John opens his eyes into a dazzle of light that, strangely enough, doesn't hurt at all.
"Oh, good, Colonel, you're awake," says the man holding the light, and switches it off. "How do you feel?"
John looks over his shoulder to see who he's talking to, but there's nothing behind him but the pillows of the bed he's on. He must've misunderstood him. Guy's got a Scottish accent. "Fine," he says, and it's true—in fact, he feels great, like the atmosphere is suddenly the right pressure again—"but—"
"Tell me your name."
"Second Lieutenant John Sheppard, United States Air Force." He only needs to say it a few more times to make it seem real. Maybe a few more thousand times, just to be safe.
Scottish Guy blinks. "What's the date?"
He frowns. It's a little hard to come up with. "The 27th?"
"And where are you?"
"The Academy, I think," he squints around at the big, high-ceilinged room full of beds and weird-looking equipment, "except this doesn't look like the cadet clinic."
The guy sighs and taps at his cheek. John notices he's wearing some kind of slim earpiece. "Doctor Weir," he says, "we may have a small problem."
The Scottish guy and an excitable guy are having an argument one bed over. "You said you were sure it was a bioscanner!"
Excitable guy—McKay—threw up his hands. "That didn't give you carte blanche to start pointing it at people and pressing the button without warning them, Carson!"
"It was just a wee test!"
"John," the older woman by his bed—Doctor Weir—says to him, drawing his attention back, "you really don't remember anything since May 1992?"
She looks disconcerted. "...Ma'am?"
He smiles. "I kinda got the impression you're in charge." Why he's taking orders directly from a civilian is a mystery, but she seems cool enough.
The frown line between her eyes resolves into a return smile. "That's what they tell me."
"So, ma'am...how much am I missing?"
She clasps her hands in front of her. "Well, it's a long story. I'm not sure how to tell you this. Just try to understand that, no matter how strange it seems—"
"Oh, for heaven's sake." McKay dives neatly from one conversation to the adjacent one without missing a beat. "You're a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, stationed on a base called Atlantis located on a planet in the Pegasus Galaxy. We're here on a classified mission of scientific discovery, investigating advanced technology left behind by an alien race called the Ancients. Most of the people in this galaxy are really annoying, and it's your job to keep them off our backs. End of line."
John stares at him, and then looks back at Doctor Weir. "Is he serious, ma'am?"
Her eyes sparkle for a second, then she regains her composure. "Yes. Yes, he is."
"The last thing I remember is graduating from the Academy. Now I'm in charge of an top-secret outer-space expedition?"
She nods and puts out a hand. "I know it's a little disturbing—"
"I'm Buck Rogers." He drops his head back on the pillow, grinning up at the ceiling. And they said he'd never get past captain. Boy, if only Major Sweeney could see him now. "Sweet."
McKay makes an exasperated noise. "You could've at least picked someone with a little dignity. Next you'll be calling yourself Starbuck."
"Starbuck was a wimp. Do I have a spaceship?"
"Well...only little ones. You call them puddlejumpers. I wanted to call them gateships, but, oh, no, no one listens to—"
"How about a robot?"
He can hear McKay rolling his eyes. "No."
John raises a finger. How could he have forgotten the most important thing? "Hot alien babe girlfriend. I've gotta have one of those, right?"
McKay snorts. "'One?'"
"Rodney," Weir says warningly, but she's fighting to keep a straight face.
Another woman comes into the infirmary. She's a good bit younger than Weir, with copper skin and longish brown hair. She's wearing a midriff-baring shirt and BDU pants and toting a sidearm, and the effect is damn near pornographic. She shoots a worried look in their direction, and when she sees he's up, she smiles with obvious relief. "Colonel Sheppard," she says, "I'm glad you are awake."
Hot alien babe girlfriend, check. John gives her his very best smile. "Me, too."
This, he thinks, could not possibly get any more awesome.
Actually, it turns out, it could.
A couple of hours later, discharged from the infirmary until they can figure out what to do with him, he's following McKay down a corridor of the city. Not the city. The Alien City He Is Practically In Charge Of. Everything's smooth, warm-toned, following geometric patterns like Art Deco run wild, and the halls seem to be flooded with music, some tune just beyond the range of his hearing. He's grinning, practically bouncing as he goes. He glances at a door as he goes by, wondering what's behind it, and to his shock, it slides open, revealing a storage closet.
That seems to be full of boxes of breakfast cereal. Whatever. The details aren't important. "McKay! Did I just—"
McKay stops. "Yes. Much of the technology of this city was designed to be responsive to mental control. Through an inexplicable stroke of luck, you turn out to have the gene that allows that control. More than many people who could make much better use of it, I might add."
"Cool." He's got psychic powers, too? It just keeps getting better. Now that he's aware of it, he can feel the flicker in his mind, like a modulation in that deep tune. He looks up, and the lights switch on and off. On and off. He goes for a disco strobe effect. "Very cool."
"I can't wait to hear your report on the bathrooms," McKay says dryly.
John decides he doesn't like his attitude, and when McKay walks past a water fountain, John tries asking it a personal favor. The water squirts out, drenching McKay's shirt. "Hey!" McKay squawks. "I'm wasting valuable lab time playing tour guide, and you, you ungrateful hooligan—I should leave you to find your own way around!"
McKay looks super-stressed, way more than a simple squirting should cause, and John pats his shoulder. "I'm sorry, I just...how do you ever get used to how amazing this place is?"
McKay's expression softens. He's got a funny face, twisting and turning and shifting every minute. "You don't, actually. This is the greatest opportunity of my life, or it would be, if it weren't for—"
"For all the cretins who insist on wasting my time." They start off down the hall again.
That's a little strange, but there are more important things to go into right now. "So, tell me. How am I doing with that girl?"
Rodney chokes. "That girl? You mean Teyla?"
"Well, not that Doctor Weir isn't smoking, but I kinda prefer a woman with a P-90. So what's the score there?"
Now Rodney's flushing. "I know more about more esoteric subjects than you can possibly dream of, Colonel, but your love life, thank God, is not one of my fields of study."
"Come on! We're on the same team, aren't we?"
"Yes. The operative word is 'team.' Not 'slumber party.'" He points to a door. "Look, here are your quarters. Try not to break anything or make anything explode. Someone will come back to take you to dinner." He turns.
"Wait, where are you going?" He could mess with McKay for at least another hour without getting bored.
"Back to the lab, to figure out how to reverse what that device did to your brain."
"Well, if you gotta."
"Yes," Rodney says, looking harassed. "I really 'gotta.'" He puts air quotes around the last word and practically runs away.
John's relieved to see that he's still pretty cool despite being in his thirties. Guitar, surfboard, football, even a pair of long sticks that look like they're for kung-fu—all the comforts of home. He picks up the guitar, strums a couple Zep chords, and his fingers feel a bit stiff, but not too much.
Speaking of being in his thirties...he goes into the bathroom and peers into the mirror. Everything checks out. Apparently hairstyle regs don't apply when you run your own base in another galaxy. He rakes his fingers through his hair and grins at himself. It's good to be king.
He comes back out into the bedroom. The Evil Knievel picture is by his bed, but there aren't any others lying around. One book—War and Peace? Must be trying to impress Weir or something. There's a slim computer on his desk that looks like one of those new laptop things. He opens drawers at random: office supplies, ammo, no letters or pictures. The effect is all a little sparse. Well, he probably couldn't bring much stuff with him. Still, it's kind of strange. It's not like he expected to marry Julie, but Dad—
The voice outside his door is definitely a woman's. He leans strategically on a chair. "Come in!"
The door slides open, and it's Teyla. "How are you feeling?"
"Better since you showed up."
He smiles at her, and she returns the smile, but not as brightly. "Would you care to come spar with me? It is our habit, and the familiar activity may help jog your memory."
He may possibly have the best life ever.
It turns out that "sparring" is secret alien babe code for "getting your ass kicked." He's flat on his back in the room they call the gym, with the sun right in his eyes, and Teyla's stick pressed into his throat.
For the fifth time in five tries. Maybe he should've paid a little more attention in hand-to-hand combat training. Though it might not have helped. This girl is good. Moves like she doesn't have to think about it at all, practically floats across the floor until it's time to slam you with all her momentum. She's breathing faster now, wisps of hair tumbling down towards her strong bare shoulders.
"So," he says, half-strangled, "do you do this with all the guys?"
"I train many members of the offworld teams," she says, shifting the stick away and reaching down to help him up. "Men and women."
"And we're on the same team."
"Yes. I am a trader, familiar with a great number of the cultures of this galaxy, so I assist the team in exploration. We have seen many battles together."
She looks at him curiously. "Do you really remember none of this?"
"Believe me, I wish I did."
Something flickers over her face, but then it's gone and she's smiling, a smile that somehow makes her more distant. She lifts the stick again. "Another pass."
This time, she gets him in a clinch on his knees. When he catches his breath, he looks up back at her and says, "Am I always this bad?"
"You have...many other concerns that cut into your practice time."
She releases him, but he doesn't move. He can feel the warmth of her stomach against his back. After a minute, she steps away, and he falls backward, against her knees. "Ow."
"I am not easily distracted, Colonel Sheppard. You will not find that tactic successful." She extends a hand to him. After a minute to rub his wounded dignity, he accepts it. "Again."
Colonel Sheppard has all those other concerns to worry about. Right now, he has nothing better to do than get knocked down by a girl who totally isn't falling for his routine, a girl who maybe no routine in the world would work on. He shrugs, smiles, and lifts his stick. Aim high.
"Wait a minute," John says, looking at the screen, "those are the Wraith?"
Doctor Weir nods.
"You're telling me the enemy is a death metal band?"
There's no smile in her eyes this time. "They're extremely dangerous, John. They've ruled this galaxy for ten thousand years. They nearly destroyed Atlantis itself."
"If you say so." For the first time, he's starting to wonder if he really might be dreaming. "Just—how do people take them seriously?"
"You do," she says softly, and something in her tone grabs his attention. "You're the one—"
She pulls the tablet back towards herself. "It's not important now."
For a second, she looks a lot like the way Dad looked the time John got Mom to play tag with him and she started having trouble breathing and had to go to the ER. He doesn't ask.
"Are you sure you're cleared for this?" Major Lorne asks as the ceiling irises open and John takes the puddlejumper up.
"I think Doctor Weir is trying to keep me out of trouble."
Lorne doesn't say anything, but his expression gives a lot away. John has to give him credit; he's obviously a quality smartass.
"What, giving me a heavily-armed spaceship to play with isn't a good way to keep me out of trouble?"
"Something like that, sir."
Apparently his reputation hasn't gotten any better in the last ten years. "You know, if they just let me fly, there would never be any trouble."
John rolls his eyes and squints at the heads-up display, trying to pick up the details. "Also, I think she was trying to keep me away from that Colonel Caldwell. Not sure why."
"Caldwell's after your job."
John decides he likes Lorne after all. He can handle a little attitude if there's loyalty along with it. "How fast can this thing go, anyway?"
"I don't really know—"
The ocean suddenly shoots away beneath them, clouds streaking past their windows. John can't believe the display; it says they're going about Mach 5, but it hardly feels like they're pulling a single G. It's freedom, clear and pure and distilled into their arc through the blue. For a second, he can't even get his breath.
Then he starts to wonder what else this baby can do.
"Strapped in, Major?"
He can pick up Lorne's sudden alarm just from the corner of his eye. "Yes, sir."
The loop is so easy he decides to try for a corkscrew. It stretches on and on—the jumper doesn't seem to be complaining, and the inertial dampeners work so well that he's hardly even dizzy. Just disoriented enough to feel crazy, feel loose, feel all the happiness of the past day shake out and fill the inside of his head.
Major Lorne is making strangled noises, though, and eventually John takes pity on him and eases back out onto the level. "Whoo-hoo!"
Lorne is staring at him. Come on. Like he's not going to say whoo-hoo the first time he flies a spaceship.
"...I'm guessing I'm the kind of CO who doesn't say 'whoo-hoo' very often."
"No, sir. You're a little more..."
He thinks of the Johnny Cash poster in his room. "Brooding? Mysterious?"
"I was going to say laconic."
"Uh-huh." He looks down at a clump of seaweed on the surface of the ocean. His fingers are itching. "Am I the kind of CO who randomly blows up stuff in a wasteful display of firepower?"
"No, sir. You blow up a lot of stuff, but it's usually on purpose."
"Darn," John sighs, and only strafes it once.
He does need the practice, after all.
John can't sleep that night. He's afraid he'll wake up with a single gold bar on his sleeve. Or possibly in one of those places with the green walls where everyone wears bathrobes all day. Doctor Weir had asked him not to wander around, but he figures it's not wandering if he knows where he's going. Or, at least, where he's trying to go. It only takes him half an hour to find his destination.
The labs are dim, full of weird organic-looking machinery that chirps and hums and glowing computer screens. Several whiteboards are covered over with feverish-looking math that John wrinkles his nose at for a minute before turning away. McKay is sitting at one of the benches in a pool of a light from a lamp, leaning his forehead against his hand as he stares at a laptop. He looks tired. He sighs and mutters something impatient-sounding, then taps at his keyboard.
"Hey," John says.
McKay jumps out of his chair, scrabbling at the laptop. "What the—oh. Don't do that! I'm hypertensive! You'll give me a heart attack!"
"You're up late."
"Thank you for noticing."
"What're you doing?"
"Trying to get the questionably valuable contents of your brain out of this—" he points to the translucent blue rectangle attached to the laptop—"back into your head."
"My memories are in that thing?" John swings himself onto the bench and peers down at it. It pulses softly with an eerie light.
"Get down from there, you'll break something. Yes, I think it's designed to capture and store memories for later uploading. We've seen technology a little like it before."
"So I'm backed up. Cool."
"No," Rodney says irritably, "not cool. The device seems to have been intended for short-term use only. If we don't figure out how to reverse the process fairly quickly, your memories might be lost forever."
"Oh." He waits a minute before asking. "Would that really be so bad?"
"Of course. They'd give Colonel Caldwell your job, which would be intolerable, and they'd send you back to Earth, and I—that is, I mean, you'd hate it. Eventually."
He mutters the last couple of sentences quickly, looking hard at the screen, and something dawns on John, fitting comfortably into a blank spot in the picture that had been bothering him.
"Wait a minute." He points at McKay. "We're buddies, aren't we? You like me."
McKay huffs unconvincingly. "We're colleagues. I tolerate you."
"I've only known you a day, McKay, and I can already tell you're a terrible liar. You think I'm cool."
McKay scowls at him. "For certain very restricted values of 'cool,' maybe—"
"I knew it. Wow, I haven't had a nerd for a friend since ninth grade."
"I can't tell you how touched I am to hear that," McKay mutters.
John grins. "You should be. Rodney."
Rodney flushes and clears his throat. "While you're here. I want you to try something. You've been putting me off and putting me off."
Rodney goes to another bench and retrieves an amber egg-shaped device with a screen wrapped around its center bulge. "We think it's a weather-prediction device of some kind, but we can't seem to get it to work." He holds it out to John.
"I can't imagine why I didn't want to spend a lot of time trying to turn on a barometer," John says, but accepts it. Nothing happens. "What do I do?"
"Weather! Rain. Snow. Sleet."
"Wow, you can really tell you're Canadian."
"Fine, a shiny happy summer day, bunnies skipping through the flowers, Old Glory waving in the breeze, and all—"
The egg lights up, projecting the image of a globe from the end John's holding up. It looks...a lot like what you'd see on the evening news, really. "Great. Join the Air Force, travel to another galaxy, become Willard Scott."
"No, wait. Try thinking...look, there's Atlantis." Rodney points. "Try thinking about rain now."
There was a low rumble. The windows at the far end of the lab are suddenly swept with raindrops.
"Holy cow," John says, and nearly drops the egg. "I did that?"
Rodney crows. "I knew it!"
"Let me try..." and the rain becomes hail. He laughs. "Do you have any idea how useful a weapon this could be?"
Rodney's eyes gleam in triumph. "And Zelenka said it couldn't be—"
Both of them turn. Teyla is standing in the doorway. There's a cut on her cheek, and she looks tired and determined.
"I acquired the crystals." She offers McKay a wooden box.
"It's about time," Rodney says, coming over to take them from her. "What took you so long?"
McKay opens the box and peers in. "Some of these are broken! What did you do, juggle with them?"
"Hey." John slides off the bench. "I'm sure she did the best she—"
"The Aristera changed their mind," she says. "They thought they would keep both the crystals and our antibiotics. I had to persuade them otherwise."
Looking at the grim set of her mouth, John has no difficulty believing she could.
"Well, next time, try doing it with less roughhousing. I'll be lucky if these can even help pinpoint the location of the data in the memory-drive, much less extract it."
Her eyes narrow further. "The next time we are surrounded by heavily-armed bandits trying to rob us," she snaps, "I will ask them to be more gentle about it."
Rodney squints at her. "What's with you?"
Teyla's mouth gets grimmer as she looks at John and the globe, then back at Rodney. "Is this really how you think Colonel Sheppard would want you to be spending your time?" she asks, low and angry.
"What, the weather-control device?" Rodney looks puzzled.
"We were just goofing around," John offers.
"Exactly," she says, but not to him. "How can you, when you know what he—" She cuts herself off. "Excuse me."
John looks at Rodney after she goes, feeling a prickle along the back of his neck. "What was that all about?"
Rodney is staring after her. "I don't know. She's usually very..."
"Do I go talk to her?"
He raises his hands. "I don't know whether you two mind-meld or what, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know. But I'd better..." He looks guiltily at the box. "I'd better get back to work on this."
It takes a little while to find Teyla's room. He stands outside the door awkwardly. There's no buzzer. "Um. Can I come in?"
The door opens. Teyla is sitting on her bed, very straight, breathing deep.
"Hey," he says, stepping inside. "I came to apologize." He tilts his head, careful to keep the anxiety out of his voice. "Though it would help if I knew what I was apologizing for."
She sighs. "There is no need for you to apologize, Colonel. I should not have lost my temper."
Okay, so she's not going to tell him what's bothering her. It can't just be that John's missing a few memories. "Well, Rodney was being kind of obnoxious."
"That is Doctor McKay's way. It is useless to be provoked by it."
"Still, he shouldn't have. You did get hurt going after those crystals for me," he says. "Have you seen your face?"
She raises a hand and touches it briefly, dismissively. "A minor injury, I am sure."
"You got a first-aid kit in here?"
She gives him an appraising look, then says, "In the bathroom."
He finds the box of bandaids and the antiseptic. When he comes out, she is standing by the curtained window, staring thoughtfully into the distance.
She turns back to him, and he dabs awkwardly at her cheek with a cotton pad.
"I'm not stupid, you know," he says, conversationally, as he works. "I know there are things you guys aren't telling me." She starts to say something, but he lifts his hand. "No, it's okay, I get it. I'm having a good time, you didn't want to dump it all on me if you didn't have to."
She looks at him, waiting, as he peels away the backing from the bandaid.
"But whatever my problems are, I have to say, I've got a pretty good life here. Intergalactic base—which, by the way, is never going to stop being cool. Spaceships. What seem to be some okay, if admittedly a little weird, friends."
He smoothes the bandaid over her cheek.
"Not to mention that I get to spend a lot of time with this really amazing girl."
"Hang on. I get the feeling that I may not have said this to you before. I don't always do that when I should." And he'll probably chicken out if he has to think about it. No wonder he doesn't usually do things this way. "But you're awesome. I like you. A lot. And I'm sure no matter what I remember later, I'll still feel the same way."
He drops his hand back to her cheek and kisses her. He can feel her holding back for a second, but then she returns it, lips parting to let his tongue slide in. This close, she smells mostly of sweat and antiseptic, but he likes it, the way it contrasts with the softness of her lips and her skin; he can feel her warmth close to him. When he curls his other arm around her waist to draw her closer, though, she breaks the kiss and steps back. He raises his eyebrows at her.
"I cannot take anything from you you would not give with your memories intact," she says quietly.
"I'm willing to—"
"I am not." She smiles to soften it. "You will understand in time."
"Uh-huh." He looks at his feet. "I guess I'd better..."
"Yes. You should. But thank you for coming to check on me."
"Are you going to be okay?"
Her smile turns a little sad, like he's touched some memory. "Of course."
When the door shuts behind him, he rubs his eyes. He could go back to the lab. He could wander around some more unsupervised. He could...
He goes back to his room to get his fighting sticks.
The light still doesn't hurt his eyes. "Colonel?"
"Yes," John says wearily, "it's me."
It's not really like living it all over again, all the crappy memories, more like having weight after weight drop on him in rapid succession. He holds himself still under it all. After a while, he becomes aware that Carson is still talking.
"Do you remember what happened right before you lost your memories?"
"Yes. I came into the infirmary to ask about when Lieutenant Sindh would be cleared for duty, and you just pointed that thing at me. Not cool, Carson."
Carson flushes, but asks him questions about his past for a good five minutes. "...And how did I save your life when you were infected with the retrovirus?"
"You made something really gross out of insect larvae. Are we done?"
He nods. "All right, I think you're clear."
"Wonderful, Carson. Just wonderful. So I can go?"
Actually, he's sort of hoping there's some excuse for him to just lie there for a while, but Carson nods again. "If you promise me you'll report back the second you have any symptoms of anything at all."
"All right." He gets up. Might as well get it over with.
Teyla is doing a barefoot routine on the balance beam in the gym, moving with apparently effortless poise. When she sees him, she goes into a handstand to a dismount, landing in front of him. "Colonel." She cocks her head. "It is the lieutenant colonel, is it not?"
"Yep, that's me. I remember everything down to the kind of jello they served for dinner two days ago."
"I am glad to hear it." She reaches for a towel. "Though I did not dislike your younger self."
"Yeah. That younger self. I was a bit more...impulsive back then."
"Yes, indeed. I am told you engaged in some aerobatic manuevers that gave Major Lorne his first grey hairs."
"Uh-huh." He hesitates. "I can see how a woman might humor a guy like Lieutenant Sheppard. He was...well, you know. Naive. Goofy. And—he thought—charming."
"He was," she says, and her smile is indulgent.
Fine. That's what he needed to know. "So thanks for putting up with him. I've got a lot of paperwork to do—I'll catch up with you later."
He heads for the door. It makes no sense to be any more heavy-hearted over the situation now than before, but on top of the recovered memories, it's a bit much.
It's stupid to resent yourself. He'll have to work on that.
"Colonel Sheppard." He stops, but doesn't turn around. "As...sweet...as I found your younger self, I much prefer you as you are now."
Now he looks back over his shoulder at her. She doesn't have a smile for him, but her expression is surprisingly unguarded. Her eyes are...soft. "Really?"
"He was a boy, John," she says gently. "For the last two years, I have served alongside a man."
"So there's hope for me yet, huh."
She lifts her chin, but keeps meeting his eyes. "There may well be."
"Good to know."
His smile as he turns away is a little crooked, but it's real. It's a distant echo of the feeling of doing corkscrews in the sky.
Some things aren't going to stop being cool.