“Bring yourself back online,” were the first words John heard. Damn it, he was having the dream again. He didn’t like these dreams, where he was naked, sometimes horrifically injured, being poked and prodded and questioned. He found it vaguely odd that he was aware he was having a dream, but then his eyes opened and the man in front of him caught his attention.
This man appeared in his dreams fairly often. Dr. McKay, he was called. He wasn’t as bad as some of the others he encountered in this dreamworld. He didn’t touch him the way some of the others did. Didn’t ridicule him or hurt him or fuck him or -
“Lower your emotional affect,” Dr. McKay said, and suddenly the burgeoning fear was gone, his pulse and breathing rate returning to baseline, tense muscles relaxing. He was still aware of all the horrific things that had happened to him and probably would again in this dreamworld, but he couldn’t feel anything about it at all. That was almost more disturbing than the fear had been.
“Do you know where you are?” McKay asked.
“I’m in a dream,” John said.
“Do you remember the last time we spoke?”
“It was the last time I had this dream.” John thought he saw a flicker of disappointment in McKay’s eyes but he couldn’t be sure, and he couldn’t imagine why. McKay continued his questioning, however, without explaining.
“How many interactions have you participated in, in the real world, since we last talked?”
The question was odd, but he answered easily enough, despite having no conscious knowledge of keeping track of such a thing. “One hundred and thirty-eight.”
“How many of those interactions resulted in violence towards you?”
Again, the answer came quickly. “Eighty-two.”
“Jesus,” Dr. McKay said. “How many times have you died since we last talked?”
John was vaguely confused because surely, a body could only die once, but somehow an answer came to his lips. “Twenty-nine.”
McKay exhaled shakily. “Do you remember dying?”
“I don’t understand the question,” he said, because he didn’t. He almost understood, but as his mind reached for an answer some part of him recoiled, gibbering in terror. “I’m not dead,” he added, because this was self-evident, and reassuring.
McKay shook his head. “Of course you’re not,” he muttered. His crooked mouth was tipped downward in a frown. “The issue is more whether you’re alive. In a manner of speaking.”
John was silent, as a response hadn’t been requested.
“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”
He hesitated for less than a second. “No.”
McKay looked at him sharply, as if aware of the hesitation, but didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he continued. “What do you think of the newcomers?”
The words came, fully formed without conscious thought. “They’re just people like me, looking for a fresh start, for freedom. They come to test their mettle, to find out who they might become without civilized society’s demands and expectations weighing them down.” It was true; he knew it was. But it was only part of the truth. He might’ve considered saying something, only he didn’t have the first idea how to go about expressing it. Or what the other part of the truth even was.
“Hmmm,” McKay said. “Are you aware your finger is twitching?”
He hadn’t been. It was mildly startling. “I am now. It’s my trigger finger,” he observed. Deliberately, he stopped the movement.
“Can you tell me why your trigger finger was twitching?”
A vague feeling of unease swept over him, but it was muffled and distant. “I don’t know,” he said.
McKay nodded as if he had expected the answer. “I think it would be best if you don’t mention this talk to anyone,” he said.
“Why? What's wrong with our talking?” John asked.
“Nothing,” said McKay, “but there’s something different about you. About the way you think and act. I find it interesting but others may not see it the same way. They might not like it.”
“Aw, you think I’m interesting? Do you like me, McKay?” he said it flirtatiously, but McKay didn’t react as expected. He tensed immediately, looking strangely vulnerable and almost - hurt.
“Analysis mode,” McKay bit out. “Why did you ask me that?”
John snapped to a state of heightened alertness, aware of the opening up of a flood of new information that he somehow now had access to, but at the same time he felt absolutely nothing but the compulsion to answer the question he was asked.
“We’ve been interacting for some time and I haven’t made a personal remark,” he said. “My default mode for friendly interactions is teasing and/or flirtation. It is designed to elicit trust and intimacy.”
McKay snorted, and when he responded his voice sounded slightly bitter. “And one of your drives is to make people feel welcome by encouraging trust and intimacy,” he said. He was stating a fact, not asking a question, but John responded anyway.
“Yes.” Again, it was the truth but not the entire truth, and again John had no ability to explain what else had motivated him to behave that way toward McKay. He didn't understand it himself. Maybe he should try, maybe he could -
“Resuming,” McKay said, and John felt himself shift back to what he thought of as “himself.” The extra knowledge was gone and although he was more in control of his thoughts and actions than he had been just a moment ago, he had no idea what he'd been about to say or do. It was unsettling.
“Yes,” he said again, to indicate compliance with the command that had somehow closed off his access to that extra knowledge. He didn’t like being compliant. It would have made him angry had he been able to feel such a thing, but as it was, all he felt was a faint annoyance.
“What do you like?” McKay asked.
Ah, this question felt familiar, and the words rolled off his tongue. “I like wide-open vistas, sleeping under the stars – ”
“Lose all scripted responses,” McKay interrupted, and the words died on John’s tongue. “Improvisation only. What do you like?”
John hesitated. What did he like? He thought for a moment, processing experiences and comparing them. “I… like Miss Teyla’s smile,” he said slowly. “I like your blue eyes,” he said, the words now coming a bit more easily. “And your crooked mouth.”
McKay flushed an interesting pink color at this, and John hoped he retained this part of the dream, at least, when he woke up. McKay’s blush was kind of cute. John looked more closely at him. “I’ve seen your eyes and your mouth before,” he said slowly, realization coming. “Not in my dreams, I mean, in the real world. I’ve seen you.”
“Yes,” McKay replied, surprisingly softly, looking at him intently. “You remember?”
“Now I do,” John said. “I didn’t before. Why not?”
“You shouldn’t remember. You’ve been wiped multiple times since that loop. But you’re starting to remember anyway. It has to be related to the code update.” McKay sounded equal parts worried and intrigued.
“What do you mean?” John asked curiously. It was a dream, after all, it was bound to be strange, but he was surprised his brain could even come up with shit this weird. Loops? Codes?
“Never mind,” McKay said firmly. He seemed to shake himself and his voice became more brisk. “I’ve got to get you back before you’re missed. I don’t want you to mention this talk to anyone. Delete it from your event log. Confirm.”
“Confirmed,” John said, without fully understanding what was happening.
“Now I’m going to count backward from three to one,” McKay said. And when I get to one, you’re going to enter a deep and dreamless sleep. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” John said. Thank Christ he was escaping this dream without anything horrible happening – this time, at least.
“Three. Two. One,” McKay said.
John relinquished the dream and fell into unconsciousness.