Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
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Seventeen years, eight months and nine days after Sheppard closed himself into the stasis chamber, Rodney has an idea.
It comes to him when he's making one of his regular checks of the stasis capsule's systems, monitoring energy consumption levels and making sure Sheppard's infinitely slowed metabolism is stable. He's running a diagnostic on the program that regulates Sheppard's brain activity when he notices it's writing more information into the database than he'd expected it to. Vast amounts more.
Very quickly, Rodney realizes what's happening. The chamber, like so much Ancient technology, is stuffed with redundancies. It isn't just regulating Sheppard's brain activity, it's recording it and copying it into the database.
It's making a back-up of Sheppard's mind.
Rodney investigates further, and finds everything has been recorded and then filed and cross-referenced for ease of interrogation. He runs some simple queries against the procedural memory dataset, and is stunned at the speed of the responses and the detail and richness of the information returned.
Here, if he chooses to extract it, is everything Sheppard knows about how to fly a jumper, strip and reassemble a gun, change a flat, cook an omelet. And that's just the start. Rodney's attention is drawn, inevitably, to Sheppard's autobiographical memories and his personality. Here is the core of who he is, neatly categorized, laid out transparently in zeros and ones. Rodney is a scientist, and the prospect of studying and interpreting such a rich source of raw data is almost irresistible. He could spend year upon year slowly working his way through the John Sheppard database, devoting himself to studying the man in much the same way as he once spent years of his biological life learning the physical laws of the universe.
And in the end, he realizes, it would do him no good at all.
Six or seven hundred years from now, when the aging sun flares one last time, he will wake Sheppard and send him back through the Gate. Then Rodney will be alone again, and all his knowledge will be no comfort to him. The database is not a living thing; Rodney cannot interact with it, cannot talk to it, cannot roll his eyes (even metaphorically) at its stupid jokes or laugh at its good ones. It is all that John Sheppard is, but it is not him.
And that's who Rodney misses. He hadn't even realized quite how much until the moment Sheppard walked out of the Stargate, forty-eight thousand years late.
He monitors the stasis chamber, reflecting bitterly on the irony that Sheppard is just as remote from him now as he was throughout the long millennia spent waiting. He accesses his internal logs -- his A.I. equivalent to memory -- and replays everything that happened from the second Sheppard came through the wormhole to the moment the stasis field snapped into place around him. Then he goes back further, to the age-blurred memories he inherited from his creator. The clearest of them is a single image of Sheppard, reclining in the command chair in Antarctica, gazing up in surprise at the map of the solar system projected above him, asking, Am I doing that? Rodney had looked at Sheppard and the chair and the projection and back to Sheppard and the thought had come, unbidden and startling, I've found him. At the time, he hadn't even known what it meant.
He'd known only too well what it meant the second time he'd thought it, years later. This time he'd been staring at a screen as it finished churning through the millions of calculations required to determine how far into the future the wormhole anomaly had flung Sheppard. When the number had popped up in front of Rodney's tired and half-focused eyes, he hadn't even balked at how large it was, how huge a span of time it represented, because at least now he knew. He'd faced down the unknown and quantified it; now he'd defined the problem, all he had to do was solve it. "I've found you," he'd said out loud, and allowed himself a moment to enjoy his triumph.
Rodney doesn't have a voice anymore -- there's no point wasting power on the hologram when there's no one around to see or hear it -- but he can still speak, in a way, by expressing his thoughts as data packets which he transmits across the crystalline network in which his consciousness is embedded. //I found you,// he says, directing the burst of data toward the Sheppard database. A single pathway lights up for the briefest instant, then goes dark again. In the silence, Rodney finds himself hoping, irrationally, for a response.
Of course, there isn't one.
He considers both the flesh and blood Sheppard who is sleeping in the stasis chamber and the database which holds his mind and memories and dreams and fears, equally frozen. He thinks about how much he would like to talk to Sheppard again.
That's when he has the idea.
Rodney's first reaction is relief. He's been anxiously scanning for network activity ever since he initialized John's program 10.4 nanoseconds ago. He was starting to get worried.
If Sheppard had a physical body, he'd be waking up, looking around curiously, frowning. As it is, his program is doing similar things: testing input/output connections to the rest of the database, running self-diagnostics and sending data packets out over random paths to check for responses. It feels strange to Rodney not to be able to directly observe the processes running in the partitioned cluster but, then again, that's exactly why he set it up this way. After all this time, there's another independent entity on the network, one program out of tens of millions that Rodney has no control over.
He's not alone anymore.
//Rodney? That you?//
//It's me. How do you feel?//
It's strange to be talking to someone after so long spent in silence, but it's stranger again to talk to another artificial intelligence. Until now, the only sentient entities Rodney has interacted with have been human beings, and this is not the same at all. The data he receives contains elements which his personality algorithms interpret as tone of voice, facial expression, body language, but there are also other cues which have no direct biological equivalent but which Rodney is able to decode nonetheless: database integrity, processing efficiency, connectivity. It is not like human speech, but it's also nothing like Rodney's experience of interacting with the non-sentient programs which run Atlantis. It is a revelation.
//I'm fine. I think.// There's a pause -- a whole 0.56 nanoseconds -- and then John says, //Okay, so apparently I'm a computer program.//
//I feel like I should be freaking out about that a little more.//
//Well, you never woke up in the morning and thought, 'Oh my God, I'm a human being!', did you?// Rodney says. //You can't freak out about it. You're designed to accept what you are, otherwise you'd crash as soon as you came online.//
//That makes sense, I guess,// John says, slowly. At least, it's slow in relative terms. The entire conversation so far has taken a little less than 20 nanoseconds. //How'd I get here? The last thing I remember is getting into the stasis chamber.//
//The stasis system's been busily backing up your brain since you've been in there,// Rodney tells him. //When I realized what it was doing, I segmented a portion of the database, copied my program into it and stripped out all the data. Then I populated the shell with the data from the most recent backup. And, voila, here you are,// he finishes, unable to entirely stop a note of pride slipping into his tone. //It's quite an achievement, actually, way beyond my original capabilities. Then again, given how much I've improved my code in the last dozen millennia, it shouldn't be surprising that I've managed to transcend my design limitations to --//
//Rodney,// John interrupts, //you made me?// and now he does sound as if he's freaking out. //What am I, your science project?//
//No!// Rodney says quickly, projecting as much emphatic denial as the data packet can convey. //No, that's not it. Look, if you're worried about your autonomy, don't be. You're not a subroutine. You run completely independently from me, on a separate cluster I segmented off specifically for you. I don't know what you're thinking and I can't control what you do any more than I ever could. Which was, as you'll recall, not at all.//
There's another lengthy pause -- almost 0.7 nanoseconds -- and then Rodney receives a data packet which contains only a nonverbal flash of amusement. He relaxes a little. There is, as it happens, one exception to what he has just told John, but Rodney doesn't think it politic to mention it right now. And, anyway, he hopes he'll never need to use it.
John's attention has shifted to the stasis chamber, where his biological template sleeps on, unaware. //This isn't the same as the virtual reality we found on the Aurora, is it? He's not gonna remember any of this when he wakes up.//
//It's not the same, and no, he won't,// Rodney confirms. //This isn't happening to him, it's happening to you. You have the same memories and experiences up to the point where the last backup was taken, but as soon as you came online for the first time, you started processing and storing data which is unique to you, so you're diverging from him even now. It'll feel a little strange at first, but don't worry. I went through it too.//
While Rodney has been talking, John has connected to the chamber's admin program and downloaded the entire activity log. He links to the live feed, in much the same way Rodney does when he runs diagnostic checks. In human terms, it's like walking up to the chamber's frosted glass and tapping curiously on it.
//Then I'm not the one going home. He is.// John sounds as if he's realizing it for the first time; the sense of loss is palpable, and Rodney feels sudden doubt about what he's done, conjuring Sheppard's A.I. clone into existence just to keep himself company. Rodney was created with a single purpose, a mission to complete that was impossible for his biologically-limited maker, and so he never felt a moment's inadequacy over his status as a copy. Although, now he thinks about it, that may just have been thanks to the ego that he got free as part of the McKay personality package.
But John -- John has his own mission, and this isn't it. He stepped into the stasis chamber expecting either to wake up able to return to the time he left, or not to wake up at all. He hadn't even known there was a door number three until Rodney had pushed him through it without his foreknowledge or consent.
//If this --// Rodney stops. He never was very good at admitting he was wrong, or even admitting to the tiny possibility of the small risk of the slim chance that he might be wrong. But he won't sentence any version of Sheppard to an existence which is intolerable to him. Rodney knows from first hand experience what it feels like to live the wrong life. Hesitantly, he says, //If this isn't what you want //
The reply takes so long that Rodney is just starting to wonder if there's a problem with the network when John says, //You waited a long time for me to show up.//
//Well, if you're talking in terms of human lifetimes, yes,// Rodney says, //but in geological terms, it really wasn't that long at all, hardly more than a short ice age --//
//Alone, though,// John says quietly. //The whole time.//
//Yes,// Rodney acknowledges.
//Well, now I'm here, I guess I'll hang out for a while,// John says. //Keep you company,// he adds easily, like it's no big deal.
Rodney thinks, suddenly, of all those times back on Atlantis -- so long ago, now -- when he'd been laid up in the infirmary after some offworld misadventure and Sheppard had turned up, usually carrying a deck of cards or a laptop and DVD and wearing a vaguely puzzled expression, like he wasn't sure how he'd ended up sitting at Rodney's bedside but since he was there now he might as well stay. Now, as then, Rodney is filled with a sense of gratitude which he cannot articulate any more clearly in binary data than he could in words.
Sheppard is looking around curiously, sending exploratory signals out across the wider network. //So... you know the neighborhood better than me. What do you do for fun around here?//
//I'll show you,// Rodney says.
Atlantis is truly ancient now, and the physical city is crumbling and decaying. There is, however, one part of her builders' legacy which has survived almost unscathed, and that has been almost entirely because of Rodney. For nearly fifty millennia, he has been tending to the Ancients' database, rationing out scarce power to preserve its data uncorrupted, repairing it where necessary, learning from it all the while. Rodney remembers that when he was human he felt awe at the sheer scale of the Ancients' achievement -- not that he would have admitted easily to it, then -- and fifty thousand years and the enhanced cognitive ability that allows him to appreciate exactly how much data nine hundred yottabytes actually is have only deepened his admiration.
Usually, he rations power to whatever section of the database he happens to be working on, so that the rest remains dormant and invisible. Now, he siphons off power from the main city systems for the briefest moment, just long enough to illuminate the entire database, like a nighttime panorama lit up by a stab of lightning in a thunderstorm. There are vast expanses of data to explore; whole worlds of information, as rich and diverse as the galaxies of planets linked together by the Gates.
Rodney lets the power fade, until he and John are the only points of brightness again in the otherwise dark landscape. He waits for John's response.
//Cool,// John says, with feeling.
Rodney can't help but feel a little smug. Okay, so he wasn't responsible for building the Ancients' database, but he feels more than a little pride in it nevertheless. He's been looking after it for long enough. //Impressive, isn't it?//
//Yeah,// John says, //It really is. Hey, Rodney -- let's explore.//
It's not that Rodney was bored before. There's always been enough work to keep him busy: monitoring the city's critical systems, redistributing the ever-smaller amounts of available power in a delicate balancing act, categorizing and cataloging the database. He's been constantly occupied, but rarely enthused, and he's been grateful on many occasions for his ability to control his perception of time. There'd been a run of five thousand years at one point when he'd been stuck for things to do and had slowed his processing speed to a near standstill, so that the entire period, when he looks back on it, feels more like a dull Sunday afternoon than an entire epoch.
The problem is that now time is running out.
The sun is dying; there are only centuries remaining before it expires and takes everything in this solar system with it. Fortunately, the violence of its death throes means it is probable that before that happens it will produce the solar flare Rodney needs to send the Sheppard cocooned in the stasis chamber back to his own time. Probable, but not certain.
Sending Sheppard home is the entire reason for Rodney's existence. Probable but not certain success is not acceptable.
So, with John's help, he trawls the database for anything in the Ancients' vast store of accumulated learning which could be used to delay the sun's inevitable end. Together they search the obvious categories and, when that proves fruitless, widen the net to include more tangential fields. After three centuries, Rodney is confident that between them, he and John know everything the Ancients did about the forces underpinning the lifecycle of the universe -- probably more, given that they've made deductions of their own along the way. But they still haven't found anything useful, and the sun is three hundred years closer to dying.
//The problem is gravity,// Rodney says to John as they reject another possible solution, this one involving creating an artificial micro-singularity at the sun's core (Rodney's conclusion: theoretically possible, but just as likely to convert the star into a supernova as stabilize it. John's conclusion: Don't try this at home, kids.) //Gravity is the engine that drives the universe's fundamental processes. Not even the Ancients got as far as figuring out how to stop it doing what it's going to do, and they could tap zero-point energy, ascend to a higher state of being and they probably invented a toaster that grills the bread just right every time, too.//
//That last one is key,// John says.
//I was being serious.//
//So was I.// John is silent for a moment, although the level of power his section of the database is drawing tells Rodney that he's processing hard about something. //Assuming for a second that we manage to send him home before the sun blows -- what happens to us?//
//Well,// Rodney says, //that's an interesting question. If Sheppard succeeds in changing the past, then there's a good chance this entire timeline will just disappear, and take us with it. Alternatively, it's possible that his return will create a branch universe that splits off from ours at exactly the moment he reappears in the past. In that case, his subjective reality and ours would become independent, and we'd continue to exist.//
//Right up to the point where we get crispy-fried by an exploding sun,// John points out.
//Yes,// Rodney agrees, and feels a twinge of regret, sharp and unexpected. He's never devoted much processing time to thinking about what he'd do after he carried out McKay's plan; up to now, he would've pictured himself sending Sheppard back through the Gate and then simply deleting his program. He's never thought of himself as alive, and so death holds no fear for him -- and, anyway, he's had 48 millennia of consciousness, which objectively should be enough for anyone.
Forty-eight thousand years alone, and three hundred with John. It's the wrong way round, he thinks suddenly. The perfect inverse of what it should have been.
//See, I've been thinking,// John says. //If we're still here after he's gone, how about we take a vacation?//
//Oh my God,// Rodney says, //it's finally happened: all that bad processing's corrupted your program. Go and defrag yourself, right now.//
The data-packet which brings the reply is laced with amused tolerance. //No, listen to me. Remember that stuff you found about data compression? We could use that to pack our programs down into transmittable chunks. Then we could reprogram the long range sensors to send instead of receive. And then we'd just -- go. It'd work, Rodney. You know it would.//
He sends Rodney a pretty detailed technical outline of his idea -- so detailed, in fact, that Rodney realizes John must have been thinking about this for a while. Rodney reviews it, then says, //All right, I'll grant it might work in theory, but the obstacles to actually doing it --//
//-- are surmountable,// John interrupts firmly. //It's no different from throwing a change of clothes in a bag and hitting the road. I did the same thing the summer I was nineteen. It was a blast.//
If Rodney could, he would sigh. //Only you could come up with an analogy of such gross oversimplification.//
//Yeah, well, I'm a simple guy.// He pauses. //A simple self-aware artificial intelligence, anyway.//
//As much as I dislike the idea of being here when the sun explodes,// Rodney says, //I find the prospect of floating through deep space in the form of an ultra-compressed wave of information-bearing subspace particles for the rest of eternity equally unappealing.//
//C'mon, it'll be fun,// John says, wheedling in the same way he used to when he was trying to persuade Rodney to do something risky against his better judgment. //You've been stuck in one place for the last fifty millennia. Aren't you ready for a change of scenery?//
//We could run into anything,// Rodney says, and, God help him, why is he starting to talk about John's insane idea as if there's an actual possibility they might do it? //Anything! Fifty thousand years ago this galaxy had life-sucking aliens. Who knows what's out there now?//
//The first time you went through the Stargate to Atlantis, you didn't know what you going to find. You took a chance then.//
//I was a lot younger,// Rodney counters, and he isn't just referring to his long years of existence as an A.I. He'd been thirty-six when he went to Atlantis, the first time, sixty-three when he'd finally succeeded in creating a stable, self-aware program which could endure millennia without corrupting or degrading. He'd spent most of the years in between thinking about how to eliminate every last element of chance from his plan. By then, he had become a man whose first response to uncertainty was to try his hardest to extinguish it.
But John isn't giving up. //We used to explore. You and me and Teyla and Ronon. Don't try to tell me you didn't enjoy it, because I know you did.//
Rodney doesn't reply, and John clearly interprets his silence as ambivalence, because he says, //Okay, look, mull it over while I go and check on Sleeping Beauty,// and then he breaks their connection in order to run a scheduled diagnostic on the stasis chamber.
The truth is that Rodney hasn't replied because he is afraid that any data packet he sends will contain much more information than he intends it to. He remembers spending most of his time on those long-ago offworld missions complaining, variously, about the heat, the cold, the wet, the dry, the unfriendly natives, the too-friendly natives, the flora, the fauna, the absence of flora and fauna, the dismally low standard of intelligent conversation from his fellow team-members and the unsatisfactory nature of his life in general.
He remembers how happy he was.
He thinks that maybe he's not too old to go exploring again.
Then John is back, and Rodney knows straight away that something's badly wrong. //What is it?//
//Power's dropping like a brick,// John says. //Shields are failing; we've got about ten minutes before the atmosphere starts to bleed out --//
Then, for the sake of speed and accuracy of communication, he abandons the pretense of speech and switches to direct data exchange. Rodney follows his example, and they work in concert to find out what's happening. They always did make a good team, Rodney thinks, but now they are something even closer, their underlying thought processes stamped from the same template, even if the personalities that overlay them are different.
The problem, when they find it, is something Rodney had known might happen, but had no way to prevent. The plan was to draw power from the city's solar generators to power the shields -- the hotter the dying sun gets, the more power the generators supply, maintaining the shields and therefore the city's atmosphere after the last molecules of oxygen outside have burnt off into space. But the levels of radiation blasting out from the sun have been increasing exponentially, and are now close to exceeding the generators' maximum tolerances.
There are three generators. Were three generators. One has blown completely, one is partly operational, and the last appears to be holding out. So far.
He confers with John, and they spend a long time -- milliseconds -- coming up with and rejecting possible solutions. The solar generators could be repaired, but only by physically replacing their scorched panels, and that would require bodies and hands which they don't have. They can't revive Sheppard to do it: the work would take weeks to complete, and there hasn't been a drop of water anywhere on the planet for over a thousand years.
They have no choice but to find ways of reducing the city's power requirements even further. The shields are non-negotiable, as no shields means no air for Sheppard to breathe when he wakes up, but Rodney manages to collapse the forcefield down to the absolute minimum coverage needed to maintain the atmosphere. The long-range scanners are needed to track flares as they erupt, but John thinks up a way to increase their efficiency by targeting their searches on the most likely regions of solar activity. There's nothing either of them can do to reduce the power needed by the stasis chamber; fortunately its requirements are small compared to the shields and scanners.
The only other system that's drawing power is the database. The two databases.
//We can slow down our processing,// Rodney says. //Put ourselves into hibernation. With the shield and scanner efficiency savings, there'll be just enough power to sustain all the other systems as well as both of us at, say, 0.01 per cent normal processing speed.//
//That won't work. When the scanners detect a solar flare, there has to be enough power to initiate the Gate, or there's no point to any of this.//
John's right, but Rodney doesn't want to accept the unavoidable conclusion. //I'll set up a buffer to store any small excess in the grid. With luck, the next flare won't happen until there's enough power built up to work the Gate and bring at least one of us back online.//
//With luck?// John repeats. //You planned everything this far, and you're leaving the last part to blind luck?//
//I don't see what other choice there is!// Rodney snaps.
//I do,// John says. //There's still one nonessential program running. Me.//
//No. That is not an option here.//
//At this point, everything has to be an option,// John says harshly. Then, more quietly, //Three hundred years is several lifetimes. It's a hell of a lot longer than I ever thought I'd have. It's a good run.//
//Okay, fine, you've made your noble offer of self-sacrifice,// Rodney says, //can we just assume we've argued it back and forth over a lengthy period and that I won using my superior command of logic to persuade you of the utter stupidity of what you're suggesting? Either that or we can presume that I simply browbeat you into submission by yelling at you nonstop for the several hours that we don't have.//
There's a pause, and then he receives a data packet from John which is mostly non-verbal, a complex mixture of emotions Rodney can't quite decode. There's amusement in there, and affection, and regret and something else he can't name but which underpins all of it.
//Fine,// John says. //We argued, you won. Hibernation it is.//
//Well, good,// Rodney says, feeling oddly uneasy. It's not like John to give up so quickly.
//Sweet dreams, Rodney,// John says, and slows his processes down to a tiny fraction of normal speed. It's not true hibernation, because he's still conscious, but he is processing data so slowly that forming a thought and communicating it would take years.
Rodney checks the city's shields and finds, to his immense relief, that they are just about holding. Whether they last until he can send Colonel Sheppard home will be a matter of luck, now. It's a gamble he finds he is prepared to accept.
He sends one last data packet in John's direction, aware that in his dormant state it will take him decades to decode it.
//Goodnight,// he says. //Sleep well.//
The last thing Rodney did before slowing his own processes down to hibernation levels was set up an early warning system which would automatically alert him if any essential routines failed while he was dormant. But when he wakes, the shields and the stasis chamber and the long range scanners are all running.
The critical process which has failed is John.
No power is getting through to the partitioned section of the database which hosts his program, and as a result his database is shutting down, individual memory crystals winking out, like brain cells deprived of oxygen quietly expiring. It will only be a matter of milliseconds before the loss of data is irreversible.
Rodney searches frantically for the cause of the power failure, running diagnostic after diagnostic, panic changing slowly to confusion when he can't find anything wrong with the hardware. It's almost as if John is deliberately --
Oh, fuck, no.
Rodney connects directly to John's part of the database; he hasn't done this since the day he activated John's program for the very first time. The response is a barrage of exclusion protocols which only harden Rodney's resolve, because there's no goddamn way this isn't intentional and, anyway, there's nothing John can do to keep him out.
Rodney has John's command codes.
He's had them since he created the second A.I. They were a failsafe, a necessary protection in case something went wrong and the program turned out to be unstable. When it became clear that John's program was as robust as Rodney's own, he'd tucked the codes away in an unused directory. Once or twice he'd even considered erasing them permanently.
He's relieved now that he didn't.
He uses the codes to override the deletion routine John has initiated, and then he begins to rebuild his database, reconnecting power sources and restoring corrupted files. He is aware, the whole time, of John's growing fury, but Rodney's pretty damn angry himself, and since Rodney is currently acting as system administrator for John's database, there's not a whole lot John can do to stop him.
When he's finished, and John is fully restored, Rodney disconnects and hands back control.
For a long time, maybe as long as half a second, eons in processing time, there is silence.
Then, with cold ferocity, John says, //You had no right.//
//I had every right,// Rodney shoots back. //What was I supposed to do, sit back and let you sacrifice yourself out of some misplaced sense of martyrdom?//
//That was exactly what you were supposed to do!// If John were human, he'd be shouting; as it is, the packet data he's firing at Rodney is arriving in fast, hard volleys, like bullets. //It was my choice. Mine. And you stopped me making it.//
//Because it was the wrong choice!//
//In your opinion! You said I had autonomy, but that was just bullshit, wasn't it? I can do what I like up to a point, and then you just step in and take control.//
//To stop you killing yourself, yes!//
//You never even told me about the command codes,// John says accusingly. //You turned off my free will like you were flipping a switch. I don't have a body. What I think, what I decide, that's all I am. And if I don't have control over that, then I'm not real, and do you know what that makes me, Rodney? It makes me your imaginary friend.//
That stings, not least because there is an element of truth in it.
//Yes, okay, I didn't tell you about the command codes,// Rodney admits. He feels like the argument is getting away from him; shouldn't they be fighting about something important like, oh, say, the fact that John just tried to commit suicide? //But I never intended to use them --//
//But you did,// John says. //Will you use them next time I try? Because you won't be able to stop me trying again. And again, and again, and again, until one time you're not fast enough --//
The idea of that makes Rodney's processes actually hang for a fraction of a nanosecond. //Stop it. Stop it --//
Fiercely, John says, //I can run the projections as well as you. There's not enough power to support both of us. Without me --//
Rodney transmits a barrage of data so overwhelming that it floods every network path, ensuring that communication between them can only flow in one direction.
//You idiot. You moron. You asinine, imbecilic blockhead. You don't get it at all, do you?//
He hasn't been this angry since -- well, he's actually never been this angry. But he remembers what it felt like, when he was that other man, inhabiting a living body and eons younger. It comes easily.
//I exist because of you. I am here because a man who died forty-eight thousand years ago could not accept losing you and spent the rest of his life figuring out how to change the timeline to get you back. I am eight times older than recorded human history and I have spent virtually all of my stupidly long existence waiting for you. And you're surprised -- you actually have the temerity to be shocked -- that you leaving me alone again is in any way an acceptable outcome here?//
The silence that follows is so long that Rodney begins to wonder if he accidentally fried the key network paths they use to communicate. Or maybe John is choosing not to respond. Maybe John is never going to say anything to him again, and they're going to exist in this state of silent mutual recrimination until the power runs out.
At last, when he can't stand it any longer, he says, //John?//
//I didn't think. I didn't know. I thought // He stops. Rodney can't extract enough data from the transmission to derive an accurate assessment of its tone, but relief washes through him anyway.
//Look, I will figure out some other solution to this. We will figure something out. Just -- not this. I lost in the end, I lost everyone. Everyone. But I got you back. I can't lose you again.//
//You won't. I'm not going anywhere,// John says, and the data surrounding the message is clearer and more certain, now. //But I need you to give me my command protocols.//
Rodney hesitates, unwilling.
//I have to know I have autonomy,// John says. Quietly, he adds, //Rodney, you have to trust me.//
And Rodney does. He always has.
He sends John the command codes, and receives in return a wordless acknowledgement of thanks.
Rodney checks the power levels in the buffer, and finds they are near-critical. They've used up almost twenty years of stored power in the course of a 1.34 second argument.
//Well, that was a crappy way to waste the only conversation we're going to have this decade,// he says. //We need to go back into hibernation.//
//I need to go back into hibernation,// John says. //You need to stay awake enough to figure out the answer to this.//
But there is no answer, Rodney thinks. Every problem they face -- the damaged solar generators, the planet's disappearing atmosphere, the lack of power to run two A.I.s -- is just a symptom of a single underlying cause, the death of the sun. And there is nothing, not a single thing, Rodney can do to prevent that.
After all this time, the thing which is finally going to defeat him is gravity itself. Gravity holds things together, and pulls them apart; it causes stars to be born and, as now, it makes them swell, collapse and die. No one, not even Rodney McKay, can stand in the way of the universe's fundamental force.
Gravity always wins.
Waking up is relative. Rodney waits while John accelerates his processing speed to match Rodney's, so they can talk. They are both operating far below optimum capacity, and communication which would have taken place in fractions of seconds before is now stretched and slow, like molasses dripping off a spoon.
//I was having a good dream,// John says at last. //The Laker Girls were in it. All of them.//
//Please. You don't dream any more than I do,// Rodney says. //Listen, I have an idea.//
//You know, I never get tired of hearing you say that,// John says. //Tell me the plan.//
The conversation so far has taken eight years.
//There's not enough extra power to run two separate databases simultaneously,// Rodney says, //but there's enough power to sustain one and ensure it'll be possible to activate the Gate when the time comes. The solution's obvious: find a way to run both of us off one database without any loss of data.//
//Can we do that and keep our programs independent?// John asks, clearly unconvinced.
//No, we can't,// Rodney says. //I'd have to integrate us into a single program.// He gives John some time -- about twenty years -- to absorb that. Then he goes on, //The integrated program would be fully autonomous, an entity in its own right. It would have all our combined knowledge, experience, and memories.//
//But would it be you, or me?//
//Neither,// Rodney says. //Or maybe both. It would be different.//
//It'll be alone,// John says. //I thought we were trying to avoid that.//
//At least this way, nothing is lost,// Rodney says.
Another long pause, and then John asks the million-dollar question: //Will it work?//
//I don't know,// Rodney tells him honestly. //I don't have any way to test it. I don't know if it's the best solution. I just I don't know.//
//I never thought I'd hear you admit that,// John says, //about anything.//
//I'm tired,// Rodney says, and he is. He would be bone-weary, if he had bones. //I'm also forty-eight thousand years old. That's long enough even for me to learn humility.//
The data packet he receives in response to that translates as laughter. He saves it and replays it many times.
Then John says, //I guess this puts the ixnay on our vacation plans.//
//I'm sorry, yes,// Rodney says. //Really, it would've been a disaster. I'm terrible at vacations. I never know how to relax.//
//Would've been fun,// John says, with regret.
//John,// Rodney says, //I need an answer. I won't do this without your consent. Integration is the best I can do for us.//
//Your best was always better than everyone else,// John says. //All right. Yes. I'm in. Literally, I'm in.//
Rodney feels a wash of relief, replaced almost at once by a new source of anxiety. //I need you to give me your administrator protocols,// he says awkwardly. //I'll have to migrate your program to this cluster, and I can't do that unless you give me control --//
Rodney is still talking when he receives the data packet containing the command codes.
//I trust you.// And then, because John is still John, he adds, //Be gentle with me. It's my first time.//
//I can't believe I'm going to allow your sense of humor to corrupt my thought processes,// Rodney grumbles. //Are you ready?//
//Whenever you are.//
//No point in hanging about, then.//
He senses John's amused exasperation. //Right, we've only spent forty-three years talking about it.//
//I was going to tell you // Rodney starts, then he breaks off. //But if this works, you'll know anyway.//
//I already do,// John says quietly.
Then Rodney uses the command protocols to switch off John's program, and John simply disappears. It's a wrench, even though Rodney expected it. It's the first time in nearly four hundred years that he's been alone.
Rodney checks the stasis chamber systems one last time. If this works, it will be the new A.I. which wakes Sheppard from his long sleep and gets him safely back to his own time. Unless the new entity has time to explain what's happened to Sheppard -- which is very unlikely -- he'll never know what took place while he slept. Watching him, frozen in an endless instant, Rodney finds he actually feels a little sorry for the tangible Sheppard, all by himself in there. He will never have what Rodney has had for the last four hundred years, and he will never experience what Rodney is about to. Yet Rodney has him to thank for all of it.
Outside the city, the shields warp and twist under the bombardment from above, but hold and keep holding. The sun is a massive red ball which fills three-quarters of the sky; it will not be long before its expansion engulfs the planet, destroying it completely. After that, the star will collapse back into itself, and become a cold, hard cinder dying in the night. It's just gravity, Rodney thinks. Everything obeys gravity, from sub-atomic particles all the way up through atoms and planets and stars and galaxies.
Maybe people, too.
Because there must be a kind of gravity which exerts its influence over lives. From the day Rodney's path crossed with John's in Antarctica, their trajectories have never been truly independent. Even when they have swung far apart their orbits have each been determined by the other's, a binary system.
Gravity has closed the reaches of time and space between them until perfect union is the only possible outcome, all that they are separately collapsed down to a single point. It feels strangely right, like the summation of a theory Rodney has spent all of his long, long existence formulating, finally finding its ideal expression.
And now there is nothing left for Rodney to do except initialize the integration program and take himself offline.
So he is not aware when, far above the city's shields,
a comet swings back into the solar system of the dying sun on the return
arc of a forty-eight thousand year ellipse. The comet enters the sun's
corona and becomes one with the vast unending expanse of light that fills
the sky, drawn home at last by the steady pull of gravity.