Summary: Rodney made him go to Colonel Carter with the story, and John, who was gradually getting more used to the idea that he trusted these people, finally agreed.
Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
Characters: John Sheppard, Rodney McKay, Samantha Carter, Jennifer Keller
Original story: Second Sight by elementalv
Notes: Thanks to shrift for beta.
"Are you all right, Sheppard?"
"Yeah. Fine." John blinked a couple of times, trying to clear his vision. Everything was blurry -- or not blurry, but somehow wrong.
"Somehow, I don't believe you," Rodney said.
John reached out and pulled Rodney away from the console they were standing next to. He almost expected his fingers to pass through Rodney, but he felt the cloth of Rodney's shirt and the muscle underneath it.
"I--" John took a deep breath. "That thing. It sent me back."
Rodney frowned. "You never left." He turned his head to stare over his shoulder at the console and the piece of machinery that John had set down, as if it would do something even stranger than what it had already done.
"But I did. I went -- back."
John stared at Rodney, who seemed to be solidifying in front of him, but he also saw a different Rodney, one he remembered as even more abrasive, someone whose input John didn't value at all. Someone who'd never told John anything about his sister or his childhood or his favorite Batman villain.
"In time," John said. "I went back in time, and now it's different. Everything is -- it's all -- it changed. I changed."
"What happened?" Rodney asked, his voice softer than John -- old John, original John -- ever remembered hearing it.
And John, who would have blown off the question in his original history, found himself telling Rodney everything.
Rodney made him go to Colonel Carter with the story, and John, who was gradually getting more used to the idea that he trusted these people, finally agreed.
(He remembered being in a desert with Rodney, on a Wraith hive ship with Rodney, in a jumper at the bottom of the sea.)
"You should probably see Keller, too," Rodney said, "but I know Sam's got some experience with strange things happening to people's brains."
Carter sat behind her desk with her hands folded and listened as John told her what had happened, though when John started with "McKay called me to the lab to activate an Ancient device," her eyes flicked over to Rodney, who immediately protested.
"It should have been safe! We took readings, and there was no energy output, nothing."
"You've been here for four years, Rodney." She left the you should know better implied.
(An energy shield that made the wearer invulnerable. A pod that put them into the virtual reality of an Ancient ship. Nanobots inside the bodies of his team, his friends, and his need to do something, to save them somehow.)
John told her the rest of what had happened -- his childhood memories, and the action he'd taken that had somehow overwritten his history. Carter had the same distracting blurriness he'd noticed in Rodney, and in most of the people they'd passed in the hallways on their way to her office.
"Changing one small event in your childhood changed your entire life," she said. "That's a dangerous machine. Rodney, tell me you locked it up before you came here."
"Of course," Rodney said indignantly. "I didn't want to accidentally touch it and turn myself into a version of me still stranded in Siberia, or something even worse. Sheppard, you remember both timelines clearly?"
"Not clearly," John said. "It's like -- like I'm not sure what I'm remembering. The original stuff seems like a dream I had."
"So what's different?" Rodney asked.
"I'm not sure I can explain it. It kind of makes my head hurt to think about it." But he couldn't not think about it, because it was in everything he looked at. He squinted, and instead of Colonel Carter, he saw Elizabeth Weir, but he also saw Elizabeth being dragged away by the Asurans, and she'd saved him, saved them all, but they weren't even friends, but they'd argued, but they'd respected each other, but he'd hardly known her.
John realized he'd pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes; he was seeing sparks. When he blinked them away, Carter looked at him with concern.
"I want you to see Dr. Keller. And we're coming with you."
"The scans aren't good." Keller was trying to whisper, but John could still hear her. Rodney made no such effort.
"What does that mean, 'not good'?"
Carter saw John watching them and motioned to both Rodney and Keller; they moved further away, though John caught a few words about brain scans and his temporal lobe and dangerously high levels of something John had never heard of and couldn't pronounce. But he didn't need Keller to tell him that his headache and disorientation had gotten worse, much worse.
"But if it just overwrote his history, like data being written to a hard drive--"
"A brain isn't a computer, Rodney!"
"Of course not, or we could just reformat him."
"You're not reformatting my brain," John called out, amused despite the pain. He thought he could see an outline in the corner of the infirmary. Richardson, his brain supplied, but in this timeline Richardson had been killed during their first year when the Wraith attacked Atlantis, and he knew that, he remembered, and wished he could forget, wished he could choose the reality where Richardson hadn't died, but every choice like that meant a different choice in this world. Would he give up Ronon to get Ford back? Swap Richardson for Lorne? Would he return to the world where his mother had died in an alcoholic haze when he was six, where he had no brother?
He tried to focus on the blur that was Richardson, but it just made his head pound and the pain twist tighter and tighter until he cried out through clenched teeth. Keller ran over to his side, followed by McKay and Carter.
She picked up a penlight and shone it into his eye. "What happened?"
"Thinking about it makes it worse. The differences between then and now."
Keller checked one of the monitors. "Your levels have gone even higher. I'm going to give you something for the pain, okay? I'd recommend you try not to think about it until we figure out a way to sort this out."
"Sure thing, Doc," John said, seeing Beckett standing in Keller's place. "Easiest thing in the world."
He drifted off for a while, probably thanks to whatever Keller put into his IV. He woke up when Carter sat down next to his bed.
"Colonel," Carter said, then sighed and took his hand. "John. McKay and Zelenka and I have been researching the--"
"Wayback Machine," John supplied.
Carter smiled. "We think it's possible that you dropped it before it completed what it was doing."
"I was pretty surprised," John said.
"It's always like pulling teeth to find any documentation on what these devices are designed to do, but given how strong your ATA gene is, it doesn't seem likely that it should cause these kinds of medical and mental problems."
"Unless it's another failed experiment."
"That is a possibility, yes, but given your readings..." She paused, and John caught the flick of her eyes toward the monitor readouts.
"That bad, huh?"
"Dr. Keller thinks it's the best course of action right now, given how much it's affecting you."
John thought back to the blinding light that had brought him into this changed timeline. "What do you think will happen, if we let it finish doing whatever it was doing?"
Carter's hand tightened on his. "Honestly, John, we're not sure."
John stopped at the entrance to the room, so suddenly that McKay, following behind, ran into him.
"Sorry," John said. "It's just kind of weird." He took a deep breath and stepped forward into the room that had changed his life. Zelenka stood by the console, and the Wayback Machine sat on a table nearby, pulsing with a quiet light.
"Sheppard, you know I never meant for anything like this to happen." Rodney's mouth twisted with guilt.
"I know," John said, remembering that same guilty expression that he'd never seen before from missions that he'd never been on, arguments he'd never had over and over again, apologies Rodney had made to someone who never existed except in John's skin and mind and life.
Rodney gestured to the device. "Just pick it up, and we hope it will do the rest."
He reached out, pretending his hand wasn't shaking, and wrapped his hand around it.
The same light flared, whiting out his vision, and the doubles and overlaps separated themselves out, so he saw both timelines, distinct, as if on opposite sides of the same screen. They diverged from the fork in the road, that moment in his childhood where he reached out to his mother or turned away from her.
Each life stretched out before him, with changes big and small, and he understood what the Ancient device was supposed to do. Not overwrite his life without warning, but give him a choice. To answer the question that everyone asked themselves at one time or another -- what if things had been different?
A choice. Two equal possibilities, each with its own drawbacks and pain. How could he pick, in this split second?
He thought of things he'd lost and people he'd known. His team and his friends. His career, the quiet isolation of Antarctica. The sight of two suns setting over an alien planet, and the wicked glint of humor in Teyla's eyes. Rodney's hands waving in excitement as he explained something. The crack of the bullet leaving the barrel as he shot Sumner. Lives and deaths and decisions.
He remembered his mother's smile, and made his choice.