Day 110: "Uno Ab Alto."
John stepped off the raised stone steps the stargate was standing on, his weapon raised to eyelevel and trained on his surroundings. Thick undergrowth and tall, lush trees made a nearly impenetrable wall around the small clearing except where the overgrown path leading to the settlement broke the monotony. Hardly any light reached the ground through the thick branches at the top of the trees, covering the silent, forest floor with only scattered spots of afternoon light.
His hands tightened around his P90, knuckles whitening as his ears perked. The clearing was silent. Maybe too silent. Blinking once at a particular dark spot beneath the stone steps, John heard the rest of his team exit the wormhole with slow steps of cold-headed anticipation.
"Spread out," John ordered, his voice low, sparing the others soldiers a glance as he descended the last step. Their weapons rose as they watched their surroundings. They quickly made a perimeter around the stone steps and approached the undergrowth cautiously. Some glanced over their shoulders. Not even a bird made a sound. John didn't like it.
A battle-dressed Ronon jumped off the steps next to him - the ground reverberated with his weight. John turned back and approached the shadow he now saw on the forest floor – his neck tense and pulsating. It was the unmoving figure of something humanoid. Taking a quick look around and keeping his weapon trained on the forest, John hooked his foot cautiously underneath the figure and flipped it over into a ray of light.
The wide-eyed, frightened look upon a white-haired husk of a human stared up at him. John flinched and grimaced. He could never get used to the sight.
"Wraith." Ronon growled, snapping his chin up to sneer ferally at their surroundings beneath dark, low eyebrows. He kept his particle magnum close to his sides, looking like a wolf ready to pounce.
"There's three more by the DHD, and one of them was carrying the settlement's IDC." Major Lorne approached them. He held the said black remote in his hand; it had been broken and rendered useless, the internal wires barely holding the pieces together.
John eyed their dark surroundings - narrowing his eyes at the quiet shadows. He tried to determine whether he was looking at trees or something else. Blood was pounding through his veins. They already suspected the Wraith were somehow involved in the interrupted distress call from this planet, but this confirmed it. He looked back at the stargate, seeing the last of the groundpounders exit. The rest were approaching the border of the small clearing: spread out in a perimeter, eyes on the dark forest - weapons at the ready.
"We shouldn't stick around," said John deliberately, glancing at two lone soldiers peering into the forest above the dark, thick undergrowth to his left, their weapons held high. "Major, take your team—"
Blue shots suddenly blasted into the small clearing from the forest around them. One connected with the face of an inattentive marine, dropping him like a sack of potatoes. The man next to him was down before John's instinct kicked in.
"Take cover!" John yelled, spinning around and sliding into cover behind the stone steps with Lorne and Ronon. He watched as the rest of the soldiers dodged and weaved, using the trees as cover from the incoming attack. With blood pumping in his ears, John saw a straggler move towards the DHD, only to get hit in the back and crash into the ground five steps away.
Then the Wraith Drones charged from the shadows. They burrowed through the undergrowth unfazed, stun weapons blasting away, grotesque and mindless. John's mind shifted from the five visible bodies on the ground to the Drones already crossing the forest barrier.
"Weapons free!" John's command came just milliseconds before the sound of P90s and FN SCAR-Hs broke through the air.
Chaos reigned. Ronon double tapped the trigger of his particle magnum and nailed a Drone in the chest and gut. It stumbled before crashing into the ground two feet inside the clearing, smoke drifting from its quivering corpse.
The Drone behind him sidestepped the body and raised his spear gun to his sightless face, shooting wildly at the soldiers still scrambling for cover in the too small clearing. Another of them was hit by the blue energy blast, crumbling next to the DHD where one of his teammates pulled him behind cover and returned fire blindly. The blue bolts came from everywhere, trapping the team in a crossfire. Another Airman fell to the ground by the DHD, unconscious.
John flicked off the safety button and fired a burst at the Drone closest to him. The 5.7mm rounds tore through the flimsy organic armour, dropping the Drone like a rock. Lorne opened fire beside him, covering his flank as the entire team now fought back.
No one needed John's shouted orders to do whatever they could to hold the line. All around them, rapid fire erupted, mingling with the soft blasts of the Wraith stunners and the alien roars of the unrelenting chargers.
With a slow, writhing fall, the Drone John had killed collapsed next to his fallen comrades-in-arms. John swung around to the next Drone charging into the small clearing from his left, tracing a diagonal line across its chest with his fire. But where one of them fell, another two stepped into place, slowly gaining a foothold inside the small circle surrounding the stargate.
Lorne called out a warning as he flung a grenade out towards the incoming Drones. Its loud and rumbling bang satisfied John's ears. Five Drones fell into shredded heaps, shrapnel buried deep within them.
The soldiers by the DHD had formed a small phalanx, and with their automatic weapons kept the Wraith from taking the console. Another two had fallen to stunner fire but the three remaining ones kept firing and reloading. John saw them grimace in the muzzle flashes of their P90s, flinching away from incoming energy bolts sizzling above their heads.
John found himself trapped between incoming energy blasts and the cold slab of stone behind him. He flinched away and grit his teeth in shock as a bolt landed a little too close to his head for comfort.
Ronon leapt to his feet, roaring as he counter-charged at the closest Drones. In one hand he kept his particle magnum, in the other his sword. He ducked under a stun rifle aimed for his head, swinging around and kicking the Wraith Drone squarely in the chest. He fired two blasts into it before spinning around again and cleaving another Drone's gut wide open. A spray of bluish fluids burst across the mossy forest floor.
John cursed and almost took off after the Satedan, but in the second his attention was directed elsewhere, a faceless Wraith Drone had managed to get close and was waving his spear gun at Lorne's unprotected back. The Major was firing across the clearing at a Wraith Commander intent on attacking two retreating Airmen. John jumped up and fired straight into the torso of the oncoming Drone - adrenaline pumping through his veins. Bluish blood and bits of organic armour flew into Lorne's back as the Drone was torn apart.
He heard the unmistakable sound of grenades detonating. But the second of inattention let a new Drone charge up behind John. Lorne dove to the side and fired at his attacker. The Drone howled in agony as his chest ripped open, and fell to his knees just as John turned. He kicked the falling Wraith away from him with a disgusted sound.
With the Drone's charge blunted, the momentary pause gave John the chance to quickly look around. Ronon moved like water as he parried and eviscerated two Drones that had tried to crush him with their hands. His face was dripping with sweat and Wraith blood, teeth barred as he looked around for his next target.
The soldiers who hadn't been stunned had regrouped into a phalanx to cover each other with their P90s and FN SCAR-Hs. Half of the entire team had been stunned and were lying like corpses on the battlefield. The Wraith were attacking either side of the path leading to the settlement where the undergrowth wasn't as thick. The Atlantis team spread their return fire as a result. Already the border of the clearing was shadowed with bodies, both Wraith and Earthborn.
A Wraith Commander darted out smoothly at John from the shadows. He didn't have time to figure things out: a twisted grimace was on the Wraith's face. John instinctively pushed off the ball of his left foot and shoved Lorne down with him, narrowly avoiding the first shot. Both men hit the floor and rolled, John blindly firing at the Commander.
"Reload!" shouted John above the weapons fire, using Lorne's suppressive fire as cover. Lorne shouted as he dropped the Commander with an accurate burst, the dirt on his face slipping off as he pushed to his feet. John finished reloading his P90 before the Wraith sank to the ground with open, glaring eyes that shone white in the darkness. John moved forward and kicked the Wraith's face, sending it back to the ground before turning back to Lorne who'd already switched targets. John followed Lorne's ironsights to a Drone popping out from behind a heavy tree trunk.
John had no clue how long it'd been. Only when the weapons fire died down a little did he realise that Sam's voice was shouting in his ear, "—ome in, Colonel! John, talk to me! What's going—" Her voice was drowned in the bang of another grenade somewhere on the other side of the clearing, then it was quiet.
For now, it seemed as if the Wraith had pulled back.
Crouching behind the stone steps once more, John touched the reply button and shielded his ringing ear while Lorne covered him against the looming forest. "Sam? You there?"
"I read you, John. What the hell's happening?"
"It's the Wraith. We've taken fire and casualties." John did a quick head count, forcing his breath and racing heart back under control. "We're down at least half our strength. Gonna need some back-up."
"Copy. Daedalus is on its way and I'm sending the rest through ASAP. Just…hang in there, John."
John blew a breath, his mind flashing to all those times she'd spoken those words to him. Despite the situation and everything that had happened, his tone of voice changed to match hers: softer and almost hesitant. "Copy that."
Reese fastened the buttons on her shirt as she hurried through the corridors to the infirmary. The message she'd received was bad and caught her off guard. No one had said anything about upcoming missions, but Major Teldy had been dangerously serious when ordering her to assemble her team as quickly as possible for a hostile situation off-world.
"Make a hole!"
Reese looked over her shoulder, eyes widening as she instinctively jumped back to the wall. Dr Keller rushed past her between two gurneys and the rest of her medical team, wedging Reese against the wall. Frowning, Reese caught a glimpse of the BDU-clad men on the gurneys, but not enough to see what was wrong with them. Judging by the battle gear they still wore, however, it had something to do with Teldy's order.
Reese followed the group into the infirmary where the gurneys were immediately pushed towards the innermost section to the emergency ward. Nurses and doctors from the former SGC infirmary hurried after them as Keller called for help, gesturing Reese to stay behind in the unofficial ICU ward.
"What's going on?" Ramirez looked up from where he sat on the edge of a nearby examination bed, flexing his left hand testingly. Reese reluctantly withdrew her gaze from the emergency room, her annoyance flaring up at the sight of the Sergeant.
"I don't know, but we're going to be part of it. That is if you've stopped being an idiot." Reese pointed at the bruised left hand, her voice terse. "Otherwise, I don't mind leaving you behind in the brig, Sergeant."
"I was never an idiot to start with," said Ramirez, his eyes narrowed. Then he shrugged. "Besides, Nelson started it."
"That's real mature," growled Reese with a tensing of her cheek. Her hands clenched and she forced them to hang loose at her sides, taking a deep breath as she raised one to pinch her nose. "Just… get your shirt on, Ramirez. We haven't got time for this."
Ramirez looked as if he wanted to say something, but the medical team rushing back out of the emergency room interrupted them. Keller followed with a grim look as they disappeared through the open infirmary door.
"What's happening?" asked Ramirez, his eyes sombre now as he jumped off the bed and put on his uniform shirt.
Reese frowned as she led the way out. "I dunno, but I've got a feeling it ain't nothing good."
"Your objective is to reinforce and secure the stargate while Colonel Sheppard's team continues towards the settlement." Sam's steely voice was the only sound in the gateroom. She eyed the combat-ready teams of Marines and Air Force engineer with a hard face, her body tense. "Engineers, your job is to cut down as much of the trees around the stargate as possible. I don't need it clean I just need it fast. I want Jumpers to be able to get through within the hour."
"What about Daedalus, ma'am?" asked Major Teldy from her spot at the front of the group. "When can we expect them to be there?"
"They're still fifty minutes away." No one needed to remark that it might as well be an eternity. The importance of the engineers became crystal clear; she could see they'd realised it. Sam pushed on. "Any further questions?" She looked at each of them, some nervous and others ready. None of them said anything. "Okay, then move out. Major Lorne's expecting you on the other side."
Sam didn't wait to see them leave, quickly turning and moving up the grand staircase to the operations centre. The stargate wooshed behind her as the first one went through.
She'd just sat down behind the long-range sensor console and was leaning towards Chuck when Xiaoyi strode into the room. She was dressed impeccably in her finest surviving suit, her hair swept conservatively out of her face.
"Colonel Carter, would you mind telling me what's going on?" Xiaoyi halted in front of her, hands on her hips, a displeased look upon her face. "I just came from the Tikwee delegation. They said you just shunted them out of here nearly two hours ago! Why wasn't I informed?"
Locking her jaw, Sam ignored the woman's icy interruption. "We're answering a distress call, Ms Xiaoyi. I'm afraid the trade delegation will have to wait for a moment." Xiaoyi crossed her arms with pursed lips, but Sam was already paying attention to the data being input into her laptop from Chuck's console.
"Even so," said Xiaoyi in a terse tone, "that is not the way to treat a future business partner, Colonel. It's common courtesy—"
"—I don't have time for courtesy!" interjected Sam. Xiaoyi's lips snapped shut. "This is a military matter, and as the commander of this base I'm needed here. I'll see to the delegation when this is over."
As if suddenly aware of the activity in the gateroom, Xiaoyi looked over her shoulder at the last team moving through the stargate. Her expression was indiscernible as she remained silent for several moments. Sam turned back to her laptop, gritting her teeth and half-wishing someone else were in charge, or that she could shove Xiaoyi out an airlock.
The stargate connection closed, inciting Xiaoyi into action. "Colonel," she said in an amiable tone, turning back towards Sam with open hands. "I'd hate for the Tikwee to feel…overlooked at this time in our negotiations." She paused, continuing hesitantly. "If you cannot deal with them right now, I'd be happy to take care of them until you can."
Sam halted, lifting her eyes up.
Nothing about Xiaoyi's expression or posture eased her doubts. There was, however, something that kept her from blowing off the offer. As loathe as she was to admit it, Sam couldn't be in two places at once. Her priorities grounded her here, and Xiaoyi was right in that they were at a crucial stage in the negotiations. If they secured the deal, it would change a lot of things for Atlantis's resource pool. Sam and Rodney had both wanted an off-world mining operation for months.
She would have preferred Daniel or Teyla looking after the delegation as "official" negotiators, but both of them had gone to visit the Athosians for a few days. With John off-world as well, she was on her own.
Well, not entirely.
"Alright," Sam said finally, her voice calculated. "But…" she added as Xiaoyi's face briefly wavered in pleasure, "I want Woolsey in on it too." Technically, Woolsey wasn't part of the senior council any longer, nor an official representative for Atlantis, but Sam didn't care about the rude implication. She needed someone she could trust.
As ever, Xiaoyi politely nodded in response without any indication she was offended. She even smiled at Sam. "Very well. I will call for him immediately. We'll be in the smaller mess hall." She turned and strode towards the back staircase before Sam could say another word.
"Back-up's through. What's your status, John?"
Sam's disconnected voice crackled through the radio as John moved quickly down the overgrown forest path. Ronon was on point; his leather-clad back barely visible in the shadows up ahead, even though John's eyes had accustomed themselves to the darkness. The rest of the original twenty-strong team - except Major Lorne and two other engineers - followed in a double-file tactical column, eyes peeled towards the trees around them. John's hands were sweating around the P90, his face itching where Wraith blood and dirt had stuck onto it. Small flies flitted around his hot scalp. He swatted them away with a jittery shake of his head.
"We're about forty minutes out," whispered John, turning sharply at an odd noise somewhere behind him. Only a bird trapped beneath the branches, speeding across the path above him. John reminded himself to breathe deeply, exhaling through his nose as he moved on. "Almost at the end of the forest. Haven't encountered any Wraith so far. Wouldn't mind some eyes in the air, though. I don't like going in blind."
"Copy that. Daedalus ETA should now be half an hour. The Jumpers are on stand-by until the engineers give the clear."
Up ahead, Ronon stilled, halting the column. The soldiers quickly assumed crouched positions along each side of the path, taking cover behind the trees. A cold dread ran down John's back. He suppressed it quickly, keeping his voice cool. "Copy. Sheppard out."
He cut the connection, briskly moving in-between the soldiers ahead and coming up behind Ronon. "What'd you see, Chewie?"
The Satedan held his palm up, silencing him. "Listen."
Ronon peered out into the forest, slowly moving his head left and right. John followed suit, clutching his P90 closer to his chest. At first there was nothing except the heavy breathing of Airman Donovan behind him. Then he heard it. Faint sounds up ahead on their left, gradually coming closer. Someone else was on the forest path and they were in a hurry.
John pivoted on his heel, quickly signalling the situation with his hands to the rest of the team. Silently, they all got off the path and took up positions on one side, covered by the trees and thick undergrowth. John wound up next to Ronon, crouching by a large rock close to the path as they waited. Ronon's hand fisted around his particle magnum. It rested against his temple, ready. John saw the veins elevated underneath the cold metal. His own grip tightened.
The approaching sounds grew louder. The Airman on John's right, Donovan, held up his Lantean life signs detector, signalling fifteen targets. Ronon's narrow eyes were trained on the path. The flies around John's head continued to swarm, but he hugged the P90 closer to his chest and ignored them. He breathed deeply, silently, his muscles tense. Anticipation coiled his stomach.
Ronon's dark scowl alerted John immediately. He dared a quick look at the path, seeing the unmistakable white hair of a Wraith party turn greyish in the darkness some sixty feet away. They were half-running. John didn't like it. It looked like they had a purpose and this path only led one place.
Grim-faced, John shifted back to the rest of the team. His hand and fingers moved rapidly with his orders. The soldiers nodded and readied their weapons. Ronon almost scoffed as John and Donovan pulled one M84 stun grenade each out of their vest pockets. Ignoring him, John pulled the safety pin out and kept his hand tight on the lever. He met Donovan's eyes and counted down with his spare hand.
They launched the grenades into the midst of the passing Wraith party. Seconds later, multiple high-pitched bangs and flashes of light erupted into the darkness. John shied away from the sharp light just as Ronon jumped to his feet, teeth barred. He roared ferally as he fired off red-hot bolts into the group of floundering Wraith.
Seven Wraith Drones dropped like flies as 5.7mm and 7.62mm rounds joined in and tore through their organic armour.
Reese's head jerked up when she heard the muffled gunfire erupting from the forest. She jumped to her feet, weapon trained in the direction of the unmistakable sounds of P90s and FN-SCARs. The MG teams covering the forest path scrambled for their weapons, but they soon realised it wasn't anywhere nearby.
Major Lorne quickly dropped the C4 satchel in his hand and turned on his radio. "Colonel Sheppard. Sir, is everything alright? Colonel?"
Reese couldn't hear the response and the expression of Lorne's face didn't reveal anything. Her fingers clenched around her P90, her eyes shifting unevenly between the Major and the looming forest up ahead. Next to her, Ramirez stepped forward, looking as calm as ever. Reese didn't share his confidence. She hadn't been in a firefight since…the Bhaati. That one hadn't exactly gone very well.
"Copy that, sir," Lorne said finally, his brow revealing only the slightest hesitation. He shut off his radio, looking up at the frozen people in the clearing. "Let's pick up the pace, people! Get those charges ready!" He hurried back to the engineers he'd been helping out. Something in his voice seemed edgy. It kicked everyone into action.
Reese shared a look with Ramirez, who shrugged and eased back to his previous guard position by the active stargate. She then followed Major Teldy with her eyes as she approached Lorne. The two majors shared a quick, muffled conversation before Teldy nodded and moved away, one hand on her radio. Reese saw her mouth 'Atlantis' before Teldy spotted her and sent her a hard look.
Reese relaxed her stance mechanically, quickly turning back to her previous position. She couldn't help glancing at the dark forest again. The gunfire continued, but it seemed to grow fainter. Her neck was tense.
What the hell was going on out there?
"Don't let him get away!" John screamed, charging through the undergrowth. He fired off a spread of 5.7mm bursts, sending wooden splinters flying into the air in the Wraith Commander's wake.
Ronon's red bolts soared over his head from behind - hitting nothing but trees as the Wraith twisted to the side. John recoiled from the searing bolts, which caused him to stumble into a low branch. He groaned, cursing at the nerve jab that shot down his shoulder. Ronon passed him, weaving in-between the trees like water, running at the Devil's pace.
Adrenaline pumped in his ears. John launched himself off the tree trunk, stumbling for a few feet until he regained his footing. The trees were starting to thin and John saw the Commander's white hair lighten amidst Ronon's magnum shots. The forest was coming to an abrupt end. The Wraith picked up speed as he crossed the tree line, holding something to his lips.
"Take him down!" John yelled, but Ronon was one step ahead of him. A red bolt hit the Wraith in his arm. He howled in agony, twisting forward, and lost the item in his hand. Still, he ran. At one point, the Commander glanced back and quickly ducked again - narrowly avoiding Ronon's aimed headshot. He met John's eyes and sneered.
Gritting his teeth, John roared and pushed his leg muscles to the limit, sending off another P90 burst. The shots were way off course, but it caused the Wraith to switch right and head straight back into Ronon's sights. The Wraith took a hit to the other arm and crashed into the ground; his hoarse cry pierced the air.
John's blood soared as he crossed the tree line. Ronon pulled out his sword and was moving in quickly for the kill. The blade glinted silvery in the late evening light as he raised it over his head. The Wraith Commander stumbled to his feet, but it was too late. Ronon's sword swung down with a drawn-out yell, slashing across the Wraith's back. Howling, the Commander fell down on his knees. Ronon didn't waste time. In two slashes, dark blood sprayed all over the Satedan's demonic face.
Halting two steps away, John's breath was heavy. Ronon's chest heaved with exertion, but his gaze was fixed upon the unmoving body lying at his feet. The blade in his hand dripped with blood. Slowly, he moved his head to the side and paused. Following his gaze, John spotted three white-haired husks sprawled in a cluster to his right, another two some metres up the hillside ahead.
John met Ronon's narrowed eyes. No words were necessary. They got their targets. They couldn't change the past. They just had to move on.
John took a deep breath and tried to ease the blood pounding in his head. The flies returned, buzzing around his head. He turned back to the forest and saw the rest of the team running towards them across the grassy field. Fortunately, he hadn't lost anyone in the ambush. He held his arm up to give them the clear—
—and heard the tell-tale whine of incoming Wraith darts.
"Get down!" John yelled immediately, waving his palm down for emphasis as he saw two darts appear like shimmering dots above the forest. The early starlight glinted off organic, purplish armour.
Almost all of them hit the deck. John watched in horror as two stragglers disappeared in the transparent beam swooping across the field.
The P90 was in his hands and running hot before he knew it. It wouldn't take down the dart but dammit he had to try. The darts turned towards him, the shrill whine increasing in strength. Roaring, John instinctually flung himself to one side, narrowly avoiding the bluish beam three feet away from him. He rolled and got to his feet as the darts disappeared beyond the hill ahead of them, then turned and came back.
"Take cover!" John raised his weapon again and fired a continuous burst at the closest Wraith dart, drawing its attention. He ran as he fired, joined by a FN-SCAR somewhere behind and to his left. The second dart sparked with a direct hit, spewing smoke.
"Take cover!" he screamed again as the second dart broke off and went in the opposite direction, towards the wielder of the FN-SCAR. The soldier was swept up by its beam just as he reached the bottom of the rocky hill. John's anger flared up and he halted, emptying the rest of his clip at the incoming dart. No hits.
It drove on mercilessly, engaging its beam amidst the flashes of Ronon's magnum bolts and 5.7mm rounds. John's P90 clicked and he cursed, launching himself into a sprint away from the rest of the team. The beam was ten feet behind and closing in. John saw an outcropping to his right and broke off, heart racing. The dart was almost on top of him. He wouldn't make it.
John looked back, the bluish beam filling his vision, and then…his sight exploded in reds and yellows, sending him crashing into the ground. Bits of shrapnel and something sticky rained all over his back, weighing him down.
Another explosion rocked the atmosphere and John flinched, his ears ringing. Then it all went quiet.
In John's ear, his radio crackled and slowly came to life. "Someone ordered a pick-up?"
Teldy's scrambled voice was a godsend.
"We lost Richardson, Martin and Donovan. … No bodies." John's voice in her ear was solid but detached. Sam recognised it only too well. They'd known it was a risk to move into a situation blind, but they'd had no choice. The settlers needed their help.
Sam reined in a sigh. "What's your ETA to the settlement?"
"Ten minutes, give or take."
Looking down from the catwalk, Sam gave the green light to an awaiting puddle jumper. "Alright. I'm sending the last Jumper through now. Daedalus should be there any minute."
"Copy. Sheppard out."
Sam gripped the railing. Her fingers clenched around the cold steel as she followed the disappearing Jumper with her eyes. In the operations centre, Chuck nodded to confirm a successful transport. She sighed, closing her eyes.
Ten minutes. That's all there was. Now she just had to wait.
"Colonel?" Opening her eyes, Sam found Woolsey striding uncertainly into the operations centre, looking around for her.
"Richard," she greeted him warily, gaining his attention. She stood up straight; her limbs felt sluggish. "Shouldn't you be down in the smaller mess hall?"
The balding, bespectacled man approached her hesitantly, hands jittery at his sides. He, like Xiaoyi, was dressed in a business suit. "I should, except there was no one there."
"What?" Sam blurted out.
Woolsey grimaced, shifting on his feet. "It would seem my colleagues have left without me." His voice was half-resigned.
Blood suddenly pounded in Sam's ears. She established a radio connection without another look at Woolsey. "Xiaoyi, this is Colonel Carter. Please respond."
Woolsey remained silent as Sam began to pace on the catwalk. Her hands balled into fists, making her knuckles whiten. On the third attempt, Xiaoyi finally responded.
"You mind telling me where you are?" Sam strained to keep her voice civil and calm. She focused her eyes on a point on the wall, channelling her anger into that single point.
Xiaoyi's voice was unassuming. "We have moved to more comfortable quarters. I realised the mess hall was not a suitable location for such important discussions as ours."
Sam's jaw tightened. "Your quarters?" she asked tersely, already knowing the answer.
"Indeed, Colonel. I left a message for Mr Woolsey with the mess hall staff, but he must not have gotten it. Could you please inform him of the change in location if you see him?"
"...Sure," Sam responded through gritted teeth, cutting the connection. She turned towards Woolsey in icy anger, barely keeping her voice in check. "They're in Shen's quarters." The enunciation didn't leave room for misinterpretation.
Woolsey caught up immediately; his eyes narrowed in understanding even as he assumed his political mask. "I see. I'll get down there straight away."
Chuck interrupted Sam's initial reply from the operations centre, "Colonel, we've got a subspace transmission from the Daedalus. They've picked up some unusual readings."
Nodding her acknowledgment to the technician, Sam turned to Woolsey. "I trust your abilities, Richard. Get it done." She didn't need to clarify. Woolsey nodded, paused to wish her good luck, and left quickly.
Not wasting any time, Sam turned and crossed the catwalk to the operations centre. She went straight to Chuck's console and leaned over his shoulder. "Alright, show me wh—"
Her voice halted as Chuck immediately pointed to the screen, his expression grim. The sensor readings from the Daedalus were unmistakable.
Her stomach dropped.
"I'm picking up a lot of Wraith darts in the area… thirty of them." Major Teldy's voice broke through the quiet hum of the Jumper's engines. "They're swarming the settlement." John turned from the crowded aft compartment and came up behind Teldy in the front passenger chair. Captain Alicia Vega was flying, taking the cloaked Jumper in a straight line across steep mountains and low valleys.
Peering at the holographic screen above the dashboard, John narrowed his eyes. "Any life signs on the ground?"
"Some…" Teldy hesitated, touching a few buttons and bringing up a more detailed elevation scan. "I've got a bunch of Wraith packs in scattered locations along the path. Looks like they're moving towards the settlement."
John's neck tensed. In the compartment behind him, everyone had gone eerily silent. He clenched his fingers on the back of Teldy's chair. "What about humans?"
"There's not a lot of them, but I've got multiple life signs near the settlement." Teldy's voice rose hopefully at the end. John, however, didn't take his eyes off the holographic screen. The blue dots were by far not the total amount of the settlers.
"Major?" asked Vega, breaking the tense silence. She pointed briefly to something on the edge of the holographic screen. "What's that flashing?"
Teldy frowned and pushed more buttons, zeroing in on the flashing strobe. John leaned closer. "An energy signature," she said finally. "It's outside the atmosphere, but… the energy output resembles what I've seen on Atlantis."
She halted, turning with wide eyes to meet John's. "It's a ZPM."
"Daedalus?" asked John immediately. His insides grew cold. There weren't that many ships carrying ZPMs in the Pegasus galaxy. Not since they'd got rid of the Asurans.
"I'm not s—Wait! Now there's two!"
"Colonel Sheppard, come in." Caldwell's calm, detached voice was on his radio.
"This is Sheppard," John replied quickly, holding one hand over his ear. He peered at the screen, where a large blue dot appeared. The Daedalus IFF tag popped up next to it. "You see what we see up there?"
Caldwell's reply was almost sardonic. "If you're talking about a massive Wraith superhive, then yes." He paused, his voice low. "You better hurry up, Sheppard. I don't know how long we can hold them off."
"They've launched darts," reported Major Kevin Marks succinctly, his eyes flitting across the screen on his console. Multiple red rectangles identified the hostile targets heading their way.
Next to him, Caldwell looked as frosty as ever. He pushed a button on his armrest. "Titan wing, you're cleared to engage. Keep those darts off our tail, any means necessary."
The Titan wing leader signed in his affirmative, and Marks watched the blue rectangles show up on his screen. Outnumbered, the blue dots sped straight into the middle of the fray. Three red dots disappeared in short sequence. A short relief ran through Marks before Caldwell gained his attention.
Marks quickly pulled up a new window on his screen, reporting as he read. "Asgard plasma cannons are online. Aft and dorsal railguns are auto-targeting enemy fighters."
"Standing by. They're trying to lock onto human signatures, but…"
Caldwell met his gaze. He understood. It could be interference or it could be time.
"Take us in, Major. Full speed," ordered Caldwell, turning back to gaze through the windows. "Let us show these bastards we're not about to back down."
"Yes, sir!" Marks complied with the order immediately. He ran his fingers over the keyboard in familiar, speedy motions. Multi-tasking was his prerogative. Balancing incoming sensor data with navigational data, and inputting flight paths had become second nature.
In the corner of his eye, he saw the reddish swarm of rectangles still surrounding the fifteen blue dots. It was hard to see how many Wraith darts had been taken down. Marks quickly pushed the unpleasant thoughts out of his head and steeled himself. They'd trained for this. The plan was simple. Get in, evasive manoeuvres, then pound the Wraith with everything they had, and get out of the way immediately. Repeat until desired goal or a change of plan was needed.
He dared a glance up at the screen. Growing bigger as they came closer, the superhive hovered above the dark atmosphere of the planet. Marks never got used to the sight. It was easily fifteen times the Daedalus' size. Like David versus Goliath. He could only hope their stone would drop the Wraith as well.
When it began to spit blue plasma bolts, Marks wasn't quite so sure.
"Incoming fire!" Marks called, quickly adjusting the flight plan according to the new sensor data, even before Caldwell shouted, "Evasive manoeuvres!"
The ship took a sharp turn, swerving out of the way of the blue plasma bolts launched from the superhive's starboard side. Marks watched on the screen as all enemy batteries opened fire, spraying the space between them with plasma bolts. A blue dot suddenly disappeared, trapped between the two ships. He looked up just as it exploded into fireworks of reddish smoke and debris. Two red rectangles went with it.
Fisting his hands around the armrests, Caldwell barked, "Return fire!"
The crew didn't hesitate. Railguns and missiles opened fire as Marks turned the ship about, doing his best to avoid the relentless fire from the superhive. Up, to the left, down, sharp turn, right, then left… He grabbed his few seconds of open space and fired off two shots from their own ZPM-enhanced Asgard plasma weapons. The beams soared across space, taking down four darts before crashing into the purplish organic armour of the Wraith superhive.
"Direct hit!" Marks reported, already adjusting the Daedalus away from incoming fire, barely avoiding the blue bolts. "Enemy armour down 5 %! Regenerating!"
It wasn't much, but it was a start. They all knew that.
"Regroup and prepare for the second run." Caldwell's eyes didn't leave the windows.
"Daedalus has engaged the superhive," Lorne reported over the radio, serving as the relay between the planet and Atlantis. "Jumpers One through Four are approaching the settlement."
Sam stood silently behind Chuck's shoulder, her hands fisted. She could feel her pulse begin to race slightly as her neck tensed. Her eyes were trained on the shimmering stargate.
"Have they detected any of the settlers?" She needed to ask. She didn't really want the answer. Her gut was already telling her what to expect.
"…Yes, ma'am. They've detected several human life signs."
Closing her eyes, Sam bit her lip. Several, not all. "I understand, Evan. Keep us appraised."
"You got a stick up your ass you're trying to get out, Captain?"
Reese resisted the urge to slap Ramirez across the head with her P90, but couldn't help her snarky, "Fuck you," as she continued to pace back and forth in the blue-lit clearing.
Ramirez only grinned, shrugging off her attitude. Across the clearing, Major Lorne looked up at her. His silence said more than words. Reese clenched her fists and forced herself to stop.
"Relieve Fowler on the OP, Sergeant. I'm sure he could use a break." She straightened her back and sent him a hard look.
"Yes, ma'am," responded Ramirez with only a hint of respect. He got to his feet and went off unhurriedly, leaving Reese frustrated and restless behind.
The man was getting on her nerves. Not only did he continually get into fights with Nelson, but he was more often than not disrespectful. Sure, he'd been frustrated after Sanders died – they all had – but this was getting out of hand. Reese felt like she was losing control. Right now, however, there was nothing she could do. Nothing at all.
She looked at the rest of her team, all seated on the stone steps leading to the still-active stargate. Kerrick and Stevenson were silent. Waiting, like the rest of them.
Reese glanced up at the sky. She hated waiting. Technically, they were keeping the stargate secure, but all they did was ache for action. Up in the sky, they saw the occasional explosions from Daedalus' space battle with the superhive. On the radio, they could sometimes listen to the reports from the Jumpers.
It made her restless. She started pacing again.
Marks had known they wouldn't be able to dodge the superhive's fire for much longer. The ship rocked from the first hit, almost throwing those standing off their feet.
"Shields down 10 %!" he called out quickly, pulling the ship into sharp drop and taking it away from the superhive's concentrated fire.
Another hit impacted on the shields, its energy sending an overload through the ship's electrical systems. A fuse blew up by the communications console. The officer standing there jumped out of the way with a loud cry, clutching her face. Marks saw blood and smoke before turning back to his screen again.
"Bridge, this is Novak. We've located a few human bio signatures in the hills above the settlement. We're trying to beam them up."
"Roger, Doctor, " Caldwell acknowledged, "We'll try to get closer on our next pass."
Marks was already on it. Emma sent him new navigational data, and he was plotting in their next course with a guarded eye on the sensor screen. Titan wing was still in the game, blasting away red rectangles, but the number of enemy aircrafts didn't seem to decrease. They were swarming the superhive, and Marks couldn't help worry about crossfire.
"Sitrep?" asked Caldwell.
Marks pulled up the necessary data, reporting as he read. "Asgard weapons are still online. We've got eight direct hits so far. The Hive ship's armour is down 15 % on the aft port side, but they're regenerating rapidly. Railguns and missiles are down to 60 % capacity."
"Sir, I'm detecting a massive energy surge inside the Hive ship!"
"Source?" Caldwell turned to look at the jumpsuit-clad officer standing by the Sensors console.
"Subspace sensors show it's their ZPMs, sir," Emma cut in, just as Marks noticed something on his console.
"The Hive ship's turning about," he called out, looking briefly up to gain Caldwell's attention. "They're positioning themselves above the settlement."
"Multiple energy spikes along their port side!" the Sensor officer reported immediately, her voice taking on a frantic note. "Thirty and counting."
"They're opening fire!"
Suddenly, Marks could see what had happened to the Avrosians with his own eyes. From the left side of the superhive, thirty-six batteries of ZPM-enhanced plasma weapons engaged a spot on the dark planet below. The energy signatures of each shot were much higher than the average Wraith energy plasma bolt. Almost thrice the power of the Asgard plasma cannons.
And some of those shots were suddenly aiming for Daedalus.
"Shit!" Vega's shout was appropriate. The hailstorm of bluish plasma bolts soared down from the dark sky. The mountains flared up with light. Its jagged and barren rocks flashed yellow as the bolts crashed into the mountainsides. Bits of molten red rocks flew everywhere, the vegetation below the tree line set on fire.
"Watch out!" Teldy cried out, pointing to Vega's left where a stream of bolts rained down thirty feet away. The captain reacted immediately, flinging the Jumper to the right, barely avoiding one of the plasma bolts. John could almost feel the heat of it as it rushed down a thousand feet below them, exploding into the hills.
"They're aiming for the settlement!" Vega called out as she adjusted course, narrowly dodging another bolt. The electrical systems fizzled with the sudden spike of plasma activity in the atmosphere.
John's hands clenched around Teldy's chair, just as the Jumper's radio scrambled online.
"This is Thompson on Jumper Three! We've taken fire! We're losing the cloak!" The frantic cry of Captain Thompson sprung John into action.
"Back off!" he called back on the radio, immediately moving to the window. He could see the Jumper shimmering in and out of sight on their left, careening between the bluish bolts. It was heading straight for the valley where the settlement was. The darts seemed to have spotted it and six of them were breaking off from the main group. "Get out of here!"
"Copy, sir, we're—" The connection suddenly failed. Above the rolling hills, the Jumper tried to turn and instead began to spiral, one of its engines on fire. The darts on approach opened fire, spewing blue bolts amidst the heavier blue rain. The Jumper didn't stand a chance.
"Thompson!" John cried on the radio, watching as the Jumper, in full sight now, was hit by multiple shots from the Wraith darts. Sparks ignited from its engines, sending the Jumper careening out of control straight into another blue plasma bolt.
It exploded into a million pieces of molten shrapnel and debris, scattered across the forested ground below. John even heard some of it impact on their Jumper's hull.
"Titan Six and Eleven are down!" Marks reported, just as another blue dot disappeared on his screen. "That's Thirteen too, sir!"
"How're the transports going?" Caldwell barked just as an overhead relay sparked and smoked across the captain's chair. He flinched, holding on to the armrests.
"We were able to pick up twelve, sir!" The bridge engineer shouted above the noise. "The superhive's generating too much interference with their bombardment; we can't lock on!"
"Shields are down to 20 %!" Marks interjected, running his fingers quickly over the controls.
"Recall all fighters," ordered Caldwell, his eyes fixed on the windows. The superhive filled the frames, taunting and gloating. They hadn't even managed to take down their armour by 20 %, even with one of Atlantis's ZPMs to back them up. "Then target their port batteries with everything we've got. We gotta give Sheppard more time!"
"Sir, I can't get through this clusterfuck!" Vega called out, her voice an edge between frustration and despair. John was feeling it too. The blood was pounding in his head. He was itching for his P90, for the controls of the Jumper, for anything worthwhile to do besides staring at the Wraith's destruction.
"Try to outflank it. Daedalus said they'd spotted human signatures on the hillside opposite of the settlement. There's gotta be someone left," he mumbled angrily, fisting his hands. Teldy glanced at him but didn't say anything.
Vega gritted her teeth, pulling at the controls and taking the Jumper to the left, away from the plasma rain. They rose above a steep mountainside, circling the valley and aiming for the spot Daedalus had marked on their sensors. Jumpers Two and Four had pulled back to the stargate on John's orders, fearing that the darts would try to destroy their exit point now that their presence was known.
Speeding around the tall flames covering the valley, the Jumper was suddenly rocked by weapons impact.
"They've spotted us!" Teldy reported.
"How the hell did they do that?" John gritted out, bending over and looking out the windows at the darts swarming up ahead. Two of them were turning towards them.
"I dunno! Only the superhive's been able to detect a cloaked Jumper so far."
"Evasive manoeuvres," ordered John, even as the Jumper rocked and almost threw him off his feet.
Vega cursed, steering the Jumper sharply off course and trying to outmanoeuvre the Wraith darts. "We're losing the cloak!"
"Without that cloak, there's no way we're gonna reach the settlers!" Teldy called out, pushing buttons and trying to bring the cloak back online. "There's too many darts for our mini-drones, and we're not gonna be able to outflank both the bombardment and the darts!"
John knew that.
"Sir, that last hit almost triggered an overload in the Asgard core. We can't take anymore!" Novak's voice sounded over the speakers.
"Sir, our shields are down to 10 %..." Marks said. He glanced at the screen where the red rectangles seemed to multiply around the superhive's signature. "Darts are gathering around the Hive ship. They seem to be forming a wall…"
The bridge crew waited with almost bated breath as Caldwell stared at the superhive, his face grim. They knew the odds, they knew the difficult decision their commanding officer would have to make. They knew they wouldn't hesitate if he told them to stick to it, to give Sheppard and any surviving settlers a chance to pull through.
Even so, Marks felt an ounce of relief when Caldwell finally made his decision.
"Sheppard, this is Caldwell." The connection sparked with interference. "We've lost Asgard weapons, and our shield's failing. We're pulling back… You should do the same."
Staring as the valley burst into flames from the ongoing bombardment, the mountains exploding into pieces of molten rocks and splintered vegetation, John found words difficult. "…Copy that."
He didn't bother logging off. Procedure was the last thing on his mind. The flames of the forest fire rose into the sky from the bottom of the valley. Wraith darts circled the reddish smoke like black birds of prey, weaving in and out of the relentless, brutal bluish rain. Sounds drifted to the background. He barely heard Teldy asking him for orders. He did hear one of the medics crying.
Had Reika cried too when the Wraith attacked her village, brutally killing her friends and family?
Finally, John couldn't watch it anymore. He turned his back from it, eyes meeting Ronon's. He knew what had to be done.
"Return to base," he said. The Jumper was silent. The medic momentarily stopped crying. Everyone looked at him. John clenched his fists, nails digging into his palms. "There's nothing more we can do here now."
It was deathly quiet on the once bustling planet. As she walked over charred ground, gazing at the smouldering wooden skeletons crumbling before her eyes, Sam had never felt more out of synch. It was as if someone else was moving her body and she was simply a bystander - watching herself give orders and never pausing to spend a moment in silent respect.
Up ahead, John stood with a few soldiers, gesturing solemnly to a pile of debris where a pale hand was sticking out, unmoving. Without speaking, the soldiers moved to the pile, leaning down to pull up the larger pieces of still-smoking wood. John stared after them, then turned around with a downcast look. As he raised his head, their eyes met and Sam felt her chest constrict at the hard, tight-lipped expression on John's face. It mirrored her own, and John's face grew intense.
They kept their eyes trained on each other, Sam hardly breathing. Her joints were locked, but she was restless. When John's eyebrows furrowed, so did hers, like a million words passing between them unspoken. Like time had stopped and they found themselves doing that old silent dance, the one they'd danced before everything was torn to pieces.
The crash of something heavy broke them out of the spell.
"Watch out, they're starting to collapse!" Someone was shouting, but in the chaos of moving people that followed, Sam had no idea who it was. She hastily got away from the wooden structure closest to her, and met up with the main group right outside the ruins.
Watching the last structures crumble and groan, either falling over sideways or on top of itself, Sam felt a chill run down her spine. Looking down, she saw her hands had fisted, but she was numb to the pain of nails digging into her palms.
As she tipped her chin up again, Sam realised John was right beside her. His clenched hands hung at his sides, his eyes transfixed on the destruction that was happening right in front of their eyes.
He was so close. Like when they lost Earth. When she wanted to grasp his hand in the gateroom and drop all pretences, even with General O'Neil watching. Because they'd faced the end together then, and here it was – again.
Sam looked back at the scarred earth, a sudden lump forming in her throat. Feeling pathetic, she clenched her fists tightly, resisting the subtle magnetic pull towards his hand, and addressed John without looking at him. "Make sure the engineers have secured the scene before continuing the extraction of the bodies."
There was no reply.
Sam looked up. John was eyeing her up and down, finally resting on her face. His eyes were dark, hard, but for once… he didn't look at her with rage. It was almost like…if she tilted her head a little, that…
The lump in Sam's throat swelled suddenly and painfully.
"I'll make sure," said John finally, his voice dark. Then he withdrew, gesturing for the closest engineer to approach the scene. Like nothing had happened just then. Like he hadn't let her get a glimpse of the incredible, overwhelming pain he was feeling.
"You knew him?"
Reese looked up from her silent vigil by the covered gurney, her eyes blurry. Ramirez stood in the doorway of the room, his face void of amusement. He held a bottle in his hands.
"Sergeant." She turned away from him, flustered, and quickly wiped her wet cheeks. She sniffed and took a deep breath. "Um...yeah...I knew him. We were...uh, doolies together."
"Thompson, right?" Ramirez moved into the room.
Reese felt very self-conscious, checking her uniform and brushing her unruly hair out of her face. "Yeah. He...he was in the Jumper that..."
She couldn't say it, but Ramirez got the picture. They'd listened to the radio transmissions when it went down, and seen the place where it had crashed. Debris everywhere, and torn bodies that haunted her when she closed her eyes. No one had survived the crash. Reese had never felt so helpless, so...useless.
Ramirez stopped by the gurney, took a swig of his bottle, and then thrust it at her. It was whiskey, Jack Daniels. Reese never drank the heavy stuff, but... she realised it wasn't every day Ramirez stopped being a wise-ass.
"No worries, Cap'n."
Reese realised he hadn't called her that since Sanders died. Keeping her breath under control, she held the bottle up to her lips and drank. The liquid burned in her throat, filling her with warmth from her stomach and out. When she coughed at the aftertaste, Ramirez chuckled. It made her smile embarrassedly.
It was a small step.
They'd found Reika's brother up in the mountains, along with five more children. They'd been fed upon. Daedalus hadn't been able to beam them up before the bombardment. One look at John, and Sam knew he felt guilty. He hadn't been able to reach them either. She wanted to tell him it wasn't his fault, but she was struggling to say the same words to herself.
What had she done?
An entire Pegasus settlement lost - apart from twelve lucky few. Eighteen Earthborn KIA, nine more injured. Four F-302s, one Jumper. Daedalus and the other Jumpers had taken quite a beating and would be undergoing extensive repairs.
And then there was Reika. The girl had been beamed up onto the Daedalus, but whether or not she was alive was debatable. Like her brother, she had been fed upon, but the process had been interrupted. Now, she was lying in a coma in Atlantis's infirmary. Keller didn't think she would make it.
Sam looked back over her shoulder, the active stargate ahead of her. John stood by the DHD, Ronon at his side. Their faces were still grimy and dirty from the previous night's battle and today's excavation. They hadn't changed from their battle gear. John was holding the P90 tightly in his hands.
She met his eyes again. Tears shimmered in hers. John's mask barely wavered now, his jaw set, but he shared a look with Ronon and took a step forward. He ascended the raised steps and took up position behind her, weapon still in hand.
Somehow, the action made Sam feel something more. She turned back and tiredly faced the stargate.
All she wanted now was to get home, take a shower and clean herself of the smell and dirt she had become entrenched with. She was so tired, her head and body numb, that she almost didn't notice how deathly quiet the gate room became upon her exit from the stargate. Only when someone cleared their throat awkwardly did she become aware that everyone were either avoiding her glances or facing her surreptitiously, some even boldly.
The less bold withdrew from her and looked to the grand staircase. She turned and raised her head tiredly to find an impeccably dressed Xiaoyi standing on the top of the staircase, arms crossed with an incomprehensible expression on her face. Woolsey was nowhere to be seen.
"Colonel Carter," Xiaoyi greeted pointedly, raising a single eyebrow. "Could I have a word?"
Behind her, John took a step forward and Sam could feel his strong presence behind her. But that train had passed. She couldn't expect him to have her back.
Glancing at the mixture of civilians and military that had gathered in the gate room to meet the clean-up teams, Sam slowly unfroze and moved with heavy, knowing steps towards the staircase.
Xiaoyi went immediately to Sam's office, where Woolsey and Coolidge both stood up as Sam entered, their faces indiscernible. The Chinese woman didn't waste time, turning to face Sam and barely giving her time to close the door behind her.
"I'm sure you'll be happy to know that the Tikwee delegation has agreed to the terms of our negotiations," Xiaoyi said shortly. "We'll be able to set up mining operations on their secondary planet within the month."
Although she had waited to secure this deal for several months, Sam only felt a peripheral happiness. The deal paled in relationship to what had happened to the Kadarians.
"The Tikwee have one condition to this deal, however…" Xiaoyi continued, pausing for effect. Her eyes were hard. "Your resignation."
Sam didn't know what to say. She could only stare. Xiaoyi was leaning against her desk, arms crossed, a challenging look on her face. In the background, Woolsey stood silent, unmoving and not meeting her eyes, next to Coolidge, who wore a smug look on his face. The picture of SG-1 was nowhere to be seen.
"Colonel Caldwell has agreed to become our new military advisor on the council," Xiaoyi continued, "but he refused to accept command of this city. As such, the IOA will choose a suitable candidate from our civilian sector. You are welcome to submit a list of suggestions, Colonel. Being a high-ranking officer at both the SGC and Atlantis, you know many of these people very well. We'll value any candidate you'd like to support."
It was a joke. Sam stared at them. They didn't even mention the fifteen people she'd lost.
"As for your new position," said Coolidge, stepping forward, "You've been very interested in acquiring an off-world mining operations. I'm sure a woman of your...qualities...will handle such a task excellently."
Sam's eyes moved to Woolsey. He didn't say anything. She almost shook her head in disbelief. Slowly, Sam broke out of her frozen stance. She moved to the back door, waving her hand automatically over the controls. Her feet took her across the threshold and down the dimmed corridor. The door closed behind her and Sam didn't look back. There was no point.