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Travis ([personal profile] torachan) wrote2009-11-12 04:54 am
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Fic commentary: The Fourteenth of Green

This is commentary for my [livejournal.com profile] mcshep_match fic. Read the fic sans commentary here.

My prompt was "writing on the wall", which I chose because it seemed like the best of a bad lot in terms of something that would fit the story I already had in mind.

And then I realised I wouldn't be able to finish the story I had been working on and had to drop it and when trying to think of something else to do, I decided to take the prompt literally. (Though it works here metaphorically as well.)

My first thoughts were maybe some sort of post-apocalyptic AU where John and Rodney meet or communicate by graffiti on a wall, but nothing was really solidifying in that direction, and I eventually I hit on this.


It has been three weeks. Rodney marks another line on the wall. These ones are in red, a clean break to mark the days without John.

I start right off with the "writing on the wall" theme. I rewrote this fic so many times to try and make this less confusing, but apparently it was still confusing to a lot of people. I wanted some things to be confusing, but the writing on the wall was actually supposed to help people figure out what was happening when, since the timeline is not linear.

One of the things I did want to remain a mystery was what was going on with John in this first part. I wanted people to think he was gone, but not dead. I think that part worked pretty well, anyway.


He shuts off the lights and the computer and lets his eyes adjust to the darkness. There's no moon tonight, or if there is, it's hidden behind the clouds. The perpetual cloud cover would brighten the sky in the Angels, but out here there's not enough light pollution to reflect back.

His back makes a couple satisfying pops as he stretches. His neck cracks easily, too, as do his knuckles. No wonder, considering he's been hunched over his desk all day, barely moving. It's well past dark now and he thinks the last time he got up the sun was still high.

He should have quit hours ago, or at least switched the lights to the back-up generator. He may have the Inland Sea between him and the Angels, but that doesn't mean he's safe out here. At the very least, he's let himself in for another lecture from Ronon.

The Angels is Los Angeles. [personal profile] helens78 did pick up on that in the beta, though I'm not sure if other readers did or not. I was picturing this as not just a post-apocalyptic world, but a post-cataclysmic world, so the layout of the land has changed as well (thus the Inland Sea, which I imagined as major flooding through the valley regions).

Still, it's hard to quit, even for a few hours. He always works himself hard when he's close to a breakthrough, and he's close now, so close he can taste it.

He can also taste bile, and now that he's no longer focused on his project, he can feel his stomach trying to eat itself. He scarfs down a can of something without tasting it, then showers quickly, not bothering to heat the water.

His mind is still racing when he lies down, going over and over the day's work, running simulations of tomorrow's. By the time sleep finally comes, the sky is starting to lighten, but he hauls himself up not long after dawn anyway.

He has good light in the mornings if he moves everything over in front of the wide windows on the east side of the room. He can't afford to waste it. Ronon's good at line-running, but nothing's guaranteed, and the more power Rodney uses, the more likely he is to get caught.

Ronon is a runner in this universe, just of a different sort. Line-running involves illegally rerouting power lines to people who don't want the sort of government interference legal power consumption would entail. Line-running is a fulltime job. You have to continually change reroute the lines so as not to send up any red flags. I imagine that even when they were living in the city, Ronon kept them all off the grid.

He makes a pot of coffee on the ancient camp stove and rounds out his breakfast with a handful of antacids.

So the main thing I wanted to get across in this first scene is that Rodney is out somewhere alone working on something that is very important to him. Important enough that he barely thinks about things like eating, which he's normally quite fond of.

***

Two weeks later the hoped-for breakthrough is still nowhere in sight. He's gone over every last inch of the wiring a thousand times and there just doesn't seem to be anything wrong. Which is impossible, of course. If there were really nothing wrong, it would be working. He doesn't want to consider the alternative, that it's nothing in the wires or chips or connectors, but in the organic matter itself.

Helens helped me a lot with clarifying stuff in these early sections. It was a real balancing act to try and get in enough hints so that readers wouldn't be completely in the dark, but keep it vague enough early on so that when it does become clear it packs more of a punch. I was way to vague in the first draft.

He reaches behind his ear to unplug the cord from his jack, then rests his elbows on the desk, grinding his thumbs into his temples as if he could dig the headache out. It's afternoon now and starting to get dim. His head appreciates the lack of glaring sun, but he needs the lights on if he wants to get anything done. He'll take some pills to dull the throbbing, maybe some antacids while he's at it.

He's just about to get up and close the curtains when his screen beeps at him. He knows it's Teyla without looking up; no one but Teyla ever calls anymore.

He washes down a handful of painkillers and antacids with lukewarm coffee and taps the screen.

"Teyla," he says curtly. "I am extremely busy right now, as I'm sure you can see."

Her eyes widen as she looks him over. He knows he must look horrible. His clothes are hanging off him and he can't remember the last time he showered. The corners of her mouth turn down and she says, "I just wanted to make sure you're all right." She hesitates, then adds, "Why don't you come back to the city? Whatever it is you're working on, I'm sure we can get you set up here..."

"Impossible! They're too strict, too many regulations. You know getting out of the Angels is the only way to escape government interference, and besides, there's Wraith to worry about, too."

"That's over, Rodney. It's been over a year since the last outbreak..."

Like with Ronon being a Runner, I wanted to have the virus be another nod to canon. I originally just had Teyla saying "it's been over a year..." so that it was ambiguous as to whether or not this was the same Wraith as in canon. At Helens's (who was a lifesaver, btw) suggestion, I got rid of the ambiguity there as it's not really necessary.

"Right, because those outbreak reports were totally trustworthy last time. Tips to stay healthy, my ass." He sighs and rubs his temples again. "Please, Teyla, just let it go."

And Rodney's response was stuck in as a bit of clarification so that hopefully then when you see John and Rodney watching TV at the end, it will be obvious that it's in the past.

She raises her arm slightly, then lets it fall, and for a moment his resolve wavers. He could abandon all this. He could go back and Teyla would hold him and say it's all right.

"I know you're hurting, Rodney. I know you miss him. We all do, but you're--"

"You don't know anything! I don't want platitudes about time and healing." He balls his fists, his nails digging into his palms. "Time does not fucking heal anything. Time cannot make this right. I have to--"

"Okay," she says. "Okay, Rodney, it's all right." She keeps saying that--It's okay. It's all right.--until he stops shaking.

After a long time, she says, "I wish you'd let me come out there. I know you see Ronon, but he won't tell me anything."

He straightens. "I have employed Ronon in a professional capacity. I should hope he can be trusted not to divulge a client's whereabouts." And Ronon doesn't ask questions, he doesn't say.

"We're your friends."

"I know."

"I miss you."

"I miss you, too."

There's nothing to say after that but goodbye. Rodney makes promises he knows he won't keep about calling her and maybe even coming to visit. They both know he'll never go back to the Angels.

I'm really pleased with this conversation in general. It manages to get quite a lot of info across while not feeling expositiony. (It's not a "as you know, Bob" type of conversation; everything flows naturally.) Also I just like the way Rodney and Teyla interact here.

***

After nine weeks and two days, he finally finds the problem. He zooms in to get a better look. It's just a small patch, not even visible to the naked eye yet, but it's obviously spreading. Some sort of cellular decomposition, it looks like, turning the soft, greyish cortex to mush. He notices then how the connectors are ever-so-slightly pulling away from the surrounding healthy tissue, which doesn't look so healthy itself anymore.

"No," he says. "No. Nonononono."

He yanks the cord out of his jack, slaps the screen to power down, and puts his head in his hands.

He stays at his desk, but doesn't get any more work done the rest of the day.

For such a short scene, this one really gave me a lot of trouble. It's another one of those "how vague is too vague?" ones, and it took a while to get the words right in that first paragraph.

***

The next day he's back at his desk bright and early. He will not let this break him. If he has to discard the entire interface and build a new neural network from scratch, he will.

Both "interface" and "neural network" are totally from Helens. Anyone who thought this was confusing? IT WAS TOTALLY WAY MORE CONFUSION BEFORE HER HELP. There was a lot of "thing" as in "if he has to discard the entire thing", which I knew was probably too vague, but I just wasn't coming up with another way to do it until she started tossing out suggestions. This is why I always use a beta!

In fact, he should have done so in the beginning. Maybe it would have prevented all these false starts.

He works late night after night, not caring how much power he uses. He has a plan now, a goal. He jacks in and downloads his memories, spends hours sifting through and tagging anything that looks like it could be used to build the new network. It would be better if he had more than just the one source, but he can't afford to tell anyone about this, not even Ronon and Teyla.

Especially not Ronon and Teyla.

Ronon and Teyla, two people who would totally not be down with Project Zombie John.

***

Ronon shows up less than a week later, the sound of his motorcycle sending Rodney scrambling to hide anything incriminatory. After powering down and making sure everything is in order, he goes out to meet him. He expects a lecture, but Ronon takes one look at him and shakes his head. "Working yourself to death's not going to change anything, you know."

Rodney almost says of course it is, but catches himself just in time. "I'm in the middle of a very important project," he huffs. "And I'm not working myself to death."

"Uh-huh." Ronon looks at him skeptically and starts unpacking his saddlebags. "When was the last time you ate?"

"Yester...day?" Rodney says, taking a stack of canned goods and instant meals from Ronon.

"And I know you haven't been sleeping, 'cause I've been juggling lines like crazy trying to hide all the juice you've been using."

"If you can't handle it, I can find another runner."

Ronon snorts. "And find yourself hauled back to the Angels for illegal energy usage in less than a week."

He stays the night and most of the next day and Rodney doesn't even mind the interruption.

I wanted to show with this section, and especially with the last line, that Rodney could go back with Ronon and Teyla and be happy. He would miss John, of course, but he has friends who care for him, and it's like he doesn't even realise he's made this so much worse on himself.

***

Rodney stands back and looks at the colors marching left to right across the wall, starting with black and all the way through the rainbow. There are more red lines than any other color, one hundred and seventy-four in neat sets of seven, and just a handful of brown at the end.

John sits on the sofa behind him, still dull-eyed and cryo-cold, shivering despite the blanket around his shoulders and mug of coffee in his hands. He doesn't say anything. He hasn't said anything all week.

Rodney draws a line diagonally across the six brown lines, and hopes tomorrow will be the day John responds to him.

So...some people read this and wanted to be hopeful. I won't crush your hopes! XD But I didn't particularly mean it to be hopeful when I wrote it, more just a sign of Rodney's desperation. But it is open-ended and I'm not one to say no, it has to be this way or that way.

This section is one of the ones that got rewritten so many times. It was really hard to get right, to get across what I wanted to get across. That middle paragraph, especially the first sentence, is the core of it, and that didn't change much despite many, many rewritings of this section.

Originally I had the lines starting over with black, but that was deemed too confusing, and considering the lines/colors were still confusing to many people, I'm glad I went with that advice.





Black, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange. John stares at the hash marks on the wall and frowns. "What are these for again?"

"That's how I keep track of my projects," Rodney says, not looking up from the screen.

This lead-in is important! It's exposition through dialogue, but I think done in a way that works, because John really doesn't know what's going on, so it's natural for him to ask questions.

And I wanted it to be obvious right off the bat that this was in the past, same with all these John sections, which is why they're all focused on the colors. The colors are important. John looks at the colors and there's no red, so I wanted it to be obvious that this came sometime before Rodney's red lines in the previous section. Again, things weren't as clear as I'd hoped.

But what I was going for is alternating between times when John is there and when he isn't. So every other color is a time when John is alive, and in between are times when Rodney is working on him. So the three John POVs here represent the three times he's been brought back to life (with a fourth time in the Rodney POV section above).


John traces the most recent lines with his fingertip. Whatever Rodney used to draw them doesn't rub off easily. "There's only four orange ones."

"That's because I started this project four days ago," Rodney says in that trying-to-be-patient impatient tone John's already grown familiar with.

John pads across the room and sits down on the edge of Rodney's desk. "Four days is the farthest back I can remember."

Rodney looks up at him. "And?"

"I don't know." John shrugs. "I thought. It seemed..."

He doesn't like the way the lines make him feel, like there's something just out of reach, but every time he tries to remember anything, anything at all before waking up in Rodney's bed four days ago, it just slips away.

He shrugs again and looks down at his hands. "Never mind."

"Hey." Rodney grabs his wrist, runs his thumb under John's cuff. "I'm sorry. I'm just stressed out about this project."

John makes himself smile. He slides to the floor and puts a hand on Rodney's knee. He says, "I know just the thing for stress."

Creepy! I don't think Rodney has consciously been altering John in any way. Like, he didn't set out to make John into a sexbot or whatever. But...he's not objective. I tried to hint at that in the first section, where he says he really should base the new neural network on more than one set of memories, but in the end, he goes ahead with it. And a John who is built entirely from Rodney's memories/impression of John is not really going to be John. And I wanted this scene to show that maybe it's already been happening.

Though I also think that John feels this is something (the one thing) he can do for Rodney, so he does it whether he wants to or not. Rodney is so intent on fixing the problem that he ignores John when he actually is there, and this is one way John can get Rodney's attention.


***

Thirty-four black, ninety-nine purple, forty-seven blue, thirteen green. If there's a pattern to the lines, John can't figure it out. Green is now, he knows that. Rodney makes a new line every night and John watches him, feeling anxious without knowing why.

His memory is more holes than not, but he doesn't remember keeping track of time like this. He doesn't remember there being a fourteenth of Green, but that's what today is.

When I was casting about for a title, [personal profile] telesilla suggested using The Fourteenth of Green and I really liked that a lot.

"Shit," Rodney says, and then John hears it, too: a rumble outside like something he should remember.

I really like that line, "a rumble outside like something he should remember".

Rodney grabs his arm, muttering, "Get up, get up. Come on," and John stumbles after him into the bedroom.

"What--"

"Just stay in here until Ronon's gone." He gives John a quick kiss. "Please."

"I...okay."

He wonders if Rodney and this Ronon guy are lovers, if that's why he has to hide. He doesn't think so, but he doesn't know why he thinks that.

He sits cross-legged on the bed, scratching idly at the scar along his hairline. Their voices are too low to make out any words. After a while, he hears footsteps outside the window and then singing. He pulls the curtain open just enough to peer out into the courtyard, where a man who must be Ronon is standing before the odd pile of stones Rodney won't talk about.

This scene is one of my favorites in the whole story. I just love the idea of Ronon coming out to pay his respects at (what he thinks is) John's grave, and I love the idea of John watching and knowing/not knowing.

The songs are old, real old. Twentieth-century old, a part of his brain supplies, though he doesn't know when that was or what century it is now. He doesn't know these songs about the man in black and a ring of fire, but his chest aches listening to them.

I really like this bit, too. I think I did a good job with this section of showing how much John's memory is deteriorating, all the little things that seem familiar yet aren't something he remembers. I also just really love the idea of Ronon singing Johnny Cash songs at John's grave.

***

John watches as Rodney draws another line on the wall. "Still purple?"

"Hmm?"

"I thought you'd switch to black again today."

Rodney frowns. "Why would you think that?"

"There's thirty-four black and thirty-four purple. Well, thirty-five now. So I thought..."

So it originally took Rodney over a month to bring John back to life.

"Oh. Oh, no, it doesn't work like that," Rodney says, powering down for the night. The only light is the faint glow from the bedroom down the hall. Or the room they use for a bedroom, anyway. John doesn't think that's what it was originally intended for.

He follows Rodney down the hall. "Then how does it work?"

"It's...to keep track of my projects."

Rodney isn't a very convincing liar, but John doesn't have the energy to pursue it any further. His head is throbbing again and he just wants to lie down.

This John doesn't accept everything Rodney says as unquestioningly as he does later.

He's already half-asleep when Rodney slips into bed and presses up behind him. Rodney kisses his shoulder and the back of his neck, carefully avoiding the port at the base of his skull. He slides a hand into John's boxers and wraps his fingers around his dick.

This Rodney is so different from the one who snaps at him for every question he asks, who sits in front of a screen for hours as if he's forgotten John even exists. John's head is killing him and he just wants to sleep, but this is the only time he doesn't feel like he's getting in the way of Rodney's work, whatever it is.

He presses back against Rodney's hard-on and tries to sound like he's enjoying it.

Again, creepy. And sad. And this time more explicitly stating that John feels like sex is the only way he can get Rodney's attention.




"Though the panic over the so-called Wraith virus reached a new high yesterday with country-wide riots," the newscaster says brightly, "we want to remind our viewers that there have only been thirty-one reported cases here in the Angels. For tips on how to stay healthy--"

"'Reported' being the key word there." Rodney snorts and shuts off the TV.

"Hey, I was watching for the tips to stay healthy!" John makes a half-hearted grab for the remote.

I really wanted it to be obvious that this final section takes place in the past. I had thought that John and Rodney watching TV together in the city would be enough on its own, but just in case, I put the reference to this newscast in Rodney's conversation with Teyla in the first part of the story.

The scene itself, and the idea that the government had severly downplayed the danger, was something I had planned from the very beginning. I must have rewritten the wording of the news report a dozen times, though.


"Don't," Rodney says, pushing himself up from the sofa. "Just...don't. It's not funny."

HINT.

"What else am I supposed to do?"

Rodney wanders into the kitchen. "You want something to eat?"

"Food doesn't solve everything, you know."

One of the things I wanted to highlight in this scene was how...normal John and Rodney were before, more like the John and Rodney we're used to. So there's banter and there's Rodney eating. Contrast that with Rodney forgetting to eat while he works himself to death, and the way he practically ignores John later on.

John is slow to join him. His shuffling footsteps sound like an old man's.

Hiiiiiiint.

Rodney keeps his head in the cupboard, staring blankly at the shelves.

"Don't ignore me, damn it!"

"I'm not. Ignoring you, I just." Rodney turns around, leans back against the counter and looks down at the floor. "I talked to Carson earlier. We'll get this fixed."

When I first started the story, I didn't really have Carson in mind at all, but as it went along, I thought he would be a good fellow mad-scientist for Rodney, so it became his facility that Rodney was using.

"How?" John grips Rodney's face in his hands. His skin is cold like ice. Like... "Look at me."

John's skin is grey-white, his eyes sunken and shadowed. He is still surprisingly strong.

So yeah. I'm pretty pleased with the reveal here. Hinted at in the previous paragraphs, and hopefully powerful once it's stated outright.

Because I'd decided to call the virus Wraith, I needed there to be a reason for the name. At first I thought maybe the official name of the virus could be something similar. Like how flu has letter/number combos like H1N1, it could be WR something or something like that, but that wasn't really working for me, so I decided it would just be a nickname based on the characteristics. So it makes you kind of zombie-looking.


***

He is not as strong when Ronon and Teyla come to see them off. He sits in the front seat of the old car, slumped against the passenger door.

They load everything in the back seat and fill up the trunk. They don't need a lot. Carson promised the facility would be fully stocked and in working order, and Ronon's already been out there once to make sure the lines are secure.

"I'll be out there in a week to rerun the lines." Ronon shuts the trunk and turns to look at Rodney. "If you still need me."

I had some early feedback that Ronon's mention of rerunning the lines made this seem like it came after the earlier sections, so I put in the previous line about Ronon having been out there once in an attempt to clarify that.

"I'll need you," Rodney says, but Ronon just looks at him sadly and hugs him again.

"Take care of him." He lets go, but leaves a hand on Rodney's shoulder. "Take care of yourself."

They said their goodbyes inside, but it doesn't make it any easier. Teyla reaches in the car window and hugs John awkwardly. Rodney can hear her whisper, "Goodbye, John," and John mumble something in reply.

"We'd better get going..." Rodney says, walking around to the driver's side. "It's a long drive."

Teyla hugs him one last time. She says, "You don't have to do this," and he leans into her. It would be so easy to give in. "You can let him die here, with friends."

N'awww, Teyla! If only Rodney had listened to you.

"No. No, he's not going to die." He pulls back from her, wraps his arms around himself tightly. "I can fix this."

I want to say it's not even totally about John, even at this point, but also about Rodney's pride and his ego. (I think this becomes more obvious later, when he's so focused on fixing "the problem" that he ignores John when he's there.)

***

The drive is longer than he thought, or maybe it just feels longer. He's never driven a manual before and all the little things he has to remember to do make him snappish and irritable. He wants to be able to program in their destination and sit back, to talk to John or just watch him while he sleeps, but navigation systems won't accept destinations outside of the city. To them, to most people, to Rodney yesterday, the area past the Inland Sea might as well not exist.

I'm not sure how well this came through, but what Rodney thinks of as a manual is what we would think of as an automatic. I liked the idea of him having to use an old car to get out of the city because with everything going by navigation systems, your options are kind of limited. You could go on the freeway out of the city, but it'd keep you on track to another major city, that sort of thing.

So he makes do with the manual, keeps his hands on the wheel and follows the tunnel out into the grey-black night. The stereo plays the old music John loves.

Another Johnny Cash reference.

They stop once at an abandoned rest area and Rodney leaves the car running and the headlights on so they're not totally in the dark. He helps John out of the car, holds him upright as he pisses and then as he hunches over the sink retching blood and bile.

He stops again an hour later, pulls over to the side of the road and puts his head down on the wheel. He lets the music play, though there's no one left to appreciate it.

I really like this paragraph a lot. Nice and understated.

After a while, he takes a deep breath, lets it out shakily. He calls Carson and skips over hello for, "How long do I have?"

"Rodney?"

"Yes, it's Rodney. How long do I--" There's a lump in his throat. "After he. I'm not there yet, and he."

"Oh," Carson says softly. "Oh, Rodney, I'm so sorry."

"Don't. I knew this was. I knew, but I..." He takes another deep breath. "I just want to know if it's still possible."

"The longer you wait, the more chance there is of damage to the tissue you want to save, but it can still be done."

Rodney closes his eyes. "That's all I needed to know."

"I know you don't have much experience with applied cybernetics--"

"I know the theory," Rodney snaps. "The machines will take care of the rest. You promised that."

"I did," Carson says calmly. "I was just going to ask if you wanted me to come out there."

Rodney hesitates, then says, "No. No, I need to do this on my own."

N'awww, Carson may be a mad scientist, but he's Rodney's mad scientist. Mad scientist BFFs! On a more serious note, I'm very pleased with this whole scene. I like the way you can see Rodney get a hold of himself. He's not going to let a little thing like grief hold him back!

***

He knows he's at the right place because it's the only building with lights on for what must be miles. He keys in the code Carson gave him, then hefts John out of the car, surprised at how heavy he feels. The cryo room is all the way in the back and Rodney barely makes it.

After making sure everything is working properly, he wanders through the facility until he finds a lounge area with a sofa and a couple of desks. He sits down on the sofa and stares at the blank white wall across from him.

Eventually he gets up and rummages through the desk drawers until he finds a marker. He draws a black line on the wall.

He can fix this.

And that's the end. Or the beginning. I know the structure was confusing, but I really like the way it plays out, and I love the repetitions throughout. I love the theme of the lines, and I am so glad I decided to go with a literal interpretation of the prompt. I think this is one of my favorite stories I've ever written.

Anyway, so that's it for me. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask!
helens78: A man in a leather jacket, seated on the ground, looks up hopefully. (Default)

[personal profile] helens78 2009-11-12 03:03 pm (UTC)(link)
This is such a creepy, kick-ass story! I am glad the beta was helpful, and sorry that people were still a bit confused -- I always figure I'm more likely to be confused than most, so I figured if I had it figured out at that point, you were good to go. But still, having worked everything out and watching it all develop... holy crap, creepy and kick-ass! Oh, man. Zombie!John is just such an amazing concept, partly because it's unique among the things I've read in SGA and partly because it works sooooo well for Rodney's personality -- this is a story that's really served beautifully by the particular characters chosen to illustrate it.

I can't believe I didn't catch Ronon-as-runner in this until this commentary, though! But I love how you take it from Ronon being a runner as a victim and Ronon being a runner because that's a needed, useful, productive job. *hugs you and Ronon* I think that's fantastic.
busaikko: Something Wicked This Way Comes (things fall apart)

[personal profile] busaikko 2009-11-13 12:28 am (UTC)(link)
Great, I love reading commentaries! Thank you! I still love this story: especially the gradual buildup to realising just how around the twist Rodney is.
ext_150: (Default)

[identity profile] kyuuketsukirui.livejournal.com 2009-11-13 12:42 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks! I love reading commentaries, too. And writing them, though sadly I find that if I post the fic first, I never seem to get around to writing up the commentary (which is why I held off on reposting this to my journal for so long).