As much as Rodney was glad that the expedition had re-connected with Earth, had valuable support and an invaluable lifeline, there were some things about Earth that Rodney had not missed while during that first year. Internet memes and viral videos were something he was glad they had done without. Their absence, coupled with the ongoing threat of the Wraith, had kept his scientists hardworking and much more productive. Now the weekly databurst was packed full of important Stargate Program updates (How we’re scraping by in the struggle against the Ori or Ba’al has more clones), invaluable collaborative data (To: Rodney; From: Sam Carter; Re: Okay, maybe that’s not an entirely stupid hypothesis), affectionate support from home (drawings of flying ponies from Madison that were not noticeably improving but had increasingly unique color schemes), and the latest in time-sucking Internet memes.
Rodney, who’d spent a ridiculous amount of time in an alien cell while John failed to lawyer and Woolsey only vaguely lawyered better (and finally won with a bribe), was not much interested in swapping memes, which took up valuable internal server space and wasted time.
“The next person I catch looking at a cat wanting a cheeseburger or anything similar will suffer from cold showers for the entirety of the rest of their tenure here on Atlantis, which may very well be short anyway,” he said when he heard Kusanagi giggle.
She sobered immediately.
“Cheeseburgers are bad for cats,” Lorne said absently. He was sitting beside Rodney’s bench, waiting to do his time as a human light switch, and flipping through emails on his datapad. It looked like he was triaging requisition forms again, some to sign himself, others to send on to John.
All gene-carrying soldiers with a strong-enough gene expression - usually the natural carriers - had been assigned to a rotation as human light switches. It was part of Dr. Murase’s new plan to keep the stress off of John, who was usually called upon first for his Supergene; to force the soldiers to take some down time; and to encourage the soldiers and scientists to spend more time with each other.
Rodney knew that the soldiers and scientists would die for each other in a heartbeat, but that didn’t mean they liked each other. Rodney didn’t mind Lorne, though. He was a good soldier, did what was best for Atlantis, and helped make John’s life easier so John could spend more time with Rodney, which was a win for everyone, because Rodney got his best ideas in bed.
While he’d been pretty peeved that Lorne had gotten drunk one night and kissed John, he’d understood that something with Lorne was...off. Also that was over a year ago, and Lorne had kept Rodney sane during that cave-in after a building fell on them, and then he’d been shipped back to Earth to recover from his broken leg, and even though that was all months ago too, Keller was still peeved at how much peril Lorne got into on a regular basis, so she was supportive of Lorne taking it easy now and again to make sure his leg healed right. Rodney was pretty sure that Lorne’s time on Earth had been good for him - spending time in California, hanging out with family. He’d even brought Rodney the ingredients he needed to continue to simulate the tropical aroma of cocoa butter for his homemade sunscreen, so Rodney figured everything with Lorne was peachy. Teyla didn’t seem too concerned about Lorne (and she always noticed when something was up with him first) and John wasn’t reporting any more concerns from Lorne’s gate team, so Rodney knew Lorne was fine.
Sure, the man was a sharp marksman, and he looked bored as hell at the prospect of spending a day in the lab being told to think it on, but he didn’t look dangerous or unhinged or anything, so him being a light switch for a day was a perfectly sound idea.
Keller and Murase would have noticed if something was wrong with Lorne, right? Not that Keller wasn’t sucking face with Ronon in her spare time and Murase and Kusanagi didn’t have some intensely homosocial friendship going on.
“Ready, Major?” Rodney asked.
Lorne set down his data pad and attempted to look attentive. “Hit me with your best shot, Doc.”
Rodney held out the device he wanted Lorne to initiate. The entire expedition was very wary about experimenting on anything found in Janus’s secret lab, but Rodney and Zelenka had worked hard to establish a testing protocol, and this device had been cleared for testing.
“Turn it on, Major.”
Lorne held out his hand, paused, raised his eyebrows at Rodney. “What’s the magic word, Doc?”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Turn it on please.”
Lorne grinned and said, “Actually, it’s Fiat lux,” and the device blazed to light.
“That’s two words,” Rodney protested, but already he was fumbling for the scanner to take energy readings. “Keep it on so I can try to figure out what it’s for.”
Lorne’s grin dimmed, and he said, “It’s a memory capture device.”
Rodney, staring at the readings on the scanner, frowned. “How do you know?”
“Because,” Lorne said, “it’s trying to access my memories.”
Rodney swore. “Shut it down.”
“I - I can’t.” Lorne’s brow furrowed, and sweat beaded on his brow. “I -”
Rodney reached for the device and thought, as hard as he could, Off.
All the color drained out of Lorne’s face, and his gaze went distant, like he was lost in thought.
Lost in memory.
Rodney tapped his radio. “John, get in here now. I need your Gene. Kusanagi!”
She was at his side in an instant. “Yes?”
“You’re a natural gene carrier. Help me try to turn this off,” Rodney said.
Kusanagi reached toward the device and furrowed her brow. Rodney did the same, thinking, Off!
Light began to flare from the device, and Rodney had to squint, it was so bright. It was - images. Lots of images. A riot of color and motion and sound and -
In the background, a man began to sing.
Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy
You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die
Let me die
Let him live
Bring him home -
Rodney snarled, “Connard! Ta gueule! C’est des conneries! Now is not the time to be playing that damn meme video!”
Dr. Guillot made a strangled noise.
“No one’s playing the video,” Zelenka protested.
John came skidding into the lab. “What the hell is going on? Lorne? Major!”
Dr. Guillot, who’d recovered from her shock at Rodney’s cursing, was at Lorne’s side. “I think he’s catatonic.”
“We can’t turn the device off,” Kusanagi protested.
John leveled a glare at the thing, and the lights and the colors and the voice vanished immediately.
Lorne came back to himself, inhaling sharply.
“He needs to go to the infirmary now,” Rodney said.
“Zelenka,” John snapped, “secure the device, take it back to Janus’s lab.” He tapped his radio and ordered two Marines to escort Zelenka to Janus’s lab and stand guard on it, rotating shifts of four hours, all from Williams’s battalion, until further notice. While he issued orders, he helped Lorne to his feet, and Rodney got his other side. Together, they helped him out of the lab and into the nearest transporter.
When they got to the infirmary, Keller was waiting for them. Nurses took over and helped Lorne onto a cot while Rodney explained what had happened to him. Keller ordered her nurses to start arranging for some tests, and she shooed John and Rodney out of the infirmary.
“What now?” John asked.
“Now, we go look at the device some more and see if we can’t give Keller more information about what it did to Lorne.” Rodney led John to the transporter. “He said it was some kind of memory capture device.”
“Do you think it copied his memories or stole them or what?”
“If it stole them, the loss of that damn meme video won’t be missed,” Rodney muttered.
“What meme video?” John asked.
“Everyone’s been passing it around. It’s a song from that musical about the French Revolution. I’m sure the song was moving on the first listen, but after hearing it come from every single laptop on Atlantis, I’m damn sick of it,” Rodney said.
John frowned. “Show me this video.”
“No one’s actually sent it to me,” Rodney began.
“I want to see it.”
“Just ask anyone with a laptop.”
They paused by the main lab, and Rodney asked Kusanagi to show them the video.
“But you said -” she protested.
“John hasn’t seen it yet,” Rodney said.
Kusanagi, flinching like she was afraid Rodney was going to yell at her, opened up her email and found the video attachment. She opened it. It was a YouTube video someone had downloaded.
It had one of those ridiculous titles, Teenage boy begins to sing, and listeners are totally blown away, and Rodney rolled his eyes, but at John’s urging, Kusanagi pressed play.
The video had been filmed in a garage, of all places. There was a fancy, shiny black car with the hood propped open, and a pair of legs sticking out from beneath it.
“What are you doing?” a little girl asked.
John cocked his head at the sound of her voice, eyes narrowed.
“I’m fixing your dad’s car,” came the muffled reply.
“So he can drive it.”
“Mechanics fix cars.”
“I’m a mechanic.”
“I thought you were my daddy’s secretary.”
“No, I’m your dad’s personal assistant. It’s not quite the same thing. But before I was a personal assistant, I was a mechanic, so I’m fixing your car so your dad doesn’t have to wait around while it’s in a shop.”
“You should sing for me.” The little girl making the video had surprisingly steady hands with her camera.
“I’m fixing the car right now.”
“I want to send a pretty song to Uncle John.”
“Pretty sure your Uncle John doesn’t like my kind of singing.”
“He’s a soldier. You should do something nice for him.”
Rodney was always baffled at child logic, especially in the times when it seemed that it was unassailable.
“Even if I did sing, how would he hear the song? You’re recording it on your phone.”
“I’m gonna email it to him,” the little girl said.
There was a pause, and then the erstwhile mechanic slid out from under the car, narrowed his eyes at the camera. He was young, but certainly not a teenager, maybe twenty. “You can do that?”
“Yeah. He sends us an email once a week. Daddy says he’s far away, so it takes a long time for stuff to come across the Internet.”
“Okay,” the boy said. “Let me just get this filter back in place, and then I’ll sing for you.” He slid back under the car. “Is there a special song you want me to sing?”
“Something in English,” said the little girl. “Uncle John only speaks English.”
“I thought he also spoke French, like your dad.”
“Maybe,” the girl conceded. “But sing in English.”
“Did you pick a song?”
“I think I have one.”
“I met your grandfather once, and he said he liked this one song.”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Are you done with the filter?”
“What about now?”
“What about now?”
“Almost...done!” The boy slid back out from under the car, dragged his wrist across his brow. Then he stood up, shook out his limbs. “All right, Uncle John, this is for you and all the men and women serving with you. Come home safe.” He took a couple of deep breaths, then said, “Count me in, Miss Anna.”
While the little girl did the whole a-one, a-two, a-one two three four Rodney watched the boy transform, square his shoulders, lift his chin, inhale deeply.
And all right, when he sang, he had a pretty impressive voice, especially for a skinny kid wearing grease-stained overalls. Rodney might have suspected the video was some kind of fake-out, only he saw a door open in the background, a woman in a maid outfit step into the garage, and she paused when she saw what was going on. There was no background music, but the song was lovely. It was a prayer of sorts, a man praying for God to let some young soldier make it home alive. Rodney thought it was a little ironic, that so young a kid was singing this song for the little girl’s Uncle John, who was probably older than him.
The song ended, and then the maid said, “Miss Anna, you must hurry, or you will be late for school.”
“Thanks, Mister Jonathan,” the little girl said, and the video tilted sideways before it finally cut out.
John wet his lips, stared at the final frame of the video. “And this video has gone viral on base?”
“A lot of the soldiers really liked it,” Kusanagi said in a small voice.
“Has Lorne seen it?” John asked.
“He must have,” Rodney said. “It was in his memories.”
John said, “Let’s go to Janus’s lab and check.”
“Why?” Rodney asked.
John lifted his chin at Kusanagi. “Can you make sure Lorne doesn’t see that video for now?”
“Isolate it on the servers and pass a message on to medical.” John grabbed Rodney’s shoulder and towed him toward the door. “Let’s go.”
“You saw what that machine did to Lorne,” Rodney protested. “You can’t go turning it on willy-nilly.” But the followed John into the transporter and out of the transporter and past the Marines into Janus’s lab, where Zelenka was fretting over the device.
John fired it up with a thought, and Zelenka spluttered as images danced in the air, single frames like frozen videos. Memories, Rodney realized. Many of them from Atlantis, some from the SGC, some from what Rodney guessed were alien planets, some from places Rodney didn’t recognize. John’s brow was furrowed.
“What are you doing?” Zelenka asked.
John reached up and swiped through the air - and the images moved. John manipulated the images, searching, until he happened upon one that was completely dark. Blank. Only John drew his hand back, and Rodney heard that voice, that song.
Only...the song was softer, hushed.
God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there…
Lorne’s voice broke in. “Do you believe in God?”
The singing paused, and then the voice from the video said, “I was raised a good Irish Catholic boy.”
Rodney frowned, confused.
John said, “Zelenka, you’re dismissed.”
“But -” Zelenka began.
Rodney shot him a look, shook his head, and Zelenka slunk out, grumbling under his breath.
In the background, the blind memory was still playing.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” the boy said.
“I like listening to you sing.” Lorne sounded happy, sleepy. The memory had no image because Lorne’s eyes were closed.
“Go back to sleep, Evan.”
“Don’t be sad,” Lorne murmured. “I’ll always come home.”
The boy began to sing again, and then the memory faded, likely as Lorne fell back asleep.
John shut down the device with a dismissive flick of his hand.
Rodney swallowed. “Was that what I think it was?”
“What did you think it was?” John asked in a low voice.
“Major Lorne in bed with that kid from the video,” Rodney said. The kid was young, yes, but pretty clearly legal. Rodney wasn’t going to judge too much. Kid was attractive enough. “Why don’t you want him to see the video? No one could possibly know about Lorne and that kid. Right? We’re the only ones who saw this memory.”
“Remember how Lorne was all messed up after we took back Atlantis a couple of years ago?” John asked.
“Yeah, but - oh. Was it over that kid?”
John nodded grimly. “If he wants to watch the video on his own, fine, but if he happens across it while he’s out and about -”
Rodney tapped on his radio. “Kusanagi, where are you on isolating that damned video?”
“McKay, it’s not good,” she said. “I mean, I have the video mostly isolated, but -”
John tilted his head ever so slightly, like he did when a transmission was coming in over his radio. “Medical, now.” He spun on his heel and stormed out of the lab, shouting, “Lock this place down!” to the Marines as he went.
Rodney hurried after him. When then they got to the infirmary, Murase, Keller, Marie, Ronon, and a couple of nurses were standing around Lorne’s cot. He had his knees curled to his chest and his face buried in his arms, and he was crying. His entire body was shaking, and he was emitting tiny, agonized sobs, each one dragged from his throat.
“What happened?” John demanded.
The two young nurses eyed each other, and then one, wearing an Australian patch on her jacket, said, “I thought it might cheer him up.”
“What?” John asked, but Rodney already knew.
“The video everyone’s been sharing around,” the nurse said. “You know, pretty song, prayer for a soldier. So I gave him my data pad and showed it to him and he just -” She gestured at him helplessly.
“He won’t talk to us,” Murase said, lips pressed into a thin line. “The stress of everything lately must be too much. Keller doesn’t think he needs a sedative, but obviously he needs to be stood down until we can identify the source of the problem and treat him appropriately.”
“He’s right here,” Keller snapped.
“What are you doing here?” Rodney asked Ronon.
Ronon turned slightly so Rodney could see the bandage on his arm. “Sparring,” he explained. “I hadn’t seen the video. I was curious.” He looked at John. “Did you know about it?”
“I haven’t checked my email today yet,” John admitted. “Usually I wait till Lorne sorts through the junk and -”
“He didn’t know,” Ronon said. “That the video was for you.”
“You?” Rodney echoed.
“Anna,” John said softly, “is one of my nieces.” Ronon had met some of John’s family when he’d accompanied John to Earth for his father’s funeral.
Lorne lifted his head. His eyes were red and puffy and his face was wet and he looked awful. “You knew? You’ve known where he is all this time? I -” He buried his face against his knees and sobbed some more.
John turned to Keller. “Did any of the tests reveal anything wrong with Lorne?”
“Not from his interaction with the device, no,” she said, “but he’s obviously -”
John reached out, tugged on Lorne’s elbow. “Come with me.”
Lorne curled in tighter on himself, sobbed harder.
John gestured. “Ronon, get him. Rodney, help Ronon. I’ll clear a path to his quarters. I don’t want anyone else to see him like this.” He rounded on Keller and her staff. “Tell no one about this, understand?”
“He needs treatment,” Murase insisted.
“I’ll handle this.” John dashed out of the infirmary. Ronon hoisted Lorne, still sobbing, to his feet, and Rodney tucked up against his other side, supporting him. Together, the three of them made it out into the hallway, which was magically empty of people, and they took the nearest transporter to the Air Force living quarters, shuffled Lorne into his room where John was already waiting.
Ronon and Rodney lowered Lorne onto his bed, where he curled into a little ball and rolled so his back was to them. Rodney had been wrong. Lorne wasn’t fine. He’d been an inch from breaking this entire time, and he’d held onto that inch tooth and nail.
“Do you still need me?” Ronon asked, eyeing Lorne warily.
Lorne had stopped crying. Rodney wondered if he was still breathing.
John shook his head. “No. Thank you. And -”
“I won’t tell anyone.” Ronon ducked out of Lorne’s quarters.
“What about me?” Rodney asked.
John stood gazing down at Lorne, studying him.
Rodney wasn’t sure he wanted to leave, because apparently mopey Lorne tried to kiss John to make himself feel better, but John said, “Go. Lorne and I need to talk.”
“Are you sure?”
“Promise I won’t kiss him again,” Lorne muttered.
“You know that video wasn’t for me,” John said. “It was for you. Jonathan’s a smart kid.”
Lorne said, “You know where he is.”
“Since I went home for my father’s funeral.”
“And you brought me back that -”
Rodney took his chance and slipped out of Lorne’s quarters, headed back to the lab. But it was moot, because he had no human light switch, and his thoughts were everywhere. Eventually he retreated to Janus’s lab with his laptop - the Marines took one look at him and stood aside without question - and he watched that stupid viral video over and over again. He stared at the boy, Jonathan, and listened to the nuances in his voice (the way it wavered, ever so slightly, on the line if God had granted me a son), and studied his expression, and wondered what he and Lorne had with each other, that one song could make Lorne come undone.
Rodney thought of what he had with John, and how he’d felt whenever John had gone missing, for even an hour or a day or that time he’d been gone for a couple of weeks, and realized he understood Lorne better than he ever thought he could.