Prompt: Artificial Intelligence (AU)
Word Count: 4900
Warnings/Spoilers: Rated for violence.
Summary: For the first time that night, they were lucky. No predators lurked anywhere nearby, and it seemed as if John had managed to shake off the vehicles that had been on their tail. Cyberpunk AU!
Author's note: I wrote this as a pinch hit the night before the deadline, and I would never have managed anything this coherent if it hadn't been for unadrift, who stayed up very, very late to give me lightning fast beta and lots of support. Thank you - you rock!
John slammed on the brakes. Teyla hunched protectively around Rodney's unconscious body. She cast a fierce glare at their reckless driver. Her reproach died unspoken when he twisted in his seat to look at Rodney.
"How is he?" John's eyes were wide with worry behind his translucent visor.
"Still alive." Teyla looked down at their hacker's slack face. His body was alive, at least. His mind--they had no idea if that was still whole and sane, wherever it was.
The shotgun seat's door whispered open, and Ronon slid outside. He was calm, but alert--a soldier deep into hostile territory, planning to come back out alive. He rounded the Dodge, and opened Rodney's door. "I'll get him."
Teyla nodded, and left Ronon to undo the belt buckle as she drew her semi-automatic Beretta. Outside, the night was drizzling a bitter rain. Gaudy lasers carved logos and slogans into the mess of orange clouds above. Teyla's attention only lingered on the sky for long enough to sweep it for signs of pursuers. Satisfied that the immediate area was clear any of drones or choppers, she scanned the rooftops and the deep shadows between the buildings. Her finely honed hunters instincts reacted instantly to a motion glimpsed from the corner of her eye. She whirled around to find--a rat. Soaked and filthy, it scurried through a rusty grille.
For the first time that night, they were lucky. No predators lurked anywhere nearby, and it seemed as if John had managed to shake off the vehicles that had been on their tail.
Ronon had Rodney's limp body slung over one broad shoulder, his free hand holding his customized gun ready for action. John took point, but he would still be reeling from disconnection, having only just left the car he had been merged with. It would take a minute or two before he would be interfacing fully with the real world again. It made them vulnerable, but they couldn't wait for John to settle.
The closest entry to their safehouse was down a narrow flight of stairs. Despite the disconnection, John managed to work the elaborate security system, opening the door without getting himself killed. Rodney had designed the system, and Rodney did not like unexpected visitors.
Teyla waited until the others were all safely inside, then she got the camo net from the Dodge's trunk. She pulled it over the car, obscuring its sleek, powerful lines, dampening its electronic signature. Once it blended with the shadows of the city night, she took one last look around. Satisfied that they were in no imminent danger, she made her way down the stairs, deftly avoiding the worst of the oil-slicked puddles.
The world was gradually settling around John. He had tugged his visor off, and his brain had switched back to processing input from a limited range of human senses rather than the car's finely tuned sensors. His body was adjusting to being slow and fragile and upright, but it still gave him pause that he couldn't think the lights on.
He flipped a switch on the wall. The darkness inside was dispelled by bright glow of the bare bulb overhead, and he rushed to clear a futon. It was littered with scorched bits and pieces of a drone Rodney had deemed "interesting". John ruthlessly shoved them to the floor. The drone was in pieces because it had tried to kill them, and John didn't care much if Rodney never did mange to fit it back together again. The damned thing would probably just try and finish what it had started, anyway.
Ronon set Rodney down on the mattress, arranging his loose limbs into something more comfortable than an ungainly sprawl. John resisted the temptation to stay by the Rodney's side and make sure that the unconscious man kept breathing. His presence wouldn't change that, and there was work to be done.
John went over to what Rodney referred to as their "security center". It was nothing more than a desk with a console linked to a beat-up old screen. Now John used it to check on their escape routes; flipping through hidden cameras and testing the remote locks.
Keeping his mind on the task at hand was difficult for reasons that had nothing to do with his recent disconnection. Their team had a man down, and no idea how to help him. Sure, getting away from the people shooting at them had been a good start. But Rodney--With his mind still out in the virtual, the hacker was as exposed and vulnerable as if they had left him alone to fend for himself in a dark alley. They hadn't been able to rouse him at all, and that was bad. Very, very bad.
Teyla entered, pausing long enough to throw her dripping long coat on a hanger by the door before moving over to Rodney. "How is he?"
Ronon, watching over their teammate with his arms crossed, shrugged. "The same."
Teyla knelt by the futon, touching a hand to Rodney's neck. "No," she shook her head after a moment. "No, not the same. His heartbeat is accelerating."
"Crap." John's stomach twisted with worry, and he joined the others to stare down at the limp form.
The physical body naturally reacted to what was happening to the mind, no matter how far away the mind might be. If Rodney's heart was beating faster now, that was because something was happening to him--something that made him exert himself in the virtual, maybe. John knew that feeling well enough, except that when he merged with one of his machines, he always retained a certain sense of self. He didn't simply leave himself behind the way Rodney had done.
"I hate that damn satellite uplink." John pressed his lips together. If Rodney had been your average hacker, they could just have unplugged him. It was nasty as hell, leaving you with a headache like Godzilla taking a stroll across your skull, but it was rarely deadly. But Rodney was not average, not in any way. He couldn't be unplugged.
"Yeah," Ronon said. "Too bad we can't just knock him out."
John nodded. That was another less than gentle way of getting a stuck mind free of the virtual. But with someone as far gone as Rodney, it would only make matters worse. "We might have to, though. Or--I don't know. Taser him, or something?"
Teyla arched an eyebrow at them. "I do not believe that violence will be of any help to Rodney in his present condition."
"No, but--we might have to do something. We can't just leave him like this." In the grasp of something on the virtual--something that might do much worse than just speed Rodney's heart up a little. They looked at Rodney in silence, and John clenched his fists, hating this helplessness.
Ronon hated this. Rodney had bailed them all out of trouble before they even met. Now he was the one needing their help, and all they could do was stand around and watch him die? It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
He scratched at the back of his neck--and froze, his fingers pressed against the cool metal of his 'trode plug. The damn thing hadn't been his choice--had been put there against his will. So he ignored it, most of the time. But it was there, and if he were plugged in... He hated the virtual, but his ex-employer had wanted him to have access to it through an electrode interface for a reason.
Ronon broke the silence. "I'll go get him."
Teyla and John stared at him. Ronon shrugged. "Rodney needs backup. I can go."
John stared at him. "What? No. Whatever's in there is dangerous, that's why Rodney hasn't made it back yet!"
Teyla's head tilted. "Yes. Rodney would not want you to take such a risk."
There was a lot Ronon could have said about that--about what he risked every time they went on a mission together. About how Rodney did the same, and how John himself had never seemed to manage putting his own safety above that of his team. "I don't care," Ronon said instead.
John's mouth opened, then closed. "Fine," he said. "If Rodney needs backup, I'll go."
"No." Ronon crossed his arms. "We need you to drive."
"We need you to--to shoot!" John waved his arm in the general direction of Ronon's massive side arm.
"I have spent considerable time tracking information on the local nodes," Teyla interrupted them. "More than either one of you. I will go."
"Excuse me?" John said.
"I thought you said it was too dangerous?" Ronon smirked. He should have known Teyla had something up her sleeve.
"I merely stated that Rodney would not like you to go," she said with a small smile.
Of course, Rodney probably hadn't been aware that Ronon could go on the virtual.
Teyla's smile vanished as she looked over at Rodney. He had gone pale--even paler than usual, which made him look unsettlingly corpse-like. Ronon fought a surge of dread--too late, we're too late already--as Teyla held her breath, feeling his pulse.
"This is bad," she said, tightly. "His pulse is getting weaker, and his skin feels much colder than it did."
"He's going into shock," John mumbled.
"That's it. I'm going in." Ronon wasn't going to argue about this anymore, not with Rodney's life on the line.
"You won't even know how to find him," Teyla said, at the same time as John reached for his visor and said, "Not without backup, you're not."
They all glared at each other for another two or three of Rodney's shallow heartbeats, and then John sighed and rocked back on his heels.
"Fine, then. We all go. But don't come crying to me if we wake up dead."
Ronon grinned, already moving towards Rodney's sometime workbench, which held everything they would need. Finally, they were doing something.
Rodney knew that something was wrong. Something, somewhere. It was there, underneath the terror and panic. If he could just take a moment to think about it, he was sure that he would figure it all out. He always did.
Unfortunately, neither terror nor panic came with a pause button, and there was no time to think. Not a single moment. There was just the running, and the screaming, and the shooting--the loud, loud shooting. His ears were ringing from it, even in the silence, and his hand was wrapped so tightly around the polymer grip of his pistol that it hurt. He didn't know how many bullets he had left, if he had any bullets left at all.
Maybe the others did. Because they were there when he looked for them, their faces too grim, their armored clothing splattered with blood. This was not the way it was supposed to go--he didn't know how things had ended up so badly, but he thought it might be his fault.
Rodney had been the one who wanted to hack into Arcturus--it was just a small subsidiary, it wouldn't have anything like the level of security of a regular Alteran office. He could distinctly remember arguing that the megacorporation would never notice him if he slipped into their systems through Arcturus, and that he'd be able to make off with a tremendous payload of raw data.
He couldn't remember exactly where things had gone wrong, but that wasn't important right now. Obviously, somewhere along the line, someone had noticed. They had noticed, and they had tracked him down. And not just him--their impossibly efficient hit squad was out to eliminate his whole team. The Alterans really didn't like people who weren't afraid to mess with them.
Shapes moved behind them. Rodney squeezed the trigger of his gun, and felt the kick of the recoil. Beside him, Teyla slipped. It was a wet night, and dark--darker than night should be, in the city, Rodney thought. It made it hard to see, but he found Teyla and rushed to help her stand. Then he stumbled to an abrupt halt. Because now he could see her, could see the pool of red spreading underneath her, could see it too clearly. She hadn't made a sound as she fell, but her eyes were wide, and stared accusingly right at Rodney.
He recoiled from the sight. He made a low, distressed noise, crying for help or mercy, he didn't know. It didn't sound anything like his voice, but it made Ronon and John fall back to him as one. The naked despair in their faces rocked him to his core. He had hoped to be wrong, that maybe Teyla was just--hurt, that there would be time to bring her to their crazy Scottish doctor and let him work his miracles on her. But John turned away from her, his face a hard mask, and Ronon grabbed Rodney roughly by a handful of jacket.
Neither of the others spoke, and they didn't listen when Rodney tried to tell them that they couldn't leave Teyla behind--they never left anyone behind. That this was wrong.
The bullets that caught Ronon in the back propelled him forward. He smashed into Rodney, and they fell. It must have hurt, but Rodney didn't register the pain. Not over the horrible feeling clawing its way through his guts when he noticed how still Ronon was, lying there next to him. Ronon, who never let anything keep him down, who would keep fighting through everything, wasn't moving.
John came to haul Rodney to his feet. It didn't work so well--his knees wouldn't support his weight, and he knew he shouldn't, but he still twisted around to look at Ronon. There was more blood, much more blood, glittering darkly on the rain-soaked asphalt. Ronon was on his back, and now he was looking at Rodney with his eyes open wide, as empty of life and full of silent accusation as Teyla's had been.
Rodney let John move them away from the grisly sight. They needed to run, so Rodney ran. He thought that he had lost his gun, but there it was, right there, heavy in his hand. It felt good. Their unseen pursuers were shooting again. There was nowhere to hide. There were just the two dark walls, with no doors or windows. The passage between them was narrow and long--too long. They would never reach any kind of cover before--
John fell. This time, Rodney was fast enough to catch him. To hold him, and look into his eyes as they turned glassy, reflecting the dark night around them. There were no last words, only a long stare that said that this is your fault. Blood trickled from John's slack mouth, and Rodney wiped it off, because it was all he could do.
There were footsteps approaching. Rodney didn't care. He waited, cradling the cooling body of his last friend in his lap.
The shadows parted. A man stepped out of the darkness, and into a light Rodney hadn't noticed before. One man--just one man. He was tall, with long hair the color of bone, and a coat that shimmered with a deeper darkness than the night around them. This was the man who had done all this. The small, frantic part of Rodney's mind that was still concerned about survival managed to grab some of his body's attention, and his heart seemed to freeze in his chest.
"I am Wraith," the man said, and his voice was deep and inhuman. "And you should not have disturbed me."
Rodney drew himself up straight--as straight as he could get, sitting on the ground with John still in his arms. "Whatever," he said, his own voice flat but steady.
"You found me. No other has managed such a feat before."
"Well, good for me." Rodney's mouth had no plans on consulting his brain before speaking. "Are you really planning on talking me to death?"
"Who says I desire your death?" The man--the creature--showed Rodney his teeth. They were very sharp, Rodney noticed absently.
"Well," Rodney began, still uncaring. Then he realized what this must mean, and panic gripped him. He felt the blood drain from his face. The Alteran hitman didn't want him dead because AlteraCorp had other plans for him. And those plans scared him more than what the prospect of a quick death did. He tried to speak, but he couldn't.
Wraith stepped closer, and Rodney's eyes widened. This too was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, but he couldn't make a sound; couldn't move. The hitman moved with a sudden frightening speed. He grabbed Rodney by the shoulders and shoved him against a wall. One strong, black-clad arm held him pinned there. The other drew back, and Rodney had the time to think that it looked like a scorpion about to sting.
It didn't sting. It pierced him open, body and mind. Rodney screamed.
Teyla had never been on the virtual with Ronon. She wasn't quite sure what she had been expecting, but whatever it was, it wasn't this. It was a spectacular experience. Ronon possessed none of her finesse or John's speed, but what he had was a sheer stubborn force of will like nothing she had ever seen before. He tore right through insidious, lethal code meant to trap the unwary; he swatted malicious, targeted bots like they were annoying flies.
Teyla was the one who found Rodney, but Ronon was the one who got to him. There was a wall keeping the hacker isolated from the rest of the virtual, a wall loaded with the kind of fire that could burn out a human mind. She didn't even have the time to despair at this complicated, massive obstacle before Ronon smashed right through it. Literally.
The team exploded into a dark, narrow alley. It was so perfectly rendered that it was like stepping back outside into the real world--it took someone with Teyla's keen senses to discover the little things that were off, and she had no time to dwell on the oddly flat smells, the way the rain sounded almost dull. A scream cut through the air, hoarse and heartrending, and it immediately seized her attention.
For all of Ronon's strength and Teyla's precision, John was still the fastest of them. He was moving toward the source of the sound before Teyla herself had even registered where it was coming from. Looking where John was moving to, she felt her heart skip a couple of beats.
They had found Rodney, but he wasn't alone. Someone tall and pale loomed over the hacker--someone, or something. Whatever it was, it was hurting Rodney. The hacker was shoved against a featureless wall, and for one slow, horrible second, Teyla thought that the creature in front of him had rammed its hand through Rodney's chest.
Then John was there, as confident as if he'd been riding his armored car. He pulled Rodney away from the pale-haired thing, yanking hard. Rodney fell against him, and stopped screaming. There was no gushing blood. Teyla had already started moving, and she could sense Ronon beside her. "There!" she shouted, pointing at a spot on the wall close to John and Rodney. There was a joint in the virtual construct there. It was hidden behind ridiculously fancy programming, but she knew it was there; could feel the weakness in it.
She veered off from Ronon, letting him do his crazy wrecking ball act while she rushed to help John manage the dazed Rodney. Behind them, the frightening, pale creature was moving. Darkness gathered around it, and its needlepoint teeth flashed. It was a predator, and they were in its lair.
Teyla hoisted one of Rodney's arms around her neck and couldn't keep her eyes on the thing anymore. But she could feel it pause when Ronon smashed them an emergency exit through the wall.
"Hurry up," Ronon urged them. He kept watch until they had shoved Rodney through the hole and both John and Teyla had joined him before he retreated back into the regular virtual.
"Is that thing coming?" John panted, a bit wild-eyed.
"Let's not find out," Teyla suggested, and John nodded.
"Hey, buddy?" John turned to Rodney, who looked shell-shocked. "Rodney?"
Rodney's eyes blinked, as if he was having trouble focusing.
"Listen, Rodney--fun as this trip to your place has been, we really need to go back. Now. Right away. Do you think you could do that for me?"
Rodney stared at John.
"Rodney--don't make me get in my body and taser you," John growled at him.
"Rodney." Teyla laid a hand on Rodney's arm, forcing her eyes to fix on the hacker. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, demanding that she check for the dark thing's approach, but she ruthlessly shoved her instincts aside. "We are here with you now, but we would very much like to go home. You must leave the virtual. You must go back to your body."
"Now, Rodney," Ronon growled.
"What...?" Rodney spoke the word, then he shook himself, making a clear effort of will. "Okay," he said, and blinked out of existence.
John didn't hang around the creepy virtual for one second longer than he had to, once Rodney's genius brain finally managed to grasp what they wanted him to do. He focused hard for a second, and then he opened his eyes and saw the bare light bulb and stained cement ceiling of their safehouse. Beside him, he heard Teyla let out a sigh of relief.
John didn't wait for the disconnection dizziness to pass before sitting up. "Rodney?" he called out, yanking off his visor. "Hey, Rodney?"
The futon creaked in reply, and John stumbled over to it. He sat down heavily on the edge. Rodney was sitting up, and he was staring at them all in turn, like he'd never seen his entire team half passed-out from a rough trip to the virtual before. Not that he had, but that wasn't the point. "Hey," John said. "Forgot where you left your body?"
Rodney shook his head. Apparently Rodney had been struck dumb, and that was downright disconcerting.
Ronon ambled up to them, along with Teyla, who moved way too gracefully for someone who had just disconnected.
"You're alive," Rodney breathed in an absolutely ridiculous statement of the obvious. A complex series of emotions flickered across his face. There was relief, and untempered joy, but also something darker-- fierce rage, and hatred. "That son of a bitch."
"What?" Ronon asked, his tone puzzled.
John didn't need to hear Rodney's answer. He knew enough about the virtual world to imagine what that creature had been doing to his friend. Knew enough that it made him tense up; made him wish that he could go back there and punch the pale freak in the head.
Teyla squeezed Rodney's shoulder. From the hard lines around her mouth, John could tell that he wasn't the only one to have guessed what Rodney must have seen.
"On the virtual--" Rodney swallowed.
"It's okay," John hurried to say. He really didn't need to know the details of what had happened--didn't need Rodney to relive the experience.
"Yes. We are fine, now," Teyla smiled gently.
"No, you don't get it--we have to leave, we have to move now!" Rodney pushed her hand aside, and struggled off the futon.
John stood up, backing off to let the possibly unhinged hacker have some space. "Uh. Okay? Care to tell us why?"
"That thing," Rodney spoke between clenched teeth. "It's going to find us. It already knows where we are--it can track us."
Teyla shook her head. "Rodney. We took precautions. Please, you need to rest."
Rodney didn't chew her out--he looked as if he was about to, but then he just rubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. He drew a shaky breath. "No. No, it won't be enough--you don't get it. That thing, it wasn't another hacker, or some kind of advanced 'bot. It was an AI."
Ronon broke the silence that followed Rodney's announcement. "I thought those were illegal."
"Illegal, yes, yes, very. And nearly impossible to create, but when did AlteraCorp ever worry about things like that before?"
John cocked his head. "You've got a point, there." None of them would be doing what they did if the Alterans were in the habit of actually following all those pesky laws made for other people.
"How do you know?" Teyla asked.
Rodney wandered over to his workbench and surveyed the mess. "This is going to be hell to pack," he muttered. Then he turned to Teyla. "It told me. Not in so many words, but..." He shook his head.
"I didn't remember when I was trapped in its illusion, but the plan to get in worked--naturally, since it was one of mine." They all exchanged glances while Rodney paused for the requisite smirk before continuing.
"The plan worked really, really well. Except for the bit where Arcturus is so secret that not even the people running the company know that they've got a damned AI hanging around their systems. I got in real deep in there, found some interesting stuff, and then--" Rodney raked a hand through his hair. "It got me. I didn't even notice. It just--it tossed me right into its own domain, and..." Rodney took a deep breath. He looked at them all in turn, and hesitated before he continued. "And I didn't notice," he finished lamely. "Not until the bastard introduced itself. Calls itself 'Wraith'--I'm not sure AIs are supposed to have names. Then again, I'm not really sure it's supposed to be there at all."
John stared at him. "Are you saying there's a--an AI thing living in the Alterans's systems, and they don't know about it?"
"It's possible," Rodney shrugged. "I'm not sure it had been out and about very much. It seemed..." He gestured vaguely. "Intrigued, by me."
Ronon snorted. "It was trying to kill you."
Rodney shook his head slowly. "No. No, I don't think so. I think it was--it was trying to get to everything I know. Which is a lot! So it would make sense." He said the last in a decisive tone.
"Right," John said, unconvinced. He remembered Rodney's body going into shock, and that really did not seem like the best way to learn anything, except how quickly someone could die. But maybe the AI was just stupid.
"This AI," Teyla said slowly. "This Wraith. It was behind a wall."
Rodney nodded. "Yeah. That's one reason why I couldn't get away from it." Then he blinked. "Didn't you guys--you came through the wall."
"Yeah. That's why I hate the damned virtual. Stuff's always breaking," Ronon grimaced, and John couldn't tell if he meant it as a joke or not.
This was the point where Teyla should join in some bantering. But she wasn't. She was just staring at Rodney, who was staring right back at her.
"Oh, crap," Rodney said.
"What?" John looked between the two of them. Then he added two and two together. Big scary virtual thing, big powerful virtual wall... great big hole in the virtual wall. "Oh," he said.
"We let it out," Teyla said, and looked a little sick.
"We don't know that!" Rodney protested. "But we still need to get out of here."
Ronon shifted uncomfortably. "Maybe we should let people know they should stay away from that place on the virtual. Might not be safe."
"I think people will notice themselves," Rodney said with a dismissive wave.
John narrowed his eyes in thought. So they had an Alteran experiment gone haywire, and quite possibly gunning for them. That was bad. But on the other hand...
"Hey, guys," he said, grinning. "I have a plan."