller does nothing more than turn off the alarm and listen to his chest with her stethoscope.
"What do you want me to do?" Jennifer asks, trying not to choke on her words. "Even if I stabilized the rhythm of his heart, and that’s a very big if, the swelling isn’t going down."
"His heart is still beating then?" Think, Rodney, think. There has to be a way to fix this.
"Barely," Jennifer confirms.
"I can figure out a way to reverse the feed, buy us a little more time. I can do this. I know it. I’m close. I’m really close. I just need a few more hours…"
Jennifer raises her voice to be heard over my pleas. "Rodney, even if I could stabilize him, he wouldn’t have a few more hours. Besides, there’s no way to reverse the feed since the cube isn’t in Darik anymore."
"What?" I demand.
"Apparently the device healed Darik, and the cube reformed…"
That’s all I hear of Keller’s explanation because I’m bolting out the door. "Keep him breathing!" I point to Teyla and Ronon. "Make sure she keeps him breathing!"
Jennifer is calling my name, but I’m already halfway down the hall to Darik’s room located at the opposite end of the house and scaring the shit out of the family members there as I start looking frantically for the device.
"Where is it? Where the hell is it?"
Yoran, the Marcotian leader furrows his brow. "Dr. McKay, what…?"
"The cube! Where the fuck is the cube that came out of the kid?"
He points warily. "It is there on the table."
Teyla’s voice stops me before I can reach it. "Rodney, what are you doing?"
I look back and my shoulders slump. "We need time, Teyla. I just need to buy us a little more time to figure out how to transfer the disease into another entity."
"And if you cannot determine how to do that?" she tries to reason. "Rodney, if you allow the nanites to enter your system, you could die."
"If I don’t, then John will die," I tell her and pick up the cube before I chicken out or come to my senses.
I don’t even consciously tell it to start working, but seeing as the only thought running through my head involves saving Sheppard, it really isn’t necessary. There’s an icy hot sensation running through my hand and up my arm and when I open my clenched fist, the cube is gone.
Holy shit, did I really just do that?
Teyla’s expression is resigned in its worry, and I tell her, "You or Ronon would have done the same thing if you could have… Wouldn’t you?" I do my best to ignore the shiver racing down my spine and try to increase the draw from Sheppard to me, hopefully enough to get him breathing and his heart beating normally again. There’s no turning back now; that’s for damn sure.
"It was reckless and foolish," she scolds, but her sigh says I’m right in my conclusion about my other teammates doing the same thing if they could. "Come, we need to get you to Dr. Keller."
As we return to the hallway, I tell her quickly, "Okay, I’m accelerating the draw, which means I’m going to get sicker a lot faster than Sheppard did, like in minutes compared to hours."
If he has any chance of surviving, I need to do this before his heart gives out completely, and my throat is already burning from the initial infection. But I don’t think it is fast enough, not nearly fast enough. So I concentrate and pull the disease a little faster until my joints are aching so bad my knees are threatening to buckle.
Teyla shakes her head at the news. "Rodney, John would not approve of you sacrificing your life to save his. Surely you must know this."
"Now you tell me," I snort at the blatant obviousness of her statement as I put a hand out to steady myself against the hallway wall. "Besides, I don’t plan to sacrifice myself. He can stop the feed when he wakes up."
"And what if John does not wake up before the transfer is complete?"
I shake my head to try to clear it as Teyla props me up. "He understand how it works… oh, Christ, I’m dizzy… You won’t need to explain it. Just tell him to shut it off. If there’s no transfer, then the disease will progress at its natural rate in both of us. It’ll give us the time we need."
Ronon has come to find us and catches me with a hand on my bicep when I start to go down. "What the hell happened?"
"He has activated the second cube," Teyla informs Ronon in an almost irritated tone.
"He did what?"
I’m not sure which is more insulting, Teyla’s annoyance at my heroics or Ronon’s disbelief. But when the hallway spins as my fever spikes sharply, I’m wondering why the hell I did this myself.
"Is John’s heart beating normally yet?" I grit out, and Teyla supports my other arm to keep me on my feet until they can deposit me beside Sheppard on the bed as the nurse removes the ambubag from John’s face.
"What happened?" Jennifer’s voice has me wincing against the pounding in my head, although the feel of her hand is cool on my neck. "He’s burning up."
"He activated the second cube," Teyla repeats. "He is now taking the disease from John."
"He did what?"
I wave my bandaged hand when Jennifer’s voice jumps up a couple of octaves, the pain there little more than a drop in the bucket of agony my body has become. "Not so loud, for God’s sake. My head is killing me."
"No, the disease is killing you," Jennifer snaps in her own anger. Seriously, does no one appreciate self sacrifice when they see it? Sheppard does it, and he’s noble. I do it, and everyone gets pissy. "But… how did he become so ill so fast?"
"He is controlling the feed," Teyla tells her.
"Seriously, is Sheppard getting better?" The pressure in my chest is increasing: a result of the fluids building up, no doubt. But I open my eyes enough to make sure Ronon isn’t sitting on it out of spite that I’m doing something so good and giving. He’s not there, but John is, eyes still closed where he lies beside me, but I’m pretty sure I can see his chest rise and fall as he takes a breath.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, he is," Jennifer informs me. "He’s been breathing on his own for a few minutes now."
I exhale in relief before a coughing fit has me curling on my side. God, it hurts. My chest, my head, every inch of my body, and it’s just growing worse, exponentially by the second until I find myself shaking uncontrollably. A blanket is draped over me, and I’m vaguely aware of Jennifer’s voice trying to cut through the sound of my own coughing, someone’s hands gripping my shoulders, and the suffocating inability to get any oxygen into my lungs.
I can’t breathe. Why can’t I breathe? Am I having an allergic reaction? I need my Epi-pen. My hand flounders weakly at my vest, only I can’t feel the pockets, just the cotton of my t-shirt. And why the hell aren’t I wearing my vest when we’re on a mission? Sheppard will be pissed if I’m not geared up properly. Only Sheppard is dead. He stopped breathing, and now I can’t breathe and if John is dead who the hell is going to give me a dose of epinephrine now?
"Rodney!" Teyla’s voice, desperate and frantic and maybe she can find my meds. "You must decrease the feed; your body cannot handle this much at once!"
Feed? What feed? Did I eat something I shouldn’t? Was there lemon in it? Is that what happened?
A sharp shake has my neck snapping back, and my eyes snapping open to see Ronon nearly nose to nose with me. "McKay, slow it down! You’re killing yourself!"
Slow it down… I don’t know what he’s trying to tell me. I don’t know what to do. All I know is I’ve never hurt like this in my life, and my chest is burning because I can’t pull in a fucking breath.
"Colonel Sheppard! John, can you hear me?" Jennifer is yelling somewhere off to the side, and Teyla’s voice joins hers.
"John, turn off the device! Do you understand? You need to turn off the device before it kills Rodney!"
But John is dead. Not much you can do when you’re dead, which must be why I can’t seem to do anything either. John is dead, and as the room goes black around me, I can only conclude that I’m right there with him.
* * * *
It’s dark. Dark and cold. But before I’m even able to figure out why it’s so dark or how to warm up, I find myself gagging.
"Rodney, I need you to cough."
Even though I’m not entirely sure why Jennifer is telling me to cough, I do as she says. I’m rewarded with the unpleasant sensation of plastic tubing sliding out of my throat followed by more coughing.
When I open my watering eyes, I see Jennifer is standing above me, looking down on me with a smile as fluid as her image, wavering liquidly in and out of focus. "Welcome back."
"Go somewhere?" I croak through the rawness in my throat and try to fight through the haze. I blink a few times, and it’s so exhausting I just decide to close my eyes again.
"You tried," she tells me, her voice floating along with me in the darkness.
I’m trying to remember where in the world I would have been going. My lab? A mission? We were going to Marcotia today. Weren’t we? They always have such good food on Marcotia, and Sheppard never lets us stay long enough when we go. Sheppard… there was something about Sheppard. Something important. Something happened…
My eyes fly open in a panic when I remember. "Where’s John?"
"He’s right here," Keller assures.
I follow her gaze to see him lying within arm’s reach beside me. Not that I’m capable of reaching out my arm at the moment. Hell, I can’t even keep my eyes open any longer than to ascertain he’s still breathing.
"He’s resting relatively comfortably," Jennifer goes on to explain.
"S’a good idea," I mumble before deciding to give it a try myself.
Evidently I succeed because the next time I wake it’s because I have the feeling someone is watching me. Ends up someone is watching me… and I open my eyes to look into accusatory hazel ones less than a foot away from me.
"Are you a complete idiot?"
I lift my head and take a second to orient myself, and when I see Sheppard and I are still in the same room, not to mention the same bed as we were before, I sink back against my pillow. "Normally, I would say no, but seeing as I’m in bed with you, I might need to rethink that conclusion."
Sheppard by no means looks good. He’s still sickly pale, and the eyes boring into me are still glassy with fever, but he looks a hell of a lot better than he did lying there not breathing. And given how crappy I feel myself, I figure I look just as bad as him. Also, considering that it is nighttime outside, I can only conclude I’ve been in and out for several hours now.
"Why the hell would you do something like that?" John’s voice is boggled and angry and amazed and maybe, just maybe, a tad grateful.
"Well, you were the one bitching earlier about me not paying my half." I glance around the dim room and see Teyla sitting in one corner near the only lamp currently lit in the room. She is doing her best to seem very occupied by my computer, and I have a feeling she and Sheppard have already had this discussion without me.
"I was talking about splitting the tab on a pizza, McKay, not going Dutch on your goddamn life."
"At least you came around in time to keep me from footing the entire bill," I tell him, wincing against the throbbing in my head.
"I’m serious, Rodney, what you did has got to be the stupidest, most idiotic stunt…"
"What? You mean like trying to fly a moon or attaching yourself to a Hive ship that’s about to jump away or going into my dreams to take on a homicidal crystal, or maybe running around with a hole in your abdomen on Michael’s ship? That kind of stupid, idiotic stunt?"
Teyla snorts softly from her seat in what I take as agreement of my counter argument. Sheppard opens his mouth, closes it, and rolls onto his side in a huff to turn his back to me… at least as much of a huff as he can groaning at the pain the action causes.
"Oh, sulking," I accuse. "Real mature response." When his only answer is silence, I snap, "You’re welcome, by the way."
Sheppard sighs and mumbles, "You could have died, and it would have been all my fault."
"Just returning the favor," I tell him with a sigh of my own. I wait a beat before admitting, "Honestly, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just thinking you were going to die, and I could stop it, and I couldn’t pass up being able to do that."
He remains silent a few seconds more before finally mumbling, "Thanks."
"So does that mean you aren’t going to kick me out of bed? Because, I’d hate to be the first."
"I’d flip you off, but it would hurt too much," he threatens.
"Then save it until we’re better. You can do it over beer and pizza."
"I’m buying." Sheppard’s tone says there’s no room for me to dispute that arrangement.
My snort in return says I have no intention of disagreeing. "You better fucking believe you’re buying, and I get to pick the toppings."
"Don’t push your luck," John warns before starting to cough again.
Teyla moves from her seat to offer Sheppard a sip from a cup on the bedside table. I push up to prop against the pillow and grimace at the pain still burning through my joints. "What’s that?"
"An elixir the Marcotians have to ease the coughing," she explains.
I crinkle my nose. "Does it work?"
"Not so much," Sheppard tells me between coughs. "But feels good on the throat."
"So, I take it Keller hasn’t found a cure yet." I watch as Sheppard pushes the cup away and makes a face. I can only guess how terrible the drink tastes.
Teyla takes the cup and returns it to the spot beside the bed before helping John sit as well. "She is downstairs working with Dr. Zelenka now to determine a course of action."
"Radek is here?" I ask in surprise.
"Yes, Mr. Woolsey sent him to assist after I reported back to Atlantis with your theories regarding redirecting the feed from the nanites."
When Teyla goes no further, I prompt her with an impatient. "And?"
"And… Dr. Zelenka has some rather interesting ideas as to how to accomplish your theories."
"Then why isn’t he implementing them?" I demand. "We’re not exactly getting any younger here… or healthier for that matter."
"Because Mr. Woolsey has some concerns," she informs me.
When Radek briefs us on what he has planned a few hours later, I can see why Woolsey balked at the idea.
The Czech is standing as far from the foot of the bed as he can, even though neither Sheppard nor I are actually contagious. Jennifer hasn’t wanted to risk returning to Atlantis, partly because of the infection but also because of the reaction Sheppard had the last time we went through. Even though I’m relatively confident nothing would happen if both of us went through the gate together, Keller won’t chance it. The physician in question is also present along with Teyla and Ronon.
"So, the challenge is, we must find how to reprogram the nanites in both of your systems. We must tell nanites in Colonel Sheppard to remove the disease but do not transmit it, and we must tell nanites in you, Rodney, to stop trying to receive the disease, and instead, remove and hold it, also."
"And is there anything you have to tell me that I don’t already know?" I snap, pulling the blanket wrapped around me a little tighter against the chills running through my body.
Sheppard ignores me, instead pointing out. "Not that that isn’t a good idea, but just leaving the nanites loaded with the disease in our bodies seems like kind of a ticking time bomb. Isn’t it?"
"Yes," Radek admits as he pushes up his glasses. "Which brings us to the next challenge; removing the nanites from your bodies. This is why I have proposed creating a third nanite device to interact with the cubes inside you now."
"Oh, you can’t be serious," I insist, scrubbing at my face because I know what he has in mind.
Sheppard, however, doesn’t realize we already have a leg up on the development of this device. "How long do we have?" he asks Jennifer.
"Even with the disease now running at its normal course… two, three days at most."
John turns his attention to Zelenka. "Can you build an Ancient device to do what we need it to do in two days?"
"He can build the device in a few hours," I cut in. "Although programming her could take a little longer."
It takes him a few seconds, but Sheppard finally catches on. "He plans to use F.R.A.N.?"
"The Replicator base material she is composed of should be able to successfully communicate with the nanites," Radek defends. "And she has already proven she can attract Replicators, so the nanites should be no different."
"And then what?" Sheppard asks.
"Then she crumbles into tiny pieces," Radek demonstrates with a flutter of fingers.
Sheppard looks to me now. "I’m not sure how comfortable I am with continuously building and destroying this android."
"She’s not a living being," I counter. "Think of her as… Legos. Didn’t you building things with your Legos, take them apart, and rebuild them?"
"My Legos never talked to me, Rodney."
"Obviously you never fully automated your creations."
My response earns me an exasperated, "McKay…"
"Your poor robotic skills aside, it’s actually a good idea." Radek smiles bashfully at my compliment until I finish my statement. "Despite the fact Radek came up with it."
When John still doesn’t look too happy with the plan, I remind him, "Look, I can do this without you having to come in contact with F.R.A.N. at all. I can restart the feed any time I want, and F.R.A.N. can just pull the disease-laden nanites out of me."
Sheppard glowers at the suggestion. "Do it and I’ll kick your ass."
"Well, at least we’ll both be alive to let you do it."
I can just imagine how ridiculous we look, both of us propped in bed, barely able to do more than slump back against the pillows, measuring each other’s resolve. Finally, John looks away and asks, "What does Woolsey say?"
Radek shifts with a half-smile. "He is not exactly happy with plan, but he has agreed as long as F.R.A.N. remains under guard at all times."
John turns back to me in time to see me crumple into a coughing fit. By the time I can straighten, Jennifer is offering me the cup of bitter tea the Marcotians have brewed for our coughing. I can only agree with Sheppard’s assessment of the drink as being totally shitty but better than the alternative. The look of irritation on his face has been replaced by worry at my declining condition, and I know he feels the same about the plan to use F.R.A.N…. totally shitty but better than the alternative.
"When can you be ready to give it a try?" Sheppard asks Radek.
"Rodney is correct about programming time being uncertain," Zelenka admits. "But I believe we should be able to attempt it by end of the day."
"Then you'd better head back to Atlantis and get to work."
John’s orders have me giving him a small smile of thanks. He simply settles into his pillows a little more and closes his eyes. "I think I might have a say in those pizza toppings, Rodney."
Right now, I’m just glad we might actually have a chance to eat that pizza after all.
* * * *
I’m honestly not sure how long it takes Radek and the Atlantis team to complete their programming of the latest F.R.A.N. because a couple hours after Zelenka was given the go ahead, my fever rises abruptly, and the rest of the day passes in a disoriented fog I only come out of when the pain spikes or the coughing has me curling in a ball in the bed. There is the occasional touch of cool water on my face, and I open my eyes to see Jennifer or Teyla trying to force a reassuring smile as they dab a cloth across my burning skin. Another time I hear Sheppard’s voice asking how I’m doing, and Ronon tells him we’re both going to be fine as soon as Zelenka returns with the Replicator, which must mean John is doing as crappy as I am.
The next time I wake, it’s to the feel of a hand in mine, and my first thought is that my fever is worsening because the hand feels cold. But when I peel my eyes open, I see F.R.A.N. kneeling between me and Sheppard on the bed so she can grip both of our hands.
"Hello," the android tells us cheerfully. "I am ready to begin the reprogramming sequence if you are."
Glancing up, I see Radek standing at the foot of the bed with Ronon behind him with his gun drawn. Two marines are also present with the ARG that will break the bonds between F.R.A.N.’s individual segments with just one shot.
Beside the bed, Jennifer is checking the monitors connected to me and John. "We’ll be watching both you and Colonel Sheppard closely during the entire process and will stop if there are any complications."
At this point, all I can manage is a weak nod before rolling my head to see Sheppard leaning back against his own pillow following another coughing attack. Teyla rests her hand on his shoulder as John looks over to me and nods his own consent.
"Okay, then." Radek exhales before instructing, "F.R.A.N., we are ready to begin."
"Reprogramming sequence initiating," F.R.A.N. reports, and I immediately feel the tingling sensation in the hand she holds as I did when I activated the cube.
I also feel the tightening in my chest increasing exponentially. "Don’t… don’t think… it’s working."
My gasps are met with Jennifer informing Radek. "He’s right; his heart rate is growing more erratic."
"John’s is actually improving," Teyla reports.
F.R.A.N. is frowning in curious concentration. "The nanites in Dr. McKay are not responding to the reprogramming. They are still receiving the transmissions from Colonel Sheppard."
"I’m stopping this," Sheppard declares.
At this point I’m fighting to pull in every breath, and my chest is aching, which must mean the transfer is still taking place. "Not…working," I point out yet again.
"Radek…" Sheppard grits out desperately when it become obvious he’s unable to stop the transfer as he had been able to do before.
I can just make out Radek frantically scanning the readings on his pad before a particularly sharp pain in my chest has the room going gray around the edges.
"It is F.R.A.N.," Zelenka explains. "She is now controlling the feed. Neither you nor Rodney has any say in the matter."
"You better figure out how to get some control," Jennifer warns. "Because he’s going into cardiac arrest."
Well, that would explain why it feels like my heart is about to explode out of my chest.
"Shoot her!" Sheppard orders to Ronon, the Marines, who the hell ever. And if it will stop the pain, then I’m all for it.
"The nanites in Dr. McKay will not respond to the reprogramming," F.R.A.N. informs them calmly. "However, once I have all the nanites from Colonel Sheppard, they should begin transmitting to the nanites I have taken from Colonel Sheppard."
"Will that be enough to save him?" Sheppard demands, apparently holding on the command to destroy the Replicator.
"If I increase the draw from Dr. McKay, it should be enough to sustain him."
F.R.A.N.’s answer has Keller declaring, "If we don’t get these nanites out of him, he’s going to die."
At this point, seeing how I can’t breathe, and the room has gone dark, I’d even take death if it meant the pain in my chest would stop.
"Then do it!"
John’s words are muffled through the roaring in my ears, and they are met by a similarly muted and simple response from F.R.A.N. "It is already underway. You are free of all nanites, Colonel Sheppard."
My last coherent thought is, Lucky bastard! And the last thing I hear is someone telling me to hang on a little longer. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
* * * *
You would think that if you’re dead, annoying little beeps wouldn’t be around to… well, annoy you. You’d also think the smell of a pizza with the works wouldn’t make your stomach growl and an injured hand wouldn’t hurt. After all, one of the supposed perks of being dead is being beyond those mortal weaknesses like irritation and hunger and pain. So that means either I’m still alive or death is highly overrated.
Then again, maybe it’s both.
I open my eyes to see I’m in the infirmary on Atlantis. Sheppard is sitting beside my bed with a bored expression, like he’s been waiting on me to show up for hours now for an appointment I never knew we had. "It’s about time you woke up."
"You’re not exactly the angelic vision I was expecting to see in the afterlife," I challenge with a yawn, giving my body a mental test and finding that, aside from feeling like I could sleep for a week, I actually feel pretty good… aside from my hand that is now in a brace.
"Oh, yeah?" He grins and pulls the over-the-bed table into place with the pizza I smelled. It’s been made here in the cafeteria, but at this point, I’ll even settle for military issue pizza. Sheppard then looks around conspiratorially before he lifts two beers from beside his seat before lowering them back down and into the duffle he has on the floor. "There’s more where that came from… as long as Keller doesn’t catch us."
I grin in return, already taking a bite from a piece of pizza. "I take it back; you truly are an angel of mercy."
Taking his own piece, Sheppard leans back and props his feet on my bed. "I thought you might change your mind."
"So, I take it we lived? Or should I be terribly concerned that my version of Heaven involves beer, pizza, and you?"
"How do you know it’s Heaven?" His grin is a bit sinister as he takes another bite.
"Because of the beer and pizza," I tell him waggling impatient fingers for the beer at his feet.
"Good point." He pops the top open and hands it over before opening one for himself. "Although, I’m sorry to disappoint you but ends up we both survived."
"F.R.A.N. came through after all?" I wash down my first piece with a sip of beer before grabbing a second. "I mean, despite the glitch that nearly killed me."
"Yeah, actually she did. Radek thinks the problem she had with your nanites was the programming she received here on Atlantis was too basic… that it didn’t take into account the subtleties needed to overcome the fact that the nanites in your body responded primarily to the directions given by the ones in my body."
"So, in other words, Radek did a crappy job of programming her in the first place," I note with a snort.
"Hey, to be fair, he was working under a pretty tight deadline. But in the end, she was able to reprogram the nanites when they were in transmitting mode to remove and hold the disease. She was even able to have them restart your heart before she removed them from your body." John looks like he could use an entire six pack to drink on his own after he makes that last statement but settles on a long gulp from the one in his hand. "And then she broke into a million tiny pieces like a good little self-destructive Replicator."
"She could restart my heart but not fix my hand?" I grumble.
"It was a tough call," he confesses, "but we went with the heart seeing as a fully functional hand isn’t as useful as you seem to think it would be when you’re dead."
"So, we’re both clear of the nanites?" I ask hopefully around a bite of mushrooms, peppers, and sausage.
"Yep. And Keller says there shouldn’t be any long-term damage from the… uhm, what did she call it? Oh, yeah, terminal state we both reached."
That statement earns a long drink from both of our cans.
But then something dawns on me. "Then why are you sitting here in a chair, and I’ve been out of it for…?" I look around for some indication of how long I’ve been asleep.
"About fourteen hours," Sheppard informs me. "Keller just sprang me a couple of hours ago. Apparently your body needed a little extra time to recover from that terminal state and maybe make up for some missed sleep along the way."
I lick grease and tomato sauce from my fingers as I ask, "What about Darik?"
"He’s fine, too. And you were right; he found the information about the devices being used for healing and decided to use them on Fara when she just kept getting sicker and sicker with the fever. Only he didn’t know how to stop them and ended up getting even sicker himself."
"Guess it’s a good thing they were destroyed along with F.R.A.N.," I note. "That should make Woolsey sleep a little better at night."
"Yeah, I’m sure it will." John leans forward and snags another piece of pizza. "Although, I think Woolsey might be warming to the idea of friendly Replicators."
I raise my eyebrows in surprise. "Oh, yeah? Why would you think that?"
"I heard him talking to Radek earlier, and he was asking if, you or Zelenka could make the Replicators in different forms. Say, hypothetically, a yorkie, maybe."
"Sounds like we might have an idea for his birthday present," I observe with a grin. "Hypothetically, anyway."
I take another slice and notice we’re already halfway through the meal. "Is there more coming?"
"I think that can be arranged," he assures with a knowing curl of his lips.
"Next time," I tell him with a full mouth, "I’ll pick up the pizza."
"What do you say we just play it by ear, McKay? I’ve had enough of being indebted to you to last me for a while."
"Even if we go Dutch?"
"Especially if you ever try to go Dutch again," he stresses meaningfully.
"We’ll see," I evade taking another sip of beer.
"Rodney…" he warns and his tone is not amused.
I ignore it and instead offer the tray in front of me. "More pizza?"
"McKay, I’m serious."
"Yes, yes, I’m sure you are," I dismiss, and yet know I haven’t heard the last of it. "Now, what toppings are on the next one?"
The thing about infirmary stays, I’ve decided, is that it all comes down to the food. If you’re lucky, you get to eat the same food they’re serving in the cafeteria instead of a cup of broth and some jell-o. If you’re really lucky, you have a friend who’s willing to smuggle in a little contraband on top of it. A friend who’s willing to go Dutch, or if the situation calls for it, foot the bill entirely.
A friend like Sheppard.
With a friend like him, I’d pick up the tab any day.