(the extended DVD commentary version)
I'm going to spoil thoroughly and shamelessly throughout this, so if you haven't read the uncommented story, you might want to do so!
This was one of the first stories I started in the SGA fandom, and I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it, because I knew I didn't know them well enough yet. I started out with the title, and with the image of the first and last scenes, but nothing more, really. Originally, it was going to be a story about how the loss of one person can affect many other people, and it was going to be told from various points of view, watching everyone learn to survive and move on after Atlantis.
I'd been listening to Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits album, and "Me and Bobby McGee" came on, which is a great damn song and one I've always loved. And there was that kind of click and shift in my head -- when I'm basking in new-fandom glow, sometimes it seems like every song could apply to the fandom, but this one really seemed to conjure up an image of post-Atlantis, with all the spaces and the regrets. I sat and thought about the chorus for a while -- "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, and nothing don't mean nothing if it ain't free; feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, and feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and my Bobby McGee" -- and a shape started to form of a world where John was everybody's Bobby McGee, the thing that touched so many people and how everyone was a little wiser and a little sadder for having known him, and in that story, the title meant that the Lanteans were free because they had nothing left to lose.
It is, obviously not the story I wrote -- but it is the story this one started out life as, and you can see it, a little, if you squint. In the story I wound up writing, the title wound up meaning that Rodney's not free, not in the way he almost wanted to be, because he's built a long slow list of things he does have to lose, and that makes the followup line even more painful, because it is a reminder that the things that are really, really worth it are the ones that aren't free; they're the ones we fight and bleed for.
I run most of my stories by Miella before I actually write them, because she a). reads my mind and b). tells me when they're worth writing and when they're not. The original pitch for this one is almost recognizable, even if you can see me trying to figure out the voices:
synecdochic: and in the middle, rodney is teaching in a backwater liberal arts college somewhere because it's the only place he could teach, since there's 15 years of gap in his publications and his work history, and elizabeth is working for the united nations and nobody asks her husband where he grew up, because let me tell you, you think getting an immigration visa is hard, try getting an immigration visa for someone who wasn't born on this *planet*, and every now and then zelenka shows up to take rodney out of his little hidey-hole to a conference where they can mock freely, and john died in the last wraith attack but by god he took them out with him.
synecdochic: and rodney, amazingly enough, doesn't miss john.
synecdochic: Well, misses him. Because hell, who wouldn't. But doesn't miss him with that aching loss that makes you want to die, that means you are dead inside, because they knew when they started that they'd never live to old age and Rodney's a little startled that it's looking like he might manage to. And besides, it means that he had the time, and he stops himself just shy of thinking "better to have loved and lost" because really, if you can't express yourself without resorting to platitudes, what good *is* your superior intellect, and a few times a year, he goes to arlington and says hello.
Synecdochic: And he wears John's dog tags underneath his shirt.
Synecdochic: and nothing don't mean nothing if it ain't free.
There is a gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery. It sits watch over an empty grave, and there is a vine with small blue flowers, one the gardeners can't identify from any book, twining up its side.
I saw someone commenting that this little detail threw them out of the story, because Arlington doesn't allow greenery, and it made me realize I must have been too subtle! Because I intended for it to be read like: hey, Arlington doesn't allow greenery, which must make this a weed, a particularly stubborn one that nobody can get rid of. (Like morning glories. My parents have been trying to root out the one in our garden for the past twenty years, and it keeps getting bigger instead.) Nearly all of this story is about the ways we carry our formative experiences with us, consciously or unconsciously, and I liked the metaphor of that one little bit of Atlantis following them home and digging its roots in to the point where the system -- whatever system that might be -- couldn't pry them loose.
It is an utterly unremarkable memorial, name and rank and dates, no different from the thousands of others save for the verse that graces its face:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.
This is, as named later, commonly known as the Navy Hymn, and verses have been written for members of all branches of service, including for the Air Force ("Lord, guard and guide the men who fly / Through the great spaces in the sky. / Be with them always in the air, / In darkening storms or sunlight fair; / Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer, / For those in peril in the air!"). But the original version of it fit best, I think.
For all that Atlantis's military is made up of Air Force and Marines, for all that the show itself doesn't often make reference to the fact that Atlantis is shaped and defined by the ocean around it, I think there's a really powerful nautical metaphor -- the concept of "ocean" has been around right back to Sumerian mythology as something dark and unknown and uncharted, and it maps nicely to the peril of the unknown in uncharted space.
Robert Heinlein, whose fingerprints of influence show up a few times in here, wrote a version for space travel: "Almighty ruler of the all / Whose power extends to great and small, / Who guides the stars with steadfast law, / Whose least creation fills with awe Ñ- / Oh, grant Thy mercy and Thy grace / To those who venture into space."
Every year, a few more flowers bloom.
For Rodney's first semester at the university, the department chairman schedules him to teach two sections of PHYS101, commonly known as Bonehead Physics, and one section of PHYS441: Special Topics in Physics. This arrangement was painstakingly brokered during hiring negotiations. There's a seven-year gap on Rodney's CV where nearly everything he might have published was classified instead, and another thirteen before that where everything was classified but the little things. He knew when he first took the job it was a risk he'd have to accept, but he'd been young and stupid then. Decisions you make at twenty-five look different with twenty years of hindsight.
For the record, I don't think Rodney necessarily is being prevented from publishing his science; for one thing, he's certainly interested in many more things than would fall under the umbrella of classification. But back when I still thought this would be only a story about everyone being broken, I thought that being stuck in a backwater university in the middle of nowhere would be pretty much Rodney's definition of hell, and I ran with it.
CV, for those of you not in academic circles, stands for "curriculum vitae", and is a fancy, academic way of saying "resume". Most major universities, and many of the minor ones, have a real culture of "publish or perish", especially in the sciences. When you get to the real top-tier schools, many tenured professors only teach one or two classes a semester; they're concentrating on their research, so they can publish. In academia, you are your last journal article, and those at non-research universities are definitely second-class citizens.
Which is, of course, one of the key indicators that something so very massive has happened to Rodney. And the first hints of the time frame we're dealing with, here. (I actually sat down and timelined this; this story starts in September of 2012.)
For the record, the teacher I had for Bonehead Physics was nothing at all like Rodney, even if I based much of "Flyspeck University" on my very own Little State University That Could.
But the university isn't as bad as some of the places he could have wound up. The lab space is shit, and the physics program is so easy a gifted two-year-old could sail through, but the chairman, Dr. Vail, is quite a nice man, despite being a completely retarded rhesus monkey. Vail is willing to hire Rodney despite the way he looks on paper, on the strength of some of his older work and a good word from one of the few people Rodney still keeps in touch with from his graduate work. In exchange, Rodney, as the least-senior member of the department, is given the classes everyone else in the department would rather claw their eyeballs out than teach.
He doesn't mind -- much -- because they wrote it into his contract that he gets one section a semester to do whatever he wants with, and also because he's earned a little bit of boring in his life, and ultimately? In a face-off between the Wraith and undergrads for "Things Rodney McKay Never Wants To Encounter Again In His Entire Life", the Wraith win, hands-down.
That was one of the earliest paragraphs I wrote, and it really surprised me. I was not expecting that kind of reaction from Rodney, at all.
He inherits from his predecessor: two graduate student teaching assistants, whom he pawns most of his paperwork off on, at least until he scares them off; one wholly inadequate bookshelf, half-full of old instructor evaluation copies of textbooks, three-quarters of which he throws out and one-quarter of which he writes nasty things in the margins of and then throws out; one ancient coffeepot, which he replaces with a model so expensive that it costs more than four years of education at the university, but which makes a cup of coffee that can reduce grown men to tears; and a drawer full of miscellaneous pens, pencils, and Post-It notes.
I saw someone, who was clearly in academia herself, commenting about how true that detail about the instructor-evaluation copies of textbooks was! They breed like rabbits, and you can't get rid of them. I am far too amused by the thought of Rodney writing nasty things in the margins of texts with which he disagrees.
In the first semester, he teaches PHYS441 as "Special Problems in Relativity". Rodney can't find a textbook that doesn't make him want to spit nails, so he gets by with photocopying all the least-egregiously-wrong journal articles he can find. He uses the same textbook for PHYS101 the department's always used, but he's writing a replacement in his spare time, typing sentences one-handed while eating over his keyboard or grading papers in the evenings. He plans a few lectures involving blowing things up in front of the entire class. "Always makes them pay attention," his chairman says, fondly, when he looks at Rodney's syllabus.
In his first semester at the university, Rodney makes friends with the department secretary (because he knows where all the power truly lies), the research librarian (who is the one to really control which journals the university maintains a subscription service to), and the guy from the financial aid office (who holds a black belt and teaches the university's karate classes, and who says that the hour he spends sparring with Rodney every Thursday afternoon is the best workout he's had in years). He makes enemies with the janitorial staff who cleans his office (who refuse to step foot in his office after the Incident with the cabinet alarm), the mouth-breathing moron who teaches Solid State (who refuses to believe Rodney's theory of cohesive energy, despite the fact that Rodney is right and he is wrong, wrong, wrong) and one hundred and fifteen undergraduates (who believe they deserve to pass Rodney's class without doing any work, a belief of which Rodney is more than happy to disabuse them.)
I would like to go on record as stating that university administrative assistants make the world go 'round.
I hesitated over the sparring practice line, because I was trying so hard not to paint a picture of SuperRodney -- but I was also trying to reasonably extrapolate Rodney-where-he-might-be-in-seven-years from Rodney-as-he-is-now. I think there's enough support in canon so far for Rodney to grow into someone who's learned a style of fighting that isn't at all based on any known martial art, but is instead grounded in the time-honored tradition of "any dirty trick in a pinch". And I think he'd grow to realize the importance of knowing how to fight, even if he's never going to like it, and once you've drilled that lesson into your body so thorougly and under such terrible conditions, it never forgets.
He buys a decent townhouse, close enough to campus that he can walk when the weather is nice, and fills it with books on a hundred different subjects that might have once been useful to know more about. He adopts two cats from the local animal shelter to keep the house from feeling empty. Pixel is grey and white and attacks Rodney's feet under the covers at four AM. Fara, short for Faraday, sleeps in the puddle of early-afternoon light on the living room carpet and occasionally deigns to sit in Rodney's lap and let him pet her. Both of them know better than to swat at any of the half-dismembered mechanical things Rodney leaves strewn around his living room.
Pixel is named after Heinlein's Cat Who Walks Through Walls; Fara is named after the scientist Michael Faraday.
SGC finally stops calling him by December. Rodney celebrates by writing a final exam for his relativity class so difficult that it reduces four students to tears in the exam hall. Upon reflection, he decides to be merciful and offer partial credit.
This, to me, was where the story started to turn. I hadn't at all realized that I'd been building up all these little details of an ordinary life, hinting at all the major changes that would lead to it, until I caught myself typing that first sentence. At the time I didn't know where it was going, or why Rodney had cut ties with the SGC so completely and thorougly; I just knew that he had.
A lot of this story worked like that for me. I tend to write in a very linear fashion -- I have the starting image and I know where I want to get it, but the entire middle is this vague unsurmounted wasteland, until I get there and the story tells me where it wants to be going. This is a perfect example of how that works, because I was putting in semi-ominous hints and foreshadowing before I had any idea where it was leading.
Timeline-wise, this semester starts in January of 2013.
The second semester offering of PHYS441 is "Applied Quantum Physics". It's listed in the catalog as an undergrad, but the department offers an MS too, and apparently word is getting around; every lecture period, there's one more graduate student hanging around the back of the room, looking nervous about what they've heard but wanting an open seat anyway. During one lecture, there is a storm so severe that power to the science building cuts out. Hard on the heels of the darkness, the sky lights up for one brief blinding second, the flash so familiar and yet wrong at the same time, the crack of thunder like the sky splitting open and dying.
I do think the progression happened a little too quickly, but I had to move the story along -- word gets around quickly in academic circles, but there's not a whole lot of communication between graduate and undergrad. (And Rodney was definitely hired to teach undergrad.) But I also think he refuses to dumb down his Special Topics classes for the undergrads, and it is a 400-level; it's possible that one or two grad students dropped in, first semester, and saw that there was a hint of real quality teaching under all the bluster.
(Also, a digression, because here seems the best place for it as any; this university doesn't offer a Ph.D. in physics, just the terminal MS, which is another mark of how second-rate it is. Most of the really big schools don't offer a terminal MS at all; you're accepted into the Ph.D. program with your BS, and you get the MS along the way, but not as a terminal degree. This graduate program is more designed for practical rather than theoretical physics, kind of a physics/engineering hybrid, and it's aimed at producing graduates who are suited for private-sector employment. Which, again, most top-tier universities sneer at.)
Rodney is in the middle of carefully implying that Paul Dirac was brilliantly, gloriously, stupidly wrong when it happens. A second later, he finds that he has dropped to a crouch behind his podium, left arm coming up beneath his right elbow, right hand bracing the phantom P-226 he no longer carries. A brief nervous titter moves around the lecture hall, quick and soft and squashed before it really begins.
This goes back to the notion that once your body learns something, it doesn't forget. I've heard storms that do sound like gunshots, and this Rodney's got the survivor's trauma enough to react before even consciously thinking about it. I wanted the first section that really explored the lasting effects of his years on Atlantis to be about the physical, rather than the emotional, because at this point, it's still all new and fresh and raw for him, and he's still kind of sleepwalking through his new life.
Afterwards, when he is gathering up the lecture notes he only needs to remind him of what he's not supposed to say, Nichols-or-maybe-Nicholson clears his throat from just outside what Rodney's subconscious identifies as safe distance. Rodney squints at him. Nichols shuffles his weight from foot to foot.
"What branch?" Nicholson asks.
Rodney doesn't even pretend to misunderstand. "Civilian," he says, with just enough closed, clipped I don't want to talk about it in his voice.
Nichols is in his thirties, at least. Rodney likes the returning students, the ones who have been out in the world and figured out that college isn't just an excuse to get drunk and laid on Mommy and Daddy's money. They get a lot of students on the GI Bill, despite the university's second-tier reputation, because it's the cheapest school in the state. Rodney doesn't see a lot of them in his classes, though; he set a first-semester record for low scores on ratemyprofessor.com and the kids who are just looking to get by are giving him a wide berth.
"You saw action, though," Nicholson says.
Rodney's knees are still a little unsteady, and he'll never admit to anyone how much it cost him to hold himself quiet for the second half of his lecture. "Since you hypothetically must have a brain larger than that of a hummingbird to have passed my midterm, I would have thought that would be obvious," he snaps. "Was there something I could help you with, or are you here just to breathe my air?"
This remains one of my favorite hints of old Rodney's voice in the story. At this point, he's still trying to keep himself so distant from everyone, because in his mind, Atlantis was such a fluke, and he's trying to get back to his old default method of interacting with people.
Nichols just passes over a piece of paper. Rodney looks down to see a string of digits. He's still trying to get used to the idea of telephones again, things you have to pick up and dial. "I was in Iraq," Nicholson says. "When you're ready to talk to someone, call me."
Rodney can see the hint of a familiar chain under Nicholson's shirt. Two years after they went to Atlantis, civilians who went off-world regularly started wearing dogtags. Just in case. Rodney hasn't taken his off in years, except during the tests for his debriefing physical. He feels more naked without them, fully clothed, than he would if he were wearing nothing but. He wears the standard two-tag set. No one gets close enough to notice that one of them is printed with a different name.
This paragraph was originally a little bit longer, and set off with parentheses -- I had some vague notion of getting Rodney through this whole story without ever letting him actually think about what really happened on Atlantis, and setting all the things he most emphatically doesn't think about as parentheticals. Some hints of that survive later on, but I had to take this one out of parenthetical and drop it into the main narrative, because otherwise it was just too jarring in the middle of everything.
It's also, of course, the first hint that Rodney's lost someone, someone significant enough to him to leave such an impact. I actually got all the way up to semester five or so before I realized I hadn't once said John's name, either in the narrative or in dialog, and when I realized it, it floored me. Because it turned out to be such a significant part of the mood and feel of this story.
For the record, this is still the part of the story where I thought that the big driving force of the story was Rodney grieving for John, rather than Rodney grieving for something else entirely, even though looking back there are totally hints here.
The rumors start up shortly afterwards. Rodney only gets them in echo and distort, reverberating back to him through the hallways, but you don't spend seven years living in a floating tin can at the edge of the universe without learning how to read the ebb and flow. The students think he is ex-CIA. His coworkers -- no force of nature could bring him to dub them colleagues, not after spending so long learning what the word really meant -- think he was Special Forces. It makes Rodney snort, because a bunch of sheltered academic geeks have no idea what's involved in either. He knows because once upon a time he was a sheltered academic geek.
I'm fascinated by what Rodney's coworkers and students must think of him, what kind of image he presents. I tried to get some of it into this story, just because I thought it was too good to pass up. Campus life is like a tiny small world, very much like Atlantis must have been, and gossip travels like wildfire -- and everyone loves a mystery.
I'm really fond of the juxtaposition of the derision for "sheltered academic geeks" and the self-awareness necessary to realize that the label used to apply to him as well. It really hits a lot of my core characterization concept of this Rodney as someone who had change forced upon him by circumstance.
Every other Friday, Rodney drives the two hours to the range, not the closest one but the best one, the one where they don't lift an eyebrow at the way he brings all his own gear. The one where no one ever looks twice at the way his hands move over the gun, checking and re-checking, obsessively, precisely. They leave him to murder paper targets in peace, and he leaves neat round holes exactly where he wants them.
Intended to be a hint that Rodney's always going to be a civilian at heart, because he's never going to stop calling them "guns", but he's got a bunch of instincts he never wanted and almost wishes he'd never needed -- and once he's got them, he's going to keep them. Also, I wanted to hint at the fact that he got here through a war zone, instead of by training or anything, in the little details like the obsession for order and precision and the way he's learned to make triple sure, because his life might depend on whether this sidearm is properly loaded or not -- and whether or not he can hit the safety, instead of the clip release.
Rodney keeps his carry-concealed permit current just in case, licenses all his guns, takes any gun safety course the county requires of him. He cannot explain why he does any of it, even to himself, except by the memory of warm strong hands across his back, along his thighs, nudging one elbow up and the other hand down, pushing and prodding and pulling him into the proper stance. Of being handed a revolver, not standard Atlantis issue at all, with half the chambers randomly empty, to break him of the pull he'd developed, the instinctive jerking away from the noise and the recoil. Of long hours until his wrists were cramped and the small of his back was aching, and of the satisfaction of finally hitting the plateau of no-mind, coming back to see the target waving back at him, the progression of force: hand, shoulder, knee, stomach, chest, head.
This was another paragraph that was parenthetical, and which I pulled out and cut down; originally there was more here about the process John put him through, to drill that competence in down deep. It's a common fannish trope that I never tire of reading, because teaching someone to shoot is so amazingly intimate -- has to be, when you're correcting stance and grip and weight -- and I'm a real sucker for any story that deals with that theme.
One of my friends who got tapped to be audience -- because I write best with someone to feed paragraphs at a time -- really appreciated the small detail of the revolver. I put that in there because I think it'd be an important part of Rodney's education; it's interesting to see him on the show and when he can hit and when he really, really misses what he's shooting at, and the common thread I see is that he has good hand-eye coordination, he just flinches in advance of the recoil, which tends to skew his shot unless he's under such intense pressure/threat that he forgets to be nervous about what's coming. It's actually really easy to correct, as long as your instructor catches it early enough, and the fix is exactly what I've got here: your instructor gives you a half-chambered revolver and doesn't tell you which shots are live, and makes you line up and take each shot as though they all are.
It would be a tragedy to lose that hard-won competence, he tells himself. Nothing more than that. He is safe on a tiny backwater university campus in the middle of nowhere, USA, and he will probably go his whole life without ever again feeling the hot wet rush of blood through his fingers as he clamps his hand over his own skin, the pins-and-pokers blinding pain, the way a limb hangs useless at his side. Still. It's always better to be safe than sorry.
When Rodney goes for his first physical, his GP blinks at the roadmap of memories written across his skin. She holds one finger over the scar on his shoulder (bullet wound, year five, turning the wrong way at the wrong time; friendly fire isn't, and it was a stupid mistake, an amateur's mistake, but Rodney had been so exhausted it had taken him nearly a full minute to realize that Teyla was cursing and his shirt was soaking through) and looks as though she is about to ask.
They're all going to be coming home covered with scars.
"Don't," Rodney says, a soft breath even he can barely hear, and closes his eyes. She is still his doctor because she looked at his face, saw whatever he was incapable of holding back, and didn't.
Every spring, the Physics department holds a game of paintball: physics professors versus physics majors. Rodney pleads illness, allergies, bad temper, and overwork, until Dr. Vail makes it clear that attendance is mandatory. It is the first year the professors win since 1994. Afterwards, he washes his hands fifteen times a day for a week, trying to scrub off the bright red flecks of dye that spatter them.
I really love this paragraph, and I can't even explain why. I think it's the implication of Rodney knowing it will be so bad for him, and having to do it anyway, and the fun of wondering what everyone who sees him in action must think.
The summer of 2013.
Rodney is offered a summer-session section of Bonehead Physics. He declines; he doesn't need the money. Instead, he turns up the air conditioning and reads his way through old friends, in alphabetical order: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Sturgeon. He is bemused, but somehow not at all surprised, to discover that his favorite story of them all has become "The Man Who Traveled In Elephants". Eleven-year-old Rodney McKay had considered it boring; twenty-four-year-old Rodney McKay had considered it maudlin. Pixel sleeps on Rodney's feet and plays with his rattly mouse, and Fara claims the back of the couch right behind Rodney's head, so he must be careful of how he leans.
I love the thought of Rodney being not only a science-fiction geek, but also a completist sf geek. "The Man Who Traveled In Elephants" is one of Heinlein's lesser-known works, but also widely considered, critically, either one of his best or one of his worst. It's about a traveling salesman whose wife has recently died, and it -- like I was originally intending this story to be -- is about how you can't get things back once you've lost them. But there's a whole different layer to the story, about how you carry those things with you, too, and looking back I almost suspect it was my subconscious giving me some clues. It's really an excellent short story, even if it's not at all science fiction, and if you get your hands on a copy, you should read it.
I kept this bit in while I was going through with the Editing Scythe of Doom because it shows something I was really trying to nail home, which is the idea that huge formative experiences look a lot different at different points in your life. I like the idea of Rodney being able to return to familiar works and see something new in them. (I also really like the idea that he thinks of them as old friends, because it parallels his semi-reintegration into the Atlantean-refugee community later.)
The process takes him three and a half weeks. Rodney has always been a bibliovore. When he is through, he amuses himself by shouting at what passes for popular science this season, and supplements his afternoons with the poetry of Kipling. He's never liked poetry, but Lorne had muttered under his breath, one afternoon waiting in barren quarters for someone to get around to handling the last minor details, "if blood be the price of admiralty, Lord God, we ha' paid in full." The line stuck with him.
In the first draft, Lorne said "saviour of 'is country when the guns begin to shoot", which is from Kipling's poem "Tommy", and which is far more likely to resonate with an enlisted servicemember than with an officer, not to mention being more about the Army. I had it in there because the poem is about the awful treatment people experience when they return from war, and I wanted to start hinting at some of what had happened to them.
I really do love Kipling, even though he's a hegemonic, imperialist, racist, dogmatic bastard and makes my liberal heart quail -- I challenge anyone to not read "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" or "Gunga Din" without gagging. But for all that he's a product of his times (and was the one who gave us the retch-inducing phrase "white man's burden"), he also really taps into the collective experience of the soldier, of what it means to be someone who's sent off to die for people who despise your very existence.
I came back when I was on semester six or so and changed the quote to one from "The Song of the Dead" to keep with the ocean-theme, and also because I thought it was a more solid reference. The full first stanza is: "We have fed our sea for a thousand years / And she calls us, still unfed, / Though there's never a wave of all her waves / But marks our English dead: / We have strawed our best to the weed's unrest, / To the shark and the sheering gull. / If blood be the price of admiralty, / Lord God, we ha' paid in full!" And that's when I started to suspect that something really, really terrible had happened to Atlantis, and also suspect that nobody really knows about it yet.
Just when Rodney is beginning to concede that perhaps it would have been better to have taken the class, to have something -- anything -- to shape his afternoons, he receives an email from Elizabeth. He ignores it, the way he has ignored hundreds of its kind since their haphazard reintegration. She's back working with the United Nations, but he knows from all the emails he's not replying to that she spends most of her free time playing Flying Dutchman to a boatload of half-crazy refugees.
This whole section was so different in the first draft, because in the first draft, Rodney was still half-keeping in touch with them all, and there was this sort of extended network of refugees all supporting each other -- and Rodney was on the periphery of it, but he was still part of it. I had to come back and change this once I realized what had really happened to Atlantis, because I realized he would have completely isolated himself so nobody would ever be able to tell.
I really, really like the image of Elizabeth being sort of their central thread, though. It didn't make it much into the story, but she worries about all of them, so much. Originally, she emailed him and made up an excuse for being in the area to drop in and make sure he was still surviving.
She is apparently undaunted by his silence, though, because she shows up uninvited on his front door with husband in tow right when he wants to see her least. She's wearing her best fake smile, the one that doesn't reach her eyes, but it's Ronon who pushes his way into Rodney's house, slaps Rodney once between the shoulderblades. Rodney still doesn't know how she managed to get clearance for Ronon to come home with them; he remembers how much of a bitch his resident-alien was to get, and he was only coming from Canada. He suspects it might have involved some form of blackmail, been her own, more subtle, fuck-you. Then again, Rodney has been on the receiving end of the Elizabeth Weir reality-distortion field more times than he can count.
Ronon's presence here is pure dramatic necessity -- I needed to get someone in here who did understand, and who could tell Rodney he was okay, to give the first hints and seeds of hope to the reader. And the Rodney I was building only would have taken that from someone who was a member of his team. Marrying him off to Elizabeth was the only way I could think to get him there! I will confess to far too much glee about being able to use the line about it being a bitch to get resident-alien (green card) status from Canada, much less the Pegasus Galaxy, though.
The "Elizabeth Weir reality-distortion field" is a remnant of earlier drafts, where Rodney is a lot more bitter at Elizabeth than he is now. Originally he blamed her a lot more for John's death, but that was when the story was still about him grieving for John, and not about him grieving for Atlantis, and that turned the focus a lot. This was supposed to hint at the second of the five stages of grief, back when that was what this story's focus was; the first two sections were about isolation, while this was supposed to be the moving into anger part. I couldn't make it work, not at all. Another sign that I wasn't writing the story I thought I was.
Making Rodney's grief about Atlantis instead changed the whole shape of how he feels about Elizabeth, why he isolates himself from Elizabeth, because it turned it from "I need to blame someone for giving the order that lead to John's death" to "I can't ever let you know what I did". I'm pretty sure that Elizabeth knows, though.
(The last stand against the Wraith, they generally agree, began at the moment Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, pinched the bridge of her nose to stave back her headache, and said, "All right, let's put this all together." Rodney cannot pinpoint when, precisely, it ended. He spent the last three days under heavy sedation and restraints in the infirmary, by Elizabeth's order, surfacing from the twilight fugue whenever his IV began to run dry and screaming demands to be let go, to be told what was happening. Later, they told him Zelenka was the one who finally managed to coax the last of the Wraith hive-ships into self-destructing, but it was Rodney's method of recharging a ZPM that powered it.)
(He had to be told of this, because he does not remember anything beyond the instant when their last remaining puddlejumper had swerved just a fraction of a second too slowly and then spread across the sky to rain fragments down on Atlantis's shield. Sgt. Miller had volunteered to fly the mission, but been grounded at the last minute by the loss of two fingers on his left hand while fighting their path clear to the jumper bay. No one at the command center knew of the change in pilots until the jumper was already in the air.)
(The professional head-shrinkers call it post-traumatic stress leading to memory loss, but sometimes, when Rodney is asleep, he can hear the hiss of superheated metal striking the warm summer ocean, the only sense-memory he retains. When it rains, his wrists still ache; they tell him he splintered most of the bones in his wrists during his struggle against the restraints. On these days, Rodney takes two Aleve when he wakes up, and two fingers of scotch right before he goes to bed.)
I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote this part until I was happy enough with what it said and what it didn't say. Originally the lack of explicit detail was supposed to be a sign that Rodney was still so traumatized by what had happened that he couldn't think about it -- hence the vestigal parentheses, back when I was going to use that device -- and the bare sparse details of aching wrists, naproxyn and Scotch, were supposed to leave the impression of denial and repression. I suspect that on first read-through, that impression's still lingering there, but when I look at it now, I see it as acceptance.
I deliberately left one bit of repression in here, though, and it's the language Rodney/the narrative uses to describe what they did with the Wraith. It's all either passive or heroic -- "last stand", "coaxed into self-destructing". Right now, Rodney's still thinking of what they did -- obliterated an entire sentient species -- as something that's not only justified, but heroic. It's one of the subtlest, tiniest changes I tried to include, because by the end of this story, I think he'd be sickened by that thought.
Ronon and Elizabeth are careful around Rodney, as though he needs tending. The three of them make uneasy conversation for the first hour, until Elizabeth finally sighs and seems to abandon any hope of getting Rodney to talk about why they're sitting in his kitchen in Podunk, USA. She half-shoves them out Rodney's back door into the late-afternoon sunshine. "Go," she says. "I'll feed us."
I had a lot of fun thinking of various synonyms for small-town USA, because I wanted to get through this whole thing without naming either Rodney's university or his location -- partially because of the contempt I'm positive Rodney would feel for middle-of-nowheresville, and partially so everyone could mentally put it where they thought it should be. In my head, it all takes place somewhere in the vague midwest, one of those states that begins with a vowel, one of those places urbanites vaguely classify as "the place where the food comes from", just because that's about the least Rodney place I can think of to put him.
This is really subtle and I referenced it a bit upwards with "right when he wants to see her least", but I intended for this to be near (not precisely on) the anniversary of the "final battle" and John's death. In my head, it took place in summer, and it was a few months before the last of the cleanup could happen and everything else changed.
"No citrus," Rodney says, because he's trying like hell to seem like the person he used to be.
Elizabeth rolls her eyes. "Yes, Rodney, because you're going to keep something you're deathly allergic to in your own kitchen. Go, both of you. Get it out of your systems."
Ronon is wearing jeans and a wifebeater. It messes with Rodney's sense of the universe, but no matter what clothes he's wearing, Ronon can still kick his ass. They agree on the terms with no more than a look and a nod; six years of placing their lives in each others' hands lends a telepathy that doesn't go away easily. Rodney is almost disturbed at how right it feels when he strikes and Ronon blocks. He loses the next fifteen minutes to the shuffle of feet and the thick, real feeling of Ronon's fist slipping through his guard.
One of the last sections having to do with physical changes, really. I really like the thought of Ronon being the one to teach Rodney hand-to-hand, because I think he'd probably have a lot more patience.
He can tell that Ronon's going easy on him, and he appreciates the gesture. Ronon has always been easy on him, except when he hasn't been. Rodney holds his own, though, and it takes longer than he expected before he is on his back looking up at the sky. He doesn't bother with a formal gesture of concession; he knows Ronon can see it in his eyes. Ronon towers over him, blotting out the sun, and extends a hand. "Better than I thought," Ronon says.
Rodney considers bouncing to his feet without the assistance, but there's showing off and then there's complete insanity, so he grips Ronon's wrist and lets Ronon grip his own and lift him. He can feel the shift of tendons in his wrist, rubbing and chafing, but it's not one of the bad days and so it goes away as soon as he isn't putting pressure on it anymore. "I practice," he says, falling into Ronon's speech patterns with the ease of long familiarity. He hasn't forgotten how much he misses them, but he forgot most of the reasons why.
That last sentence was a late addition, after I went back to edit and put in all the foreshadowing I hadn't known enough to put in, the first time. If I'd sat on it for another week or so, I might have left it out.
(In year four, Rodney and Ronon had been imprisoned together on M9L-2VX, in a 6x4 cell painted with human feces. The Myntaxans believed the regular letting of prisoners' blood was pleasing to their gods. It had been seventeen days before the ion storms had cleared up enough for the rescue mission to fly in. By the end of it, Rodney could recite Ronon's lineage back ten generations and all the Satedan litanies of mourning, and Ronon could recite the equations for power transference Rodney hadn't had time to write down before the mission departed and all of the things Rodney had never been able to say to the person -- people -- he loved. The Satedans had a word for it: randatur, message-bearer, the one who brings back the last words of a fallen comrade.)
Ronon nods. "Good," he says, squinting against the sunlight. "I was worried you'd stop keeping up with your exercises."
"It's not exactly easy around here," Rodney says, "but no. I do. I don't want to --"
There are so many ways he can finish that sentence, and he knows Ronon knows all of them. Ronon puts a hand on Rodney's shoulder, warm comforting weight, and Rodney can't remember the last time someone touched him for no purpose other than to bring grounding. "You're fine," Ronon says, and the weight that has been building in Rodney's chest for the last week or so eases, because he is and he knows he is, but it's easier to believe when it comes from someone else, someone who knows enough to be able to make the assessment. Ronon knows a lot of things. He always has.
Ronon, of course, is telling Rodney that he's fine about John's death. Which Rodney already knows, and -- and this never gets into the story, because I couldn't do it without being way too blatant -- is almost worried about. He kind of thinks that he should be more broken up about it than he is, and wonders a little if it means that he really is the heartless bastard everyone thinks he is. But I think Ronon would get the idea that in a war zone, you have to almost do your grieving ahead of time, so it doesn't turn into the ghost in the shadows of the relationship.
Ronon is also one of the few people who really understood the depth of John and Rodney's relationship, in my head. I have this whole image of the two of them not trying to keep it secret because they were worried about any potential repercussions -- because they're both smart enough to realize that they're both too vital to the expedition, and also that the expedition is full of so many misfits and losers, and also because you don't piss away people who could blow the lid on a whole secret operation just because of certain regulations -- but because they're both such private people about their relationships and their feelings that they wouldn't want it to be a point of gossip. It was, of course, but at least that way, they could keep it at the stage of speculation.
"So. What do you think of Earth?" Rodney asks, when he's done drinking his fill of standing in Ronon's shadow.
Ronon smiles, just a bare breath of lips turning upward. "Pretty," he says, and lets his hand fall.
"It kind of is, isn't it," Rodney says. Together they go back inside.
In another story, the one primarily about about how everyone who went to Atlantis came home as an alien and had to figure out a way to come to terms with it, these last few paragraphs would have been the end.
September of 2013.
In October of his third semester at the university, Rodney discovers that someone has put him in for five days of professional development and made travel arrangements on his behalf. The next thing he knows, he is sitting in a lecture hall in Geneva, listening to some of the most mind-bogglingly awful science he's ever heard. And that's saying quite a lot. There is a familiar head in the crowd, but Rodney can't bring himself to do more than make snide comments in the conference's IRC backchannel with Zelenka. Too many secrets now; he can't afford to get too close.
This was another section that needed serious rewriting, and again, if I'd sat on it another week, I would have killed the last sentence. Originally, Zelenka was the one who came to kidnap Rodney, dragged him to the conference, trying to get him out of his shell and back into the world. Another thing I had to change, once the story took such a major shift.
Afterwards, he knows there are at least six ways he can publicly humiliate one or more of the presenters without disclosing anything he isn't yet allowed to say. It's almost a pity the game stopped being fun a long time ago. Rodney has published exactly one paper since he returned to Earth and told SGC to go fuck themselves in the ear; it wasn't even in his field, and for the first time since he was seventeen, he took secondary-author status without a word of protest. In actuality, every word of "Computational Fluid Dynamics and Navier-Stokes: A Mathematical Proof" was his writing, but he knows it doesn't count. Writing is the easy part; it wasn't his math.
(Proving the Navier-Stokes equations is one of the Millennium Prize Problems. In another six months, the special advisory committee of the Clay Mathematics Institute will meet to determine whether or not the paper qualifies for the one million dollar prize. Rodney does not doubt for a moment that it will. He'll receive the entire amount, since the paper's primary author died without leaving a formal next of kin. He plans to use the money to endow a grant for teaching mathematicians how to fly.)
This had to go in here, and it had to go in here now, because it's the first of the hints at the emotional changes Rodney's experienced (and will continue to experience). I worried so much, in writing and in editing, that I'd changed Rodney too much from the character we see on the show, because it would take something so tremendously significant for him to get to a place where he doesn't care about the prestige and the accolades. I don't know if I managed to portray the two sets of Rodney's character changes that are in this story well enough; he starts the story so thoroughly changed that I know it feels OOC for some readers, and then I wanted him to keep changing throughout the story. If I wrote this again, I'd probably make more of an effort to differentiate the two.
I flip back and forth between accepting John-as-math-genius or not accepting it, and I generally split the difference. I think it's eminently likely that he's ABD (all-but-dissertation) in some discipline or another, because the military puts such value on higher education and he's clearly quite smart. (Though getting advanced degrees isn't so much a measure of intelligence as a measure of persistence.) My girlfriend and I timelined it out, and with a lack of an official age or background for John, it's plausible that he came into service through ROTC and that they were willing to let him work towards higher degrees, until they needed to activate him for Desert Storm. And no, I don't think he's ever going to be able to solve one of the Millennium Problems, but again, I plead dramatic license. I needed something tremendously significant for him to accomplish, something that would be worthy (in Rodney's mind) of posthumous publishing.
This fic is known, in my household, as "the one that made me read all those damn books on high-level math", because I needed to make sure it was the right Millennium Problem. Naviers-Stokes is about the model and concept of fluid dynamics (such as air over the wings of a plane). It's one of the ones that can be categorized as "it works in practice, but we have no idea of the equations behind it". I thought it was the one most likely for a pilot with an aptitude for math to have the "ah-HA, holy SHIT" moment and be able to solve. If you're interested in the Millennium Problems at all, I wholeheartedly recommend Keith Devlin's "The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles Of Our Time", because he writes clearly and concisely for the layperson and managed to make even my dyscalculiac brain manage to comprehend.
I really like the idea of Rodney so changed that he doesn't give a shit about publishing anymore, but still wants to make sure that John gets at least one credit, because it's this weird form of tribute -- like, John shaped Rodney into this weird hybrid of the two of them, and Rodney shaped John, too, and now Rodney wants to make sure that his old world recognizes John as worthy of the respect Rodney knows he deserves. In my head, John had that "holy shit" moment and wrote down the math, and Rodney kept pressing him to just write the goddamn paper already, and he never got the chance to before it was too late, because they all had other things to do. Plus, I can't ever see John having the patience to submerge himself in academic writing style.
By the end of the conference, Zelenka has stopped trying to catch him over dinner or drinks. Rodney knows that Zelenka is working for his government, willing to be absorbed into one of the other hundred programs available for someone of his background and talents. Rodney could have done the same, but Rodney is more fond of the grand dramatic gesture than Zelenka is, and besides, Canada isn't home anymore and Rodney knows that after the way he left things, the US government would come up with something far worse than Siberia or Antarctica for him this time.
I had all these hints about Rodney and the SGC having such an adverse relationship in here long, long before I realized why. It's so weird to look at it and realize my subconscious was dragging me there.
Originally, Rodney and Zelenka left with a tentative sort of re-connection, and Rodney gave Zelenka the draft of the textbook he was writing and Zelenka gave Rodney some papers he was working on, and Rodney promised to answer his email more often, even though he knew he was lying.
Dr. Vail drops in three days after Rodney returns to the States. Rodney is certain he's just looking for a cup of coffee from some source other than the roach coach parked outside the building, but halfway through the conversation he blinks and something shifts, and his boss is actually telling him that Rodney is failing to bring the university's reputation up by publishing brilliant and insightful papers the likes of which would be presented at the conference he just came back from, and would Rodney just get with the picture already before the board of trustees started noticing that he wasn't exactly qualified for his job?
Rodney stares at him and wonders if the translation subroutine included in the Stargate programs let him translate academian to English too, because he's pretty sure he's had conversations like this before and this is the first time he's ever been able to pick up on the subtext. He is, in fact, so startled that he forgets to watch his mouth, which is pretty much his only excuse for saying, "You are not standing there and telling me that if I don't publish something soon you're going to fire me."
In my head, Vail totally hired Rodney because he thought Rodney was looking for a way to claw himself back up the academia ladder, and would settle into the job and immediately start producing all this fabulous work.
Vail makes a startled hrrmphing noise, backpedaling as fast as his bulk will allow him, and Rodney realizes that the backpedaling is not just verbal but physical, because all of a sudden he's on his feet and there's a cold still ball in the pit of his stomach and he can only imagine what his face looks like. "If I were permitted to publish one-tenth of what I have locked up in my head," Rodney says, "this university would have a Nobel Prize winner."
Vail's clutching the doorframe by now, only the tips of his toes over the invisible dividing line between Rodney's territory and his own, but he holds his ground long enough to say something about hypothetical work not standing up to a tenure review board before beating a hasty retreat.
That night, after his office hours are finished, Rodney goes home and takes down the cardboard box, one of three, from the coat closet. He selects six envelopes at random, thick manila envelopes with random words and letters scribbled on them and the smudged, heavy imprint of a stamp made by a desultory hand. He spends no more than thirty seconds on each page looking for outdated references before sending them off to six journals without even bothering to look up the submission guidelines.
I love the idea of Rodney having written all his papers as he went, having them peer-reviewed by everyone else, just so he wouldn't forget -- and by the time he got home, he just didn't care anymore, and he's only pulling them out now to say "fuck you" to Vail -- sort of a "I could do this if I cared. I so don't care." I tried to make it clear here that these are the papers that were declassified, because the censor didn't think they'd give too much away.
He uses his office for his return address. The department secretary opens the acceptance letters from New Journal of Physics, Annalen der Physik, the Condensed Matter Physics Journal, the Journal of Computational Physics, and the International Journal of Nanoscience and leaves them on his desk. He wonders if she photocopied them first. The editor of Icarus calls him directly, begging for anything else Rodney has to offer. When Rodney gets the proofs back, he wonders who they found to peer-review his submissions; they'd done peer review for each other, in Atlantis, and even Zelenka had been hard-pressed to follow some of Rodney's work.
Three of the journals pre-empt their lead article for the next issue and replace them with one of Rodney's. Over the next six months, he receives four grant offers, seven lecture invitations, and eight awards from various prestigous facilities. He declines the grants, refuses the invitations, and doesn't bother to show up for the award ceremonies. When he receives his contributor's copy of the last of them, he turns it over in his hands, reading the carefully-censored biography, and thinks that the man who used to crave things like this hadn't realized that the only award to really matter is being around to write about it later.
I had to speed up the academic journal publishing cycle so much to make this work. I feel kind of guilty about it.
January of 2014!
By the fourth semester, Rodney's almost beginning to relax a little. He cross-lists PHYS441 with both the math and the music departments, and since he can't think of a snappy title for it, calls it "Math, Music, and Physics". He checks the box on the registrar's form to indicate "instructor's permission required", and for "prerequisite", he adds "MATH241 (Calculus II) and ability to competently play piano or keyboard". He is surprised at how many students come to him to enroll. He's more surprised by how many of them are starting to be familiar faces.
This, right here, is the point where I stalled out hard. Because I thought I'd been writing the story about how you can't go home again, and I'd gotten to the scene with Ronon so early, and written the bits that should have been the end of that story -- but there was still so much to go. And I thought, well, okay, maybe I just need to move that section down further?
And then I put it away for a while, and as I was falling asleep one night, I started thinking about all the classes Rodney was going to teach, because I had this semi-wacky idea about how he'd start with the pure science and progress through to teaching Special Topics classes about anything that struck his fancy. (Which is so totally how it worked in the department I was in; the profs would sit around when it came time for class scheduling and say something like, "hey, I read this book over the summer, and I think it might be cool to teach a class on it, so put me down for a Special Topics.") And I thought, hey, maybe he'll teach a class about science fiction, and maybe a class about music and physics, and ... and then what?
And then semester five's class title hit me, and I just had to sit and stare at the idea behind my eyelids for a while, because all of a sudden this wasn't a story about not being able to go back home at all. It was a story about how you have to go back home, and bring what you've found with you. And it just floored me, because all of a sudden I had the shape of the rest of it in my head. (Or thought I did, because it was still only half of it, but that's neither here nor there.) Once I figured that out, I came back to it and blew through the next three sections in like, two nights.
Before he will let them register, he gives each of them a copy of the sheet music for the one of the Goldberg variations for keyboard, chosen randomly from his stack, and sets an appointment for one week later to assess their competency. One boy hesitates through his entire performance, hands tentative on the keyboard like he's dragging up long-rusty skills. "I'm sorry," he says at the end, unable to meet Rodney's eyes. "I haven't played since I was thirteen."
Rodney remembers him from Quantum Physics two semesters back and from Particle and Nuclear Physics last semester, but he's always been shit with names. Harris, maybe. Hanson. Something like that. "Why do you want to take this class?" he asks.
Originally the student was unnamed, before I realized what Rodney's relationship with his students was turning into -- I originally had different students in each section, until I got way further down and realized I needed to have one specific student stand in for all of them. I didn't expect to wind up loving Harris as much as I did. I generally hate OCs.
The kid hesitates for a minute. Rodney can practically see the minute he decides to be honest. "Because the way you teach about it, the universe is beautiful," he finally blurts.
Rodney signs the registration card without a further word. His own first try at coaxing music from dormant keys had been after a far longer hiatus. They'd found the Ancients' music hall on a routine exploration sweep fifteen months in. The anthropologists had practically wet themselves at the chance to reconstruct pieces of Ancient culture. Rodney had waited until the fad had passed, until the next shiny string had been dangled and batted at, before creeping in at five one morning with a datapad in hand and a handful of rehearsed excuses about how understanding the Ancients' music system would unlock bits and pieces of their science as well.
(He'd never needed the excuses, though, because only one person had ever found him there, and by then they'd moved past needing any of those lies. Anyway, it hadn't been until the fourth year, once Rodney had moved past scales and arpeggios and figured out how to transpose Chopin into the heptatonic tuning the Ancients used for their instruments, so if he'd wanted he could have pretended he'd been playing all along. He hadn't pretended, but he could have, and that was the important part.)
He spends the semester teaching the class how to get the equations out of Bach and the melody out of Euler. After each lecture, he lingers in the performance room, his fingers ghosting over silent keys, and lets the symphony of Atlantis run through his head. He's not ready to try to tease it free, yet, but soon. He has time, still. He wants to make sure he gets it right.
I wanted to avoid falling into the trap of telling some heartfelt story about how Rodney got his music back, and I think I went too far in the other direction -- this was the part where the story was turning, and I probably could have come back to this section and fleshed it out in greater detail. I like to think, though, that Rodney always loved music, for its mathematical nature if nothing more, and even when he stopped playing, he still kept listening. And of course, this has the hints of showing some of the process of change that we now see the results of -- that somewhere along the way, in Atlantis, Rodney either stopped caring that he'd never be anything more than technically proficient, or started being the kind of person who could be more than technically proficient.
September of 2015.
Just before Rodney is about to put together the syllabus for his fifth semester of 441, Dr. Mouthbreather quits in a fit of pique. He cites "unbearable working conditions", by which he means Rodney; Rodney chalks up another notch under the list of idiots he's freed his various workplaces from. Rodney inherits his section of Solid State by simple virtue of being the only one even remotely qualified to teach it.
He is so distracted by the frantic two-week scrambling to find textbooks that don't lie and plan assignments and labs that make the most of the university's woefully-inadequate experimental facilities that he gets his final class cards to the registrar's office at four AM the day they're due. For the rest of the semester, he can't for the life of him remember what he calls the class without looking it up. It shows on his students' transcripts as "Practical Crisis Problemsolving", but in his head it will always and forever be "101 Ways The Geek Can Save You From Getting Eaten By An Alien", so much so he slips and calls it that in lecture one Thursday afternoon. His students chalk it up to one too many episodes of bad science-fiction television.
God, I love this class title so much, I can't even tell you. I think I had a vague idea of it being a lot more lighthearted than it turned out, but I like the sort of ambulance-driver black humor inherent in him referring to such a weighty class with such a flippant title.
His lectures are carefully-edited clip reels of seven years of ticking time bombs, barely-understood technology, and the heavy weight of knowing that one false move, one wrong calculation, and he'd be shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot while Elizabeth read off the litany of their dead in front of the all-hands Friday meeting and added at least one new name. They'd been forced to design their own funeral ceremony in the first few weeks, because nothing else seemed adequate. Rodney can still recite it, Marshall B. Sumner stretching through an unbroken line to the very last name; he is bad with names, but there'll always be some written deep. Seventy-four of those two hundred and eleven names have their place on the rolls of the honored dead because of him, because of his action or inaction. He spends the entire semester trying to prepare his students for the possibility that one day they might have to start keeping their own memorial list.
This is one of those totally bizarre cases where both character and author are equally ignorant of where something is headed! Rodney doesn't know why he's teaching this class, not at all, but looking back at it, knowing where the story went, he's subconsciously realizing that even if only one of the students he produces from this program winds up going on to higher study, there's a very, very good chance that they're going to be approached by the SGC -- because even if Rodney's only teaching unclassified things, he's still got the particular kind of mindset that will train people into thinking in brilliant and unorthodox ways. This class is almost a pre-emptive strike against that, even though he's justifying it to himself as just trying to train the idiotic tendency to panic out of people using some of the best examples he can think of. He doesn't realize what he's doing yet, and he won't for a while.
I look at this as the moment when Rodney looks around himself, nods, and decides that it's time to stop licking his wounds and rejoin the human race, as represented by the inference that for the first time, he's thinking about teaching people one of the basic facts of life: your decisions and your actions have consequences, and it's your responsibility to make sure that those decisions and actions, if born in the spur of the moment, are as fully-realized as you can make them. Basically: act, don't react.
"This class," he says, on the first day, "will be about learning how to think fast, use what you have, and turn the impossible into the merely improbable. This may be the only time in my tenure at this university that I say the following sentence, so pay attention: No one will fail this class, presuming you bother to show up. You will be graded solely on your final exam. I will tell you what the final exam will consist of a week in advance, and I advise you not to worry about it until then. Let us begin by defining 'crisis', and discussing the utterly lamentable tendency of humans to waste half of their crisis time by panicking." He looks over the sea of faces, picking out familiar ones mostly by the lack of the shell-shocked expression people tend to sport on their first exposure to one Dr. Rodney McKay, and is already beginning to sort them through the lens of seven years of learning who'll be useless in a crisis and who won't.
It isn't as easy as it looks on the surface. He's seen Marines able to handle performing field amputations without flinching utterly crack when locked in a small room with the sea water climbing, seen scientists faint at the sight of what happens when the human body is exposed to vacuum, seen grown men and women turn into quivering, shuddering wrecks when faced with the fact of their own mortality. He's broken, himself, more than once: hallucinations and night-tremors and weeks of feeling like you're a sandcastle and the universe is the ocean, taking tiny grains of sand as tribute every time it washes you clean.
"The definition of being good in a crisis," he says, directly to the kid in the front row who's really surprisingly less moronic than the usual caliber of student Rodney encounters and has a pretty good chance of actually making a career out of the whole science thing, "is not failing to be scared. That only makes you unimaginative. The definition of being good in a crisis is being able to take your fear and let it motivate you. Nobody cares if you pissed your pants, as long as you and the pants are around to be mocked afterwards."
He lost a lot of good people before he learned to separate out the ones who had a chance of learning that lesson before it was too late. He wonders, sometimes, if his students have any idea what he's preparing them for. He wonders what he is preparing them for. The chance of any one of the twenty-one students in his class ever finding themselves in a situation where they are one of a handful of people holding back the tide are so marginal as to be nonexistent.
Except they're really not, and he doesn't realize that yet.
In the fifth class session, Rodney breaks his class into teams of three and four and hands each team safety goggles, a toolkit, and a small, grenadelike item. It isn't actually Ancient technology; all of that is locked in a basement in a facility that does not officially exist, stamped "classified" and scheduled to be re-visited in another fifty years, but Rodney did not spend seven years in Atlantis without absorbing some of the Ancients' design aesthetic, and so his toys carry a sense of the alien. Each one is subtly different, but they ripple with a pretty light show and hum with an increasingly more demanding whine the longer they are left armed.
There's such a divide between "physicists" and "engineers", which I didn't want to get into here, but I like the idea of Rodney being a sort of hybrid of both, tinkering with things in his spare time because it relaxes or soothes him. And I really like the idea that he picked up so much of the Ancients' aesthetic, and will carry it with him for the rest of his life.
Each one is also filled with a nontoxic dye that will stain skin and hair, but leave clothing and electronics unharmed. "Congratulations," he says after each group, following his instructions, triggers the devices; "you have just armed a bomb that will explode and kill you in thirty minutes. Think quickly."
Rodney's university ethics board must hate him. I know that realistically, there's no way in hell anything like this would ever fly, but it was too good to pass up.
It takes them a few minutes to start moving, and Rodney knows they believe he's bluffing. He can practically see the thoughts moving over their faces: half he has to be pretending, there's no way they'd let him and half but he did make us sign waivers at the beginning of the class all mixed with this is Dr. McKay we're talking about. He sits back, puts his feet up on the table, folds his arms across his chest, and watches. It's interesting to see it from the outside, from the safety of actually knowing what's really going on for once.
He has placed small wagers with himself about how everyone will react, and he wins the first one ten minutes in when team four does something idiotic and triggers the device early. The dye catches two of them, one in the face and one across the hands and arms. Rodney stops them before they can panic (much) and hands them the MSDS on the dye and an alcohol wipe, which will leave only enough of a stain to be a mark of shame. They're shaken and angry, more at themselves than at Rodney, and he is gentler than he could be when he tells them to go wash up and be back in twenty minutes.
MSDS stands for "material safety data sheet", aka the list of what a chemical is and what it does, and what to do if you're exposed to it. OSHA regulations require that you keep them for any chemicals in a workplace. This was such a hallmark of the changes in Rodney, for me. The old Rodney would have just sent them to wash up, I think, if even that.
Everyone believes Rodney when he says bad things will happen to them after that.
Three of the teams manage to reverse-engineer the delivery mechanism and disarm the almost-grenades just before zero hour. The others collect their safety sheets and their handi-wipes and Rodney watches them, carefully, filing mental notes about reactions and emotions and which ones' buttons he's going to have to be oh-so-very-careful about pushing. "All right," he finally says, "let's talk about what went right, and what went wrong."
He asks team six to stay after class. They weren't the first to win the game, but they did it best, and they're the ones who are most likely to be able to move past the initial reaction of "oh shit" and get moving quickly, so he has to take them out of the way for his next "lab". They're willing to cooperate, and three class sessions later, when he arrives at the pre-arranged point in his lecture, Harris screams like he's being eviscerated and falls from his chair to convulse and lie still in the aisle. In the startled silence just before the panic sets in, Rodney claps his hands and says in his take-charge voice, "You are molecular biologists in a clean lab that has just experienced a breach in protocol. You have just been exposed to an unknown airborne pathogen that has escaped from containment. Beneath your seats you will each find a paper bag containing all the tools and equipment you have with you in quarantine. You will also find a timer. When the light on your timer starts blinking, the disease has run its course, and you are dead. You have the CDC, namely me, on the telephone and can ask any questions you deem necessary. This disease has a short incubation period, ladies and gentlemen; think quickly."
This was when I realized that Rodney was mining his own experiences for really good labs, and when I realized that there was a point to it all, because this really does make him insanely uncomfortable and he wouldn't do it without a very good reason.
He catches one of the girls who sits in the back row leaning over and checking Harris's pulse. "We're physics majors," she says, sharply. "Not biologists. What the hell are we supposed to do?"
"Survive," Rodney says. For a minute, he almost feels guilty, but his syllabus included a warning and he doesn't have a hell of a lot of sympathy for people who don't read the fine print, especially when it's actually printed in sixteen-point bold type.
He has even less sympathy for himself when he listens to Shah, whom Rodney has instructed to make his "death" sound gruesome, and finds himself digging his nails into the arm of his chair so hard that one of them splinters and bends back to the quick. He has no one to blame but himself for setting this up, and anyway, it's not like he can't handle a few flashbacks now and then. This one is to teach them all that there are some situations you just can't win without the kind of luck you only find watching over very intelligent people doing very stupid things.
They fall into a three-class cycle, crisis/postmortem/lecture, and Rodney keeps notes and commentary in a file on his laptop that's triple-encoded and compressed for good measure, because how a person behaves in a crisis is something that should be treated at least as confidentially as course grades. They're shaping up about the way he'd predicted, some of them a little more reliable and some of them a little less, and then it's halfway through the lab where he's issued each team a locked-down laptop counting backwards down from 30:00 towards an unspecified disaster, in a language they've never seen, when Harris picks the laptop up and puts it through the window. The sound of splintering glass and cracking circuitry is a whisper compared to the raspy, fragmented breaths coming from Harris's throat.
I honestly don't think this would have been the only incident, but I had to simplify it for the sake of the story. I think this whole process would have been really uncomfortable for more students, because while the initial impulse might be to treat something like this as a game, Rodney's not, and that kind of gravity seeps through. And that brings me back to the university ethics board again!
"Nobody move," Rodney says, and by now they've learned enough to obey without question. He pauses the laptop timers with the master program he's got on his machine and approaches Harris with his hands spread wide and his face as neutral as he can make it. "Are you okay, Harris?"
I wanted a small subtle detail in here to indicate that Rodney's paying close attention to body language and that he knows what he's putting them through. I had to mull over whether or not Rodney would be people-smart enough to do something like this right, without being unethical and emotionally traumatizing people, and there was a long slow train of thought involved. Eventually I decided that we already see Rodney changing in a lot of ways on the show, becoming a little more self-aware and socially aware -- he's still a seething ball of tactlessness, but he's also slowly starting to expand his personal psychological definition of "in-group" from "just me" to "me and these people I care about".
In my head, Rodney's repeated demonstrations of abrasiveness and offensive behaviour are quite deliberate and calculated -- sort of an "I'll distance them from me before they can" self-defense. I really honestly believe that such repeated and demonstrated precision ability to push someone's buttons so thoroughly also requires an innate knowledge of where the buttons are before you can push them. I think of this Rodney as someone who's started to use that knowledge not to push people away, but to bring them together. Or something cheesy like that.
Harris is breathing like he's just seen a Wraith; his pupils are wide and his face is locked in a snarl. "You're nothing more than a sadistic fuck," he says, "and I'm sick of performing for your amusement," he says, and Rodney had been waiting for one of them to crack for the past three sessions but he hadn't expected it to go down like this.
"Okay," Rodney says. "Everybody go on home. Get out of jail free card. Back Tuesday and we'll discuss it." Harris's eyes flick back and forth as the rest of the class hesitates, starts gathering their coats and books. "Come back to my office with me," Rodney says to him. For a minute, he wonders if Harris is going to bolt entirely.
Once he's got the kid settled on his office couch and has parceled out two cups of coffee and some of the chocolate he keeps for emergency blood-sugar issues, he sits down in the visitor's chair -- close enough to be a comfort, not so close to be a threat -- and says, conversationally, "I managed to mostly hold it together while being tortured, being shot at, and working on a homemade nuclear bomb while hopped up on methamphetamine because I hadn't slept in two weeks, among many other things too classified to mention, and you know what finally broke me?"
All of this conversation is too much for Rodney to say, really, and he probably shouldn't. But I think he thinks it's what Harris needs to hear.
Harris is past his freakout, and has reached the stage of being pissed at himself for freaking out and at Rodney for freaking him out. "Is this supposed to make me feel any better?"
Rodney goes on as though Harris had answered. It had been a rhetorical question anyway. "Being stuck on the bottom of the ocean under sixty atmospheres of pressure in a half-crushed, leaking ship and no hope of rescue in time. I just went crazy. Hallucinating people who weren't there, making stupid mistakes because I couldn't think straight, utterly convincing myself I was doing the right thing when all I was doing was making things worse. It took a miracle and some really dedicated friends to get me out of it, and when I got over the bends and the hypothermia and could think about it straight again, I hated myself."
Stepping back and looking at this on a meta level, I honestly don't think Rodney would think of this as the first time he broke, but he tells it because it makes a good story and it makes his point. He thinks of the siege as the first time he broke. And it did open his eyes to the possibility he might break again, but it took a long time until he could start to piece together the reasons why.
This time, he lets the bait dangle; sometimes, silence works better. Harris looks up after a minute. "Why?"
"Because I'd talked myself into thinking that I could solve any problem, handle any crisis, and when the evidence finally came that I couldn't, it was worse than if I'd broken the first time. Because after that I had to prove it wouldn't happen again, and of course it did, right when we could afford it the least." Rodney knows people, learned how to read them through painstaking trial and error as a survival skill, and he's seeing more of himself than he's comfortable with in this kid sitting in front of him. "Do you know why I'm teaching this class?"
"Because you're a sick motherfucker?" Harris asks, apparently deciding in for a penny, in for a pound, but it's less heated than it was back in the classroom.
Rodney shakes his head. "No. Well, maybe I am, but that's not the reason. I'm teaching this class because despite what I was expecting to find when I came here to teach, there are actually some of you, yourself included, who would not be utterly out of place on a team like the one I can't talk about and on a project like the one I left to come here, and there's a chance that someday you might find you're in a situation where you're the only one who can do anything about whatever crisis of the day needs to be solved in the next forty-five minutes. And if I'd gone into it up front knowing that I was capable of cracking, knowing what would push me over the edge, I wouldn't have had to build that picture up in my head and it would have been so much easier when I finally did."
I think this is where the students really start to become real for him -- start to become more than just faces and bodies sitting in his lectures -- as evidenced by the fact that this is the point where we start seeing him making connections with individual students. He wasn't really expecting to find anyone worth teaching here; it was more of a place for him to hide from the world while still managing to keep himself busy.
Harris picks up his chin and stares Rodney in the face and Rodney suddenly realizes the reason the kid looks so familiar is that he looks like he remembers Ford looking, just a little around the eyes and the mouth, and that makes his hands tighten on his cup of coffee. "I don't know what you think you're sending us out there to do," Harris says.
I have this huge backstory for Harris in my head, and the only part of it that made it in is him looking a bit like Ford, but it involves him being this eager, brilliant boy, the first in his family to ever make it to college, and he's hampered by his background of poverty but he's still got this almost-naive sort of innocence and sense of wonder about the universe.
"Neither do I," Rodney says, even though he's starting to consciously realize what his subconscious has been telling him all semester. "Because you don't know what you'll run into until you're facing it, and when you do, you don't have time to panic. It's better if you can recognize it ahead of time."
Harris is quiet again. Rodney lets the tension in his shoulders ease, because the kid's thinking, and he really did mean it when he said that Harris was one of the best and brightest, because Rodney can see the first glint of self-awareness underneath it all. "Sixty atmospheres would've killed you," he finally says.
Rodney nods. "It nearly did. Wasn't even the closest I ever came."
Harris sighs and uncurls his feet out from under him. He finally takes a sip from the mug of coffee Rodney handed him; by now, it must be stone-cold. "I don't think I want your job, Doc."
"Neither did I, by the end," Rodney says. "But it's still the most amazing thing I'll ever do in my life."
I wrote this whole scene, and when I typed the first line of that paragraph, that was what cemented it for me -- that was when I was positive that something awful had happened to Atlantis, and that it was something the government/the command/The Man had done, and it had been so awful that it'd gone over even Rodney's lines.
And that was when I realized that this story, at least in part, was my way of coming to terms with what's been going on in season two. Because I've watched the slow ethical deterioration of the entire expedition, and I've been half pissed off and half amazed at the sheer rightness of it -- because SGA is a show about what perfectly ordinary (if brighter than average) people do in extreme circumstances, and separating out my own personal reactions to (and disgust for) the decisions the writers are having the characters make, I must credit them for doing it so plausibly. Real people do that sort of thing. They fall down the spiral so gradually, one decision leading to another, and when they look back they can't even pinpoint the one moment where it all started to slide to hell. And I hope that the show's writers will have the balls to let all the consequences start to fall -- I hold out hope that the season finale might possibly if we're lucky indicate that it's starting to happen, but I'm not holding my breath, if you know what I mean.
But the thing is -- most of the time, with the exception of some people who just lack a fundamental element of empathy, there will be that moment where you look around yourself, and you think, my God, what have I done. And I hope, I really hope, that the show will let it happen -- in a real way, not in the kind of half-assed way they're hinting around in the second half of season two, in the way where you spend the rest of your life knowing that you are the kind of person who can do that, and making sure it doesn't happen again.
And I think that out of all of them, Rodney's the one who has demonstrated a high enough level of self-awareness to actually reach that point. He's nowhere near that level yet, in what's been aired. But I think he has the capability to be.
On Tuesday, Rodney controls the postmortem with an iron hand and leads the class into a stripped-down, sanitized version of the conclusions he handed Harris all gift-wrapped and ready. Harris watches from the back row, his face thoughtful. Rodney has offered to let him sit out the rest of the semester, offered to let him drop the class without penalty and without it appearing on his transcript as a withdrawal -- cracking the registrar's system had been one of the first things he'd done when he'd started, child's play, really -- but Harris just shook his head. During the next lab, he does not solve the problem, but afterwards, he nods at Rodney as he's leaving the classroom and Rodney wonders what conclusions he came to, to make him stay.
The rest of the semester passes without major incident, though everyone is a little bit slower, a little bit more wary. Five minutes before the end of the final class, someone raises a tentative hand and asks about the exam, which will be their only grade and which is scheduled for eight days in the future. Rodney passes out cardboard boxes, each with a student's name, and tells them not to open them until they get home. (Some of the boxes have "I told you not to open this until you get home" written on the inner flap. That's an easy enough variable to solve for, once you get the sense for it, and it's a little trick that always cemented Rodney's reputation for knowing everything in the galaxy. In two galaxies.)
The boxes took him most of the semester to put together; he started as soon as he started seeing the shapes and the patterns. Each of them contains seven or eight items and an instruction sheet. None of the items can actually explode or leak dangerous chemicals or electrocute somebody or all three at once, because Rodney won't be there to make sure nobody loses an eye. Each instruction sheet describes the scenario, and the contents of the box are all that can be used to get out of it. For the first time, there's no time pressure -- at least, nothing beyond "turn in your analysis paper by the final exam period" -- but there is a very good reason; each box, each scenario, is tailored to what Rodney thinks its recipient can handle the least.
Picarelli shows up at Rodney's office hours the next day, nerves and anger all rolled into one. "How can you do this?" he demands. "You can't base an entire semester's grade on one paper when it's -- it's impossible, we can't even do what you're asking us to do. You're going to kill my chances of getting into grad school if you bring down my GPA."
Rodney suddenly feels amazingly, outrageously old. "Yes," he says. "You never really believed I'd kill you or injure you, but you do believe I'll fail you. Think quickly."
He doesn't say that everyone in the class, everyone who stuck it out and tried to understand, is going to get an A. He doesn't say that Gall had a 4.0 at Cal Tech, that Grodin was a Rhodes scholar. He doesn't say that this class has nothing to do with grades, and nothing even really to do with science, but everything to do with all the things he learned from a man who never lost the habit of eating with his fingers and another man who wanted everyone to believe there wasn't a single intellectual bone in his body until he was ready to let you see inside and a woman who probably couldn't have even passed their eighth grade when he met her.
Sometimes Rodney wonders if he wasn't the dumb one after all.
And that, of course, is the lesson he really wants them to learn, translated into academic setting.
January of 2015.
For semester six, Rodney teaches PHYS441 as a seminar. Permission of instructor required; limited seats available. He gets more applications than he thought he would, and he carefully sifts through the cards, folding and fanning them in his fingers. He hand-picks twelve students: brilliant and flexible and sensitive and too fucking smart for their own good. Ashiwat, Carroll, Dunnellen, Harris. Hassan and Knight and Montego. Nagamori, Ramirez, Steelerman. Tyler. Watanabe. The ones who have approached him about graduate study, here or elsewhere. The ones who understand what he's capable of, and keep coming back anyway.
There's only lingering traces such as these left in the final draft, because I took out most of the explicit explanations of one of my core theories of Rodney's interpersonal reactions, which is this: what translates as arrogance is actually the fact that he's a brilliant man with a healthy and hefty ego, but he also has this semi-desperate sense of time ticking away for him. He actually honestly believes that he has a chance of solving some of the great mysteries of the universe before he dies, which is one of his key drivers. But he knows it won't be an immediate process, and so he's painfully aware that he has a time limit set, and he's rushing against the clock from moment one. Canon-Rodney comes onto our radar pre-equipped with a sense of his own mortality, more so than the usual average human, and I think it's part of what makes him so abrupt with people and things that waste his time. It's one of the reasons why I tend to think he doesn't sleep much, because he'd view sleep as a personal enemy against his crusade.
I genuinely, honestly think that when Rodney says something like "are you stupid?" he isn't necessarily trying to be insulting. He legitimately wants to know: are you stupid? Are you wasting my time? And once he's determined that no, you're not stupid and you're not wasting his time, he's fine with you. And learned patterns of social interactions like that are what leads to his abruptness and complete lack of tact with people -- he doesn't think that he has time for tact, because tact takes effort and time. Translate that into academic context, and you've got a teacher who isn't nice and isn't kind, but is thorough and competent even when he's being so abrupt. And it's a natural transition (and sort of a deliberate parallel to what happened on Atlantis) to the point where it's likely Rodney would find students who meet his definition of not-stupid, and refines his teaching style (much bluster, but also very high standards) to target them with more precision. Once he realizes they're there.
(I base this theory, by the way, partially on my interactions with many genius computer-programmer types who have the same innate drive for perfectionism and the mental clock ticking down backwards from an unspecified deadline, including my old boss, from whom "Well, it doesn't entirely suck" is the highest compliment possible. My workplace is sharply divided between people who can understand the worldview that leads to such a statement being a compliment, and those who can't, and those who can understand it respect and like him a lot more than those who can't. I base a lot of my "people like or don't like Rodney based on whether or not they can understand the time-pressure thing" on what I see at work.)
I think Atlantis was the first place where he found people who were capable of understanding that (mostly unconscious) attitude, and that's why it was the first time he actually started to form real human bonds with people -- it's a consistent interpretation for me with the absolute wonder and bafflement he expresses in "Letters from Pegasus". I think a lot of his abrasiveness to other people is also a distancing smokescreen, because he knows he's going to offend people and make them leave him eventually, and he wants to get it out of the way early so he doesn't form (even inadvertent) attachments. But once he realized, on Atlantis, that there were people who might be able to look past it, I think he was able to tone it down -- not completely, but enough to extend the pool of people who are able to see past it a little more.
The first day of class, Rodney is five minutes late. He is five minutes late because he had been in his office with the door closed and the lights off, having the closest thing he's had to a panic attack since year three, when he could have sworn he'd burned out his adrenal glands forever in the belly of a Wraith hiveship. The seminar room is set five degrees too hot and consists of nothing more than one U-shaped table and a blackboard, some bookshelves against the wall.
This really isn't easy for him. And the reason he's panicking is not because it's dredging up old memories, because in a lot of ways, those memories never really left him. It's hard for him because in order to teach this class, he has to actually face those memories, and take ownership and responsibility for what he/they did in a way that the (offscreen, future, conjectured) consequences of those ethical decisions wouldn't necessarily have forced him to do.
Rodney shuts the door without saying a word and makes his way to the bend of the U. He ignores the smiles and the greetings, the nervous shuffling of papers and backpacks, and leans over with his knuckles on the table. He meets the eyes of every single person in the room, one at a time.
"The name of this class," he says, very calmly, not soft or quiet but a plain conversational tone, "is 'Scientific Ethics'. It is a pass/fail course. In the coming sixteen weeks, I will humiliate you on a regular basis. I will savage and berate you in front of your peers. I fully expect I will reduce each and every one of you to tears at least once a week. I will be fierce, and I will be brutal, and I will dissect your very worldview and leave it in pieces on the floor, and the reason I will do it is this: each of you, each and every one of you, is in this class because I am willing to write you a letter of recommendation to take you anywhere you want to go. And each one of you is sitting here, right now, listening to me and thinking 'There are things I'd never do,' and what you really mean is 'There are things I'll never do, until I think I have to,' and 'There are things I'll never do, unless it's to accomplish something else,' and 'There are things I think I'll never do but will be pathetically eager and grateful for the chance when it arises,' and you need to know, now, what falls into each category. By the end of this class, you will know far less than you did when you walked in this door, and I will not replace the loss with anything. I will, however, equip you with the tools with which you might -- if you are patient and intelligent and rational enough -- formulate a workable code of ethics sometime within your lifetime. It is not my place to supply it to you; it is my job to make sure you can supply it for yourself. I only hope you can do so before you will need it. It took me far longer."
And the question, of course, is twofold: why Rodney would be able to say this (be able to understand things well enough to articulate it), and why he would. First off, many science programs do offer a class in scientific ethics; it's a field that the Manhattan Project threw into sharp relief. Witness Oppenheimer's oft-quoted "I am become Death, shatterer of worlds" reaction to watching the first detonation. But there are a few huge elephants in the room anytime the topic of ethics is brought up, and I want to break socialization and actually talk about them here.
In 1971, at Stanford University, a psychology researcher named Philip G. Zimbardo conducted an experiment that today is just known as the "Stanford Prison Experiment". (It was, ironically enough, funded by the Navy.) In it, he set up a scenario where half the students were guards, and half were prisoners. Every volunteer in the experiment was fully aware that it was role-play, and they were selected from a pool of volunteers based on their overall stable psychological profile. I don't want to recap it all here -- Wikipedia has an excellent article on it -- but the experiment had to be shut down after six days, because the human rights violations, sadism, torture, and psychological role-assumption and internalization (both on the parts of the prisoners and guards) became immediately and painfully apparent.
In July of 1961, Stanley Milgram, a psychology researcher at Yale University, conducted an experiment where volunteers were placed at a console and told that they could use that console to deliver a painful electric shock to another participant (who was actually complicit in the experiment). The device didn't do anything of the sort. However, the test conductor kept prompting the volunteer to deliver more (and more "painful" and "dangerous") shocks, to the point where it would, if real, place the recipient in grave physical danger. To a person, the volunteers followed instructions; over half were willing to deliver a fatal dose. Why? Because someone in authority told them so.
Milgram and Zimbardo were, quite frankly, trying to make sense of the Holocaust -- trying to understand how ordinary human beings, both the German citizenry and the members of the Nazi army, could perpetuate such absolute atrocities. I've taken a number of classes on Holocaust studies, and one of the topics that keeps coming up over and over again is how completely uncomfortable we all are with discussing the topic and making comparisons. (For the record, I prefer the term "Shoah", which is the Hebrew term, and which literally means "catastrophic upheaval", and will be using it here.)
There is a large school of thought saying that to compare anything to the Shoah, anything that ever happens again, is to show disrespect to the individuals who lived through it and the memories of the individuals who didn't. And there's another school of thought that says that the Shoah was an isolated event, an aberration, and can never be repeated once we are aware of its possibility -- as playwright Tony Kushner puts it, "the standard of absolute evil, nothing compares, nothing measures up..."
But I think that's a dangerous attitude to take. As we have seen so many times since then, it can happen again because it has happened again. And as Milgram and Zimbardo proved, we carry the seeds of it in us, each and every one of us. And I think it's more respect to actually thoroughly internalize those issues, to bring them in and contemplate them and comprehend them, so as to understand what it is in us that makes them possible.
Someone pointed out, very insightfully, that while this story talks about two deaths -- the death of John, and the death of Atlantis -- nobody's talking about the third death that starts the other two, namely, the death of the Wraith. And it's not just death. The way this story presents it, the way the show has presented it, it is genocide.
I've been thinking a lot about Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card lately, in contemplating what disturbs me so much about SGA and how they're taking on big, huge concepts and yet not doing so in an ultimately satisfying way. I think the show is fumbling at Card's determination between the concepts of "alien" being divided into "raman" and "varelse". "Raman" is the enemy you can eventually understand, eventually communicate with, and "varelse" is the enemy so foreign, so unknowable, that you cannot ever hope to build common ground, because your worldview and perception is so wildly divergent that there can be no middle point of compromise. The show wants us-the-audience, I think, to see the Wraith as varelse, because then -- like Card's protagonist -- we will be able to accept the expediencies of war. But it produces such mixed messages, and the second half of S2 does portray the Wraith, at least some of them, as raman. And I think that's why so many of us are really not okay with the actions the characters are taking.
It isn't until the very end of this story that this Rodney can start to comprehend the exact scope of what he and the other Atlanteans did. Maybe he never fully will, because his reactions at the end are still too blithe, I think. But at this point in the story, he's starting to hint around the edges of that understanding, in a more-generic kind of way. He doesn't think his kids are going to be recruited into the specific program he left. But he's already demonstrated in the show an understanding of the military/scientific divide that's so present in late twentieth/early twenty-first century science. And he's starting to realize that anyone -- anyone -- who works in the sciences should be forced to think about these things in advance, so when you make the choices, you're making them for the right reasons.
(And not just in the huge, sweeping ways, either. As my girlfriend-the-scientist points out over my shoulder: television is always an extreme situation, it's unrealistic to think that every scientist would potentially be in a position to destroy a race of sentient beings or build a nuclear bomb -- but every scientist in any discipline will be faced with the fact that your choices directly affect and impact real people, things like "do I test this drug on a human?" down to things like "what is the cost/benefit analysis for whether or not I should attempt to perform forensic analysis on this crime scene evidence?" And you can't let that stop you, because otherwise there is no such thing as progress, but you should know.)
He thinks he might be able to hear his own heartbeat, echoing back against him from the back wall of the classroom; it's that silent. He says, in the same thoughtful tone, "I will now turn around and write completely meaningless things on the blackboard. Anyone who feels that they are unable to handle what I've just described may leave before I turn back around again, and I will spare you the mockery I usually reserve for those who drop my classes."
Steelerman and Knight are gone when he turns back. Knight comes back for the second session. Steelerman doesn't.
They are his hand-picked proto-scientists, all the ones he's cultivated and nurtured (in his own abrasive sort of way), all the ones he never expected to find in the middle of nowhere so far away from Ivy League campuses and billion-dollar endowments, and what absolutely kills him is he knows half of them will probably wind up pissing away their lives behind a desk, wondering sometimes when half-drunk if calculus really was as beautiful as they half-remember.
He breaks them. One word at a time, one question after another: never contradicting, never arguing, always just asking and what if, tiny step after tiny step. Ramirez is their weeper; Rodney leaves Kleenex on the bookshelves behind the seat she always claims, but he does her the courtesy of never calling her attention to it. Carroll has an answer for everything, rolling off his tongue like honey, and Rodney pushes and pushes until just past Easter, when halfway through one dismal Wednesday Carroll answers yes to and what if it were your mother instead, would you still-- and then puts his head between his knees and breathes like he's trying not to throw up while Rodney rests a hand on the nape of his neck. Dunnellen and Ashiwat start holding hands underneath the table when they think Rodney isn't looking, holding onto each other like they each need the lifeline. Slowly, piece by piece, he watches them learn that "never" is just another word for "until".
I specifically left the question understated, because I wanted everyone to think of the worst possible situation they could. I imagine Rodney's teaching method here to be very similar and yet not at all like that of a teacher I once had, who would walk into every Constitutional Law class, write a statement supporting a particular opinion on the board, turn around, raise an eyebrow, and say "Discuss." And that was the last thing he'd say for the entire class period. I envision Rodney, in my head, starting off each class with a scenario like that -- coming in, writing "Testing pharmaceuticals on humans is a necessary part of drug research" on the board, but then turning around, pointing at the first person who doesn't duck fast enough, and snapping out, "Yes or no? What if it wasn't a volunteer? What if it was a placebo issued to a person who was desperately ill? What if you knew there was a 1% chance it would cause permanent brain damage? A 5% chance? A 50% chance? What if the person would die anyway? What if ..." And so on. No chance to think, no chance to ponder, just response, response, response, until each of them gets a chance to hear something coming out of their mouth that they would have despised hearing at the very beginning. Sort of a miniature version of the larger "my God, what have we done" moments I'm alluding to.
He expects them to hate him for it, has come to terms with the fact that he'll never be liked but he'll settle for being listened to. But just after midterms he overhears Nagamori in the hallway outside the chairman's office, sharp and bitter, saying "--not like that, he doesn't treat us like children, is all, he's like that to everyone but I think it's only to hide something he doesn't want anyone to know and he doesn't want any of us to ever have to figure out." He goes back to his office and sits with the lights out and the Seti@Home screensaver (which he persists in running because he has a healthy and well-developed appreciation of irony) playing across his face. He breathes very carefully, and does not think about how once upon a time there was something someone didn't want him to ever have to learn and just how well that wound up working.
A few weeks later Rodney realizes that he's seeing them all, each one of his brilliant and flawed children, and what he sees are eleven people he wouldn't hesitate to step through a Gate with, because what they give him, where they trust him to take them, is pretty much the definition of courage. He told them the truth when he said he would break them, but he lied when he said he wouldn't put them back together, because Rodney learned the hard way to cover up all the tool marks and put back all the access panels when he was done. And in the end, on the last day, he picks up his chair and puts it in the center of the U and lets them question him, and by then they've walked to the edge together so often that nobody comments upon the tears.
It isn't until the end, the very end of it all, that he realizes: the courses of the last two semesters, taken together, should have been called 'Things I Wish Someone Had Bothered To Tell Me Before I Needed To Know'.
Which really says it all, for me. This is one of the key indicators that Rodney has changed, and also one of the key indicators of how much further he has to go. Because he's still internalizing and processing what really happened, and what he (and they) did, and this is the start of him being able to move from the wide, sweeping generalization and narrow down on the specific instances: "what I did" vs. "what people do". And it's the turning point and climax of the story, in my head, because now he can finally let himself start to approach the whole complicated tangle with something approaching perspective.
It's also the first time he refers to any of his students as his children, because it's the first time they're real enough to him to be called that.
I tried to drop in a bit of a hint here that there was time between the last fight with the Wraith and Atlantis shutting down, and more time between then and Rodney getting the job and starting his new life, but I don't think I did a good enough job of it. For the record, this takes place in September of 2015; the last battle was in July of 2011.
Four years is a long time by some people's calendars, but Rodney's lived through weeks and months that went by slower. He still wakes up some mornings and wonders why he can't hear the ocean, still fights the ticking of a body clock conditioned to a twenty-nine hour diurnal cycle and the habits of three days' work at a time, still spends some nights sleeping on the couch with Pixel at his feet and Fara perched on the back because his bed is too small and at the same time far too empty. Those days are growing fewer and farther apart, though, and sooner or later he's going to stop being surprised when he looks around himself and realizes he's almost happy.
Which is significant for me, because having summitted the awful realization in the last section, now he can start integrating and processing it. This is where the story shifts from passive intake/acceptance to a more active acceptance/redemption, really.
I said to a lot of people: I don't consider Rodney the main character in this story. I consider him the viewpoint character, but the main character is instead the absence of John, and by extension, the absence of Atlantis. John's lurking in the entire first half of the story, painted in every set of shadows and in every bit of change Rodney's experienced. In the second half of the story, the missing character is way more Atlantis than John, and a lot more explicitly stated. There are still mentions of John in the second half, much like there were mentions of Atlantis in the first, but which absence is more painful flips right about here. I needed to mark it by bringing them both up at once, and by reiterating that Rodney really does think he's not only okay, but happy. Or getting there, and will get there by the end of the story.
He has earned a semester of light work, of no painful emotional realizations and nothing more strenuous than trying to beat Planck's constant into the heads of freshmen more interested in gin than joules, and so PHYS441 for his seventh semester is "Putting the Science in Science Fiction", with Asimov and Baen and all the other old friends. He is settling the last copyright clearances, for the right to reprint Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" in his coursebook, when there is a knock on his office door and Harris pokes his head in.
The choice of short story is so very deliberate there. In it, a pilot must make a choice between the lives of a group of faceless people or the life of one person he's looking in the eye. The conflict in that story is a bit artificial, since there would be so many other choices he could make to not have to choose, but it gets at the heart of the theme of ethics and "needs of the in-group" vs "needs of the larger group".
I also think I meant Bova instead of Baen, but oh well. Both Asimov and Bova are really good at demonstrating how science influences society and vice versa.
"Hey, Doc," Harris says. Rodney blinks for a minute, because he attended Harris's graduation ceremony -- three of his children marched in May -- and Harris is holding one of the file folders the university hands out every academic year, identical to every previous year's save for the "2014-2015" printed underneath the university's logo.
Another fuckup; this one should be 2015-2016. I'll probably correct it.
"I'm virtually certain you're supposed to be in Boston right now," Rodney says. He'd pulled some strings to get Harris into his old program at Northeastern.
Harris shrugs. "The fellowship fell through, and I couldn't afford tuition on my own. There were a few alternatives, but I didn't really want to take any of them." Something crosses his face. "Besides, I was already thinking about staying here for the MS at least."
This was intended to be another hint that Harris really wasn't from the economic privilege class -- and a more widespread commentary on how military recruiting does prey on the non-privileged, but that's neither here nor there.
"Why in hell would you want to do your graduate work in this hole?" Rodney says. It's automatic; between inadequate experimental facilities and the utter lack of any faculty with two brain cells to rub together, Rodney wouldn't wish the graduate program on his worst enemy. There's only so much he can do to drag the department into the twenty-first century, and most of his effort has been concentrated on leveling the playing field for the ones who will go on to the programs that will open doors for them.
Harris looks at him like he's just said something insanely stupid. "Because it's like you said; the important thing is to find professors you can learn from." He opens the folder and takes out a form, pushes it across Rodney's desk. The myth of the paperless campus is precisely that: mythical. Rodney turns it around to face him, but he already knows it's a request for graduate advising. "I know you teach mostly undergrad, but Dr. Vail said I could ask you if you'd be willing to take me on anyway. I'll totally understand if you say no."
Which is so true. It doesn't matter if you're in the best graduate program in the nation, if your advisors and your classes don't mesh with your interests and personality, and that's a rant for the girlfriend to rant, but I've listened to it so many times I had to put part of it in.
Rodney has not had a TA since the first semester, when both of the ones he'd inherited from his predecessor put up with him for precisely three weeks before switching sections. He has not had an actual graduate student since before he returned to Earth. And the last one hadn't counted, because the last student whose scientific research he had shaped and guided, the last student he'd pushed and shouted at and challenged, had been unofficial in every sense of the word and there wasn't a school on this planet that would have recognized the Doctor of Mathematics degree he and two of the others on the committee had voted to award.
Atlantis University, Rodney thought, running his fingertips over the edges of the triple layer of carbon paper waiting for his signature. It had started as a joke, and wound up being such a profound truth he was almost tempted to hang the degree they'd awarded him in year five, Doctor of Survival, on the wall next to the rest of his accolades.
I have this whole backstory in my head, about how contact with Earth gets less and less frequent as time goes on -- because the tide is changing and Atlantis isn't being as much of an asset as they thought it would be, so they were cutting their losses well in advance of the actual shut-down -- and the expedition gets more and more self-sufficient as time goes on, out of necessity. I think there would have been a real undercurrent of bitterness among the scientists as they started to realize that they had these amazing, incredible advances, and probably wouldn't ever be able to hold them up for full peer review, so "Atlantis University" started as a bitter joke -- "Where'd you do your postdoc?" "Atlantis U" -- and as time went on, it stopped being a joke and started being a source of pride.
I also think that cross-disciplinary training started becoming more and more common as time went on and they realized there was a real possibility of someone dying and leaving them without an expert in that particular field. I think all the scientists in Atlantis were chosen because of their particular areas of expertise, "best and brightest" as it were, and that must lend itself to a peculiar blend of hyper-specialization and thirst for knowledge. And if everyone could move past the tendency to hoarde their own research until publication, which I think they could in this particular situation, it would also lead to a bunch of cross-disciplinary study. After all, they're practically inventing new fields just to be able to describe what they're finding from the Ancients.
When you assume all of that, it becomes a pretty short step to non-scientists also joining in, things like the military picking up some science the way the away-team scientists picked up survival skills and minimal combat ability, and from there it'd make sense to think that the science staff would want to commemorate it in some way. I think half the Atlantis military, at least the ones who had been there for a while, came home with degrees from Atlantis U. And nobody thinks of them as honorary degrees at all, because nothing you work so hard for can ever be dismissed with a word so trivial as "honorary".
There are so many stories hinted at in here that I'd like to write someday, and that's one of them.
"I won't be easy on you," he says, finally, looking up.
Harris's face breaks out in a rueful grin. "Since when have you ever been?" he asks, and Rodney is already reaching for the pen as he asks what topic Harris wants to research.
Harris is interested in a lot of things, from the mechanical to the strictly theoretical, and Rodney reluctantly thinks, after an hour and a half of conversation that leaps from Euler to string theory to the impossibility of finding a good cup of coffee on campus, that perhaps Harris was right in coming to him, because some of the kid's ideas are so cutting-edge they bleed. They outline a tentative class schedule. "It doesn't so much matter what classes you take, really," Rodney says. "Since I'm your advisor I can tell them anything you take applies to your research, so get the classroom stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so you can have extra time to experiment." He is already making lists, making plans of how he can pull strings and trade syllabi and class materials to get Harris some lab time at one of the far-more-well-funded private research campuses upstate, trying to remember who owes him how much and what he can cash in.
By the time they're winding down, everyone else has gone home. Harris gathers up the fifteen journals Rodney has pulled from overflowing shelves, marking certain articles -- "they're all wrong, of course, but they're wrong in entertaining ways, and if you start learning how to spot when other people are wrong now, it'll serve you well in the future --" and tucks them into his backpack.
"Thanks, Doc," he says. "I'll talk to Dr. Vail and the registrar and see about getting listed as your TA for 101."
Rodney nods. "You'll be lecturing on Thursdays starting next week. I'll give you a copy of my notes and the syllabus."
The look on Harris's face is one of the most entertaining things he's seen in a long time. "I what?"
Rodney spreads his hands and tries to hide the smile. "You think I coddle my grad students like I coddle the undergrads?"
There's a second when he wonders if Harris is going to take him seriously, and then Harris snorts, his eyes gleaming. "If that's coddling and you're going to stop it now, maybe I should rethink the Northeastern thing after all."
"Harris." Rodney stops him as he's turning to leave. "You said there were other alternatives. What were they?"
The look on Harris's face means that every inch of last year was worth it, even if Rodney hadn't fully known what he was doing at the time. "The military came to me," he says. All traces of humor have bleached away. "They said they'd fund my Ph.D. and all I had to do was promise to give them four years afterwards. They said it was so classified they couldn't tell me what it was, but it'd be the chance of a lifetime."
One of my beta readers said "is the SGC so hard up for people that they have to recruit straight from college?" And that wasn't what I was intending, because although it is the SGC in this case, I've known a lot of people who have been approached by military or government recruiters straight out of school, either for specific projects or just for the military in general. (We see that in canon, when Rodney says that the military approached him, not vice versa.) It's a really common practice.
It's like being punched in the chest. No, it's worse, because Rodney's been punched in the chest, more times than he'd care to remember, and it never made his toes and fingers go cold and icy before. "Did they say why they wanted you?"
Harris draws himself upright, his shoulders square, his look steady. "They said they're looking at everyone who came so highly recommended by you. That if you said we were worth it, we were."
Rodney closes his eyes. "It's true, you know," he says, softly. "What did you tell them?"
And this is when Rodney really realizes that what he's doing here has consequences just like what he did there. I was trying to get across the idea that even when you theoretically know that bad shit can happen, even when you theoretically know that your actions have consequences, it still takes so long to actually sink in and be real.
"That if you'd decided you couldn't work for them anymore, I sure as hell wasn't going to." Harris's fingers fiddle with the strap of his backpack. "I didn't know if they were the same people you used to work for, but they didn't deny it. And I remembered -- I remembered last semester. And last fall, when you said what you said about knowing what your cracking point was. And I figured -- maybe I'll do it someday. But if I do, I'm going to do it on my own terms. Not theirs."
When he'd first gone to Atlantis, Rodney had mocked the military habit of saluting, because he'd never understood the reasons behind it. It had taken a while until he'd realized that all the bits of protocol surrounding a salute, all the times it's required or expected, are just draperies for the times when there's no other way to possibly respond. Looking at Harris, now, his fingers itch to make the motions. Instead, he just says, "We'll make you into something better than they could."
And the moment breaks when Harris flashes a smile. "If anyone could do it, Doc," he says, and is gone.
Rodney curls his fingers around the edge of the desk and watches the screensaver trying to find proof of intelligent life in the universe. He is motionless for so long, fitting together pieces, that the sensors in his office click off the lights. If the SGC is looking to recruit right out of universities -- if they're looking specifically to his children -- if, if, if. He wonders if Harris's fellowship funding "fell through" with some help, whether they were trying to force his hand. Landry wouldn't have done it, but Landry isn't in charge anymore, hasn't been for a while, and it's been so long that Rodney's only barely aware of who's even a part of the program anymore and who isn't.
I wasn't intending to ever write any SG-1, but I'm enjoying the show anyway, all the more so for its realistic portrayal of how the SGC doesn't operate in isolation -- they're answerable to the President, and to Congress for the budget, and to all the entire chain of command. I find the scenario I built scarily plausible. And no, I don't believe that the military is evil, nor do I believe that military decisions are made out of malice. Just bureaucracy, which can be more insiduous and more damaging. Any great vision gets twisted and perverted over time; hell, look at the progression of any dot-com company, to take an example from another discipline, and how the vision of the company dies as more and more of its founding members move on.
(As an aside, I'm way, way more amused than I should be about Rodney running Seti@Home to help look for proof of intelligent life in the universe. Because I think his sense of irony and of the absurd would have to be so well-developed by that point; it's the only way he could have stayed sane.)
It's like a giant game of three-dimensional chess. Held underwater. While blindfolded. One thing's clear, though; Rodney isn't going to let whatever game they're playing over at the SGC fuck with his people. So: let them try to cripple one of his children with a degree from a second-rate university in revenge for not jumping when they say "how high". Harris was smart enough not to fall for it, and smarter still to come back to him. Rodney might be out of practice playing all the political games, but the one thing he has never been is second-rate.
When he arrives home, he takes the three cardboard boxes out of his closet and piles their contents into stacks on his living-room floor. Pixel climbs into one of the abandoned boxes and makes himself at home while Rodney triages each paper, pulls out the most brilliant, the most far-reaching. He sorts them into series, orders them by which lead to which conclusions, and each one sparks the ghost of four others he'd never gotten a chance to complete.
It feels like the long, slow stretch of muscles he hasn't used in years. He stops four times to scribble equations across whatever sheet of paper comes to hand, differentials and integrations leaping from his pencil so quickly he twice tears the paper with the point. They may have his best work locked up behind security clearance layered ten deep, but if he can prove -- if he can use terrestrial laboratories --
He will be forced to send Harris into the world with a degree from Half-Assed University, yes, but he will send Harris with a line on his CV indicating that Dr. Rodney I. McKay was his thesis advisor, and by the time he is done, it will fucking well mean something.
I needed a strong reason for Rodney to jump back into the wider scientific community, and I really like the one I came up with. In my head, the whole set of circumstances leading up to Harris sticking around was a coincidence; I don't think even this new-and-hardly-improved SGC would fuck with someone in that way. But Rodney's vision of the SGC is of an organization that would, and now that he's been made aware of the possibility -- the shock that gets him moving again -- his experience lets him be able to see the obligation he has to take steps to prevent it. And I think the action he takes is very subtle, the kind of thing the changed version of Rodney can do while the canon version can't.
I also find it really interesting how his relationship to his work has changed. He doesn't necessarily think of himself as its originator anymore, just its guardian, almost. There's a whole wanky analysis in here, one that's even too meta for this commentary, about how Rodney's experiences in Atlantis and beyond parallel Joseph Campbell's concept of the monomyth/Hero's Journey, and how this step is Rodney's crossing of the return threshold and the beginning of the liberation stage. Maybe I'll do that meta later on, because there's a lot of interesting stuff lurking in here about Campbell and about Sam Keen's concept of the "personal mythic journey" that'd let me show off my book larnin' but good.
On a side note, I don't know who it was with the patience to stop and watch "Duet" so closely to figure out that the diplomas on the wall of Rodney's quarters have his middle name as Ingram, but thank you so much to whomever did, on the off chance you may someday be reading this.
Harris turns out to be a pretty decent lecturer after all, a fact which both surprises and pleases Rodney. It's a good thing, because the physics department upstate is willing to let Rodney borrow lab space -- for both himself and Harris -- but only if Rodney teaches one class per semester up there as well. With Harris taking over most of the responsibility for 101, it's possible, even with the two-hour commute.
Non-tenured professors, even tenure-track professors, often teach at more than one campus, just for the record.
He arranges his spring schedule to leave Wednesdays free for driving, ressurrects the syllabus from Applied Quantum Theory and toughens it up enough to be a 500-level, and ignores the rumblings from Dr. Vail that perhaps his attention would be better paid to teaching on his own campus. "It's not my campus until you morons grant me tenure," he snaps, at the tail end of one particularly vehement argument. "And if you want me to publish, I need a lab. With equipment that was manufactured this century."
It shuts Vail up, as Rodney had expected, because there isn't a first-tier journal in the field that isn't sporting his byline this quarter and people are starting to take notice. The grant offers start to flutter around his periphery again, and Rodney starts to accept them, but only the ones that don't come with strings. He bullies and steamrollers and cajoles the trustees of the university into assigning him space in the new science building that's almost complete, and channels the grants into equipment and supplies. It'll take him a long time to do it, but when he's done, he knows he'll have a lab worth taking a second look at. It won't be his lab, of course, but nothing would be, and maybe this won't be a bad second-place option after all.
I tried, and I think probably failed, to get across the impression that Rodney isn't doing this for personal gain at all -- he's doing it because he's realized that he accepted a responsibility without fully understanding it, and now that he's started to understand it, he's going to have to do something with it. Because by this point, he has started to repair his professional reputation to the point where he could eventually pick up a job in a far more prestigous university, but he's also realizing that he started the job here, and in a way, it might be more satisfying to continue it here; one thing he doesn't lack is persistence. It's going to mean that in order to be taken seriously, though, he's going to have to seriously improve the university's reputation. And if he starts by repairing his reputation and the lab facilities, they'll be able to lure more qualified faculty, and eventually the process will hit the flash point.
Again, the whole academic process is set on ten-speed fast-forward here. Realistically, this would take years, but I didn't think anyone would be interested in reading a story that spanned a decade and a half; I wouldn't be interested in writing it.
And then one Thursday in April, he runs into one of the undergrads exiting the physics building as he is entering it, and she catches him by the sleeve. "Dr. McKay," she says. "There's some Army guy standing outside your office. He's been there all morning."
Rodney blinks, because he's never worked with the Army, and then he realizes that to the average sheltered liberal-arts undergraduate, all uniforms look alike. The Second Lieutenant standing at attention outside his office door is indeed wearing an Air Force uniform; there is a briefcase between his feet. Rodney takes a minute to make sure he's got his game face on before sauntering down the corridor and stopping right in front of him. "You're scaring my kids," he says.
The corner of the kid's eye twitches. Rodney wonders who's told him stories, wonders who's left to remember him enough to deliver the warnings. "I have a message for you, sir," he says, biting each word off with a crisp precision.
I have such the image of someone picking this poor kid and saying, "Okay, look. He's an asshole. But he's an asshole we need, so don't let him get to you."
Rodney raises an eyebrow. "From?" he asks.
"General Carter, sir. I need you to sign for it."
Rodney sighs. "General Carter, eh?" For a minute, he remembers blonde hair, easy smile; he remembers a hallucination with her face and remembers returning home to find her long-since reassigned. Maybe things would have been different, if she hadn't been. "Well, hand it over and then you can go trotting home and give everyone back on base my fondest hugs and kisses."
I feel really sorry for Sam in this. I had to hypothesize she wasn't in the picture when the decision was made to repurpose Atlantis, because my concept of her character is so slippery, but I don't think, ultimately, that she'd have let it happen. First and second-season Sam might have let it happen, because them's the orders, but I think she's absorbed too much of Jack's generalized disdain for authority-he-doesn't-agree-with and Daniel's bizarre social-scientist-but-not-entirely-anti-military attitude to let it pass without making a stink. On the other hand, I see Sam as an officer first, and a scientist second. A very close second, but still a second.
I think Rodney's changed so damn much that he barely even remembers his crush on her, but I also think he retains a very healthy dose of respect and admiration for her abilities -- witness the fact in "Grace Under Pressure" that he thinks she has wisdom and is self-aware enough to say that he lacks it -- and he believes that things probably would have been different if she'd been around.
The kid doesn't flinch. Rodney almost has to respect that. "My orders are to deliver it to you in private. Sir."
The 'sir's are starting to get on Rodney's nerves. He fishes out his keys and unlocks his office. Then he sighs while doing his best not to show it, because the lock isn't doing that annoying sticking thing at the three-quarter turn anymore, which means the kid's not just a messenger boy, he's also a locksmith, and also, Rodney's going to have to toss his office for bugs. Again. He drops his briefcase on his desk, drops himself into his chair, and puts his feet up on the desk. The kid invites himself in and shuts the door behind him.
I liked the hint of rediscovering paranoia with the sudden awareness of the bug potential -- because in canon, Rodney's been working for the military for a while, and he totally knows their methods and methodologies, but I think the Rodney of this story has half-forgotten some of it and half assumed that it no longer applies to him.
"Well?" Rodney asks. He reaches over to pour himself coffee and deliberately does not offer the lieutenant a cup. It's been a while since he's been annoyed enough with someone to concentrate on being rude, on offering blatant insult, but they're skills that don't rust if you leave them alone for a while, and he really fucking hates bug sweeps. God help the kid if he disturbed any papers while looking for whatever he was looking for; Rodney still remembers Ronon's lessons on thirteen ways to kill a man with your bare hands.
I meant this to go back to my concept of Rodney as partially deliberately being rude to distance people, and partially just unaware that his statements, brusque as they might be, could be considered rude. I wanted to give the impression that there are things Rodney considers deliberate offerings of offense, and they might not be the things everyone else might think would be! I like the thought that he's got this societal conditioning to have manners even when he's being unpleasant.
The kid fixes his gaze at a point over Rodney's left shoulder. "I'll need to see your ID, sir. And take a fingerprint."
"You people are tremendously confident that I want to hear what you have to say," Rodney says, but the intellectual curiosity might kill him if he does kick the kid out, so he fishes out his wallet and throws his ID across the desk. They do the biometric song-and-dance -- Rodney notes that they're finally using electronic ink pads -- and he is left holding a single sheet of paper bearing the public letterhead of the SGC, the one for sending a message to the outside world:
Dear Dr. McKay,
Please believe me when I say that I understand your motivations for leaving the program. However, there have been some changes of personnel involved in decision-making, and I find myself in the position of having to repair a number of bad decisions made by my predecessors.
I have noticed that you are publishing again, and I have been following your research with interest. I would like to make you an offer: we will declassify your remaining work from your time with us and allow you to publish it, in exchange for your return to the program. Our research is currently stalled, and your abilities would be an asset to our work -- which, I assure you, is no longer the work it was at the time you left.
Please consider our offer. You can reach me through the usual channels if you have any questions.
In my head, Sam came back to the SGC about a year, year and a half prior, when Someone Upstairs finally realized the series of mistakes they'd made. She doesn't know what Rodney did, doesn't even suspect, but she does respect him enough to mean his name is the first on her list for "people who could possibly fix it". I also think, though, that she realizes what kind of headspace Rodney was in when he left, and held off on approaching him until she had what she felt was a good enough incentive -- since she still thinks of Rodney as the person for whom fame and respect was a primary motivator.
It takes Rodney no more than a few seconds to read, but he backs up to the beginning once he's done, mulling over word choices and reading through the lines. Smart of her, really. Wait until he's publishing again, wait until the offer would mean something, and then dangle the carrot; she knows as well as he does there's a Nobel waiting in at least two of the papers hidden behind lock and key. They want him, badly. Rodney would bet a fairly large sum of money that their "research" had been stalled since he stepped through the gate back to Earth, because it'd be a sucker bet. He'd stalled it himself. He'd just been waiting for them to realize.
This was the first time I actually let Rodney think about what he did "out loud", so to speak. Once I'd realized what happened, I also realized that even if I hinted and built the story around it, I couldn't let it actually be spoken until after Sam contacted him. I had a few false starts of this section, actually, where I gave away way too much in advance.
He looks up to find the lieutenant watching him, as though he'd been ordered to report back on every tiny flinch and inhale of reaction; Rodney does not doubt he has. He keeps his face very even. "Is that all?"
Something again that I think might have been too subtle at first, or at least not introduced early enough: somewhere along the way, Rodney learned how to lie convincingly. Which is another one of those things that have a story lurking and waiting to be told.
"No, sir." The kid straightens. "General Carter also included a verbal message. She said to tell you that if this isn't enough of an enticement, you should name your price, and if it's in her power, she'll pay it gladly to get you back on base. She said to say that in your place, she'd probably have done the same thing, but things are different now and you can come back. Should come back. She said to tell you they need you to, and I quote, sir, 'fix whatever it was they did before they left, because the situation is getting critical'. And that if you want it, she'll do her best to get you home."
Rodney nods. It's not something Carter would have committed to paper, because whatever's going on over there, he has no doubt that her position isn't as strong as she'd like it to be. There's a limit to what she can say even in a verbal message, but he can read between those lines too, and if the 'situation' is 'critical' it must mean that the Goa'uld are still hanging around and they need whatever Atlantis can offer.
What Atlantis could have offered, at least. Atlantis isn't going to be giving anyone anything anymore. He wonders how long it took before they came to that conclusion, and how much longer after that until they gave up trying.
"I see," he says, and reaches for the red pen he uses to correct problem-sets, the one that plays a prominent part in the nightmares of undergraduates campus-wide. The lieutenant watches as he scrawls "No. --R" across the bottom of the paper.
Melodrama is another skill that doesn't rust if you don't use it, he thinks. "Tell General Doctor Carter," he says, looking up and handing it back, "that I will be neither bought nor bribed, Lieutenant. Save the world without me, this time."
I actually toned down the melodrama in his response! Originally, it started with "Tell General Doctor Carter that there are some prices even she can't pay." And Rodney's invocations of both her titles are quite deliberate.
This whole thing raises a really interesting question for me. Because here's this Rodney with a new awareness of personal responsibility, and yet something that's presented in canon as what should be the ultimate call to personal responsibility -- saving the entire planet from the evil aliens -- doesn't even register on his radar. And it isn't that he doesn't think of it, because he does. He just doesn't care anymore. He's drawn his line in the sand, and said his "this far and no further", and I think, ultimately, what he's really saying is that there are some prices he refuses to pay and some avenues of possibility he won't even walk down. Because to join in the fight against the Goa'uld, he would be, directly or indirectly, contributing to another xenocide -- and he won't do that again. Not to save himself, not to save anyone.
I really don't think Sam realizes what she's asking of him, either. And the fact that he refuses makes her lose a lot of respect for him, because she views this fight as a duty and an obligation, and in her eyes, Rodney's refusal is a betrayal.
Once Rodney has freed his office of its unwanted acoutrement (and waved off the concerned looks from faculty and students alike; this will no doubt, he thinks, cement his reputation), he closes and locks the door behind him and puts his head in his hands. He'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a long time. The SGC want them all under their control, but they want him most of all, because as much as Rodney calls them names, they're not stupid and they would have known full well who was the only one who could have done it. Carson's gene therapy has long since worn off, modified cells dying and sloughing away like water, but Rodney still remembers what it was like to be able to touch the city and have her listen. He'll remember it for the rest of his life.
Consider the gene-therapy line a sneak peek into a story my girlfriend is planning to write, because she actually understands this crazy science shit. I was fortunate enough to get a three-hour lecture one night about everything involved in gene therapy and all of the wonderful, wonderful implications.
"I'm too old for this," he says, under his breath, knowing there is a probability -- a certainty -- that someone is listening.
He'd felt just as old standing in the gateroom, his duffel slung over his shoulder, watching the civilian population of Atlantis mill and pool in front of the gate and waiting for it to activate, believing their chances of ever returning were somewhere in the quantum valley between slim and none but still needing to hope. Watching the new security detail standing against walls, weapons pointed at the floor but still present. A new, far more conservative President-elect in the wings of the Oval Office waiting to step in, a Congress no longer willing to turn a blind eye to billions of dollars disappearing into the black hole of military appropriations, those things could have been worked around; the Stargate program had gone international by then, enough that there could have been concessions made, deals brokered.
This was the only portion of the story where I let myself linger on a flashback for this long, because it was the only part of the story I couldn't tell any other way.
But the combination of Landry being replaced by some little NID prick with more delusions of control than sense and the step-up in Goa'uld activity cemented it. When the Wraith had still been a threat, Earth had been willing to leave them there, to be the ones doing the dying, their fucked-up little band of the scientists and mavericks the people in charge deemed reasonably expendable. The minute the Wraith had been disposed of for good, the minute they'd finished paying the price in blood and in full, the vultures had descended.
Here's a case of me not realizing what I was doing again -- I'd already changed the reference to which Kipling poem Lorne had been quoting by this point, and here I am referencing it again!
I don't think it was a conscious decision on anyone's part to sacrifice the Atlantean expedition, but it's definitely how the people involved grew to perceive it. Nearly everyone I've ever known with combat experience of any sort knows the feeling of "war is about blood and profit -- our blood, and their profit."
For those of us who care about timeline, it took four months for the government to announce the decision to repurpose Atlantis, and then another month to carry through the plan. Which, everyone involved in the expedition knows, is record time, and means that they must have already had the plan waiting.
The betrayal had taken some of them hard, mostly the new hands. The few of them who were left from that first terrible year had few illusions left. When the order had come through declaring Atlantis's repurposing as a military lab dedicated to weapons research, effective immediately, and recalling civilian personnel, Rodney had simply nodded and returned to their -- his -- quarters to pack.
I hesitated over letting the "their -- his --" stay, but it was small enough to pass the melodrama test, and it seemed like the kind of unconscious slip someone so freshly grieving might still make, since this is a flashback.
Elizabeth had turned up at his door that night, still flush with temper from arguing and negotiating and finally screaming, clutching a bottle of Athosian wine and swaying on her feet. "I can't believe --" she'd said, and "I can't let them do this," she'd said, and finally, sitting next to him on the bed and turning to face him, "Jesus, Rodney, we have to do something, why are you willing to just sit back and them take this over? Don't you know what they'll do with it?"
There's a parallel story here, one that I would love to read but don't really want to write, about how Elizabeth changed, from someone who could say "my God, how morally superior you must feel" and mean it in Childhood's End to the person who could say "We knew this was going to happen" in "Allies", even after her little faux-breakdown at the end of "Critical Mass". Because -- look, I want to like Elizabeth. I really, really do. But she makes it hard to like her, because she's the only one of them who's explicitly stated that she's really uncomfortable with things and then does them again. I really think that if anything's not fully supported in this story, it's this view of Elizabeth as someone who could reach this point of ethical forthrightness, but even though the backstory of all the changes they went through to develop a set of ethics is mostly left out in here, I had to postulate that it would affect them all, and not just a few of them.
Someone pointed out, in feedback, that I don't mention Carson at all in the story, and how worrying she found it. I don't know all the details, but in my head, the real final wake-up call was something that led from Carson's death, probably something retrovirus-induced. No particular reason why, it just seems right.
"I know," he'd said. "Believe me, I know." They all did. They knew what could come out of Atlantis, because they'd almost gone there themselves, and some reports had been destroyed and some conclusions had been thrown away because they weren't going to do it again.
I also really like the idea that the big watershed event that really threw the ethical conundrums into sharp relief for them must have happened before, perhaps well before the actual destruction of the Wraith, and how they would have been forced to carry through with it because they'd already committed themselves, knowing full well what they were doing the whole way. I think that would have more of an impact than just a belated realization.
Elizabeth had hiccuped brokenly. "They'll take what we've learned and turn Atlantis into --"
"Shh," he'd said, and put an arm around her shoulder, clumsy behind the casts, offering what little comfort he could to someone who knew the depths to which people could sink, because she'd clawed her own way free of them already. "It's all right. You keep fighting them as long as you can. I'll make sure --" He had paused, looking for a way to finish that sentence, for just long enough that she could probably hear what he'd originally started to say. "I'll make sure they can't destroy everything we bled for."
He originally started to say something like "I'll make sure nobody destroys what we died to learn." But at this point it's still too new and raw.
His people had looked to him for their cues. He'd given them by heading down to his lab to pack up his desk and begin the laborious process of separating the things that were his from the things he was merely custodian of. He'd put his hands on Teyla's shoulders, felt her hands on his, as she leaned forward and touched foreheads and said "We will always remember," before leading her people to somewhere where they would no longer have to depend on the kindness of others for access to the Stargate. He'd walked through his city one last time, as the deadline approached, fixing places and things and memories firmly in place: this balcony, that storage room, this corridor.
At this point, Elizabeth still thinks she can bludgeon or bully or shout or influence or negotiate people into changing their minds, but Rodney's a lot more of a realist. He knows that once the bureaucracy makes up its mind, it's not going to change it.
I also think it's far more plausible that the military would want to repurpose Atlantis than to shut it down entirely.
And finally, with the whoop of the klaxon in his ears and before they could notice he was late for roll call, he had stood in the middle of the chair room, taken a deep breath, and sat down.
Rodney wasn't Atlantis's fortunate son, but he knew her enough to love her, and she knew him enough to listen. He'd lost himself in the ebb and flow of her systems for just a minute, holding on to it for as long as he could: not sentience but sapience, the familiar touch of something so alien and distant they could never hope to be anything more than the strangers at the gate gazing upon the shining radiance in the distance. And then he had taken a breath and formed the thoughts as clearly and as simply as he could: thank you for all of it and I love you and once I leave, no matter what, never, ever, work for any of us again.
Out of everything I wrote, this was the one paragraph that came closest to actually making me tear up. More so because it was a surprise. I honestly didn't know what Rodney had done to Atlantis until I started writing this section, nor how he'd done it.
Once I'd done it, though, I remembered that old "what's your One True Story, the one you keep telling over and over again" meme that was running around a while back. I've said for a while that my One True Story is terrible necessity, or: "there is a terrible, awful, and necessary thing that must be done, and it can be done by one of two people: me, or someone I trust less than I trust myself; I'd rather it be me, because I know I'll do it right." And ultimately, that's what this action is.
For Rodney, it is necessary to prevent his work from being used for xenocide ever again, but it's also necessary for him to prevent the despoiling of Atlantis. I tried to get across here, with the distinction between sentience and sapience, that while I don't necessarily think Atlantis is sentient, I do think she has a personality, in the same semianthropomorphic way that many engineers believe complex pieces of electronics develop a personality or pilots believe their planes do. Call it about the level of a very bright puppy, perhaps, with the same loyalty even if it's completely alien. And there's this sense of wonder and awe that permeates the reactions of the people who just Get It about Atlantis, and Rodney's one of them; I think everyone who came through in the initial wave and stayed is.
So while I don't necessarily think of this as Rodney having killed Atlantis -- because she still sleeps and, perhaps, dreams -- it is him condemning her to solitude again, and this time he intends for it to be final. Perhaps someday, someone will come along and Atlantis will have enough discretion to recognize them as not covered by what Rodney meant as "us", but he doesn't intend it.
In the end, it parallels John's actions in the pilot episode. John initialized Atlantis so she could be inhabited by everyone; Rodney de-initalized her so she could be inhabited by no-one. John offered Sumner quietus so he couldn't be compromised by the Wraith and forced to disclose the location of Earth, putting an entire race in danger; Rodney offered Atlantis quietus so she couldn't be forced to be an accomplice to the military's desire to exterminate an entire race. I intended for Rodney to function as John's stand-in, to have assumed John's role almost as a form of respect for his memory, and as a hallmark of the sheer scope of the influence John had on Rodney. Because Rodney couldn't have done it, when everything started, and now he can.
I also think the order of what Rodney says to Atlantis is so important. First the acknowledgement that this whole experience, to which Atlantis is central, has changed him so completely (and, he thinks, probably for the better); then the "thank you", because being able to express gratitude is a sign of maturity. But he doesn't intend either one of them as an apology. He feels guilt about what he has to do, but never remorse. Because he thinks the alternative would be far worse.
As a side note, the "fortunate son" descriptor was totally intended to invoke the Creedence Clearwater Revival song. Which, in my head, is so very John.
She'd understood. He could feel it, the faintest tint of regret and understanding in the sense of systems that knew what it was like to be alone. The second hardest thing Rodney ever did was to withdraw from that touch, knowing he'd just fired a bullet he'd have to live with for the rest of his life, and pick up his duffel to go.
The bullet line was the closest I could let myself come to making the Sumner parallels explicit, since it echoes John's words at the end of the pilot.
"Too old for this," he repeats, and slides a hand underneath the underside of his desk. Some advancements in technology shouldn't be cause to celebrate; when he finds it, the bug is nearly microscopic, passable as a flaw in the grain of the wood. He plucks it free with his fingernails and drops it into his coffee mug. And then -- because he still isn't stupid no matter how many times he'd imagined it would be more comfortable to be -- he pulls the visitor's chair over to the bookcase that's just fractionally misaligned where someone was too clumsy in replacing it. He picks the other bug out of the top left corner, where it has been hidden behind the calculus text he only keeps to refresh his memory when he needs it.
"Play the man, Master Ridley," he murmurs, not knowing exactly who is listening but knowing Carter will eventually hear and understand anyway, and walks down the hallway looking for all the world like a coffee addict who needs to wash the last fix out of his mug. It's a good enough cover for flushing the bugs as any.
I'd think this might win the award for "most obscure reference ever that only four people will get", except I think I outdid it in a few other places in this story. Rodney is quoting Bradbury's Farenheit 451 quoting Bishop Hugh Latimer, sixteenth-century academian and Protestant martyr. Latimer's last words, to the man who was being burned at the stake with him, were: "Play the man, Master Ridley! We shall this day light such a fire, by God's grace, in England as I trust shall never be put out."
Latimer was, of course, being executed for refusing to publicly agree with his government on matters of conscience.
When he returns to his office, he sends an email to the five or so people who need to read it:
An old friend came calling to offer me work. I turned them down. You know why; I suggest you do the same.
He receives no responses, but he wasn't expecting any. He hasn't exactly been the best correspondant. But none of them belong to Earth anymore, haven't for a long time, and while he doesn't think any of them will believe in pretty words and soft promises, he knows what temptation is when he feels it. He feels better for having delivered the warning, and when Harris breezes in before the afternoon lecture for 101, flush with the gossip that is already traveling the hallways, he is able to smile, even if he knows that it doesn't quite reach his eyes.
By the fall, Rodney's star is riding high in the department; his publication credits are racking up, his "research" -- which is actually just ways of backing up truths he already knows well enough for them to stand up to peer review -- is ticking rapidly along, and Harris is singing his praises to anyone who'll listen. He's pretty sure Vail hates him by now, but it's the kind of hate that comes from professional jealousy, and that's one thing Rodney's always been able to accept.
Again, seriously advanced timeline for purposes of dramatic motion.
The university hires someone new to take over Rodney's two sections of PHYS101 and replaces them with a graduate section of Condensed Matter Physics and an undergraduate section of Experimental Physics. Rodney stops in to introduce himself when he sees a light on in the office after hours, and is startled to find that the newest low-man-on-the-totem-pole is actually low woman on the totem pole. She introduces herself as Dr. Katherine Friedman, which Rodney will need to be reminded of all semester, and invites him out for coffee to discuss the program, the department, and the university as a whole.
He discovers that she did her Ph.D. at MIT, specializing in gravitational study, and they spend a few pleasant conversational turns reminiscing about Boston. She has been teaching at Loyola, the one in Chicago; she says she left because she and her husband split up, and she wanted a change of scenery. "Where did you come from before here?" she asks.
I intended for this to be the first hint that the department is attracting professors of a higher-caliber, due at least partially to Rodney's efforts, and also now that Rodney's rejoined the human race, to give him back at least some minor elements of the colleague relationship with someone. Oddly enough, while I was pasting this section at Miella, she asked, "Do I have to hate her? Is she an SGC plant?" So totally had never crossed my mind.
"The private sector," Rodney says, the lie sliding easily from his lips.
"I heard you used to work for the military, actually," she says, pouring herself a refill from the carafe the waitress has left on the table. "Kim told me there's quite the mystery surrounding your past."
Kim is the department secretary, the one Rodney thought he'd charmed pretty thoroughly. Clearly, he has been slacking on doing his own photocopying if she is willing to rat him out. "I can't really talk about it," he says. "To you or to anyone."
Really, I have to sing the praises of department secretaries once more. Kim was ours. She would patiently listen to whatever your problem was, and then go away and make things happen, and the next thing you knew, no more problem.
She lets it pass, asking him instead about one of his latest articles -- the one that will, in another fifteen years of carefully-timed publications, lead to the "discovery" of the zero point module -- and their argument deteriorates to scribbled equations on napkins and an embarrassing moment where Rodney, hands waving in midair like he's conducting an imaginary orchestra, tips the pot of coffee over into her lap. She laughs about it, though, and Rodney offers her the textbook he wrote for 101 as an apology.
If I did this again, I'd pull that bit about the ZPM out and make it a little more clear, because it stands for a larger plan. The ultimate goal of Rodney's research and publication right now is to be able to deliberately reproduce every inch of what came from Atlantis and publicize it, because once it's public, the government can't lure people with it anymore. It's the scientific version of the hacker-ethos "Information wants to be free". And it does violate his security agreements, but the only people who could call him on it until the big bombshell reveals absolutely wouldn't ever rat him out. He's counting on the thought that by the time he gets there, there will have been enough turnover in the SGC to have forgotten, and the people who are left won't care enough to prosecute. But if they do, he's made arrangements to make sure the papers will still be published, and the information will still be released, one way or another.
Because information can't be unlearned, despite what they did earlier to destroy some conclusions and some reports. Once something that can be used for incredible good or used as a weapon is in the hands of a person or group of people who have demonstrably proven that they are willing to entertain the thought of using it as a weapon, Rodney has come to realize, it is his responsibility to make sure that everyone has that information, both so people can defend against it and so everyone has the benefit of the potentially good parts. Cheap mass power (such as that from a ZPM) stands in as a convenient shorthand for every discovery the Atlantis expedition made, since I really don't believe a lot of their discoveries would have immediate weapons use but many of them could seriously be exploited to perpetuate a power-imbalance dynamic, both among countries and internally.
441 this semester is a repeat of the first semester he taught it, Special Problems in Relativity again, and this time he can use some of his own articles in the coursebook. He teaches upstate on Fridays this time; Harris is beginning his research, this year, and they spend pleasant afternoons in the labs. Harris has settled on quantum gravity as his thesis topic, and is working on a theory of correlation between black holes and subatomic particles. Rodney only has to nudge him in the right direction once or twice; he's pretty sure Harris is going to work it out on his own.
They are alone in the astrophysics lab, Rodney checking over Harris's shoulder every now and then to make sure he isn't doing something stupid while programming the synchrotron radiation accelerator, when Harris says, abruptly, "You've fucked up pretty badly before, haven't you."
For the record, I did way too much research for the physics bits in here.
Rodney has been expecting this conversation, but not like this. "Yeah," he said. "But I can't talk about it."
"That's always your answer." They've learned each other pretty well by now, so Rodney knows it's more of a push and less of a whine.
He shakes his head. "I know. But I really can't talk about it. You can't ever know."
Harris spins around on his lab stool. "But why? I bet I could find out. If I poked around enough. If I spent enough time following what you're researching. Because you're not writing those papers now, are you? You're pulling them out of your files and sending them off now, but you've had them written for a while."
It's not a secret -- it couldn't be; there's no way he could have been writing fast enough to account for his output over the past year, and everyone knows it. It's not common in Rodney's circles for people to sit on discoveries like his and dump them into the field all at once, but it happens often enough for it not to be suspicious. But Harris is turning into -- Rodney is turning him into -- someone who could piece it all together, at least partially, and that can't ever happen.
Rodney still holds out hope that he won't be involving Harris in all of the political games, even though he's pretty sure it's going to happen anyway.
"No," he says, and he breaks his own rules, leans over and puts both his hands on Harris's shoulders and squeezes, hopes his urgency communicates itself. "You can't ever know. Not 'can't figure it out'. Can't know. It's too dangerous. Don't look, don't even think of looking, or you might find that one morning there'll be a knock on your door followed very shortly by exceedingly bad things."
Harris swallows, once, hard. "I don't --" He stops. Rodney watches him putting things together behind his eyes. "You were working on weapons research, weren't you."
Which is the most logical conclusion from the things Rodney's let his children know, and he's actually really surprised at how much the accusation disturbs him.
The answer bursts from his lips, too much but not enough. "No. Not in the way you're thinking, and that's why I left. But there's classified and then there's classified, and --" He runs out of things he can say without getting them both in trouble. He can't explain his part in the destruction of an entire alien species without first explaining about how there are alien species. All he can do is shake his head. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, but I can still sleep at night. But, and I don't say this lightly, there are some things that should stay buried."
And it's taken Rodney nearly five years, but he's moved from passive/heroic language to more honest language: "the destruction of", instead of "the defeat of". Compare this to later still, when he finally accepts things enough to use the word "xenocide".
I really like the way I phrased this here, because to me it really hits the dichotomy in Rodney's new way of thinking, and illustrates the point that he really is okay (or going to be). He's done things he finds reprehensible, but he also acknowledges that they're over and done with, and all he can do now is move on, the same way that he could earlier acknowledge that he misses John tremendously, but once someone is dead, they're dead, and all he can do is move on.
Scattered through all of my replies to comment feedback is a quote that sums up so much of this story for me, even though in my idiocy I totally misattributed it, like, everywhere. Spider John Koerner, a jazz/blues musician (although that's kind of like saying that Gandhi was a pretty decent guy) once said: "the meaning of life is: do the next thing." And that's such a touchstone for this Rodney for me. Shit happened, it knocked him on the floor for a little while in a lot of ways, and now it's time for him to get up and start putting one foot in front of the other again.
Not long ago, he knows, it would have been enough of an answer for Harris to let the subject drop. He's probably responsible for the fact that it isn't anymore. "A lot of people died because of things you did, didn't they," Harris says. It's not a question.
Rodney came to terms with the fact that he's a terrible liar a long time ago, right about the time he stopped being so painfully bad at it. His children have earned the truth from him, and when he can't give it he gives them the courtesy of at least saying he can't instead of lying. Harris, though, is half colleague, half protege, and to him, Rodney gives a little bit more of it than anyone else gets. "Yes. Directly or indirectly. I've made a lot of stupid mistakes that resulted in a lot of destruction, and a lot of deliberate choices that led to death, and a few of those choices I made at a distance and a few of them I made up close and personal. And that's what I was trying to teach you all when I said that you had to know where your lines were before you were being pushed to cross them."
This is about as close as Rodney is going to ever get to saying "yeah, I killed a lot of people, and most of them probably didn't deserve to die" out loud.
Harris considers it for a long minute, his eyes going soft and unfocused. "I know you can't tell me," he finally says. "And I know I shouldn't ask. But -- I think I know you well enough to know that you wouldn't have put us through it unless you thought there was a chance we'd need it." He sits on his hands and blinks up at Rodney. "You really think that whatever you went through -- there's a chance I'll have to do it too."
"Not the way I did." Rodney rubs his temples, where the headache is forming; he's getting old, he thinks again. Time for glasses soon. "But there's a chance. More so because you come from me. And you're heading for a few conclusions that will make you -- more attractive to certain interests." His lips curve just a little, remembering. "They always turn to the scientists to save the day in the end, after all."
He can tell Harris doesn't understand, but it's all right. He's planting seeds, after all, and waiting to see where they bloom. He'd never had the patience for horticulture before, but he's learned how to think long-term. When Harris finally speaks, it's soft. "Do you really think I could do it, Doc?"
There are so many ways to answer that question, and three-quarters of them lead to more questions he can't ever answer, but the sum of those answers is yes. He was not expecting to find this here, had (if he is honest with himself) chosen this position because he thought he would not find it here. He had thought he'd had enough of being responsible for putting people in places where their brains might get them killed. But it was not that long ago, as time is measured on a galactic scale, when he was the one with the brilliant ideas and the passion for understanding it all, and he owes this to Harris as much as he owes it to his own younger self.
Which is, to me, pretty much what the entire story is about, and why I firmly insist it's not a sad story at all. It's a triumphant one.
He is Rodney McKay, though, and so it comes out as "You're not utterly incompetent, or I'd never have taken you on in the first place."
Harris has worked with him long enough to hear what it really means. "Thanks, Doc," he says, nodding once, and turns back to his work.
By the time the fall semester is winding to a close and Vail's annual holiday party is nearly upon them, he finally manages to regularly remember Dr. Friedman's name. She drops by his office now and then, bringing journal articles for his reactions and drafts of her papers for him to scribble upon. Three days before the party, they are talking over coffee in Rodney's office -- she figured out quickly, as many of his coworkers have, that his coffee is the best option around -- when the topic turns to the party. "Are you going?" she asks.
"I generally put in an appearance for an hour or so before making a valiant retreat," he says. Vail's party is always crammed tightly with people, more people than he's comfortable with at a single time; it makes his skin crawl, and sometimes he wonders if he was spoiled by living so long with so much space and so few neighbors.
Friedman trails her fingers along the side of the couch. "It's my first real Christmas without Michael," she says, absently. "Last year the divorce was so ugly around the holidays, I couldn't enjoy them at all. Have you ever been married?"
Rodney's breath catches in his throat. She is hitting on him, he realizes, suddenly and sharply. Probably has been for a while. He says, keeping his voice as even as possible, "Widowed." It's the simplest answer.
You can always tell I'm winding a story to a close by whether or not I'm willing to let the characters have a conversation like this. Originally, as I said, I had vague plans to never let Rodney explicitly refer to John's death, or even really think about it beyond the little hints and allusions, but the second half of this story is so not about John at all, and so Rodney could. It makes his reticence to discuss it into Rodney being a private person who doesn't want to talk about his personal life, instead of not wanting to discuss it because it's still such a huge trauma. Katherine is starting to be a friend, though, so he's willing to let her in a little more.
She looks up suddenly, fingers stilling, blue eyes soft and sympathetic. "I'm sorry," she says. The words are automatic. "How long were you together?"
Two thousand and forty-seven days; a lifetime, a heartbeat. "Five and a half years."
I love that first sentence so much, because I think it's such a Rodney thing to know the number of days so readily.
"I'm sorry," she repeats. "Was -- did she linger?"
This is why he hates personal conversations. "No," he says. "He died quickly."
And really, that says everything anyone will ever need to know, right there.
Her lips round in a brief red O before she controls her face. "I -- there's never really anything good to say here. Except that I'm sorry. Again."
"It's all right," Rodney says, feeling tired. "I don't talk about it. You couldn't have known."
She studies him for a minute, and then nods. "And I won't say anything, either. You've probably got your reasons for not talking about it."
If she's smart enough, she'll figure out what those reasons are. He doesn't bother to enumerate them. "Thank you," he says, and means it. She is almost approaching the level of friend, or at least valued intellectual sparring partner, and he appreciates the courtesy.
Harris's first paper appears in the winter issue of the Condensed Matter Physics Journal. Rodney is primary author, of course, not because it was his research (though part of it was) but because his name will carry it where Harris's would not. That won't be true for long, of course, but for now they're both content to let Rodney be the jump-start. He lets Harris bask for fifteen minutes, which is ten minutes longer than he knows Harris was expecting, before he says, "Now go write chapter two of your thesis."
It's very common in the sciences for grad students to -- not ghostwrite, that's not quite it, but contribute to their professors' papers, in exchange for secondary-author status. It's also pretty common to get your name added to one of your professors' papers several years after you've graduated, as third or fourth author, if you contributed to the research during your years of indentured servitude. I mean research assistantship.
When Harris leaves his office, still walking on air, Rodney clears one shelf and places the journal copy on it. It reigns in lonely splendor for now, but Rodney knows it'll have company soon. This, he decides, will be the shelf where he keeps the things his children have published, because when he needs something to remind him, it will be good if they are close to hand.
Zelenka comes to visit in spring. He has put on twenty pounds and his hair is thinning. He squints at Rodney from the office doorway and says, "You look horrible. What happened to your hair?"
Miella: What's Zelenka doing now?
Me: Working for his government, something complicated with energy production.
Miella: Does he mutter about the inefficiency of non-ZPM power supplies? Incomprehensibly, under his breath?
Me: Of course. In Ancient. Because he can't mutter in Czech to have people not understand him.
This is why Miella and I should not be allowed up past midnight together.
It has been four years since Rodney has seen anyone from Atlantis save Elizabeth and Ronon, who visit every summer. Not on the anniversary, because that would be too much for any of them to bear, but near enough to it. Rodney knows the rest of them keep in touch via email, those of them who were there long enough to be family instead of visitors; Zelenka is one of the few who have not given up hope and still copies him on the threads. "You've gained weight," he says in return. "It doesn't suit you."
I'm really fond of the idea that over the years, the insults became a form of affection. I think I hang out with too many boys.
They both know what they're really saying. Rodney rises from behind his desk and Zelenka crosses the room and they hug, briefly but roughly, until Rodney draws back with a pat on Zelenka's back.
"It's good to see you," Rodney finally says, once they're settled on the couch and have the how-was-your-flight, not-bad-but-long pleasantries out of the way. He means it now, the way he couldn't mean it last time.
"And you," Zelenka says. "We would wonder if you were perhaps taken by aliens, were it not for the journal articles."
Rodney glances around automatically, to see if there is anyone who could overhear, but of course it's the kind of joke they used to be able to make without fear of eavesdroppers. "It's hard," he says, finally. "To know how to talk about it."
Zelenka fixes him with one of those direct stares, and then nods. "So, we will not talk about it. You have a minion, I hear."
It makes Rodney laugh. "I think the politically correct term is 'graduate student'. Come on. I'll give you the tour and introduce you around."
This was totally a shout-out to my own minion. I mean intern.
And just like that, it's all right, or at least as close to all right as it could be. Zelenka is working on something complex involving cheap mass power production, something Rodney's been half-following, and it only takes a few minutes before they're back to the old snap, snap, snap of finishing each other's sentences and building on statements that haven't been voiced.
Friedman is enchanted by watching the two of them bicker; Harris is amused. Zelenka manages to keep quiet in Rodney's afternoon Condensed Matter lecture for approximately ten minutes before something Rodney says makes him snort in derision, and they spend the rest of the lecture period happily tag-teaming, complete with insults and "no, no, you are oversimplifying" balanced by "because we don't need to get into that level of detail, not until we spend twenty-five minutes discussing the math which I so do not want to get into right now" as counterpoint.
Part of what I was trying to get across with the whole story was the idea that Rodney was hiding from the rest of the Lantean refugees partially out of fear of how they'd react to what he did, and partially because he didn't want to destroy any last bit of hope they were still holding. Because by now, he knows that hope isn't self-delusion; sometimes it's the only thing holding people together.
I almost wish I had concentrated more on everyone else's reactions and reintegration the way I had intended to in the beginning, because I still find it a fascinating and compelling concept to explore, but that's not what this story turned out to be about and I don't think I'll ever have the energy to re-visit this universe. I put Zelenka in here to stand for the rest of everyone, even though I think Zelenka is far more wise than some people might be.
This whole thing is Rodney's last step. He spent so long thinking that everyone else could never know, should never know -- that it would be a kindness if they never knew -- that he'd built it up in his head as such a tremendous burden to carry. I wanted to be able to give him one final bit of absolution and let him realize that at least one other person understands and approves, and the best way to show that was to show the way his relationship with Zelenka hasn't essentially changed.
Afterwards, Rodney is glad that he extended the offer, gladder still that Zelenka was willing to accept it. Technically, Zelenka is here to give a guest lecture on twenty-first century engineering solutions. In actuality, he's here for Rodney to mend fences.
He has offered Zelenka his spare bedroom for the duration of his stay, and that night, when they are somewhere no one can overhear, sitting over the remnants of Chinese takeout at the kitchen table, Zelenka pushes his glasses up his nose and says, "They came to me right after they came to you. To offer me a place again."
Rodney didn't know, but he could have guessed. It was the logical thing to do. "Obviously you said no," he says.
"Obviously." Zelenka nods. "But they told me, I think, more than they told you. After we left, Atlantis fell silent."
Rodney has not spent any time with any of them since he returned to Earth because he spent so long being a very bad liar that he always forgets he isn't anymore. "Silent?" he asks.
Zelenka waves a hand. "Lights do not turn on. Labs do not work. Equipment that was already there does not function; things they bring to interface work for a few hours, a day, and then fail. They had to leave, a long time ago; they could not live there."
Rodney closes his eyes and thinks of a city sleeping underneath the ocean for ten thousand years, alone save for one legato heartbeat. When he opens his eyes again, Zelenka is studying his face. "That's odd," he says.
"Yes." Zelenka nods, as though he has received the answer he came here to find. "I told them no. If the city does not wake for them, she must have a reason."
It had been a while before they'd all realized they'd slipped into referring to the city as "she", slow and gradual, but by the end, you could tell the Lanteans from the people who just worked on Atlantis by whether or not they knew the proper pronoun. Some of the ones who showed up right before the end qualified; some of the ones who'd been there for years never did. "Yes," is all Rodney says. "I imagine she does."
I'm far too fond of the distinction between the Lanteans and the people who just work on Atlantis. It reminds me of how I once heard one pilot explaining why he didn't consider another person to be a pilot, just someone who flies airplanes: "he didn't name his plane".
"You are the only one," Zelenka says, "that I have never heard wonder if we could ever return home someday."
Zelenka has figured it out. Rodney can tell. Elizabeth knows a little but she'll never ask him for the details, because what she doesn't know she can't accidentally disclose, but Zelenka has no such fear. The rest of them don't really believe they'll ever be able to return, but there is always that one last shred of hope, the belief that maybe, someday, when the tide changes, they'll be able to --
Rodney has often been accused of being a pessimist, but those who truly know him know that he isn't. He thinks of himself as a worst-case-scenarioist. He gripes and grumbles and predicts doom, rattles off the litany of the thousand ways a situation can end badly, because he has always been convinced that if he voices the worst-case scenarios, there is still that hope they will not come to pass. A few people know that when Rodney is utterly silent about a topic, that is when there is nothing. It's why Rodney has hidden from them all since their return, because they're all very intelligent and thoughtful people, and they'll be able to find the shape of the truth made from all the things he is not saying.
If I'd sat on this a bit longer, I might have tried to come up with a more subtle way of saying it, but this is what I've always interpreted Rodney's constant paranoia, bitching, hypochondria, etc, as.
He can say none of this. Zelenka would understand, perhaps. Maybe does understand. But understanding and absolution are two different things, and Rodney had resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life. Seeing Zelenka again has reminded him of how much he misses the days when he didn't have to watch his every word for the things he shouldn't be saying. He always thought they would hate him if they knew, and perhaps it's worst for a man who was hated by those around him all his life and didn't realize how much of a weight it was until it finally went away. He doesn't know if he can bear hatred from one of the people who taught that relief to him.
"I guess I needed to put it behind me," Rodney says, knowing it's the wrong answer. Knowing Zelenka doesn't need the answer at all to know.
Zelenka reaches across the table and grips Rodney's hand, stopping him from mutilating the napkin he is picking to shreds. He holds it, tightly, almost enough to make Rodney's wrists start aching again. "Rodney," he says. "I did not ever want to leave her in profane hands either."
In the first draft, Zelenka said "leave her to the wrong people", and I couldn't pinpoint why it felt so not-him. I finally realized that he's enough of a poet to phrase it this way, and I really like the images it conjures up.
When Rodney sleeps that night, he dreams of a self-destruct counting backwards from ten minutes, and the painfully beautiful fireworks of energy weapons bursting across the shield overhead. He wakes clear-headed and delivers a lecture to this semester's section of 441, which is titled "History of 20th Century Physics", on the Manhattan Project. Zelenka sits in the back of the classroom and does not flinch.
In the spring of his fifth year at the university, the committee votes six to one to grant Rodney tenure. He receives a copy of Watanabe's master's thesis and sets it on his shelf next to the two journals containing articles by Harris. He receives an invitation to Dunnellen and Ashiwat's wedding, and surprises himself by accepting it. He writes letters of recommendation for three more of his children and lobbies the state legislature to fund the laboratory he is building. He has coffee regularly with Friedman, and accepts her invitation to call her Katherine, but never Kate; he gives her an advance copy of a paper he's mentally slated for publication in the fall of '18, one that applies to her areas of interest, and she turns over each page with awe before looking up and saying, "My God, this is thirty years ahead of anything anyone else is doing."
Ten thousand years behind, he thinks. "Take it," he says. "It's not part of a series. You'll get more use out of it than I will." He doesn't say that it isn't one of the ones he discovered, just one of the ones he pieced together. He can let those go, now.
Yeah, you can really tell I'm getting to the end of the story, because it's the part where I'm really easing up on the 'telling the story through negative space' and coming flat out and saying things.
Harris spends three days terrified before his comps and Rodney finally has to tell him to suck it up. "The worst thing you're going to face in there is me, and you already know what I'm going to throw at you. Shut up and go correct that Oxford comma on page eighty-one before I fire you."
Rodney and I hold completely contradictory opinions on the use of the Oxford comma, which is why I couldn't bring myself to say "take out that Oxford comma on page eighty-one". He is, of course, referring to Harris's thesis.
Rodney will miss Harris, and Harris knows it. He is headed to Cal Tech for his Ph.D. Rodney didn't have to pull any strings at all, this time. Rodney has already been approached by two seniors from the undergrad physics department, two more of his children, to discuss the possibility of staying on in the program. "You shouldn't stay at the same place for your graduate study if you don't have to," he warns them; "it looks bad on your CV." They tell him they don't care.
U.S. News publishes their annual rankings of the best universities in the country. Flyspeck University doesn't rate a mention in the print version, but it's highlighted on the website as one of the up-and-coming physics departments in the nation. Applications start trickling in after that, by ones and twos, from outside the state. Rodney sits on the admissions committee, representing the physics department, and baffles everyone who tries to figure out his selection algorithm. He doesn't have the heart to tell them that he looks for nothing more than a hint that the ones he chooses might turn out to be something more than the sum of their parts. He asks for, and receives, permission to include personal letters in the acceptance packages for the ones who have indicated an interest in majoring in physics. Maybe it'll mean something. Maybe it won't. He can't know.
It'll take a few more years before it really starts to pay off. His children will need to work their way through their graduate studies first, need to move into the field and start teaching and publishing, and he knows that not all of them will. But enough. Enough to build the reputation, enough to make it count, enough to get them noticed. The shape of his future is spiraling out in front of him, years of patient tending, of molding and pushing and demanding excellence in all things, building a program that will last. Luring brilliant minds against all common sense and forcing them to own their brilliance, changing the face of everything that comes after. It's not something he ever thought he wanted, but when he sees it spun out on the horizon, he's realizing it's everything he never knew he needed.
Sometimes at night, he looks up into the stars, the patterns that were all he knew for so much of his life and now look like a stranger's face, and wonders what's happening out there. Wonders if they're winning; wonders if he'll wake up one morning and find they've lost. He is surprised at how little he cares. There are things he's done, and there are things he's said he'll never do again, and he knows, now, that the best and only thing he can do to change the world is to set small ripples in motion, because small ripples become large waves and the world, the universe, is a beautiful quantum jewel built from fractals of consequence and conscience.
Maybe he'll try to get Scientific Ethics added to the department's core curriculum. He doesn't think it'll hurt as much to teach, next time.
I really don't have anything to say about all of this part, except that I rewrote it eighty gajillion times and it still feels like far too much of a brick to the head compared to the rest of the story, but I couldn't bear to give up the sentence "the universe is a beautiful quantum jewel built from fractals of consequence and conscience".
On the morning of the sixth anniversary of the final xenocide of the Wraith, Rodney finds an email from Elizabeth waiting in his inbox. It reads, with no preamble or closing:
And the third real mention of it, and the first one that flat-out calls a spade a spade.
Do you ever wonder if everything was really worth it?
He stares at it for a long time, wondering which of her own personal demons prompted her to ask, before replying with nothing more than:
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
I'm pretty sure everyone knows this is a quote from Winston Churchill, but I have to mention it anyway. I wanted to have Rodney quoting something instead of replying directly.
She'll know what he means, he thinks. Maybe. If not now, then someday. He can't take the burden away from her, but he can do his part to lessen the weight she carries, and maybe it'll help if she knows that if he had it all to do over again, he wouldn't change a thing.
Here is where I confess: despite the fact that I usually write in an exceedingly linear fashion, this was actually the second section of the story I wrote, this time, back when I still thought this was another story entirely. And it survived surprisingly intact, but it means something completely different. The first time, I vaguely intended Rodney to be referring to his conscious decision to love John, to go into the relationship with John even knowing how it had to end. I like this interpretation better: that this is a man who has learned enough to look his bad decisions in the face, to understand them and accept them and internalize them, and to close his eyes and nod his head and move on. From the loss of his lover, from the loss of his home, from the loss of his old comfortable view of the world, and from the knowledge that he's done so many things he regrets.
That's a key element here, I think: Rodney has regrets, but he still wouldn't change the big things. He can recognize the necessity of their final actions, even if he wishes they'd comported himself differently in the method of reaching those actions. And I think that's why he chose the Churchill quote. Because what they did was so clearly not their finest hour, and he knows that and I was trying to spend the entire story hinting around the edges of that conclusion. But he knows Elizabeth knows that, and will see his interpretation of what Churchill might have been saying, and that interpretation is: we're going to have to do some terrible things, in the name of the greater good, and when we do, let us do them with as much honor and dignity as we can manage. And he's only partially referring to what they did do, because mostly he's referring to whatever unspecified things they're going to do from here on out.
I wrote this scene early on as well, and it needed more rewriting when I got to the end than the previous one did, but the core concept of it remained unchanged. It was originally supposed to be the scene where Rodney comes to terms with the bits of John's absence that have only been hinted at. I always knew that Rodney was fundamentally okay, and that colored my perception of the story throughout the writing process. Everyone I talked to about it said "oh my god, that story's going to be SO SAD", and some of the people who read it as I went said "oh my god, that story is SO SAD", and many of the people who left feedback said "oh my god, that story was SO SAD", and I kept giving my speech about how it's not a sad story, not at all, and this scene was the closest I could get to actually stating why.
He visits every August. Sometimes, when he is sitting in the late-afternoon sun, his fingers brushing the petals of the Athosian flower-of-mourning, Rodney wonders if any passersby ever find it odd that the grave of an Air Force colonel bears the words of the Navy Hymn.
"I miss you, you know," he says, conversationally, to the stone and to everything it stands for. "It's a good thing I knew full well when we started that you were never going to be an old man, because otherwise I'd probably be a wreck."
But he's not. He's really not, because he submerged himself in all of it with his eyes wide open, and it might be romantic to say something like a piece of his heart was ripped away, but it would also be wrong. He has the memory of seven years of working side-by-side, of five and a half years of some of the happiest days of his life even interspersed with the moments, the days, the weeks of sheer terror, and in the end, it's enough. It always was.
Because, see, Rodney is a smart man, and self-aware enough to recognize when he's deluding himself, and let's face it, I love John to bits, but he has the self-preservation instinct of a goldfish sometimes. Not because he wants to die, but because he recognizes that there are some things worth dying for. It's not self-sacrifice so much as sublimation of self -- the recognition that there's something bigger and more important than the survival of an individual, even if that individual is himself. And even when he gets to that point through his own stupidity, perhaps particularly when he gets to that point through his own stupidity, he's still willing to step up and do it.
Any relationship John and Rodney started -- and I must confess, I don't have a clear picture of how they got together or what happened to lead them there, because that's not what this story is about, not at all -- would have had to be one where they both understood and recognized the danger ahead of time. It's the only way they could have done it without seriously endangering the team and the city. Rodney didn't want John to die any more than John wanted to die, but he started it off understanding that John could die, and wound up, by the end -- probably even before John's death -- understanding why John would be willing to die. It doesn't mean that the actual death hurt any less, but it's the greatest change John made on him, the greatest fingerprint John left, because it directly led Rodney to every conclusion he could come to and change he could make afterwards.
And that's why Rodney's not wrecked. I've seen a few people who don't believe Rodney when he says it, here, but I honestly and fundamentally think he's telling the absolute, complete truth. Grief is part of life, and so is happiness, and the meaning of life is "do the next thing", and in the end, I think Rodney is fine. A little sadder, a little wiser, a little more alone, but ultimately, fine. And that's what makes this a triumphant story for me, because all the events that happen before the story even starts, and all the events that happen during the story, conspire to build the hundred small things that make up the measure of a man, and in the end, Rodney has taken the very best parts of all of them and learned to live by them. And I find a lot of triumph in that.
Five and a half years of loving someone, of being loved, as much as you can love in the city on the edge of forever, which is sometimes too much and sometimes not enough at all. They'd both known how it could end at the very beginning, and Rodney had made his choices and let everything change him without once looking back. To say it was all worth it trivializes something so profound he knows he will never have the words to articulate it.
I'd been referring to Atlantis as the "city on the edge of forever" for a long time already when I wrote this. Since halfway through S1, actually. And I didn't quite realize why until just then.
"City on the Edge of Forever" is the episode of the original Star Trek series that nearly everyone agrees is the best episode of that series, most people believe is the best episode of the franchise, and some people even believe is among the best television episodes ever made. It's about having to make a choice between the person you love, perhaps the first person you've ever really been able to fully and completely love in a mature fashion, and your world and the lives of billions of people you'll never know. And I started off this story saying to myself that John was everybody's Bobby McGee, but I think by the time I finished it, I was thinking that might still be true, but he was and will always be Rodney's Edith Keeler.
"I love you," he says, because it took him so long before he could. "And I wish you could be here to see how happy I really am."
Arlington truly is beautiful in the springtime. It almost reminds him of home.
Arlington really is beautiful in the springtime, but, duh, I just said it was August up there at the top of this section, and I can't believe that not only did I not catch it and none of my betas caught it, nobody called me out on it anywhere! (I'm totally fixing this in the real story, too.) But this might have been too subtle: I intended people to realize that Arlington looks nothing like Atlantis at all, and think that maybe Rodney's definition of home has finally caught up with him.
And there we have it. I started this story because I have the terrible, creeping fear that the show is going to try to force a happy ending. I have nothing against happy endings, but artificial endings make me die a little every time. And I got to the end and realized I'd written a happy ending after all, even if I have to squint a bit to see it, and I still don't know where the story came from, but man, I'll take it.
A few people said, in the feedback comments, that they couldn't help but wonder what happens next. I'll just concatenate my responses from there:
The Athosians can go back home, and they keep telling the stories of the Ancestors, but they add a few chapters, and in two hundred years the Athosian children will know that there were people who woke the sleeping city again for a while, and they lived and loved and died there, and they are the ones who set the people of Pegasus free. Dr. Vail retires, and everyone else in the department railroads Rodney into being chairman, for his sins, which lasts for all of four years before he puts his foot down and says No, because he's had enough of politics to last for a lifetime. Rodney gets a couple dozen job offers a year, and he turns them all down, because he has grown to like his crappy state university, which is growing less crappy by the year. The university gives Rodney a pay raise, which he doesn't much care about, and more lab space and funding for it, which he does. They never get a lot of publicity, but those quietly in the know will take a physics degree from Flyspeck University with about as much respect as they would from one of the Big Names. Harris gets the Nobel Rodney never did, and Rodney's almost happier than if he'd been awarded it himself. And through all of this, Rodney just smiles, because when it's all said and done, it's not a bad legacy to leave, and it's much better than some of the ones he could have had.
Life goes on.
At least, that's one of the ways I see it happening from here on out. If you see another, I'd love to hear it.
Thank you all for reading.
16 March 2006