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Episode 8: Primum Movens, Part I

Three weeks without incident.  That had to be a record, right?  Maybe there was something to the Pegasus Coalition having a hidden weapon up their sleeve. 

Rodney McKay stared up through the stained glass window that held watch over the Atlantis Gateroom, barely able to discern the stars through the colored panes.  Of course, moving out onto the balcony would show him just how many littered these skies, but he wasn’t in the mood at the moment to ponder either the metaphorical or figurative wonders of the universe.  The job he was about to do—a routine check he somehow managed to find himself a part of every month—would burst anyone’s happy thought bubble.  And given that this was the first time they’d gone, after the betrayal of the Pegasus Coalition— 

“Rodney.  Let’s move.” 

The sudden interruption into his not-very-positive thought process sent a chill down his spine, the kind of one he generally got with impending doom hanging over their heads.  Only the cause of this one wasn’t something he could fix.     

He turned around from the control panel he’d been mindlessly hovering over, staring into the face of Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard.  It was almost the same face, still unfairly youthful for his age, as the Major thrust into command only a few days after they’d arrived here.  Even with the years they’d spent saving and re-saving the Pegasus galaxy from any number of threats and horrors, nothing seemed to touch him.  Enviable genetics. 

John’s expression darkened into a frown and Rodney snapped back into reality, that chill rising again.  It wasn’t age that was scoring the lines into the colonel’s forehead or hollowing the circles beneath his eyes at the moment.  It was something much more formidable than the Wraith or anything else they’d faced in Pegasus.  Something that had turned John Sheppard away from his normally affable, if annoying, attitude to a dark and brooding rogue type.  So much so his demeanor of the last few weeks made Ronon seem like Jar Jar Binks. 

Something whacked itself against his shin and he yelped in surprise, looking down at Chuck, whose face was focused on his console.  The only acknowledgement the tech gave after nearly dislocating Rodney’s kneecap was a shooing motion with his hand, apparently deciding that part of his job now consisted of telling Rodney when to get the heck out of Atlantis. 

Or, more likely, telling Rodney when to get Sheppard the heck out of Atlantis.  

John was still staring at him, his expression unchanging.  There was no amusement at Rodney’s momentary moue of pain, or even at Chuck’s causing it.  There was nothing to spark those hazel eyes into any emotion at all.  It reminded Rodney vaguely of an automaton, which was pretty much what Sheppard had been the last few weeks.  He’d heard a few of the science crew had even taken to calling him Robo-Sheppard, which was better than on the military side, where he was being affectionately known as General Patton. 

A second later the Colonel was jogging up the stairs to the Jumper Bay, which was his currently impolite and rather non-Sheppard-esque way of saying he was leaving Rodney behind. 

Woolsey emerged from his office, giving Rodney a warning look, which finally prompted Rodney to move his aching shinbone and hustle after Sheppard. 

When had he become the city’s resident babysitter-slash-psychotherapist?  Wasn’t that Heightmeyer’s job? 

And yet, Rodney knew perfectly well the reason so many people were urging him on was that he was the only person Sheppard seemed to be able to abide in his social circle for more than five minutes.   He knew most of the crew thought that strange, and to be perfectly honest, even Rodney really couldn’t understand it completely.  Okay, so he and Sheppard had a rapport, a sort of one-on-one, mano-a-mano thing.  But in total sum of the time he’d hung around the colonel after what the Genii had done, he’d said maybe five words that had nothing to do with the job at hand?  So how did that suddenly make him Samwise Gamgee to ring-cursed Frodo? 

Jumper One was open, Sheppard in the pilot seat as Rodney hobbled in, working his way over to the co-pilot’s seat.  Sheppard was focused on flight prep and barely acknowledged his entering. 

“Let’s get this over with,” Rodney muttered, flipping up his tablet.  “I’ve got better things to do.  Like reorganizing my sock drawer.” 

For one brief millisecond of a moment, something like a smile wavered on Sheppard’s lips.  

“This is Jumper One,” he chanted in monotone into the com.  “Is the Gate open?” 

“You are clear for departure, Colonel.  Coordinates are—” 

The Colonel shut Chuck off unceremoniously and punched the lever for the Jumper to rise.  The bay doors opened, and he descended the ship down into the Gateroom.  Woolsey was watching, not from his usual spot by the inner balcony, but from the comfort of his office. 

Rodney barely got a glimpse of them before Sheppard shot the Jumper through the wormhole, Atlantis vanishing in an instant.  The effect of the journey was soothing to Rodney’s eyes--nothing but the deep blackness of space once they’d exited the Gate, peppered only with starlight. 

He knew better than to waste time, given Sheppard’s mood as of late.  “Given drift, they should be about twenty-five kilometers to the southeast, not much further than they were last time.” 

John was staring intently through the windshield in the direction Rodney had mentioned, a troubled look on his face.  The ship was making its way there and even Rodney, once he’d glanced away from the equipment, had to admit he was puzzled. 

Space, in front of them, was shining.  It would be the dust-in-headlights effect, if the Jumper had regular headlights. 

“What is that?” 

“My first guess would be space dust?” Rodney murmured, looking at the Jumper’s readings.  Nothing unique so far, but the scanner was still calculating.  His eyes jumped back to his tablet, which, to his surprise, showed them exactly twenty-five kilometers from the gate. 

“Where is she?”  Sheppard’s face had melted into some semblance of an emotion, though frankly Rodney barely remembered what that looked like anymore.  It might have been worth asking what exactly he was feeling, if it weren’t for the more pressing matter at hand.   And the fact that John, even on his best days, would never give a straight answer. 

“McKay?” 

“Um…” Rodney re-focused his attention and tapped at his datapad.  At the moment it showed nothing revealing.  “Chuck did dial the right gate address, right?” 

Just to gratify what was essentially the world’s stupidest question, Sheppard punched up the coordinates.  Exactly where they were supposed to be.  

Where Elizabeth’s replicators were supposed to be.  

They’d checked on them every month, as a precaution, and minus minute shifts in drift, they’d been where they were supposed to be every time.  Ever since the day she’d condemned herself and her group of followers to this fate.  

Nothing should have changed. 

Resorting to the non-thinking part of his brain for a moment, Rodney glanced out the Jumper windshield and stated the obvious.  “They’re supposed to be right here.” 

“Well, obviously, they’re not.”  Sheppard said curtly.  He turned to Rodney a moment later.  “How concerned do I need to be?” 

“That they were found?  I mean, the chances of anyone finding them were astronomical to begin with.  They’d have to come to one of the remotest parts of the galaxy, be looking for the Gate specifically, know where they’d drifted—it’d be like someone falling from space into the middle of the Pacific looking for a couple of toy dolls.”  

“Then you explain it!” John barked, then clenched his jaw.  “They were here.  Now, they’re not here.  You explain it!” 

Rodney felt that chill again.  “I…” 

The Jumper flashed up data with a welcome interruption.  Welcome for about two point five seconds.  As Rodney scanned the data a part of him wanted to do what Sheppard had done right after he’d learned about the betrayal of Mayel—shut off, disappear, dissolve into robot status.  

Days like this he really wished he could. 

John obviously read what was on Rodney’s face, because his eyes scoured the HUD and then drifted beyond the display to the cloud of space dust shimmering ever so slightly in the reflective light of the stars.  “Rodney…” 

“They are here,” Rodney said.  “They are exactly where they’re supposed to be.” 

He tapped aimlessly on his datapad, pulling up the schematics for the nanites that had composed the replicators.  Put a few million detached ones into space, held together by their own gentle gravity, you got a very nice dust cloud.  “We’re sitting right in the middle of them.” 

Sheppard’s eyes widened, observing the cloud more closely, as though squinting and sitting forward would give him more answers.  “All of them?” 

Rodney swallowed.  “I don’t know.” 

“You don’t know?”  John’s head snapped towards him, eyes narrowing. 

“Is there an echo in here?”  Rodney snapped back.  He was suddenly tired of walking on eggshells.  Not after what they’d just found.  “You’re not stupid.  You think by staring through a windshield at billions of machines called ‘nanites’ for a reason, I’m going to be able to immediately tell which ones of them were her?” 

The response seemed to snap Sheppard back into some semblance of humanity, whether angry or annoyed or sympathetic, and the dark expression disappeared. 

Both of them sat in silence for a moment.  Rodney glanced back at the datapad in his lap, which was giving more precise details on the physical structure of the nanites.  There would be literally billions floating in this mess, given how many replicators had gone through the gate.  Finding Elizabeth could take weeks, or months, or even years.  Like combing through a DNA strand.  Inhuman DNA. 

He was avoiding the thousand pound gorilla in the Jumper, the one that, given all that had happened in the last few weeks, with Serrana, with the betrayal of the Pegasus Coalition, was the last kind of a reality they should have had to deal with.  That, after all the rest of it, they’d now just lost the last semblance of someone they had trusted, someone they’d cared about.  They’d lost the last chance of bringing Elizabeth home. 

A loud crunching sound startled him a couple of feet out of his seat, and he looked over at Sheppard in surprise.  The colonel was gritting his teeth, right hand cradled against his chest.  

“Are you crazy?”  Rodney stepped up out of the chair.  He was pretty sure there’d be a fist size ding in the Jumper control panel were it not made of ding-proof metal.  The look Rodney received in return would probably have scared a Wraith, but at the moment Rodney was too tired and far too upset, frankly, to care. 

“Look, you want to go and engage yourself in self-flagellation?  Fine.  Do it to your heart’s content when we get back.   Better yet, go drown yourself in a Jumper for a half a day again.  Right now, I need you to focus, because if you think I’m going to be the only one telling two-hundred plus people, the IOA and Stargate Command that we’ve lost Elizabeth, again…” he trailed off, looking away from Sheppard’s rapidly swelling hand and collapsed back in his seat. 

The glimmers from the space cloud of nanites around them began to blur.  Great, so now his vision was unfocused.  Low blood sugar, standing up too fast… 

He was going to hate the look on Jennifer’s face.  She still blamed herself for Elizabeth’s replicator condition.  Not to mention Teyla.  Teyla, who’d lost so much this year already. 

“I’ll tell them.” 

“What?” 

John clenched his teeth and then uncurled his injured fist, at first wincing noticeably with the pain, then slowly allowing the expression to slide back into that now so common automaton gaze.   “I’ll tell them.  This was my job.  My report.  You didn’t have to be here.” 

“I wanted to be here.”  Rodney looked down at the rendering of the nanite on his datapad.  “I owed that to her.” 

“We owed her a hell of a lot more than that,” John said softly.  “But it doesn’t matter now.” 

Rodney glanced up at him questioningly.  Sheppard met his gaze with cold eyes. 

“She’d dead.  She’s been dead for years, and we should have accepted that.  This should have been the solution to this problem a long time ago.  Now, at least, we don’t have to worry about the threat.  What we have to worry about is what caused it.” 

Rodney had to hack past a lump clogging his throat.  “W-what?” 

“Obviously someone with knowledge of replicators handled this.  We just need to make sure that they’re on our side.  We’ll piece it together back on Atlantis.”  John turned the ship back towards the Gate and began dialing the City coordinates. 

“Piece it back together?  We just lost…” 

“A replicator, Rodney.”  John’s head snapped back in his direction.  “It always was a replicator.” 

“A replicator who saved our…” 

“I don’t care what she did!”  The response was curt, and cold.  “There was only one Elizabeth Weir, and she didn’t make it off Lantea.  Everything else was a lie.  Maybe we fooled ourselves that it wasn’t, but it was.” 

The ship was nosing towards the Gate rather swiftly.  Rodney opened, then shut, his mouth, his head spinning.  

Sheppard looked at him, expression softening for a second.  “Trust your instincts, Rodney.  You know I’m right.” 

“If I did,” Rodney muttered, clenching his datapad to his chest, “I wouldn’t be here.” 

“You didn’t know this would happen.” 

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” 

“Then what are you talking about?” 

“It’s just…” 

Sheppard keened his head towards Rodney quizzically.  “Spit it out.” 

“If I’d known I’d run into as much lack of humanity inside the Jumper as out, I’d never have come.  That's all.”   

As Sheppard turned to him, his eyes narrowing dangerously, the nose of the Jumper slid into the wormhole, dissolving everything around them. 

Rodney gazed into the event horizon, knowing he’d just broken something not even the Stargate would be able to reconstruct.  

 

Primum Movens, Part I, Ch I

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