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.
Rodney squinted in the sudden brightness. He knew that in a few seconds it would resolve into the artificial lights outside the chamber as the VR pod opened, or of the holding cell as the Replicator pulled away, or of the lab as the random device he must have triggered accidentally ran down, releasing him from this nightmare and back into reality —
He flinched as it instead resolved into the daylight outside the Cheyenne facility.
He was acclimated to Atlantis. Not even a day earlier, he had been rubbing his arms at the chill of San Francisco Bay. The coat he barely remembered felt wrong, the Colorado winter landscape alien.
He knew most people thought he couldn't lie or keep secrets. Anyone who believed that was an idiot, because he had obviously worked with classified materials for years. Maybe he wasn't all that great at resisting actual torture, and he tended to babble when he was dealing with anything personal, but he found it useful to let the idiots think that meant he couldn't lie at all. It meant they didn't expect him to try, even though he had won a drama festival award once — as he had mentioned to Sheppard when they took the city back from the Replicators.
He knew he was most convincing when he was able to hide his expression, whether that was by pretending to pay attention to some kind of readout or simply covering his face. He also knew that people tended to believe what they wanted to hear anyway. He had fooled Woolsey about the plan to retake the city, and he had fooled Kolya about the last stages of saving Atlantis from the storm. This lie was almost simple in comparison.
It got him out — but unfortunately, it hadn't yet gotten him out.
An airman guided him to a car, drove him to a plane, handed him paperwork, gave him instructions. He obeyed numbly, watching only enough to make sure he was seeing names like Nellis or Nevada and not Russia or Siberia, trying desperately for once in his life not to think.
They didn't want to let him carry the case with the alien gadget in it onto the plane. He looked around at the flags on every surface, at the twitchy armed people every few paces, and bit his tongue. He just presented the paperwork over and over and over, never once letting his temper slip, because foreign national carrying bomb-like device onto plane was not a phrase he wanted anyone putting together. Not in the time period everyone kept telling him this was. He had spent entirely too many hours in cramped, badly lit airport offices the first time around, just for simple absent-mindedness. He hadn't known then just how bad it could have gotten, and he didn't have any illusions that his importance to the Stargate program would be sufficient protection now.
He meant to stay awake for the flight, not trusting this "Carter" or her friends an inch. He was exhausted, though, and the droning kept lulling him into a doze — only for minor bits of turbulence to shake him back awake, startled, ready to demand that Sheppard explain what the hell he'd done to the inertial dampeners. Every time, he found himself in a cramped and dingy airplane that reeked of hydrocarbons, where jumpers and dampeners and Sheppard were all supposed to be just some fantasy. Every time, the reminder stabbed just a little deeper.
By the time Rodney staggered off the plane, he felt tattered and raw. He eyed the stringy military kid waiting for him and seriously considered telling the guy to go to hell, but his eyes were crossing too much for him to be quite willing to drive himself the rest of the way. Desperation had him feeling reckless enough that he almost hoped the kid was Trust. Everyone else was blaming him right now, so why wouldn't they?
Rodney pulled the case jealously close when the kid reached to take it and warned him off with a glare. Apparently it didn't fit the face he was wearing right, though, because the kid, who still had that peeled-egg look typical of shockingly young recruits, just gave him an unimpressed smirk.
He watched the passing scenery through drooping eyes. It was years since he had been here for any real length of time. Trying to reconcile the few changes he'd noticed then with what he was seeing now made him dizzy.
Then the military guy was opening the car door for him, outside a depressingly familiar building. The kid called him "Mr. McKay" and didn't bother to hide his dislike, even though Rodney hadn't said one damn thing about his driving or the American military, so Rodney didn't bother to hold back the curse that came to his lips. The kid just sneered at him, got back in the car, and drove off, leaving Rodney swaying on the sidewalk.
He walked up to the building slowly, shifting the case to one side to put the other hand in his pocket … and oh, yes, this particular set of keys. Not the ones he first thought of when he thought of this apartment, the ones he'd found the first time he did laundry after they had retaken Atlantis — no, the ones from before Russia. The ones for this apartment, and the few he'd had for the labs back then, and the ones for the car he had sold in the one week they allowed him to come back and settle his affairs after months in that frozen hellscape.
He clutched them tightly because he wanted to hurl them away and scream. The teeth bit into his palm, asserting real, real, real. He loosened his grip again.
He let himself in through the front door and trudged down the hallway, past the doors of Old Lady Fish-on-Fridays and of the Harder-Faster-Harder-You-Horse couple, of Little Miss Insomnia and of what should have been Stoner Jock but the skunky smell was missing — oh, right, he was later. It was Mysterious Guy Who Was Never Around now. Theoretically.
He had hated this apartment — well, no, he hadn't really cared one way or another. It wasn't Atlantis, but he hadn't known what home was back then. It was somewhere to live without a roommate always in the way. It was convenient to the lab. It was a vote of confidence in himself that he would find a way to connect Atlantis back to Earth before the five years he prepaid right before they left ran out. It was what kept him neighbors with the woman who had taken —
His cat. His cat, oh god, running up to him the second he had the door open, complaining. His cat, the fur feeling exactly the way he had remembered, the claws scraping lightly against his arm as they kneaded air, the grudging purr. Max hated to be squeezed, Rodney knew that, but he couldn't help himself, clutching him tightly as he shook.
Max squirmed free after about a minute, dropping a little awkwardly to the floor that wasn't as far down as it should have been. Rodney didn't remember falling to his knees while holding him, but there he was. Max started away but then turned back, watching him expectantly. Rodney bent down further and Max bonked heads with him the way he liked to do sometimes, a little like Teyla's Athosian thing, and Rodney had forgotten but this was the first thing he'd thought of when Teyla had first done that with him, which might be part of why his mental image of Catwoman had started to look an awful lot like her —
He pressed his fist firmly against his mouth until he stopped shaking again.
Max had moved away but trotted back to him again, demanding. He got up and Max led the way to his dish, where he still had plenty of food, but he liked an audience when Rodney was home. Rodney ran a hand along his back and Max took a few bites of food before wandering away again. Rodney stayed, staring at the dish, at the level of food — a couple of days' worth eaten, still enough left for a few more days because he hadn't known how long he'd be away.
He had spent those extra few days frantically calling everyone he could think of in the lab until he tracked down that PETA sympathizer and guilted her into looking in on Max while she found someone to take him indefinitely. Rodney had gotten drunk the night after she called to report that she'd placed Max with one of Rodney's neighbors, and he owed her a few hundred dollars for her trouble, and she never wanted to hear from him again. He got drunk again the night he finally had a set of checks on hand and had made one out to her, because signing it felt like he was somehow agreeing that having Max taken away from him was okay. He had been even more of a vicious bastard in the Russians' idea of a lab than was usual for him, even back then, for the following month.
To this day, he missed his cat most when he was stupid enough to drink vodka in quantity.
He went to try to pet Max again, not caring at the moment that he didn't want him to be real, but now that he had gotten as much of Rodney's attention as he had wanted, Max avoided him. Punishing him for leaving for a couple of days. When he hadn't come back, that first time, Max must have —
Exhaustion was making him emotional.
The security of the apartment had never seemed so pathetic before. He had brought classified materials back to this? He took the case into the bedroom with him, figuring that way at least he'd hear if someone came for it.
He stripped just enough that he wouldn't wake up miserable, flicked the alarm on, and fell into bed. Right, dammit, this was the crappy mattress, the cheap one, the one he'd refused to spend much on because he resented needing to sleep at all and hadn't yet realized what it was doing to his back. He sighed and considered moving to the floor, but this was better than that, if only barely.
Despite his weariness, he lay there for what felt like a long time, tense and uncomfortable and miserable, so homesick he could barely breathe. Eventually he felt Max jump onto the bed, stalk his length a couple of times, and then flump against him, apparently satisfied that he had been sufficiently punished. Only then did Rodney finally fall into sleep.
If it had been "I Got You Babe" — or Huey Lewis and the News, for that matter — Rodney really would have started killing people, but the sound that woke him was the alarm clock's simple, grating beep.
He was still in the apartment, though, so as scorecards went, the one for this day was already deep into negative figures and he hadn't even sat up yet.
He had no idea how long he'd slept, but he wanted to close his eyes again, and again, as many times as it took to find his real life there. A couple of tries didn't do any good, though, so he went to make coffee and then take a shower.
He spent a good twenty minutes freaking out about the minor nosebleed, thinking that stupid device might have caused brain damage after all and flinching as that same brain replayed that clip from "Scanners" in all its gory glory on infinite loop. Then he remembered that this apartment, stuck in a winter desert, had somewhat lower native humidity than an island-city in a near-tropical ocean. He was relieved for a moment that no one he respected had seen his little panic, and then depressed for much longer for the same reason. He refilled the industrial-sized humidifier and cranked it up, apologizing to Max for forgetting about it and zapping him half the times he touched him. To hurry the process along, he turned the shower on hot and used a desk fan to exhaust the air into the apartment. Five minutes after that, he remembered that this place, unlike Atlantis, did not have functionally unlimited hot water and undid that setup.
As he finished the first pot of coffee, his brain finally came fully online. He checked the clock and contemplated reporting to work — to Area 51, where he didn't have his own department yet, where he barely even had his own lab, and that not on merit but on personality. He polished off a quick breakfast but then continued to sit there, thinking about plans and options and contingencies, for long enough that he would have to rush if he didn't want to be late.
Well, that hadn't been part of his plans, but it would work. He gathered the device, still in its case, and headed out, yawning ostentatiously several times as he stowed the device in his trunk and as he drove to the lab. He let the breeze ruffle his hair and didn't comb it back down, and he tried to get his clothes as rumpled as possible without being obvious. The iffy job he had done of shaving had more to do with not wanting to see this face in the mirror than any plan at the time, but it would fit just fine.
He had to show his pass to get through the gate, but then he left it in the car, "remembering" it and doubling back to retrieve it after about five steps. He still felt too alert, so he worked shield equations in his head as he made his way to the lab.
He didn't exactly plan to get lost on the way, no matter how nicely that suited his goals, but it had been a very long time. He had worked in several different rooms in this facility over the years, and he kept automatically heading wrong directions. He heard snickers from somewhere the second time he had to retrace his steps, making him scowl as he looked around to find the perpetrator, but he couldn't tell who it was. He stomped away and found his lab after only one more wrong turn.
He spent an hour and a half making careless but harmless mistakes — not too many, and subtle ones, because he did have a little pride. Then when his supervisor came to check on him — and to dig for dirt on the SGC with much less subtlety — he rambled. He followed any tangent he came up with, wandering far off the topic at hand, blinking slowly as the supervisor — Jablonski? Jones? Jarvik? — kept trying to steer him back. He'd worked while sleep deprived so many times that this mode of conversation was almost second nature. His people knew that his work really wasn't affected when he was in that state, however addled he might sound.
Jingleheimer finally frowned and asked if he needed some time off to recover from his trip. Rodney was pretty sure the guy had never been especially solicitous, so he protested that of course not, he was perfectly fine, he might be able to finish this set by the end of the day if he didn't keep being interrupted. It was a ludicrous claim based on the stopping point Rodney had found when he started, though it was perfectly in character. As he hoped, it inspired Jeeves to take a look at what he'd worked on that morning.
Rodney protested, because he would have, but he began to worry he'd been too subtle as the seconds stretched. Finally Javert turned, though, and told him to take a few days.
Rodney couldn't help narrowing his eyes at that — he was pretty sure no one had ever been that lenient with him here, so either this was too easy or someone had told the man to play nice. Luckily Jakes took that for professional paranoia and assured him that he would personally ensure that no one else messed with his project while he was gone. He added a smile that looked like it hurt and said Rodney was very valuable to the program and he wanted to make sure Rodney was in good condition.
Rodney-of-2002 would have waved off the flattery as restating the obvious and taken offense at the implication. He didn't really buy the concern so it wasn't hard. Whats-his-name — Rodney was running out of Js to guess — simply pointed to two of the most obvious mistakes, though, which let Rodney slump and admit he was a little tired after a couple of all-nighters. Fifteen minutes later, after a sympathetic smile that Rodney didn't buy any more than he did the accompanying strained wish that he feel better soon, he was headed back to his car.
When he got back to the apartment, he grabbed a snack and played with Max for a while, because this next part was going to suck. Finally he knew he couldn't put it off any more, so he made himself get up and find the number.
That took some digging — he didn't usually write phone numbers down, because they were easy enough to remember. This one was old, though, and he didn't quite trust himself to have it right, so he hoped he had written it on something when he first got it. He finally found it scrawled on an envelope that was tucked inside the cover of the phone book. An actual, bound phone book, and he hadn't spent more than a couple of weeks on Earth in years but he wasn't sure anyone had those anymore, but here this one was, and the verisimilitude was driving him stark raving mad.
He was relieved to see the area code. He hadn't quite remembered where she was at this point. This would be easier than the alternative, at least.
He picked up the phone and gathered the courage to dial the whole number after only three aborted attempts. As he listened to the other end ring, he realized that the time of day was all wrong and very nearly hung up, but suddenly somehow her voice was there.
He jumped in immediately. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm a jerk and I'm sorry, just please don't hang up."
There was a pause. "I'm sorry, who … Mer?"
"Yes, sure, yes, just please don't hang up, please?" He didn't know if they'd had their final fight yet. Like a volcano, there had been several significant tremors before the big eruption, and he didn't remember the dates because he hadn't wanted to remember any of it. Considering Madison's age, though, odds were high he had already said things he had long regretted.
"I'm not hanging up, Mer," Jeannie said, but her voice was wary. "What's wrong? What do you want?"
"I, I just …." He swallowed and took a deep breath. "Look, you'll probably laugh, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I … I just have this feeling, all right? I got this really, really awful feeling that if I didn't call you and make things better between us we might just stop talking completely and … and then whole years might go by and we wouldn't see each other at all and I — I don't want that, I never wanted that, I just —"
"Mer! Mer, okay, fine, just stop talking. Please."
Rodney bit his lip and waited.
"Huh," she finally said about thirty seconds later. "That never works. Are you feeling all right?"
"I mean it," he told her quietly. "I just want us to be okay." He knew she really wanted those three words he hated above all others — at least in combination — but he couldn't quite make himself say them yet and he was pretty sure she wouldn't believe him if he did. So instead he said, "It's your life. I won't say I like it, I won't say you're not — that I don't think you're — no. How about I just not say anything? Which is probably what you really wanted all along. I — I can do that. Okay?"
"We're not —" she started, but then she went quiet for a few seconds. "Yeah," she said finally, sounding more serious. "We're okay. Really."
"Good," he said, shaky with relief. "Good, that's good."
"Mer, please, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nothing's wrong, it's just I've had a really, really bad —" Day? Week? Seven years? "— couple of days, and I really needed to talk to you." He swallowed again. "Look, I've got a few days off, and I was wondering, can I come see you?"
She didn't answer right away.
"Please? Just for a little while? I'll be nice to Kaleb, I'll eat your tofu and not even mention it's not actual food, I can stay at a hotel or something so you don't have to see me for that long or anything, you'll hardly even know I'm there, please —"
"Okay! Okay, fine, you can visit, just stop!" She sighed and then laughed softly. "At least I know it's really you, though. I would almost wonder if you were my brother's evil twin or something, with the whole 'wanting to visit without being blackmailed' thing and the 'getting Kaleb's name right on the first try' thing. Well, I guess that wouldn't be the evil … Mer? Mer, are you crying?"
Even Sheppard had seen that he was afraid Jeannie liked Rod better than him. He couldn't be Rod, he wouldn't, not even for her. But he could at least do better this time around.
Even if he was also using her.
Especially because he was using her.
"No," he answered. "Allergies."
"Right," she said, unconvinced. He let that go and just confirmed her current address. They didn't talk much longer than that, not really having much to talk about at this point, or at least not much that didn't risk starting the arguments all over again.
Right at the end, after mutual see you soons, he took a deep breath and blurted, "Love you."
Several shocked seconds passed before she answered, "Love you too, Mer," her voice all choked up like she was crying, and hung up.
He had to be careful.
He had always assumed his phones were tapped, even before the Americans lost their damned minds. He just hadn't ever been threatened by that, not at the time. He worked for the good guys and he was important.
His laptop went in his backpack — his ratty old backpack that felt like a toy compared to a field pack — along with all his legal documents. Travel papers, work permit and residency papers, classification clearances, everything. Oh, hey, the title to the car, that might be useful, too. And veterinary vaccination certificates. After a few minutes of consideration, he took the degree certificates and awards and pictures down from the wall — not as many at this point as he remembered — and took them into the bathroom, emerging with an unremarkable pile of paper that he put in with the legal documents. He didn't need those, but they were his, dammit. Everything else he couldn't do without went in, too, not that there was much, and enough clothing for a couple of days.
He looked around for a box and finally settled on a laundry hamper. He loaded that with a bag of cat food, Max's dish, and a few bottles of water. The litter box fit, too, just barely nesting across the top, which helped. He took the hamper down the car first, climbing into the back seat before he settled the litter box on one floorboard and the food dish on the other. He could stop a couple of times on the way.
Vancouver made it workable. He might make it there by the next evening if he drove straight through. He hadn't been entirely positive whether Jeannie would have been there yet until he found her number, so he had worried. Toronto would have taken another half day at the absolute minimum, plus sleep, across the automotive equivalent of Ambien and passing far too close to the SGC for his peace of mind.
Besides, Vancouver was on the ocean. His memories of Toronto's lake felt all wrong. He suspected being landlocked would be better than living near such an imperfect reminder of home.
He didn't think to corner Max before he dug the carrier out of the closet, so he had to spend about fifteen minutes trying to extract him from under the bed and out of the closet and from behind the couch and from under the bed again, because Max took the carrier's particular rattle to mean the vet. Rodney cursed him absently but didn't give up, because there was no way in hell he was giving him up again.
He took Max and the backpack down at the same time, locking the apartment door on the way out. He threaded the passenger-seat belt through the handle of the carrier, tucked the backpack into that floor space, and headed out.
He itched to check the trunk, but that would blow his pretense of having forgotten. The odds were better than even that he was being watched. If the device had been taken, he couldn't do anything about that, but he needed that part of his cover story.
He stopped for fuel and was obvious about checking his wallet, so that the slight change of course to stop at the bank wouldn't look unusual. He went inside for the transaction and withdrew as much as he dared, careful to notice who was around him before and after but not seeing anyone worrisome. The transaction itself would look suspicious, but he had to have something liquid on hand. He maintained a credit card and a small account with a Canadian bank, just for ease when he went back, but most of his assets were in American banks and funds, and he couldn't trust those to remain accessible much longer. He could only hope it would take a day or two for anyone to pay any particular attention to this transaction.
He had to leave Max alone in the car for that part — he couldn't risk a scene if the bank people objected to a pet even in a carrier — and he hated that fiercely even though he parked to keep an eye on the car as much as possible and took as little time as he could manage. The fact that it was winter was a meager excuse, but he clung to it all the same, and he took a few seconds to slip his hand into the carrier and pet Max in apology afterwards.
When he finally got onto the interstate he relaxed, just a little bit, because now he could start the countdown.
He had meant what he said to Jeannie, every single word. He still privately thought her a fool to abandon her studies, but she seemed happy. If she wasn't, he had never seen any sign that she had taken that out on Madison, which was a worry he hadn't even known he'd had until years later. He could find a way to stay in Jeannie's life, and he could keep her current until she was ready to come back.
In the meantime, he was going to build something for her to come back to.
If this was reality, the Americans could go to hell. He was sick of dealing with them and their politics, and they had crossed lines that couldn't even yet be proven to exist with whatever Carter had done to drag him back here. He was done letting them profit from his work.
If this wasn't reality, though, as he desperately hoped, he had to game the system. He hadn't yet seen a way out — dying might work, but that was by definition a last resort. A VR system would probably just keep reinterpreting to counter him, so there wasn't much he could do about that. Replicators were both his greatest fear and his best option, perversely enough. He knew from Elizabeth that they would happily simulate a mental institution, and he really wasn't interested in playing into that game. His own memories of their incursions told him both that they could put him through something even darker and that it was possible to resist them. He had to play within the rules set out before him, act as if this was all real, and find a way to beat it anyway.
So in the end, his goals were the same for any workable hypothesis: hide what he hoped to be true, treat everything around him as real, and stay the hell away from certain research areas. The confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements he had with the Americans limited a lot of what he could do — a lot — and Replicators would want either access to Atlantis or, improbably, the more advanced areas of his knowledge about Ancient technology. That meant a lot of topics and significant areas of research he had to abandon, possibly for a very long time.
But it didn't cover everything. Using only the more basic knowledge he had gained from Atlantis and some of the later stages of the Stargate program, he could drag some university's physics and engineering departments into something approaching an age of intelligence, building from twentieth-century knowledge to whole new realms that were beneath the Replicators' contempt without ever touching on anything that could be directly linked to his documented work in the program. Not right away, anyway, not for years, and then not until others started to see the holes he carefully left to be filled in.
He just needed a decent physics department — well, no, actually, he didn't. He could make a decent physics department in his own image. He could make Douglas worthy of respect.
But it was damn well not going to be an American school.
He would need help, protection. He was basically going to have to apply for asylum from his own damn country. That was his biggest leap of faith — that his own government would have the resources and the will to shield him from the Americans. They hadn't when he built the model nuclear bomb, just letting the CIA come waltzing over to terrorize a kid, and he fully intended to remind them of that.
This was a really crappy time to expect them to deny the Americans anything, but he knew how to make it worth their while. The Americans had been profiting wildly from the program for years, and he knew for a fact Canada hadn't seen much from that despite their loyal support. Hell, he could simply hand them the fundamentals of the naquadah generator program the Russians would spend the next couple of years developing — along with mention that the Americans were helping the Russians with that but, hmm, not the Canadians, their allies of much longer standing.
Of course, they would have to find a way to get the actual naquadah, but they could figure that part out. They could just turn and offer his information to the Russians or Americans, or both, in exchange for being cut into that action.
He had at least twenty hours of driving to prioritize what he would offer under what conditions.
He would need to build his own capital, too, make himself untouchable against the day he brought public science to the doorstep of the Stargate program. Apparently he had it in him to be a software magnate, from what Sam — the other one, the one he respected — had said. He had always found software development too simple to stand, but it was easy money and he knew what types of applications to focus on. A few intuitive productivity tools, a couple of flashy social networking applications, maybe a few games. Those typically didn't go together, but he could be the driving force behind all of them. He could bigger than Jobs and Gates together, just in the weekends and coffee breaks of his rewriting of modern science.
This place wasn't Atlantis. These people expected weekends and coffee breaks. He could change the world while they were puttering and plodding through their lives.
The third time a Johnny Cash song came on the radio, making him clutch the wheel so tightly he nearly ran off the road, he had been driving for hours, so he paused at the next rest area with services. He wished he could see some significance to the music, but that was just what radio was like in this part of this country. If he hadn't spent time in the Northeast and in California, he would have thought American radio stations were required by law to play Cash and his cohorts.
He took Max in with him, in the carrier, as well as the backpack. Those were the things he couldn't risk letting out of his sight. He used the restroom quickly, apologizing to Max for involving him in that. Then he bought some fast food and a carry-tray full of coffee, trying not to look at the trucker in the next line, the one who reminded him a little of Ronon.
Back in the car, Rodney let Max out to eat and do any business of his own, pouring him a little of the bottled water he'd packed. As he waited for that, he rested his head on the steering wheel. Come on, guys, if you're there, get me out of here. Maybe it would show up on the monitors of the system holding him captive; maybe he could make the body he was trapped inside the head of speak the words. Get me out. Please. I'm here. I'm here.
The only sounds that answered him were the soft pings of the cooling engine and the crunch of Max's food.
When both sounds had stopped he turned to locate the cat, so he could put him back in the carrier. Max was flopped over on the back seat, lying in a patch of late afternoon sun, eyeing him reproachfully. Rodney knew he should put Max away, but the cat had been crying the whole time he drove — which was why Rodney even had the radio on in the first place, because he couldn't bear to listen to the complaints — and he looked content now. Besides, to get to him, Rodney would have to open a door, which Max might escape through, or twist around in ways likely to hurt his back. It wasn't all that safe, but he decided to let Max have his way, at least for now. No real need for both of them to feel trapped.
Why me? He could practically hear Sheppard's scorn at the question, but he meant it. Why did he have to be the one to start over all the time?
The piano had been his life, but then that was suddenly yanked away from him. He picked himself up and switched to science. Then the Stargate program came along and derailed his plans to become famous for his research if not for his music. He finally got Atlantis, and came to love it, and then the Ancients kicked him out. He fought his way back and now here he was, kicked out again. And that wasn't counting the timelines in which he drowned or gave up the second half of his life to find a way to bring Sheppard back.
He was sick to death of being toyed with, of having everything he loved snatched away.
And then there were all the times he held the city only by superhuman effort, like the Genii attack during the storm, or the siege, or that awful flight from Lantea. Or the many, many times he personally had nearly died. Why the hell did his entire life have to consist of being jerked around on a vast scale?
With a deep breath he started the car and got back on the highway. The road stretched away ahead of him, not endless but tediously long, just like this new life he didn't want. He swallowed a surge of anger and grief. He would make this work.
He had bridged realities. He had rewritten time. He had developed technologies the Ancients hadn't managed. He would damn well fix this.
He would build himself a solid foundation of national value and reputation and commercial stardom, giving him the reach and backing he would need. He had Carter's cursed device to take apart, to find his way home; if that didn't work, he would make a new home. If he was captive to the Replicators, he would bore them into letting them go. If he was in some VR, he would work on breaking free whenever no one was watching him.
And if he was really, truly in 2002 somehow, by some as-yet-unknown quantum anomaly or any other explanation, he would get home again or prove it a fantasy to his own satisfaction. He would track down the people who mattered, if they existed. Air Force pilots weren't secret — was Sheppard in Afghanistan yet? For the first time he regretted never having given a damn about anyone's life before Atlantis. Was Zelenka actually in Prague now? Was he publishing? And Grodin, god. Elizabeth and Carson. Ford, if he was out of high school yet. Griffin. Gall, Abrams, Dumais, Lindstrom. The rest of that entire grim roll call. But Jennifer, too, and Simpson and Kusanagi, Esposito and Campbell. Even Parrish and Brown, the botanical Wonder Twins. He had hundreds of names, and he could check if they existed and if there was any way he might have heard their names but built a fantasy around them. If he could find evidence that he hadn't made up the versions he knew, he could keep an eye on them, make sure they ended up with the program — and make sure that if the program found the clues to Atlantis, he could force his way back in.
That option would only give him a few years to work with, so he would have to make them count. Everyone thought he had an ego before? He was going to explode into public consciousness with so much in so many fields so fast they couldn't possibly silence him. A real research program would take too long to establish, so he would have to start with software, and maybe internet publication of some basic concepts. He should probably knock out an introductory text early on, so that could make its way through some publisher's process while he built his reputation. Once he had enough material to establish credibility, he would work out a deal with a university and get the basics of a real program in place, just in case Atlantis wasn't found by the time it should be.
Sadly enough, the remedial education he was about to give the world was more likely to produce the Nobel he deserved than any of his real, legitimately groundbreaking work. He was shocked to realize that he would give that up in a heartbeat if doing so would get him home. The man he had been in 2002 would have laughed himself sick at any such suggestion — and really, he wasn't sure he would have believed it himself even a few days ago, looking out over San Francisco Bay.
Maybe it took losing everything that mattered for him to see, but he understood now. And he was going to fight like hell to get it back.
I'm coming. He sniffled and cleared his throat, and added allergies in the hope he needed to. I'll find a way back, somehow. Wait for me. Help me, if you can, if you're there to hear me. I'll make it back. I'm coming home.