Genre/Rating: Gen; PG/Teen for themes and mild language.
(Might be considered an AU of "48 Hours" -- I'm not sure how to apply the terminology in this case.)
Wordcount: Approximately 18,500 across two parts (but three LJ pages)
Timeline/Spoilers: Begins at SG-1 5x14 "48 Hours"; includes spoilers throughout both series.
Notes/Credits: Part One is titled from Aimee Mann's "Invisible Ink"; Part Two is titled from Shawn Colvin's "Another Plane Went Down". Many thanks to aurora_novarum for beta duties, especially major SG-1 characterization advice. Remaining mistakes mine; plot mine; Stargate characters and environments not mine.
(A/N 1 Sept. 2009: Corrected technical error regarding gate symbols.)
Meta: Discussion at SGA Talk
Archives: Single page at Dreamwidth; Chaptered at AO3
Summary: The truest punishment Sam knows is guilt … and she knows McKay doesn't feel that. Yet.
Sam waited until she was alone in her lab to let her anger show. That son of a bitch!
I just wanted to give you my honest analysis, Major. Calling her a whack job, accusing her of letting her feelings cloud her judgment. Teal'c is toast. All the while, so arrogant, so smug, so damned ignorant, waving off Teal'c's life as if it — he — was nothing. She had pushed it away, but seeing his insufferable smile again brought it all roaring back.
It was walk away or attack McKay where he stood, and she wasn't ready to sacrifice her career because of him. He wasn't worth it.
She still ached to do something to him. Much as he might trigger a desire for violence in her, though, this wasn't a military situation. He hadn't broken any written laws or regulations, so there were no official ways to punish him. He wasn't even part of the SGC proper, so unofficial methods were out as well. Sending him to Russia got him out of their sight, sure, and he probably wouldn't enjoy the experience, but he probably wouldn't learn anything from it either.
That was what got to her. The real problem was that there just wasn't any way to make him understand. The truest punishment she knew was guilt — utter comprehension of one's trespasses. Guilt was a torment, a torture … but only to those capable of feeling it. Remorse required compassion, sympathy, humanity — all qualities McKay spectacularly lacked. He could never possibly atone because he would never feel even the slightest remorse.
She carefully pushed her anger down. A lot of that had to do with his treatment of her, which rightly pissed her off, but none of it was exactly new. She had been dealing with that particular brand of idiocy, from scientists and soldiers both, for most of her life. If she took that out of the equation, she was left with the problem of McKay's lack of human feeling.
She could ignore it — and him. She could wave as he left for Russia and hope that they didn't cross paths again. Unfortunately, the Pentagon thought he was the expert on the gate. She was used to that sort of thing, to being dismissed so easily, but it still stung — no, focus. Regardless of which of them was better or of how much theory mattered compared to practice, he was one of the few people in the world to have an advanced knowledge of gate technology. Even if they shunted him off to Russia for a while, the odds that no one in the program would never have to deal with him again were too low to count on.
And that worried her, because he clearly hadn't learned a thing. What would happen the next time there was a problem and someone trusted him to fix it? Whose safety or life would be disregarded or written off as irrelevant the next time he was called in?
And she could do something about that.
If she dared.
Sam called Hammond first, because he did not waste time when he was angry, and once McKay was on a plane her suggestion wouldn't be enough to have him brought back. Hammond agreed to delay that much, at least, but he wanted a full explanation from her before he would agree to anything further.
She had to look up the device she wanted in the computer logs to find it — it had long since been assessed as unimportant. She took it and the testing records with her to Hammond's office and explained what she wanted to do.
He was skeptical. When she pointed out the likelihood they would eventually need McKay again, though, and what his lack of understanding had nearly cost them this time, he considered for several minutes but finally told her to go ahead.
Back in her office, she opened the case and lifted out the wrapped device. She set it on her desk and very carefully unfolded the cloth to reveal the device itself, not letting her skin touch any part of it.
And then she hesitated.
The Valentine, as they had taken to calling it, was perfectly harmless. It was small, somewhere between a grapefruit and a cricket ball in size, and looked a little like a miniature communications satellite. Its recipient was subjected to a few minutes of unconsciousness — she still remembered Daniel's agitation that first time, because the locals hadn't warned him of that — but it didn't hurt at all and didn't cause any damage or injury as long as it wasn't interrupted.
The problem was loading it.
That didn't hurt, either. Not physically. The sort of bravery it required was a different sort entirely.
The locals of P5X-992, Kaiau, had been remarkably vague about it. They had shown Daniel exactly how to hold it and then asked him questions about Sam. Nothing embarrassing or sensitive — which was fortunate for all of them, since she'd been sitting right there — just general questions about their relationship and feelings for one another.
Daniel had been his usual careful self in his answers, trying to fit the idea of a field team into their terms. Then they took the device from him — using a cloth to do so — and placed it in the hands of a man Sam had been pretty sure was napping in his seat. The group had talked of other things for several minutes. When the napper awoke, though, all the locals had fallen silent and turned to him, only to droop with disappointment when the man shook his head.
When Sam asked, the man denied anything was wrong but added, "You are good friends." Sam didn't see how that related to the sudden dismal mood. The man then gestured for the cloth-bearer to take the device from him and give it to Sam. The moment she touched it she felt a flood of warm affection that she couldn't exactly explain, followed promptly by disorientation as she blinked back to consciousness. Daniel's tense demands for an explanation came from inches away, since he was kneeling next to her chair and checking her pulse, and he sighed with relief when he determined she was fine.
When they finally got the explanation, they both had to fight not to snicker. It turned out the locals had heard them enthusiastically discussing the apparent function of the archaic mechanism at the edge of the settlement and thought they would make a good couple. The Kaiauia turned out to take pride in their matchmaking skills, which were augmented by means of devices like the one they'd handed Daniel. They had hoped to strengthen their fledgling relationship with the Tau'ri by gifting them with a free match — a service they usually charged for, providing one of their more significant sources of tourist income.
Jack had teased them both about that for weeks.
The device was their way of checking matches they meant to recommend. It recorded emotions when held as they'd directed Daniel, and it evoked the same emotions in anyone who touched it otherwise. The warm affection she'd felt was what Daniel had felt at some point when answering questions about her. It was flattering and a little awkward, but fortunately — for her and Daniel, if disappointingly to the Kaiauia — it wasn't the physical desire or amorous attention that inspired a Kaiau-certified betrothal.
The device itself, one of about a dozen the Kauauia had, became their alliance gift. Further investigation and testing at the SGC determined that the emotions loaded into it could be directed consciously by the user, rather than randomly inspired by questioning.
Unfortunately, that meant she would have to experience those emotions as strongly and truly as possible … and then reveal them to McKay. He wouldn't necessarily know they were her feelings any more than she had first known she had been given Daniel's, but the thought of exposing herself to him like that still made her skin crawl.
She couldn't pass it off to anyone else, though. This was her idea and therefore her responsibility. More specifically, she was the closest person to McKay's function. If they did need him again, they would need him to have her perspective as a scientist and a team member, both able to take direct action to resolve gate issues and motivated to want to. Since he was apparently incapable of normal human emotion, it would have to be personal.
It would have to be her.
It was hard.
She cared about her team. She honestly did. She had her hands positioned carefully on the device, touching only the input contacts, and she knew she needed to let herself feel what her team meant to her.
As she tried, though, when it wasn't thoughts of McKay himself making her tense up, it was years of military training shutting down her reactions almost instinctively. She didn't dwell on this stuff and she certainly didn't go advertising it.
She had meant what she had told Hammond, though, so she had to find a way to make this work.
McKay had criticized her for spending time on fieldwork, as if that was some unrelated dalliance, so she took a deep breath and started by focusing on what fieldwork really meant — the practical results of theory, the confirmations and refutations, the need for improvisation and adaptability. The urgency of deadlines and countdowns, not just as low scores on some test or simulation but as the measure of risk and lives.
She brought up every mission she could remember, every injury, every long hour waiting for a trace or a medical report or rescue. She summoned every team-inspired emotion she could think of, doing her best to feel it all again so the device would pick it up. To her surprise, that grew easier with each memory, her self-consciousness falling away.
She considered the team as a group, and she thought of them singly, trying to tease out her own reactions by concentrating on how an outsider like McKay would see them if he would only look. Jack — the leader, naturally charismatic, trusted and trusting, underplaying his own intelligence, charming and witty, seemingly easygoing … but with a steel core and a ruthless streak. Teal'c — the warrior, the outsider, graceful and strong, compassion camouflaging a subtle sense of humor. Her heart stuttered as she thought again of losing him forever, and suddenly this was simple. Daniel — the specialist, so earnest and enthusiastic. Even herself — the technician, the fixer, staggering sometimes under the burden of producing impossible solutions in inadequate time but fiercely proud that this duty was hers.
They didn't always get along, but they pulled together when it mattered. They did what was necessary to protect each other — such as the way Daniel had gone to speak to the Russians, and Jack had put aside his dislike to work with Maybourne, and, well, she had worked with McKay. They considered every option when it came to saving a friend.
But it was more even than that. It wasn't just the team, it was the whole of the SGC. Hammond, open to alliance but unyielding when pushed, loyal defender of those under his command, always worrying as he waited for his teams to come home. Janet, standing by to put them back together, equally prepared to coddle them or cow them. The gateroom staff. The other teams, military and scientists both. All of them united against a vast, implacable alien force, keeping earth safe, searching the galaxy for allies and tools — bonded not merely by duty or even friendship but by something very like a sense of family.
She poured it all in. All the wonder of gate travel, all the thrill and excitement, the fear and anxiety, the elation and guilt, the duty and honor. Everything.
Sam came back to herself abruptly, surprised at how easily she had let go in the end. She took several minutes to compose herself before she gathered the device carefully and set out to find McKay.
"Well, well, if it isn't the beauteous Major Carter." McKay abandoned his exploration of the small conference room and smirked. "Come to apologize for that little tantrum of yours earlier?"
Sam kept a small smile firmly on her face, not letting him see the way he made her grind her teeth. If the smile turned a bit feral, well, it wasn't like he would ever notice, not when his eyes spent so little time on her face. "Don't worry, McKay, we just had to reschedule the flights. We'll still get you to Russia in plenty of time."
"You don't need to make excuses to keep me around," he smugged. Until that second, she would never have imagined that smug could be a verb. "Genius here. Consulting with a Goa'uld for hare-brained schemes? You obviously need someone who can think clearly under pressure. And I have to say I like the scenery here."
If she wasn't so disgusted by him, she could have laughed at his pathetic lines. "I think I'd rather hire the Goa'uld. You're going to Russia, and they're welcome to you." She waited a few seconds for his smirk to dim before she added, "Unless …."
She had the device cradled in one hand, safely wrapped in the cloth. It was perfectly natural to unfold the layers of cloth, revealing the device gradually, letting the cloth drape down around the supporting hand.
She meant to make him an offer, to give him a choice between the device and Russia, but he was too arrogant to give her the chance. "Ha! I knew it! You need me!" He bounced, he actually bounced. "Do you even know what it is yet?"
"You tell me." She had intended to explain, she honestly had, but one look at his condescending smirk made it so easy to lob the device gently at him, forcing him to catch it. He did, clumsily, one of his hands making sufficient contact to trigger the device's output phase.
The Valentine nestled into his hand, adhering gently, and he crumpled. She barely had time to catch him and ease him the rest of the way to the floor.
Daniel had passed the open doorway before he really registered what he had seen from the corner of his eye. He doubled back and leaned in the door. "Sam?"
She looked up at him from her odd position. She sat cross-legged on the floor, just barely visible since she was on the other side of the conference table. He moved into the room. "Why are you —" He broke off when he moved close enough to see the civilian gate consultant sprawled next to her, his confusion turning to worry. "Oh, no, is he —"
She put out a hand to ward him off and he stopped immediately, confused again. "Sam?"
"Everything's fine, Daniel."
"I'm sure it is," he said doubtfully. "You know, you really have to do a better job of hiding the body than that."
"He's not dead," she countered.
The consultant — McKay, that was his name — looked like he was still breathing, at least. "Okay, he's not." McKay wasn't moving either, though. After a few seconds Daniel added, "Still, shouldn't we get a med team in here or something?"
Sam sighed. "He's fine. Should be almost done, actually."
"Almost done?" Daniel repeated. He looked at McKay again and frowned more deeply when he recognized the object in the man's hand. "That's not that Valentine thing, is it? Because really, Sam, you can do a lot better than —"
"He's not feeling my love for him right now, Daniel," she said, irritated.
"Okay," he said slowly. "So what is he … Sam. You did tell him what you loaded that thing with before he started it, didn't you?"
She might have flinched slightly.
"But even then," Daniel mused, "he wouldn't … oh, Sam. You tricked him into touching it, didn't you? And you didn't even get him to sit down first? You know what effect that thing has." That must be why she was sitting on the floor herself to monitor him, when they both really ought to be in chairs.
"So it's a little uncomfortable," she sighed. "It's not like I'm obliterating him in the gate or anything."
He squatted down to look her in the eye. "What did you load it with?" he asked her.
She looked insulted. "Not how I feel about him. As tempting as that was."
He nodded. "Okay. Then what?"
"He didn't get it, Daniel. He had no idea what he was asking us to do — what that deadline he imposed was risking. It was all just equations and theory to him. He didn't care. No matter what we do, no matter where we send him, he'll never get it. I can't … I can't accept that. I can't accept him just walking around free, thinking it was just some simulation, not knowing — not caring — that this is about people. That this was about Teal'c's life."
"So then you loaded it with …?"
"What we are. What he was risking. What he needs to care about if we're going to have to rely on him."
Daniel studied her for a long while. He saw her point, but it didn't really explain the situation he'd walked in on. He'd heard that the two of them hadn't gotten along, but he hadn't gotten any details about that yet. She looked drained, too, in a way she hadn't just a short while earlier, and he wasn't sure she realized that.
Regardless, he couldn't change what she already had done. He settled back to sit on the floor, keeping her company as she waited for McKay to recover. If McKay hadn't been warned, sticking around to help Sam explain what had happened might be a good idea.
It really should have ended quickly. Daniel remembered the device triggering no more than a couple of minutes of unconsciousness, and Sam told him that the effect had never lasted more than five minutes in extended testing.
She bit her lip when she noted the five minute mark passing.
"Any second now," she murmured at the six minute mark.
She just gave Daniel a worried look at the seven minute mark.
When it hit eight, she closed her eyes for a moment and then called in a med team.
"Talk to me, Dr. Fraiser," Hammond said.
Janet looked up from McKay's still form and eyed the trio crowding her infirmary. Hammond stood at the foot of the cot, with Sam and Daniel flanking him. Sam fought not to squirm.
"I can't really explain it," Janet told him. "From what we know of this device, it only acts for a short period. It should have shut down by now. I can't tell what it's doing to him — his pulse is racing and he shows signs similar to REM sleep, but I can't find anything else to explain why he isn't coming out of it."
"Is it hurting him? Is he in any pain?"
"There's no way to tell. The pulse rate might suggest that, but his respiratory rate and blood pressure are normal. He may be agitated or simply … excited." Sam really, really hoped Janet was wrong about that. "All I can do is guess, though."
"So the device is still affecting him? Can't we just take it away?"
"No," Sam said hastily, nearly drowning out the doctor's calmer voicing of the same word.
Janet eyed her for a second before continuing. "The testing records indicate that interrupting the device's function triggers a neurotransmitter crash in the subject, resulting in crippling depressive episodes that can last days. I don't want to risk that, not yet."
Hammond frowned. "So what do you recommend, Doctor?"
"At this stage, the safest option is probably to wait and monitor his condition. If it lasts much longer I can set up an IV to keep him hydrated, but he doesn't seem to be in any danger at the moment. If more than a few hours pass, or if his condition changes, we'll probably want to look into removing the device, but I can't recommend that course of action yet."
"Very well, Doctor. Keep me informed." Hammond turned to Sam. "Anything else she should know, Major?"
Sam winced. He wasn't dressing her down — he was good about handling that privately — but the others already knew this whole thing had been her idea and that Hammond wasn't happy about the outcome. "This shouldn't have happened, sir," she protested. "It's never done this before. It's harmless."
"Apparently not," Daniel muttered. He hastily added, "But no, she's right. It's never done anything like this before. It's really not much more than a toy —" He had started into lecture mode, drawing attention away from her, but he broke off as McKay emitted a soft groan.
Sam looked over and was relieved to see that the device had fallen away from McKay's hand. Janet swiftly moved over to pick it up with a small towel. She passed the bundle over to Sam and went back to her patient. "Mr. McKay? Mr. McKay, can you open your eyes for me?"
His face twitched. "Doctor," he muttered irritably, his eyes still closed. So he still had his oh-so-charming personality, then, and that suggested he hadn't really been affected. Sam felt a rush of relief that left her almost dizzy.
"I need you to open your eyes, Dr. McKay," Janet persisted.
McKay waved a limp hand as if trying to swat her away but then sighed deeply. "First sleep I've gotten in — oh, ow." He sat forward abruptly and drew his knees up to cradle his head in his hands.
"Tell me what you're feeling," Janet prompted.
"Headache," he answered offhandedly. "Hardly surprising, since some people won't let me get five minutes of sleep. Just bring me some aspirin and about a gallon of coffee and I'll be fine. I have to …." He raised his head, looking confused. "Be in the infirmary, apparently. Huh. Well, as much fun as …." He trailed off again, his expression turning bewildered. "All right, would someone please explain what I'm doing in this infirmary?"
Janet glanced at Sam before turning back to McKay. "What's the last thing you do remember, Dr. McKay?"
"Um. Recalibrating the … no. Rebuilding a console. I don't remember coming here at all." That shouldn't even be possible, dammit. "Was I injured? Was it something our infirmary couldn't handle so they had to transfer me here?" He was starting to sound panicked. This was the same man who managed to complain of two different medical conditions as he insulted her. Of course he would be a hypochondriac.
"Not at all," Hammond said smoothly. "We brought you here to the SGC to help us with a problem with the gate."
McKay looked over at him, still frowning but growing calmer. "Well, that makes more — oh, hey, Sam." He gave her a warm, brief smile before starting to look at Hammond again, but then he glanced back. "Oh, you cut your hair. It's, um, it's nice." She had no idea what function of the device could have put that thought into his head. She didn't remember having any stray thoughts about needing a haircut. With his words he smiled at her again, almost nervously, his cheeks turning a bit pink, but that creepy possessiveness of a few hours earlier was almost entirely missing and his eyes had barely even flickered down towards her chest.
Instead his smile quickly turned back to a puzzled frown. "But if you're here, I don't see why you'd —" His expression abruptly cleared as he snapped his fingers rapidly and pointed at her. "Primacy, of course. Not that there's much to be done about that on this end, but if I already did most of the reconfiguration, it would probably be faster for me to do the rest here, too. Huh, I really don't remember any of that."
Sam stifled a sigh. Clearly the device hadn't done what she meant it to, if he didn't even remember why he was at the SGC to start with. He certainly didn't seem to be consumed with guilt. Still, it seemed to have had a positive effect on him. His manner was completely confusing and not exactly reassuring as to his mental state — but it was also marginally less obnoxious.
So far, anyway.
McKay clapped his hands together. "Well, you haven't gotten me into any embarrassing gowns or impaled me with an IV yet, so clearly it can't be anything all that serious. Are you sure I wasn't just taking a nap?" He hopped up out of the cot easily. "So did I finish … whatever it was I was working on here?"
"Yes, you've certainly done enough," Hammond said wryly.
"Good, good, then you can send me back —" He broke off with an appalled double-take. "Wait a second. Aren't you, you know …." He patted briefly at his own chest. "Dead? I mean, I thought we heard that. And actually —" He looked over at Janet sharply. "Now that I mention it, Carson always cited you when he had to go offworld. So how … what, did we start a fad? Was there a two-for-one clone-your-CMO sale?"
Janet got the steely look with which she faced down unpredictable patients that had just bought themselves an extended date with her equipment. "Dr. McKay, if you'll just sit back down, I need to run some tests —"
McKay avoided her reaching hand easily, not possessing the hard-won wisdom to give in to Janet early. "Oh, no no no, my vampire friend, I think I'll wait to see my own improbably resurrected witch doctor, thank you very much. I feel fine, other than …." He started patting at his clothes.
"Something wrong?" Janet asked.
"Hungry. Hypoglycemia, remember? I should have …." His hands slowed and he looked down at himself. "Okay. That's different. Um, where are my clothes?"
Sam's stomach sank further. The bizarre pronouncements were one thing, but if she had actually broken him ….
Finally Daniel spoke. "You're wearing them," he said carefully.
McKay's head snapped up and he rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious, I'm wearing clothing." He looked back down, gesturing at his shirt. "I meant where's my clothing, my uniform, not this blast … from …."
He went very still.
After several seconds he slowly reached up towards his head, but his hand flinched away as soon as he touched his hair. He took a deep breath, his head still lowered, and asked, "What year is it?" in a low, tense tone more appropriate for a question like How many died?
After a few seconds, and after Janet gave him a slight nod of approval, Hammond spoke. "It's 2002, Doctor."
McKay looked up again, his eyes wide. "What? Oh, no no no, this is — this is … well, not good, obviously, but how —"
"What year do you think it is?" Janet interjected, smooth and professional.
"As far as I know, 2008. Wait, no, 2009? It's kind of hard to keep track where we are."
"And where is that?" Janet sounded much more patient than Sam could ever have managed.
"Atlantis," McKay said, his tone suggesting the answer was obvious.
It made no sense. It simply made no sense that the device could make McKay think he was in another year and from some mythical place. What the hell had happened?
After a long, stunned pause, Daniel ventured, "The Lost Continent?"
"City," McKay corrected, his tone suggesting he thought Daniel was the crazy one. "Ancient outpost? Pegasus? International expedition? Anyone?" He closed his eyes for a moment in sudden realization, but Sam's hopes that he was just still waking up didn't even have a chance to form. He just said, "Which, right, 2002 is too early. So again, how and why the SGC in 2002? I wasn't here then, I was in Siberia. And I was at Area 51 before that. I didn't come here until — oh, wait, except — Teal'c. In the gate. Is this then?"
There was another pause before Hammond confirmed, "We brought you here to help get him out, yes."
"And is he out yet? Is he still stuck?" McKay looked at them all with such earnest worry that Sam considered hoping again. Maybe this was all just a complex, roundabout way of satisfying what she'd tried to load into the device?
"We got him out," Sam told him. "No thanks to you."
"Good, good," McKay said, actually looking relieved. That lasted a few seconds before shifting to a mild annoyance. "Right, and that would explain why you've all been looking at me like something you wiped off your shoes, too. Lovely. So, again, why this? Why drag me back here?"
Everyone looked at Sam.
"We didn't drag you back from anywhere, McKay," she said. "You were … affected by an alien device. It's normally harmless, but it kept you under for longer than usual. It may have caused some kind of hallucination, or maybe you just had a really vivid dream, but it really is 2002 and you haven't gone anywhere."
"Well, that's obviously completely wrong. What's this device you're talking about? What does it do?"
"Not much," Sam told him. "It just shares emotions and feelings — at least usually. I'm not exactly sure what it did to you, but you are still here and it is still 2002."
McKay was quiet for several seconds and then assumed a very fake smile. "Okay, great joke, very funny. I'm laughing on the inside. Hysterics, really. You're all very clever. Now, joke's over, okay?" The phony smile slipped, leaving only an uncertainty that verged on desperation.
He really believed it. He really thought he was from some mythical place in 2009.
Sam sighed. "Look, I don't know how we're supposed to prove this to you, but we’re telling you the truth here."
"She's right, Doctor," Hammond added.
"We really haven't seen this happen before," Daniel said. He looked over at Janet. "Is there some kind of scan you could do?"
Janet tilted her head, considering. "I don't think anything I have would be appropriate," she said, "but maybe we —"
"I don't need any scans!" McKay backed away, one hand warding them off. "Don't — just — just give me a minute." He locked eyes with Daniel, of all people. "My perceptions are being affected by an alien device of unknown function," he said, deliberate and forceful. "I am, understandably, somewhat disoriented. That does not make me crazy," he emphasized.
Daniel regarded him for a few seconds and then nodded, frowning. "He's got a point. Back off, guys. Give him some space."
The only thing Sam could think of that met McKay's description and had to do with Daniel was that thing with Machello. Only how had McKay known about that? It wasn't exactly public knowledge. Then again, plenty of Machello's little toys had gone over to Area 51, and all it took was one person.
They held back and McKay collected himself slowly. After a couple of minutes he took a deep breath and gave Sam a determined look. "I want to see this device you're talking about."
Janet started forward. "Actually, I should —"
McKay jerked further away. "Oh no you don't," he snapped. Sam realized that his movements weren't as purely reactive as she had first thought, because he had nicely shifted himself around towards an exit. "No exams, no tests, no scans, no touching. Nothing. I want to see this device, and that's going to happen somewhere that's not here."
They went from the infirmary to the nearest conference room. Hammond moved into the lead, with Sam and McKay next, and Daniel brought up the rear. He noticed that McKay kept looking around at the hallways suspiciously and gave Sam more space than was strictly necessary.
When they reached the conference room, Sam set her bundle down carefully, making sure the device was steady before she pulled the towel straight around it.
McKay frowned. "That's the device." His tone was flat, disbelieving.
"That's it," Sam agreed. "It conveys emotions. It doesn't seem to be good for much except sharing feelings."
"And that's how you normally carry it around? With a towel?"
"Not usually a towel, no, but touching it directly activates it, so we have to use something to prevent contact."
"Oh, no." McKay pinched the bridge of his nose. "No no no no no. There is absolutely no way the real SG-1 was ever this incompetent."
"I really don't think you should be calling anybody incompetent, McKay," Sam said coolly. Something about McKay brought an edge to her tone that Daniel almost never heard from her.
McKay's gesturing hands were as outraged as his voice. "Your containment protocol is a towel! Seriously, what the hell is this thing even doing here? Where is the full analysis? What are the tolerances? You don't know how to handle anything safely, you treat it like a toy — this should be at Area 51, not left lying around to ambush visiting geniuses. There are actual protocols about this sort of thing, and I know no device anything like this ever made it to Area 51 when I was there."
"How would you know that, McKay?" Sam challenged. "You're gate, not xeno."
"Oh, please, as if I have that kind of luxury." His voice was slightly distracted as his eyes studied the device. "I'm everything. The gate, the jumpers, Ancient tech including the database — and every half-brained experiment they left littering the galaxy, Wraith tech, Genii tech, civil engineering but only because everyone else is completely incompetent so I don't want to hear it, zero-point energy and naquadah generators and shielding and I really need a raise, come to think of it. But even in —" his hands waved sarcastically "— 2002, I put in time in the artifacts lab."
Considering Sam's increasingly bewildered expression, Daniel expected her to ask what several of the things McKay named were, but she went a different direction. "I thought you were busy being the 'world's foremost expert on the gate,'" she told McKay.
"That was my primary assignment, yes. Everyone needs a hobby, and it's not as if there was a shortage of random offworld crap coming in. But this is definitely Ancient-derived, if not directly Ancient, and that's exactly the sort of thing I watched for. And I went back through the records and reviewed every report of every object that even looked as if the designer might have been thinking about Ancients, back when we were exiled back here." He glanced up at Sam. "This never came through Area 51, and don't think I won't be mentioning that little lapse to the IOA."
He looked back down at the device and rubbed at his forehead. "Oh, I have not missed Decline-era script. Like a badly designed captcha, with the hidden bonus that a misinterpretation might actually kill you."
Daniel frowned. "You can read it?"
"Of course I can read it. Or recognize the script, at least. Maybe I don't have all day to spend learning obscure languages or — or Ascension poetry or whatever it is you spend your time on, but it would be surprising if I couldn't make out even corrupted technical Ancient by now."
"How do you translate it?" Daniel asked.
McKay immediately pointed to the markings, identifying the script more quickly than the physical scientists usually ever did, his hands never moving closer than a good foot away from the surface. "Two clusters. The first looks related to two — pair or couple, maybe, or join. The second one is more vague. Delay or time … or forecast? That's the one that would be trouble. But you've had this thing for a while, so let's skip the pop quiz. What does it say?"
"Well, we're still not certain," Daniel said, warming to the topic, "but that's actually very close to what we found. You're right, that second term is the harder one. I think prediction or forecast is the best fit, but we weren't able to find any supporting artifacts, so it's still tentative. We've just been calling it 'the Valentine,' though, based on what it does. Or what we thought it did, at least."
McKay gave him a disgusted look. "All right, that does it. Please stop pretending linguistics is remotely related to science. You see something that could be related to pair and something that could be forecast, so of course you decide it's a Valentine's card. It could just as easily mean quantum entanglement!" With that he stomped over to the whiteboard, grabbed a couple of markers, and slashed a line down the middle of the board.
Daniel was starting to understand that edge McKay inspired in Sam's voice. "It's actually just a nickname," he said. "The people who gave it to us were using the devices as matchmakers, but they had scavenged them from an abandoned civilization that died out or drifted away thousands of years ago. That society was probably pretty close to a true Ancient influence on their technology, based on what the analysts here say about the design of this object, but the writing shows clear signs of drift. We have no way to know how much their version of the language itself had changed by then, especially if they were only using it as a scientific language, which we've seen before. For that matter, we can't be certain whether the original designers included those markings or whether some other group added them later. We have several viable interpretations, but as I said, we weren't able to track down any supporting artifacts and only have a few fragments of any form of script from that society."
"Whatever." McKay had started writing some sort of header on either side of the dividing line as Daniel spoke. "I'm sure this has been entertaining to someone, but I'm done. I'm ready to get out of here now." His headers equated c to the traditional circle-and-cross Earth symbol on one side and to what was either the home gate symbol for Earth or a stylized lambda on the other. He wrote capacity/memory - scale in red under the lambda. Then he switched to blue and wrote Replicators under the Earth symbol, followed by mist people. He took up a black marker briefly to add cartoon sci? after that last one.
Daniel and Hammond both turned to Sam, who made a face at them for leaving it up to her to ask. "If you want to leave, what are you doing?"
"Working out how to leave, of course," McKay snapped.
"It's called an elevator, McKay," Sam said. "We have a few." Her expression indicated that McKay's notes made no more sense to her than they did to Daniel.
"And if this really were the SGC, that would be useful," McKay replied. He added VR and then gave that item its own sub-list: Aurora, quantum, other.
Sam's eyes widened. "You think you're in some kind of constructed reality," she said. "You think we're not real."
"Oh, well done," McKay said sarcastically. He added medical. "Keep up that kind of brilliance and you might eventually fool somebody into thinking you're really Carter."
Sam sputtered as Hammond protested again that they were all real and Daniel tried to figure out how exactly they could prove that. McKay just ignored them as he gave medical a sub-list, too: poison, fever, parasite, virus. Sam joined Hammond in the attempt to persuade McKay, who just waved a dismissal as he added time travel to the list. When Daniel tried to get his attention, McKay finally snarled that if they felt like being useless and distracting, they could go do it somewhere else and let him work.
Sam, Hammond, and Daniel moved over to the doorway for a quiet conference. Sam suggested they all leave McKay alone for a while to get it out of his system. They both looked surprised when Daniel said, "I'll stay." He pointed out that he had some idea what McKay was probably going through, reminding them of Shifu.
Hammond said he would have Dr. Fraiser arrange to have Dr. MacKenzie on standby, just in case, and Sam offered Daniel a wry, "Good luck." They left and Daniel settled into a chair. He had taken the "simulated life as object lesson" ride himself, thanks to Shifu, and he knew how disorienting it was to wake up with all those years and experiences undone. Once McKay actually let it go, Daniel was probably the best person to help him.
On to Part One (continued): Invisible Ink