Genre/Rating: Gen; PG/Teen for themes and mild language.
(See Page 1 for other headers.)
Summary: The truest punishment Sam knows is guilt … and she knows McKay doesn't feel that. Yet.
McKay really didn't want to let it go.
After about ten minutes of watching McKay scribble on the whiteboard, mutter, and massage his temples, Daniel left the room briefly, nodding a greeting to the airman stationed quietly just outside the door of the conference room. Anyone whose first request on waking with a headache included "about a gallon of coffee" was almost certainly prone to withdrawal headaches, and Daniel knew what those were like. It couldn't help that no one had been getting much sleep for the past couple of days. He went to the commissary and brought back a couple of cups of coffee.
McKay's expression lightened slightly and he reached out, saying "About time," but then he snatched his hand back and scowled. "Oh, right, of course, because I would trust anything any of you people hand me. Nice try."
"It's just coffee," Daniel said, taking a drink of his own in testament.
"So you say. Then, when I'm sprawled on the floor not breathing, you'll laugh with your buddies that you spiked it with lemon or something like that, because obviously McKay was exaggerating about that whole deadly allergy thing, and he'll shake off that little bout of asphyxiation he's doing any minute now."
Okay then. "I'll admit I don't know what to say to that," Daniel said. He left the second coffee where McKay could reach it easily and sat back down. "If you're that convinced we're all out to get you, anything I could come up with would be just as likely to make things worse as it would be to help. I don't think I understand why you believe that."
McKay just narrowed his eyes and turned back to the whiteboard. If nothing else, though, Daniel succeeded in destroying McKay's concentration. The man kept shooting little glances over at the abandoned cup, each more desperate — and, frankly, pathetic — than the last.
Once he'd finished his own coffee, Daniel couldn't take it anymore. He went to his office and brought back the coffeemaker, coffee, and filters, as well as a small stash of disposable cups, and then went back out for water. He set it all up where McKay could easily see what he was doing, poured a stiff pot's worth of grounds directly into the lined basket by eye, and started it brewing.
By the time the carafe was a quarter full, McKay had abandoned his pretense of ignoring and just stood there watching the liquid drip down.
When it finished, Daniel poured himself a cup and took a drink before gesturing that McKay could take his own, if he wanted. McKay did but then only barely touched his lips to the liquid before setting it aside, as if he truly did expect some sort of contamination.
He held out for about five more minutes. Then he downed the cup and continued steadily through most of the rest of the pot — limiting himself to most only because Daniel wrested it away long enough to get a little more for himself.
McKay turned less hostile after that, the coffee not only easing his headache and bracing him against weariness but also loosening his tongue. He kept poking at his cryptic notes, but as the hours passed, over a few more shared pots of coffee and around a field trip to a vending machine for food, he started telling Daniel about the missing years he claimed. He started with offhand comments, but as Daniel gently prompted for explanations, he expanded. Soon he was sharing stories about his team, his lab staff, and the city he called Atlantis.
Daniel encouraged him at first because he had begun to wonder whether McKay's vision was an interaction with Oma Desala or her kind. There was certainly precedent. Daniel had no idea how McKay, of all people, would have been the one chosen for such a thing, but it could have been a matter of opportunity.
McKay's stories proceeded to reveal a person Daniel hadn't expected, one he thought Sam would explicitly disbelieve. As McKay shared the details, he revealed warmth and affection, at least for some of his subjects. He revealed a surprisingly strong sense of responsibility for both his duties and the lives of his staff and friends. He occasionally retreated into a defensiveness that clearly was meant to conceal guilt and failures that he seemed to feel deeply. Even with those moments, he gave an overall sense of belonging and contentment.
Unfortunately for McKay, every word just gave Daniel further proof that none of it was real and more reason to think it was all due to Sam's device.
He worked extensively with myths and legends, tracing them back to the inspiring events or people. Finding common traits and tracing drift were second nature to him. He didn't know how much of McKay's creation was inspired by the rumors of SG-1 that circulated at Area 51 — and Daniel knew for a fact there were legends about them — and how much came from Sam's contributions with the device, but the connections were pretty plain.
Some details shuffled around, of course, in the way of all legends. Some came from other, unknown sources, or possibly McKay's imagination. And some, like this Sheppard who featured prominently, were pretty obvious. From McKay's details, Sheppard was a younger Jack with crazy hair — and a flirtatious manner that McKay found exasperating. Daniel had to wonder which of Sam and McKay that bit was contributed by. Sheppard also had an unfortunate compulsion towards taking missions that amounted to suicide, to hear McKay tell it in jokes that covered his bitterness and distress poorly. Oh, Sam. Daniel might once have described Jack that way, long ago, but he hadn't imagined that Sam might harbor that kind of worry about Jack, even unconsciously.
Daniel tried speculating on the possible symbolism of shepherds, not bothering to keep the thoughts to himself because he hoped McKay would catch on to his own invention. All he accomplished with that was provoking McKay into writing out the "correct" spelling of the name in blue at the bottom of the Earth-symbol side of the board, as if the different spelling alone disproved any possible metaphorical interpretation. Daniel realized too late that he should have asked for the spelling first, because now he had no way to know whether McKay's choice of spelling was a defensive confabulation.
And then, just to throw him for a loop, McKay pulled a Wizard of Oz on him: And you were there, and you, and you. He gave Sam a promotion and a year of command of this Atlantis. He told, with some disdain, a story of Teal'c visiting and fight-bonding with someone he named Ronon, emphasizing their similarities so much that Daniel couldn't believe he wouldn't make that final connection. He spun a strange tale of Jack's involvement in retaking the city from some kind of complicated takeover involving rediscovered Ancients, of all things, and beings McKay called Replicators but described as humanoid. And he had Daniel visiting, too, as the culmination of wanting to go there for years but being thwarted.
McKay had certainly painted enough details to make it sound like a fascinating place, but he really didn't know Daniel, despite his newfound attitude of familiar rivalry. If the place was as irresistible as he implied, Daniel wouldn't have simply sat back and twiddled his thumbs for years.
"Of course, there was the whole being-kidnapped-by-rogue-Asgard thing the second time, and you nearly died again, but …." McKay shrugged as if that was inconsequential. "You seemed to enjoy it other than that."
Rogue Asgard? Daniel raised an eyebrow at that idea — McKay had a strangely active imagination — but he decided to comment on something else. Two themes featured prominently in McKay's ramblings. One was water, particularly people being trapped or having to work underwater. Daniel had heard that McKay hadn't seen the real gate in action before his arrival at the SGC a few days earlier, and the gate's event horizon did look a lot like water. Could that be linked? And as for the other … "You seem very preoccupied with death," he pointed out. McKay kept mentioning deaths — not just this strange comment about Daniel himself or his words to Hammond and Janet, but numerous other members of this putative expedition. Was that the manifestation of Sam's fear for Teal'c?
McKay scoffed. "Oh, please, you're the Weeble of mortality." The what? Daniel made a mental note to share that one with Jack. "And mentioning one time out of your, what, dozens is hardly … oh. Right. Look, it's not as though I wanted the other two to die. Hammond was … well, okay, he never liked me, and sending me to Siberia was completely unnecessary, but, well, I suppose he occasionally listened to reason. And that doctor person was apparently pretty good — as voodoo-practicing bloodsuckers go, that is. And Carson liked her. Of course, Carson liked everyone, but … still." He scrubbed at his face, but the expression he seemed determined to wipe away was less one of weariness and more one of muted loss. After several seconds he turned back to the whiteboard, squaring his shoulders. "Right. Time to figure this out."
McKay studied his notes quietly for a long while. Daniel finally decided to take advantage of his silence and explained his own experiences with Shifu. Daniel had barely started when McKay set down the markers and assumed a very defensive posture, but McKay said nothing for the entire story — or for a couple of minutes afterwards.
Daniel was seriously considering mentioning Sam's experiences with Orlin as well, even though they didn't really seem to apply in the same way, when McKay finally spoke. "So you're saying everything I remember was all just a dream to teach me a lesson. How very Christmas-movie of you. The problem with your theory is the spectacular lack of a tour guide for this alleged Afterschool Special you seem to think I'm in. Unless …."
McKay frowned at him thoughtfully, the first signs of doubt creeping into his expression. "Unless you're meant to represent my own personal quasi-Ascended spirit guide. That would actually make a strange kind of sense."
Before Sam's experiment, Daniel had only seen McKay in passing, just long enough to link the face to the name. They hadn't even spoken. "It would?" he asked, not sure he really wanted to know why.
"Obviously," McKay said, freeing one hand to gesture at Daniel. "Because of your whole —" He clamped his mouth shut suddenly and recrossed his arms. When he spoke again, it was warily. "Because of that thing you'd already know about if you are."
Daniel wondered if there really was a reason or if McKay was just unconsciously defending his own construction. "I'm pretty sure I'm just myself," he said, figuring the truth to be the safest option.
"Right." McKay's mouth twisted with a sour humor. "Thank you, then, for that delightful and ultimately useless diversion." He turned back to his notes, dismissing any consideration of Daniel's actual point with the gesture.
Sam came back several hours later, apparently having napped because she looked much more rested. "You guys are still here?" she asked, clearly surprised. Daniel just shrugged to signal his lack of progress. Sam's eyebrows climbed further as she saw the whiteboard.
McKay had added quite a lot to the board in those hours. He had listed types of time travel in blue: wormhole diversion, jumper, psych. displ. — though that last had the note sci fic! in red after it. Next was the phrase android download, also in blue, but with a red note of pulse and a black note of magnet?. Below those were several symbols and abbreviations Daniel couldn't assign any meanings to. The lambda side of the board was sparse, with only two additional notes: Ancients = insane in blue, and a red Sam ≠ evil that McKay had added with clear hesitation.
"You still think we're not real?" Sam asked, her disbelief clear. She glanced at Daniel, who could only shrug again.
"Not real or not right, at least. I mean, not right for me, not the same temporal offset, whatever. I'll figure this out," McKay insisted, weary but stubborn. "Alone if I have to." The look he gave her was unguarded and pleading.
Sam either missed that or chose to ignore it. "Honestly, McKay, there's no trick. It was just some kind of hallucination. Whatever you're trying to get back to, it's not real."
"You think I made up seven years? Dozens of — no, hundreds of people, new races, an entire galaxy? I'm not that creative, Sam," he said earnestly. "We talked about that, remember? The piano …?" He watched her expectantly for several seconds, but then his face fell. "Oh, right, that 'hasn't happened yet.'" He turned away from her, his expression shutting down, closing them both out.
"Look, you're just confused," Sam said gently. "I guess that device gave you a pretty intense experience. I am sorry about that. I just wanted you to understand what you tried to do to Teal'c."
"I didn't do anything to Teal'c," McKay snapped. "You're just angry because I'm the one who came up with the deadline — and, okay, yes, it's possible I may have been slightly rude to you about it. But I ran the calculations based on the information I had and gave an honest answer. My conclusions may have been off, but I had no way to know that, and at no point did I act with malice or even negligence. Someone else used that information for political ends. But because the information came from me and you don't like me, suddenly the whole thing is my fault. Except I didn't do anything.
"And it's not even really about Teal'c. If you hadn't known him, he would have been just some random offworlder, and if he got caught in the gate, well, that's sad but these things happen sometimes. You might not have liked it, but you would have accepted it. There wouldn't have been any deals with Russia. What you're angry about is that you almost lost who he is to you, the person he is in your head. And …." He stared at her with growing horror. "And by that measure, you're taking credit for killing my whole team. For murdering them — the whole expedition, hundreds of people, you killed them all." He backed away from her, looking gutted.
Sam reached toward him, but her expression was skeptical. "McKay —"
He drew back and his eyes narrowed as he regarded her with loathing. "Get away from me." He had one hand up, warding her away. The other hand clutched at the outside of his thigh for a few seconds but then stilled as he took another step back.
Daniel could see Sam was about to protest, so he drew her over towards the doorway. She frowned at him instead. "Hammond wants me to bring him —"
"Give him a minute, Sam." He guided her a few steps further towards the door. "You know, for all his mockery of the 'soft sciences,' he made a pretty good point there, psychologically speaking," he added quietly.
"What? Come on, Daniel. None of it was real. He made the whole thing up. Nobody really got hurt here."
He studied her closely, but he saw only conviction. He remembered her words from earlier: He doesn't get it, Daniel.
And now she didn't get it.
Daniel could try to explain, but McKay had the better claim to that and he had already tried. Each had a grievance; each felt misunderstood. Where did it end?
He sighed and let it go. He turned back, meaning to call McKay over, only to see the man seated at the table, his face buried in his hands.
"McKay?" Sam prompted, worried.
McKay shifted his hands so that his forehead was braced against them but his words were clear. "I made it up, didn't I?" he said, his tone flat and dull.
Daniel and Sam glanced at each other, surprised. "Yeah, I think so," Daniel ventured finally.
"I made it all up," McKay repeated, his head still lowered. His voice turned vicious. "Stupid McKay, so desperate to think anybody might actually like him he has to invent a whole new galaxy, and then the only person he manages to convince is himself."
They both winced at that. After several seconds Sam prompted, "So you get that we're real now?"
"Yes, yes." For a moment McKay sounded as he had before, but then he sighed deeply and went back to sounding defeated. "Look, can I go now?"
"Hammond wants to talk to you first, but probably after that," Sam said.
"Right." McKay finally lifted his head and stood. He nodded sharply and started towards the door, not looking either of them in the eye, but as he reached Daniel he paused. "Look, you, um …." He made a face. "You've seen the second Star Trek movie, right? Wrath of Khan?"
Daniel blinked at the non sequitur. "Yeah, I think so."
"So … Spock made an … interesting choice, in the end." He watched Daniel intently, as if he was willing Daniel to understand more than the words themselves.
"You want to talk philosophy? Ethics?" Daniel hazarded, considering both that element of the movie and McKay's earlier observations to Sam.
"No, of course not, it's —" McKay broke off with a shake of his head. "You probably won't even remember anyway," he muttered, low and bitter. He headed for the door again. "Come on, let's get this over with." He left the room.
Daniel caught at Sam's sleeve. "Take the long way," he said quietly. Sam made a face but nodded.
Daniel used the extra time she was giving him to call ahead to Hammond. McKay clearly meant to leave and didn't want their help, but someone should make sure that McKay would get the support he needed when he got back to Area 51. He shouldn't have to deal with this alone.
Hammond seemed to want to settle things between them all, but McKay, predictably, was still being difficult. "Look, let's forget this whole thing. All I want is to go home. So if you'll just call off the guards …." McKay shot Sam a dirty look.
"Actually, Dr. Fraiser has recommended that you speak with Dr. MacKenzie first," Hammond said.
"Let me guess. Some kind of headshrinker, right? Let me think about that. No."
"We do have a responsibility to ensure that you're medically fit —"
McKay sighed and folded his arms. "English, no. French, non. Russian, nyet. Feel free to stop me if I hit one you recognize. Czech, ne. Japanese —"
"You do have the right to refuse medical treatment, but I don't recommend you do that," Hammond said.
"Yes, right, whatever, you've covered your ass. I'll even sign the paper that says you begged and pleaded but I refused your magnanimous offer. If I change my mind, I'm sure I can find someone in the general vicinity of Groom Lake, but for now, I'm leaving."
Hammond studied him. "If that's what you want, Dr. McKay. We can have you on a plane —"
"Oh hell no. I get on one of your planes, the next thing I know I'm eating borscht three times a day and discovering just how many body parts are at risk of frostbite inside what is laughably called an advanced research facility. I'll rent a car, thank you."
"Don't be ridiculous, McKay," Sam said. "You haven't slept. There's no way we're letting you drive all the way back to Nellis."
"No means no, Co- Carter." He really didn't make it easy to feel sorry for him. "I'm not stupid enough to fall for one of your shell games. I am not going to Siberia. I am still a civilian, and I'll resign from my contract first."
Sam never thought he would still expect to be sent to Siberia, but if he was willing to just go away, they wouldn't have to worry about whether they could trust him to consider the human side of the equation.
"That won't be necessary, Dr. McKay," Hammond said. Dammit. "I've already requested someone else to fulfill our agreement with the Russians. You can go back to your lab. We'll fly you straight back to Nellis."
"And I'm supposed to trust you because …?"
"I give you my word, Dr. McKay," Hammond said levelly.
McKay started to protest again but then sagged, running a hand over his face wearily. "Fine, whatever." He looked up again to glare at Hammond. "You screw me on this, and the Russians discover the joys of an uncontrolled reaction in a facility they can't afford to lose." His voice was low and vicious, and he couldn't possibly mean that.
"It won't come to that, Doctor. We'll have you on your way back home in just a few minutes. First, I need to know whether you're planning to file a legal complaint over this incident."
"What?" Sam and McKay said together.
Sam felt sick. She hadn't hurt McKay, and she had never meant to hurt him, but he could call it assault. He could — oh, god.
"A legal complaint?" McKay continued. "For … for what, a court-martial? Please," McKay spat. "That guy everybody in the entire program hates against SG-1's golden girl? No thank you. I think I've already met my humiliation quota for the year."
Sam had never, ever expected to feel a flash of gratitude towards him.
Hammond frowned. "It's my responsibility to —"
McKay crossed his arms again. "No. It's a remarkably simple concept, but I am willing to repeat it as many times as necessary until you all manage to understand it: no. Just drop it. Leave me alone. Just … just let me go home."
Hammond studied him again. "As you wish, Dr. McKay." He picked up his phone and called for an airman to escort McKay out.
McKay looked startled. "Oh. Well. Good."
An airman appeared within moments. Hammond gave him instructions for repackaging the device and getting both it and McKay back to Area 51. Apparently he had decided the device should be studied further there and he might as well make use of McKay as a courier. McKay listened closely, scowling throughout, but found nothing to object to. With one last suspicious look at the airman, he straightened, raising his chin as if steeling himself, and then nodded to Hammond. "General."
He turned to Sam and opened his mouth, but nothing came out before he closed it again. His eyes searched her face, his expression so hurt that her breath caught. But that lasted for only a second before he narrowed his eyes, scowled, hiked his chin back up, and left the room without another word.
Hammond let out a long breath and then turned to her. "Major." His tone had her snapping to attention without a thought.
"Sir. I made a bad choice. I honestly thought it was safe, but I made a mistake." The least she could do was own that.
"You did." Sam carefully didn't wince at that. "I did authorize it, but this sort of thing can't happen again, Major. We're all very lucky nothing worse happened to McKay. He's actually Canadian. The situation with the Russians is tense — we don't need a second international conflict. We're also very lucky that he didn't insist on terminating his contract just now. Area 51 was already lodging a protest about losing their primary gate expert and one of their best naquadah researchers to the Russians."
"Wait — we were sending someone else with McKay, sir?"
"No, just him. Apparently he's both. There's a reason we brought him here in the first place, remember. I think the complaint is as far as they would have taken it if he had gone — they don't seem to like him any more than we do, but they needed something on record. They would have taken a pretty big hit from our decision. Now we're sending another of their leading naquadah researchers to the Russians, though, so if we lost Dr. McKay from the program entirely in addition — we can't afford that."
"If it's that bad, couldn't we still have sent just him, sir? Do you really think he would have quit? He gave in pretty quickly before. "
"Yes, he did," Hammond said dryly. She could have kicked herself for walking right into that one. "No, Major, I couldn't push him. Apparently there are now security concerns. His ties to Canada are weak, but the Stargate program is his only real tie to the US. Remember, the Russians have their own gate, and they're still not satisfied about leaving us in control of the active gate. There's no evidence that McKay has any connection to them now, but if he was actually living there … let's just say certain people have expressed reservations about that possibility."
Sam was careful to keep her tone mild when she said, "He's just one man, sir."
"He's one man the Pentagon considers the authority on Stargates, Major. McKay would be hamstrung professionally if he wanted to go into civilian research, even if he left on good terms. The Russians are the only other place he'd be able to continue his work. They don't have the resources to challenge us right now, and they don't have a DHD anymore, but didn't McKay say he knew your dialing program? They do have scientists of their own, and McKay might be able to give them enough to make a play for control of gate access if the situation gets bad enough."
Sam doubted it, but her judgment didn't matter in this case. She knew once the suits got an idea, they would cling to it. "I understand, sir."
Hammond didn't put her through much more before dismissing her. He made it clear she had disappointed him, though. That was the worst part.
Though the prospect wasn't exactly appealing, she considered McKay as she took the long way to O'Neill's office, to … be out of the way until McKay had left. She found herself wondering about his specialization. McKay did know the bare theory of the gate system, the cold dry equations, and he knew just what to challenge her on. He might well be the best Area 51 had. They valued his naquadah research, too, though — and McKay had suggested he dabbled in alien artifact research, in his spare time.
Modern scientists specialized. It was nearly impossible to excel in most fields otherwise. The researchers within the Stargate program were generally more flexible than most, but very few worked extensively in more than one or two very narrow subfields. In fact, Sam was one of those few. If McKay was so multi-talented, why wasn't he on a gate team, or at least working directly at the SGC, learning about teamwork and responsibility firsthand? For that matter, why hadn't she heard about him already?
Then again, understanding the wormholes of the Stargate system did require at least a decent understanding of the properties of naquadah. So even if his expertise was unusually broad, it was still only one general area of study, aside from whatever he actually knew about the potentially vast field of xenotechnology. Half of the long list of other responsibilities he'd rattled off consisted of made-up terms, so she was inclined to dismiss all of that. Even the most brilliant lab researchers were often disasters in the field, and McKay would have been strangled by any team forced to work with him within their first three missions, so his not being assigned to one made perfect sense.
But … maybe he could adapt. He seemed to have gotten something out of his experience with the device. He hadn't shown any sign of interest, but with time, he might be worth considering the next time they needed field scientists. She would just have to keep an eye on him from now on.
That less than thrilling line of thought was interrupted when Jack poked his head into the office. "Nice hiding place. So what'd the commissary do?"
She smiled at him. "I think I'm going to need a little more than that to go on, sir."
"Well, they did something to that McKay guy, but nobody knows what."
Sam sighed. "I thought he was finally gone. What's he complaining about now?"
He gave her a confused frown. "No, he — come on, I'll show you." He led her to the conference room McKay had been using and pointed to the whiteboard. "What, did they sneak lemon in it or something?"
McKay's bizarre notes were still there, but a new message had been scrawled across them in what looked like sloppier version of the same hand: THE CAKE IS A LIE.*
Sam wondered how many days it would be before she could stop wincing. "I maybe, kind of, sort of … broke him a little bit, sir."
His eyebrows rose. "With cake?"
"No, sir. I don't know what that's about."
"Well, why don't you buy me some cake and tell me all about it." He swept an arm towards the door. "After you, Carter."
As they headed for the commissary, Sam decided to ask Teal'c to join them. Daniel already knew what had happened, and he probably wanted to catch up on some sleep, but she might as well tell both of the others at once. Besides, she wanted to see Teal'c again anyway. She knew he was fine, but she would feel better if he was there at the table with them, solid and warm and alive.
On to Part 2: Intact among the Debris.