Title: Plus or Minus Eight
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Rating: G, Gen
Summary: A mission appears to change half of Sheppard's team
Word Count: 3200
Author's Note: Feedback welcome!
M3X-131 had once upon a time probably been a thriving Ancient outpost. The place had Ancient architecture peaking up from beneath the overgrown forest that had planted itself on top of the buildings sometime in the intervening millennia. It didn’t take much poking around to figure out the ruins had the potential to contain lots of Ancients toys.
It would have been Rodney McKay’s new most favorite planet in the Pegasus galaxy based on that criteria alone.
But it also had cats.
Dozens and dozen of cats, making their homes inside the abandoned ruins. And showing no fear of humans. Maybe because they’d never seen any before.
It was making the investigation of the site go very, very slowly.
“I didn’t even know Pegasus had kitties,” Rodney said, from where he’d dropped to his knees on the forest floor. He’d abandoned his tablet, too, so he could reach out and pet as many curious heads as came to sniff him.
“You already said that,” Teyla said. She had taken a seat on a particularly stable piece of Ancient tower, because Rodney hadn’t moved in about fifteen minutes.
“I know,” said Rodney, not even looking up from his swarm of new found friends. “But cats!” He finally raised his eyes to look at her. “How can you not like cats?”
“I do not dislike cats,” Teyla said, evenly. “I told you my people do not keep them as pets.”
“Your loss,” Rodney said. “Hi!” He was addressing the cats again.
A little orange tabby padded over to Teyla, put his two fronts paws on her knees and pulled itself up to look more closely at her. Sighing, Teyla patted it on the head. “Hello,” she said.
“These are wild animals, Rodney,” she tried. “They could have many diseases and germs.”
She was a little surprised with how quickly he brushed that off. “Cats are very clean,” he said. “And these are friendly!”
“Yes,” Teyla said. “But we should resume our mission. Did you not say there may be a full ZPM here?”
Rodney took his time answering. “Maybe,” he said. “Whatever.”
“Rodney!” Teyla said, exasperated.
“Hey guys,” John Sheppard’s voice came over their earpieces. “We found the edges of the site on this side of the ‘Gate. Looks like it’s definitely worth having some science teams come back with chainsaws. How’s it going on your end?”
Teyla answered, because Rodney was actually nuzzling the head of a white cat with his face.
“It is going slowly,” she said, honestly. “Rodney is very distracted. There are many cats.”
Sheppard snickered. “Yeah, here too. Tell him he can’t bring any home.”
Rodney stuck his head up away from his new friend. “Why the hell not?”
“Told me no, too,” Ronon’s voice rumbled over the comm. line.
“The answer is no,” Sheppard interrupted. “To both of you. Listen, Ronon and I are heading back to the ‘Gate. We’ll rendezvous with you there in about an hour.”
“I think we should talk about your kneejerk ‘no’,” Rodney said. “I know I’m not allowed to introduce Milky Way species to Pegasus. I get that. Could destroy the native ecosystem blahblahblah. But these are native.”
Sheppard didn’t answer and Rodney made a face.
For her part, Teyla stood up and stretched her legs. “We should start walking, Rodney,” she said. “It will take us an hour to reach the Stargate.”
It took them a bit longer than that. Mostly because Rodney tried to lure some of the cats to follow them. It didn’t work, to his great displeasure, and most of them dispersed back inside the ruins.
Sheppard and Ronon were not at the Stargate when they finally arrived.
Rodney peered around, annoyed. “Where are they?”
“Perhaps they already returned to Atlantis,” Teyla suggested.
“We aren’t that late,” Rodney muttered.
Movement in the bushes near the ‘Gate caught Teyla’s eye, and something glinted in the sunlight.
“What is that?” she said.
Together, she and Rodney moved closer. A little concerned, Teyla raised her gun.
There were two piles of clothes sitting in the bushes. Teyla recognized Ronon’s jacket immediately and then her eyes fell on the red and blue patch in the adjacent pile. It was the flag Sheppard wore on his sleeve.
“What?” Teyla asked.
At the same time, Rodney said, “Why did they take their clothes off?”
Sheppard’s jacket moved before their eyes. Automatically, Teyla aimed her gun at it. The fabric jerked in place some more, and then a tiny, furry black face emerged from beneath it.
Rodney put a hand out to lower Teyla’s aim. “Don’t shoot, it’s a cat.”
Feeling somewhat foolish, Teyla lowered the weapon.
It was a cat. A little black cat with big tufted ears that slowly disentangled itself from the pile of Sheppard’s clothes while Rodney and Teyla watched. Then, a bigger, brown cat head popped out of Ronon’s jacket neck. Rodney crouched down and Teyla followed.
The little black one had Sheppard’s dog tags tangled around its fuzzy ears. It mewed plaintively when Rodney reached out to unhook them. Teyla stared, unsure what to say. From the other pile, a larger, long-haired tabby kicked itself free and butted its head against her knee.
“This cannot be what it looks like,” she said, finally. “Colonel? Ronon?” she said, calling for them on her headset.
There was no answer.
Rodney was holding Sheppard’s dog tags and staring into the brown eyes of the small black cat.
“Oh, I really hope not,” he said.
They took the cats back to Atlantis. Teyla was worried they would not like to be picked up and would not cooperate, but the two cats didn’t fight. She carried the large, long-haired one that Rodney was already calling “Ronon,” even though they didn’t have proof of anything. He carried the small black one, who rested his front paws on Rodney’s shoulders and continued to meow the entire time. Walking behind Rodney through the horizon, Teyla looked the little black thing in the eyes. She hated to admit it – did not intend to tell anyone – but the wild tufts on the cat’s ears did bear more than a passing resemblance to John Sheppard’s hairstyle.
Richard Woolsey was not pleased. He made Rodney and Teyla give their report twice, even though nothing changed except Rodney got more obnoxious the second time around.
Teyla knew there were procedures for containing alien life forms, but for the moment no one had said anything about using them. They’d put the cats on the conference table. The cats were acting more alarmed now. The black one continued to meow, walking along the table edge. The larger one jumped off and walked under it. Teyla could feel him sitting by her feet.
“You do not expect me to believe that Colonel Sheppard and Ronon Dex have been transformed into cats, do you?” Woolsey asked.
“I do not,” Teyla said, because she didn’t. “We discovered these animals in their clothes…”
“Wearing Sheppard’s dog tags,” Rodney jumped in.
“And thought it would be prudent to return to Atlantis with them,” Teyla continued. “Just in case,” she added, softly.
“Colonel Sheppard and Ronon are missing,” Woolsey interpreted.
“At the very least naked,” Rodney said. The black cat had stopped in front of him and was meowing loudly. “Shh.” He pointed to the clothes the cats had come out of. It was all there. Sheppard’s uniform, all his guns, a tablet, and his pack. Ronon’s clothing and his gun. Even their shoes.
Woolsey looked at the clothing stacked on the table, then he looked at the cat sitting by Rodney.
“I want Dr. Keller,” he decided.
Jennifer Keller had a really hard time keeping her composure when the situation was explained to her. She giggled the whole time, until Rodney suggested she take a DNA sample from the cats.
“I’m not a veterinarian,” she said. “And what would that prove? What would I be looking for?”
No one could really answer that question. Dutifully, Keller did it anyway. John – and Teyla decided that calling it ‘the black one’ was tiresome – didn’t seem to mind or notice when a blood sample was taken from his front paw. He continued to meow. Ronon, however, refused to come out from under the table.
Teyla cautiously lifted him out, afraid he would bite her.
“Well,” Jennifer said, “That’s in character, anyway.”
Ronon submitted to the needle, as well, but Teyla could swear his little cat face looked pissed off. She’d never seen an animal have an expression before.
“Subcutaneous implants,” Woolsey said, suddenly, excited.
Jennifer scanned both cats. “No.” She said.
“I told you it was ridiculous,” Teyla hissed at Rodney.
But Jennifer was staring at her instrument and making a face. “Colonel Sheppard and Ronon’s implants aren’t broadcasting,” she said. “At all.”
“What does this mean?” asked Teyla.
“Usually that they’ve been destroyed or disabled,” Jennifer said. But she was looking at the cats, both of whom had started grooming themselves after being manhandled for the blood sample.
“You can’t be serious,” said Woolsey. Jennifer showed him the screen she was looking at.
“I didn’t say anything,” she protested. “I said their implants aren’t broadcasting. I didn’t say it’s because they’ve been transformed into cats.”
“I want teams back to that planet,” Woolsey decided. “Searching for the colonel and Ronon.”
“What about these?” Jennifer asked. She was scratching Ronon behind the ears and he was purring loudly.
“I’ll take care of them,” Rodney volunteered.
“Biology has cages, doesn’t it?” Woolsey said.
“Hey!” Rodney put his hand protectively over John’s back. “That’s not necessary.”
Woolsey permitted Rodney to take the cats to his quarters. Mostly because he didn’t want to argue, Teyla thought. They tried to get John and Ronon to follow, but the cats moved slowly. It was strange to carry them, but again neither minded.
“I have never met a cat this willing to be held,” she said to Rodney while they were in the transporter.
Rodney blinked at her. He had John leaning against his shoulder again. “Yeah,” he said. “Ronon looks thrilled.” He grinned.
Teyla glanced down, realized she was clutching the cat so that his face was pressed against her bosom.
“He is a cat,” she said, hotly, but Rodney cracked up anyway.
It turned out Rodney had a number of supplies specifically for cats in his quarters. Water and food dishes, a small specially-made cat bed, and a number of different feather-like wands, bells in plastic balls, and cloth mice.
“Why do you have these?” Teyla asked, setting Ronon carefully on the rug.
“Because one day I knew I would have a cat,” Rodney said, happily. “I was prepared. Oh…food!”
He left then, promising to return with something for them to eat.
Teyla stayed, sitting on the side of Rodney’s bed and watching the cats explore. Shortly, John jumped up and stretched out next to her. She peered into the big brown eyes. “John? Are you in there?”
John meowed and rolled over. On the floor, Teyla heard scratching. She looked down to see Ronon contentedly shredding the carpet.
“Stop that,” she said.
Ronon looked at her, then very deliberately extended his claws and leaned back, loudly tearing the material.
Frowning, Teyla got down on her knees on the carpet.
“I know you must be upset to be a cat,” Teyla said, feeling very, very foolish. “But destroying things is not the answer.” She paused. “It is not the answer when you are human, either.”
She reached out and unhooked his claws.
“Here,” Teyla said, picking up one Rodney’s feather wands. “Perhaps you would like to kill the feather on a stick?”
Ronon did want to kill the feather on a stick. Teyla was surprised by the ferocity with which he pounced after it, caught the feather between his front paws, and rolled around on top of it. Mewing, John jumped off the bed and bounded right on Ronon’s belly.
What followed was a cat wrestling match that made Teyla giggle hysterically. It was still going on when Rodney returned carrying four cans of tuna.
He took in the scene and snorted. “They haven’t changed that much,” he said.
“They did not used to bite each other,” Teyla said, and Rodney howled.
The next three days were interesting.
The reconnaissance teams sent back to the planet had found nothing. Keller’s DNA tests alleged the two animals were, in fact, normal cats. Rodney continued to operate on the assumption the two were their missing teammates.
Teyla had never seen domesticated cats up close for so long. She would admit they were affectionate and did amusing things, but she wasn’t sure if that was typical or because they were humans trapped in cat form.
As they lived with Rodney, he experienced the more negative aspects.
“It smells in here,” Teyla observed, when she dropped by to visit.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Yeah. They won’t stop spraying.”
“Spraying?’ Teyla didn’t understand.
He lifted the tail of the nearest cat – it happened to be Ronon – to reveal a pair of fuzzy testicles. Involuntarily, Teyla blushed.
“They are definitely male,” she said.
“It’s territory marking,” Rodney said. “Keller could probably cut their balls off. It can’t be that hard.”
“I do not think John and Ronon would be happy about that,” Teyla said, sharply.
Rodney shrugged. “No,” he said. “I suppose not.”
Teyla also got to witness Rodney exposing John and Ronon to an herb that had a narcotic effect on cats. He said it was a little stale from being so old, but it still made both cats start licking the green flakes, then each rolled on their backs and pawed at the stuff. Teyla wasn’t sure the men would have consented to being drugged, but Rodney claimed the cats liked it.
Ronon continued to indiscriminately destroy Rodney’s quarters, despite intense (if one-sided) conversations with both Teyla and Rodney beseeching him to stop. Finally, Teyla got to hold him, wrapped in a towel, while Rodney tried to trim his front claws. Both of them ended up bleeding, and Rodney got a head wound Teyla hadn’t even seen Ronon inflict. John sat by, watching and meowing the entire time.
Rodney whirled on him. “You shut up! It’s not funny.”
Teyla released Ronon, who bounded away and hid under the bed. “Rodney, do not yell at him!”
“He was laughing at me!”
“He is a cat,” she reminded him.
In many ways, Rodney said they were typical cats. They both used the box full of sand as a toilet, they both bathed by licking themselves (and each other), and Rodney said most of their behaviors were normal feline instincts. Which meant, of course, that they weren’t acting remotely human.
John meowed incessantly. Teyla was beginning to find it annoying.
“He’s probably saying ‘Why am I a cat? I don’t wanna be a cat! Please turn me back into a human!’” Rodney translated.
“Hmm,” Teyla said. “What is he saying when he attempts sexual intercourse with your pillow?”
John was doing just that, at the moment.
“His consciousness was just downloaded into a brain the size of a walnut,” Rodney defended him. “Of course he’s confused.”
The evening of the third day, they got a call over the intercom from Woolsey instructing them to come to the infirmary and bring John and Ronon.
“Perhaps Jennifer figured out how to heal them,” Teyla said, optimistically.
Rodney made a little face. “Oh,” he said. “Good.” It did not sound sincere.
They walked to the infirmary, Teyla carrying Ronon and Rodney carrying John.
The door to the infirmary slid open and they entered.
“Go on back,” said one of the nurses. She was smirking.
“What’s going on?” Rodney asked, suspiciously.
They followed the sounds of activity back to the rear. Rounding a corner, Teyla suddenly heard an unmistakable voice complaining about a doctor’s icy hands.
“John?” she said, and moved faster.
John and Ronon – tall, human, and furless – were sitting on adjacent gurneys. Each looked tired and dirty, and were wearing little more than an infirmary gown while nurses bandaged up a wound on their left arms. It was, Teyla realized, where the subcutaneous implants were.
Woolsey was standing at a short distance, looking very relieved.
“Unscheduled gate activation fifteen minutes ago,” he said, when Teyla and Rodney arrived next to him. “Look who’s home.”
Abruptly, Rodney leaned down and set John the cat down. Teyla followed suit with Ronon the cat.
“It is very good to see you,” Teyla said, moving towards them.
Rodney had his arms crossed, expression confused. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Ambush through the ‘Gate,” Ronon said.
“Assholes,” John concurred. He pointed at the bandage on his arm. “Wanted to ransom us. When did we start advertising we have these things, huh?”
Jennifer was brandishing the syringe that implanted the transmitters. “I can put it somewhere different,” she said.
“Put it somewhere where Igor the homesurgeon won’t cut anything important getting it out,” John retorted. In response, Jennifer jabbed him in the calf and he yelped.
“How did you escape?” demanded Rodney. He kept glancing at the cats out of the corner of his eye. Ronon the cat was moving curiously towards Ronon the man.
“Wouldn’t tell ‘em where we came from for three days,” John said. “Then Ronon kicked one in the head and we escaped.”
“Good,” Teyla said, warmly.
She watched John the cat follow Ronon the cat.
For the first time, John the man noticed the animals.
“Why are there cats?” he asked, crankily. “I told you not to bring any back, Rodney.”
Rodney avoided the question. “Well, you weren’t there.”
“What’re their names?” Ronon asked. He leaned down to scratch the cat he didn’t know had the same name as he did.
“Um…Ron and Jonah,” Rodney lied.
“We found them with your clothes,” Teyla said, truthfully. “So we brought them home.”
“Wait a second…” John said. He figured it out far too quickly. “What the hell?”
“The black one was wearing your dog tags!” Rodney yelled. He seemed to realize just how that sounded, because his face fell.
“You thought we were transformed into cats?” Sheppard yelled right back. “Why the hell would the Ancients make a machine that did that?”
“I don’t know!” Rodney shrugged. “To hide from the Wraith…maybe…”
Ronon stared at him. “Which one did you think was me?”
“The big, violent one,” Teyla volunteered. Ronon smiled.
“The biologists can probably do that operation thing you wanted now,” Jennifer spoke up.
Rodney glared at her. “Not helping!” he hissed.
“You know, neutering,” Jennifer continued, smiling.
Teyla raised a hand to her face to cover her own smile.
“What’s neutering?” Ronon asked, suspiciously.
“He wanted to cut our balls off,” Sheppard said. “We were gone three days. And he decided we were cats and that he should cut our balls off.”
Ronon glowered at Rodney.
“Excuse me,” Woolsey said. “Welcome back, gentlemen,” he directed at Ronon and John. “I’m sorry I can’t stick around to witness more of this, but I have to go stop a very embarrassing mission report from going over the data burst.” He dipped his head in farewell, turned, and bolted from the infirmary.