Learning To Breathe
Author's Notes: This story was inspired by a piece of Resonant's story Resolution that was left on the cutting room floor, though there's no direct connection between that story and this one. This story also has a second part, or more accurately a companion piece, but this first part was posted to sga_flashfic for the City Challenge on sga_flashfic. This story has also helped me discover my real SGA OTP: John/Atlantis.
Thanks to shalott, resonant, Terri, and most especially Merry for beta!
The moment he sets foot on Atlantis, he knows he is home. Everything is familiar, perfectly calibrated to his internal senses and his aesthetic taste. He sees his own profound shock mirrored on the faces of everyone around him, and for a while he deludes himself into thinking that he has finally found his tribe.
The city tells him that there used to be thousands like him—roaming the streets, living in the towers, their every touch electric, making panels thirsty for power glow with delight. But now he's the only one, and the city loves him. The city whispers softly in his ears, making promises, begging for attention. The city hums along the wires in its walls, singing its need of him, taking such joy in him.
Sometimes he presses his palm to the walls and becomes part of the song. The wall lights up in colors he's never seen before— shades of milky white and fleshy peach. The vibrations pulse through his fingers, up his arm, down his torso, making him hard. He closes his eyes and listens to the city's hushed negotiations: what it can give, what it wants in return. This should sound wrong, should sound alien, but it doesn't; his whole life, he has been a key without a lock.
The bargain seems reasonable; the city has so much it can do for its inhabitants, a million functions just waiting for the careless touch of a hand. But these systems had been designed at a time when the city had been lit up by a million casual touches and offhand caresses. Atlantis had been blissed out with power, and had sung its song low and sweet, underpinning everything. Now, there are only two hands, and even if he runs down the corridors trailing his hands along the walls, it isn't enough; he can't touch all the things that want to be touched.
Worse yet, the city is knotted with jealousy, functions warring against each other, systems thwarted and fighting for his touch. The city has turned against itself, like a body with cancer. It's crumbling—operations derailing, no shields, no weapons, no organic generation—as it slowly dies of starvation, skin-hungry.
He knows all about being touch-starved. His mother kissed him twice a year: once at the start of his year at Harfield Military Academy and once at the term's end. He sympathizes on an almost cellular level, and so it is easy to let the city lead him down—through corridors no one has walked through for thousands of years, through doors that no one else can open.
He likes the look of the chair. It's similar to the other control chairs he's seen except—bigger, and more alien. There are symbols arching around the chair's high back, and he understands them, even though he can't translate the language. Beloved of the City, Keeper of the Key. Except that's wrong; the Beloved doesn't keep the key: he is the key. He brushes the seat of the chair with his fingers and it explodes in light, nearly blinding him with the urgency of its yearning. His fingertips come away covered in a chalky powder. Bone, he thinks; the remains of the last beloved to occupy the chair.
Slowly, thoughtfully, he rubs his fingers together, then casually brushes the rest of the dust off the seat. A person with the gene can do no more than this, no less than this. It is a far, far better something, something—he can't quite remember, it's all gone fuzzy, but the fact is that there is nothing a key can do when confronted with a lock but slide in.
He gasps, and it's better than he hoped it would be. He's surrounded by light, pulsing through him, igniting his every brain cell, every nerve from his toes to his fingertips. He's instantly, achingly hard. He flexes his index finger, and the neurons in his brain blaze and he knows that the entire south pier of the city has just come online, consoles flashing, discreet panels sliding open and disgorging machinery, subatomic equalizers suddenly connecting to organic particle replicators, creating four thousand new protein structures to be integrated vis a vis the nanotechnical ulti-positioner system into ppma, sts, lts, and especially prist, with a_atom containing the orthogonal coordinates of molecule a, and a_atom_b containing the occupancies and atom names from the input file a_atom_z which is created by o and—
His second to last coherent human thought is that Rodney will be so pleased. He wonders if Rodney will connect the sudden flowering of the city to his disappearance, and guess that this bounty is due to the presence of an Atlantean in the Keeper's Chair.
Except that's wrong. He's not an Atlantean. Not anymore.
His last coherent thought: He is Atlantis.
0X00485A7C5938 SYSTEM CLEANUP 0X00485A7C5939 RECALIBRATION 0X00485A7C593A EPOCH ENDS 0X000000000000 EPOCH RESET 0X000000000001 INTEGRATION BEGINS 0X0000000000AC INTEGRATION COMPLETE 0X0000000000AD BEGINNING PRELIMINARY STATUS CHECK * * * 0X00000001522D PRELIMINARY STATUS CHECK COMPLETE 0X00000001522E BEGINNING INITIALIZATION OF PRIORITY SYSTEMS 0X000000015234 NUTRITION GENERATION: INITIALIZED 0X000000015239 NUTRITION GENERATION: CHECK 0X000000015257 CONSTRUCTION: INITIALIZED 0X00000001525E CONSTRUCTION: CHECK 0X000000015262 MEDICAL SYSTEMS: INITIALIZED * * * 0x000000278D06 HS224.24.11 ACTIVATES HALL OF CULTURE 0x000000278D09 HALL OF CULTURE: INITIALIZED 0x000000278D25 HALL OF CULTURE: CHECK 0x000000278D39 ENDING INITIALIZATION OF TERTIARY SYSTEM 0x000000278D3F STATUS NORMAL * * * 0x0000004F1A23 STATUS NORMAL 0x0000004F1A29 MEDICAL EMERGENCY HS998.34.34 0x0000004F1A2F DEPLOY MEDICAL UNIT AFF54.43 0x0000004F1A31 MEDICAL EMERGENCY RESOLVED 0x0000004F1A38 STATUS NORMAL 0x0000004F1A3E STATUS NORMAL * * * 0x00000076A768 STATUS NORMAL 0x00000076A769 STATUS NORMAL 0x00000076A76A STATUS NORMAL 0x00000076A76B STATUS NORMAL 0x00000076A76C STATUS NORMAL 0x00000076A76D STATUS NORMAL * * * 0x0000009E3970 SYSTEM ALERT: *RODNEY MCKAY* VULNERABLE 0x0000009E3971 DEPLOY INTERCEPT AGENT 4LV 22 0x0000009E397A DEPLOY DEFENSIVE AGENT 990.04 /*RODNEY MCKAY* 0x0000009E3988 AGENT 990.04 ACTIVATED/*RODNEY MCKAY* 0x0000009E398E *RODNEY MCKAY* TRANSPORTED TO GRID 4.55EC 0x0000009E3990 WEAPONS AGENT 779.99 ACTIVATED 0x0000009E399D TARGET DESTROYED: TARGET DESTROYED 0x0000009E39A0 STATUS NORMAL * * * 0x000000C5C100 SYSTEM FAILURE: MAINTENANCE 0x000000C5C104 SYSTEM FAILURE: WASTE 0x000000C5C10B SYSTEM FAILURE: NUTRITIONAL 0x000000C5C11D SYSTEM FAILURE: MEDICAL 0x000000C5C13F SYSTEM FAILURE: TRANSPORTATION 0x000000C5C14A SYSTEM FAILURE: WEAPONS
When he opens his eyes it's like breaking the surface, except he's grown gills, he can't breathe, he has no lungs. They're ripping the neurons out of his brain.
A thousand lightbulbs pop on the east side of the city, showering the passing pedestrians with broken glass. The sweepers are released, but they ignore their pre-programmed routines and go careening down the corridors, causing panic, sending people running in terror, before smashing into the consoles, overheating, and popping with an audible hiss. Some get wedged with a crunch in the mechanical doors, and people wince at the sound of grinding polymers. The organic molecule duplicators begin vomiting chunky brown mush onto the dinner plates of the waiting diners, and the holographic dancers at the Hall of Culture flicker and vanish.
Worst of all, the shields are buckling and collapsing, and he supposes there's a very good chance that one of the negative polarity inducers might accidentally detonate. It's all crumbling down and he's lost power on his entire west side, and the central corridor has gone numb, and the circuits in his left leg aren't—he isn't—it isn't—
He opens his—what. Eyes. His eyes.—and sees Rodney McKay's pale and frightened face. Behind him are HS442.23.21 and HS101.119.06 and several others, but they hang back, staring at him with wide eyes. Rodney is knee-deep in wires, ripping coaxial cables out of the city's—the western— the chair's—his—his—
Gritting his teeth and ripping the cables out of him one by one, and this is clearly a grueling task, like hacking through a forest with a machete, but Rodney is grabbing and yanking the wires with his thickly gloved hands, ignoring the faint smell of electrical smoke and the white hot danger of the wires.
Rodney pauses for a moment to catch his breath, then looks up and his face changes. "Oh my god," he says, and then: "Can you hear me?"
"Yes," he croaks, and he's already anticipating the next questions: "Are you all right?" and "How do you feel?" as if feelings were ever worth a good goddamn to him or to anyone else.
But Rodney surprises him, and it comes flooding back to him, how Rodney always surprised him. "Not like this," Rodney says firmly, fixing him with a look—but he's nervous, that much is obvious. Maybe even scared. "Not like this, okay? There'll be another way—we're not like them. You're not like them. We don't do this. We don't make this trade," and then Rodney goes grimly back to work pulling him from the wires.
For a moment he's paralyzed by the shock of it, the trauma of learning to breathe again—and then he catches Rodney's sense of urgency and wants out, out, out, and tears wires out of his dead-white chest, his belly, his thighs. With a shriek of loss, the chair releases him, wires going thin and brittle like the dying branches of a plant. He feels like crying a little, because this hurts in so many ways—and then Rodney pulls out the last of the wires, and with a sob of relief, John falls forward into the circle of his arms.