"I'm no expert, but I think we're… we seem to be… uh… dead."
McKay tilted his head to one side. His hands moved, one touching his chest, the other twitching outwards. "Oh."
Sheppard turned away from the quiet fascination of his own corpse. "Oh? That seems uncharacteristically… unwordy of you."
"Yeah." McKay nodded slowly. "I wonder why." His hands flickered again, as if they contained all the words that his voice could not express, but were unsure how to convey them.
Sheppard walked to the nearest slab. Keller sat beside it, her head bowed, crying alone. "Why's she crying over you?" McKay asked.
"You're jealous!" He touched her shoulder, and although to him the contact felt entirely real, she showed no signs of feeling it. "I think she's crying over both of us," honesty - or perhaps the strangeness of the situation - made him add. Not long after, she stood up, wiped her eyes, and left the morgue, her face blank and composed, her back rigid. Sheppard watched her go, but felt nothing.
McKay had moved to stand over his own body. "I wonder what I died of in the end."
It was like looking into a mirror, but seeing death looking back at you. Sheppard kept his back towards his own corpse, and looked at the twin McKays, one pale on the slab, and one bending over him. "Too much self-esteem," he said. "Your big head toppled you over, and you were gone. It was a tragedy waiting to happen."
"Oh, ha ha." After a moment, McKay pointed his finger aloft in sudden triumph. "I remember how you died. It was ignominious, Colonel. Ignominious. Death by kitten…"
"It was not a kitten." It had been cute, though. And lost. And so very tactile. Ronon had grunted something heartless about stew. Teyla had been uninterested - and weren't women supposed to dissolve into pools of mush when presented with cute baby animals? Maybe that was where he'd been going wrong at College. "Besides, that was just the start. It escalated."
"Yes, yes. The sort of escalation that goes by way of embarrassing injury, pauses on the way to take in some killer roses…"
"They didn't look poisonous."
"…goes by ways too ridiculous to mention right now - I'll save those up for when you're being particularly insufferable - and ends up with you dead in a pool with alien water-lilies entwined in your cold, dead fingers. Oh! Do you think I jumped in to save you? Did I give my life for yours? I always knew I'd die a hero. Take that, nay-sayers."
"You were part of the escalation, Rodney. In fact, one could say that you killed me. Who's ignominious now, huh?"
"It wasn't as if there was a sign saying 'Don't touch the button'. Why did they leave it lying around if they didn't want…? Hey!" He slapped at Sheppard's hand. That, at least, connected. "What're you doing? Stop it!"
Sheppard swatted him again. "Just making sure you're not a ghost."
McKay rolled his eyes. "Oh my God. It's like being back in kindergarten." He prodded Sheppard on the shoulder, then ruffled his hair. "Nope. Totally corporeal, thank you very much. And I don't see a harp or a halo, so I don't think…"
"Wings would be cool." Sheppard twisted to look at his back, but met just the expected disappointment. "Don't think much of haloes. It's like having a 'shoot here' sign on your head - all that glowing…"
"Trust you to bring it round to fighting." McKay spread his hands as if talking to an idiot. "I hate to break it to you, but angels don't generally serve in combat zones, colonel. They're there to… sing, and… and… sing, not join the special forces. People don't shoot them."
"But wings..." Sheppard was lost in fantasy. Handsome white feathers, and of course he'd need well-developed shoulder muscles to work them. Chicks would love that. It would be like flying in a jumper, but a hundred times better - not just a machine reading your mind, but out there yourself, at one with the air, wheeling and turning…
"…and people on the ground would be able to see up your robes." McKay had evidently been talking for a while. "Not that angels are real. Of course not. But if they were… And someone's got to puncture your ridiculous fantasies."
The almost-memory of flying was slow to leave him. The door opened then, and Ronon and Teyla came in. Teyla's eyes were shining with tears, and Ronon had pulled everything inside himself, in a way that Sheppard recognised from his own mirror. Two steps into the room, the façade shattered. Smashing his hand into an empty slab, Ronon fell heavily to his knees, threw back his head, and screamed silently. All this was silent: Keller's crying, their footsteps, Ronon's grief, and the words that Teyla was saying, her lips moving while tears poured down her cheeks.
"I should feel more," McKay said quietly.
"Yes." Sheppard nodded slowly.
"Maybe this is Heaven," McKay said, when they were gone. It had taken them a long time. "We can see all this, but… but… Nothing hurts any more."
"No. More like Hell." The silence between them took on an edge, so he elbowed McKay in the ribs. "I'm stuck here with you, aren't I?"
Doors no longer opened to them. Although they could touch things - or, at least, feel the sensation in their fingers that made it seem as if they were touching things - nothing responded. The only touch that was real was when they touched each other.
They could move through Atlantis, but only by following one of the living, slipping through doors before they closed on them. McKay seemed to have made it his goal to visit every single inhabited room.
"I'm looking for others," he admitted, when Sheppard asked him why. "If we're here - and I don't think we even died here, or, at least, you didn't, and aren't people supposed to haunt the places where they died, or so the stories say, not that I believe such things…"
"You have a point, Rodney?"
"Yes. Ah. Well." McKay's hands were uncharacteristically still. "Then where are the others? I thought there might be… you know… uh… Carson."
Reasoning didn't seem to come easily when you were dead. The day before, they had stood and waited for nearly an hour for someone to let them through one door that McKay was insistent that he had to go through now. Sheppard had spent the whole time gazing out of the window, dreaming about flying with white feathered wings that were part of himself, an extension of his soul. He had come back only near the end, and wondered dimly where they were. Then came the quick ghosting of his hand over McKay's sleeve - oh, excellent choice of words, John - to remind him that he was still here. What are we doing? He had fought the urge to ask it.
"Maybe…" He tried it now, frowning. Teasing McKay came easily enough, but something seemed to be blocking deeper thought. "Maybe it's the gene." People with the gene get called home. Atlantis welcomes her children.
"No. No. That won't do, colonel. Carson had the gene. And why isn't this place riddled with floating Ancients?"
"Maybe it is, but we can't see them." Perhaps you drifted away as time passed, and lived in a plane entirely your own. Teyla, Ronon and the others had no idea that they were still here. There could be ghosts…
McKay swatted Sheppard on the shoulder. "Hey! What was that for?" Sheppard grumbled. Outrage was easier, but he knew the real reason, of course.
They never found anyone else, though. Or, if they did, they could not see them.
"Not many people get to watch their own funeral."
"Why, aren't we special? We're joining the happy ranks of the uniquely messed-up, living in a world of wrong. Believe me, this is one honour I'd quite happily miss out on."
The ceremony was held in the jumper bay. "Which isn't at all fair, really," McKay said. "It makes sense for you - hot-shot pilot, never happy unless he's pulling ridiculous stunts, which I always did think had a tendency towards grandstanding, now you ask - but me… It would be far more fitting to say their final farewells in the place where I've done my greatest work - the place where my memory will live on."
"The mess hall?"
"Oh, aren't you the comedian? Death hasn't made you any more pleasant, I see."
In front of them, as they talked, the crowd stood with bowed heads. Colonel Carter was addressing them, but of course they could not hear what she was saying. Their whole world was silent, except for the sound of each other's voices.
"Perhaps we should be… uh…" McKay flapped his hand in quick circles, looking for a word.
"Quiet?" Sheppard finished for him. "It's a hard word. Qui-et. Do you know what it means?"
"Very funny. You can't be mean to me; I'm dead." McKay folded his arms, with the air of someone who'd come up with an unanswerable argument.
"Excuse me? Dead man here, too. I think that exempts me from the whole 'don't speak ill of the dead' thing."
It was Teyla's turn to speak. Sheppard watched her, but felt only the faintest curiosity about what she was saying. She looked older, her eyes shadowed with grief.
"There isn't a dry eye in the house," McKay said, as Teyla's lips moved, saying something else. "I bet they're talking about me now. When people stop crying, that's when we'll know they've moved on to you. The galaxy - no, two galaxies - will find it hard to recover from my death."
Teyla looked broken. Ronon looked worse, although he showed it in more subtle ways. Carter was composed, but he saw the fear in her eyes. Zelenka seemed devastated. Keller looked lost - a young woman trying to take up the mantle of a dead man, and watching as person after person slipped away. But then the jumper spoke of flight, and he slipped away on his dreams. His only anchor back to the world was McKay, and the swift combat with words that made him feel as if he was still alive.
"I think I should care more," McKay was saying. "And, yes, don't say it. I'm not the person you'd expect to…to say something like that. Heartless McKay." He twisted his hands. "I used to be like this. I'd make people cry, and it didn't mean anything."
After Carson, after Elizabeth, after Ronon had nearly left, after the dreams, Sheppard had spoken even less about the things that kept him awake at night. He had seen too much of himself in that dream, and he had no desire to see that again.
"But you're counting, aren't you?" he said. "Admit it. You're counting the number of people who are crying over you."
"So what if I am?"
Afterwards, they watched the crowd walk away, but a surprising number lingered, weeping. Sheppard felt something begin to twist deep inside him - a pain as subtle and silver as a slender knife.
Things started to change after that. One morning, by assiduous following, they made it as far as the control room, where McKay pressed buttons, grinning like a deranged child. "I just put the city into lock-down. I just cut off the water supply. I just made all the computers in the city…"
"McKay," Sheppard said warningly, but he remembered sitting in his first plane, aged six, playing with all the controls, and pretending that they were responding, and that he was flying.
McKay let out a breath. His arms drifted to his side. "None of it's real." His hand curled slowly into a fist. "I could type the greatest proof known to man, and the computer would just sit there with a blank screen and a winking cursor, and no-one would know." He slammed his fist into the control panel, and although he winced as if the blow had impacted, there was no sound, and no change to the pattern of lights.
They were still there in the control room when Ronon and Teyla entered below, each with packs on their backs. They said a few words to Carter, then went through the Gate.
"Where?" McKay was calling. "Where've they gone?"
Sheppard raced down the steps, his feet touching yet not touching the ground. Before the wormhole disengaged, he hurled himself at the Gate, and blue surrounded him for a moment, then faded away, and he was cast up on the shore of harsh reality, back where he had started.
"Have they gone?" The words were McKay's, but, inside, the knife grew keener. "Gone for ever? Left? Because we're dead?" McKay looked distressed rather than gratified. "Where have they gone?" He screeched at Carter, who gazed at the Gate for a moment longer, then turned and walked away, hearing nothing. "Where have they gone?"
Nothing. There was just nothing.
They touched each other - hand on sleeve, hand on back - because sometimes you just needed to know that some things you did had an impact. Sheppard felt as if his life was drawn on a thin sheet of film, that was placed on top of the rich pattern of the real life, but could never interact with it. The knife twisted even harder.
And then - or not really 'then', because several days passed in the strange netherworld of not-quite-caring - the Gate activated with an explosion of silence. Sirens were blaring, though he heard none of them. People were shouting, their mouths opening and shutting urgently, and men - his men - raced into position, weapons raised and ready. A team stumbled through, two of them firing backwards, and the third supporting the fourth.
That fourth man died, not long afterwards. Corporal Atkinson, young, earnest and eager. No ghost arose from his body. He lay on the slab, just dead. Sheppard had watched him collapse in the Gate Room, but had been unable to do a single thing. He had watched him fight for his life in the infirmary, but Lorne, not Sheppard, had sat by his bedside and spoken encouraging words. Sheppard had watched him die. The man just slipped away in a moment when no-one else was near him. The medics came running in response to alarms that Sheppard had been unable to hear, but the only person who had seen Atkinson die was a dead man himself, unable to be seen.
"I've had a thought," McKay said sometime afterwards, with little of the triumph that would usually accompany such a statement. "Maybe we aren't dead."
Sheppard gave a bitter laugh. The knife was in to the hilt, now. Ronon and Teyla were gone, and his own men were dying, and he remembered all the signs of their grieving - scenes he had watched unmoved, while joking with McKay. If Heaven was watching terrible things without being touched by then, then they had just been cast out of Heaven. Then he tried to remember things he had been told long before about Purgatory. Things changed. Was this a moving on?
"Maybe it's a… uh… a… dream." McKay's hands were active again, as if he was writing the words on the air. "My sister used to write stories like that when she was young - flying horses and talking squirrels and the like. 'And then they woke up, and found that it was all just a dream.' That's how they usually ended. Maybe it's like… well, like that, with us. There's no whales, though. No evil you. Oh!" He peered down at his feet, and tapped his heels together. "There's no place like home. There's no place like home."
"You're no Dorothy, McKay." He gave half a smile.
"You're the scarecrow. No brain." McKay said it vaguely, his mind already moving on. "Maybe we've somehow ended up in some parallel universe, and it wasn't really us in the morgue, but Rod -" He said the name with distaste. "- and that Mensa version of you, and we're just here, watching it… and it'll be hard for them to get us back, without me there to do the thinking, but Radek's cleverer than he looks… Granted, there's no precedent for it, but give me some time with a computer, and… But, oh, I forget. Can I use a computer? No. Because this universe seems to be working on the idea that I'm not fully corporeal, which is quite plainly ridiculous, because I can touch you - and that's not my idea of a perfect existence, by the way, Colonel, being in a world where I can't do my work, but you're there all the time. It's like torture, really… Oh! Yes! Yes yes yes yes!"
"Torture! Maybe we're drugged and this is some hideous torture vision thing, to make us reveal secrets… We won't talk, you monsters! Do your worst, because we won't betray our friends." He tilted his head, listening. "Well, it was worth a try. It might be some sort of moral test, or… or… punishment."
"Punishment? We're back to the Hell thing again?"
"No. No." McKay flapped his hand impatiently. "Higher being. Ancient. Something like that. They're doing it to us, or there's some device… Maybe this is some virtual environment like on the Aurora… though they ended up dead, so it's not heartening. I mean, think about it… Death by kitten… Not even you could die in such a ridiculous fashion in real life. Maybe this is all in the warped mind of some Ancient… Oh no. What did you do, colonel? What did you touch? Or, knowing you, who did you touch – someone's sister, perhaps? Or maybe… Maybe we're being punished for…" His shoulders slumped. "I don't know. Emotional distance, or something."
"Now you sound like Heightmeyer," he said, but the knife couldn't twist any further.
"I know. Caring, sharing higher beings who want us to share, or appreciate what we've got." He grimaced with disgust.
"Beats being dead, I suppose."
"Yes." McKay nodded. "Yes, it does." He brought both hands up in a gesture that reminded Sheppard suddenly of Zelenka; he wondered which of them had picked it up from the other. "Not that any of this is any use. I can't do anything."
Sheppard wondered why McKay had been so slow to question this reality. But it was nothing strange, really. They had both watched their friends mourn for them, and felt nothing but detached interest. "You seem more like the Rodney McKay I know and…" The cliché almost slipped from his tongue. "Always questioning. Refusing to accept…"
"And you look like the old, familiar Sheppard," McKay said. "I saw that look on your face, after… after Corporal Whatisname."
"Atkinson." Sheppard didn't ask McKay to explain what he meant.
"Yes, yes. The thing is: what are we doing to do about it? Or what am I going to do about it, since it always ends up falling to me to save your sorry ass?"
The door opened, and they both turned towards the sudden light. Carter and Keller entered, and stood looking down at Atkinson. There were no tears, not this time. Carter looked a little more frozen each time he saw her, emotions driven inside by the burden of command.
"Much as I hate to say it," McKay said, "Sam might be able to help. She has a good mind. Not my standard, of course, but…" He nodded several times.
"I hate to point out the obvious," Sheppard said, "but she can't see us."
"I know. Genius, remember?" He said it with no real force, as if it was just habit, now. "We can try, though. It works in the movies."
Sheppard touched her shoulder. As always, it felt as if he was touching her, but she clearly could not feel it. Always before, though, the touches had been experimental. This time - as with Atkinson, but only too late, then - he willed her to feel it. I'm sorry, he thought. You've only been here for weeks, but we've gone and died on you. She wasn't Elizabeth, but she was good and she was competent, and she had been landed with a very difficult situation, and had handled it far better than anyone could have hoped for. And then she seemed to become Ronon, to become Teyla, to become Atkinson, and Lorne, and everyone who had mourned for them, while he had watched, unfeeling. I'm sorry, he thought. I'm so sorry.
"Is isn't working," Rodney hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "But I'm touching Sam Carter. I'm not even hallucinating this time. At least, I don't think I am. Maybe it's all a hallucination." His other hand rose to his head. "Is there blood? Can you see blood?"
Sheppard shook his head. Perhaps it didn't matter why they were here. Whether they were drugged, hallucinating, or in a parallel universe; whether they were being tested, or whether they were truly dead - ghosts trapped in the city, and unable to move on… Perhaps what mattered was reaching out - not just watching, but trying to get involved. Perhaps that would allow them to move on. To Heaven? his mind wondered, and he didn't dismiss the thought anything like as readily as he would have dismissed it just weeks before. Or perhaps just to rest, and a last goodbye.
Carter stood up to go, and he embraced her, holding her tight even as she slipped from his arms as if he wasn't there. Her lips moved, and he still couldn't hear even the slightest whisper of sound emerge from them.
"We've failed," McKay said, but Sheppard smiled, for he was not so sure. The knife twisted in exquisite pain, and then was gone, and in its place was light.
It swallowed him; consumed everything. He hung there, suspended, and in his dreams he flew above the ocean, soaring high even to the stars. He saw each star, and they saw him. Each one added to the burden of white light, but eventually even the light began to fade, and he drifted down into the arms of cool water, lapped by it, even as the world turned dark. There were voices in the darkness, though, and he knew - perhaps for the first time ever, he knew - that some things were better even than flying, alone in the blue.
He opened his eyes an eternity later, to see a place of cool green, and although the darkness was gone, the voices still lapped around him, some too distant to hear, and some speaking discernible words. One of them spoke his name.