Under the Mountain
The Colorado sunlight bounced through the windows and off the walls and made Rory's head ache. Around her, a sea of humanity flowed in and out, moving around benches and walls and signs, a living, breathing mass.
Rory sat distant, motionless, falling apart at the seams.
Two hours and thirteen minutes since her plane landed in Colorado Springs. One hour and fifty-six minutes since she had retrieved her suitcase from the gently spinning luggage belt. One hour and forty-nine minutes since she had calculated the most visible bench from the airport's main doors, and sat down to wait for Jack O'Neill to find her.
Lorelai's voice in her head told her to get off your duff, kid, and give him a call.
But Rory remained still, rooted in place by gravity and the weight of not knowing who she was, what she wanted.
A third question danced in her head, asking her why she was here, but she couldn't remember if that was a line from a book or a television show or if she truly was losing her mind.
Her backpack rested against her knee, holding her laptop and a book she would never read. Her cell phone was tucked into her jacket pocket, turned off after a quick phone call to Lorelai. I'm fine, don't worry about me, I love you.
One truth amongst the lies.
Maybe... Rory gave her head a quick shake. No, she hadn't imagined Jack O'Neill. Mrs. Kim had seen him and told Lorelai, and Lorelai had told Rory, and it was real. She hadn't started seeing and hearing things that weren't real.
Two hours and twenty-one minutes since her plane landed in Colorado Springs.
The sunlight sparkled along the metal holding up the walls, bouncing around in the way light should
. It trickled over the people, over the mass of humanity, dancing and spinning and taunting Rory.
She clenched her fists around her backpack strap. She would not think about light now. She had to concentrate on looking for Jack O'Neill.
The light sparkled off surfaces, different faces, a same face. Rory dropped her gaze, frowning. She had seen that same-different face that very morning in Stars Hollow, at the diner.
The same-different face from four rows behind her seat on the airplane.
The same-different face, waiting in the airport for two hours and twenty-nine minutes since the plane landed.
Then footsteps, moving against the crowd.
Rory let her gaze drift upwards. Jack O'Neill flowed through the crowd, through the sea of humanity that parted for him, giving wide berth to his blue uniform with its stars on the shoulders and bright colors over his heart. When he saw her looking, he gave her a smile.
"Hey, you're still here," he said in that laid-back voice she remembered faintly from the previous day. "I didn't think you'd be heading over so soon."
Rory stood up, backpack knocking against her knees and she was sixteen again, her first day of Chilton with strangers' eyes watching, disapproving. "You said you'd see me in Colorado."
"Yes, I did." He clapped his hands together. "This it?"
She heard his words but didn't quite understand. "Sir?"
"If you wanted people to address you as Jack, you wouldn't have worn the uniform."
Jack glanced down at his dress blues. "Good point." He cocked an eyebrow. "Do you have any more luggage or is this it?"
Backpack in hand, suitcase at her feet, and an assortment of change in her pocket. "This is all."
Jack reached down and took the suitcase handle. "Distinctive," he commented as he guided Rory towards the exit. She followed in his wake.
"Some jerk in New York stole my luggage tag a couple of years ago," Rory told him. "So I just slapped some stickers on the case."
"They do make replacement luggage tags."
"It wouldn't be the same. I went to Europe twice with that tag." Rory slowed as Jack went up to a big black car. Out of the driver's seat stepped a young man in a blue uniform similar to Jack's, but with less colorful decoration. The young man took the suitcase, opened the trunk and placed the case inside. "You have a driver?"
"Job perk," Jack said. "Come on, get in. We need to hustle, I have another appointment in a little while."
"Oh." Rory reached for the handle but jerked back as the young uniformed man stepped up and opened the door for her. "I can--" She stopped, swallowed, kept her head held high. "Thank you."
He inclined his head, face impassive. "Ma'am."
The leather seats were plush and warm, a welcome change from the airport's cold bench. Rory slipped her backpack to the floor and buckled herself in.
Jack hopped into the other side of the backseat. "Airman, let's go," he said as he slammed his door.
Rory wondered if they were going to wait for the woman with the same-different face, but didn't want to ask. She supposed that the woman's purpose had been served, and she could go back to her real face and real life elsewhere.
"How was your flight?" Jack was saying.
"Why did you come to see me in Stars Hollow?" Rory countered.
"What do you mean?"
"Why send a general? One with a Washington DC area code?" Rory closed her eyes as the afternoon glare stabbed its way into her headache.
"Just 'cause." Jack pulled off his hat and tossed it to his lap. "It's my area of specialty."
"But it's not."
"Not the science," Jack admitted. "But the other stuff."
"What 'other stuff'?"
Jack reached into the briefcase at his feet and pulled out a thick document. "Here."
Rory hesitatingly took the offered packet. "What is this?"
"The non-disclosure agreement. It'll save time if you read it now."
Rory smoothed out the flat paper. "And if I sign this, you'll tell me about Rodney McKay?"
"Sure."Read quietly and don't interrupt the class,
Rory heard echoed from years past. She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and bent over the paper. Be a good girl. Fold your hands and don't look behind you and don't talk back.
She didn't know what she was doing here.
Two hours and fifty-eight minutes since her plane landed in Colorado Springs.~~~
"Please wait here," said the man, organized as only a lawyer could be. He gathered up the papers where Rory had signed her life away, and bustled out of the tiny room.
Rory tried to stay calm, but it was just like the room where they took her after she was arrested for stealing that boat. The walls were too close and the air dead, with only artificial light illuminating the tabletop.
"You okay?" Jack asked from across the table.
Rory shook her head, once, twice, three times. "I'm fine."
"If you say so."
Rory pressed her hands flat to the tabletop. She would not panic. They wanted her here. "I stole a boat."
Jack didn't seem surprised, but still... "A yacht, actually. They arrested me and I did community service." The sour failure of that whole year pressed back on her, with its lingering thrill of doing something that hadn't been preordained. Community service and living the life of a failure was something that had been all hers, no matter how quickly she pulled her life back together.
Look where 'together' got her. Sweeping up glass in Luke's diner after the morning rush.
"We know all that."
"Oh." Rory rubbed at an ink stain on her thumb. "I suppose being stalked by the U.S. Military would cause that to be on file."
"It wasn't stalking," Jack protested. "Think of it as the Air Force having an interest in you. It's.... flattering."
"It's a violation of my constitutional rights."
"But in a flattering way."
The lawyer came back in. He handed Rory a small badge and a packet of papers. "Ms. Gilmore. A copy of the agreement. Wear this badge at all times when you are on base."
"What happens if I take it off?" Rory asked, unable to help herself.
"Flying monkeys," Jack said, standing.
"Everyone on base must wear military-issued identification," the lawyer said. He did not look at Jack. "Do not take it off."
Rory glanced at Jack.
"Seriously, flying monkeys," he repeated.
Rory looked at the badge. Her face stared back at her, along with her name and series of numbers, and a bar code. The shadows under the photograph's eyes startled her. The resemblance to sixteen-year-old Rodney McKay was more pronounced than ever.
Rory clipped the badge to her breast pocket.
The lawyer inclined his head. "If you have any doubts about the agreement, or your security clearance, contact my office at any hour of the day. Caution is of the utmost importance at Cheyenne Mountain, Ms. Gilmore." He held out his hand. "Welcome."
Rory shook the offered hand, mindful of her manners. "Thank you."
Jack spun his hat in his hands, impatient. "Come on, we need to get moving."
"But my bags--"
"An airman will bring them down. Hop to."
Rory had to hurry to keep up with the general. They turned down corridors and went through security checkpoints. Once Rory set off a metal detector with her belt buckle, and another they made her stand in what looked like a metal detector, but it shone lights over her skin.
Finally, they made it to an elevator. Jack swiped a card inside the elevator, and pressed a button. The doors closed.
Rory stared at the buttons. "They're upside down," she noted. "Small numbers at the top."
"They're not upside down."
"Then..." Rory felt the ground under her feet lurch and descend. "We're going down?"
Rory watched the numbers grow large as they sank through the earth. "Can you tell me about Rodney McKay now?"
Jack leaned back against the elevator wall. "It's... complicated."
Rory watched the lights and felt the earth press down upon her head. "Please."
Rory did not accept charity and she did not beg, but she had learned the previous day for what she would sell herself.
Jack chewed on his lip for a second. "It's a very serious matter," he said, sounding doubtful. "It really is complicated, with lots of... details."
"Is he dead?"
"Who, McKay? No, McKay's alive. He's like one of those things with nine lives."
"Them too." Jack tucked his hat under his arm. "He's a civilian consultant on a joint military-civilian expedition."
"That's classified," Jack said.
"But you gave me security clearance--"
"Preliminary clearance," Jack clarified. "We're waiting for some more of the paperwork to go through. For now, I've told you all I can."
Rory turned towards the elevator doors, willing herself not to cry. She couldn't have come all this way, come so close to finding the truth, and be knocked to her knees by bureaucracy.
It wasn't right.
"Ah, here we are," Jack said as the elevator slowed. He pushed off the wall as the doors opened.
A dark-haired woman stood in the hallway, arms crossed over her chest. She glowered up at Jack.
"No," Jack said abruptly, stalking past the woman.
"It's not fair!" the woman exclaimed, uncrossing her arms and hurrying after Jack. Not sure what she should do, Rory trailed along after Jack. "You're taking Teal'c out into the world and not me!"
"Vala, not now!"
"You never behave!"
"Please!" She took a few running steps to cut Jack off at a corner. "I'm absolutely adorable at sporting events! Everybody says so!"
"No, they don't," Jack snapped.
"No, they don't," the woman, Vala, agreed. Jack stepped around her and continued on down the hall. "But they would if I had a chance to go to the game with you and Teal'c!"
As Rory tried to walk around the woman to follow Jack, she caught Vala's attention.
"Hello," Vala said, puzzlement in her voice. To Rory's ears, she sounded vaguely British, but there was an underlying twist in her words that wasn't quite right. "I suppose you get to go to the game too?"
"I don't think so," Rory stammered. She caught up with Jack. "Is that the appointment you need to get to?"
"The Air Force Falcons have a divisional game tonight."
"Oh." Rory heard determined boot steps approaching. Vala was closing in on them. "What sport do they play?"
Vala ducked around them again. Walking backwards, she pointed a finger at Rory. "I've got it! I beat you in a game of dice on Jahnine three years ago!"
Rory stopped abruptly to avoid being poked in the eye. "I don't gamble."
"Are you sure? You look very familiar."
Jack took Rory's elbow gently and pulled her along the hallway.
"Did I steal a cargo ship from your father on Ladrin?"
"A what? From where?"
"Vala, she doesn't have the security clearance to hear about these things!" Jack said loudly.
"Then why is she at the SGC?" Vala asked. Realization lit up the woman's face. "Oh, she's the girl Daniel thinks was made much smarter by the Ancients--"
"Ah!" Jack exclaimed, whirling. "Stop!"
Vala put her hands behind her back and bowed her head in a non-convincing imitation of contrition.
Rory pulled her arm away from Jack and took a few steps back. "You think something else made me smart?" she asked. Her voice sounded as if it came from a long way away. Falling
"Rodney McKay!" Vala exclaimed before Jack could speak. "She looks just like Rodney McKay! Are you another one of his brilliant yet lovely-mannered sisters?"
Jack pushed open a door marked 'Infirmary'. "Look, I'll explain everything inside."
Rory took another step backwards.
"Please, kid, it's all okay."
Vala patted Rory's arm. "Don't worry, they very seldom torture anyone down here, unless it's making them listen to long lectures on boring subjects and then refuse to take them to sports games."
Rory started at the overhead lights and felt the earth press down upon her head. "You know Rodney McKay?" she asked Vala.
"Of course!" Vala said confidently, linking her arm with Rory's. "We're friends." She paused. "Acquaintances, actually. Well, I could pick him out of a crowd. He's usually the one complaining loudly." As she spoke, Vala led Rory to the Infirmary door.
"And he's alive?"
"Goodness, yes. He's like one of those things with nine lives."
Jack grabbed the back of Vala's jumpsuit and hauled her backwards as she protested loudly.
"Please, Jack, I'm bored!"
"Don't care, Vala." He shut the door firmly in her face.
Rory stared up at Jack. "You think I'm not supposed to be this smart."
A serious expression crossed Jack's face. "Something you said the other day--"
"Yeah, that." He bit his lip. "I'll let the doctor explain."
As if on cue, a woman in a white lab coat came out of an office. "General," she greeted Jack. "You're late."
"We were ambushed," Jack said by way of apology.
"Vala still upset about the game?" The doctor smiled. "I'm Dr. Caroline Lam," she said to Rory. "You must be Lorelai Gilmore."
"I go by Rory," Rory corrected. "There's really only one Lorelai." She paused. "Actually, three of us."
Dr. Lam guided Rory over to a stretcher. "I'd like to take a medical history and take some blood, perform a few tests."
"All incoming personnel receive the same tests," Dr. Lam said. "And General O'Neill has indicated that you might be related to Dr. Rodney McKay. We are going to do a DNA test to determine that relationship."
"But I thought he wasn't here."
"He's not, but we have blood samples for everyone in his expedition."
"Oh." She might find out if Rodney McKay was her father. Wasn't that the whole reason she was here? Why didn't that make her feel any better?
Jack jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Look, Doc, I'm going to run."
"General," the doctor said as she walked across the room.
"So." Jack gave Rory a look. "You going to be okay?"
"I'm not... I'm not on anything to make me smarter," Rory said. "I'm just like this."
"I know." Jack smiled. "Just let the Doc do her thing. We'll put you up for the night and everything."
"You mean keep me here."
"I mean put you up for the night. If this doesn't work out, you can always leave."
Rory looked away. "Why did you come see me in Stars Hollow?"
"Someone had to."
"Why not someone else?"
Jack looked over Rory's shoulder for a moment. "We needed to make sure you weren't a plant."
"I thought the Air Force was generally worried about fruits," Rory said before she could stop the words from coming out of her mouth. She winced. "Sorry."
The corner of Jack's mouth twitched. "You know what I mean."
"The Cold War's over."
Jack stepped back. "You sure of that?" was his parting shot.
Rory stared as the door swung shut behind General Jack O'Neill. She was brought back to herself as Dr. Lam touched her arm. "Ms. Gilmore?"
"Sorry," Rory said. She cleared her throat. "So what now?"
had required more than blood work. A nurse in blue scrubs took six vials of blood while the doctor did all the usual doctor tests, blood pressure and flashing lights into eyes.
The MRI of her head hadn't made any sense, but Rory had lain back and thought of England and the dark-haired woman who knew her father.
Finally, when everything was finished, Dr. Lam let Rory put her jacket back on and guided her to yet another stretcher on the other side of the infirmary. A balding man in a lab coat poked at a strange-looking machine, while another man, this one in a military uniform, stood waiting.
"Rory Gilmore, this is General Landry, this facility's commanding officer," Dr. Lam said.
"Hello, sir," Rory said nervously. All these generals were making her nervous. They had to have less senior officers around. Why did she rank all the attention?
"Ms. Gilmore," General Landry said briskly. "I've heard a lot about you from General O'Neill. You helped solve a bit of a dilemma yesterday?"
From behind the machine, the other man's head popped out. "She sure did," he said happily. "Ms. Gilmore, I'm Dr. Bill Lee, it's so good to meet you." He came over and shook Rory's hand hard. "Those solutions you gave General O'Neill are working like a charm in simulations--"
"All in time, Dr. Lee," General Landry interrupted. "First, the machine?"
"Oh, right." Dr. Lee picked up a long black strap, tethered to the machine by several long cables. "There's one last test we'd like you to take. This machine reads synaptic function. We'd like to see how much of your brain you use."
Rory looked at the strap, the two men, then Dr. Lam. "Is this part of figuring out if something else made me smart?"
The general and Dr. Lam exchange a glance. Before either could speak, a familiar voice piped up in the background. "That's all my fault, sorry!"
Dr. Lam frowned. "What the..." She pulled back a nearby curtain, to reveal Vala perched on a stretcher.
"Hullo again," Vala said cheerfully.
Dr. Lam looked around at the tiny enclosed space. "How
did you get in here?"
"Vala," General Landry said in a tone of long suffering, "What did you tell her?"
"Well, it was a total accident," Vala said. "I thought
that since Daniel told me that Jack would have told McKay here--"
"Gilmore," Rory interjected.
"Yes, sorry, Gilmore." Vala waved away the interruption. "That you think the You-Know-Whats made her smarter because really, it's happened before. I didn't want her to get into trouble."
The general glared.
"Well, actually, because she didn't have proper security clearance, I didn't want me
to get into trouble." Vala smiled brilliantly. "See? It's all coming together now."
General Landry turned his back on Vala. "Doctors, Ms. Gilmore. Get to it."
Still grinning, Vala gave Rory the thumbs-up.
Dr. Lee waited until Rory was seated on the stretcher, then fitted the strap around her head. "This will measure your synaptic activity."
"Okay," Rory said, feeling rather ridiculous. "Is this it?"
"No," Dr. Lee said apologetically. He handed her a pile of papers. "We want you to look at these papers while we--"
"Measure the girth of her intellect?" Vala contributed.
"Determine how your brain activity changes as you work."
Rory took a deep breath against the growing panic in her head. She hadn't known there would be a test. She had only been working with mathematics and physics for a few months, and the previous day was the first time she had written anything down.
She refused to throw up. She'd made it through Chilton and Yale and community service and Mitchum Huntzberger, and she could make it through this.
At first, the numbers on the page made no sense, but then she blinked hard and concentrated, and comprehension came.
There were five research papers on seemingly disparate subjects, talking about theoretical physics and things that couldn't be verified through experimentation, like wormholes and intergalactic travel and thermodynamics and relativity.
Forgetting the strap around her head, forgetting her audience, Rory buried herself in the pages, in the numbers. She sorted the papers into order, chicken before egg before wormholes before intergalactic travel.
But... something was missing. Something necessary for the last paper to make any sense at all.
Reluctantly pulling herself free of the numbers, Rory looked up at Dr. Lee. "It's not here."
"What's not?" the man asked, apprehensive. Waiting. Hoping.
"Some glue to hold it all together. I mean, it works if you account for interstellar and intergalactic drift, and for the laws of thermodynamics and of power conservation..." Even as Rory spoke, a shiver of light danced across the page and Rory understood.
"The only way you could have arrived at these numbers in this last paper would be to somehow harness zero point energy."
Her words fell into the room like a stone in a pond.
"What?" Rory asked, confused. Everyone stared at her.
Everyone except Vala. The woman paused in dissecting what looked suspiciously like a Kinder Egg, and said, "Well, darling, that officially makes you the smartest person in the room."
What had she said?