Types of Intelligence

by Eildon Rhymer

Rating: PG-13

Warnings/Spoilers: Vague spoilers for Reunion and Doppelganger but no further. Set after Doppelganger but before Missing. 

Summary: A new enemy has struck at the heart of Atlantis. Can Sheppard's team cope with the aftermath of defeating it?

 

Written for the SGA genficathon over on LJ, for the prompt AI, in the genre of angst

____

 

"Stay where you are!" Ronon held his weapon steady. "Don't come any closer, and don’t," he barked, "make any move."

 

Sheppard held his hands out, a look of innocence plastered on his face. "Ronon. Buddy. It's me."

 

Ronon said nothing. He had stared at many faces down the barrel of this weapon, sometimes with ice in his heart, and sometimes feeling far too much. Sometimes he had seen the moment that life departed from that face. Sometimes he had already been turning away, moving on to the next enemy, and had killed a dozen without seeing any of them die. Normally it was quick. Never before had it felt so agonisingly slow.

 

Sheppard spoke his name. Ronon heard steps behind him. He heard someone gasp. He knew he had an audience, but it didn't matter. None of it mattered. Sheppard spoke to that audience, though, although he was pretending not to. "You've gone crazy, Ronon. Put the gun down." His eyes narrowed. "That's an order, dammit."

 

Ronon remembered Teyla telling him that there were times when they didn't need to follow Sheppard's orders. That was long ago, though – a lifetime away. It had gone far beyond orders and obedience now; they both knew that.

 

"I will shoot." Each word was a cold hard stone.  They hurt coming out.

 

Normally he shot without a word. He saw the need, raised his weapon, and then it was done. Talking built a connection where no connection was needed. Talking gave the enemy a chance to–

 

"Then you'll never forgive yourself afterwards," Sheppard said. Perhaps it was even true. "When you come to your senses…" His eyes narrowed and filled with ice. "They'll kill you for this."

 

Ronon felt sweat on his palm. He felt an ache in his arm, and somewhere else, deeper. He felt as if he was seeing Sheppard more clearly than he had ever seen anybody before. Strange how you could spend so much time with someone, but never really look. He saw the colour of Sheppard's eyes, the set of his jaw, the lines by his mouth. When you looked at someone this closely, they melted away and became a stranger. Then he blinked, and the features reassembled themselves and became Sheppard again, his leader and his comrade and his friend.

 

"Put the gun down, buddy," Sheppard said, and he even smiled, although the ice was still there in his eyes. "We can talk about this – about what's wrong with you. We can work something out."

 

He saw the others on the fringes of his vision, but they were as insubstantial as ghosts – just pale cut-outs of men. He heard whispers spread like wind in autumn leaves. Send a security team. Send for Major Lorne. Ronon's gone crazy. Somebody do something.

 

"There's nothing to work out." Still just words. His finger was paralysed, unable to pull the trigger.

 

The whispers grew to a storm. "They'll kill you." Sheppard's smile was a chasm in the ice. "I'm one of them. They knew me. They trust me. You're just an outsider. Everyone knew you'd turn against us in the end."

 

Something changed inside Ronon at that point. He became very still. The ache eased. Sheppard's features melted away and became as insubstantial as the ghosts who watched. Ronon's finger tightened on the trigger…

 

But it was not Ronon who fired the shot. Someone fired from behind him, the bullet striking Sheppard in the shoulder. Sheppard glanced down at the site of impact, and smiled.

 

There was no blood.

 

******

 

Even when there was no-one to answer him, Rodney still talked. Take away his voice, he thought, and he would dwindle like a shadow, and become nothing. "Though of course," he said out loud, "that's likely to happen anyway, what with the whole being incarcerated in this horrible, foul, impossible-to-escape-from, disgusting God-forsaken…"

 

Adjectives had brought him comfort once. That had been when Sheppard had still been able to reply. It doesn't matter what you call it, McKay. It's getting out of it that matters.

 

"…dungeon thing." His voice was high. "Dungeons are supposed to be noisome. What does noisome mean?"

 

It means being stuck in a cell with Rodney McKay, who doesn't know how to keep his mouth shut.

 

"Oh. A pun on noisy. I see. Ha ha, colonel. Very droll."

 

Quiet, then, for a moment. Was Sheppard stirring? No, it was Rodney's own heartbeat, pulsing in the fingertips that rested on Sheppard's shoulder. He looked at his nails, bitten down almost to the quick – when did I start biting my nails? – and ringed with dirt and blood. His wrist was thin, but Sheppard's was thinner. When he shifted stiff limbs, he saw the bottom of his jacket, torn-off and ragged. The bandages he had made had done nothing to help, of course. Perhaps they had even made things worse, "what with the dirt, and… and…"

 

He stopped. But the problem was that when he was silent, everything was. The outside world was so far away that it could not be heard. "I think I'd quite like to hear guards telling bawdy stories, or dicing, or whatever they do in the movies. Church bells. People selling fish. My sweetheart shouting to say they're working on getting me free and that the file is hidden under the third stone to the left."

 

Sheppard did not tease him about the clichéd movies that he watched. It was years since he had watched them, anyway. Far too busy doing other things. Important things.

 

Like what?

 

"Like saving the world – no, the whole galaxy." He trailed off. There were times when other things seemed more important. This was one of those times.

 

The silence deepened around him. It became an almost tangible thing. It became something that pressed against him, that stifled him. He couldn't even hear his own breathing. He couldn't hear Sheppard's. Was he…? Was he…?

 

His fingers scraped across Sheppard's skin, and found the base of his throat, where a pulse still fluttered. "John," Rodney rasped, his voice different from the voice that had sustained him through all the days of silence. "Please wake up."

 

Stay positive now, he imagined Sheppard saying, but how could he, when he was trapped in this silence, and days and days passed, and still no-one came to the rescue – "And what's with that? What's keeping them so long? It's really not good enough." – and the lock wouldn't yield to him, even though he'd worked on it until his fingers were bleeding, and when even the creatures who came to bring them food were so silent that you couldn't hear their footsteps until they were there, with plates of foul-smelling mush which were at least food, but which tasted disgusting, and now Sheppard wasn't awake to share his reminiscences about the rare, glorious successes of the Atlantis commissary, and…

 

He closed his eyes. Sheppard shifted slightly, then was still.

 

Sheppard had resisted, of course. When the ambush had happened, Sheppard had fought hard enough for both of them, and had been injured. But that had been getting better, hadn't it? Sitting side by side against the wall, talking about memories. Sheppard looking at him so casually as in quiet words, he started to plan their escape.

 

Rodney stopped; moistened his lips.

 

You had to ruin it all, didn't you?

 

This time, the thought didn't come to him in Sheppard's voice. "I'm sorry," he said out loud, and then there was silence.

 

This time he did not break it.

 

Perhaps he slept. He imagined the sound of pulsing swelling to fill the entire universe, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that his hand was resting on Sheppard's wrist. Sheppard was still breathing. He told himself that that was enough, but who was he kidding? Of course it wasn't enough.

 

It was quite a while before he noticed that it was no longer silent, after all. By then, the noise was unmistakeable: footsteps, shouts, voices…

 

His head snapped up. "Here!" he shouted. "Over here!" He scrambled to his feet, and lurched forward, closing his hands around the cold bars. "We're here! Help us!"

 

He saw Ronon first, and then Teyla. Ronon managed four steps, then stopped. Teyla stood frozen in the door. After all these weeks, they looked like strangers.

 

"What took you so long?" No, Rodney couldn't maintain any sort of anger. He swallowed, and gestured desperately at Sheppard. "Help him." His voice cracked. "Please."

 

Neither of them moved. Neither of them were looking at Sheppard. Instead they were staring at Rodney, and Rodney wasn't good at reading people – never had been; never used to even try – but he knew horror when he saw it.

 

"What?" he asked. "What?" But this time his voice was lost in the cacophony of rescue.

 

******

 

Teyla stood in the entrance, her hand resting on the side of the door. The creature that wore John's face was sitting on the floor of the cell, its back to the wall. It looked dejected and lost, as if it has been forsaken by its friends, she thought. As if it were bereft. Betrayed.

 

Her hand tightened in anger. The real John was in surgery, of course, and she and Ronon had been hustled away by the doctors. Rodney got to stay, but only in a bed of his own, where he slept, looking pale and restless and exhausted.

 

"We can't leave," Ronon had told them, not even trying to hide his need.

 

"Please." Teyla had added her own voice. We just need to see him. To keep on seeing him. Never to look away.

 

Instead, she was here with this… this thing. It had been two weeks, as far as they had been able to ascertain. Two weeks of this thing walking around with Colonel Sheppard's face, accepted by everyone in Atlantis. Two weeks in which John and Rodney had been incarcerated, thinking themselves forgotten. One more week of searching. Three weeks in total. Three weeks in which they…

 

She closed her eyes for a moment, but could not turn away. It had been the little things, in the end, that had led them to suspect the truth. The false Colonel Sheppard had been a little too open, and a little too harsh. He had been indecisive when decisions had been required. He had been a little too dismissive of Ronon and a little too attentive to Teyla, and he had hesitated once when one of his men had called for help. Even so, it had been over a week before they had started to suspect that something might be wrong with him. Teyla had urged him to seek medical help. Ronon had offered to help him run it off.

 

But to go from that to shooting him… She still did not know what had pushed Ronon to that point, but she had come upon them, had understood what he was doing, and had known in an instant that she was better able than Ronon to cope with being the one to pull the trigger. Ronon had already been forced to kill too many friends. She knew that images lingered in the mind and emerged to torment you in dreams, no matter how necessary your actions were.

 

A week later, she knew that all too well.

 

The creature who wore John's face raised its head and looked at her. It had John's eyes. What have you done to me? those eyes said.

 

"I did what I had to do." She made her voice harsh. It was some form of advanced artificial intelligence, the scientists told them. It was not a Replicator, but something new. Who had placed it there was still unknown. They had a new enemy, and it had already struck them to the heart.

 

When she closed her eyes, she remembered shooting him. When she opened them, she remembered finding not just one person in that cell, but two.

 

For three weeks, Rodney McKay had been replaced by a machine, and nobody had noticed.

 

Forgive us, Rodney, she thought, as at last she turned her face towards the other cell, where a creature with Rodney's face paced and raged.

 

******

 

The first three times they had tried to turn him away, Ronon had acceded. The fourth time, he had fought. On the fifth time, he just pushed through and made for the bed that had activity around it. There were too many people for him to see at first, but then someone moved and he saw Sheppard's face, pale and lost behind tubes and masks.

 

"You shouldn't be here," someone started to say, but Keller looked up sharply, and said, "No, no, it's okay." Her eyes gave a quick smile above her mask. "We're just settling him in after surgery. I was going to send for you soon, anyway."

 

Ronon didn't care what other people thought about him, not in the way that Sheppard did. When his friend was hurt, Ronon would show his pain. Not caring that doctors were still watching, he took Sheppard's hand, and squeezed it. "You'll be okay, buddy."

 

Sheppard was still. Minutes passed, and soon Ronon was alone with him, except for a nurse who passed by every few minutes to check on him. Sheppard looked less real than the creature that had assumed his face. His flesh was like moulded plastic, and his breathing was done by machines. He had no life, and no movement. In contrast, the creature – "robot," some of the soldiers were calling it – had the appearance of life in its eyes. Its false flesh was the colour of health, and it moved and spoke. Ronon. Buddy. It's me.

 

Which one was more real?

 

"No." He stood up, the chair scraping noisily on the floor. That was a fool's question, a soft person's question. This was the real John Sheppard, and Ronon had been prepared to kill the fake to prove it. He had drawn his gun on a thing that just happened to bear the appearance of his friend, but had not been him. There was no reason to dream about shooting him. There was no reason to wake up and feel that you had your team leader's blood on your hands. 

 

He had done what he had to do. It was all he ever did, and after it was done, it was time to move on. His only regret had to be that he had not done it earlier. He had gone on missions with the robot, had sparred with him, had watched movies with him. Something about him had seemed a little wrong right from the start, but everyone had off days when they lived the sort of life that they did. Then the wrongness had grown and grown, a hundred little things adding up to create an unmistakeable truth.

 

But not unmistakeable enough. It had been two days before he had been able to bring himself to confront it. Two more hours before he had drawn his gun. Two minutes, or more, in which he had stood there, hesitating in battle as he had never hesitated, unable to bring this thing to its natural end. Two seconds, as the creature had walked forward, not bleeding from a hole its shoulder, in which everything had reassembled around the truth.

 

But it was those two minutes that were so hard to forget. It was those two minutes that, really, there was absolutely no reason for him to remember.

 

******

 

"There's something you're not telling me," Rodney said, when Teyla came for her second visit.

 

Teyla smiled. Rodney knew that smile. It was the sort of smile that Jeannie smiled when Madison asked something that required a scary answer.

 

"No, please," Rodney said. "Is anyone dead? It's been three weeks. That's time enough for people to die. That's the sort of thing that can happen in minutes. Alive one minute, dead the next. I should know. It's the sort of thing that keeps on almost happening to me." He faltered; swallowed. And Sheppard.

 

"Nobody has passed away," Teyla said quietly. Now she had on her diplomat's face. Rodney had been with her on enough first contact situations to know what that meant.

 

"Then whatever it is, tell me." He extricated his hand from the sheet. "Seriously, can it be worse than what I've already gone through? Kidnapped by robots. Kept in that godforsaken cell for three weeks. Not enough food – and did you see what they were making us eat? They didn't even question us, which is probably a blessing, given that questioning tends to involve torture, and I'm quite fond of not being tortured as a rule, but at least it would have given us an idea of who they were and why they wanted us, rather than just leaving us in the gloom with nothing to do but talk."

 

"I am sorry we did not find you earlier, Rodney." She caught his hand, and he realised that he had been flailing it too close to her face. A quick squeeze later, and she had laid it gently on the bed. "Truly, I am."

 

"Well, yes, that makes two of us, because if you had, then Sheppard wouldn't have gone and done what he did, and there would be two of us here with exhaustion and minor malnutrition and a mild infection, and not me here, and him… there." He gestured. They had let him see Sheppard just once. "Honestly, that man has a death wish."

 

Teyla just looked at him.

 

Rodney lowered his eyes. His hand moved again, coming to the edge of the sheet, picking at the fabric. "Okay, okay, it was my fault. He said there was a time to fight and a time to bide your time, and a time to bait your enemy with sarcastic comments and a time to shut up. I said… I said it wasn't like him to be so defeatist, and I… I think I cracked – shouted things – and they opened the cell and they were going to… But he… He stopped them. So they did it to him instead."

 

It was said. Wasn't talking about something supposed to make it better? If so, then Rodney ought to be the happiest person in the world, because he always talked…

 

He swallowed. "He's going to be okay?"

 

"They believe so." Another smile, with a shadow in it.

 

There was not enough guilt that he could not feel anger, too. "Why didn't you come earlier? I thought… When we were first captured, I thought… No, really, Sheppard thought. I was doing the 'doom' thing, despairing, but Sheppard never doubted you'd come. It was three weeks. Three weeks."

 

"We…" He had never heard Teyla sound so awkward. "Rodney, it was a long time before we realised you were gone."

 

And so she told him.

 

******

 

It was better to move on. No, it was essential to move on. If you didn't, then you wouldn't be able to find a way of living. Ronon had moved on from far worse than this. He had survived the loss of his world, and everyone upon it. He had survived life as a Runner. He had survived having to kill people who had once been friends, because they had let themselves become something monstrous to him.

 

He couldn't brood in his room. He couldn't sit at Sheppard's bedside and do nothing. Teyla was handling McKay, and Ronon knew better than to push in there. He tried to run and spar a little, but it was empty with only one.

 

Fighting was the thing to do. He stalked into the area with the holding cells, and dismissed the guard with a curt word. The guard looked relieved to go; Ronon knew that none of them liked the job of guarding a creature that looked and acted exactly like their commanding officer – a creature who for days they had obeyed as their commanding officer, without noticing the difference.

 

"Who created you?" Ronon demanded, stalking up and down outside the cell that held the machine with Sheppard's face. "Why were you sent here? What were you planning to do?"

 

The creature smiled with Sheppard's insolent grin.

 

McKay had gaps in his memory, and tiny holes in his skull. Some part of McKay and Sheppard must have been copied and placed into the machines who had returned to Atlantis in their place. Doctor Zelenka said he was in awe of the technology, which he claimed was somewhere between a robot and a Replicator, "but without the replicating, though," and also with the ability to be held by a physical prison. That part was good. That part made Ronon smile.

 

But you couldn't hurt a machine. "On television, you confuse them with logic," Zelenka had said, pushing his glasses up his nose with a fluttering finger. "Does not compute. Error. Error." Zelenka and the others had had over a week to try that, and had failed.

 

A team was still going over every inch of the prison where Sheppard and McKay had been held, but there were no clues. If there was a living creature behind the plot, it was long gone. The compound had been guarded by robots far less advanced than the ones who wore the faces of Sheppard and McKay. They were lifeless now, empty of answers.

 

"Who sent you?" Ronon demanded again. "Are there any more?"

 

It had taken six men to bring it down, and they had discovered only by chance that electricity could temporarily render it powerless, perhaps even hurt it, if machines could feel pain.

 

"We questioned it," he heard someone say now, and turned to see Carter standing behind him. She looked troubled. "We used electricity. It was like torture, brutal torture, but you can't torture a machine, can you." He wasn't sure if she meant it as a question, and said nothing. "It didn't give us any answers, but it screamed in his voice. I had one man throwing up in the corner."

 

"You ordered them to stop," Ronon realised out loud.

 

"It wasn't giving us any answers." She met his gaze steadily.

 

"It isn't him," Ronon said firmly. "It isn't Sheppard. I don't care how much he screams."

 

Carter looked at him for a while. "You mean 'it'," she said quietly.

 

******

 

"You didn't notice!" Rodney shouted. "I was replaced by a robot for three weeks, and no-one noticed! What, are you all blind? Are you all idiots?"

 

Teyla shifted position on her seat. "It was very cunningly done, as you will realise when you see it. I am sure Doctor Zelenka will appreciate your help in understanding how it was done. I hear that he is baffled."

 

"I don't care!" Rodney shouted. Teyla had hoped to deflect him with an appeal to his vanity, but some wounds went too deep for such simple tactics. It was not right to try to deflect it, either. Rodney had every right to feel like this.

 

"You spent a lot of your time with Colonel Sheppard." She closed her eyes briefly. "It spent a lot of its time with the colonel's replacement," she corrected herself. "For the most part, it spent the rest of the time working alone in your lab. It was not around people in the way that the other one was."

 

"Working in my lab?" He threw his hand up in furious despair. "So it had access to all the computer systems. Now it knows everything that I know – and that, as you know, it a lot. What if it was sending it all back to its creator? What if there's a whole army of them, armed with my knowledge? What if… What if it's sabotaged things? It'll take me months to go through everything and repair the damage."

 

"Those are possibilities," she said, "which is why we need to put all this behind us and concentrate on facing the threat. This could be the first strike by a new enemy."

 

"Put it behind me?" Rodney echoed. "Forget the fact that I was replaced by a robot and no-one noticed? You noticed with Sheppard."

 

"Not at first," she had to tell him. "Not for days, and even then it was only gradual. It was two weeks before things came to a head." Her bullet striking his shoulder. His body jerking back.

 

"But even then you didn't think to see if there was anything strange about me?"

 

She shook her head, not wanting to look at him, but knowing that she could not look away. She wanted to fix his every mannerism in her mind, so she could be absolutely sure that this would never happen again. Even when you had known someone for years, and seen them in every possible mood, you could not always describe what made them them.

 

"Colonel Sheppard went on a solo mission the day before the two of you went to M9R-173, and he was late back. It was considered that that was the most likely–"

 

"Oh, please." Rodney turned his face away. "I don't want to hear it. You didn't notice. And all the time I was there… I was in that prison cell, with Sheppard… And Sheppard was… And you didn't notice. You hadn't even noticed I was gone."

 

She had tried so hard for justification, not because she needed it, but because she thought that Rodney did. Now she just touched him gently on the arm, and said, "I am sorry, Rodney."

 

******

 

Rodney McKay had always known that he was intelligent. It had been his thing. Some people at school had sport, some had drama, and some had looks. He had brains. It was what defined him. So what if people laughed at him? So what if he had very few friends? So what if he was picked last in any team, and struggled to make a ball go straight? He had brains, and that was all that mattered.

 

And now a… a thing had replaced him, had done everything that made him who he was, had done it without anyone noticing. They called it artificial intelligence. Robots. Replicators. Things that wore his face and spoke in his voice, but were machines all along.

 

Artificial. Intelligence. Artificial intelligence. Was that all he had?

 

The lights were low in the infirmary. Sheppard still hadn't awakened, though Rodney was due to be released in the morning. He was supposed to be asleep now, recovering his strength.

 

Nobody had noticed.

 

He had reacted with anger when Teyla had first told him, but it had only been a thin veneer – a sheet of ice over what lay beneath. Was that all he was? What was so different about Sheppard, that people had noticed?

 

I thought I was an original, he thought. One of a kind. Impossible to recreate. Sheppard was the one who was generic. Sheppard was the shallow jock, flirting with girls and winning them, too. He was the idiot who loved fast cars and faster planes, who could fight and kill, and come up with a sardonic retort, but who reacted to terrible things with a blank face, never giving you more.

 

Rodney turned over; tried another position. No, it wasn't true about Sheppard. Of course it wasn't – he had realised that years ago, after only a few days with him. But, still, what was so special about Sheppard that meant that his impostor had been discovered?

 

What was wrong with Rodney?

 

It was strange to think that – strange to be looking deep into himself and finding himself wanting. Anger was easier. It was someone else's fault. Everyone else was stupid. If they hadn't noticed it was because they were lacking, not him. It was nothing to do with him. It was nothing to do with…

 

He had always prided himself on his intelligence. There. It always came back to that, didn't it? But his sort of intelligence was so easily recreated in ones and zeros, in wiring and plastic and metal. A Replicator could be a scientific genius, and as for the rest… It just had to be programmed with some insults and a nice line in sarcasm. It needed to panic and talk about impending doom, or to worry about its health. It didn't have to do empathy or people skills. He could be reduced to a repertoire of fast-talking rants and reproduced by a machine.

 

He rolled onto his back; stared up at the soft darkness. He wondered if anyone else would have been so overlooked. There were more forms of intelligence than the one he was most familiar with; he was beginning to be forced to realise this. Ronon had the sort of intelligence that allowed you to survive in the wilderness when hunted for seven years by Wraith who cheated by knowing where you were. Teyla had the sort of intelligence that allowed her to understand how people were feeling, and to say the right thing. And as for Sheppard… He was brighter than he liked to appear, even in Rodney's form of intelligence, but he also had the kind of intelligence that caused him to make the right decision in dangerous situations, and to assess a threat and know how to act.

 

Rodney had been the one who had ruined it all in the cell. Sheppard had urged him to keep quiet, but Rodney had had to open his big mouth, and Sheppard had paid the price.

 

And Sheppard still hadn't woken up.

 

I don't think I'm very clever at all, he thought, alone in the dark. It was a staggering thing to think, as if something essential had changed in the universe.

 

Intelligence came in many forms. Perhaps his was the least.

 

******

 

There was one more thing. Ronon asked Teyla about it as they sat on opposite sides of Sheppard's bed. "Why did you shoot it? I was going to do it."

 

She nodded. "I know."

 

"Did you think I wouldn't be able to do it?"

 

She shook her head. "I knew you would."

 

"They why…?" He was the one who shot things. Some of the people of Atlantis saw him as nothing else. "Did you think I'd feel bad afterwards? That I wouldn't be able to cope?"

 

"No." Another shake. "I knew you would cope, Ronon. You have coped with worse things than this. I was just that I did not want you to have to."

 

Ronon looked down at Sheppard. The doctors said he would be waking soon, and already he was looking more like a human and less like the machine that paced in the cell. They said that he would make a full recovery. Soon everything would be in the past, just like everything else that had ever happened.

 

He thought of friends that he had been forced to kill. He thought of how hard it had been to pull that gun on someone who looked like Sheppard, even though he had been almost certain that it wasn't really him. He thought of how impossible it had been to torture the creature, even though every rational part of his mind told him that it was just a machine – far less, even, than a Wraith. Perhaps he didn't do rational very well. Melenna had always told him that he had been far too led by emotion.

 

"I would have done it," he said, needing to say it.

 

"Yes," she said, "but because you are my friend, I chose to do it instead." She stood up, and moved around the bed until she was at his side. "You drew the gun, and I pulled the trigger. It was something we did together. It was not just you."

 

He took her hand for a moment, and her fingers curled into his. It felt good.

 

******

 

He woke slowly, saw that he was on Atlantis, and let himself sleep again.

 

The next time, people were talking to him – doctors talking to him as if he was a child, telling him to do things, to move things, to breathe. He tried to tell them that he was a grown-up, thank you very much, and hadn't they heard what he did when people tried to give him orders? Too much effort, though. He almost slept again, then remembered what must surely have brought him here.

 

"Rodney?" His throat was so sore that no sound came out, just a faint breath from dry lips.

 

"Rodney is fine." That was Teyla's voice. He felt her hand close on his.

 

It should have been enough, but sometimes you had to see. He managed to open his eyes. Teyla on one side, and Ronon standing behind her. He moved his neck in tiny increments, but there was no Rodney on the other side. It must have been well over two weeks that they had been in that cell, and Rodney had found it so difficult – worse, perhaps, than Sheppard had found it. He remembered Rodney freaking out; remembered hissing at him to be quiet; remembered lunging forward… Not much after that, just fragments of pain, and then this.

 

I want to see him, he thought. His lips moved ineffectually, but perhaps Teyla understood what he was trying to say. "Rodney is… fine physically," she said, "but a little… disturbed by what has happened. It is nothing that cannot heal."

 

It was not everything that he needed, but it was enough. John Sheppard slept.

 

******

 

The next time of waking, after the doctors poked and prodded, he found that he was able to speak. Again it was just Ronon and Teyla, though Teyla was wearing different clothes, so he presumed that a day had passed.

 

"What happened?" he asked them.

 

"We found you," Ronon said. "You were like that." He gestured towards the bed. "McKay was okay. The person who had been holding you was gone. We don't know who he was."

 

"Oh." There was more, though; he could see it in their eyes and their stance. He was always more attuned to such things when he was hurting. It was as if by having his own barriers down, he was able to see through others'. He trusted them to tell him, though.

 

"We were slow to realise you were missing," Teyla told him. "Whoever took you created… copies."

 

"Clones?" He felt cold, and struggled to sit up higher against the pillows.

 

"Artificial intelligence," she said, "designed to look and act like you."

 

"And they fooled you?" His eyes narrowed. "I'm offended. You think I'm like a robot?"

 

"Please," Teyla said, looking pained.

 

He let out a breath. There were so many questions here – so many days to fill in. Who was behind it – that was the big one. If they were going to do it again. How could they protect against this in the future? They would need a strategy and new safeguards…

 

"So how did you find out in the end?" he asked them.

 

"There were a lot of little things which all added up," Teyla said. "It did not act entirely like you. And in the end…" She exchanged a quick look with Ronon that Sheppard could not read. "We confronted it. We shot it, and the wound did not bleed."

 

Shot it. He could feel sleep wanting to wash over him again. "Huh," he said. "That must have been… intense."

 

******

 

Then it was just Ronon by himself. "I wouldn't shoot you for real," Ronon said.

 

Sheppard struggled to make his thoughts wake up. "Done it lots of time. Stunners."

 

"I was sure it wasn't really you. Thought shooting it was the only way to prove it."

 

Sheppard frowned. "Of course you were sure." He brought his hand up to his face. "Is that a problem? You think I'm going to be mad with you for shooting me?"

 

"Didn't shoot you."

 

"It." It was beginning to feel like a crazy dream, but he knew it was far more serious than that. "It wasn't me," he said. "Hell, I'd have shot me, too. It."

 

"Yeah." Ronon gave a quick smile.

 

Sheppard thought he understood, though, for all the strangeness. Emotions worked in strange ways. Perhaps when you had pulled a gun on something that looked just like someone you knew, it was hard to remember that it had not really been them.

 

"I'm glad you did, buddy," he said. "Now quit worrying, and let me sleep."

 

******

 

Rodney didn't come, though. In the end, Sheppard asked Teyla to get him. "Tell him anything. Tell him… Hell, tell him I'm worrying myself sick, not being able to see with my own eyes that he's okay. Tell him it's hindering my recovery – something like that."

 

He had no idea what she really said. He even dozed a bit, but when he opened his eyes, Rodney was sitting on the chair beside the bed. "Hey." Sheppard smiled. Act as if everything was okay, and often it turned out to be true.

 

"Hey." It was dull.

 

"Glad to see you… uh… well."

 

"And you." Rodney pressed his lips together. "I… God, Sheppard, I'm so sorry. You saved my life. If I hadn't… You told me not to push it, but I… I didn't think. I was stupid. And you almost died. I–"

 

"But I didn't."

 

"That's not the point!" It was quiet, yet almost shouted, both at the same time.

 

Was it guilt that had been keeping him away? Figures, he thought. He would have been exactly the same. "Rodney," he said, "if you hadn't tried something, I'd have done it. Yeah, I know I kept telling you to grin and bear it, but a man's allowed to be a hypocrite, isn't he? I'm not one to sit still and do nothing." He brought his hand to his jaw, remembering past bruises. "You knew where that's gotten me in the past."

 

"But…" Rodney started, then subsided.

 

"Spit it out, Rodney."

 

Rodney swallowed. "They've told you what happened with the artificial intelligence?"

 

"Yeah." Sheppard nodded. "It replaced us both. It took them two weeks to notice, and then Ronon shot me. Or maybe Teyla did. They're not telling."

 

"They didn't notice at all with me." It was little more than a mumble. "They came to rescue you, and found me there, which was a bit of a shock, given that they'd left me back on Atlantis working on trying to understand the machine that was you."

 

Sheppard grimaced. "Ouch."

 

"That's all very well for you to say. At least with you they–"

 

"They shot me."

 

"Yes, but–" Rodney stopped, and his shoulders slumped. Just as Sheppard had decided that he had gotten everything he was likely to get, Rodney spoke again. "Hopefully you're still drugged up and won't really remember this. I've got to tell somebody. I don't normally, you know. I mean, I say everything – I say so many things – and people say that everything's on my face, but it's not. Not everything. You understand."

 

He wanted to deflect it with a light comment about something else. He wanted to close his eyes and hide from it by pretending to sleep. "I understand," he said.

 

"It's made me think…" Rodney's hands were still, only the fingers moving. "No-one noticed. Either that's because they didn't bother to look, because it was only me, only stupid predictable Rodney McKay, not worth looking close at. Or it's… it's that I don't have anything that can't be done by a machine."

 

"Bullshit," Sheppard stated.

 

The hands strained to part, but stayed clasped. "But there's all these things that I can't do. Keeping you unhurt in prison. Doing the sensible thing. Knowing what to say to people. It's… what do they call it? Emotional intelligence. And common sense. Survival. Leadership. I couldn't do what Ronon did, and I thought it was just barbarian stuff, but it's not. He's bright. And you… Decisions. Leadership. Knowing what to do. I never know what to do, except when a computer's involved, or something to fix–"

 

"Or one of the few hundred occasions when you've been the only person who can save all our lives, and we've just stood and watched and asked stupid questions."

 

"Yes. Yes." Rodney shook his head angrily. "No. It… it just made me think. Maybe I'm not so smart."

 

"Bullshit," Sheppard swore again. "I know you're never going to let me hear the end of this, but you're the cleverest person I know."

 

"But what if it doesn't count for anything?" Rodney looked so defeated. "I can't do half the things you can do. I can't fight like Ronon, or be diplomatic like Teyla."

 

"Neither can I," Sheppard said. "Hell, Ronon's kicked my ass so many times. So has Teyla. You've seen the messes I've gotten us into when I open my mouth off-world."

 

"But–"

 

"No." Sheppard put on his commander voice – the one he so seldom used. "If they didn't notice, it's because the enemy was clever. Maybe… I don' t know. Maybe my robot was the first attempt and yours was the perfected model."

 

"Hm." Rodney raised his head slightly. "That makes sense. Yours was just the… the place-holder. Mine had to get all the information off the computer."

 

Sheppard smiled internally. "It was nothing to do with you. And so what if you can't do half the things the rest of us can do? We can't do what you do. That's why we're a team. It is kind of the point, Rodney."

 

"Ah." Rodney let out a breath. "Yes."

 

And suddenly they were awkward again, and Sheppard knew that these things would never be spoken about again. He cleared his throat, and then they were talking about other things – those trivial things that yet were so very necessary.

 

******

 

Then, afterwards, they all gathered round his bed, and talked about everything and nothing.

 

In a lull in the conversation, Sheppard said, "This isn't over, you know. We need to find out who did this."

 

"The creatures are still in the holding cells," Ronon said.

 

"Then Rodney can dissect himself, and I'll go interrogate myself," Sheppard said. "I've had practice. Last time I met myself, I got my ass kicked around the Gate room."

 

"Seriously," Rodney said, "that's creepy."

 

Sheppard's smile faded. "We have to focus on taking things forward. On getting answers. On preparing ourselves in case this happens again. That's what's important."

 

Other things were important, too, of course. There was Ronon and Teyla, who had taken the decision to shoot someone who could have been him. There was Rodney, who had not been missed. But he meant what he had said to Rodney. They would get through this, because they always did. They complemented each other. They were each skilled in different ways, and they each saw things in different ways.

 

And now I'm back, he thought, and then glanced at Rodney. Now we're back. If the team had been fractured, now it was whole.

 

Not that he would say such things out loud, of course. Not that he needed to.

 

They knew. They were intelligent like that.

 

******

 

END

******

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