Off the Rails
"I don't like it."
Teyla sighed, shifting Torren around on her hip. "It is not up to you to like it, Ronon," she pointed out. "You do not have any control over the people these Earthers send here."
Ronon shook his head. "Something's going on," he said as if Teyla had not spoken. "McKay's been freaking out over this kid for weeks and today we find out that both Sheppard and Carter know her? Now McKay's missing?"
"Rodney often goes off to conduct repairs on the city," Teyla retorted, but there was no real weight behind the declaration.
Ronon rolled his eyes and was about to round the corner when Jennifer Keller came around the bend in the wall from the other direction and bounced off Ronon's chest. She stumbled back a few steps, eyes wide in her face.
"Dr. Keller, are you all right?" Teyla asked.
Keller looked from Ronon to Teyla, then back to Ronon. "I-- McKay--" She stopped suddenly. "I can't talk about it," she blurted out, then blinked hard and wandered away down the hall.
Ronon watched her go. "That's weird," he said. Why were all the Earthers on Atlantis acting so strange?
Or rather, why had they started acting weird after the morning's wormhole had brought Marines and that girl?
Something was up. And since McKay and Sheppard had vanished, that meant Ronon needed to figure out what that something was.
"I'm going to find her," Ronon announced suddenly.
"Find who?" Teyla asked, trying to stop Torren from yanking on her necklace. "Jennifer?"
"No, that girl Sheppard was talking about." Ronon wasn't sure he remembered her name; he'd been concentrating on his knife earlier when Sheppard and McKay started their riff that morning. "This has something to do with her."
Little Torren opened his mouth and let out a piercing screech at being denied something to pull. Teyla bounced the baby to quiet him, but to no avail. He just screamed louder.
"I'll let you know what I find out," Ronon said. Torren's high-pitched yelling echoed after Ronon down the hall. Teyla muttered something scathing at Ronon's retreating back, but Ronon could pretend that he hadn't heard.
The sun was high in the sky as Ronon began his search. It was around the time the Atlanteans started to gather for their midday meal, so Ronon decided to look in the most obvious place first. If this girl was like the other scientists, she'd be there for food.
Sure enough, Ronon spotted the girl alone at a table in the far corner of the cafeteria. Her legs were drawn up to her chest as she tapped slowly on a tablet computer. She seemed even smaller than she had in the Gateroom, facing off with Sheppard and McKay. Now, she was curled in on herself, as if she were trying to avoid drawing attention to herself.
Ronon kept a subtle eye on her as he loaded up a tray with food. She had all the outward appearances of vigilance; sitting with her back to a solid wall, at the end of the table to affect a quick escape. But he noticed that she never looked up at approaching footsteps.
Ronon took his tray and made his way over to the girl's table. She didn't seem to notice him looming over her, so intent was her concentration on the computer.
He'd picked up enough on the Earthers' customs in his years there to expect that just sitting down across from her might convey the wrong impression. So he cleared his throat loudly and waited.
The girl almost dropped her computer to the table. Eyes huge in her face, she stared up at Ronon. "Hi."
"Hey." He pointed at the empty chair across from her. "Can I sit?"
"Of course," she stammered, pulling her tray back over to her side of the table. "Am I in your chair?"
She sounded curious, not apprehensive, and inwardly Ronon let out a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure he could deal with another Earther, female or male, who believed the stories about his being some wild long-haired mountain-dweller. "That's not my chair," Ronon said as he sat down. He took advantage of the pause in the conversation to take a bite of the chicken sandwich. "So, you know McKay?"
The girl sat up straight, her hands moving restlessly on the tabletop. "We're working on the same things, and so the SGC decided to send me here. I'm Rory," she added in a rush.
"Ronon," he gave in return, around a mouthful of apple. "Where'd you meet Sheppard?"
Rory winced. "He pulled me out of traffic, in New York. But that was a few years ago."
"What were you doing standing in traffic?" he asked.
"I wasn't doing it on purpose," Rory protested immediately, her shoulders easing out of the extreme tension she'd been holding in. How old was the girl, anyway? Ronon wondered. Sheppard had said she was twenty-five, which translated to only a little younger than himself. But she looked much younger. Maybe it was her height. "There was a bicycle and a hot-dog vendor and the whole thing was like a tired rerun of an existential French play and Lieutenant-Colonel Sheppard just happened to be there to haul me back from a car-versus-pedestrian ending."
Ronon chewed on his meal as he considered the girl. He'd only understood about half the words she'd spoken, which was about in keeping with his conversations with McKay. It must be a scientist thing, he decided, because Rory was reminding him of McKay all over the place.
"And then he stole something off my suitcase and I meet him three years later in another galaxy," Rory finished. "What about you?"
Ronon searched back in his mind for the original question. Ah, right, about meeting Sheppard. "I knocked him out and tied him and Teyla up in a cave."
"Oh." The girl sat back to think that over. "Why?"
Ronon shrugged. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
If Rory had any response to that, Ronon never found out. A shadow fell over the table, heralding the arrival of Colonel Carter. The woman gave Ronon a quick nod, which he returned, then she turned to Rory. "Miss Gilmore," the Colonel said in greeting. "How are you settling in?"
"Fine, ma'am," Rory said, her back painfully straight as she stared up at the other woman.
"Good." Carter's eyes fell on Rory's computer. "Are you set up on the network yet?"
Rory shook her head, letting one hand fall possessively on the small computer. "Staff Sergeant Herrera gave me the tablet, but to sign onto the network I need approval from the department head and..." To Ronon's surprise, the girl reddened. "I didn't know where to find Dr. McKay."
Carter clenched her jaw. "So you wouldn't have received my email about an orientation today on your projects," she stated, her annoyance was thick. Rory opened her mouth to say something, but Carter held up a hand to stop her. "Don't worry about it, I should have realized that McKay's being... well, McKay." She reached for Rory's computer. "We'll reschedule for tomorrow morning." The woman tapped on the screen a few times. "One of the benefits of being the boss is being the head of every department," she informed Rory, handing back the computer. "You're all set up now. If you have any problems you can ask Dr. Zelenka."
"Thank you, ma'am," Rory said, the color finally beginning to fade from her cheeks. "I'm sorry I missed the meeting--"
"Not your fault," Carter cut her off. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a department head to eviscerate." She gave Rory an anticipatory smile. "Miss Gilmore, Ronon." And with that, Colonel Carter stalked away, Earthers scattering out of her path like dead leaves.
Rory wilted back into her seat, staring after Carter. "He's really taking this Paris-competition to insane heights," she muttered to herself.
Ronon watched the girl through narrowed eyes. He was missing something important, something about the girl that Carter obviously knew. McKay could be irritating, but he secretly loved getting new people to yell at. He put them all to work at once, setting everyone up on the network to receive lots of messages and meetings on their first day. Even with people he despised.
He never vanished on someone's first day.
So, Ronon reasoned, something else was going on. But what?
As if reading his thoughts, Teyla appeared out of nowhere, a now-calm Torren in her arms. She slid into the chair beside Ronon and smiled benevolently at Rory in her best trader-face.
Ronon wanted to roll his eyes.
"Greetings," Teyla said, inclining her head. "I am Teyla Emmagen. I did not have a chance earlier to welcome you to Atlantis."
"Thanks-- I mean, hello," Rory replied, appearing slightly flustered. "It's good to finally get here. I mean, after you guys were out of contact for six months. But you knew that, because you were here." She jerked her hands off the table and almost sent her coffee cup careening to the floor. "I'm Rory Gilmore," she said in a rushed afterthought.
Ronon settled into his chair to watch the show. The undercurrents in this first meeting were very interesting indeed.
Teyla took no notice of Rory's behavior, only shifted Torren around so the boy faced the table. "It is good to be in contact with Earth once again," Teyla said.
Ronon opened his mouth to protest that the over-reliance on Earth made the Atlanteans soft and lazy, when someone kicked him in the leg. Fine, he'd let Teyla continue in her interrogation. For now.
"I know Doctor McKay has been very interested in your arrival," Teyla continued, her expression blank and clueless. At the name, Rory looked away. Her gaze caught the sight of the city through the windows, brilliant under a blue sky. For the briefest of instants, her attention was completely fixed on the city. She jerked her head around in a moment, clear blue eyes fixed on Teyla, but Ronon knew what he had seen.
McKay did exactly the same thing when caught up in his science work, complete to the expression on his face and the wideness of his eyes.
What was going on?
Rory collected herself enough to pick up her coffee cup. "Dr. McKay and I are working on similar areas from different angles," she said, managing a smile. "I've been working on ZPM technology at the SGC."
Teyla lifted Torren onto the tabletop, where he looked around curiously and would serve as a potent distracter from the questions Ronon knew she was about to ask. "Dr. McKay mentioned earlier that you have training in another field?"
As interrogation went, this question was extraordinarily blunt, but Rory seemed more engrossed in the way Torren waved his fists in the air than in dissecting Teyla's motivations. "I'm a journalist, or at least I was," Rory told Teyla, while offering her cloth napkin to Torren. The boy took the cloth curiously. "But I started looking into mathematics and physics back in the start of the year. And here I am."
Ronon would have to remember the effectiveness of Torren's interrogation-by-cuteness for later.
Teyla nodded as if that was what she expected. Ronon knew her well enough to know she was still not satisfied by the answers. "And Colonel Sheppard?"
Rory tore her gaze off the baby. "What about him?"
"When did you and he meet?"
"Meet?" Rory frowned at Teyla, the baby babbling and forgotten on the table. "I wouldn't call it a meeting. We literally ran into each other on the street once, but all I said was thanks and I went on my way."
"He pulled her out of traffic," Ronon contributed.
Teyla gave Ronon a look out of the corner of her eye. "You and he did not speak?"
"No, I didn't even know he was in the Air Force until I came through the wormhole." Ronon could see that the girl was beginning to see the interrogation for what it was, when Torren saved the day once again by reaching both arms out to Rory. Automatically, the girl settled him on her arm and bounced him about expertly for a few moments.
While the girl's attention was elsewhere, Teyla and Ronon exchanged glances. Rory Gilmore might think she hadn't met John Sheppard before, chance meeting on the street aside, but the man had certainly known a lot about her before she arrived. He'd known her age and her background before McKay mentioned it.
And then there was the mess of confusion with McKay. McKay was acting strange, Carter was acting strange, and this girl looked and acted way too much like McKay, even more than the man's own sister.
A faint suspicion tickled the back of Ronon's mind, something pushed along by more guess-work than he usually liked. An idea that he would keep to himself until he had more proof.
Zelenka appeared at the side of the table, chattering and so happy to see Rory as to be oblivious to anyone else, talking science at a rapid pace. Rory handed Torren back to Teyla and followed the man in the direction of the lab with the appropriate goodbyes.
Teyla twisted her chair to face Ronon. After a few minutes of silence, during which Torren burbled happily at the world, she said, "You have reached a conclusion."
He shrugged. "Maybe."
"It's just an idea," he hedged.
Her glare grew frosty. "Will you tell me?"
"In a bit." He stood quickly, giving Torren's head a pat. The boy grinned toothlessly up at him. "Gotta get the new marines set up for training."
It was an escape and they both knew it, but Teyla had seen the same signs as he had. She could pull it together on her own.
All the same, Ronon wanted to see Rory Gilmore and McKay in the same room at the same time.
This whole thing was going to be fascinating.~~~
Reluctantly, John peeked around the corner of the level three presentation room. He hated being called on the mat by his superiors even when it wasn't related to work, and he'd be damned if he didn't know what this was about.
Sam Carter was already there, seated by the long windows watching the Atlantis sunset. Her feet rested on the window sill, her hair was down, and her whole attitude was one of relaxation.
John knew better. The day had been anything but relaxing
"Come in, Colonel," Sam called. John cursed himself for being noticed, even though her back was to him and he had tried to be silent.
He plastered a smile on his face and said, "Colonel Carter," in return as he entered to room. "You wanted to see me?"
To his surprise, Sam let out a snort of laughter. "Not really. Come on, sit down." Warily, John obeyed. "It's been one hell of a day, hasn't it?"
"Ma'am," John replied ambiguously. He pulled over a chair and sat, not letting his spine slump into a greater level of familiarity.
She gave him a tired look. "Come on, we're off the clock." She reached into a bag at her side and pulled out two glasses and a bottle of amber liquid.
John's mouth watered when he saw the label. It was something old and obscenely expensive and the last thing he thought he'd see in Atlantis. But then, he hadn't thought he'd ever see Rory Gilmore in Atlantis, so his track record was pretty much shot for the day.
"There's no ice," Sam warned as she poured a dollop into each glass.
"That's not a problem," John said, reverently accepting the glass. "How did this get here?"
"General O'Neill sent it with Miss Gilmore, probably to help soften what was going to happen today." Sam raised her drink in a toast. "To McKays."
John hesitated, but there was nothing of a trap on her face. "To McKays," he said quietly. That at least he could drink to.
The expensive whiskey tasted better than his memory had credited. His rich father had been into all things twenty-five years old, whiskeys and music and women, and John had snuck a shot of the good stuff one week before he'd run off to join the Air Force.
It tasted better on this side of adolescence.
"What are you thinking about?" Sam asked when John had been quiet for too long.
John smiled and lied, "That the person carrying this from Earth isn't much older than the bottle."
Sam set down her glass on the window sill. "About that... Jack also sent along a note about Miss Gilmore's background."
"Yes?" John sat back and breathed in whiskey fumes and wondered how he could get out of this.
"There's a little thing about how you were researching her background a couple of years ago."
Ah, so there was to be an ambush after all. John stared into his glass and spoke in the general direction of his knees. "It was just a thing."
"This isn't an interrogation, John," Sam said when it became clear he didn't plan on continuing. "I've had enough today trying to pry Rodney out of the bowels of the city to bother."
"Fine." John sank deeper into his uncomfortable chair. "We were in New York and I'd been around Rodney for approximately twenty months straight and I guess I had Rodney on the brain because when I saw her," John gestured in the direction of the east tower, "I just saw Rodney."
"You saw Rodney," Sam repeated.
John cringed at how stupid it sounded coming out of her mouth. "It made sense at the time," he protested. "Her luggage tag sort of came off her bag as I was yanking her out of traffic and since I was still on leave from the SGC, I did a bit of research. When I found out that McKay had been in Hartford nine months before Ror-- Miss Gilmore, was born, I figured it might have been a coincidence."
Sam stared at him for a minute, then went for her glass. "You saw a stranger on a New York street and went so far as to steal information as to her identity and investigate using U.S. Military computers, and when you finally found your answer you chalked it up to coincidence?"
When she put it that way, it didn't make much sense to John either. He shrugged defensively. "Yeah, I did."
Sam shook her head, blonde hair flying everywhere. "The sad thing is, I believe you."
"You do?" John sat up. "Why wouldn't you?"
Sam pushed her hair back from her face with an abrupt gesture. "Because it's a crap story. But the other option, if you knew
McKay had a daughter and didn't tell him, that would be a really shitty thing to do to a friend."
Sam's little pep talk didn't do much to lift John's spirits. As Rodney had made quite clear earlier in the day, not explaining about those suspicions was still poor way to treat a buddy. Because the conversation was making John rather uncomfortable, he turned the tables by asking, "How did you know about Miss Gilmore?"
"I went back to the SGC after they had her blood test results."
"She's Vala's new best friend."
Sam finally broke into a smile. "They sent General O'Neill to check up on her after she started triggering warning systems with her Rodney McKay research. She almost broke his brain with mathematics before she knew anything about the Stargate program."
"So she's smart?" John asked before he thought. Of course she was smart, they'd sent her to Atlantis. How could she not be brilliant?
"She's here to do research on ZPM technology."
And John supposed that was answer enough.
Sam lifted her glass to her lips and drained the rest of the amber liquid. When it was done, she looked forlornly at the empty container.
"It's a good tipple," John said, then cringed because honestly, what reasonably straight man in his early forties said 'tipple'
"Yeah," Sam said. Her smile had taken on a forlorn look. "My dad used to drink this with his military buddies. It took him a few years, but he finally talked Selmak into liking it."
John shifted in his chair. He knew that Sam's father, now deceased, had been host to a Tok'ra symbiot for several years, and the rumors around the SGC had been that the blending had brought father and daughter back together after years of conflict.
All this talk of fathers was starting to make John twitchy. He stood, slouching over his glass in an echo of a bow. "Thanks for the drink, Colonel."
"You're welcome. Good luck with McKay over the next few days."
He managed to keep most of the sarcasm out of his voice when he said, "Thanks," then went out of the room, leaving Sam staring at the thick golden glow on the ocean.
John trailed his hand along Atlantis' wall as he made his way through the city, his stomach tingling with warmth from the whiskey. The city hummed pleasantly, the sunset light oozing its way through the stained-glass of the windows like honey.
Running his tongue over his lip, John caught the last hint of twenty-five-year-old whiskey and wondered what the hell he was going to do.~~~Dear Mom.
Rory stared at the words, which twisted slightly in the sunlit glow of the city shining through her window. Her head was finally starting to adjust to the light, pushing her headache back into a faint ache in her brain. She wondered if this was what Alice felt like after falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
Only for her, here it would be Rodney McKay screaming "Off with her head"
She realized that she had been caught up in staring at the sun-lit city again, marveling at the golden-bronze glow illuminating the spires of the piers, at the silver sheen along the edges of buildings. She had seen photographs of Atlantis, but she'd never imagined the beauty of this million-year-old city.
The sheer majesty of Atlantis made Rory feel very insignificant indeed.
She rubbed at the needle mark on her left arm, where Dr. Keller had given her the ATA gene therapy injection that morning. The doctor had been totally floored when she read about Rory’s paternity, but she'd held herself together through the examination. Rory hadn't been paying attention; her migraine had made it hard to breathe, but whatever was in that injection must have helped, for the headache had started to recede ten minutes after she left the infirmary.
Hopefully, the spell of pain-free living lasted through her meeting with Colonel Carter the next day.
Determinedly, Rory turned back to her letter. She'd promised herself that she would email Lorelai as soon as she landed in Atlantis. She'd tried at lunch, to no avail, and then having spent the afternoon buried in the ZPM files in the Ancient database meant she hadn't had a chance to write Mom.
And now it was late and she was out of excuses.I'm settling into my new posting. I've got all the necessary things - a laptop and a place to sleep. I've got my own room, too.
Rory stopped typing. Could she mention that she had her own bathroom? Would that be breaking the rules? Not that it mattered, all letters went through the censors anyway, but it was an intense enough question that Rory tossed her computer on the bed and went out onto her balcony to stare once again at the city.
The soft summer wind whipped Rory's hair around her face, the air salty and warm and so completely different from any place Rory had ever been. Stars Hollow was in the middle of the state, miles and miles from the coast. Even Colorado Springs was completely land-locked. But even the time spent at Logan's seaside house in Martha's Vineyard was as different from Atlantis as coffee from clay. There, the ocean was an afterthought, a distant sound in the night.
Here... the ocean was everything. Even Atlantis, glorious in her splendor, was dwarfed by the waters that stretched to the horizon in every direction. In what Rory had decided was east, the moons were rising above the liquid horizon.
Rory breathed the sea air deep into her lungs, the breeze catching at her hair, and realization hit her. She was in another galaxy. This wasn't anything like the day-trips she took through the Stargate on Earth, where even if the Gate stopped working, a ship could reach them in a few days to take them home. No, she was so far away from home that if something happened, she might never get home.
And in that moment, staring out at an alien sea, with a father who couldn't stand her somewhere in the city, Rory couldn't bring herself to care. There was a hum in the air, beneath her feet, under her hands, and that hum felt impossibly familiar.
It felt a little like home.
She stared out at the city until the sun had slipped below the waters and the moons gleamed overhead. Only then did she go back inside to her computer. Rory deleted the entire file and started again.Dear Mom,
I'm here, I'm in one piece. I survived my first day. I missed a meeting with the CO and spooked the doctors, but I haven't walked out any door into the ocean and I haven't got seasickness yet. I met a nice Marine and lots of nice scientists. I start work tomorrow, bright and early. It's too bad the coffee in the commissary sucks.
I met my real father today. He doesn't like me.
Rory stared at the line for long minutes, then carefully deleted the characters one by one. Lorelai still didn't know about Rory's real parentage, and there was no way Rory was going to explain about that in an intergalactic email.It's too bad the coffee in the commissary sucks.
Tell everyone I say hi and I miss them. I'll see if I can send pictures. I'm good, and I love you. Give Grandpa a hug for me, and don't irritate Grandma too much. Tell Luke I'm already dreaming of diner coffee.
Love you always,
And then, because she needed to talk to someone
about Rodney McKay, Rory opened up an email to Vala at the SGC.Vala,
So I met Rodney McKay today. You know how you told me all those stories about how he has no social skills and I didn't believe you?
I believe you now.
And you will never believe it, but it turns out that John Sheppard saved my life three years ago. What a coincidence! If you believe in those sorts of things. I thought Sam Carter was going to blow a gasket when she was trying to figure that one out.
This has been a very strange day. I miss you guys.
PS: Tell Daniel that Atlantis is even more amazing than anyone could explain, will you? He'd love it here.
That, Rory decided as she hit send on Vala's letter, would give Vala just enough to pester Daniel for at least three days. Or maybe it might finally get Daniel to Atlantis, and that was just as well. It would be nice to have a familiar face in Atlantis.
At least a familiar face who didn't detest the very sight of her.
But there was more to it than just her father. She didn't want anyone to think she was in Atlantis because of any favors from Rodney McKay... although, after that morning, she doubted anyone would buy that. The not-so-subtle interrogation by Ronon and Teyla, along with Dr. Keller's boggled reaction to her parentage, had demonstrated to Rory that it would probably be best to keep family details to herself. If Rodney McKay wanted to tell anyone, that was his damned business.
Rory wondered precisely when it had become so easy to lie about who she was, and where she came from.
With a sigh, she went back to the orientation files on the ZPM projects. She might as well become as familiar with the source material as possible. She didn't want to give Rodney McKay any ammunition to use on her the next morning.
In any event, tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.