He screamed. Or imagined he did because he didn't actually hear anything. Or feel anything beyond an overwhelming confusion of incoherent sensation. Hot, cold, hungry, purple -- it was all meaningless and he was drowning! Drowning!
Or suffocating. Because he was fairly certain he couldn't feel himself breathing, Not breathing, not seeing, not hearing, not... anything? Well, I'm still thinking, that's a plus. He would have laughed - maybe he did - if he'd had a voice. But it would have been a hysterical sound he was sure. Take stock, he ordered himself, You are a genius, start thinking stop reacting. Wait...
Was that light? Color? Had he seen something break through the nothing that wasn't even darkness? Was this what people who had never known sight sensed? An indefinable nothing that was neither dark nor white?
Something flashed. Behind him? Huh? I can see behind me? And was that a sound? "Sheppard" he wanted to yell, he meant to yell but without a voice there was no sound, no scream and besides John Sheppard, Ronon Dex and everyone else were trapped in an Ancient space observatory!
Again something somewhere flashed and something he thought might be sound and something else that might have been scent or taste or touch... But really weren't... And time had stopped or at least the sensation of it had. That was more certain than anything else he'd ever felt.
"Teyla! Teyla! Everyone else shut up!" John's scowl etched deep lines in his face.
Lights glared brightly. Air circulated, Ronon was over by the door that wouldn't respond to him even though a small blue light let them know it wasn't locked any more. "It won't open for me," Ronon reported, his voice controlled.
The voices had quieted, at once. John moved to the door and it opened at his demand without hesitation. "Teyla, are you all right?" he asked even as he passed into the hall. "We're coming to you. Everyone else stay where you are." He didn't jog down the hall, he ran, pulling out the lifesigns detector at the same time, Ronon and Delaney keeping pace with him.
"Sir," Morales interrupted, "As a field medi--"
"Yeah... Ok..." It was hard to talk and run at full speed through the curving hallway. He slowed to talk but didn't stop. "Corpsman. I'm sending Delaney back but you wait til he gets there then meet us --"
"It won't matter, Colonel," Teyla finally spoke again, her voice low and suffering; remorseful. "I am well but Dr. McKay is missing. A medical officer will not make any difference to either of us."
"Doesn't matter. Delaney, get back there." The Sergeant took off without waiting for further discussion. "Morales, meet us at the secondary bridge after he gets back to you. You know where it is?"
"Yes sir, Dr Shaltiel pulled up a site map."
"Good. Out." He and Ronon took off again. "Disappeared" could mean almost anything from totally incinerated to transported to another room. Only no lifesign other than the remaining seven showed on the detector, so it was unlikely that McKay was merely transported anywhere on board the observatory. That didn't leave very many possibilities and none that came immediately to mind were particularly encouraging.
In the few minutes it took for him and Ronon to get to the smaller bridge, several discouraging scenarios had played themselves out in his mind. The foremost was some kind of booby trap by the Wraith or Asurans. But he doubted either of those were aware of this platform. They passed through the short narrow tunnel and found Morales had gotten there just before them. He was taking the pulse and other vitals of an annoyed looking and reluctant Athosian.
"John! I am fine!"
"She probably is, Corpsman," the senior officer acknowledged.
"Yes sir, she is, but I hadn't anything else to do and it never hurts to be sure."
"Teyla, what happened exactly?" He watched as Ronon circled the room before coming to the enshrouded Chair and stopping.
"He connected his computer to the Ancient computer before sitting down in the Chair. He was anxious to free you and Ronon and the Sergeant and I believe he thought that he could do so using the Chair." She turned away to look back at the seemingly empty Ancient utility, making a futile gesture at it. "It trapped him but he was not concerned. The power was restored and you were freed. Before he could do anything else he suffered a moment of pain and shock, and then he... disappeared."
"No flash like the Daedelus' transporters." This was a statement not a question because Teyla would have recognized and reported a standard transporter effect.
Ronon was bent over til his face almost touched the encapsulating shell. "No residue inside there. He didn't burn up," he announced as he straightened. "Can't tell anything else, though."
Teyla was frowning. "Would not enough heat burn..." she hesitated, clearly choosing her words carefully, "...a person's body so that there is nothing left?"
Sheppard shook his head. "No. There's always some ash; it's not possible to convert all the material of an object to energy and that's what burning is doing." He'd known that even the one time Rodney had reminded him in irritated tones that implied this was something even a fourth grader should know.
"Entropy," Corpsman Morales muttered half to himself.
"Exactly," John replied. "So he had to have been transported somewhere."
Floating, sinking drifting... Or maybe not?
Adapt. I almost(?) ascended before in my own universe... universe... uni...verse,verse,verse...
Echo... Without sound? Am I an idiot! No sound but thoughts! Thoughts that were his and not-his and familiar and alien because not all of them were even him and not all of them were even human... Though none of them were Ancient.
Idiots all of the thoughts that were most like him and several that were not judged that species almost at the same moment. And yes, "moment" because he felt "before" and "after" or at the very least a definition of it and as long as he did that there was existence.
The drowning stopped. He wasn't breathing but then he didn't need to. He wasn't alive in the normal sense - in any sense - came 427 wry responses not all of whom were "him."
Now this is ascension, 221,239 thoughts blared as one.
As one. By the Gods we do not belong here! One of the notRodneys screamed in panic. That mind was simple and unstable, confused, afraid and how the hell had it gotten here anyway?
Hush, 53 other, gentler, minds responded. Hush. Think. Observe... Why am I - are we - am I I I I... here...?
Here where the rules of physics are not understood though surely they rule as elsewhere and the rules are the same even if the constants are not. Except here there are no constants that we know because those are for the universes with their stochastic eccentricities and their folded or not dimensions that are the fabric of the individual universes and...
It's music! Each strand of universes shares certain constants that are equal - or should be. Like a chord with harmonics, a specific wavelength blended with variable harmonics...
Each universe defined by a unique color-note-flavor-scent-texture... Mine and mine and mine and ... Ascension. The Ancients had no clue. Not if they were still stuck in their own tiny little Universe. One among countless - more than a googol-plex - universes that make up the Multiverse...
It all made sense now. Understanding made everything go suddenly clear, the flooding, drowning of panic evaporated. The twining strands of threaded universes floated - existed - wrapped, warped, bobbed gently in the nothingness of inter-universe not-vacuum. He/She/It - I - floated between all the universes. I was the inter-universe not-vacuum medium.
"What is this?" Sheppard walked over to the ever changing displays hanging above the single console dragging everyone's attention with him, even Ronon who hadn't stopped frowning at the seemingly empty Chair.
"Rodney brought it to life when he connected his own computer to it. He thought at first that he could free you using that console." She moved to stand beside him, following his gaze as it swept from the laptop display to the console's. "Do you understand what it is saying?"
Sheppard looked at her with a faint expression of surprise. "Isn't that Ancient?" He pointed to the scrolling lines of incomprehensible text on the console display. Rodney's laptop only showed dancing graphs that switched from one to another with headache inducing rapidity.
"It might be but it is not a form that I can read. Perhaps like those of your world they shared a text system for a multiplicity of languages."
"Colonel, Sheppard!" Zaikin's deeper voice vied for attention, apparently he'd found and reseated his earpiece. "Let us come and have a look. If Rodney's laptop is connected to the Ancient console there might be something Leah or I recognize."
"Have you checked to see if anything from this station is coming to yours?"
"We have," the Russian engineer replied, "and we find the two systems are in no way connected."
"They might as well be on different planets," his Israeli colleague added.
"Can you safely leave whatever it was Rodney had you doing?" Sheppard asked thoughtfully.
Soft whispers in a language he didn't understand floated over the radios. "They're arguing about it," Delaney reported in a voice that might have allowed for some amusement had the circumstances been different. "In French."
"Ok, look, Rodney's machine is not speaking English or Ancient. It's all graphs and spectra and whatnot --"
"Then it should be Valeri - Dr. Zaikin - who goes," Shaltiel decided with only the slightest hint of defeat. "I will take care of things here."
"Hold on!" Sheppard had more orders. "Dr. Zaikin will wait for Specialist Dex to come and escort him here." He nodded to the Satedan who immediately took off without a word.
"That is well," Zaikin acknowledged. "Will give us time to make some precautions-" Someone whispered something "-take some precautions with equipment."
The Æther of the Multiverse was aware, suddenly, inexplicably, impossibly aware... Of self. There was thought where before had been ... nothing. Existence was made all the more powerful and poignant because there was Self.
The universes of the multiverse remained unchanged and unaware, each made up of the fundamental principles of physics, each with its own characteristics, glow, tone, shade, nuance. History. Nothing for the Æther to appropriately become involved with - even if a large and noisy, whiny, conscience was trying to prompt otherwise. Æther next became aware of something that was not Æther but rather should have belonged inside one or more of the universes. Machine. Built rather than naturally formed. It was not aware but it was attempting communication. With the Æther.
Full Ascension. Complete abrogation of self. Plural. The Machine belonged to a people that existed in three forms in sixteen universes and yet had so devolved that they were incapable of understanding this Machine that their ancestors had built. One of those forms believed themselves either ascended or as gods to other beings of their universes. Make that fifteen universes - the last of the Ori in one of them just annihilated its species. Time moved in the universes even if it was only barely defined for the Æther. The Æther understood that all that made it sentient, aware, were the many souls - selfs - that the Machine had summoned and that had unilaterally, even single-mindedly, merged and completed the greatest Ascension. The Æther needed but the flash of a thought to consider and reject the idea of destroying the Ori and all the enemies of all its original forms. Such destruction could easily result in the destruction of entire universes and The Æther had no right to do that.
Instead the Æther swept its full attention to the Machine. The Machine, a merged product of 356,294,128 universes, was not in harmony. Out of all those universes, only 784,206 of them managed to create and deploy a stable product. That's an exceedingly small percentage and it meant that the merged product was dominated by the unstable machines. Because the instabilities of the majority of the machines were undamped the ensuing negative effects increased and the stable products became less and less able to adapt to these effects. The severity had finally reached a critical level and the Machine, both more and less than its designers anticipated, put out a call for creator intervention. Out of all those universes, only fifteen had any form of the builders still in existence and none of them had answered the call.
The Æther knew that it was the nature of systems to generally degrade and instabilities to grow and it was quite impressive that the Machine had lasted as it had done. In any case a decision was made.
The Æther was not at fault but it was responsible.
Valeri Zaikin was very fit but between the bulky pack on his back and the speed at which he and his escort, the long legged Ronon Dex, were hurrying, he found himself panting for breath, sweat plastering his thick blond curls to his scalp, and wondering if maybe he wasn't too old for this after all. Dex spared him a glance and slid to a stop just long enough to maneuver the pack off the scientist, drape it over one shoulder and resume their race.
"Gotta hurry," Dex rumbled as he picked up speed.
"I'm no good to Rodney - Dr. McKay - if I have coronary," Valeri grumbled back breathlessly, though in truth he wanted to hurry even faster. He actually liked Rodney, finding the younger scientist both brilliant and amusingly acerbic (aside from that one occasion he had been on the receiving end of his boss' ire). But even if he hadn't cared for him it would have gone against his principles to drag his feet when another was in danger.
Without a word, Dex let him catch his breath while they maneuvered their way through the last narrow corridor and Valeri was quietly grateful for that. Inside the small room, he spared a single curious glance for the enclosed Chair but went directly to the console and McKay's busy laptop. He studied it for a moment, hand to his chin unconsciously taking the classic pose of someone deep in thought. Dex moved back to peer through the translucent enclosing material while Colonel Sheppard forced himself to give the scientist some time to figure out some solution - or at least some answers - by not standing close and peering over his shoulder. He didn't take any more time to see what the other two people in the room were doing. "Telemetry, perhaps," he muttered to himself. He tapped a key. A small window popped up and he leaned forward, almost nose to monitor. His face lit up. "He has translation program running in background, I think." He typed in something and the window responded then disappeared and the rest of the windows suddenly displayed a dizzying array of data that at least used roman numerals. "These are telemetry. EEG, ECG, a few others. I do not know what are acceptable values, but given that there are values, he is clearly alive." He looked up at the anxious face of the American Air Force officer and added a somber and unhelpful, "Somewhere," that would forestall further questioning.
The Æther turned the fullness of its awareness on the wound that was the malfunctioning Machine, forcibly ripping it apart into its 356,294,128 versions fighting against the energy depleting resistance of this unnatural act and almost blindly shoving each broken or dormant splinter towards its own one of the 356,294,128 universes of origin.
John Sheppard felt his patience crashing against his resolve while he watched the engineer working, reading and frowning at the vibrant and dancing streams of words, numbers, and graphs flickering on McKay's laptop screen. He wanted to rejoice at the news that Rodney was still alive, but seeing that where the scientist was alive at was unknown still, prevented any sort of rejoicing. Although the sigh from Teyla told him she, at least, was hopeful. "None of that data tells you where he might be?" he directed to Zaikin.
The man looked up at him again. "Not reliably."
"Ok, and unreliably?"
"Not in our universe."
"A parallel universe?"
The man grimaced and closed his eyes as if in pain. "Not in any universe."
"Huh?" came from Ronon.
"I do not... Perhaps imagine that universes are like stars - no... crystals - embedded in their matrix. This is not actually correct but serves well enough as analogy. So apparently Rodney is also embedded in matrix." He winced again. It truly was a horrible and vastly wrong analogy.
"It is possible to exist outside a universe?" Teyla asked. She moved closer to the Chair tentatively resting her hand on the enclosing surface.
"I would not have thought it was," Zaikin replied.
"I don't care about theory, Doctor. Trace McKay's location from that telemetry." Sheppard gestured at the shifting images.
"I can't." The engineer shook his head. "It is not a signal I can follow. If I were less educated I would say it appears by magic."
Sheppard's reply was some sort of incomprehensible strangled sound that even he didn't feel like trying to figure out. Except some of it, at least, was angry frustration.
Before anyone could say anything else, however, a light whoosh of air being displaced preceded a breeze from the table side of the room where Corpsman Morales was standing. "What the --?"
Everyone turned abruptly toward the interruption only to stare at a mangled contraption sitting on one of the tables. It wasn't smoking; it wasn't dusty or dirty or scarred. It wasn't pretty either which made Sheppard wonder if it was truly a device of the Ancients despite the telltale crystals he could see through the open top. "Doc? You got any idea what that is?"
Zaikin turned to look at him, eyebrows raised, "I hope that is rhetorical question because I have not seen anything like it before."
The device made a sound like the engine of a car cooling after just being parked. Morales clutched his nine mil and took another step backward.
"Is it gonna explode?" Ronon asked as he aimed his blaster while everyone else stepped backwards as well.
Sheppard looked at Zaikin who shrugged. "It doesn't appear to be doing anything. Colonel, may I?" He reached for the life signs detector. The colonel handed it over without hesitation and merely watched the engineer make adjustments as Rodney often did to change what kinds of signals it would report on. It didn't take long and then he was shaking his head. "Whatever it was built to be it is nothing more than scrap now. Nothing working and no residual radiation - except some heat, probably frictional from being..." here he paused while his expression became vaguely unsettled, "...moved from wherever it was to here."
"So, it's not going to explode?" Ronon seemed disappointed.
"It is not going to explode," Zaikin assured him.
"Good." The blaster was swung back to its holster.
Teyla had not moved away from her position near the Chair but she had refocused her attention to the machine when it appeared. "Is it possible Rodney sent it to us?"
"I hope not; if it was meant to tell us where he is..." John shook his head morosely.
Zaikin had moved in to inspect the broken device but he looked up then. "It is not communications equipment. I do not recognize anything of this."
"How about if it were fixed?"
Zaikin sighed loudly. "I could try reconstructing it but without any knowledge my attempt is all guess work."
"Perhaps what it is, is less important than simply that it is," Teyla interrupted thoughtfully.
"What do you mean?" Sheppard asked.
"If Rodney sent this, then it is perhaps a sign that he knows how to come back to us."
Every one of the universes accepted the intrusion and all aspect of the Machine was gone leaving The Æther completely alone with itself. The first to be split from the Whole was the one being that didn't belong, the one for whom the journey had created nothing more than terror. It was the 53 minds which had elected to support that one which sent it back to its home.
I could remain. That thought shattered the wholeness into the individuals that had comprised it; hundreds of thousands of thoughts flew in all directions, careening into each other and quickly becoming a miasma of nonsense. There was little control and that was hard won. 46,203 of the minds were sufficiently advanced to effect some control over their own and a few others' trajectories. It was a hard battle against panic and resistance getting each mind back to the correct Universe.
A thought that was Rodney felt himself flung away from the miasma.
Blind, deaf and numb. Rodney couldn't even hear himself breathe. Maybe he wasn't breathing. Maybe he hadn't been cast back into his Universe after all, but was still floating in the matrix between Universes. Something sharp pressed against him making him aware of his arm which had just been skewered and, alien voices that told him, no, he wasn't between universes, but neither was he in his own Universe.
He screamed but no recognizable sound issued forth.
To Act III