Fifteen years after Rodney begins teaching at The Little State University That Could, Dr. Vail announces his retirement, and Rodney is appointed chairman of the Physics department -- for his sins, Rodney says mournfully, and Katherine, who is the only person who has managed to learn not to take him seriously, laughs. It's a foregone conclusion; he's been assistant chair for longer than he cares to think about, and despite a perpetual inability to ever remember a name for more than five minutes and a blatant disregard for playing by the rules, he has always been more than adequate at administrivia.
He drops from teaching three courses a semester (and researching, and mentoring, and lobbying for grant money) to teaching two courses a semester (and researching, and mentoring, and lobbying for grant money, and filling out paperwork, and complaining to everyone who will listen and some people who will not how much he hates filling out paperwork). The remainder of the department rolls their eyes -- they've figured out that much about how to deal with him in a snit -- and starts bringing their paperwork to Katherine, the new assistant chair, instead. Rodney carefully does not smile about this where anyone can see him, but one dismal October morning Katherine threatens to set it all on fire in his trash basket anyway.
A few years ago he settled on a four-semester cycle for his section of PHYS441. The official registration website lists the four classes "Sociology of Scientific Discovery", "Current Problems in Science", "Practical Crisis Problemsolving", and "Scientific Ethics", but he still calls them "How People Have Fucked Up The World Recently", "How People Are Fucking Up The World Right Now", "How You Too Can Avoid Fucking Up The World", and "Why Not Fucking Up The World Really Matters". Kim, the departmental administrative assistant who is still the only person who knows everything about everybody, has learned his shorthand; his syllabi are filed under what he considers the courses' real titles.
Five years ago, Rodney finally managed to get the military recruiters out of campus job fairs. Not the way Georgetown did it (the second time), not through any ideological argument or appeal under anti-discrimination laws -- the military's ridiculously-named "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has been gone for about six years now, a combination of the desperate need for warm bodies in the Middle East and the slow pendulum-swing back from the cliff of conservatism -- but by the simple technique of staging loud and messy protests with as many high-quality shit-stirrers he could recruit until the military gave it up as a waste of time. His reputation is firmly entrenched by now.
Sometimes he hears the campus mythology drift back to his ears. It's amazing how right they get it: a military project, a horrible choice, a tragic loss, and the utter, stark determination that this will not happen again. The rest of the details are always wrong, but Rodney supposes the common knowledge of those core truths means that he's relaxed enough to be a little less guarded. Outside his classes, at least; he has been willing to be more open there for years, but Rodney's children have always understood the sanctity of the confessional. He chooses them carefully.
The university, pathetic as it might be -- and it's growing steadily less pathetic by the year -- places a high emphasis on global awareness; the students are expected to know and understand what's going on in current events. Rodney reads all the news feeds too, but he's looking for other signs. The Ori are long dead, brought to dust in one final desperate push by SG-1 long before Rodney led Atlantis back to dreaming; the cost had been higher than some would have liked to have paid, and sometimes Rodney wonders if the SGC would still be a place he was willing to work if O'Neill and Jackson and Mitchell and a slew of others hadn't wound up paying the ferryman's fee. The Wraith are long dead, too, and Rodney has come to hard-won terms with his role in that particular Pyrrhic victory. But the Goa'uld just keep coming back -- guess you can't keep a good snake down, whispers a voice in beloved memory, cherished none the less for the frustration it had so often held -- and by now, Rodney thinks, they might be back where they started. He sees the signs in the news from time to time. They're quickly hushed and covered over, but he learned how to read them a long time ago.
He steps out sometimes into the night-sky darkness and lets his eyes pick out the slowly-moving light of what he knows must be Earth's watchdog ships: indistiguishable from a satellite to anyone other than one who knows what he's looking for, one who can distinguish between the geocentric orbit of a comm satellite and the Molniya orbit used by the old F-303 by nothing more than its inclination and speed, observed by the naked eye. He wonders, sometimes, what the ships look like now. What technologies they've absorbed or invented or stolen to enhance them.
He could find out, but the price would be too dear. He doesn't miss the face of the naked heavens enough to render unto Caesar his due.
Rodney is trying to count up the days of the semester so far -- wondering where the hell the time has gone, whether or not he can get away with recycling old midterms, and why America insists on holding its Thanksgiving far later than proper -- when the door to his office flies open. He looks up, the snide comment already on his lips, and it dies when he sees that his intruder is Harris, and Harris has never looked this exuberant before.
"I'm almost certain you're supposed to be in Boston right now," Rodney says. It takes him a second to remember it as the echo of another conversation with Harris that had changed his life. Harris is doing his postdoc in private practice, a tiny but well-funded lab in the Boston tech corridor. Rodney sees him a few times a year, emails back and forth far more regularly; Harris has grown into someone who can almost challenge him.
"We did it," Harris says, and crosses the room on giddy feet. "Doc, we fucking did it."
Rodney, Rodney almost says -- he's been fighting that particular fight since long before Harris acquired even the first Ph.D -- before Harris's words sink in. We did it.
Harris chose a private lab for his postdoc because it is the cherished, clandestine project of an eccentric dot.com mogul who wants control of space out of the hands of the goverment and is willing to beg, borrow, or steal enough money to make it happen. Rodney has not yet stopped wondering when he will open his browser one morning and see the headlines announcing the tragic accident; he has done all he can to warn Harris, implicitly and explicitly, without saying any of the things he is not permitted to say.
We did it.
Rodney knows that Harris has been working on the problem of achieving stable Earth orbit and beyond cheaply, without the use of hypergolic fuels, which replaced the long-retired solid rocket boosters that used to propel the space shuttle. He knows that Harris believes faster-than-light travel is only a breakthrough or two away. He knows that the problem has been solved dozens of times in different ways in dozens of systems across the universe. He knows there have been seventeen times he could have nudged Harris, so subtly the boy -- man -- wouldn't have even known he was being nudged, and would have woken in the middle of the night with that a-ha or holy shit moment that led to the right answer.
He knew he was far fonder of Harris than he thought he was when he did not take any of those seventeen chances, and instead began -- quietly, deftly, subtly -- tugging on strings and whispering in certain ears to make sure that anyone displaying interest in the project would come to his attention, in time for him to get Harris out of there before the IOA or the NID or whatever agency is handling security for the program these days -- it's still the program in his head, probably always will be -- can do whatever they're going to do to make sure nobody not under their thumb ever gets up to the thermosphere and takes a good look around.
It takes him less than half a second to process Harris's words and change what he is going to say to, "How many people know?"
"One," Harris says. He does some complex sleight-of-hand, and suddenly a USB flash drive is dangling from his fingers. "You."
There have been very few times in the past fifteen years when Rodney has been tempted to close his eyes and thank some unknown universal benefactor, but this is one of them. "Flying out here to see me on a few hours' notice is suspicious enough already. Put that thing away before someone walking by can see it."
Harris does the thing with his hands again, and the flash drive skids across Rodney's desk to slide off into his lap. "I figured you'd know what to do," he says, smug with the flush of being correct, and turns behind him to shut the door.
Rodney is suddenly powerfully, terribly grateful for two things: one, that he keeps up his habit of regular bug sweeps, and two, that he managed to instill just enough of the dual senses of paranoia and loyalty in his children for them to come to him when they need it. You can't be too careful.
Harris has discovered a method nobody else has before. It's something, at least. They probably won't decide that Rodney has broken his nondisclosures and have him shot.
Rodney takes Harris home and installs him on the couch, tossing him the extra blanket and giving him the WPA key for the wireless network. He excuses himself after verifying that Harris's laptop is getting ping and goes upstairs, where he unlocks his safe (the combination's still in Ancient), takes out the Berretta, and puts in the flash drive he duped from the one Harris brought him.
Harris doesn't seem surprised to see Rodney carrying when he returns; his eyes skim over the sidearm at Rodney's hip as though it isn't even there. "You gonna tell me who wants me dead so this doesn't get out?"
"Nobody, maybe," Rodney says. Maybe he's just being paranoid. Maybe he's still clinging to outdated assumptions. But a wise and cherished man once told him that a paranoid was simply someone in possession of all the facts, and there had been certain people who would do anything to keep the program a secret even when Rodney had still been willing to work for them.
"You don't think it's nobody."
"No," Rodney says. "I don't."
He feeds Harris Chinese food left over from dinner the night before and leaves him on the couch with Pixel (now venerable) curled up at his feet and Maxwell (who has kept Pixel company since Fara died three years ago) purring on his lap. Harris is still vibrating from the pleasure of discovery, and Rodney can't bring himself to disillusion him too badly. He makes sure Harris is still in his line of sight when he retreats to the kitchen, though, and keeps a watchful eye on him while he dials the phone.
"'Lo," comes the voice, rough and familiar, and something in Rodney's chest relaxes to hear it. It's tough to do things like this without your team, even if you only have one of them left.
"I need to talk to Elizabeth," Rodney says. "On a secure line. Completely secure. And I need both of you here as soon as humanly possible."
Ronon has never, will never, master phone manners. "Sure," he says, and hangs up before Rodney can say anything else.
The phone rings back about twenty minutes later; it must have taken Elizabeth longer to find a secure line than Rodney had expected, or else Ronon pulled her out of something vitally and critically important. "Rodney," she says, and he can hear a tiny hint of breathlessness in her voice. "Care to tell me why Ronon is throwing clothes in a suitcase?"
"I need you," Rodney says, and bulls straight past anything she might have said by virtue of only pretending to pause at the punctuation. "Both of you, tonight, as much firepower as Ronon can smuggle past the TSA goons without submitting for inspection, and every single press contact you can possibly drum up on my campus at oh-nine-hundred sharp."
To her credit, he can't even hear her flinch. "So. We're ready?"
It catches him in the stomach, right where he breathes from. "Ready?" It slips from his lips, unguarded; it's been a long time since he said anything without thinking about it first.
"To go public." She sounds as though it was a foregone conclusion. Maybe it is. Maybe everything they've done up to this point has been building them to this moment. Maybe Elizabeth's as tired of the things that aren't being said in the news reports as much as he is.
Maybe they're all desperate for someone to at least know that there was a city, once upon a shining time, and people lived and loved and died there and will not let her be forgotten.
"Not quite," he says. "But one of my kids found something big, and I'd rather he still be alive to follow it through."
It's all he needs to say. They'll be there in eight hours, she tells him, and he can hear Ronon's low voice making travel arrangements in the background.
"What're we doing, Doc?" Harris asks as Rodney heads back into the living room and peeks out between two slats of the blinds before settling down to take a seat on the couch.
"Holding a press conference," Rodney says. "Tomorrow. And until then, and believe me when I say that I am not exaggerating, you are perhaps the most important and the most endangered man in the world."
Harris is silent for a minute. Then: "Think quickly," he says, and Rodney looks at him, blinks, and then is forced to laugh.
Harris is working on the press handouts when the knock sounds on Rodney's door. Something of Rodney's paranoia seems to have seeped into him, because he jumps at the sound, but Rodney's been ticking off hours and minutes in his head and he'd been expecting it; Elizabeth had said eight hours, and the knock sounds at eight hours and eleven minutes. It's the cadence of "Lord, I Was Born A Ramblin' Man", which means it's Ronon knocking; Rodney doesn't think anyone else ever picked up that they used it as a cue.
"The cavalry," he says, and Harris pays him the compliment of relaxing, completely, and turning back to his laptop. Rodney opens the door to the asynchronous tap, tap, tap of the keys.
Elizabeth would be long since grey by now if she didn't color her hair, but she's settling into the valley that some women reach as they age, where their faces don't look older so much as lived-in. Ronon is unchanged -- not even new lines on his face, really, and Rodney wonders, not for the first time, what the average life-span of a Pegasus human is without Wraith cullings and potential starvation from the perpetually-destroyed ecosystems. He guesses they're finding it out, maybe even right now.
He opens the door and lets them in quickly, before they can be seen, and there's five minutes of hello-how-are-you and long-time-no-see to get through before he can lead them over to introduce them to Harris.
Harris is still distracted and a little unfocused -- Rodney told him the vague outline of what to say, but didn't get into how to say it, and he knows Harris is going to be awake all night working on it, which means that they're all going to be awake all night watching Harris work on it -- but he sharpens up fast enough once he realizes that these are two of Rodney's friends. Rodney can see Harris's mind ticking over the possibilities when he introduces Elizabeth -- Harris is bright enough, interested in world affairs enough, to recognize her, though he doesn't make a fuss. Rodney introduces Ronon simply as "Ronon", and Ronon shakes Harris's hand and then goes to take up patient guard at the door, pulling out a weapon that -- on the surface -- does not look too alien but the likes of which have never been seen on Earth before. Harris's eyes settle on it for a minute, then move on.
"It's nice to meet you," he says, to Ronon and Elizabeth both. "Thanks for coming."
"Rodney asked us to," Elizabeth says, simply. Harris's eyes sharpen again, but he nods and excuses himself to keep working.
They go through six pots of coffee, the utterly pathetic contents of Rodney's pantry's snack shelf, and enough bandwidth to make Rodney grateful that he resigned himself to paying through the nose for the unmetered access two years ago when the US telecomm companies adopted the British plan. Elizabeth has already done her part; in the middle of the night she joins Rodney at the kitchen table while Harris, feverish with caffeine jitters, puts the finishing touches on his press packets while Ronon silently guards.
"You still haven't told us what he found," Elizabeth says. "I had to promise everyone a story without knowing what I was promising."
Rodney is getting older; he can no longer quite handle all-nighters as gracefully as he used to. He still doesn't sleep much, but if he doesn't get his four hours a night, he gets giddy and punch-drunk. He's giddy and punch-drunk now. "Oh," he says, "I think cheap, safe space travel, without any kind of government interference, is enough of a story that your reputation is going to be safe."
Elizabeth gets very still and very quiet; Rodney can see her hands tensing on her coffee mug. "Interstellar?" she breathes.
Rodney is startled to find that there is a lump in his throat. He did not intend for it to be there, but he cannot talk around it; all he can do is nod.
"My God," Elizabeth says. Rodney can see the possibilities, the potential disasters, ticking off behind her eyes.
"It's not hyperdrive," Rodney says. "But it's close. And --"
"How has he survived this long?" she asks. He watches her realize how tactless the question is, start to make a face of apology, remember who she's talking to, and stop before she completes it. "I mean --"
"I know what you mean," Rodney says. "He's smart. In more ways than one." Smart shouldn't cover it -- there should have been more interest, more of a careful eye kept, more people looking out for someone who might be close to making the breakthrough. The fact that there wasn't is either a very good thing or a very bad thing: either the war is going well enough that having someone discover the secret certain of Earth's governments have been keeping for thirty years wouldn't be anything tragic, or the war is going so poorly that they can't spare any of the time and effort to pay attention.
Rodney reads too many news blogs to think the war is going well.
"I see why you need us," Elizabeth is saying. "He's going to give out everything, isn't he?"
"Right down to the last differential," Rodney agrees. "Blow his NDA with his lab straight out of the water. He's worried about what it's going to do to his reputation. I told him to let me handle that and just do what I told him to do. Once it's out there, they won't be able to --"
Elizabeth nods. "Smart." And Rodney knows it's smart, but still, hearing it is a comfort. "How much does he know?"
Rodney wants, more than anything else, to put his head down on his arms, on the kitchen table, and just nap for a few minutes. It really is amazing how quickly you lose the habit of being in mortal peril. "None of it. I don't think. He might have guessed. I can't tell; he's always been good at not saying what he's thinking."
Elizabeth runs a hand over her face. "I'd like to call you paranoid," she says.
"I'd like to call me paranoid too," he says, and knows she can hear the but at the end of his sentence just as well as he can hear hers. Dr. Jessica Moliere had come to Atlantis a year before they had all been recalled, and after the -- after -- she had declined the SGC's offer of continued employment, like so many of them had, and gone off whistling. Seven years ago, she published a paper that had people -- not people from the program -- buzzing about its implications for eventual space travel. Somewhere. Far, far down the line. Her car accident, everyone agrees, was a tragedy for the face of modern science.
Rodney hadn't liked her much. Rodney likes Harris a hell of a lot more.
Pixel sits on the back of Ronon's chair and plays with his dreads. Harris builds the contents of the press conference that will either wash his career down the drain, or give him the Nobel. Or both. Rodney and Elizabeth sit at the kitchen table, not needing to fill up the empty silences with conversation, and wait for the face of the world to change utterly.
Years later, Rodney will still turn to the recording when he is feeling useless and inadequate. It makes good theatre: Harris, standing at the podium, the pop of the flashbulbs print reporters still use for their analog cameras despite the long availability of the digital replacement, the soft red glow of what seems like hundreds of PRCs (the elison "perky" to refer to the Personal Recording Cameras worn around the head like a headband, following the wearer's eye movements, will not reach widespread acceptance for another few years), the way his voice does not waver as he begins, "At eight thirty this morning, packages were sent to five hundred scientists containing the full details of what I am about to explain to you all here. It is my hope that this information will allow us to come together as a scientific community to begin work on achieving a dream that has long been thought unattainable..."
There are people in plainclothes in the audience. Rodney can still spot them -- it's something about the way they walk, something about the way they hold their shoulders -- but he sits behind Harris, folds his hands in his lap, and concentrates on keeping his breathing easy, steady, and even. He does not curl his hands around the dog tags beneath his shirt, but they are steady and reassuring against his chest nonetheless.
He allows himself one small, triumphant smile when Harris gets to "...allow our race to finally reach the stars..."
And afterwards, when Elizabeth is wrangling the press corps (why yes Dr. Harris chose this location for his announcement because he did his undergraduate and some of his graduate work here and Dr. McKay has always believed in supporting alumni and me I'm just fascinated by the implications that this will have for humankind and yes Dr. McKay and I have been friends for years and I think you'll find the answer to that is in your press packet and I'm sorry I really must be going now) and Ronon is standing behind her and looking menacingly at anyone who gets too close, Harris drapes himself, exhausted, over the couch in Rodney's office and says, "It's going to be years until we have a working, practical spacecraft, you know."
Sooner than you think, Rodney thinks, or far far longer, because he of all people knows that there are ways to stall progress without ever seeming obvious. What he says, instead, is, "Guess you've got some decent job security, then."
Harris is quiet for a moment. Thinking, carefully, Rodney knows. Rodney can see the moment when he decides to ask. "What're we gonna find when we get up there, Doc?"
It's a good question. It's one Rodney would like to know the answer to. "I don't know," he says. It's not a lie; he's been Earthbound for longer than he was set free, and things can change in a heartbeat out there.
"What did you find?" Harris asks. The faintest of emphasis on the you. Rodney meets his eyes, startled, and Harris only smiles. "Nevermind. It's an unfair question."
But an accurate one, Rodney knows that Harris is thinking, and all he can do is put on his very best poker face and hope it's enough.
"I couldn't do any of this without what you gave me," Harris says, after a minute of silence. "I think you should know that."
"I know," Rodney says. Because he does.
They wait in Rodney's office until the tumult outside dies down a little. Not entirely; it's going to be a loud few weeks. Rodney pours Harris a cup of the good coffee, Katherine sticks her head in after an hour or so to make sure they don't need anything and to let Rodney know that the Dean wants to see him later that afternoon (either to praise him for bringing the university more publicity, or to berate him for not giving advance warning; Rodney figures it's fifty/fifty odds), and Kim lets Rodney know that there are a number of increasingly-more-frantic phone calls from someone with a Colorado phone number who refuses to leave a message.
Eventually, they get up, and Harris goes to catch a plane back to Boston, and Rodney goes to teach his afternoon class. It's "How You Too Can Avoid Fucking Up The World" this semester, and today is a lab day, and his students are too busy cursing the dye-exploding grenades to notice that Rodney can't seem to stop smiling.
Rodney gets a birth announcement in the mail just before winter break; Dunnellen and Ashiwat's second, a boy this time. They have named him John. Rodney stares at the card for a long, long time before deeming it coincidence.
He breaks his own rules and sends a gift anyway. There's no reason he won't still be teaching in eighteen years, and it's best to start the relationship early.