Category: First time
Summary: Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
It was several minutes before he was able to draw his eyes away from the screen. It was only then that he realized that there was some sort of argument going on. Elizabeth, Bates, Aiden, John and Teyla were all talking at once. Rodney stared at them for a moment and then turned his full attention to Aiden.
He smiled at the memory of their recent, all-too-brief kiss. It was only the second one they'd ever shared. Their first kiss had occurred just before Aiden left for P3-39 on that ill-fated data gathering expedition. Aiden had appeared in Rodney's lab that morning with an offer almost too good to refuse.
"Hey, Doc," he said as he strode into the lab. Rodney frowned at the interruption, but his annoyance was short-lived when he looked up and saw two of his favorite things in life: Aiden Ford and coffee. "I brought you something to help get your butt in gear. We're shipping out in fifteen minutes."
"Thank you," Rodney said, taking hold of the mug Aiden set in front of him, "but I'm not going back to PX3-39."
"You aren't going? Why not?"
"As you've undoubtedly noticed, I'm a very busy man with more important things to do than wander around some godforsaken planet of no strategic, scientific, or agricultural significance. I'd rather stay here and get some work done."
"Does Major Sheppard know that? He just sent me to fetch you."
"Well, you can be the one to break the sad news to him. I went the on the initial planet survey and was nearly bored to tears from the utter lack of anything consequential. I'm not going to waste another day traipsing around behind those Life Sciences people pretending that I give a damn about their stupid soil samples. I'm swamped with work and this is a great opportunity to get caught up on a few things. Going back to PX3-39 would be a complete waste of my time."
"You sure about that?" Aiden asked.
"Absolutely," Rodney replied. "I've already seen more than I ever wanted to see of that planet. There isn't a single thing on it worthy of my attention," Rodney said decisively. Aiden smiled and Rodney's resolve immediately began to waiver. Aiden leaned on the counter and slowly drew the mug out of Rodney's reach with the tip of one finger.
"I'll be on that planet," he replied. "And I kind of thought--well, hoped, actually--that you found me worthy of your attention."
"You know I do," Rodney admitted after a moment's hesitation. He'd never expected such an admission from the object of his longstanding obsession and was both pleased and relieved to find that Aiden was interested in him as well.
"There's a nice little stretch of beach on that planet, perfect for a long walk," Aiden said suggestively. "I thought we might finally have that talk."
"The one we should have had ages ago. You know--the one where you and I finally give it up and cop to everything that's been going down for the last three months."
"Huh?" Rodney replied, confused by Aiden's use of slang.
"We need to talk, Doc," Aiden said bluntly.
"Yes, we should talk," Rodney agreed with a sigh.
"So let's go!"
"But I've got--." Rodney couldn't believe it. The man who'd been the source of his every waking and sleeping fantasy for longer than he cared to admit was all but offering himself on a silver platter--at least, that's how Rodney chose to interpret Aiden's offer--and he was about to refuse him. Sometimes life was absurdly cruel. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I can't. I've already spoken to Dr. Weir and told her I was staying behind. If I don't get my energy usage projections out today she'll have my head."
"Come on, McKay! A few hours won't make a difference. You can do your projections when you get back. PX3-39 is the ideal place for us to grab a little privacy. All you have to do is find some reason to go off and do your 'Dr. McKay' thing. The major will make me go with you and--."
"My luck, he'd send someone else with me," Rodney said miserably.
"No way! He always makes me babysit you. The dude gets off on it," Aiden said with a laugh. "He's onto your crush, Doc."
"My crush?" Rodney teased boldly. "Maybe he's onto your crush."
"Maybe he is," Aiden replied huskily. To Rodney's surprise and delight, he leaned across the counter, bringing their lips together briefly. "You're going to miss me all day, you know," he said as he withdrew. Rodney swallowed hard.
"I think I miss you already," he said hoarsely. Aiden picked up the mug and headed for the door.
"Your loss, Doc."
"Ford!" Rodney cried as the smiling man reached the door. "Do you have to take the coffee, too?" The door closed behind Aiden and Rodney heard his laughter as he disappeared down the hall.
"What do you think, Doc?" Aiden said, dragging Rodney out of his reverie. Rodney blinked and drew his eyes away from Aiden's mouth.
" I just--." He abruptly turned back to the monitor. "Look at him," Rodney said, pointing at the Aiden wandering around the area in front of the gate. "Does he look like our Aiden Ford to you?"
"What's your point, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked, peering at the screen.
"Look at him!" Rodney insisted.
"He looks exactly like our Lieutenant Ford," Teyla declared.
"Does he?" Rodney replied. "If we'd left our Aiden Ford on that planet, do you think he'd just hang around complacently for two days until we got around to looking for him?"
"No way!" Aiden replied.
"That one never tried to contact Atlantis," Bates said. "But why not?"
"I'm willing to bet he's never heard of it," Rodney said, peering at the image on the screen. Aiden walked over to Rodney and looked at his own image once again. "In fact, he doesn't even appear to recognize the MALP or the Stargate.."
"So you're saying that one's different," Aiden concluded. "He only looks like me on the outside."
"I'm certain that if we examined him we'd find he's as much you on the inside as your other duplicate," Rodney said.
"Then why isn't he like me? Shouldn't he be trying to get here or trying to do something about his situation?" Aiden asked.
"Look, regardless of what he is or isn't doing," John said, "we need to go and get him."
"I'm not so sure about that, John," Elizabeth said. "Given what Rodney just said--."
"Maybe the first one was benign," Bates agreed. "This one is clearly not the original Lieutenant Ford." He turned to Aiden. "And we still don't know which one you are, so you're going back to confinement. Now." Aiden flicked a brief, frustrated glance at Rodney, who averted his eyes.
"Bates!" John spat.
"I'm sorry, lieutenant," Elizabeth said sympathetically. "Sergeant Bates is right. We have no choice."
"Yes, ma'am, but--." Aiden glanced at John. "Permission to speak, sir." John nodded and Aiden turned back to Elizabeth. "Sooner or later you're going to have to decide whether or not I'm the real deal. You might even have to face the possibility of having two Aiden Fords in Atlantis. You can't keep me locked up indefinitely. I don't know what's going on any more than the rest of you, but I do know that I'm useless to Atlantis locked up in that room."
"I'll take that under advisement, lieutenant," Elizabeth said. "Hang in there just a bit longer."
"What about the other guy?" Aiden asked, gesturing at the monitor. "Are you seriously thinking of leaving him out there?"
"With all due apologies, sir," Bates said, "we can't keep bringing home everyone who looks like you. That's probably exactly what the hostiles want us to do."
"We haven't established that there are any hostiles, Bates," John said exasperatedly. "You heard, McKay. The duplicates were spontaneous and accidental."
"Where's his proof?" Bates persisted.
"That's why we need to go back to that damned planet," John said, turning back to Elizabeth.
"Dr. Weir?" Bates turned to her and with an apologetic look at Aiden, she nodded. Bates turned back to him and Aiden let his shoulders slump as he moved toward the transporter. But he stopped and turned back to Rodney.
"Why me?" Aiden demanded. "Why are they making copies of me?" He sighed and allowed Bates to lead him away. Rodney watched him go and then snapped his fingers.
"I think I know what happened on that planet."
"Don't keep us in suspense, McKay. What is it?" John said, walking over to join him.
"Let's continue this in the conference room," Elizabeth said. "Peter, get Dr. Beckett and the rest of the science team up here." The group adjourned to the conference room, much to the disappointment of the technicians who were as curious about the mystery as anyone. Rodney waited impatiently until Carson and other select members of the Life Sciences unit arrived. Bates also returned and took up a place near the door.
"It's pollen," Rodney announced without preamble when the group had assembled.
"What's pollen?" Bates asked.
"The substance we found on Ford's uniform," Rodney replied smugly. "Right?" he said, turning to Betty Werner, who nodded.
"Actually, it's some type of spore," Robert Parrish replied.
"How did you know?" Werner asked suspiciously. "We just determined that ourselves. We were about to contact Dr. Weir."
"We haven't been able to identify all the compounds in it, but it's definitely a spore," Parrish repeated. Rodney sat back, smiling smugly. John gave him a withering look.
"So what does it mean?" he demanded.
"It's how Ford was duplicated," Rodney replied. "The spores landed on him and poof--instant Aiden."
"That's not exactly how it works," Werner interjected. "Pollen and spores are produced during plant reproduction. They're basically vehicles for dispersing the reproductive cells of one plant to another. The pollen or spores travel to a suitable environment where they produce seeds and, ultimately, new plants. Some plants rely on the wind for dispersal; others rely on some kind of pollination vector to accomplish pollination."
"What does that mean?" Teyla asked before John could do so.
"It means what I said," Rodney replied exasperatedly.
"No," Parrish interrupted. "A pollination vector is a carrier of the pollen or spores. It's generally an animal or an insect, like a bee, that carries pollen from one plant to another on its legs. Other vectors--"
"What does this all have to do with Ford?" Bates asked wearily. "He's neither animal nor insect."
"He is animal, actually," Rodney replied. "Surely, you covered that aspect of biology in elementary school." Several others jumped on the error as well, speaking simultaneously and causing John to roll his eyes.
"The lieutenant--like the rest of us--is part of the animal kingdom," Parrish corrected Bates.
"Well, not exactly like the rest of us," Radek said, cupping his chin thoughtfully, "but he's definitely animal."
"Definitely not mineral or vegetable," Werner concurred.
"Can we get back to the point?" John said.
"Unless I miss my guess, Dr. McKay is suggesting that Ford was dusted with the pollen of a plant on that planet and it somehow managed to reproduce him," Anne Johnson replied.
"...Which is impossible," Parrish insisted. "I can subscribe to the notion of Lieutenant Ford being a pollination vector, but I've never known a vector to become pollinated by what it was carrying. The vector is simply a vehicle for dispersal."
"Hello? Alien life forms, here," Rodney said. "Look, the facts speak for themselves. The moment I began examining the substance on Ford's uniform I knew it was something familiar, but I couldn't place it--not until I could see it in context. The Ford out there wandering around the MALP is pristine. The duplicate Ford was also pristine until our Ford wrestled with him. The lieutenant was the only member of the away team to be exposed to the pollen, right?"
"It was a spore," Parrish said again. "Spores produce asexually; it's highly unlikely that the alien plant was--."
"Whatever," Rodney said pointedly. "I'll leave it to you bioscience people to hammer out the technical details. All I'm saying is that our Lieutenant Ford was exposed to the stuff and suddenly he's triplets. What if those spores were that planet's way of regeneration?"
"I'm no botanist," Carson said, "but what Rodney's suggesting has some merit. At the very least, one thing had to be somehow connected to the other," Carson said, nodded. "The circumstances are too--."
"Nonsense!" Parrish said. "Pollination vectors aren't pollinated in the distribution process!"
"And if you were listening to what I said," Rodney replied, "you would have heard me say 'replication,' not pollination."
"I don't care what you said," Parrish spat back. "It's impossible!"
"And yet, there are two Aiden Fords down on level eight and at least one more on the planet," Rodney sighed.
"At least?" Bates cried. "You think there are more?"
"It's a very real possibility," Rodney replied. "It would depend on how the replication mechanism works."
"If there actually is one, you mean," Parrish added.
"Can you think of any other explanation for the duplication of the lieutenant?" Elizabeth asked.
"Without sufficient data to make a reasoned analysis, no," Parrish said, glaring at Rodney.
"We agree on one thing, at least," he conceded. "But absent a better hypothesis..."
"He's right," Werner said. "There's a lot we still don't know about the plant life on PX3-39. We have to at least consider the possibility that what Dr. McKay is--."
"Oh, please!" Parrish spat. "How can you give credence to such an absurd notion? We're in a far-off galaxy with a system of science entirely unlike our own. I'd sooner believe that there's an unidentified entity out there randomly duplicating our people."
"Not randomly," John said. "Only Ford."
"He was selected randomly," Rodney conceded. "But only in the sense that he was the only one hit by the fallout. If my theory is correct, anyone who was hit by the fallout would have been duplicated."
"Bullshit!" Parrish insisted. "I'm telling you that such a thing is scientifically impossible! There has to be another explanation!"
"Liz, we've got to go back to that planet," John insisted. "There's no way we're going to figure this thing out any other way."
"And do what? Keep bringing back copies of Lieutenant Ford until we're overrun with them?" Bates asked. John shot him a look, but Rodney answered before he could speak.
"I think we've got more than enough Lieutenant Fords on the premises," he said. "Besides, in all likelihood the one on PX3-39 can only tell us what we already know."
"I, for one, would like to examine him," Carson said. "It would help us to understand what's going on if we could make a comparison between him and the others."
"Very well," Elizabeth said, "but I want this one quarantined. Rodney, I think you should join the away team. It's your theory; you run with it."
"Gather our Aidens while we may," Rodney said wryly as he prepared to rise.
"I have a question," Teyla said. Everyone turned to look at her. "Both Sergeant Bates and Lieutenant Ford had a point. What will become of these men? Are we prepared to live with three of them in Atlantis?"
"I am," Carson said without hesitation. Everyone looked up. "And you should be prepared to as well. Aiden Ford is a valued member of our community. Why shouldn't we embrace his duplicates?"
"Why not, indeed?" Radek muttered amusedly. Bates shot him a look and he averted his eyes.
"All I'm saying is that we cannot afford to waste the opportunity to replace the men we lost," Carson continued. "Our numbers have diminished. We're going to need all the men we can get when the Wraith come." He looked around the table. Elizabeth and several others nodded grimly, including Teyla.
"I have to admit, having a few more men of Ford's caliber around could come in handy," John said as he rose to his feet. "We leave in twenty," he told Rodney before he left the room.
"May I have a word, Elizabeth?" Rodney asked, when the others had gone. He spoke with her for a few minutes and then headed for the suite where the twin Aidens were being held. He entered the suite and nodded at Pineda, who was reading a comic book in the lounge.
"Doc?" Aiden said, coming out of his room to meet him.
"Where's, uh--?" Rodney said, nodding in the direction of the empty room where Aiden's twin in red scrubs was assigned.
"He was sent for a second psych eval," Aiden replied. "By the time this is settled we'll both be declared insane. So what did they find?"
"Nothing yet. We've spent the last half hour essentially arguing my theory," Rodney said. Aiden smiled.
"That's something I don't particularly miss, being stuck down here," he said puckishly. Rodney ignored the tease.
"We're going back to the planet to find your 'brother,'" he revealed. "I've asked Elizabeth to allow you to join us."
"She won't go for that," Aiden said. "Why would you want me there, anyway?"
"We need to make a comparison between you and your twin."
"You can do that when you get him here."
"True, but this would be an artificial environment for him," Rodney explained. "I want to do the comparison in his natural habitat."
"What do you expect to see?"
"I have no idea. But the first thing I'd like to know is whether or not he recognizes you."
"Well, you may as well forget it because no way is Dr. Weir going to go for it."
"Actually, she did. I'm here to collect you," Rodney replied with a grin as Pineda came over to join them. He was answering his com link as he approached.
"Dr. Weir said to release the lieutenant into your custody," the corporal said. Aiden looked surprised, but Rodney grabbed him by the arm and led him out of the suite.
"You'd better change quickly," he said. "Major Sheppard won't be pleased if we keep him waiting."
"What's he doing here?" one of the Marine escort said when he saw Aiden approaching with Rodney.
"He's our control sample," Rodney said smugly. He reached for a hazmat suit and began to put it on.
"Hey, don't I get one of those?" Aiden said.
"You won't need one," Rodney replied. "You've already been exposed."
"To what?" Aiden asked warily.
"That's what we intend to find out," Rodney said lightly. Aiden went pale and Rodney's smile turned gentle and reassuring. Aiden nodded gamely and pulled on his TAC vest.
"For the record, I'm dead set against this," Bates said.
"Duly noted," John said, as he descended the steps to the gate room with Elizabeth. He slapped Aiden on the shoulder. "Welcome back, Ford."
"Sir," Aiden said with an awkward smile.
"Are we set, Teyla?"
"Dr. Johnson has yet to arrive," she said. "She volunteered to perform an analysis of the new Lieutenant Ford first hand."
"This is so weird," Aiden muttered as he reached for his P-90.
"You're not giving him a gun, are you?" Bates said worriedly.
"For crying out loud, Bates," John spat. "That's Ford! Our Ford." He turned to look at the other members of the large away team. "Teyla? You got a problem with him being here?"
"I do not," she replied evenly. "I have worked and fought beside Lieutenant Ford for many months now. I trust him with my life." John nodded.
"McKay?" John didn't wait for him to answer; he knew his feelings on the subject. "Anybody else here have a problem with him?" Dr. Johnson arrived as he spoke and her smile at the sight of Aiden told him that she was fine with his presence on the team. No one else raised a protest. "Let's move out."
The group broke up into smaller teams as soon as they were through the gate. The scientists focused on retrieving more of the fallout and John's team went in search of the rogue Aiden.
"Where did he go?" Johnson asked. "I thought they were keeping an eye on him from the command center."
"The technicians were watching him through the MALP," John said, "but its range isn't that great. It wouldn't be that hard for it to lose track of Ford."
"Hey!" Aiden said. "Begging the major's pardon, but could we call him something else? It's creepy enough seeing copies of myself. Do they have to have my name, too?"
"I tell you what," John said impishly. "You like naming things; find our little friend and you can call him whatever you like. Take point, lieutenant." Aiden rolled his eyes and did as he was bidden. Rodney quickly caught up with him.
"Do you really need that thing?" Aiden asked, gesturing at Rodney's bright red hazmat suit.
"Actually, I'm not totally convinced that the rest of us need one, but better safe than sorry."
"What made you think that I didn't need one?"
"Well, I--. You know..."
"Dr. Johnson?" Aiden turned and went to speak to the doctor. Rodney watched him go and sighed.
"What's wrong?" John asked, catching up with him.
"He's worried about being exposed to more spores," Rodney admitted sheepishly. "I guess he's got a point."
"We've got a spare suit. Think we should get him into it?"
"No, no! I think he'll scare off his twin."
"And we won't?" John said wryly. "You didn't bring him here as a sacrificial lamb, did you?"
"No! You know I'd never--." Rodney shut his mouth and John smiled.
"Didn't think so," he said. He stopped suddenly, grabbing Rodney by the arm as he did so.
"What? What?" he sputtered as John spoke into his com link.
"We've got company. Everyone stay put while we check it out." John rose and started moving forward slowly. "Ford?" Aiden quickly caught up to him and took point. "Nice and easy," John said as Aiden walked on ahead.
"I don't see anyone, sir."
"On your left at ten o'clock, lieutenant."
"Got him." Aiden froze as a man identical to him moved into the clearing and approached him. John held Rodney back when he would have moved to catch up with Aiden.
"I want to--. Ouch!" Rodney protested when John tightened his grip on his arm. "Let me--."
"Stay put," John said through gritted teeth. "Let's see what he happens."
"Here's where it gets interesting," Johnson said, setting down her bag. She pulled out a camera and started to record the scene before her. Everyone else stood and watched as the two Aidens met in the clearing. The differences between the pair were obvious, even though they were identical in appearance. Aiden slowly unhooked and lowered his weapon, patiently enduring his twin's curiosity. The doppleganger circled him several times, apparently looking for something indiscernible to the original.
"Hey," Aiden said, assaying a smile and a little wave. His twin continued to examine him head to toe, frowning in confusion. His own weapon was carried loosely at his side. He made no threatening moves, staying just out of arm's reach.
"He does not know him," Teyla said. "Should he not recognize himself?"
"This is all conjecture, of course," Rodney said, "but I suspect that, unlike the other Aiden, this one's never seen the original. He didn't have our Ford to imprint on."
"You mean that the other one copied our Ford?" John asked.
"Ford's duplicate was more than imprinted," Johnson said. "We ran all manner of tests on him. In each and every one of them, he matched the original."
"Maybe it's natural, then," Rodney suggested. "They're born identical."
"...And not having the other Ford to mimic afterward, his behavior departed from the original. Classic case of nature versus nurture," Johnson said.
"I still don't see how he could have been produced from a spore," Werner said, opening her kit. "I really want to examine him."
"I still don't see how a scattering of dust can produce a whole other person, complete with clothes and weapon," John said.
"It duplicated whatever it fell on," Rodney said, never removing his eyes from the scene before him.
"Then the scientists back at the cave site should find more flowers, more plants or whatever, right?" John ventured.
"Absolutely," Rodney replied. "And possibly more Aiden Fords."
"How's it going?" Aiden said. His twin frowned at him again. Aiden slowly set his weapon down on the ground and the other Aiden did the same.
"What's he doing?" Rodney said as he watched Aiden draw closer to the stranger and reach out to touch his shoulder. The other Aiden did the same thing. "Wait! No! Oh, Ford, don't!"
"What's wrong?" John asked worriedly. "What's he doing?"
"He's making contact," Johnson said, lowering the camera slightly. Rodney dashed out into the clearing, shouting for Aiden to stop.
"McKay!" John shouted. "What's wrong with him?"
"He's afraid that our lieutenant is going to alter his twin," Johnson said. "I think he may be right."
"Ford?" Rodney said. Both men looked at him. "Aiden?"
"What's up?" they said in unison.
"Aiden," Rodney sighed. He drew the new Aiden away from the other one. "Can you tell me your middle name?"
"My middle name?"
"Yes, your middle name," Rodney said anxiously.
"I don't know."
"What's my favorite food?" Rodney demanded. The young man squinted in confusion.
"I don't know."
"Where was I born?"
"The country," Rodney said exasperatedly, pointing at the flag on his shoulder. "You know the country." Aiden shrugged. "My favorite color," Rodney demanded.
"How should I know?" Aiden looked over at his twin, who was observing him in silence. Rodney tried to think of another obscure fact that only Aiden might know.
"What did I give you earlier this afternoon?" he demanded.
"I've never seen you before now," the other Aiden said. Rodney nearly collapsed in relief.
"Good! Good; no harm done. Major?" he called. John jogged over to join them. "Let's get him back to Atlantis. Just make sure to keep the two of them apart. Absolutely no physical contact, all right?" John nodded and drew the confused replicated Aiden away. He was put into a hazmat suit and led back to the gate. Rodney and Dr. Johnson kept a close watch on him and Aiden kept his distance.
"So what did McKay give you this afternoon?" John asked conversationally as he and Aiden walked back to the gate a good distance behind the others. He saw the young lieutenant flinch and smiled. "Strictly off the record."
"You know, a hickey would be a really good way of telling you three apart."
"He didn't give me a hickey."
"Are you sure? I see a bit of red on your--. No wait; you're blushing."
"Are you ever going to stop teasing me about Dr. McKay?" Aiden asked, reddening even more.
"Aren't you two on a first name basis yet?" John said puckishly.
"You know, I think it's really cute the way you two pretend not to have a crush on each other."
"Maybe we aren't pretending," Aiden replied, but he couldn't meet John's eyes when he said it.
"Maybe I've been imagining how frantically McKay's been working on your behalf," John replied.
"Hey, you know McKay. He loves a mystery."
"Yeah, but not as much as he loves something else," John teased. "Or should I say--."
"Major Sheppard!" Rodney's voice cut in on the com link. "You'd better get up here." John and Aiden immediately began to run even as John tapped his link to respond.
"What's your position?"
"We're at the gate."
"We've got a situation. Just get over here."
"Think he found more me's?" Aiden asked as he jogged slightly ahead of his commanding officer.
"Sounds like it," John said.
They reached the edge of the clearing where the gate was located and came to an abrupt halt. Before them stood a group of about sixty people, barring the Atlanteans' access to the gate. The aliens carried no weapons, but the sheer number of them presented a formidable challenge to the comparatively small away party.
"Holy--!" John said.
"Shit!" Aiden finished the thought emphatically.
"Where did they all come from?" Werner asked as she caught up to the two men. "Our scans showed no inhabitants on the planet except for the other lieutenant."
"As Dr. McKay would put it," John said, "Hello? Alien life forms."