"So," he looked over at Elizabeth, where she sat alongside the chair looking anxiously at him, "how safe is this tech?"
"I thought you read the files?"
"I read the report on how SG-1 got stuck in these chairs when they first visited the planet that made these things; I preferred to do my training in the field, so I skimmed over the technical details of how these things actually worked now," John clarified, suddenly feeling embarrassed at that oversight and grateful that the mask didn't show it.
"Well, for what it's worth, I spoke with Colonel Carter when we were getting these sent over, and they've been successfully used for VR training systems," Elizabeth explained. "It's just that calibrating them to focus on subconscious activity isn't something anyone's attempted before, so there may be some difficulty when it comes to the system translating what's going on in a manner that you can both comprehend, but…"
"We're not exactly blessed with an abundance of options here, are we?" John mused, as the container holding the dead crystal was carried into the lab. "Better get this over with."
"Right…" Elizabeth said, glancing around for a moment before leaning over to give John a quick kiss. "Good luck."
"Thanks," John said, flexing his shoulders in preparation for what was about to happen.
This fight might be far more literally mental than anything else he'd had to deal with since coming to Pegasus, but if he could teach himself to resist the Wraith's mental commands, he could certainly deal with this.
After McKay had fallen asleep, John didn't know exactly how long it took him to get to the point where he had actually established a connection with the Canadian scientist. There were a few moments when he was just lying alongside the other man, McKay twisting uncomfortably in the VR chair while John couldn't do anything more than lie and wait, but then he felt something surge along his brain, everything went dark…
He had no way to measure how long it actually took him to get to that point, but he soon found himself squatting in the rear of a small rowing boat, McKay sitting in the middle of the boat apparently trying to row through a large ocean in the pouring rain, Atlantis only just visible in the distance.
"… for the encouragement!" McKay yelled at a figure sitting at the other end of the boat. It only took John a moment to confirm that the other figure in the boat must be the creature using his appearance, albeit with a normal face and wearing a black Atlantis uniform rather than his 'civilian' outfit.
In a strange way, it was almost unnerving to see what he might have looked like if that teleportation accident had never happened; twenty years of living with his face might not have helped him accept what he looked like, but it still felt strange on some deeper level to think about what his life would have been like if this had never happened…
"…wanna help you?" the doppelganger said, glaring at McKay.
"Because I thought you-!" McKay began.
"That's not me, McKay!" John yelled. Turning around in the boat, the Canadian scientist jumped when he saw John sitting there, and a quick examination of his face revealed that John wasn't wearing his mask in this illusion, even if the exposed bone didn't feel quite as tender as it had when he'd gone outside without the mask before the expedition came.
"Seriously," John continued, glaring at McKay while indicating his doppelganger with one hand even as he found it hard to take the other away from his face, "how could you think he was me?"
"Well…" McKay protested awkwardly as he waved a hand at John's face. "I thought you'd look… well, normal; we're basically looking at your own view of yourself-!"
"I haven't seen myself as 'normal' since I was stuck in another galaxy when I was fifteen years old, McKay," John pointed out.
"You're pathetic," the other John said, still talking to McKay in a manner that made it unclear if he was just ignoring John or really didn't know he was there. "You might as well jump in."
"Don't be afraid," John said, as McKay looked uncertainly between the two.
"Oh, I have to get back," McKay said, starting to row once again. "I have to get back; that's my only chance."
"You're going to die out here," the alien double said cockily.
"Shut up!" John glared at the other him, quickly moving into position to take the other oar of McKay's boat. "We have to get out of this; just row!"
It was a simplistic solution to the current problem, but in a world where dream-logic was a genuine thing, this was the best option he had to offer right now.
"You know," he mused after a few moments, trying not to voice any doubts about his double's current silence, "this really isn't as strange as you'd led us to believe."
"Oh yeah?" McKay indicated over his shoulder. "What about that?"
Glancing in the indicated direction, John raised a critical eyebrow at the sight of a clown of all things sitting on the end of the boat; he'd had issues with clowns as a child, but after so long being the one who scared a race of alien monsters while wearing a mask, there wasn't much that could scare him these days.
Outside of the thing that's putting us in this mess in the first place…
"You can paddle all you want," the double called to him mockingly. "You're not going anywhere."
"He's right!" McKay looked desperately at John. "I'm gonna die out here!"
"He wants us to be afraid," John said. "Don't listen to him; he can't really hurt you."
"That's where you're wrong," the double said, vanishing from the boat. John didn't need two decades of life alone in Atlantis to realise that wasn't a good thing, but even he hadn't expected their boat to suddenly be surrounded by two large jaws with massive sharp teeth, which swiftly closed on their small boat…
The next few moments after that were more of a blur for John than anything else. He recalled waking up to see McKay being shocked with a defibrillator, Beckett and Keller each fighting to restart his heart with every method available…
And it didn't work, his mind kept telling him, as he strode grimly through Atlantis, not even aware if he had put his mask back on. I took that risk, and McKay still ended up dead…
"This is all your fault," Teyla's voice suddenly cut in, glaring coldly at him.
"If you hadn't touched that crystal, McKay would still be alive," Ronon added.
"So much for the legend of the Phantom," Beckett cut in, a cold expression on the doctor's face that he had never pictured before.
"You failed, John," Elizabeth said coldly.
Just as John was trying to react to these developments, he found himself staring past Elizabeth at the other version of himself standing by a corner, looking at him with a cold glare.
"You son of a bitch!" he roared, charging towards the other John with a roar, knocking them both through the wall behind the man before John had even registered what they'd just done. As he landed on the floor of the gateroom, John quickly rolled off the entity and took stock of his surroundings as he scrambled to his feet, the active Stargate behind them but the room as a whole the same cool blue it had been back when he lived alone in the city under the sea.
"Quit this," he said, finding himself back in the Phantom garb as he drew his sword, shifting into a combat stance as he glared at his enemy. "You know I'm not afraid of you."
"Oh yes you are," the other John smiled, still wearing his Atlantis BDUs even as he drew his own blade. "I'm the only two things you are afraid of; your fear of failure, and the fear of what you are."
"The fear that I'm the Phantom?" John countered, praying that he still had some kind of advantage over this thing…
"The fear that you're nothing but the Phantom," his double countered coldly. "And the fact that you wouldn't have it any other way."
"NO!" John yelled, charging towards his doppelganger, only for the alien to evade the first couple of punches before striking him in the face with a powerful blow. Lost for better options, John traded blows with his enemy for a few moments, but his other self soon gained the upper hand with an elbow to the throat, following the attack up with a kick to the stomach. Temporarily winded, John fought to get his breath back, but even as the alien gave him a moment to get back to his feet, it swiftly moved to deliver a roundhouse kick to John's dead. Only John's experience fighting Wraith gave him the edge he needed to deflect the creature's kick and knock him off-balance, sending the enemy to the ground.
Roaring in rage, John kicked out at the creature's side, aiming for whatever his enemy had instead of ribs, only for his enemy to roll with the blow and spring to his feet with the kind of speed John wasn't used to seeing from anything that locked like a normal human. Ducking under his enemy's latest punch, John managed to grad its arm and spin the creature around to face him, only for the other him to deflect his next punch and slam his fist into John's face. Stunned once again, John couldn't regain his concentration before the alien grabbed him and hurled him across the room, slamming into the wall with such force that he could feel the metal dent behind him.
"The line between you and the Wraith?" the doppelganger mused mockingly, stepping back as John fell to the floor. "There isn't one; you might not 'eat' your victims, but you certainly do everything else to the people you've decided aren't worth saving."
"I'm not a monster-" John spat, fighting through the disorientation of that last blow.
"Because one woman's fallen for your act?" his doppelganger countered, grinning mockingly at him as he hauled John to his feet with the cloak. "You keep on taking people apart because you don't like them; how long do you think it's going to be before she realises what you really are?"
John didn't even have time to counter that statement before the alien picked him up and threw him to the top of the control room stairs. Crashing down at the top, John struggled onto his back, registering his enemy coming up the stairs as he sat up. John only just got back to his feet when the alien punched him across the face again, staggering backwards once again.
John had no idea if anything he was doing here actually made a difference to anything that the rest of the team might be attempting outside this mental environment, but at least he felt like he was doing something at the moment, even if his other self was basically kicking his ass. When another punch sent John flying to the edge of the control room, slamming into the wall with the kind of force he hadn't felt since he became fast enough to avoid Wraith, John forced himself to focus long enough to evade the next blow, but even a punch that damaged the wall of the city wasn't enough to make this psychopath stop. As every subsequent punch made it harder and harder for John to maintain his focus even as he staggered back, his enemy finally struck out with a kick so powerful that it sent John flying through the railing behind him, landing on the floor of the gateroom below.
Damn… John thought to himself, rolling over and wishing that he had the time to cry in frustration. I'm just feeding this thing right now…
"Get up and fight," the entity said, as it landed on the floor beside him after an uncomfortably graceful jump.
"No…" John countered, carefully getting to his feet as he looked at the creature. "That's what you want… I fight you… I affirm the fear…"
"Nice deduction," the doppelganger smiled at him. "That said, it doesn't do you any good; either you provoke me by fighting me, or you power me up by affirming your fear of me."
"But… I don't… fear you…" John countered, fighting down the urge to give in to the terror.
"You really need to face the truth," John's double said firmly. "It's your fault so many people have suffered because of me, it's your fault so many people died because you were scared of screwing up the timeline back on Earth, and it's definitely your fault McKay is dead."
"I'm not dead!" McKay suddenly yelled. Stepping back from John, the entity turned around, giving John a chance to get back to his feet and watch as his other self slammed McKay against the wall.
"You can't win," his darker self said, looking mockingly at McKay as the Canadian grimaced in pain.
"Yes we can," McKay countered with a smirk. "You're vulnerable to electric shock. That's why I'm still alive; you left before you could finish the job!"
The doppelganger was prevented from responding to that statement when electricity suddenly surged through him, leaving the evil John screaming as he stumbled backwards. John had no idea if this next attempt would do anything, but he seized the opportunity to draw his sword from his back and thrust it through his doppelganger's heart, trying not to acknowledge how profoundly disturbing this was as he watched his other self fall to his knees, blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
"I'm not the monster," John said, carefully getting to his feet before yanking the sword out of his counterpart's chest, following it up by spinning the sword to cut off the entity's 'head', adjusting his body mid-motion to kick the severed head through the active Stargate in practically the same moment.
"OK," McKay said, glancing between the Stargate and the headless corpse on the floor. "I can't decide if that was really cool or really disturbing."
"Think of it as both," John said, wiping the sword on his cloak out of habit, even if such a feat was obviously pointless when he wasn't actually in the real world right now. "I get that doing something like that was probably more symbolic than anything else, but it… I like to be thorough."
"On every level," McKay noted, glancing over John's shoulder and smiling slightly. "And there's what I'd expect when I'm in your mind."
Turning around to see what had prompted that comment, John was taken aback to see Elizabeth Weir standing at the top of the stairs leading from the gate to the rest of the room, wearing an elegant red dress with her hair in the loose shoulder-length style that John was rapidly coming to consider his favourite look.
"John," she said, looking at him with a warm smile.
"Hi," John said, nodding at the woman with an awkward smile, wishing with everything he had that McKay wasn't watching this. "Well… bye."
It might be stupid to feel embarrassed about anything when you were talking about a scenario that was only taking place in your mind, but before the imaginary Elizabeth could take more than a couple of steps in his direction, John had turned around and-
He was sitting up in the lab, looking anxiously around himself, only relaxing when he saw McKay sitting up on the other bed and the now-glowing crystal between them, the rest of the city's senior staff gathered around the two of them.
"You all right?" Beckett asked, looking uncertainly at the man with the twisted face.
"As good as anyone can be when he had to cut off his own head," John mused.
"What?" Keller looked at him incredulously.
"Whole thing with me taking out the other me in some fight that I get was basically symbolic of my strength of will trumping its strength of will," John clarified with a shrug, doing his best to underplay the psychological impact of what he'd just been through. "Even by our standards, this has been a very weird day."
"But," Elizabeth put in, indicating the crystal with a smile, "the important thing is that you did what you always do as the Phantom; you stopped it."
"Yeah…" John reflected, carefully getting to his feet as he stood up off the bed. "Like you said… it's what I do."
"And what I did doesn't count for anything?" McKay cut in, looking at John in an indignant manner that seemed exaggerated even by the scientist's usual standards.
"Maybe we should get this creature out of the city before we begin to congratulate ourselves?" Teyla asked.
"Good call," John nodded, his gaze now fixed on the crystal that had forced him to confront so many dark parts of himself. "The sooner we get this thing out of Atlantis, the happier I'll be…"
And then the sooner I can stop thinking about everything it had to say to me…