Prompt: Artificial Intelligence
Word Count: ~13,500
Rating: PG for minor language
Summary: "It's a dog," Rodney said. "For all intents and purposes."
Author's Note: Thank you to lunasky and quasar273 for wonderful, fast betas.
The first time Rodney noticed something was wrong was after the mission to PX4-629.
It had been a long boring day with nothing to show for it, unless you counted the incipient sunburn he could feel lurking under the top layer of his skin, waiting to burst forth in a rose-hued glory. Sheppard, the louse, hadn't been burnt at all despite his reliance on military-issue sun-block instead of Rodney's special mix.
When they'd finally gotten back to Atlantis, Rodney had been exhausted from chasing phantom power signatures all over the godforsaken desert. All he'd wanted to do was take a bath in aloe and go to bed, but Sheppard had suggested a game of chess, and then had studiously ignored the incredulous expression on Rodney‘s face.
He knew Sheppard never ignored one of his expressions when he could make fun of it, so Rodney played chess.
It wasn't odd that he'd let Sheppard influence him into doing something he would rather not, of course. And it wasn't odd that they played chess together; they'd been doing that about once a week since their old Game had proved a little too real. What was odd was that Rodney had won. Twice.
At first he'd thought the statistics were finally averaging out. After all, Rodney was a genius. If Sheppard generally won seven out of every ten games it was either a mathematical anomaly or Sheppard was some kind of freak chess savant. Or both.
That night Sheppard had seemed tired, though, and off his game. So when he began setting up the pieces for a third match, Rodney reluctantly passed up the opportunity to nudge his win count back toward the statistical mean, and stood to go.
"Oh," Sheppard said after a long moment, rubbing his eyes. "Okay. Nice game."
There was something a little... wrong in his voice. A little rusty and distracted. It made Rodney feel weird enough to grip him manfully by the shoulder as he said good-bye.
After that Sheppard seemed back to normal, mostly. He shot at things with the Marines, and hit things with Ronon and Teyla and did whatever else it was he did all day; Rodney was too involved in running vacuum expectation value simulations to keep track of him.
He was so close. It should have been obvious to even a small child that zero point energy had gravitational mass, of course, but he was on the verge of proving it, in which case they could hand him his Nobel Prize right now, thank you very much. Sheppard was weird enough for any ten colonels. He'd still be weird tomorrow; it could wait.
The simulations were zipping along without him for the time being, so Rodney took advantage of the rare free moment to grab a sandwich at the mess. His open laptop should have made it obvious he was not interested in company, but he’d barely taken the first bite of his tava-burger before Radek bounced in giddily with, of all people, Major Lorne in tow.
"Rodney," Radek said, smiling. He didn't say anything else. Was Rodney supposed to guess what he wanted? Had all of Atlantis turned strange?
"McKay." Lorne grinned at him. Rodney thought he’d had just about enough and turned pointedly back to the screen.
"Rodney," Radek said again. "Ask me what I did today."
"What? I don't care what you did today. Weren't you in the lab? Didn’t I see you there?"
"Rodney," Radek said for the third time and then giggled. Rodney was seriously transferring back to Siberia if this was what he could expect from--oh. The puddlejumper drive tests.
"The modifications to the engine pods gave us a consistent fourteen percent speed increase in atmosphere." Radek grinned. It made him look like an elf. Not the good kind, either. "Just as I predicted."
"Better acceleration, too." Lorne added, sounding a little breathless. And were his pupils dilated? "You shoulda been there, doc."
"Please, I have more important things to do than play with--wait. Why were you there? Doesn't Sheppard usually test the jumpers?"
Lorne shrugged. "He said he didn't want to. Said he had some paperwork that needed to get done."
Sheppard had passed up test-piloting an enhanced and possibly dangerously unstable puddlejumper in favor of paperwork? In what universe did that make sense?
"Are you sure?" There had to be an explanation. Lorne had probably clocked him over the back of the head and then run for the jumper bay. That was more likely than Sheppard wanting to do paperwork.
"Asked him twice." Lorne shrugged, and then the grin was back. "Wasn't about to ask three times."
He suddenly punched Radek in the arm in some kind of caveman bonding ritual. "You should have seen this guy up there. Took him a while to get over his nerves, but underneath it all, he’s an animal."
Zelenka gave a pleased little smile and tentatively punched Lorne back. Rodney rolled his eyes and left to check on his simulation before they started grunting.
Two points were not enough to graph a function. So Sheppard lost at chess and didn't want to fly the jumpers. That didn't necessarily mean anything. Rodney knew that Sheppard was sometimes unpredictable. He wasn't worried.
So he didn't keep an eye on Sheppard over the next few days. If he needed him at the lab more than usual, it was because there was a lot of new Ancient tech to initialize. It wasn't Rodney’s fault that Sheppard’s mutant gene made him the best man for the job.
And Sheppard seemed fine, anyway. He made jokes, and rolled his eyes, and whined at all the moments Rodney expected him to. He didn't seem tired or sick or under alien influence. He was fine.
And if he wasn't--well, they had a mission scheduled soon to P8J-738, otherwise known as The Planet of Endless Summer. Ninety percent of it was ocean; the rest was one large land mass with white sand beaches, regular fifteen-foot swells, and temperate weather year-round. The local population called themselves the Danji and made a cotton-like cloth and grew a strawberry-like fruit. They also apparently worshipped surfing. On missions there, Sheppard would invariably disappear for a few hours in the name of cultural relations and come back wet, sandy, and grinning.
If anything could shake Sheppard out of his funk, it would be P8J-738. Rodney had complete confidence in the efficacy of salt water submersion for perking up droopy colonels.
The Planet of Endless Summer was everything Rodney remembered. Half-dressed native girls he wasn't allowed to touch, sand itching its way into distressingly private places under his uniform, and a hot tropical sun beating down on everything. Rodney was never sure--and he was unwilling to test it--but it was also entirely possible that the purplish fruit served as garnish to every meal was some sort of pineapple. Rodney stuck to power bars.
Sheppard, however, seemed to be having as good a time as he always did. Rodney was willing to put up with an afternoon of possibly deadly citrus for the easy grin on Sheppard’s face and the relaxed looseness in his limbs.
They'd done their trading, had their ceremonial feast, and now was the time when Sheppard, and sometimes Teyla, usually disappeared to go worship the ocean by riding wooden planks on it or something.
But Sheppard just shook his head when Paju, the youngest of the Elders, showed him the new boards propped in a corner of the open hut the Danji used for meetings, even though one was temptingly black and shiny.
Rodney was all set to start worrying again when he noticed that Sheppard was still grinning. He was talking animatedly with a group of local kids and Sufi An, the beautiful Danjian princess. Rodney rolled his eyes--of course. Sufi had laughing eyes and golden skin and wavy hair so black it was almost blue. Sheppard had to be doing okay if he felt up to flirting; and Sufi knew Sheppard well enough that an intergalactic diplomatic incident was unlikely. Still, it never hurt to keep an eye on Sheppard offworld when he was talking to a pretty girl.
Rodney was making his way over to the group when Sheppard suddenly dropped to his knees, forming a circle with Sufi and the children on the grass mat; Rodney could see now that there was some kind of small animal between them. It seemed to be mostly fluffy black and white fur. If it had a head, Rodney couldn't see it, but it must have had legs, since it gamboled unsteadily between Sheppard and the kids.
Sheppard made room for Rodney in the circle, but Rodney preferred to stand. The fluff-thing fell over onto what was probably its back, and Sheppard threw his head back and gave a braying laugh. Rodney was shocked to realize it had been weeks since he'd heard that. Sufi righted the furball and smiled up at Rodney.
"She is called Rihalii."
"Yeah," Sheppard said, "She's a--" He looked to Sufi as if trying to remember. "A thiji. Like a dog."
Rodney peered down at it. Black eyes blinked up at him through the long fur before the thing gave a little shake and made a high pitched barking noise.
"Aw," Sheppard said, "She likes you, Rodney."
Sheppard played with the thiji for forty-five solid minutes. Rodney bit back all the comments he wanted to make about sharp teeth and alien rabies and tribbles, because Sheppard looked happy and he'd laughed at least three more times, and Rihalii was pretty cute for something with no discernible head.
When it was finally time to leave, Sheppard actually hugged the damn thing and rubbed what Rodney guessed was its stomach before handing it back to Sufi.
"We look forward to seeing you all again," Sufi said and Rihalii barked.
Rodney supposed now they’d have to call it the Planet of Endless Summer and Dubious Furballs, but at least Sheppard was happy.
Sheppard didn't stay happy. He didn't laugh that horrible donkey laugh once in the next week, not that Rodney was keeping track.
Rodney was busy with his vacuum energy project and keeping the idiots in the labs in check. Veracruz had somehow managed to screw up the desalinization plant to the extent that it was actually making the water saltier; Johnson, who was supposedly a mathematician, seemed to have forgotten how to add in his latest batch of calculations, and Zelenka couldn't stop talking about his quantum entanglement proposal, no matter how many times Rodney said "Fine, yes, go work on it, but for the love of God don‘t make me hear about it any more."
And then there was Sheppard, haunting the labs like a lost puppy, or eating in the mess with a sad, distracted look on his face, barely noticing the savory-smelling treska bean soup he was spooning into his mouth, which, as Rodney knew firsthand, was excellent.
When Rodney found himself thinking about Sheppard late at night in the lab when he should have been devoting his brain to vacuum energy, he knew the time had come to act. He did not need to add worrying about a mopey colonel to his long list of problems.
Teyla. Teyla was the person to handle Sheppard. Clearly he needed to… talk or something, and she was good at that. She'd make him feel better.
So the next evening he may have mentioned to Sheppard that Teyla wanted to practice her N'tia meditations after dinner and needed a partner for the two-person katas. And he may have told Teyla that Sheppard was feeling sad lately and really wanted to talk to her, but had confessed to Rodney that he was too emotionally stunted to ask. Teyla raised an eyebrow at that, but it was all for the cause of Rodney being able to concentrate on his work and therefore the advancement of science and human achievement. He didn't feel bad.
But the next day Sheppard was still in Rodney’s lab, getting underfoot and looking as mopey as ever. Rodney gave him an artifact to play with that produced a cinnamon-like smell when you thought on at it and went in search of Teyla.
She was in her room and answered the door wearing some kind of filmy Athosian robe. Rodney stammered out his question.
"He did not wish to talk, Rodney," she said. "Are you certain he expressed that desire to you?"
"Maybe not in words." Rodney forced himself to concentrate firmly on her face. "But have you seen him lately?"
"I have not noticed anything wrong."
"But… He did paperwork."
Teyla blinked at him. "Perhaps you should speak to him, then, if you are concerned."
He had a lot more to say to her, but she was beginning to get that look in her eyes that meant she’d humored him just about all she was prepared to for the moment. He took a breath. "Talk to him?"
Rodney was about to explain just why that was a terrible idea, when something in the thin line of her mouth made him stop.
"Umm, yeah. I can do that. Sure," he said.
Teyla smiled supportively as she firmly shut her door. A moment later he heard the sound of her shower running.
Fine. He could talk to Sheppard. How hard could it be?
He spent the rest of the afternoon tracking down the materials he needed. Come nineteen-hundred, he set his laptop up on his coffee table and radioed Sheppard on a private channel.
"I have Canadian beer and the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Be here in ten minutes."
"Ten minutes." He clicked off.
It took Sheppard closer to fifteen. He said "Hi, Rodney," then nothing else through the first episode and the first two beers.
"I didn't think anyone on base had that yet," was the first thing he said, finally, when the episode ended.
"I have my sources." Rodney opened Sheppard another beer.
Sheppard didn't say anything through the second episode either, and Rodney began to despair of ever getting him to open up. After alcohol and sci-fi he was out of ideas.
He was trying to decide whether it was worth it or not to give Sheppard his last beer, when Sheppard plucked the framed picture of Rodney’s cat from his bedside table.
He worried it between his fingers for a moment. "What's your cat's name?"
"The name, Rodney. Of your cat."
At least Sheppard was talking. Could this be considered progress?
"What? What does that have to do with anything? And I already told you, anyway."
"I forgot. Humor me."
"Maybe I don't want you to know."
"Fine." Rodney spoke as quietly as he could. "F.C."
"For Fuzzy Cat." And there was the braying laugh. "Now I remember."
"Hey, I didn't name him."
"I got him from an ex-girlfriend. He came with that name."
"I believe you, buddy."
Rodney glared. Why had he wanted Sheppard to talk, again?
"I ever tell you I used to have a dog? When I was a kid?" Sheppard was using that weird, quiet voice again.
"You did?" Rodney watched Sheppard turning the picture of his cat over in his hands.
"Yeah. Been thinking about him some since I got back from Earth."
Earth. His father's funeral. Rodney felt his stomach drop. What kind of lousy friend was he for not realizing that was the problem? But Sheppard had seemed fine after the trip. Everyone thought he was handling his father's death well.
"He was a beagle. Wasn't good enough for showing, so my dad gave him to me. He had some ridiculous show-dog name, but I called him Hornet."
"After the F-18. Shut up, Fuzzy."
Just for that, Rodney was drinking the last beer.
"I was twelve. We both loved that dog. Only time my father and I ever saw eye-to-eye on anything."
Rodney tried, but he couldn't get out the words he wanted to say--words like how are you doing and are you okay. Sheppard must have seen something in his face, though, because he smiled.
"Hey," Sheppard said. "I know I've been weird lately. It's just, with my dad--even though we weren't close--and, you know, everything in the Pegasus Galaxy. It gets to you after a while." He took a swallow of his beer. "And for some reason I just--I really miss Hornet. I haven't thought about him in years. Well, not much."
It was the most Rodney had ever heard him talk about his feelings. He pushed the last beer over to Sheppard after all, and they watched the next two episodes in silence before calling it a night.
After that it was obvious what to do; it only took him a few minutes to hack into the Daedalus' manifest. Rodney went to bed feeling very pleased with himself.
The feeling lasted until Sam called him into her office the next day.
"You can't have a dog, Rodney."
"It's for Sheppard. And how did you know it was me?"
"Because anyone else would have asked, instead of changing the Daedalus' cargo list. Also you used your own laptop. Are you even trying anymore?"
Rodney decided to let that go for the moment. "Okay. I'm asking."
A long strand of hair was loose from Sam's braid. It wafted in the air as she sighed. "It's against IOA policy to import Earth animals except for small experimental specimens. They're worried about invasive species."
"So we'll get Sheppard's dog fixed."
"I'm sorry, Rodney."
"What about a native Pegasus species, then? The Planet of Endless Summer has these tribble things."
"The IOA forbids Atlantis personnel to keep any kind of pets larger than goldfish. It's in your contract."
"Oh, come on, Sam, that's ridiculous."
"I'm not saying I disagree. But we're in a war zone. What if we had to evacuate? Or if something happened to the owner? The IOA doesn't think Atlantis can support pets, Rodney. I hope that changes."
"Yeah, me too."
He thought he'd spoken pretty reasonably for how pissed off he felt, but Sam must have heard something in his voice.
"Let this one go, McKay."
He turned to leave. "Of course."
He waved back at her without turning around.
That afternoon Rodney sent a politely worded email to General Landry at the SGC.
The response he received that evening was far less civil, so Rodney sent another email. On the surface it was just as polite.
He really should have been working on his vacuum energy project, but Rodney disliked being thwarted by bureaucracy almost as much as he liked composing his Nobel acceptance speech.
It wouldn't take him that long, anyway. A few months ago he'd stumbled on some ten-thousand-year-old research in the Ancient database. At the time he'd dismissed it as typical Ancient metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but it could come in useful now.
He settled down to work. He could knock this thing out in a weekend, tops.
A weekend may have been too optimistic a time-frame. Rodney hadn't been able to piggy-back nearly as much of his work onto the Ancient research as he'd hoped; he'd had to develop and fabricate new systems from scratch. At least he was getting to use his mechanical engineering doctorate for something besides being the city repairman.
After a week, Rodney sequestered himself in his favorite auxiliary lab--the one where the idiots knew better than to bother him for anything less than imminent death or dismemberment--his, not theirs.
Someone taped a sign to the outside of the lab door--Rodney saw it when he returned from one of his trips to forage for food. It read, "Beware of the Leopard." He left it up; it was as good a Keep Out as any.
Progress, finally. The joints were articulating just the way they should. Audio input was achievable at up to sixty-five kilohertz, output averaged at fifty decibels.
Rodney had had to code entirely new applications of game theory and decision theory, and of course symbolic AI was useless--what had those morons at Stanford been thinking? The Ancients had made some strides there, thank God, but he'd still had to build a completely new form of strong AI practically from the ground up; if he was ever able to let Earth in on his work, he'd be due two Nobels. At least.
The team didn't have any missions that Rodney, as chief science officer, couldn't sign himself out of, and the Wraith were being cooperatively quiet for once, so he could devote his full attention to the new project. Sheppard radioed every once in a while to ask him to play chess, or video golf; Rodney felt a little bad about the terse, "Working," he invariably replied.
And then it was done. Rodney felt a little hysterical and smelled a lot ripe. He knew he should take a shower and maybe get something to eat before he showed Sheppard, but he just could not wait, so he grabbed all twenty-three pounds and headed to Sheppard's quarters. He remembered to be polite and ring the door-chime, but he couldn't be bothered to wait for an answer.
Sheppard looked up from his laptop when he walked in. "Howdy, stranger. Guess I don't have to send this nasty email after all." He stopped and suddenly looked closer. "What is that?"
"It's yours," Rodney said, unable to contain his grin. "He's yours."
Sheppard moved so quickly he seemed to materialize in Rodney's personal space. He nudged at one of Rodney's arms to get a better look at his burden. "What is it?"
"It's a dog." Rodney sat down on Sheppard's bed. His project sniffed around a little, then settled into Rodney's lap. "For all intents and purposes."
"A dog?" Sheppard sounded a little faint.
"Yes," said Rodney, then: "No. Actually it's better."
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked, using a familiar tone of voice--the one that was supposed to fool people into thinking he was calm. "Why is it silver?"
"Huh. Interesting question. Fur was actually a much bigger stumbling block than I anticipated. I tried a few different things, but it all felt weird. Or it didn't move right. Or it was purple. I nearly went ahead with that one, actually, but--"
"--I decided fur wasn't really that important. His skin's warm. Go ahead, pet him. Feels nice." Rodney demonstrated. "It's an Ancient polymer. Kind of like rubber but, you know, with simulated nerve-endings. See? He likes it."
Sheppard stared open-mouthed at the wagging tail. "Where'd you get it?"
"Are you listening? I made him. For you."
Sheppard sat down hard next to him on the bed. Rodney took the opportunity to push the project onto his lap.
"You made him?"
"Okay, I get that you're thrilled stupid. But it's a little irritating to repeat everything I say."
Sheppard scrubbed a hand through his hair. The project sat up and began to take an interest in his surroundings--stomping around Sheppard's bed and growling experimentally at his pillow. His tail stuck up straight in the air as he jumped on the floor and sniffed around the room curiously.
Rodney tried to see him through Sheppard's eyes. He was shaped like a beagle--medium-sized, slightly more than a foot tall with a compact sturdy body and well-defined musculature visible under the skin. He had a broad head with a rounded top, big floppy ears and a square muzzle with a little triangular nose at the end. Rodney had taken the specs from some beagle who had just won the Westminster Dog Show, so he was a perfect specimen. More or less.
True, he was silver and smooth, instead of brown and furry, but Sheppard couldn't expect everything. His eyes, nose, and mouth stood out sharply against the silver; they were darker, almost black, as was the tip of his tail. He was cute--there was no other word for it--with his big, curious eyes and the way his mouth kind of smiled up at you. Rodney felt immensely pleased with his work. And that was just the outside.
"So?" He turned to Sheppard. "What do you think?"
Finished inspecting Sheppard's room, the dog sat in front of the bed, staring up at them with black eyes that sparkled with intelligence, just like a real beagle's. There was even a little bit of white around the pupils, though it rarely showed. They received visual information better than a real dog's; the project's eyesight was two-point-five times sharper than an actual beagle's.
He must have seen something he liked in Sheppard's face, because he crouched on his haunches and scrambled up into Sheppard's lap. He wagged his tail as if pleased with his mighty leap and licked Sheppard's hand happily. Rodney felt a flush of pride; it hadn't been easy getting the dog's tongue just the right consistency of wet.
Sheppard coughed. "Rodney."
"Maybe you better start from the beginning."
"Fine. You wanted a dog--"
"I wanted a dog?"
Rodney sent him his best don't-interrupt-me glare.
"Okay. Yes. Actually, I did want a dog." Sheppard sounded puzzled.
"I made you one. He has several hundred state-of-the-art wholly articulating joints, the most fully-developed AI yet invented--capable of reinforcement and unsupervised learning, and his name is K-9."
Sheppard had leaned forward to nuzzle the nose of the dog--who was wagging his tail so hard that Rodney would have thought it was in danger of falling off if he hadn't made it--but at this he looked up.
"I am not naming my dog after Doctor Who. His name is Max. I always wanted to have a dog named Max."
The dog, who apparently had no loyalty to his creator, looked up at Sheppard, adoration shining in his dark eyes, and barked in what was almost certainly agreement.
"What do you know?" said Rodney.
"Rodney?" Sheppard asked a few hours later as Max tore up a stack of After Action Reports he'd given him to play with. He sounded embarrassed. "He's um... He's... not alive, is he?"
"Yes." Rodney snorted. "Because I'm God." He raised a hand. "Don't say it."
"So he's a robot?"
"He's a highly advanced mechanical construct, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing in all the important--yes," he said at the look on Sheppard's face. "He's a robot."
"Cool," Sheppard said.
Early the next morning, Rodney was awoken by a warm wet tongue tracing a line up his neck.
"Mmm," he said, lost in the sensation for a moment before his brain came online and he bolted to a sitting position.
He heard an indignant yelp as Max flew off the bed, followed shortly by Sheppard's ridiculous laugh.
"Don't you knock?" he asked, annoyed.
"Yeah, that's funny," Sheppard said. "Max and I just got back from the East Pier."
He grabbed Max off the floor and sprawled on Rodney's bed in a way that forced Rodney to scoot into his headboard.
"This guy is awesome." Sheppard rubbed the dog's head vigorously, then grinned at Rodney in a way that made him fear he was next. "You should see him fetch. Tomorrow I'm gonna try him out on a Frisbee. You think you can handle a Frisbee, Max?"
Max panted with sheer joy and wagged his tail hard enough to make the rest of his body vibrate.
"He is a state of the art McKay-Ancient hybrid seed AI, Sheppard. He's capable of a lot more than Frisbee."
"I think I'll start him on some dog stuff before I figure out what college to send him to." Sheppard pulled a tennis ball out of his pocket. "Show your Uncle Rodney what you can do."
Max took the ball in his mouth and padded up to Rodney, then waited with an expectant look in his eyes. At that moment Rodney realized it was true that owners started to look like their dogs, because Sheppard wore the identical expectant expression on his face. Rodney sighed and took the ball. He tossed it across the room. It bounced once, then Max leaped from the bed, snatched it out of the air and dashed back to Rodney, seemingly all in one move.
He waited, making high-pitched eager noises around the ball in his mouth until Rodney threw it again. Sheppard watched Max proudly. Every once in a while he said "Way to go," or "Attaboy," and Rodney felt slightly ridiculous at having to fight the feeling the praise was for him.
Continue to Part Two.