So far none of the people John had met today were people he wanted to take back to Atlantis with him. The geeks at Area 51 were exactly how John would have pictured people working at a "secret" military base targeted by so many conspiracy crazies a year ago, back when his thoughts on aliens could be summarized with 'makes for fun movies'. White coats and pocket protectors, and their heads so far up in theoretical conjectures it was a wonder Major General Hopkins hadn't assigned more Airmen to make sure they didn't walk into walls.
John hoped Rodney knew how to sort diamonds in the rough from rocks, because it would be a waste of fuel and resources to stuff the Daedalus full of personnel they would lose at the first trial by fire. He didn't hope too hard, though, because he was pretty sure Rodney owed his Head Scientist position to being the most polyvalent of them all -- certainly not to his talents in personnel management.
Of course, John wasn't very likely to be involved in those decisions anyway. He hadn't been anyone's choice for a military leader; he'd be lucky enough to be sent back as Second in Command of whoever they appointed as Base Commander for Atlantis if he was sent back at all, forget being in a position to select the men he knew they needed.
Ahead of them, leaning over the shoulder of a very surprised scientist, Rodney was saying "Oh, don't worry," in that snide tone that made John wish for popcorn. John aimed a little 'what can you do' shrug at General Hopkins and ambled closer, trying not to grin. (It wasn't like he didn't appreciate Hopkins making an effort at small talk, but between a discussion about the most recent crazy person testing the security of the base and Rodney unleashing verbal hell, he knew which grabbed his interest the most.)
"If I have enough clearance for all your top-secret projects ever, I certainly have enough clearance for your time-wasting little pastimes." Rodney stole the man's mouse and clicked back with a harrumph. "I probably should be glad it isn't porn."
Hah. With the limited amount of personal files the first wave personnel all been able to bring John would have bet Rodney knew all the porn available on Atlantis by heart, even the niches he usually wouldn't care much about. John sure did.
"May I?" he inquired.
The scientist -- a Dr. Laurent -- looked up at General Hopkins for confirmation; when she gave a dry little nod, he sighed and nudged his chair back to allow access. John leaned in over Rodney's shoulder.
Schematics. Huh. Another alien craft, no doubt. It didn't remind him of Ancient tech at all; maybe Goa'uld or... something else entirely. Some kind of reactor core, joints, weirdly shaped air foils, fuselage -- wait a minute.
Usually he tried not to think of people as nerds -- pot, kettle, and he knew a lot of charming nerds...
Rodney gave a jaundiced look at the screen. "Hmph. Might as well be porn. Cartoon nerd."
The first inkling John had that Dr. Laurent might not do too badly in Atlantis was when the man, instead of being cowed, started in on a slow-blooming smirk. "Uh huh? Come on."
And then he was bouncing off his chair -- with a lot of energy for a fifty-year-old -- and stalking his way to a door at the other end of the room, passing a lot of intrigued scientists. It was the first time in a while that John saw someone doing that "Of course you'll follow me, you have to follow me, why do I even need to slow down and check" routine on Rodney rather than the other way around. Rodney stood looking offended for all of three seconds before he went charging after Laurent.
"There is absolutely no way we will get Doctor McKay to follow the visit schedule, is there?" Hopkins inquired, looking wholly unsurprised.
"Afraid not, ma'am," John apologized, and fell into step with her as they followed.
Beige corridor, high-security gate, gray, concrete-walled corridor, another gate -- this one demanded retina scans on top of their access cards. The hangar behind it was wide, several tennis courts long and at least three stories high. Scientists puttered around several piles of what at first glance looked like so much scrap metal.
"...had them for the last, oh, almost six months now, and we still don't know where the heck they're coming from," Laurent was saying happily as he led Rodney around an olive-green pile and into the central aisle. "It's not any civilization we know and we haven't even pinned down the alloy."
"What, don't tell me you bunch of idiots can't even work out the composition!"
"Oh, we have the composition -- mostly trinium, fifteen percent iridium, a few trace elements -- but we have no clue on Earth how they managed to gel together like that. This alloy is -- shouldn't be, but is -- entirely electrically non-conductive, and if it hadn't come down in a shuttle it would have passed us right by, because it cannot be detected by radar."
Laurent turned to face Rodney, grinning proudly, and rested a hand on a white-painted wall of metal. The paint was gouged and scored in a lot of places, tinted dark with smoke; underneath the metal was faultless, gleaming with an odd, wet gunmetal sheen under the ceiling lights.
John was watching Rodney step over a pile of strangely segmented, round-tipped blocks and onto a flatter part when the perspective snapped into place.
Rodney was standing in the palm of a hand. A giant, articulated metal hand.
"... Holy fuck."
At his side General Hopkins gave a little snort and mercifully pretended not to have heard. John craned his neck as he walked down the aisle, skirting the piles of scrap metal to have enough space to see it in its entirety.
"I'll be damned. It is a giant robot."
Laurent was still grinning like a proud papa as Rodney McKay, notorious underminer of everyone's pride but his own, stared dumbfounded at a green-eyed helmeted face almost as big as he was tall.
"So. Does my taste in geek porn meet with your approval?"
A half-hour later Rodney was still poking around the hangar, and John was pretty sure that unless he handcuffed himself to his desk Dr. Andrew Laurent (Ph.Ds in Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics, whatever the hell that was) would be onboard the Daedalus when it made its trip back to the Pegasus Galaxy. Not that Rodney had asked yet, but John knew his teammate.
John had found himself a perch on a black-painted shoulder to watch. There were five distinct piles in the hangar, four of them mostly arms and legs and pieces of weapons, scrap metal puzzles with too many missing pieces; the one he sat on was now nothing but an upper torso and a head, standing upright, held propped up on strange protrusions emerging where shoulder blades should be. It was the highest vantage point, good for keeping track of where his head scientist was.
The robot in the middle, the most complete, white and red and blue, had been at some point in the last six months equipped with a black leg, in an effort to make one whole robot out of all the parts; an olive green arm waited on the ground to be attached to the shoulder socket and there were still a great number of holes in the body plating. John gave the black cheek he was leaning against a consoling pat. "I'm sure he'll run even faster with your leg, buddy."
It was really hard not to anthropomorphize them. No matter how much denial Rodney engaged in, it was pretty obvious they had been made in the image of humans -- if humans with very exaggerated proportions. Five-fingered hands, two eyes, two arms and (really long) legs...
"... Still," came Rodney's voice, drifting up. "Six months and you haven't figured out anything."
"I wouldn't say anything--"
Rodney appeared ass first out of an access panel on the middle robot's flank.
"Yes, well, dilemma here. The amount of rare metals in this alloy already makes it much too expensive to mass-produce, even if we did figure out how to replicate the process. Training someone to operate it -- a highly complex machine that we don't fully understand and which might never become useful -- that's even more expensive, and possibly pointless. And the civilization responsible for it hasn't popped up on the radar as a threat yet, and a half-dozen other species have. Hence the very puzzling, very fascinating side project." Laurent gave a disgusted grimace. "We work on it when we have time, but it's so low priority it might as well be a giant paperweight."
Another scientist nodded, glum-faced. "The operating system, now, it sure isn't Linux. Or God forbid Windows. We've been making some headway understanding the decision trees, but this is ... well. Complex. Not out of reach, I mean, nothing like what the Asgard use, but..." She bit her lip. "More than we humans can currently do. It doesn't help that there's passwords up the wazoo."
John gave the black robot head a last pat and slid off to the ground, ambling to the other robot. The trio of scientists were climbing scaffolding to get to the torso, still muttering technobabble away.
"The thrusters in the... er, wing, though..."
Rodney snorted loudly. "Please, 'wing' is so unscientific." He leaned forward to put his hand on a big chin and cautiously climbed the face. "Besides there are lots of aliens who are shaped roughly like humans out there, you can't anthropomorphize everything. Just because it vaguely looks like... It could be back-mounted tentacles."
"Or palm tree branches!" added Laurent, mock-innocent.
"You laugh, but wait and see. With all the weird unnecessary decorations --" He waved toward a golden 'eyebrow', and almost slid and fell on his ass on the slick metal, which would have been bad; John had to catch his elbow -- "for all we know it's a ritual leaf umbrella."
John rolled his eyes, at the lack of acknowledgement and the denial both, and climbed on the face-mask after him. He wondered vaguely if the makers of the robot had pushed it far enough to model a nose and mouth underneath the plating. Now that would be kinda creepy.
Rodney was crouched at the edge of the mask, shining a light in one of the cracked green glass eye; John joined him.
"Psst, Rodney. You were supposed to find us good scientists to take home, not invite yourself to play with their toys."
Rodney rolled his eyes at him. "Psst, Major, someone who has the mental flexibility to take this kind of tech in stride and repair it even though it's so completely different from what they have been trained on is someone we want. It's a great test!"
"Uh huh," said John, not even a little convinced. "Well, have fun with your big robots."
"You're just jealous because it won't light up for you like one of your slutty puddlejumpers."
John drew up in offense. "Hey! My puddlejumpers are not slutty. I can't help it if they find my genes superior. I bet this handles like a drunk, plodding tank anyway. I don't care how many dampeners they've got, you'd probably get thrown around with every step it walked. Who wants to pilot something that clumsy?"
"Uh huh," said Rodney, just as convinced as John had been a second ago; and then he turned away like he'd actually won the argument already and there was no point continuing. "Minions!"
Laurent and the woman scientist stared at him, and another techy guy.
"So we have plating that blocks any and all kinds of radiations. We have a cockpit that, if it wasn't dinged to hell and back, would be perfectly airtight and then some, and which at first look seems to have several hatch doors in a row. We have a rather small yet very efficient nuclear core. And the thrusters, there, and there... and there... And who can tell me what this is?" he asked, pointing imperiously at something on another of the piles.
"I always thought it looked like an oxygen machine. Air purifier unit?"
"Uh huh. Presumably there's one in each of them. And when we add all that, what do we get?"
There was a little moment of silence.
"... You're kidding me," said John when he got it. "This thing is spaceworthy?"
Rodney made a dismissive hand gesture and smirked his 'see? I so win' smile. "The military grunt got it before you lot, did you get your doctorates in a Happy Meal or what?"
And as Laurent and the other two protested, John eyed the propped up black robot, remembered the protrusions on the back of the one they stood on, and threw his counterattacking shot. "... Yeah, sorry Rodney... It's an angel. It's totally supposed to be an angel."
He couldn't enjoy the utterly disgusted look Rodney sent him very long. Hopkins was coming back, boot heels striking the pavement hard with each step. This was not yet a 'hurry hurry hurry, we have five minutes before explosion' kind of walk, but definitely not a 'everything is well within the base' either. She had two Airmen in tow.
He didn't bother with the scaffolding, just hopped to the shoulder and jogged down the arm, where he dropped to the ground. "General Hopkins, ma'am?"
She was opening her mouth to tell him when the hangar doors slammed closed and the intruder alarm started blaring, which made an explanation rather moot.
"Isn't he kind of undersized for a Jaffa?"
Clustered around a computer, they watched the progress of the intruder -- what the cameras could catch of his progress -- through the base. The woman General -- what was her name, Hopsomething, had taken the spot in front of the monitor, and was barking out short orders as she coordinated her troops through her headset. After watching the intruder mow down half a platoon she wasn't too eager to risk the corridors without a good reason, which Rodney thought showed a higher than usual IQ for a member of the military.
"Also dressed very modern for a Jaffa," John pointed out. The man wore jeans and a sleeveless t-shirt; arguably Rodney wasn't an expert in alien fashion, but he was tempted to agree.
It figured that one of the most secure facilities on the planet would get breached on the day John and Rodney visited. Really, he should have expected it.
An Airman was swept off his feet and thrown over scrawny shoulders to crash on the ground. Rodney was disturbingly reminded of Lieutenant Aiden Ford, doped up on Wraith enzyme. He sneaked a look at John, but he was hard to read at the best of times and right now his expression was all intense concentration; no way to figure out if he'd been reminded of Ford as well. Uncomfortable, Rodney looked away.
"At least it's very unlikely he's interested in the contents of a hangar that has been on the backburner for the last six months," Laurie... Lozenge... robot-geek said, grinning wide and nervous. Rodney groaned and glared at him.
Not that he believed in Murphy's Law. Much.
"He's through the fourth layer of security and almost to the Bloc C labs," one of the Airmen reported tersely. "And -- he's gone."
Rodney nudged the woman General a bit so he could call up the floor blueprints. She narrowed her already wrinkly eyes at him.
"Don't you have sensors in the air ducts?"
"We do," she retorted. "We also have welded steel grates."
"Well, either he evaporated through concrete walls or he transformed into a rat and wriggled through," he snapped right back.
Then he straightened up. Ah.
Apart from a couple of detours, the intruder's path had been pretty straightforward. Either he was going for the labs, or...
"I'm going to cut power," he told John, and started running toward the robot-pile, already running through schematics in his head. The reactor core had a rather elegant design, and they couldn't actually get into the cockpit to power it down from that end, but if he cut through a few lines -- alright, not this one, it would backflow and explode, and probably take a chunk of desert with it. Maybe --
"McKay!" yelled John behind him.
Rodney had been conditioned to that voice. He dashed for the closest cover he could get, dove between the robot's arm and its flank, and flattened himself on the ground.
Overhead a metal grate ricocheted off weird alloy and clanged loudly to the ground. Rodney saw John rush past.
The intruder was rappelling down from the hangar ceiling, zipping down so fast for a second Rodney thought he wasn't going to slow down in time to absorb the impact with the top of the black helmet-head. And then he was crouched down low and John was taking position and oh hell, Rodney had been right. All the computers were mere terminals; destroying them wouldn't affect the data, which was stored in another room. But the artifacts themselves...
John would cover him. Rodney scrambled up the arm, dove in the hollow of its neck for cover, and crawled as fast as he could for the torn-up and as of yet still missing panels on the other side of that big green chest-thing.
Then there was a gunshot behind him and John yelling and he turned back just in time to see Jaffa-boy do a tarzan over the divide between the two robots. The intruder let go of the grappling gun -- seriously? those existed? -- at the apex of his swing, clearing the last of the distance in a long flying arc and oh hell why was Rodney not running yet, why was he throwing himself down by the hole in the plating, those were feet thumping on the chest globe-thing and he'd been right, right, right, why couldn't he have been right faster, which cable was --
Ghhk. Pressure point. He knew it was a pressure point, he knew his shoulder blade wasn't really shattered, but it hurt like fire anyway and left his hand numb; his wrench clanged down into a dark hole full of wires and bearings. He tried to flip on his back and kick up, but he only managed an uncoordinated flop as the mystery intruder chose that time to haul him back and up on his feet one-handed, and oh, no way was he human.
Something beeped, and John was yelling something in his "you put him down right now" voice that Rodney didn't catch in detail, god he hated the human shield gig -- and then oh hell he'd left his stomach behind.
He fell backward for a very long second of heart-stopping visceral terror, his legs and heels glancing off metal; the impact along his back that brought him to a sudden stop was more stunning than painful but he didn't notice. The back of his head banged into something that made his vision white out for a second, and then something was landing on him and knocking the breath out of him. He struggled, choking, trapped on his back with his legs up in the air, hands searching for something to grab onto.
"Stop," someone snapped. Rodney froze by pure reflex.
Then with a loud grating noise the cockpit hatch slid closed.
And then Rodney was alone in the dark with an alien commando.
The peculiar green glow of a monitor booting up in a dark room was so intimately familiar that for a second it didn't seem alien at all. He could see the edges of screens and buttons and instruments, and it was a lot more reminiscent of a jet fighter than a Goa'uld Death Glider.
It didn't make the writing that scrolled down the screen easier to read.
It certainly didn't make the crazy commando guy any lighter on him, or the wet warmth any less...
"Oh my god, you're bleeding on me."
The spate of rapid-fire typing continued uninterrupted. Outside the cockpit Sheppard was banging away on the hatch and trying to get his fingers in a crack, rather fruitlessly, as Rodney could have told him.
Only he had more urgent things to tell him. "Major, the crazy alien is bleeding on me. Major?" Visions of death plagues and dangerous chemical addictions ran through his mind. Oh god, what if he wasn't a Jaffa, what if he was a Goa'uld, and Rodney conveniently trapped here with his big juicy tempting brain. It would take only a hop and a wriggle to get him snaked.
He wriggled to free one of his hands, got a faceful of bristly hair as a result and then an elbow slamming on the inside of his wrist and pinning it down on the armrest. He protested loudly -- it wasn't a scream, John was the one screaming, it was merely an irritated, very virile yell -- and started struggling anew. Only the crazy alien guy had apparently trained in full-body contact fighting in tight enclosed spaces too, because in less than a second he had wriggled around on hands and knees on top of Rodney and was shoving Rodney's arms back down against his sides and under him where they were pretty much stuck. Rodney tried kneeing him in the back (something in his spine popped), and grinned ferociously when the alien pitched forward and banged his forehead on something.
Huh. There was a gun under his nose. Okay then.
The guy pulled out the security harness and snapped it on, except Rodney was pretty sure your arms weren't supposed to be caught underneath. Then adding some more indignity to the affront he turned around and sat on Rodney's stomach again. He had the pointiest bones Rodney had ever had the displeasure to feel; he would have to tell John he'd lost his title.
"You know, I have to tell you that you won't get away with it, I mean, you guys never get away with it, seriously you shouldn't even bother. Hello, you're in the middle of a military base?"
Something blinked red on the screen; the commando guy grunted a little "huh" sort of noise. He twisted around, felt for Rodney's pocket (Rodney didn't yelp at all, he wasn't sure how Sheppard knew to be alarmed and noisy outside again) and emerged with a screwdriver.
Screwdrivers were apparently universal, because he seemed perfectly satisfied wriggling his way between Rodney's thighs (oh god) and under the console.
"McKay? McKay, status!"
"Major, I have a Jaffa commando between my legs and the headache of the century and oh, yes, someone threw me down in a hole and landed on top of me, what do you think my status is?"
"--Between your okay, you down there! We have enough missiles in this base to blow you to smithereens, you're not going anywhere, so don't make it even worse for you and get out of here now."
<.SELF DESTRUCT SEQUENCE INITIATED.>, said a metallic, vaguely feminine voice. <.SIXTY SECONDS BEFORE TERMINATION.>
"... Oooor we could talk, talk is good, communication is great, I'm sure there's a way we both get what we want--"
A wriggle, a click, and the countdown stopped. "Alright," said the commando. He had a dry, vaguely nasal voice. "Open the hangar. I'll drop him off on the desert road outside."
He reclined on top of Rodney again, his back to Rodney's chest, wriggled a little and shuffled in a weird sideway position. Rodney went ghhk, or something like it. "Listen, I realize I am eminently comfortable, but--"
"This is a one-person cockpit," said the commando. He slid a keyboard out of the side and started typing away.
"Oh. Right." The clearance between keyboard and seat visibly hadn't been made to accommodate both his and Rodney's thighs. Actually, since his knees would have been almost banging into the front console if he could only put them down, Rodney was starting to think it hadn't even been made to accommodate a reasonably-sized person, either. (Also, the weight of his legs was starting to pull his knees toward his chest, damn gravity. His hips were killing him. Maybe he ought to kick his heels into the instruments, but the displays were already cracked to hell and back and still stubbornly glowing, so likely it would only get him sore heels.)
"Um, yeah," said John from outside. "Is that your only demand? Because --"
Then again at least kicking the displays would be doing something. Rodney hated being held hostage like he hated lemons and complete imbeciles.
Major Sheppard had gone into his patient-but-needling negotiating voice. The alien was ignoring him. Also still bleeding. His arm was streaked with dark wet lines all the way up to his shoulder. He didn't deign to act like he noticed. Maybe he was drugged. Maybe he was just crazy.
... Actually Sheppard's voice was closer to patient-because-I'm-planning-something-that'll-bite-you-in-the-ass. Rodney took in a deep, bracing breath and waited.
Type-type, type-type... type... type-ty...
Rodney smothered a yawn, and realized with faint surprise that he was getting pretty relaxed.
"It won't matter," the commando said, but he sounded a little weird to Rodney... a little muffled, a little thick.
"Yeah?" replied John from a century away. Maybe a mile. Something far away. "Well, we've got to try it anyway."
Rodney wondered vaguely what he was on about, even as the commando toppled back on him in slow motion.
It was like he'd gotten rid of all his bones. He was squishing Rodney a little. Blanket-warm. Rodney didn't even mind the bleeding anymore.
The lit screens and dancing LEDs painted the inside of his eyelids pretty colors.
He woke up in stages, to the sounds of typing and a peculiar numbness in his hands that told him his blood flow had been restrained too long. His head was muzzy.
The commando had apparently found somewhere to park his ass that wasn't on top of Rodney anymore. He'd wedged his back against one of the arm rests; his legs were braced on both sides of the cockpit. He'd found a way to unhook the keyboard and prop it up on his thighs; Rodney wasn't sure how he could see what he was typing, with his back turned on the front screen like that.
The biggest problem was that he was facing Rodney, even if he was paying more attention to the keyboard. Eyes just barely cracked open, Rodney tried to discreetly wriggle his arms free.
"He's awake," said the commando, casual and uninterested.
Outside a machine was powered down. After a couple of seconds, John answered. "He is? Thanks. Hey, Rodney, how are you doing?"
Rodney had no words to explain exactly why the intruder's perfect calm and indifference scared him possibly more than if he had been tense and ready to shoot everything in sight. Alright, no, a guy on edge and on a hair trigger was dangerous, too, but...
It was like none of their actions were going to make a difference. And considering that Rodney was still trapped in here and they still hadn't managed to force the cockpit open...
The guy could have been pissed enough to send them little Rodney-chunks as a message, and nothing, no one could have stopped him.
"Peachy, Major, what do you think?" He took a deep, bracing breath. No torture yet. So far this wasn't such a bad kidnapping, as those things went. Which meant of course it was likely going to go south in a pretty spectacular way. "Ix-nay on the gard-asay eam-bay?"
"You know, the Pentagon is starting to get really interested in this alloy," John replied mock-cheerfully, which Rodney took to mean it also, of course, blocked Asgard teleport beams.
Sheppard had to be going a little crazy out here. Maybe even half as crazy as Rodney. He shifted his arms, and sucked in his breath when his blood started flowing back into his hands.
"Hey," said the Major. "My name's John. What's yours?"
In the muted green light the commando looked young to Rodney's eyes. Then again Ford had been young too, and he'd been a really good Marine anyway. Besides who knew how long aliens lived. Teal'c, for example...
There was a pause, long enough that Rodney thought he was going to ignore the question.
"Zero-one will do."
Rodney snorted before he could think better of it. "That's not a name, and not even a very good codename."
"All my other codenames are obsolete. Call me whatever you want."
... Oh hell, he wasn't merely a highly-trained commando, he was weird in the head too. Rodney wasn't even sure how to explain but his gut had gone tight at that tone of voice -- too calm, indifferent and polite, like discussing the weather. It was never good. In his experience it always came attached to brainwashed fanatics and sociopaths.
"... Alright, why not," said John, in that placid, 'pacify the natives' tone. "I suppose you've heard already but his name is Rodney. He's probably the best friend I've got," he continued, adding a little teasing cheerfulness to his voice. Building a rapport, trying to make Rodney feel real to the man. "Though I think his best friend is Carson, our medical doctor. I feel very slighted."
The commando let out a vaguely amused snort. "So long as he doesn't touch anything I have no intention of hurting him."
"... Oh. Neat."
"Huh. That's surprisingly generous of you," Rodney said. Also weird. Why take a hostage, if not to use him as leverage? ... Likely to stall the enemy, prevent them from using lethal gases instead. If that was all he needed Rodney for, then he -- "You think you can leave."
The commando looked at him, an intense, piercing gaze.
"You think it still works, you can make it work. If you really wanted to self-destruct--"
"The self-destruct is my second option," Zero-one corrected him. "It's still on the table as a possibility."
He went back to typing. Rodney could hear John groan in frustration from there.
He checked out the cockpit, watched the lines and lines of alien letters unroll. The script looked sort of familiar, actually, much like the resemblance between Cyrillic and the roman alphabet, or even Ancient script. The numbers especially...
"What are you coding?" he asked, throat a little dry.
"Editing the operating system to compensate for external damage."
Rodney couldn't help it, he made a little interested noise. "... Are you sure you know how to do that? Because I really don't want to be in your robot when it faceplants because you edited out the line that makes it know how to walk."
He won a whole fourth-of-a-second of attention, mostly in the form of a dismissive, 'do I question your ability to tie your shoelaces?' glance. It wasn't a look he was very familiar with, at least not from that end of it.
"Okay, seriously, what do you want?"
"This unit back, or failing that, destroyed. I'm not interested in your other secrets."
"... Not the other units?" John asked cautiously.
No answer. Rodney took it to mean that he thought they were already destroyed enough. He had to admit, they looked it. Sure, the alloys and the bearings in the joints were all very interesting, but they weren't revolutionary, just slightly more efficient ways of doing the same things Earth could already do. The rest was so much scrap. Whoever had exploded them had been cautious, thoroughly shredding the chest areas. The computers and reactors were total losses.
"It's not like we stole them, you know, they just kind of fell on us. I'm sure there's some way to get to a compromise."
Zero-one kept typing, ignoring John entirely. Rodney racked his brain for something else to say.
"Aha! Your shoulder. You should get that treated before you bleed out. Or catch an infection, or tetanus. Or worse, give me tetanus. Because while the sleeping gas didn't affect you as long, it did affect you and obviously we have compatible physiologies."
The commando blinked, looked down at his arm -- then brushed his hand against his other arm, where the line of a scar cut across the outside of his arm just under his shoulder.
"Oh, good, you'll be symmetrical again. Um, random question, do you get shot a lot?"
"It's been a while."
"... Is that a nostalgic face? Major, I am locked in with a lunatic. An alien lunatic. He is bleeding on me. I think you haven't given enough thought to this very serious issue!"
John drawled through the crack in the door, "Hey, hope you don't mind, taking out the whole base in one big explosion is one thing, but we have a strict 'no infecting Rodney with alien tetanus' policy." Rodney glared in his direction in protest, though it wasn't direct line of sight. He was sure Sheppard was aware of his utter contempt anyway.
Zero-one gave a faint snort.
"... oh my god," Rodney whispered urgently. "Major, keep going, he laughed."
Zero-one looked down at him and arched an eyebrow.
"... Haha. Ha. ... Goddamn it, this is ridiculous." He wriggled one of his hands free, though he was still trapped at the elbow, and waved it in a little irritated arc. "I don't suppose you'll let me overpower you?"
Oh god help him, John was laughing. And it wasn't a pretend-laugh, either.
"Alright, guys," he said, still chuckling. "I've got an idea."
Typetype. "Go ahead."
"It's out of the question for us to just up and let you go, of course. You did break into a highly classified research center..." A pause. "So what we're going to do is open the hangar, and you can walk a bit thataway into the desert--"
"Major!" someone yelled from the side -- that old woman, General Hopsomethings. Oh, so she was still around, and all offended to boot. Rodney could have told her it was useless. When John had an idea in his head...
"And then we can talk face to face. And you can stretch your legs and piss or whatever. Building trust, yeah? Because we're pretty deadlocked here."
"And how do you propose to keep him from leaving with Doctor McKay?!" the old biddy General retorted. But she didn't know John like Rodney did; he was sure to have a really unconventional, possibly illegal idea, but one that would yet make a perfect sort of sense.
"Easy. I'll secure myself to the outside of the robot."
"Oh, great idea!" Rodney yelled back. "Give him two hostages instead of one! I take back everything I ever said about you having at least one more brain cell than the usual military issue!"
"... But I won't tie myself too tight, so if it goes too fast, or too far, I'll probably fall to my death."
Rodney could picture his face in his mind right then, that quiet, confident, lethal sheen in his eyes. But he didn't get -- he didn't, what was the angle --
"What do you think, Benny? You look like a Benny to me."
Rodney stared at the commando in horror. He had stopped typing, his whole body gone perfectly still.
"That's -- are you crazy?" the General asked.
"No, see... He thinks his robot can get up now, with no additional repairs -- he wouldn't trust us to do them for him, so obviously what works right now is good enough. That means he could leave even if we didn't open the hangar for him. That thing would go through the roof like tissue paper. Thing is, he'd also topple me off and I'd likely break my neck, plus he'd step on a lot of our men ... And how hard is it to infiltrate a base the way you did it, and not kill a single person? Hm, zero-one?"
Rodney stopped breathing. Zero-one's brow was furrowed, his eyes narrow.
John snorted. "Gotta be easier if you didn't bother, though. With your level of skill, the way you've been trained... But you were so careful not to break anyone."
Oh, thought Rodney. Oh. He stared at the commando, trying to read his face, to figure out what John had right through the hatch. Zero-one still looked cold to him, utterly dispassionate.
Then he sighed. "... Alright."
"Whee. I love negotiations." A couple of screens flickered to life, though the images looked weird; after a second Rodney realized they were all either infrared or electrical images. But there was only one man sitting on the robot, one who was waving his hand for someone to throw him a rope. "...Oh. General?"
"... You are a lunatic. Alright, permission granted. Just be aware that we've got every missile this quadrant of the globe aimed your way, Zero-one."
He tugged Rodney's legs down and under the front console -- oh god ow -- , and shifted around to lay down on him again. There really wasn't enough space in that stupid cockpit.
"Why couldn't you be a sexy blonde alien girl," Rodney muttered under his breath, but then the commando was slipping his hands in box-things and grabbing -- oh, like joysticks, only horizontal -- and Rodney forgot to protest. He couldn't see the buttons he pressed, the levers he might be activating instead, but he tried to remember the play of muscles and tendons, so that maybe later...
A massive arm -- the only one the robot had left -- slowly rose from the ground, dinged metal screeching; one of the screens showed a brief shower of sparks. The arm folded, the hand curved, came to rest almost in touching distance of John.
He could have crushed him to death right there. Rodney didn't breathe until it stopped moving, cupped like a metal cage to keep the human from falling.
The robot sat up. Rodney had a 'aha' moment about the disproportionate length of the legs, the only way they would counterbalance the rest of the body enough to get it back up again if it were to be knocked down. And then... oh, they were high. The robot wobbled on its legs for a minute; Rodney desperately fought not to say a thing. Zero-one definitely wasn't at the right angle to operate the commands; the upper edge of the box-things dug into the backs of his wrists. If he was distracted at a bad time the oscillations of the huge frame could very rapidly escalate past recovery and crash them.
Rodney was secured; the flight harness seemed solid. John would end up a pancake.
"Hm. Lost another gyro."
"Oh damn it. Did you need to tell me that? We're going to crash. We're totally going to crash. There'll be an electrical fire and we'll burn to death before anyone can get us out, and then the reactor will explode and take out the base and the nearby town will get showered in debris--"
"We're not going to crash. I've fought with worse." A pause. "The reactor is better shielded than that."
"Well, that's good to know!" Rodney exploded indignantly. "An alien kid tells me his alien robot isn't going to explode... Huh. Actually, it is good to know. Uh. Are you sure?"
Zero-one sighed, or maybe it was a snort. "Yes. Stop talking."
The robot limped slowly, almost ponderously, to the nearest wall. There was another long metallic screech when it lifted a leg high enough to step over it, and the whole several tons of robot were perfectly balanced on one single, rather small foot. Rodney scrunched his eyes closed.
Clang. Screeeeeeech... Thump.
Outside John went woo-hoo. Rodney wished he could say he was surprised.
The robot kept walking, crossing through a hastily evacuated tarmac and right up to the rows of wire fence. Of which there were a lot, and to Rodney's eye they seemed a bit too narrowly spaced out to allow the robot to navigate each in turn.
The robot paused. Zero-one took a minute to look at the readouts and screens.
"John. Hang on."
The low, almost subliminal thrum of the reactor kicked up a couple of notches. An engine spluttered; Rodney heard an explosion. Small one, his brain automatically classified, and called to mind the schematics he'd built of the robot to try to figure out what it was and how badly they were doomed.
And something was obviously wrong with the cameras because it seemed like they were all slowly angling upward, as if --
-- oh god they weren't on the ground anymore, they were in flight -- well, hovering, more like -- and the explosion had likely been one of the thrusters and it was a matter of seconds before another one failed and they fell!
"Calm down. Just burned debris. Readout is still within parameters."
"Yes well I can't read your readouts, and you're obviously suicidal like every single pilot I ever met in my life, so excuse me if I don't believe --"
Clank. The whine of the thrusters died down. Zero-one turned his head just enough to arch an eyebrow at him; Rodney fell silent.
They walked out into the desert.
"I think that's far enough," said John after a minute or two. He could have admired the view, enjoyed the sheer delight in being carried so high over the ground, with nothing between him and the air but a hand that might let go any time; but the voice in his headset was starting to sound cranky, and he'd pushed General Hopkins far enough. He was already pretty surprised she'd let him go ahead with his scheme.
"You're on your own from here on, Major," she said. "If it crashes and burns..."
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, and he even meant it. The military didn't accept 'my subordinate didn't want to obey so I let him do whatever he wanted, I wash my hands of the result' as an excuse. This... This was closer to 'I'm taking a chance on you. Don't drop the ball on me.'
The robot came to a stop; the hand flattened out. John took it as an invitation to let go of his ropes and step on it. He crouched low, allowing it to slowly move to the side without tumbling him over the edge, and watched as the hatch opened. First a heavy panel opened out like a drawbridge, and then, a little farther inside, panels slid away into the walls, screeching like nails on a chalkboard.
<.SELF DESTRUCT SEQUENCE INITIATED. TEN MINUTES BEFORE TERMINATION.>
"I'll reset it as needed," Benny-zero-one said. John nodded. Made sense. For all he knew John was planning to shoot him the second he came out of his protective shell.
The wind blew through the desert. John hopped across to the hatch and sat down in the middle, crossing his legs. "Hey there." He rested his hands on his knees, visibly empty.
The robot's pilot looked at him for another few seconds from deep inside his darkened lair, then he pushed himself up and off Rodney's lap, a hand braced on the ceiling. Something went click.
Flight harness undone, Rodney squirmed free of the chair and scrambled out past him on hands and knees through the hatch, then jumped to his feet. One instant later he was back on all fours. "Okay. Kind of high. Okay." He crawled to John, who obligingly shuffled to the side to leave him some space away from the edge.
John squinted against the sunlight. Benny was sitting on the edge of the pilot's chair, hands loosely linked, hanging between his knees. His arm seemed to be done bleeding, though it was still streaked with drying red that he didn't bother wiping away.
"... Alright." He leaned into Rodney and whispered, "Is it me or is that a little like taming a wild beast? I should have brought bacon."
"Major, if you ask me if you can take him home --"
John blinked. Ooh.
"-- I'll kick you over the edge right now -- Major, no. Just, no."
John nodded and went "Alright, alright," like he actually meant it, and left the little seed of possibility alone in that fertile back corner of his brain. "Okay, I think it's traditional to exchange demands, and then we can try to see about compromises. What do you want?"
"My mobile suit."
Mobile suit, huh. Funny name. He had a mental picture of a giant gold-plated tuxedo. Might not be very diplomatic to point it out, though. "How come it's here if it's yours?"
"It was supposed to be destroyed. Sent into the sun."
Okay, yeah, that'd take care of pretty much anything, no matter how strong the alloy.
"Well, someone can't aim, I see," Rodney said waspishly.
Benny threw him a sharp, not-joking look. "Something interfered." The look he sent John next wasn't any softer -- possibly harder even, determined. "I will not leave my mobile suit in anyone's hands. This is non-negotiable. I will not let you study the computers, the reactor, or the programming."
"But you don't mind about the armor?" John confirmed.
"We already know how to destroy it," he replied tersely. "If you figure out how to mass-produce it, be my guest."
"Huh. How non-negotiable ...?"
There was a long, long pause. Rodney almost spoke, but John rested a hand on his arm to stop him, to keep waiting.
"I -- made a promise -- not to kill anymore." His hand curled on the armrest almost tenderly; briefly, he looked -- John wasn't sure, depressed? No, sad -- just a tiny bit, and the sadness didn't make him seem any less determined. "This is the only cause I would break it for."
John gave a slow thoughtful nod. "... And you think we'd use the technology the same way your people did." Because it was pretty obvious why someone like him would be so intense about getting rid of the technology -- someone had misused it, badly. And then when he went to find it, he found it in the middle of a military complex that stockpiled weapons and shielding from a dozen different cultures.
Benny gave him a narrow-eyed look that screamed 'yes, you would'. It made him look younger, though, and John knew it was useless to try to guess at offworlders' ages but his estimate dropped five years from the original mid-twenties.
"Say, kid, you ever meet an alien?"
Slow blink. "... Present company excepted?"
Yep, that particular feeling was pretty much confirmed.
"Wait, you're not a Jaffa?" Rodney said, incredulous. "But you -- okay, show us your stomach."
"Jaffa are a variation on Homo sapiens," John explained casually. "They'd still look human, when dressed."
The pilot frowned, but lifted the bottom of his shirt. No X-shaped scar. Other scars, though. He wasn't really surprised.
"I'm not saying the tech couldn't be misused," he said quietly. "But here the existence of aliens is so far top-secret, which kind of limits the usefulness of a giant robot. In space, though..."
Rodney blinked at him, arching his eyebrows. "Major, are you recruiting?"
"Yeah, I think I am."
"Well." Rodney tilted his head back, giving the robot -- the mobile suit -- a long, quizzical look. "I can understand how in a battle amongst humans it would seriously be nothing but overkill begetting escalation. Major case of overcompensating, there..."
Benny snorted quietly.
"I don't know how much a non-disclosure agreement would be worth in your situation, kid." John rubbed the back of his head. "But, yeah, aliens. Some of 'em want to enslave us, some of 'em want to eat us... Personally I'm mostly concerned about the second type, but that's because in general people are real hard to convince to sign peace treaties with their food."
He didn't bother to hide the weariness that rose at the thought, the countless Wraith hives culling people like cattle. He didn't need to hide or fake a thing. He met Zero-one's eyes, let him read his face.
"Why do they not feed from animals?" he asked, cautiously, eyebrows furrowed, like he still wasn't entirely believing him, just humoring him until he figured out the logic.
"Not a clue. You'd think they would, huh? Humans must be more troublesome than cows. They just don't, so either they can't or they have a 'it's not tasty if the prey isn't smart enough to make us work for it' thing going on." He sighed, shook his head. "They're... kind of human-shaped, too, so perhaps we're the only species close enough to provide what they need. No idea."
Once again, he waited, Rodney shuffling uncomfortably at his side. He could see the idea of the Wraith making its way through Zero-one's brain, the furrowed brow that was less annoyance or puzzlement, more of a 'damn it.'
He gave the last push, and then let the answer fall where it would.
"They're looking for Earth."
The desert wind whistled across the cockpit's opening, ruffling the wire of John's headset, the bottom of Rodney's shirt, even the boy's dark bangs.
"... I'll need more proof," Zero-one said.
John grinned wide and toothy. "I think we can get you that."