She would have liked to be able to attribute this turn of events to the fact that the city itself had moved recently, but so far none of the nightmares she'd heard about from Doctor Heightmeyer seemed to have anything to do with their relocation to a different planet. The first dream had been traced back to the night after John's team went on their last mission, but that was only a tentative clue that didn't help her much when it came to finding out what was going on. Ronon in particular had been uncomfortable to talk about anything he'd dreamed about, and while Teyla and Keller had shared a few details, there was still clearly something they were uncomfortable talking about. Lorne had at least been open to talking about his own experience, easily getting past the embarrassment of essentially 'sleepwalking' once it became clear that something external was responsible for this, but that still didn't help them work out the cause.
The initial dreams on their own could have just been a freaky coincidence, and even Lorne's 'regression' could be attributed to the stress of knowing that a new wave of Replicators were still out there, but after Doctor Heightmeyer had nearly jumped off one of the city's balconies before John had managed to pull her back to safety- even if he'd had to knock her out to make sure she didn't try that again- it was clear that there was more going on than simple nightmares. She didn't believe that John had anything to do with what was happening in the sense that he was involved on purpose, but she, Beckett and Keller had talked briefly about the dreams and had all agreed that the fact that the dreams had all started after John had come in contact with that strange crystal on his team's last mission couldn't be a coincidence. She'd shared some of her concerns with John, even as she tried to make it clear that she didn't blame him for anything that was happening, and he'd proposed their current attempt as a solution to the problem.
"Why are we doing this?" Ronon looked sceptically at Elizabeth, even as the city's senior staff sat around the strange device John had managed to provide for them from one of the labs. "It's just a few odd dreams about some guy-"
"Who's also the only truly consistent thing that's appeared in any of your dreams from what we've heard about them so far," Doctor Heightmeyer said firmly; Elizabeth had failed to press the doctor into admitting exactly what she'd been dreaming about, but she'd given them enough to be sure she'd seen the same strange man as the rest of the 'victims' so far. "I appreciate that none of you know him, but when we live in a world where Earth's primary 'gate exploration team can all share contact with the same cybernetic entity through wireless microscopic implants, sometimes instinct is all we have to go on with the things we encounter out here."
"Add in the intensity of what you've experienced while… under the influence, shall we say?" John put in. "I think we should make this better safe than sorry even if I wasn't involved somehow."
"If this turns out to be nothing," Elizabeth put in, "we apologise in advance for wasting time with this, but either way, I want to be sure we haven't missed anything."
"And this thing is going to solve the question of this guy's identity… how?"
"It picks up on your mental impression of the subject and generates an image of him," John explained from where he stood against the wall, wearing his mask and cloak as he looked probingly at the screen in the middle of the table, Ronon, Teyla and Keller sitting around it with three wire-frame 'helmets' on their heads linked to the screen. "It's tricky to explain how it works, and it would obviously be easier if we were dealing with something you'd actually seen rather than something you dreamt, but considering that this figure played such a big role in these nightmares, so long as you all focus on them it should give us something if the theory holds."
Elizabeth was about to ask what would happen if the theory was wrong when the screen shimmered for a few moments before it came into focus. Matching the descriptions given by all the dreamers, the man presented on the screen was a well-built figure, imposing without being overly tall or muscular, giving the impression of a wiry strength that didn't need bulk to back it up.
"That's him," Ronon confirmed.
"Looks right to me," Keller added, as Heightmeyer simply nodded shakily at the sight.
"Oh," John said, his tone grim as he studied the screen.
"You know who that is?" Elizabeth asked, looking inquiringly over at John.
"Yeah…" John said, his expression grim as he stared at the screen. "When I first got here, after I learned what… well, what my face looked like now… and got some kind of idea about what bits of Ancient tech did what, I ran my DNA through this DNA profiler thing I found in one of the labs; lets you see what you'll like as you get older, work out if your kids are going to be born with any kind of birth defect so that you can get it removed, that sort of thing…"
"Uh… not that hearing about Ancient technology isn't fascinating, but what does that have to do with this?" McKay asked, looking pointedly at the Phantom.
"Simple," John said, as he glanced over at McKay. "This is what I would have looked like if the transporter accident hadn't happened to me."
Elizabeth blinked as she stared at the image on the screen before them.
It did look a bit like John did when he was wearing his 'make-up', now that he mentioned it; she guessed that the distortion effect of viewing the memory of a dream with this thing had thrown the image off a bit more than she had expected. The figure's face was a bit narrower than what she had come to expect of John when he was looking… she would use the term 'average' because 'normal' inspired connotations about his regular face that she didn't like… but that could be explained by the fact that the make-up needed to convincingly cover the damaged portions of John's face while presenting a natural impression, while this would have been his natural skin. She was surprised to see that John's natural hair was far messier than what she'd come to expect, but she supposed John must have starting cutting his hair closer to his head in order to wear his mask more comfortably.
"You know, you're right…" McKay noted, looking between the screen and John in surprise for a moment before slapping his head in frustration. "Damnit; why didn't I see that before?"
"You weren't looking for it," John shrugged. "Amazing what you miss because you weren't looking for it."
"Yeah, but the make-up doesn't make that much difference-"
"The circumstances should also be considered," Teyla noted. "We are all still adjusting to the notion that there is… to be blunt-"
"The idea that there could be a normal-looking face under this mask?" John shrugged. "Hey, I have trouble with that idea myself sometimes; I don't keep the old mask on just because I like the look."
Elizabeth didn't like to consider the implications of what that said about John; she knew that he was troubled by thoughts of what he'd had to do to survive in Pegasus, but the notion that he had trouble thinking there could be ever be anything behind his mask but the face that made every human in this galaxy attack him…
"So you think this guy is like… Dark Knight Returns?" Lorne looked uncertainly over at John.
"What?" John asked, looking over at Lorne inquiringly.
"Dark Knight Returns; it's a Batman graphic novel looking at a possible future where Batman returns to action a decade after he retired," Lorne explained. "Two-Face- you heard of him, right?"
"The guy who took acid to the head and ended up going nuts from the brain damage while developing a major obsession with the number two?" John asked, looking uncertainly at his official second-in-command. "Yeah, I know who he is…"
"It's just… what you described reminds me of what happened to Two-Face in that story," Lorne explained, as he looked around the table. "At the start of the story Two-Face received plastic surgery to restore his face to normal, but the resulting transformation, rather than allowing Harvey Dent to return to what he'd been before the accident, instead caused him to completely become his evil self as there wasn't a visual 'distinction' any more. His trademark coin was scarred on both sides, he set up a room so that the shadow was overtaking it where he would have maintained a balance before, things like that…"
"And… what?" McKay asked, indicating John in frustration. "Are we suggesting that Sheppard here thinks on some level that the same thing will happen to him if he gets his face fixed?"
"There's a difference between believing that's what'll happen and being afraid of it happening," John replied, clasping his hands as he looked over at the Canadian scientist. "The face reminds me of what I am and what I've dedicated myself to be; take that away, and… well, I'm not sure what I'd be."
"John-" Elizabeth reached out to take his hand.
"It's just… something I need to work on," John said, shrugging off her attempt at comfort as he looked around the table. "The point is that gives us something to work with; if this image appeared in all your dreams, we have to be dealing with some kind of mental entity."
"And it manifested as you?" Keller asked.
"After contact with the crystal that it originally came from," Elizabeth noted, remembering that part of the report with new importance; it might be a leap, but it was the only thing that stood out in recent reports.
"So… what are we thinking?" Lorne asked. "Something in the crystal jumped into Sheppard and used him as a template to attack us in our dreams? Why would it do that?"
"Feeding on our fear?" Keller asked, shrugging awkwardly as the rest of the table looked at her. "I'll shut up."
"It's not that big a leap, but we just don't have any proof," Elizabeth said.
"I can't decide if this is good luck or bad luck," John noted. "I touch this thing and it uses me to attack everyone else, but I'm not affected by anything it has to throw at us?"
"Its spread may be limited by touch," Beckett noted. "It got loose through John, jumped into Teyla when he touched her, spread to Jennifer after she examined Teyla, went to Ronon after she treated him, jumped to Evan while they were training, and then jumped to Kate while she was talking with him?"
"That… makes sense," Heightmeyer nodded. "And we have to acknowledge that we're dealing with an explicitly dangerous entity; if my own experience is any example, the version of the Phantom appearing in our dreams bears all the hallmarks of a sociopath."
"Great," John muttered. "We're being hunted by a 'real' Freddy Krueger?"
"That's probably a good analogy, if we take… well, if we take what it tried to do to me as an example," Heightmeyer nodded, a slight tremor in her voice the only sign of her acknowledging how close she'd come to death. "So far it's restricted to nightmares, but if it could expand to inducing waking hallucinations in myself and Major Lorne, for all we know it could even be capable of taking control of a subject under the right circumstances."
"If we're going to do this, we're going to need a better idea of what we're dealing with," Elizabeth said grimly. "Which means the first step is to go back to that planet and find another one of those crystal creatures so that we can compare a creature in its natural state to the one we have already."
"Ah," McKay said. "Can I volunteer Zelenka be the one to pick that crystal up this time around?"
Sitting in the conference room, John refused to allow himself to consider his doubts; they were in a dangerous situation, but they had to be able to do something to stop this thing before it went any further.
After they'd retrieved an active crystal from the planet, taking care not to make direct contact with it, it hadn't taken long for the science department to confirm that they were dealing with some kind of energy-based life form that could travel through conductive material, even if they could only track the creature that was already in the city rather than giving them any ideas on how to capture it. There was still no clear evidence if the creature would be conscious and aware when the current 'host' wasn't dreaming, but for the moment they were going to assume that they had a chance to catch it off-guard until they knew otherwise.
They'd worked out that the creature was using the power conduits to travel through the city, rather than somebody just touching the previous host, but while they'd been able to identify its current 'host' as McKay and relocate him to a specially insulated room, aside from making sure he stayed awake until they had a plan to purge it from him, their ideas were limited. Elizabeth had tentatively suggested that an attempt be made to reason with the creature, but they all knew that there was no real chance that was going to work with something like this.
"From what we've seen of this… thing… I'm not sure talking to it would work," Beckett said. "Considering what we've seen of some of the really twisted cases back on Earth, if this thing's anything like a human psychopath, it'd probably prefer dying in one last hurrah than just walking out."
"Which would mean that it would kill Doctor McKay," John noted solemnly.
"Couldn't we use its desire for survival against it?" Doctor Keller asked.
"That depends on whether it will actually die in a contained environment like the one we've placed it in," Elizabeth noted. "And obviously, considering the risk to Doctor McKay, I'd rather not test that."
"We could give it a chance to leave and go home," Teyla suggested.
"Back into the crystal?"
"Why not?" John shrugged.
"It's certainly possible to talk people through waking dreams with the right level of hypnosis," Elizabeth noted. "Maybe we can induce a level of waking dream where McKay can talk to it himself…"
"You want McKay to ask this thing to leave?" Ronon said.
"Good point," John sighed. "All due deference to the man, but he isn't the best qualified to deal with something scary."
"A creature that can theoretically manipulate his subconscious to induce his fears?" Lorne said. "Add in the fact that he'd be facing it on his own…"
"Maybe he doesn't have to," Elizabeth noted, looking over at the major and John with a thoughtful smile. "Did you take part in the VR training program back on Earth?"