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The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics postulates an infinity of universes, an ever-growing tree of possibilities, wherein somewhere, every choice is made; every potential outcome of any decision is realized, every possible option taken, somewhere.
Nowhere in that infinity is the universe where John Sheppard willingly steps back and allows Rodney McKay to walk into the Wraith's embrace.
There is the universe where it is Sheppard before the Wraith, standing straight and unshaken as that nightmare hand is laid to his chest, the same touch he felt a year before—coming full circle, the life stolen and returned, now traded freely, and he smiles through the agony as the monster murmurs, oddly respectfully, "John Sheppard," one final time.
There is the universe where he acts too slowly, where the wrong man is assigned to guard the lab, the naive corporal who listens when McKay so seriously explains the brainstorm he had, how he can do this, guarantees he can, if only he is allowed inside; and the soldier, reading correctly Rodney's sincerity but wrongly his intent, opens the door, and John comes running to the alarm too late, only in time to see the desiccated corpse crumple to the floor, blue eyes dead and staring in withered sockets.
There is the universe where the Wraith starves, curling in on itself in hibernation, and John stands vigil while Rodney works, day and night and day again, computer algorithms and simulations looping on a dozen screens, fingers flying over the keyboards, until Jeannie's last hour, and then he holds his sister's hand as she passes, never waking to feel the pain; John watches Rodney cry, and says nothing when three weeks later Dr. McKay resigns from the Stargate program and crosses through Atlantis's blue-etched gate for the final time, with two suitcases and a backpack, alone and not looking back.
And there is this universe, where John walks one step behind Henry Wallace, hands not casually in his pockets but at his sides, though Wallace doesn't turn back, his strides not faltering. Not until the laboratory doors close behind them with the metallic clink of the electronic bolt locking, and he sees the Wraith, black and white and inhuman, lying across the lab bench, hands folded over its chest like a corpse on a bier.
Sheppard hears the man's breath catch; Wallace has heard of aliens, but this is his first close encounter. His last. John looks up to the observation deck; empty, as arranged, and the cameras will be at the wrong angle, the right angle.
There are two Marines with guns trained on the Wraith. From Atlantis, both men; they have the necessary experience, they know this enemy.
They know their commander, and Flemming nods to Sheppard, his eyes not leaving his charge as both men retreat to the walls, guns still raised and ready.
"This is the lab," Sheppard says, to the cameras, not to Wallace.
The man's answer is a mumble; he's watching the Wraith, watching it breathe, the slow rise and fall under the leather coat. The Wraith's eyes are closed in a parody of sleep; its pebbled skin is dry like a snake's, and its fossae are tightened, almost closed, the pits barely grooves on the scaled cheeks.
"So," Wallace says, forcing the words through a parched throat, and his calm would sound dignified if he didn't stink of sweat. "So, this is..."
"Over there," Sheppard says, and points, "that's the terminal."
Wallace looks, takes a step and another, and then stops. Looks back at Sheppard, his face blotchy and his Adam's apple bobbing and jumping as he swallows, swallows again. "I," he says, "I...this was never...before, at one time, the man I used to be...I never thought I could've...but she was my daughter."
"I know," John tells him, honestly, and he means it as absolution; but there's nothing but blind staring panic left in Wallace's eyes.
"I," the man says again, and, "Please," and he takes a step away, back towards John, one hand raised.
The Wraith, when it moves, moves like a viper striking, faster than the eye can follow.
There is a universe where John had pulled his Beretta before the man could run, and Wallace screams and screams until his lungs dry up and collapse. There is a universe where Wallace never looked back, and keeps his jaw locked tight.
In this universe, Wallace's throat closes over a terrible drawn-out sound, forced to his knees with his head rocked backwards, brown hair going gray and brittle as his skin shrivels and splits over the bones of his skull.
John doesn't look away. He couldn't give Wallace a last meal or a last cigarette, but this he can do, remember his last words, the last look on his face, preserved in his nightmares even if never on any official report.
There but for the grace of God, and John knows there is a universe where it was his own voice, scared and broken, telling his executioner, "I never thought I could've...but he was my friend."
Knows that it may yet be this universe, somewhere, someday; and for that, he can forgive Wallace.
When the Wraith lifts its hand from the body, obediently stands and backs away as the Marines issue warnings with P-90s cocked and ready, Sheppard touches his radio.
The Wraith's eyes are on him, serpentine gold, bright with life as it nods to him, slow like a bow. In his head, John can hear its gravelly deep voice, telling him, "The gift of life is reserved only for our most devout worshippers...and our brothers."
John wonders what Rodney could have told the monster to convince it to help. Wonders if he would have been able to understand, anywhere near as easily as he understood Wallace, understood what Wallace did.
Wonders if there's a universe where he's not deserving of being called brother to a monster, and doesn't look away.
"Medical assistance to the Level 18 electronics lab," he says into the radio, and his voice is steady. "There's been an accident."
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