Elizabeth tilted her head back, looking up at the moss-laced gray towers of the building that was officially known as P3M-7R2-002: the second complex of buildings that the survey teams had discovered on P3M-7R2. Sheppard had taken one look and immediately dubbed it Castle Grayskull. It had seemed funny to all of them at the time. Not a whole lot about the situation was funny now.
"The science team are -- were working on the level below the surface, ma'am," Lorne told her. The correction was so swift that she might not have noticed it, if not for the flicker of some indefinable emotion in his eyes, before his brows lowered in a frown. "The stairs are on your left. You know that the Colonel's orders --"
"Thank you, Major. Yes, I know." Elizabeth stepped over a fat power conduit lying on the ground like a fat gray snake, and slipped through the building's tall double doors, hanging loosely on broken hinges. Vines crawled up their carved surfaces, climbing over the once-beautiful friezes depicting fantastic hydra-like monsters.
Inside, the ruins were illuminated by the harsh white glare of portable arc lights, powered by a generator outside. In some ways the lights concealed as much as they revealed, casting impenetrable pools of shadow in corners and behind crumbled statues. Part of the ceiling had collapsed at some point in the distant past, letting in rain and weather and more questing vines. Although it was mid-afternoon on Atlantis, night had just fallen on P3M-7R2, and a slim white thumbnail of moon was visible through the gap in the roof.
Elizabeth picked her way through puddles and around a fuzzy purple fungus that stood nearly as high as her chest. A white tag was visible where the botany teams had marked it for later study, back when this was just another ruin to study, and not a tomb.
Leaving Atlantis, on the rare occasions when the situation was desperate enough to warrant it, always left Elizabeth with mixed feelings. In a way, she liked to have an opportunity to contribute on the same level as the gate teams -- to show her people, and herself, that she stayed cloistered safely in her tower out of necessity and not cowardice. That she didn't ask anyone to do anything that she wasn't willing to do herself. But maybe she really was a coward, because there was also the lingering fear that she couldn't quite shake -- damn it, she read every single one of the teams' reports, and no one knew more thoroughly than Elizabeth how dangerous this galaxy could be.
The stairs are on your left. She found them easily enough, a wide flight of cracked stone steps. Even if they'd been more subtle, though, she could have followed the sound of muffled but strident arguing coming from below -- the words indecipherable, but the stress, exhaustion and anger coming through loud and clear.
Another power conduit snaked down the steps. She followed it, and the increasing volume of the argument, into a long gallery lined with two parallel rows of statues alternating with waist-high metal pillars holding glass globes atop them. Elizabeth's eyes skimmed over the pillars -- they were clearly technological, and she saw far too much alien technology on Atlantis to feel like staring at it on another world; that was the scientists' area, anyway -- and lingered on the statues. Each was unique and all of them depicted strange, fantastic beasts, executed with skill that would have put Michelangelo to shame, and yet with an ethereal, exotic feeling to them. The anthropologists wouldn't even venture a guess as to who or what had built this building or the others they'd found; the unknown builders had left plenty of art and technology behind, but nothing of themselves. However, Elizabeth didn't think they had been human. She couldn't even say why she was so sure. Something about the building, and the art in particular, made her think that it was not designed to be viewed by human eyes, human minds.
Not for the first time, she wished that they had a Daniel Jackson on their expedition -- someone who was a genius for understanding alien languages and behavior the way that Rodney was a genius with technology or John for flying things. Teyla was good enough, a genius in her own way, but her knowledge was too limited to help in a situation like this one. Not in time, anyway.
She ran her fingers lightly over the inscription on one of the statues, brushing away dust and mold. It was a derivative of Ancient, she was fairly sure. Zelenka had people searching the database, but she'd still been up all night, poring over the gigabytes of photos that the scientists had taken of the ruins and the inscriptions before John chased them out. The writing in the photos, blurred by moss and time, would have been difficult to decipher under the best circumstances. Still, she thought she might have begun to get a grasp on it, and what she had learned from the inscriptions in the photos made her wonder whether to fear or hope.
She passed the final statue and stepped out into a wide round room with a dais in the middle. John was pacing atop the raised area, short choppy steps that took him from one side to the other and back again, all the while punctuating his words with quick, hard motions of his hands -- particularly the hand holding the gun. Elizabeth knew him well enough to read the signs of manic exhaustion in his too-fast movements and his too-loud words. The dais was small enough that he had to detour around Rodney with each circuit. Rodney, of course, was completely unresponsive to that or anything else.
"We've been through this, Carson, and I'm going hoarse from telling you. I'm not going to say it again. The answer is no."
Carson stood at the edge of the dais, one step from falling off -- he'd apparently retreated as far from the Colonel as he could get. His back was to Elizabeth, but as she approached, she could see the exhaustion in the slump of his shoulders, too. It amazed and impressed her that he was still up there. After the first time John pointed a gun at him, she wouldn't have been surprised if he'd left, as the others had -- but he was still there.
"You think you're getting tired of --" Beckett swallowed, drew a deep breath, and started over. "Colonel, he's dead. I don't want to believe it any more than you do, but I don't think there's any way around it. He has no vital signs and he's been that way for nearly twenty-four hours. Whatever that ... stuff is currently doing to him, it's not keeping him alive."
John stopped in his next circuit to pick up one of Rodney's limp arms. Something fine and silvery was visible, briefly, trailing from the slate-colored jacket sleeve to the floor; Elizabeth saw it flash in the harsh glare of the arc lights. This was the first time she'd seen it for herself, since it was too fine to show up in the pictures that had been transmitted back to Atlantis. Allowing Rodney's arm to flop back to the stone floor, Sheppard straightened and glared defiantly at Beckett. "I've seen dead people, Carson, okay? I've seen people in all stages of death, believe me. And someone who's been dead for over a day is going to experience rigor mortis at some point. You're a doctor, dammit. I shouldn't have to tell you--"
"So what's your explanation, then, Colonel?" Carson's voice rose above Sheppard's, cracking with weariness and pain. "He's not in a stasis chamber, he's not on any form of life support that we can detect, he doesn't have anything strange in his bloodstream, he's simply dead. A few minutes without oxygen, Colonel -- that's how long it takes brain cells to begin to die. You told me yourself that you think he may have been like this for as long as half an hour before Teyla found him. It really doesn't matter how long you performed CPR after that. He touched something he shouldn't have, it killed him, and now we're arguing about whether or not to -- bloody hell." He raised his hand to his face, his shoulders slumping further still.
Sheppard started to turn away, something dark and dangerous in his face; but as he turned, looking past Carson, he saw Elizabeth. She'd thought he'd been tense before, but now his whole body went rigid as a board. "Damn it, Elizabeth! I told you not to come here. It isn't safe."
"That's not why you don't want me here, and we both know it." Seeing his finger twitch on the trigger guard, she held out both her hands so that he could see she held nothing in them. John wasn't crazy, she reminded herself, just frightened and grieving and angry. She was confident that he wouldn't shoot at a friend. So was Carson, obviously, or he wouldn't have stayed.
John's voice rose, furious. "Elizabeth, we have no idea what happened to Rodney or how he triggered it -- there is no way in hell I'm letting anybody else run around loose in this room! I told Lorne to --"
"Yes, I know. But I am in charge of this expedition, John. Your orders don't apply to me."
"Yes, you're in charge, which is exactly why you can't -- damn it, Elizabeth!" He ran a hand across his face and whirled away, turning his back to her.
Elizabeth nodded to Beckett, who was staring worriedly between the two of them. "Carson, I'd like to talk to John alone, if you don't mind."
"Elizabeth ..." He sighed, then, and wearily dropped down from the dais to the floor. "Fine, please. Be my guest. If you can make him see sense ..."
"Carson." She caught at his hand as he went past her, stopping him. "Carson ... how sure are you? About Rodney?"
The eyes that met hers were red-rimmed and haunted. "About as sure as a person can be sure of anything in this bloody galaxy ... which is to say, no, I can't rule out the possibility that there's some force at work here that we don't understand. Clearly, he's connected to something, and someone or something must have done that for a reason, although Zelenka says that he can't find anything resembling a computer down here, and there's nothing alive on this planet that's more advanced than a plant."
"But it's still possible that he could be --"
"He's flatlined, Elizabeth. No brain activity, no metabolic activity at all. We haven't put him on life support because there's simply no point. It was much too late for our technology when we got here. Right now, it's some sort of alien miracle or nothing." His lips curved slightly in a sad smile. "Rodney might call medicine a pseudoscience, but it is a science. I'm a scientist. And I can tell you that there's no scientific process I know of that can bring him back to us."
"I see," she whispered, her throat tight. Her eyes went up to John, standing rigid at the edge of the dais, not looking at her.
"At some point, one of us has to make the call." Carson looked away from her, staring at the wall. Maybe it was just the harsh light that made him look ten years older than the man she knew so well. "John won't let go easily. Nor should he. What about you?"
Her breath caught. In her office, staring at blurry photographs on her computer screen, she had thought her hopes and fantasies impossible. Here, surrounded by shadows and alien statues, it was a little easier to believe in miracles. "I don't know, Carson. I've begun to decipher their language and I've made a few guesses about what these people were trying to do here. I'm not ready to give up yet."
She hadn't realized that she still held his fingers trapped in hers, until he squeezed lightly. "If there's something you want to try, dear ... please, try it. And if I can help you in any way, call me. I'll see that you aren't crowded. Just remember that the needs ..." His voice broke a little. "The needs of the living outweigh the needs of the dead, by a long shot, and John's been down here for over a day without food or sleep. You're probably not in much better shape."
She returned the hand-squeeze, and let go. "I did bring a couple of sandwiches with me. I'll see if I can get him to eat something. Fair?"
He tried to laugh. It wasn't very convincing. "Fair enough, but give me a call if he -- if you need -- if anything changes, Elizabeth."
She turned her head, watching him leave, and then walked up to the base of the dais, tilting her head back to look up at Sheppard's tense figure. "He's hurting too, John."
"Funny, that's not how it looks from here," Sheppard said without turning around. "Looks to me like he's the one who's trying to drag Rodney off to the morgue."
There were no stairs leading up to the raised area, that she could see. It was about waist high. Still, she did spend three days a week in the Atlantis gym, and she hoisted herself up without difficulty. John spun around, facing her across Rodney's still form. The gun remained down, pointing at the floor, and the arm that held it trembled with strain. "Elizabeth, leave."
"I'm sorry. No."
He took a long, shuddering breath and for a moment, she could see the weariness that he must be feeling come down upon him, nearly crushing him. Carson had told her that John had performed CPR on Rodney, nonstop, for three hours. And none of them had slept in nearly two days. There were fine tremors in her own legs as she stood, facing one of her two closest friends across the body of the other.
"I won't let them take him, Elizabeth."
"I know. I agree with you. I don't think he's dead either, John."
Shadowed, wary eyes raised to meet hers. She could see suspicion in their depths, and she didn't blame him. He'd chased Zelenka, Beckett, his own team out of the room at gunpoint; he knew, had to know, that Elizabeth had come to talk him down.
At least, that was what she'd told the others. It was what she'd told herself, back on Atlantis. But here ... here it was easier to believe that the things she'd read in those blurry photos might actually be truth, and not myths.
"I'm not lying to you, John. I believe you. I've been deciphering the inscriptions and I think I know what this place is for, and why it affected Rodney but not SGA-4 when they originally surveyed the planet."
His face, normally difficult to read, was open to her now -- she could see hope and suspicion chase each other across his features. "Tell me."
Elizabeth folded her knees and sat down, cross-legged, beside Rodney. A quicksilver bolt of fear went through her, because if she was wrong about the mental component to the system's activation -- but nothing happened, and she felt nothing other than cold stone under her hips. Without thinking, she placed her hand on Rodney's arm. It was stone-cold to the touch. No wonder Carson was so insistent that he was dead. Doubt swept over her, but she swallowed it back; she had to believe, or they were all lost. "Come here and sit down, and I'll tell you."
John stepped over Rodney's legs and sat next to her. "Okay, Elizabeth, give."
She shoved a sandwich at him. "Carson made me promise that I'd make you eat something. You eat, I talk."
Reluctantly he unwrapped the sandwich, while Elizabeth folded her hand tightly over Rodney's arm, and spoke quietly. "The inscriptions refer to this place as a judging place of the gods. At first I thought that it referred to a belief that their gods governed over the application of justice -- not at all an uncommon belief throughout the history of many worlds, including our own. But as I continued to read the inscriptions, I came to believe something entirely different."
She ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips. Vividly, she remembered the moment of realization. It had come to her as she sat in her office, eyes burning from lack of sleep and from the tears she would not shed, decrypting inscriptions because she could do nothing else to help, and silently monitoring the chatter over the radio as John's men dealt with an increasingly violent and irrational Lieutenant Colonel. Feeling her life spin out of control, as one of the two men she relied on lay dead on an alien world, and the other slipped beyond her ability to reach him.
It was then that understanding had struck her with the force of a thunderclap.
"It's not a judging place of the gods, it's a judging place for the gods," she explained. Her fingers chafed lightly at Rodney's still arm, though she assumed he could not feel it. "A subtle but important grammatical difference. The inscriptions go on to speak of judging and punishing gods who had committed crimes against mortals. I think this place is designed to trap gods -- Ancients -- and put them through some form of trial. Not to kill them, but to hold them until a judgment could be reached."
She risked a look at John. The gun lay in his lap, apparently forgotten, beside the untouched sandwich; he was leaning forward eagerly, his hazel-green eyes fixed on her face. "So Rodney's in some sort of stasis ... or something?"
"Or something," she agreed. "If I am reading their language correctly, this would have been the judging facility only. The actual prison was somewhere else, on another world. So this place was not designed to hold an Ancient for very long."
"But why does it think Rodney's a -- Oh. The gene." He frowned. "But Carson and I both have the gene, too. Why hasn't it affected us?"
This, at least, was easy to answer. "It can only hold one at a time. Rodney had to be the first person who came in here with the gene. SGA-4 has only one ATA gene carrier, their pilot, and he was running aerial surveys in a puddlejumper while the rest of the team explored on foot, as your team did. He never came close to this facility; I checked."
That was part of it, at least. The other part was pure conjecture on her part, and John didn't need to know it. Didn't ever need to know it.
John was rubbing his hands together, as if trying to warm them. "Okay, so we know what happened to him -- sort of -- and we sort of know why. Now how do we get him out?"
Ah yes, that was the question, wasn't it? Elizabeth looked away from his too-hopeful eyes, glancing instead down at Rodney's pale face. There was a blueish tinge to his skin. She had to fight off an impulse to reach out and brush the scattered strands of short brown hair from his forehead. Dead or not, the Rodney McKay that she knew wouldn't have appreciated the gesture.
"I haven't got a clue, I'm afraid."
Actually, she did have a clue, but she wasn't about to say anything until she was a little more sure of her facts. The answer, she hoped, would lie on the frescos and carvings scattered around the room.
There was a solid-sounding smack and she looked up to see that John had struck his thigh with his fist. "There's got to be some way."
Elizabeth pushed herself up off the stone floor. "I'm sure there is, and I intend to find it. I'm going to take a closer look at some of these carvings. Surely there are instructions or at least some mythic references. Carson said he'd buy us some time."
John snorted. "A few minutes ago, Carson was ready to sedate me and cart me off to the infirmary while Biro started carving up Rodney. How do you do it? Do you have a self-help course out there that I could take? The 'Elizabeth Weir Method' ..."
"Eat your sandwich," she said, smiling -- and she thought it might be the first time she'd smiled in all the hours since the call had come in, yesterday, through the suddenly activating gate, Ronon's harsh, breathless voice speaking the words they all dreaded: Atlantis, we need a medical team ...
Jumping down from the dais, she began to walk around the room. She carried a small flashlight in her pocket and she used it to examine the carvings more closely. As she'd hoped, it was much easier to read the inscriptions in person rather than through the photos. Drawing out a notebook, she began to scribble notes on the letterforms in her own personal shorthand. It was easy to lose herself in this, to forget that Rodney's life -- assuming he still lived -- hung in the balance. She could have been a simple linguist, and been happy. Instead, she was responsible for the fate of a city, and equally, for the fates of a handful of people who meant more than the world to her.
One of them lay on the dais in the middle of the room, not breathing, not moving. Another sat next to him, slumped loosely on the stone with an outward casualness that didn't fool Elizabeth for a minute. He was watching her like a hawk. When he noticed that she, too, was watching him out of the corner of her eye, he took a self-conscious bite of the sandwich and tried to grin at her.
Oh, John, I want to find a way to undo this. For you, for me, for all of us.
She allowed herself to sink back into the simple pleasure of puzzle-solving, tuning out the world. The crackle of her radio jolted her out of her reverie.
"Dr. Weir? It's Kate."
"Kate. Hi." She tucked the flashlight in the crook of her shoulder so that she could use her free hand, the one not holding the notebook, to wipe mold off a particularly weathered fresco.
"How is it going down there?"
"Fine. No problems." Stealing a peek at Sheppard, she saw him watching her with a furrow between his brows. He'd taken off his radio hours ago, when Elizabeth's own voice had joined the chorus of those insisting that he get his ass back to Atlantis now.
"Is the Colonel ready to come up willingly, do you think?"
"I didn't come down here to coerce him into doing anything, Kate."
"I take it that means 'no'."
She sighed, scribbled another quick note in the rudimentary grammar that she was putting together. This would be so much easier if people weren't talking to her. She had a fleeting instant of sympathy for Rodney's habitual rudeness at being interrupted. "I'm working on it, Kate. And I ask you again to let me handle this. I know John well, and standard techniques aren't going to work on him."
"I respect that, Elizabeth. Really, I do. But it's also my responsibility to protect the mental health of everyone in this city, and ..." The psychiatrist's voice trailed off; she seemed uncharacteristically uncertain of her words. "You are very close to this situation."
"I can do my job, Kate."
"I never said you couldn't. Please also let me do mine."
"As long as yours does not involve coming down here before I give you permission. I'm serious, Kate -- that's an order. I know you're just doing your job. Let me do mine, please."
"I respect that, Elizabeth. I do. But please understand that I will act as I see fit to fulfill my responsibilities to the people in this city. Just as I'm sure you will."
"Thank you, Kate. I'm sure we'll both do our best."
On that ambiguous note, she signed off and looked over at Sheppard. He couldn't have heard the conversation from where he was, at least not most of it, but he guessed, "Heightmeyer?"
"She's about ready to come down here and sedate us both, I think. And really, John ... I can't blame her. Looking at it from her point of view, our behavior does seem a bit irrational."
Sheppard bristled, the tension back in his shoulders. "You giving up too, Elizabeth?"
"No," she said simply, and went back to translating the inscriptions without another word, turning her back on him. After a few minutes, she heard the soft clatter of boots hitting the floor, and sensed the familiar presence behind her.
"Elizabeth..." His voice was rough and tired.
Briefly, Elizabeth found herself wishing that John was ... someone else. Not anyone specific, just someone she could lean into, someone who would support her and push her back up. Her throat ached with unshed tears, with the fear that she was wrong and Rodney was truly, irredeemably dead. She wanted someone to hold her and share her fear and tell her that it would be all right. John might be as terrified as she was, in fact she was sure of it, but he wasn't a person who would give in to that kind of weakness. Obviously he'd come over here to offer her something, maybe try to struggle through an apology or a thank-you. However, navigating through the uncertain waters of John Sheppard emotions was not something that she had the strength for right now. Nor, she suspected, did he.
She swallowed and turned to give him a small, strained smile. "Hold the flashlight for me?"
He nodded and took it, obviously glad to have something useful to do, no matter how small. Elizabeth went back to studying the inscriptions, occasionally making notes in her book, but less often now. It was starting to come easier to her.
She was vaguely aware of John studying her profile. "Find something?"
"Maybe." She didn't offer more than that, hating to give anything away before she was sure. He let her alone and held the flashlight in silence. When Elizabeth turned and walked briskly back to the dais, he followed her, still silent, though she could sense impatience and curiosity coiling inside him like a tightly wound spring.
For the first time since entering the temple, she looked at Rodney -- really looked at him. He lay sprawled on his back as if the tension had gone out of his muscles and he'd simply collapsed. Not visible at first glance were the fine, translucent fibers that came up through nearly microscopic cracks in the stone of the dais, forming a web across Rodney's limbs, back and head. The scientific and medical teams' scans had indicated that the fibers weren't connected to anything, and didn't seem to be doing anything. They merely terminated in the stone, a few inches down. Similarly, though they penetrated the outer layers of Rodney's skin, they didn't seem to be connected to any vital systems. They were inorganic -- mainly silicon, Zelenka said -- but resembled nothing so much as the fibers of an overgrown mold. Except they didn't appear to grow or change or engage in cellular respiration. They just ... were.
She could definitely see why Beckett had been willing to give Rodney up for dead. There was simply no logical or scientific way he could be alive. His skin was so pale that it was nearly blue, and as she'd seen for herself earlier, he was as cold as the stone upon which he lay. It was entirely possible that the myths she was interpreting as fact were actually just myths, after all. It was also possible that technology designed for a different sort of physiology would not work on humans, and that Rodney was dead even though the system wasn't designed to work that way.
Her eyes traced the soft line of Rodney's jaw, the sweep of his light eyelashes against too-pale skin. She had noticed before, on her all-too-frequent infirmary vigils, that there was something very vulnerable about Rodney when he was unconscious, with all his layers of well-fortified emotional defenses stripped away.
Damn it, these people were co-workers and subordinates, fellow exiles in a new galaxy; they were never meant to be family, people that she would sacrifice herself for in a heartbeat. What she was about to try was foolhardy, stupid and probably wouldn't work.
And she was going to do it anyway.
"Elizabeth?" John's voice carried a whole world of worry and hope. She didn't dare look at him. Instead, she opened the notebook on the dais in front of her, and began to speak.
"Like I said before, John ... this place was specifically designed to bring to justice Ancients who had committed crimes against mortals. It's all couched in very flowery, mythic language, but as far as I can tell, the trial itself was -- is -- conducted by the facility itself. However, the Ancient who was on trial had to have an ordinary person -- that is, a non-gene carrier -- speak for them. Represent them to the non-Ancients of the world, if you will."
Sheppard wasn't a slow man. "You're saying someone without the gene has to go in after him."
"There's no way I can go?" he asked hopefully.
"No. It wouldn't work. One gene carrier at a time, remember?" She ran her hands over the notebook pages. "The inscriptions speak over and over of how the 'god must stand alone' -- I gather it's some kind of safety feature to keep other Ancients from intervening in the trial." Frowning, she looked up at the temple around them. "I can't believe they got away with something like this, honestly. That the Ancients let them do it."
Sheppard shrugged a little. "Maybe the Ancients didn't know. Heck, maybe they didn't get away with it. Notice they're all gone now."
A wry smile twisted her mouth. "You do have a way of getting to the heart of things, John." Gripping the edge of the dais, she hoisted herself onto it.
Sheppard's face had gone a few shades paler. He looked almost as white as Rodney. "You're really doing this?"
"I can't ask anyone else to take a risk I'm not willing to take."
"I sure as hell can! Atlantis needs you."
"A minute ago, you were willing to do it."
He glared at her. "That's different."
"Different? I don't think so." She lay down on the dais, having very little idea how to proceed, but knowing that John would be a lot more likely to accept her decision if she looked like she knew what she was doing. She told herself that he couldn't hear her heart pounding against her ribs. It was only audible to her. "The myths say that the speaker for the accused -- they call it an Advocate -- can enter and leave the 'place of judging' at will. I should be able to get out easily, if I need to."
"You're putting a lot of faith in a myth, Elizabeth."
Turning her head to the side, she met his eyes squarely. "I know that, John. But it's all we've got. It's all he's got."
He leaned a hip against the edge of the dais. Mr. Casual, Mr. 'I Don't Care' -- except for his eyes, his betraying eyes giving him away. His eyes broke her heart. "If this puts you in the same state as Rodney, Elizabeth, I don't know how long I can hold off Carson and his medical goon squad."
"Carson's on our side, John. I'd be more worried about Kate, if I were you."
He chuckled weakly. "Never thought I'd have you for a co-conspirator, Elizabeth. I kinda like you this way."
"Don't be thinking I'll make a habit of it." She closed her eyes and told herself that she wasn't putting one person's welfare above the safety of Atlantis. She was doing this for Atlantis. They couldn't survive without Rodney. Pushing aside worry and guilt, she tried to do what she imagined that John and the other gene carriers did when they used Ancient technology, and willed it to happen, willed herself to be with Rodney, wherever he was.
There was a sensation not unlike falling asleep, but with full, conscious awareness -- in a matter of seconds, her limbs grew heavy and tingling and numb, and she felt as if she was falling. Gasping, she tried instinctively to struggle, and found herself crouching on a cold stone floor.
"John --?" she began, raising her head, and froze. She was in the same room, and yet, it wasn't the same. Gone were the stark electric lights, the millennia of mold and seepage on the walls. Instead, the frescos were bright and new, the walls clean, the statues undamaged. The place was lit by warm, omnidirectional golden light that seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The dais still stood in the middle of the room -- currently some twenty feet or so in front of her -- but on top of it was a startling contraption that instantly made Elizabeth think of some kind of medieval torture device, except that it didn't seem to be designed to hurt, only to contain. It was glassine and transparent, only slightly larger than its sole occupant, with rows of wicked-looking spikes pointing inward. And inside ...
"Rodney!" Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and took a quick step forward, only to be brought up short as if she'd hit an invisible wall.
"Are you the Advocate who speaks for the Accused?" The voice, like the light, was soft and warm and seemed to come from all around her.
Elizabeth straightened. "I am," she said, and as her hands went instinctively to smooth down the sides of her uniform, she discovered that she wasn't wearing her uniform at all. Instead, it had been replaced with a soft gray robe that whispered around her legs.
Rodney was wearing something similar; it looked shapeless and rumpled on his slumped body. He'd stiffened a little in his glass cage upon seeing Elizabeth, only to slump again when her forward motion was halted. She couldn't tell how aware of his surroundings he really was; his eyes had a glazed, drugged look to them, and he hadn't tried to speak -- which, with Rodney, was a major warning sign.
"State your name and relationship to the Accused."
"My name is Dr. Elizabeth Weir. The, er, Accused works under me in a place called Atlantis. I'm his boss." Clearing her throat, she asked, "And may I ask, who am I addressing?"
"We are the Voice of Judgment."
Curiosity bubbled up in her -- was it (they?) a computer, a person, an Ascended being? Was she talking to the builders of the temple themselves? Clasping her hands in front of her, Elizabeth reminded herself that the important thing wasn't to assuage her curiosity, but to get Rodney and herself out of this place.
"May I ask what the Accused is accused of?"
"The crimes of the Accused are as follows." Elizabeth, looking straight at Rodney, saw him stiffen again, as the omnipresent voice began a litany that made Elizabeth, also, stiffen in horror. "In reverse chronological order: abandonment and subsequent death of John Sheppard. Deaths of over a hundred civilians, formerly Wraith. Giving away location of Earth to Wraith. Death of James Griffin. Death of --"
As the voice droned on, Elizabeth thought, with a sinking feeling of horror, I was right. This was the part she hadn't mentioned to John. Various parts of the myth stated things like "The crimes of the guilty are read from the pages of the book of the heart" and "The strongest cage is made of guilt." Elizabeth had feared -- accurately, it seemed -- that this meant the facility worked off of a person's own feelings of guilt over their actions, rather than any sort of objective ideal of justice. It had captured Rodney because it detected his feelings of guilt over the things he'd done in the Pegasus Galaxy -- including the many that weren't his fault.
Looking at Rodney, she saw that his eyes were closed and he'd sagged within his glass cage until he was nearly touching the spikes. She wondered if the cage was a tangible manifestation of his perceived guilt over his actions. Half-listening to the Voice of Judgment, she noticed that it had listed Sheppard's death at least three different times, and she'd heard Teyla and Ronon's names in there as well.
This is ridiculous. Half these things he hasn't done, and the other half aren't his fault. But guilt wasn't rational; it paid no heed to facts or actual culpability. Which makes it a very stupid thing to base a system of justice upon, Elizabeth thought. Perhaps, she mused, it was a measure of the psychological differences between the builders of this facility and the humans who came after them. Maybe to these unknown aliens, the idea that a person might feel guilty for something which wasn't their fault was an entirely unknown concept. The idea that feelings of guilt might be separate from actual, objective guilt might never have occurred to them.
It made her wonder, again, that the Ancients had allowed the construction of such a place ... but perhaps they hadn't known. Perhaps it had never been used for its intended purpose at all, only built and abandoned, like so many other things, on so many other worlds in this galaxy.
The terrible litany finally stopped. After a moment's silence, the Voice of Judgment said, "You may now speak in defense of the Accused."
"Certainly." Elizabeth tried not to look at Rodney. His eyes were still shut; his face, his posture, all screamed of utter defeat. "The charges that you have listed are all false. I will proceed to refute them."
This would have been so much easier in a human court. She wondered what arguments would sway this alien entity, with its unknown ideas of justice. What sort of evidence, if any, it would accept in Rodney's defense.
"I will begin with your first charge, the abandonment and death of John Sheppard. John is not dead; he is very much alive. His team did not abandon him. He was captured, through no fault of their own. They -- we -- worked tirelessly to find him, and eventually did." In a way, she found that she was having to convince herself as much as her audience -- she still had nightmares of John withered and aged, dying before their eyes -- before her eyes -- while they could do nothing to help him. It didn't surprise her to learn that it still haunted Rodney, too. "Your second charge, the deaths of the Wraith, ignores the fact that Rodney was, first of all, acting under orders, and second, that by performing that action, he saved Atlantis from discovery and therefore saved the lives of everyone there, as well as the entire Milky Way Galaxy ..."
As she spoke, Elizabeth couldn't help worrying about Rodney's continued lack of reaction. It was as if he'd already given up. And, if she was right about the nature of this place, it might not be the Voice of Judgment who had to be convinced of Rodney's innocence -- but Rodney himself.
Not like yesterday. He and Ronon had been poking around the surface levels of the temple, while Teyla and Rodney explored the lower levels, when Teyla's worried voice had come across the radio. "Dr. McKay? Rodney? Come in, please."
Sheppard had keyed his radio with a slight grin. "Come on, Teyla, I give you one job ..." He knew from experience how hard it could be to keep track of Rodney at times. It was still funny, all funny, just a big joke. "C'mon, McKay, you're freaking out Teyla. Say something."
Amusement had changed quickly to worry, and the scientist hunt was on in earnest. Somehow Rodney had gone one way while Teyla had gone another. She was beside herself with guilt; she'd been fascinated by the carvings on the walls, and hadn't even noticed that he wasn't with her. She had no idea how long he'd been missing.
"Not your fault. There's no animal life on this planet; unless a plant got him, he's gotta be down there somewhere. Probably so engrossed in some piece of Ancient crap that he's not answering his radio. I'll kick his ass when we find him ..."
But there had been no ass-kicking, just Teyla's uncharacteristically panic-stricken voice over the radio: "Colonel, I have found him -- we will need a medical team, now." And he'd sent Ronon running for the Stargate; damn it, they hadn't brought a puddlejumper because SGA-4 had reported that there was nowhere near the ruins to land one, which meant a two-hour trip back to the gate even for Ronon ... and meanwhile, he and Teyla performed CPR on Rodney's limp body; and they must have broken just about every rib in his chest, but Sheppard didn't care, if only it helped, if only they weren't too late.
Now Elizabeth was sprawled next to Rodney, like a marionette with her strings cut, and Sheppard was so goddamn tired. He slumped down on the edge of the raised platform-thingie -- there was probably a name for it, Elizabeth or Rodney would have known, and what he wouldn't give to have either one of them wake up and tell him. He rested his aching head in his hands.
The soft voice was Beckett's. Sheppard's head snapped up, driving a shallow spike of pain through the base of his skull. He focused bleary eyes on the doctor standing in the open doorway, hands spread at his sides in a clear attempt to appear non-threatening. Sheppard felt a slight grin curve the corners of his mouth. "Time's up, huh, Carson?"
Beckett stepped into the room, cautiously, as if he were approaching a wild animal or a frightened child rather than a friend and equal. His eyes went from Sheppard to the two bodies lying beside him, and he let out a soft breath. "Oh, Colonel, what have you two done?"
"Elizabeth thinks Rodney's being held prisoner." Sheppard's hand closed lightly over the cold butt of his Beretta. God, he didn't want to point it at a friend, but he would if he had to. "She went in to retrieve him. Couple of hours ago." He glanced at his watch and smiled thinly. "More like six hours, I guess."
Carson approached slowly, stopping when Sheppard's hand grew tight on the gun. "She told me that she had an idea. Something she thought could help. Did she tell you what she was planning?" At Sheppard's slight nod, the doctor asked, "Want to tell me?"
"It's some kind of ... prison for Ancients." And once he started talking, the words came pouring out in a rush. While Sheppard told him about Elizabeth's speculations, Beckett came closer with one cautious step after another, finally sitting down with a comfortable buffer of space between them.
When he finished speaking, Sheppard stared at his hands for a moment, clasped on his knees with the gun resting between them. Then he looked up at Beckett. "You haven't tried to jump over here and sedate me yet, Doc. That's gotta be a good sign."
Beckett gave a small, unhappy-sounding laugh. "Elizabeth said she'd try to get you to eat something."
"She gave me a sandwich."
"And you ate it, then?"
A flash of humor managed to surface, despite the situation. "Yes, I ate it ... mother." The smile dropped away, and he asked, "So how close are they to sending in a contingent of Marines to drag me out of here?"
"It's nowhere near that point yet, Colonel, though there's some talk around the city -- well, you can guess the content of it." He looked away.
"Sheppard's snapped, basically. Not firing on all cylinders. The cheese slid off my cracker. A few pickles short in the ol' pickle jar."
Beckett winced. "I wasn't going to quite put it like that."
"Carson, I'm holed up in a dungeon guarding a corpse; I know what it looks like. Two corpses," he amended, looking at Elizabeth's still form.
"And you're going to stay down here, until ...?"
"Until they come back. And I know how it sounds, Carson. I know how it looks."
He risked a cautious sideward glance at the doctor, braced to see pity looking back at him. Instead, Beckett wore a slight but genuine smile.
"We got the latest labwork back, Colonel. Rodney's cellular structure is definitely not showing the kind of degradation that you'd expect in someone who's been dead at room temperature for thirty hours. I don't know how, I can't explain it, but it does seem as if his body's been -- stopped, somehow. I imagine that we'd find the same in Elizabeth."
Something deep within Sheppard went weak and shaky. "You're saying it is some kind of stasis."
"Nothing like any sort of stasis that we know. Even the Ancient stasis capsules merely slow down metabolism to its barest level; they don't halt it. When metabolism stops, by definition that is death, Colonel. Yet in this case, it's stopped and it hasn't progressed through the usual stages of ... decay." He winced a little as he said it. "We've already tried to resuscitate Rodney, more than once, and he didn't respond -- as you're well aware -- which means it's still out of our hands. But there is certainly something going on here that we don't understand."
"There's hope," Sheppard said softly.
"Aye, Colonel. There's hope." Carson attempted to make himself comfortable on the edge of stone. "And it happens that I don't have anywhere else to be at the moment -- the infirmary's empty, my patients all being located down here. Want some company?"
In the middle of explaining the circumstances surrounding Gaul and Abrams' deaths, she broke off and asked, "Is any of this helping, at all?"
"The loyalty that you exhibit towards the Accused is helpful, indeed. But there is still no doubt of his guilt."
As she'd feared. "What about the facts? The facts indicate clearly that he's not guilty of anything you've charged him with. I can present evidence to back up my words -- photos, records, the testimony of others."
"The Accused continues to maintain his own guilt. Next to this, your 'facts' hold little weight."
This was starting to tick her off just a little bit, not just the Voice of Judgment's condescension, but also Rodney's obstinate insistence on his own guilt in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Darn it, Rodney, a little cooperation would be nice here! "Could I speak to the Accused?"
She approached the glass cage, and this time, no invisible wall stopped her. Coming to stand before the dais, Elizabeth tilted her head back and looked up at him. This close, she could see that he was very pale, with fine lines of exhaustion on his face. "Rodney?"
The eyes blinked, opened. He tilted his head to look down at her with a faintly quizzical expression. "Elizabeth. Hi." He started to raise a hand in a little wave, stopped with a wince as it bumped into the spikes. Despite the apparent solidity of the glass, his voice didn't sound at all muffled, and Elizabeth reminded herself that this was probably some sort of VR simulation and not reality at all.
"Hi, Rodney." After twenty-four hours of thinking that he was dead, she supposed that she should be feeling a lot more relief at being able to talk to him. But the desperate need to get out of this place overrode all other concerns. "Do you know what's happening to you? Where you are?"
He smiled crookedly. "Sure. I'm dreaming. I have dreams like this all the time."
"Like this?" she repeated, stunned.
"Well ... the specifics are different ..." He looked around the room, then down at the glass spikes ringing his body, and back to her. "And you're not usually alive in the ones that involve you. So having you here, defending me, rather than bleeding to death or getting gang-raped by Genii or something, is kind of a nice touch." The crooked smile touched his mouth again.
"Rodney, it's not a dream."
"That's what my figments of imagination always say." He sighed. "Well, no ... more often they say 'Rodney, save us' or 'Help' or 'Aargh' or various other noises that people make while they're being gutted by Genii and sucked dry by Wraith. But I did have a really odd nightmare, a couple of weeks ago, in which I spent the whole time arguing with the corpse of Sheppard over whether it was a dream or not. I seem to recall that just as we'd reach some kind of agreement, he'd change sides. Trust him to be disagreeable even when he's dead. He was even bleeding in an obnoxious kind of way." He swallowed convulsively. "Lots of blood. Lots and lots of it."
Elizabeth realized that she had never, ever wanted to know this much about what went on inside Rodney's head. Caught between pity and horror, all she could think was, Thank God John's not here. Rodney'd never survive the embarrassment.
"Rodney, listen to me. This is not one of your nightmares; it's really happening. You're here, I'm here, and we're walking out of here together."
"Oh great, it's a self-help dream. That's what I get for actually going and talking to Kate after the whole Sheppard-Wraith fiasco like someone ordered me to. Now I'm dreaming psychoanalysis. If my mother walks through that door next, I'm outta here. Except ..." He glanced around with a nervous, trapped look. "This is turning out to be one of those dreams that's hard to wake up from. I hate those. They're not quite as bad as the ones where you think you woke up for real and then the Wraith start pouring in from the ceiling or whatever ... but, they're almost as bad. I'm always afraid that one of these days, I'm not going to wake up from one of them."
"Rodney, seriously, you won't wake up from this one if you don't listen to me."
"Ha! Threaten me, will you? Bad figment, very bad imaginary Elizabeth." He tried to cross his arms and bumped into the spikes again. "Ow."
Elizabeth's pre-existing fatigue headache was starting to be joined by the distinctive stabbing pains of an oncoming Rodney headache. As much as she hated to admit it, this was the sort of situation at which John excelled. All the character traits that made him a lousy diplomat also made him a world-class Rodney wrangler. What would John do? Probably say something insulting and utterly wrong for the situation, which would work like a charm.
She wondered, briefly, if it might be possible to wake up and ask John for his advice. At the very least, it would be nice to reassure him that both his friends hadn't died. But she was terrified to try -- afraid to leave Rodney alone, for fear that she might not be able to get back in, and equally afraid that it might not work at all, and she would be trapped here until her body in the real world died for good. It was, ironically, more comforting to have the uncertainty than to know for certain that she was stuck.
"Rodney, we all know you're a genius, so you tell me: is there any way that I can prove to you that you aren't dreaming?"
"Hmm." His eyes immediately got the faraway look that she recognized. "That's an interesting question. Objectively, I don't think it's possible. There's no way to trust your perceptions in dreams, you see. I mean, theoretically as a figment of my imagination you should know only the things I know, so I could ask you to tell me something I don't know; say, give me a Unified Field Theory that works --"
"Or perhaps something else that I might conceivably know," Elizabeth said, covering a grin.
"Yes, yes, whatever. The point is -- ow! --" He kept trying to punctuate his words with hand gestures, inevitably batting his hands into the spikes surrounding him. "The point is, dreams are all about making random and unexpected connections in your brain, but what you learn isn't necessarily -- ow! -- real. I once dreamed a set of detailed plans for building a perpetual motion machine out of vacuum cleaner parts. It did not, of course, actually work -- and yes, I tried it. I could ask you to tell me anything I don't know, such as your father's name or your favorite flavor of ice cream or some such useless trivia, but I have no way to know if what you tell me is actually real or just some -- ow! -- something that my brain regurgitated due to a random neuron firing."
"So there's no way to prove it."
He looked irritated, sucking on a scratch on the back of his hand. "I believe I just said that, yes."
Elizabeth folded her arms as inspiration struck her. "So why not believe me, then?"
"You can't prove it's a dream, and I can't prove that it's not. If you believe me that it's not a dream, and I turn out to be wrong, then you haven't lost anything. However, if you assume that I'm wrong and I turn out to be right, then you'll die. So doesn't it make sense to take the option that's most likely to result in the best outcome?" She couldn't help feeling inordinately pleased with herself. Hanging around ridiculously smart people all day long was bound to come in handy sooner or later.
He stared at her thoughtfully. "That ... actually makes sense, in a way. The only way in which it doesn't make sense is that you can't expect me to believe in the considerably less likely option simply because the outcome would be better for me. And that's kinda the deal-breaker there ..."
"Rodney, after everything you've seen in the Pegasus Galaxy, do you mean to tell me you find it unlikely that an alien entity would hold you captive and put you on trial because of your ATA gene?"
He squirmed a bit. "Well, if you twist it around like that, of course ..."
The warm, omnipresent voice spoke out of the air. "Advocate, are you satisfied?"
"No!" she said quickly. "Give me a minute. We're not done talking."
Despite her better judgment, she scrambled up onto the dais and, cautiously, pressed her hands against Rodney's glass cage. She halfway expected to receive a shock or something similar, but nothing happened. It was slightly warm to the touch, almost the same temperature as human skin. Rodney watched her nervously, separated from her by only about a foot or so. "Hey, Elizabeth, personal space issues here ..."
"If it's a dream, Rodney, what do you have to lose?" She ran her hands over the smooth surface of his enclosure, then bent down to check around the base. It was nearly form-fitting, giving him only a few inches of space to move in any direction, and seemed to rise directly out of the stone.
Rodney craned his neck, trying to follow her with his eyes. "Er, what are you doing, if I might ask?"
"Finding a way to get you out of here."
"I'm touched, Elizabeth, believe me, but don't worry about it; I'm fine. I'm used to claustrophobia dreams. I have a lot of those, too. And there seems to be plenty of air in here."
"There's more at stake than that, Rodney," Elizabeth said shortly as she examined the floor for any sort of release mechanism. There was nothing.
The Voice of Judgment spoke again. "The Advocate will refrain from interfering with the Accused's confinement."
Elizabeth was starting to reach her snapping point, and she retorted without looking up, "The Advocate is having a bad day and is highly annoyed that the 'Accused' has been detained without cause. I believe that -- ah!"
She broke off with a sharp gasp as the world wavered around her. When it solidified, she found herself enclosed in a transparent prison like Rodney's, standing at the opposite edge of the dais and facing him. Rodney was staring at her with round, shocked blue eyes.
Elizabeth closed her own eyes for a moment, calming herself and controlling her racing heart. You brought this on yourself, Elizabeth. You knew better than to lose your temper. But that damned machine has tangled with the wrong set of people this time.
"Elizabeth? Are you all right?" Rodney was saying anxiously.
"I'm fine, Rodney." She opened her eyes again and stared across the space between them. "Voice of Judgment, this is not acceptable."
"You were asked not to interfere with the Accused, yet continued with your incorrect course of action," the Voice said, unperturbed. "Stronger measures were necessary. You may perform your Advocate duties adequately while confined."
Elizabeth shifted carefully within her glass cage to clasp her hands behind her back, to stop them from trembling with anger. "Voice, I would like to speak to whoever is in charge here. We are visitors from a distant world who have been detained against our will. I have tried to argue my friend's case, but it hasn't been made clear to me how I'm supposed to proceed or what sort of evidence I'm supposed to present. You expect me to play by your rules, but don't tell me what the rules are. I demand to speak to an authority figure."
"There is no authority in this place aside from us," the Voice of Judgment said. "We exist to judge. We judge to exist."
"I really wonder about my own psyche sometimes," Rodney mused, loudly. "As dreams go, this one is getting really, truly bizarre. I'm about ready to wake up now."
Ignoring him, the Voice continued: "If the Advocate is finished presenting evidence, then the judging and sentencing phase of the trial will --"
"Wait!" Elizabeth snapped. "What do you mean, evidence? You haven't given me a chance to present any!"
"You have been given a fair opportunity --"
"No, I have not! You refuse to tell me what sort of evidence is accepted by this court; you only tell me that mine is inadequate. How is guilt or innocence determined here?"
"By assessing the mind of the Accused, and reading guilt therein," the Voice spoke promptly.
"Oh please," Rodney snapped, apparently forgetting that he was arguing with a supposed figment of his imagination. Of course, knowing Rodney, that probably wouldn't have stopped him anyway. "I don't feel guilty for anything, so can we all just wake up now?"
"You are lying," the Voice informed him. "And you know that you are lying."
Rodney shut up as if someone had slapped a gag over his mouth. In the one glance that Elizabeth got of him, she could see far too much revealed on his expressive face; she felt like an intruder, and looked quickly away. Since the Voice was not physically present, or at least not visible if it was, she focused her attention on the ceiling. "Then why do you bother having an Advocate at all? What is the point?"
"The purpose of the Advocate is to cause the Accused to examine their actions and revise their future behavior accordingly. It is best if the Advocate is someone who has been wronged by the Accused. But it is not required."
Elizabeth's jaw dropped. "Wait -- in this court, the person on trial is supposed to be represented by the one who's bringing charges against them? How is that supposed to work?"
"We do not understand what you mean by 'charges'. We have examined the concept in your mind and found it inapplicable to this court. Guilt and innocence are determined through examination of the Accused's thoughts and motives, not through the examination of external events, which are subject to individual interpretation."
That actually ... almost made sense, in an alien kind of way. "So the purpose of the Advocate is to ...?"
"To assist the court and the Accused in examining the thoughts and motives of the Accused to determine if guilt is justified and what corrective action, if any, is required."
Elizabeth blinked. "You could have told me that in the first place!"
"You appeared to understand the process. We did not realize this was not the case. Your emotions are simple for us, but your thought patterns are more difficult."
She gestured at Rodney, flinching as her hand brushed the spikes lining her prison, drawing a bead of blood. "Yet you claim to be able to read our minds. You've found him guilty and found my 'evidence' insufficient on the basis of mind-reading that you admit is inadequate!"
"His guilt is very clear. We are able to follow the threads of specific thoughts; it is the whole that is hard for us. Your thoughts are a complex tapestry."
Elizabeth smiled slightly, and allowed a sharp edge of sarcasm to harden her voice. "Why, thank you, Voice." The smile fell away. "I ask you again: how can you be certain enough of your own infallibility to condemn a man based on an imperfect ability to read his mind?"
"His guilt is strong; his crimes are many. We are able to see this clearly."
And again they circled around to this. "I told you before. He has committed no crimes."
"He disagrees with you."
Elizabeth looked over at Rodney, who was staring at his feet. This would be so simple if she could just say, Rodney, stop feeling guilty. Arcturus? Not your fault. Gaul? Not your fault. Collins, Dumais, Grodin? Not your fault. But humans were not that easy to fix. She felt a hard pang of sympathy for Kate. Diplomacy between nations was easy, compared to resolving the sort of disputes that occurred within an individual human heart.
"How much time do I have, to, um, help him examine his thoughts and motives?" To convince him that it's not his fault.
"As much time as is required. Justice in this court will not be rushed. Your body will remain perfectly preserved and ready for your return, as long as it is not removed from the place of judging. Once you return, however, the trial will be completed and the judgment rendered."
Well ... that was good and bad. Good because it did sound as if they'd be able to go back easily, assuming she could convince Rodney to come back with her. Bad because every minute they were in here was another minute Sheppard stood alone against the combined pressure of his friends, subordinates and fellow Atlanteans -- the people who, with the best intentions in the world, would try to take her body and Rodney's back to Atlantis. And it meant that she couldn't go back to reassure John, or anyone else, that they were both still alive.
Damn, John. I'm sorry. Please be strong for us.
Elizabeth drew a long, slow breath, closing her eyes and organizing her thoughts. There was a way out of this, there had to be. In a way, knowing that it was only Rodney she had to convince made her job easier. On the other hand, though ... maybe it would be easier to argue with a computer than to try to convince McKay he was wrong about something.
Easier to argue with a computer ... She opened her eyes. "Rodney."
"Elizabeth," he said, somewhat nervously, with a trapped-animal look to him.
"Rodney, I know you hate discussing this sort of thing, and I can't blame you." Seeing his eyes dart away from her, she hastily added, "I'm not going to try to play therapist for you, unless you want me to. But, Rodney, it's a computer. Whether or not you believe this is really happening, whether or not you want to play its game, making computers do what you want is one of the things you're good at. How do we beat it?"
She was glad to see the speculative, curious look return to his face -- it suited him far better than defeat and fear. "Well, somehow I doubt the classic Star Trek solution would work."
"What would that be?"
He stared at her in surprise. "Didn't you ever watch science fiction when you were a kid? What kind of childhood did you have? They'd always resolve these plots by making the rogue, sentient computer try to accept some kind of logical impossibility. It always broke down ... usually with some really bad special effects."
Elizabeth sighed and allowed her head to drop forward, lightly grazing the spikes. "Rodney, this is not a science fiction show; this is real life."
"My point exactly. The Star Trek solutions don't work in real life." He frowned. "Although, we are in another galaxy, fighting life-sucking aliens, with spaceships -- and Ronon even has something which disturbingly resembles a ray gun -- you know, Elizabeth, did you ever realize how closely our real life approximates a telev--"
"This is how I concentrate!"
Elizabeth heaved a sigh and raised her hands, carefully, to rest them against her temples. The nascent headache had coalesced into two small, hot points behind her eyes. What would John do? "All right, Rodney, so the Star Trek solution wouldn't work. What else can you think of?"
"Actually, Star Trek's not as far off as you might think," Rodney mused. Elizabeth bit down on her urge to comment that she knew nothing of the sort; at least he was working on the problem again, and she didn't want to derail him. "I mean, the whole idea is ridiculously simplistic and shows a complete lack of understanding of basic computer programming, naturally, but at least the TV writers do get the idea that a computer, no matter how intelligent-seeming, is only capable of reacting to inputs in a pre-determined set of ways. Of course, a computational intelligence this complex must have a phenomenally huge codebase and probably relies heavily on fuzzy concepts in its decision-making -- the question is how heavily, because that would affect how easily it can be manipulated by simply giving it the right set of inputs to produce the desired output ..."
Well, at least he was working on the escape problem -- at least, she assumed that was what he was doing. "Like with the Asurans?"
Rodney paused to frown at her. "What? No, not at all like the Asurans. That was a completely different -- well, come to think of it --"
The mellow tones of the Voice interrupted him, making Elizabeth jump. "Is this conversation part of the Advocate's examination of the guilt of the Accused?"
"Yes," Elizabeth lied promptly, and then asked, "Why does it matter? You said that we had unlimited time. Or ... wait ..." She tried to remember exactly how it had phrased its answer.
"This court will take the time that is needed to examine the case, no matter how long or short it may be. When progress is no longer being made, the trial will be over and the judging and sentencing phase will begin."
"Who determines whether progress is being made?" But she already knew the answer.
Great. The big loophole. "Well, I can't possibly help Rodn -- the Accused examine his motives and ... so forth if I can't talk to him, which is what I'm doing right now."
"No," the Voice said in the patient tones of an adult correcting a child. "You are discussing ways of circumventing the court. As you are not willing to accept your responsibilities as an Advocate, this phase of the trial is declared complete. The judging and sentencing phase will now begin."
"Wait," Elizabeth breathed, and then louder, "Wait!" Rodney had frozen, still as a statue inside his glass prison.
"You may now leave. The Accused will remain."
Rodney's head snapped up. The blue eyes were wide and frightened, whether or not he believed in the reality of what was happening to him.
"No!" Elizabeth said sharply. "I'm not going anywhere without him. And I demand a retrial. It's not fair to hold us accountable for an arbitrary set of rules without telling us what the rules are."
After a brief pause, the Voice said, "The trial process has been determined to be fair to both parties. The mind of the Accused has been examined and his guilt is clear. The Accused is --"
"No!" Elizabeth cried with a vehemence that surprised her.
"-- found to be guilty of all charges. Sentencing will now begin."
"No!" She pressed her hands against the glass that surrounded her, heedless of the pain as the spikes drew beads of blood from her flesh. "Listen to me! This is wrong, this is --" But the Voice wasn't paying attention to her, and neither was Rodney; he was staring at the floor. The flashes of bright interest that she'd been able to awaken earlier had vanished, leaving only depression in their wake.
"Rodney!" She saw a shudder run through him. "Look, if you can't believe that you aren't to blame ... can you believe in us, at least? John's been guarding your body for over a day without food or sleep. I came in here to get you out, not knowing if I'd be able to return. No matter what you think you've done, Rodney, we don't blame you and this is how far we're willing to go for you."
He raised his head, and the hopelessness in his eyes frightened her. "Elizabeth ... please, God, just leave, would you?"
Anger rushed through her, quick and hot -- anger at the Voice, at the whole stupid situation, and at Rodney too, for being unable to believe in her after everything they'd been through. And that was what gave her the idea. Elizabeth caught her breath. "Voice, I'd like to make a suggestion for the punishment of the Accused. Is that allowed?"
Rodney flashed her a quick look of confusion.
"I offer," Elizabeth said, her heart beating fast, "that he should be given an opportunity for atonement. You can read my thoughts, can't you? Then read this one: Sheppard is alive, and so are many of the other people that Rodney has, er, transgressed against. An entire city depends on him. Look into my mind, if you have to; see how we need him. Without him, all of us may die. Let him go back and make up for the things he's done. If you keep him here, you will condemn many innocents. If you release him, you will give him the opportunity to atone for his actions. If you can read our minds, even a little, then you'll surely see that he's not beyond redemption. Can't you see that?"
If she hadn't been so frightened and desperate, she might have laughed, as the apathy on Rodney's face was replaced by a look of disbelief and disgust. "Elizabeth, that's absolutely the stupidest thing I've ever heard --"
"Your suggestion is wise," the Voice said, with just a hint of surprise in its calm tones ... and that was the last thing she heard, as the glass prison and the room dissolved around her, fading into darkness. She had time for confused snatches of thought -- No! and Rodney! --
-- and then breath and sensation came back to her with a sharp sting of pins-and-needles. Elizabeth gulped down air. She was cold, so cold. Opening her eyes, she saw a blur of ceiling, with something dark moving across it. Blinking, focusing, she realized that the dark thing was John, who'd just stepped across her face.
It took her a moment to recognize the voice that had spoken as Sheppard's. It was low, rough, ragged -- the voice of a man who hadn't slept in days.
"Colonel Sheppard, listen to me, please." This was Kate Heightmeyer's voice, coming from a little farther away. "It's been a day since Elizabeth, since she -- Colonel, you've been down here for two days and it's been a lot longer than that since you got any sort of proper rest. No one is blaming you for what happened to Rodney. No one is even blaming you for what happened to Elizabeth --"
"Do you think that's what this is about? That I'm sitting down here wallowing in self-pity?" He brandished the gun again, the shadow passing across Elizabeth's face.
John, she tried to say, but her mouth was too dry, her muscles too stiff. Summoning all the strength she possessed, she turned her head to the side, seeking Rodney. Surely it had worked, surely she hadn't come back alone ...
"We only want to help you, John." Heightmeyer's too-calm voice had moved a little closer.
"Yeah, that's why you talked Carson around to your side again."
A new voice spoke -- Ronon's deep rumble. The pain in that normally expressionless voice almost broke Elizabeth's heart. "Sheppard, don't do this."
"For God's sake!" He sounded strained and desperate and as close to breaking as she'd ever heard him. "Why the hell don't any of you believe me?"
There was a pause and then Kate spoke again, soft and soothing, a voice meant to lull the frightened, the wary ... the broken. "John, I know this isn't something you want to hear, but I think, deep down, you understand what you're doing to yourself, and why. You can get past this. Get through it. We'll all be here for you, every step of the way."
"I said stay back!" His voice cut across hers like the crack of a whip. "All they need is time. I plan to give them time. And the rest of you can just get the hell out of here."
Elizabeth took a soft breath when she saw Rodney's head twitch towards her. A flash of blue appeared between his lashes.
It worked. We're alive. Both of us. A smile tugged painfully at her dry lips. Shakily, she raised a hand to rub at her throbbing temples.
"Colonel, look at what you're doing to yourself." Carson's voice, from farther away -- hoarse and tired. "I want to believe as much as you do, but it's been two days and --" His voice trailed off into silence.
"What?" Sheppard demanded, and then he looked down, and breathed, "Elizabeth!"
He leaped over her in a bound, dropping to his knees beside her and cupping one hand under her head. "Elizabeth ... can you hear me?"
She blinked, tried to nod, and ran the tip of her tongue across her dust-dry lips. "Rodney," she tried to say, but all that came out was a breathy thread of sound. Her throat was so dry; she was so cold. She settled for rolling her eyes towards Rodney, trying to direct John's attention. Past Sheppard's legs, she saw that Rodney's eyes had fluttered fully open, though he had a glazed, unfocused look.
John followed her gaze, and then sat down, hard, on the stone floor. "Rodney," he said, sounding stunned.
Rodney's mouth twisted a little and he looked as if he was contemplating a typically acerbic response, but instead, his eyes drifted shut again.
Elizabeth didn't remember much of what happened next. There was a flurry of activity; she was bumped and jostled, and at some point, a blessedly warm blanket was tucked around her and she closed her eyes in bliss. She didn't think she'd fallen asleep, but when she next opened her eyes, she was looking up at a rippling canopy of leaves and voices were arguing over her head -- debating ways of getting a puddlejumper down into the overgrowth around the mouth of the temple, she understood as she tuned in on the words and then tuned out again. Rolling her head to the side, she traced a thin, translucent line from her wrist to an IV stand silhouetted against the sky. Another conversation was taking place next to her, Carson's voice saying: "... came back up nearly to normal, almost immediately, but still mildly hypothermic, and Rodney's ..." Then she drifted again, waking to the light vibration of motion around her. She'd been swaddled in so many blankets that she felt like a cocoon. One of her arms was free, the one with the IV, and a warm hand was wrapped around hers. She blinked up at Carson.
"Welcome back," he told her softly. "Are you with us this time, Elizabeth?"
"I think so," she whispered. "Where am I?"
"You're in a puddlejumper, heading back to the gate." His hand tightened on hers; she caught a glimpse of pain and guilt in his eyes before he looked away from her. "Elizabeth, I --"
She squeezed his hand, to the extent that she was able to do so. Her muscles felt limp as noodles. "Carson ... don't." She wanted to say more, but that was all that her dry throat could manage. And sometimes a few impromptu words, heartfelt, could mean more than a long and carefully planned speech. For all her lifetime's skill at manipulating language, it had taken the people here to teach her that.
His response was to squeeze her hand again; then he laid it down gently atop the blanket. Squinting past him, Elizabeth could make out another blanket-wrapped lump with a slender, bright-haired figure kneeling beside it: Teyla. She managed to whisper, "Rodney...?"
"Aye, he's doing well. You both are. I won't go into details -- to be honest with you, I don't understand half the details -- but it was as if your bodies were ... frozen in time. You're a wee bit dehydrated and your body temperature's low -- though not nearly as low as it should be -- but you'll both be fine."
Elizabeth smiled, relieved. John, she assumed, must be flying the jumper -- no doubt he wouldn't trust anyone else with it, considering the cargo it was carrying. She wanted to ask after him too, but weariness caught up with her and she sank back into the comfortable darkness.
The next time she woke, it was to the beeping of equipment and the antiseptic smell that meant she was in the Atlantis infirmary, along with a muted clattering sound that she couldn't quite recognize. Peeking out from under her eyelids, she saw that there was no longer an IV stand hanging over her, and wiggling her fingers confirmed that the IV had been removed. She was still tired, but not with the sheer exhaustion that had claimed her earlier. It was more like the peaceful weariness of total relaxation -- she felt lazy, calm, serene.
She stretched, and heard the clattering immediately cease, followed by a soft creak of bedsprings. Turning her head to the side, she saw Rodney on a bed next to hers, propped up on pillows and watching her intently. The clattering had been the sound of keys on the computer that was open in his lap. He was wearing scrubs, with a blanket across his lap. "Elizabeth? Decided to rejoin the living, I see."
From his unusually hushed voice, and the dim lights, she decided it must be night on Atlantis. She had no idea how long she'd slept, but was feeling too lazy and comfortable to care. Stretching again, she smiled at him, and the quick, crooked smile that she got in return warmed her to the bottom of her toes. She hadn't realized how convinced she had become that Rodney was dead.
"I'm supposed to call Carson when you wake up," he added. "May I note that I have no intention of doing so, since the man is sleeping for the first time in about three days and is clearly off his game. He'd be likely to stick you with something lethal and nobody wants to take that chance. You're clearly fine -- you're fine, right? You haven't said anything yet. You don't have brain damage, do you?" Worry radiated from him.
Elizabeth tried out her voice and found it a little hoarse, but serviceable. "I feel okay, Rodney, just tired. And thirsty."
"There's water on the bedside table. And Teyla figured you might be hungry, so she and Ronon stopped by earlier with sandwiches from the cafeteria. Here --" He started to lean forward and froze, hissing in pain.
Elizabeth pushed herself up on her elbows. "Rodney? Are you all right?"
"Of course not; do I look all right?" he snapped. "I'd be perfectly fine if some oaf hadn't broken my ribs in a misguided attempt at CPR."
The look he turned on the occupant of the bed next to him, though, was considerably less annoyed than he probably intended. Sheppard was lying on top of the blankets, fully clothed, and sound asleep. One hand was tucked up under his head.
"He wanted me to wake him up when you woke, too."
"You haven't," Elizabeth said.
"According to Carson, the man hasn't slept since forever. Of course I didn't wake him."
Their conversation hadn't awakened him, either; John was obviously sleeping the dead sleep of utter exhaustion. With his fist under his cheek and his hair even more tousled than usual, he looked like an oversized kid. Granted, an oversized kid with a Beretta holster strapped to his leg.
"Anyway -- sandwiches -- water -- bedside table. Ow, ow, ow." Grumbling, Rodney settled back against the pillows again.
The water eased her dry throat, and Elizabeth unwrapped a sandwich. A nurse, finally noticing their conversation in the corner, came over to ask if they needed anything. Elizabeth asked for another cup of water.
"We're both supposed to stay overnight for observation, which presumably means to see if some kind of delayed effect causes us both to drop dead," Rodney said as the nurse left. He shuddered and then winced when the motion twinged his ribs.
Elizabeth leaned across the space between the beds to pat his arm. "You don't look like you're about to drop dead to me, Rodney. And if you do, you couldn't be in a better place for it."
"Ah, sarcasm. You've obviously been spending too much time around Sheppard."
The nurse brought her the cup of water, and then checked her vitals. Elizabeth submitted good-naturedly to the examination and then tucked her legs up under her to finish her sandwich. She still felt relaxed and -- well, not really happy so much as just ... content. It was a lazy-Sunday-morning sort of feeling. She didn't really want to talk and break the mood; all she really wanted at the moment was some companionable silence with Rodney.
Unfortunately, Rodney didn't appear to do companionable silence. He fidgeted with his laptop, starting to type and then pausing, putting it off his lap and then picking it back up again. Finally Elizabeth said, as she folded the waxed paper that had wrapped her sandwich and placed it back on the bedside table: "What's the matter?"
"Matter? Nothing's the matter." He tried to look busy with the laptop, except that he was presently staring at the screen saver.
Elizabeth had never met a worse liar in her life. The man must have been a walking target in junior high. "Rodney..."
"Nope," he said quickly, "don't want to talk about it."
Oh. Oh. "Rodney, I don't want to talk about it either."
"Good. Good. Because we -- you -- I --" He waved a hand around. "That -- yeah, you --" Looked down at the laptop. "That. About the --? Yeah. It."
"Although I would be willing to talk about it if you want to," she offered cautiously.
"No," he said, shaking his head, "not at all."
"Good." Because, really, she didn't, either. She'd seen much deeper into Rodney's psyche than she really felt was her right as a friend. It wasn't that she thought any less of him -- although she hoped that he didn't think so -- but simply that it felt like a violation, to have gone there without his permission.
"Good," he agreed, and there was a brief silence before he started fiddling with the laptop again. "Listen, Elizabeth, one thing I did want to say, about this whole -- er, atonement thing, I don't know what you want me to -- I mean, I wasn't expecting you to ... and I really suck at ..."
"Rodney. Rodney." She repeated his name until she caught his attention. He looked up at her, and she smiled at him. "And just what, exactly, do you think you do each day, anyway?"
"Hmm?" He seemed genuinely confused.
"After we -- we got Sheppard back from Kolya, Rodney ... I'm well aware that you spent three solid days in the labs trying to devise a way to track down a gate address for an incoming wormhole."
Rodney frowned. "Yes, with a complete lack of success, I might add, making it a largely wasted three days."
"But we'll never have that breakthrough without looking for it, and in the meantime, based on your suggestions, we've also implemented some new safety protocols for the offworld teams. And I'm also aware that after the incident with Griffin, you and Radek went over the puddlejumper safety procedures with a fine-toothed comb, setting up new levels of redundancy in the safety checks and always having a backup jumper when you take a repaired one out for a test flight." She leaned forward, willing him to listen. "The point is that when you make a mistake, or when someone around you does ... the very first thing you do, as soon as you can, is try to fix it -- to make sure that not only do you never make that mistake again, but no one else in the City will do so, either. I'm right, aren't I?"
He looked away from her, staring off into a corner of the infirmary. "Yes, because I hate idiocy, particularly my own."
"I have full confidence that every mistake you make is one you'll never make again, Rodney."
He laughed sharply, then lowered his voice as Sheppard twitched in his sleep. "That's cold comfort to the people who have died because of those mistakes, Elizabeth. Or ... the ones that almost died."
Sometimes, she didn't know if the spectre of Doranda still hung between them, in his eyes, as it did in hers. But she smiled, just a little, and wondered if he could understand what she wanted to convey. "Because John, and me, and Carson and the rest of us never make mistakes."
"You're not geniuses." His lip twisted.
Elizabeth stared at him. "What kind of standard do you hold yourself to?"
"A quite reasonable one, or so I always thought."
"That precludes ever making a mistake?"
"Could we not have this conversation, please?"
"All right. But, Rodney -- there's nothing you have to do that you aren't already doing, you know? If the Voice couldn't see that, then it only means that it didn't know what it was looking for."
He stared at her for another moment, then shook his head and made a tiny hmph sound before returning his attention to his laptop.
Elizabeth rolled over and made an effort to sleep, but she wasn't really sleepy. In some sense, she'd been sleeping for days. Besides, her good mood was starting to trickle away as she contemplated the horrific amount of paperwork that must have piled up during the two days that Atlantis had been leaderless. And she needed to make sure that P3M-7R2 was locked out of the database, the sooner the better -- ruthlessly, she suppressed a twinge of regret for all those inscriptions that would remain undeciphered. The pursuit of knowledge wasn't worth risking more lives, not now, not with everything else they had to deal with.
What she should probably do was ask a nurse to bring her a laptop and start wading through a sea of email.
What she did instead was hop out of bed and pad, barefoot, over to the supply closet where she knew that the medical staff kept the entertainment supplies. There was a box of toys for the infrequent times that Athosian children were hospitalized, and for the adults, a pile of DVDs, books and comics that circulated into the infirmary from the communal supplies in the rec rooms. And there were also ... aha. Board games.
Rodney looked up as she came padding back over with an armload of flat cardboard boxes. "Torture is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions," he stated flatly.
"I'm not going to make you play anything, Rodney."
"I should hope not." He emphasized his disgust with a scornful-sounding snort, but didn't do a very good job of disguising his interest as he watched her spread out the boxes on the bed.
None of them could really be played effectively with one person, but Elizabeth suspected that she might not be playing alone for long, so she just sorted through them for something that looked interesting. She'd never much liked the ruthless capitalist overtones of Monopoly, and the game of Life was a bit too apropos these days. Elizabeth wondered why Carson even had that one in the infirmary -- but it did seem to be popular, judging from the crushed and overly-well-loved box. As she set it aside to get to the game of Battleship underneath, one side of the lid gave way and a small cascade of game pieces fell into her lap. Elizabeth sighed, picked up a handful of little pegs and cars -- oh, wait. Those weren't cars.
"Since when does the game of Life use colored puddlejumpers?" she wondered aloud, holding up the pieces.
Rodney glanced sideways at her. "What, you mean to tell me you haven't seen the Sheppard and Lorne version of Life yet? The whole Marine contingent was playing it for weeks. They wouldn't do anything else. Which beats the hell out of me, considering that most of us want to forget about the cloud of doom hanging over our heads when we're off duty."
"I must have missed it." Elizabeth opened the box and spread out the obviously custom-made board, curious and then entranced. She wouldn't have given Sheppard and Lorne credit for this much artistic ability. The little Atlantis at the start position was a bit cartoony, but quite recognizable, and she had to cover her mouth to suppress a fit of giggles as she began reading the words in the game spaces.
"Good trading season, collect $5,000 from every player." "Betrayed by Genii, go back three spaces." "You can buy ATA gene treatment for $10,000." Okay, this one hit a little too close to home: "Life sucked by Wraith, pay $100,000 for treatment at private clinic unless you own Wraith insurance. Lose one turn." (But really -- Wraith insurance?)
Rather than getting married and collecting children, as in the conventional game of Life, in this version you picked up ZPMs as you went along -- and rather than a spouse, you got to choose a team. Elizabeth wasn't normally a woman who went for cute, but this was quite possibly the most adorable thing she'd seen since coming to this galaxy.
Rodney looked up at her little muffled squeaks of laughter. "I can't believe you haven't seen that. It's been around for ... oh, ages. Zelenka accidentally got one of the Ancient devices in the lab to spit out the teeny Technicolor puddlejumpers. I think he might have spilled coffee on it, though he won't confess. We figured it was totally useless until the Marines made off with a pile of them."
"Oh, I have to try this." Elizabeth was already setting up a little red puddlejumper with a pink peg in its pilot's seat.
"Why would you want to? We live this."
"Yes, but this one has itty-bitty ZPMs, Rodney. Lots of them."
"If they could actually power the city, that might be something."
Elizabeth just shrugged and continued setting up the rest of the game board. Rodney, grunting with pain, set aside the laptop and swung his legs off the bed. Elizabeth looked up in surprise when a little blue jumper was plunked down next to her red one. She grinned.
"I knew you couldn't resist collecting ZPMs. Even fake ones."
He just snorted. "I'm only doing this because you need to see how silly this game is, before Sheppard wakes up and you sing its praises and he decides to make a Pegasus version of every board game ever devised by the twisted minds at Milton Bradley."
"Well, Battleship is a natural, and I could definitely see Risk with planets in place of countries ..." Elizabeth couldn't resist another very unprofessional giggle. "And maybe an Ancient-language version of Boggle ..."
"Okay, that's completely unfair. You'd always win."
"I don't know. Dr. Jackson could probably give me some competition. Oh, hang on a second."
She pushed the board aside and hopped down again, padding over to the bed where John slept.
"If you're going to pour water in his ear, I'll help."
Seeing John twitch in his sleep, Elizabeth shushed Rodney and pulled a blanket off the nearest unoccupied bed. She tugged it gently up over John's shoulders. He squirmed a little bit and then settled back with a long sigh.
She padded back to her bed. Rodney was giving her a look. She shrugged. "It's a little chilly in here. He looked cold."
"Do you want to find him a stuffed animal too? I'll wait."
"No, he's already got his gun."
Rodney's laugh was sharp and startled, and a little uncomfortable-sounding. It wasn't really that funny, Elizabeth realized. It was too close to reality. And that was the gun he'd used to guard their bodies for two days underground, with all of Atlantis and even the rest of his team against him.
If their bodies had been removed from the temple before the AI was done with them, Elizabeth had no doubt that they would never have awakened. Another one we owe you, John, she thought.
He'd watched them for two days. They could watch over him for a little while.
She turned her head down to hide her smile from Rodney, and rolled the dice, pushing her little puddlejumper out of the starting position -- out of Atlantis. You could stay at the starting line forever, but you'd never make any progress that way. She had a team to collect, and a game to win.
Author's Note: The basic plot idea (of "justice" being based upon a reading of a person's guilt, apart from their actual objective guilt) is taken from an episode of "Red Dwarf". Just to give credit where credit is due.
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