Day 162: "Let's hit the deck."
Approximately one year, two months earlier…
John Sheppard stood stiffly by the drinks table, punch glass in hand. One hand edged discreetly for the correctly tied tie on his dress blues, obviously itching to loosen it.
Sam stifled a smile when her former 2IC glanced around him before hooking a finger inside the tie knot and pulled slightly. By the looks of it, though, it didn't seem to have helped. Instead, it looked like he'd rather have a P90 in his hands and a horde of Wraith around him.
"Excuse me," Sam told her companions, who were deep in a discussion on the outbreak of recent Lucian Alliance hit-and-runs. General Landry and Major Davis acknowledged her with nods, General O'Neill with an exasperated 'help me' roll of his eyes. Sam hid another smile at the latter and moved off.
John looked up as Sam approached the drinks table. Sam finally succumbed and gave him a smile before she turned to the waiter manning the table.
"Could I get one more?" She held up her empty glass. "John?"
"No thanks, I'm all set," John showed his own, suspiciously untouched, glass. Upon closer look, Sam thought she saw those slight tension lines in his face that showed his uneasiness.
The waiter returned her now full punch glass, and Sam sidled up to John's side, sipping the cool drink. "I'm surprised to see you here," she began, testing the waters.
John shrugged. "Came to deliver the monthly status report to the IOA and they extended their invitation. Thought I'd scope out the place." He pushed one hand inside his pants pocket, eyes on the crowd of SGC and IOA personnel. "Didn't think it'd be this full."
"It's not every day Homeworld Security gets a name change," Sam said.
John smirked in return, an eyebrow raised, and Sam knew he'd caught on. A name change was understating it. It was being upgraded to an office with much more real power than it'd held previously. All due to the increased threats from the Lucian Alliance.
Speaking of threats…
"How's Pegasus?" Sam asked, her tone more serious.
The look on John's face darkened. His grip on the glass tightened. However, he met her eyes with a distinctly out-of-place smile. "Fine. Long days at the beach, surfing', barbeques. Oh, and the occasional life-sucking parasite. Nothing new, I s'pose."
Sam didn't smile. Instead, she held back a sigh and forced herself to remain calm. "I wish—"
"Argh!" General O'Neill appeared abruptly at their side, glaring at Sam. He glanced back at General Landry and Major Davis, then again to Sam. "Carter!"
Sam managed a smirk. "Sorry, sir."
O'Neill waved her off. "Ah, never mind. Next time I'm bringin' Daniel. He likes talking for me." The pout over, he seemed to take notice of John at Sam's side. "Sheppard."
"General," John nodded, his look indiscernible.
O'Neill looked from Sam to John and at the obvious tension still in their faces. "So…drinks?"
"I'm okay, sir," Sam smiled. She glanced at John, who showed his still full glass and began to sip it. A grimace crossed his face at the taste, but he quickly hid it.
"Ah." O'Neill sipped his own punch and then cleared his throat. "So, Sheppard, how're things in Pegasus?"
"Quiet, sir." John shifted uneasily on his feet. "Seems like we caught a break with Michael gone."
"That's good," said O'Neill, giving John an appraising look. "How's Woolsey getting along?"
The slightly dark, tense look on John's face was unmistakable. "Alright, sir."
O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "He's not so bad. Unlike one of those egotistical, self-centred bast—"
"Sir," Sam interjected, seeing two of Woolsey's associates from the SGC – Shen Xiaoyi and James Coolidge – passing close by the drinks table.
O'Neill snapped his mouth shut, but only until they'd passed. Then he stared meaningfully at John. "Woolsey's okay. Got that?"
John's jaw tightened. "Permission to speak freely, sir?" O'Neill nodded reluctantly, his brows furrowed, and Sam tensed. "We already had an excellent commander."
A warm blush spread across her cheeks. Sam quickly dipped her head. When she looked up, O'Neill wore a half-smile and his eyes had softened.
"I'm not sayin' you didn't," he said. Then his features hardened and he straightened. "The IOA's gonna make sure Woolsey stays, though, so be nice."
"Yes, sir," John reluctantly muttered.
O'Neill nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer, but still giving John a second look in case he changed his mind. He didn't – a testament to his sense of duty. He'd test the boundaries, but he'd never go against General O'Neill.
"So …" O'Neill began, but before he could continue, one of the Joint Chiefs called out for him from the drinks table. Stifling a groan, he muttered, "Duty calls …" Sam smirked. "I guess I'll see you kids later."
Sam followed O'Neill with her eyes until he'd met up with yet another group of Air Force big shots. Then she turned back to John, who looked even more out of place than before. He'd drunk his punch and now held the empty glass awkwardly.
Sam quieted and gave John a sidelong glance. "Beer?" Sam gave him a sly grin. "There's a bar just down the road."
John nodded towards O'Neill and the others. "Sure 'bout that?"
"I think we can sneak out and back in without anyone noticing. Think of it like special ops."
Apparently, the thought seemed to calm him and John's eyes glinted in amusement. The transformation from the tense, dark expression was momentous. "Sounds like a plan, Colonel."
They turned to go when Sam reached out and touched John's arm. His eyebrow rose. "By the way … thanks," she smiled. "I appreciate the support."
John smirked, and some of the tension seeped out of his face.
From her seat behind the crisply clean and clutter-free desk, Xiaoyi didn't move a muscle. Her eyes simply bore into John's, her tone firm. "It's too risky."
"Y'know, the military's job is to take risks." John argued, leaning forward on the desktop.
"Colonel, you're proposing an attack on an up and running Wraith outpost!"
"Science lab," John corrected impatiently. "They're not nearly as well protected as an outpost. Besides, we've infiltrated them before."
"Although not always without casualties, am I right?" Xiaoyi raised an eyebrow. She let out a sigh and dipped her head. "Colonel—"
"I'd only take experienced personnel," John quickly interjected, lowering to her eye-level. He struggled to keep his voice calm and reasonable. "A small four-man recon team. We could get in and out in less than an hour."
"Such as your own team, I suppose?" Xiaoyi shook her head and folded her hands primly on the desktop. Her lips pressed together. "No, I cannot let you do that. You're too valuable for such a … suicide mission."
"Look, we don't abandon our people!" John hissed, his finger pointed at the impeccably dressed Chinese, his eyes seeing red.
"The Coalition's people, Colonel," Xiaoyi replied swiftly, her expression stony. "Not ours."
And that, John supposed, was the crux of the matter. Xiaoyi didn't really care that a recon mission into the Wraith lab could get them a download of their entire database – which in theory meant they could work out what the hell the Wraith were up to these days and where they were based. All she cared about was the survival of Atlantis in Earth's hands, even if it meant the rest of the Pegasus galaxy could go to hell. Just another proof that Atlantis had gone to the dogs.
"The Coalition asked us for help," John continued in a very low, dangerous voice. "I'm can't just sit here while the Wraith tear 'em apart!"
Xiaoyi wasn't swayed. "I'm deeply sorry for the loss of their colonies, Colonel – I am – but this is none of our business. As far as I know, the Genii are still part of that Coalition and they're fully capable of defending themselves and their allies."
"With their unsafe nukes that'll just kill them slower," John gritted out. "This is ridiculous!" He pushed off the desk angrily and fisted his hands. "If Sam had been here—"
"Colonel Carter's not the commander of this city!" Xiaoyi snapped, her voice rising. She nearly jumped out of her seat. Her nostrils flared in silent anger. "You should take care to remember that, Colonel."
John's jaw clenched tightly. He didn't reply.
"Now," Xiaoyi continued in a calmer but icier voice as she rose deliberately to her feet and smoothed her suit jacket. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant Colonel, but my answer is no."
She picked up a stack of folders from the corner of her desk and began to move towards the wooden door. "You're welcome to take it up in the council meeting, but I've got a feeling that they'll agree with me." She reached the door and held it open for him, a challenging look on her tight-lipped face.
John glared at her. "Don't count on it," he grumbled and stormed past her and across the catwalk leading to the operations centre. Instead of going for the stairs, he went to the communications console. "How long 'till Daedalus gets here?"
The gate technician he'd addressed went quickly through something on his tablet interface. "Approximately two hours, sir."
That'd be just in time for the council meeting. "Can you link me up?" John asked, giving Xiaoyi a decisive glower as she passed by them towards the conference room. "I'd like to have a word with Colonel Caldwell."
The thud of the golf ball as John dropped it and picked it up on top of his desk was the only sound in the small office for a long while. Then, suddenly, Ronon broke the monotony.
"We could sneak out."
The thought had occurred to John as well, but it was not without consequences. "Xiaoyi would find out. She's got some of her own people manning the stargate day and night."
The last thing John needed was for others to see him break the rules – Sam had told him so before she left. People from both camps – those against and those in support of Xiaoyi's leadership – still looked up to him. And John didn't have the conscience to send someone else on a secret mission when he was the one to defy the base commander's orders.
"Get Campbell or Banks on it," Ronon suggested. He was perched on the windowsill, slowly sharpening the knife he usually kept strapped to his leg.
"I'm not draggin' anyone else into this. It's either us or no one." It was clear by Ronon's look and John's tone that none were too happy with the latter thought.
"I don't like it," Ronon muttered for emphasis.
"That makes two of us." John checked his watch. It'd been hours already. How long was the damn meeting supposed to last?
As if by lucky chance, the door to John's office opened and the balding, jumpsuit-clad Caldwell stepped inside. John quickly got to his feet and Ronon halted in his blade-sharpening.
"Well?" John prompted.
The grim expression on Caldwell's face made his insides twist."The council voted no, seven to two. I'm sorry."
"Goddamnit!" John's hand fisted around the golf ball until his knuckles whitened. "You told them this could possibly earn us a couple of allies, right?"
Caldwell nodded, his arms crossed. "I did. They weren't too impressed, especially given our previous run-ins with the Coalition and the reputation of the Genii. Said it was too dangerous and most likely a trap – like the Bhaati. They seem to think it's in our best interests to think about our own survival first, then in the future—"
"—there might not be anyone left." John interrupted, his voice rising. He gritted his teeth and nearly flung the golf ball into the opposite wall.
"I agree, but it's not up to us, Sheppard." Caldwell's jaw clenched and he stepped further into the room. "The IOA's got the majority vote and control of the city. We'll just have to make the best out of it."
John didn't have any reply. Caldwell looked from him to Ronon, who'd taken to sharpening his knife with a very dark look, and back again. He stepped closer to John. "Look, I've done what I could. There's no changing their minds on this."
"I'll be sure to pass that on to the Coalition," John sneered coldly. "They'll be real pleased."
Caldwell raised an eyebrow. "Sheppard, I don't like this any more than you do, but my hands are tied. I can't help you." He paused, then gave John a silent, pensive appraisal.
John's eyes narrowed suspiciously. To the side, Ronon straightened in his seat, his eyes still dark but alert.
Caldwell gave them both a second, calculated look.
And with a sudden twist of his insides, John realized what Caldwell insinuated. "Sam."
With a derisive jerk and jump to his feet, Ronon growled. "What good's she gonna do us?"
Uneasy at the implication in his best friend's tone, John looked back at Caldwell with a frown.
The senior colonel narrowed his eyes at Ronon, his tone equally hard in the face of the Satedan's disrespect. "You won't know until you try," he stated, and then swung his stare to John. "Will you?"
Ronon gave a disdainful snort and turned back to the window. He clenched the knife tightly in his hand as he surveyed the outside view.
Caldwell ignored him, fully turned towards John now. "You nearly made yourself an enemy today," he stated seriously. "Don't worsen it. Atlantis needs you here, not exiled on some godforsaken outpost. Are we clear?"
John's hands fisted. Right now, the thought of being off Atlantis for a while didn't seem so bad. Still, he gritted out, "Yes, sir," like any obedient subordinate would.
Caldwell searched his eyes, but was apparently satisfied. "Good." He began to turn, then paused and looked back. "Consider my suggestion. Let me know what you decide."
With that said, Caldwell left. The door closed behind him, leaving John and Ronon alone in the sunlit room. Ronon swung around and glared at him, the knife tight in his grip. "You believe him?"
John didn't immediately reply. His mind worked hard as the anger slowly ebbed away. Less than three weeks ago, Sam had asked him to trust her. He had, just like when she'd trusted him with her secrets.
Then again, he hadn't seen her since she'd left for the colony. All he'd heard since then were radio updates on the construction process and the odd update from the stargate security teams stationed at the colony. Summed up, it wasn't a helluva lot.
"Ask me later," John said finally, straightening. He put the golf ball down on his desk and flexed his stiff fingers.
Ronon didn't look happy.
A hot and ruthless sun met John as he stepped through the stargate to M4R-621. He squinted as a group of people by the DHD gradually came into focus, his free hand automatically reaching for the P90 he'd left behind on Atlantis. The other held a brown paper bag.
"Welcome to Tirana, Colonel," Captain Reese Matthews greeted with a salute.
John returned the salute briefly before putting on his aviator sunglasses. "Is it always this hot?"
Matthews grinned a little. "Today's your lucky day, sir. The water isn't boiling."
"You don't say," John mumbled. He ran his gaze across the small area. The stargate stood in a wide-open clearing, a sparse cluster of trees surrounding it. Next to the DHD, the day-shift security team were posted at two defensive positions. One of them sported a machine gun pointed straight at the stargate.
"Colonel Carter's been notified of your arrival, sir," Matthews continued. "Would you like me to take you to her?"
"No, that's alright, Captain," John waved her off. "I just have to follow that path, right?" He gestured to a narrow path that cut through the trees and disappeared westwards.
"Yes, sir." Matthews nodded. "It'll take you straight to the Tikwee colony. The mining camp is a little further beyond that." She stepped back to join her team, nestling her P90 comfortably in her arms. "Enjoy your stay, sir."
Nodding in thanks, John moved on.
The trip through the sparse forest was short and John soon found himself at the edge of vast fields of what looked like yellow wheat and barley, but was probably the Pegasus equivalent. The sun was scorching hot, already making sweat run down his neck and under the edge of his T-shirt. It nearly reminded him of Afghanistan, except the locale was much more pleasing to look at.
The Tikwee colony lay on the other side of the fields, a clutter of cottages and two-storied buildings ranging in dozens. John could see people milling about outside, most of them dressed in simple cottons and looking noticeably rural.
As he approached the village, however, he spotted what was probably its only advanced technological feature: one of the railguns Earth had transported to Atlantis years ago to stave off a Wraith aerial invasion. It looked out of place among the simple-clad Tikwee colonists, as did the two BDU-clad soldiers seated languidly next to it.
"Colonel," one of the soldiers greeted when he saw him. It was Sergeant Ramirez, the guy he'd sent for a cool-off in a cell along with Sergeant Nelson more than once. He didn't look half as restless as he'd been then.
"How's it goin', Sergeant?" John asked, pushing his spare hand into his pocket.
"Can't complain, sir." Ramirez shrugged. "The Tikwees treat us good. Actually seem happy to have us around."
Given the level of protection they could offer, John wasn't surprised. "You stayin' out of fights?"
"Yes, sir." Ramirez half-grinned. "I'm clean. Can't vouch for Emerson, though." He nudged his partner good-naturedly, who objected loudly. John smirked, a little of the tension in his neck easing up.
"Seen Colonel Carter around?" he asked, breaking off the banter between the two soldiers.
"Try the mines, sir," Emerson suggested, pointing beyond the village. Large mountains rose up behind the cottages. "She's there most of the time."
John thanked him and then moved on. As he passed the Tikwee colonists, most of them greeted him with curious but unsurprised smiles – as if he was a sight they'd become familiar with – and he couldn't help but feel almost welcomed. None of them seemed close to draw a weapon on him, and that was saying something these days.
It was a very nice change.
After a trudge up a small hill, John stopped to stare out across the small valley before him. A neat river ran across the valley from the mountains, culminating in a large lake to his left. There were some scattered clusters of trees, with several lodge cabins situated between them. Another railgun position was placed next to the lake in the cover of some trees. It wouldn't be easily seen from the air.
Beyond the cabins he saw people moving back and forth between a large reinforced opening in the mountainside and a few green SGC-commissioned tents. A group of them seemed to be pulling an old-style wagon from the mountainside and down towards the tents.
John looked back at the cabins. Most likely, Sam would be cooped up in one of them, pouring over some computer screen until her eyes went blurry. Maybe working on those schematics she'd shown him nearly two months ago.
He started down the hillside and checked the cabins as he went. The two closest ones were barracks, a third some sort of mess and recreational area, and the last two were combined lab/offices. Sam, however, wasn't in any of them.
John stood outside the last cabin, a frown on his face, when he finally heard her voice.
"Watch that hole!"
He glanced up towards the green tents and froze.
At the head of the group pulling the loaded wagon was Sam. Only, she didn't look like the Sam he'd seen last. Clad in rolled-up BDU pants and a tank top, her slightly tan muscles glistened as she pulled the wagon behind her along with three others. Her hair clung to her scalp and her cheeks were flushed.
She looked like he remembered. The old Sam.
John stood stunned as they heaved the wagon to a halt among the tents. Sam didn't pause. Instead she called out orders and joined the rest with unloading large, black piles of rocks from the wagon. No one hesitated to help her out. They even shared laughs and smiles at some inside banter.
John shook himself out of the reverie and approached the tents. Sam had finished the unloading by the time he reached them, and was pushing back her bangs when she spotted him.
A full-blown smile spread across her face. "John!"
"Colonel," John returned a little awkwardly. He glanced around at everyone who seemed to take notice of him. He saw a lot of familiar faces. Was this what she'd needed those people with special skills for? Mine grunts?
"I heard you were coming in," Sam said as she stepped closer. She'd picked up a towel and now wiped her face free of sweat and dirt. A thin sheen of sweat covered her chest and arms as well, John noticed. "You want a look around?"
Caught a little off guard, John nodded. "Sure. I brought lunch." He held up the brown paper bag he'd brought along.
"Great! I'm starving." Sam grinned. Then she turned to the other personnel clustered around the tents. "Go get yourselves something to eat and drink. We'll continue this later on."
"Quite a project you've got goin' here," John said later in amazement as they ate their sandwiches at Sam's proclaimed favourite spot – a log in the shadow of a large willow-like tree next to the lake. The branches drooped low to graze the top of the water, causing ringlets to spread out from the epicentre.
They'd visited the cabins and the mines. Sam had shown him the process the rocks went through from drilling to testing of traces of naquadah and trinium. They'd also passed through the Tikwee village again while Sam told him about their companionable relationship to the colonists. All the while, John had noticed one prominent change: Sam smiled a lot more than she'd used to before she came here.
Sam shrugged. "It's taken some doing, but it's going well. Much better than I expected, to be honest." She bit into her chicken sandwich and spoke while chewing. "We're still having some trouble with the drills, but all in all, I'm pleased with our progress so far. There are a lot of hard-working people here."
"Including you," John noted, half-smirking. He ate his sandwich more slowly, not really hungry. The impressions so far were a little overwhelming. Not too long ago, he'd barely been able to look at Sam as she'd become after they lost Earth. Now...things were different. Like the previous five months had never happened. She even seemed open with him again.
Sam blushed a little. "It feels good to do something with my hands again. I don't want to stay rooted to a chair this time around."
John could sympathise with that sentiment. With Xiaoyi in charge, the off-world missions had been cut back to a bare minimum and he still had the problem of too many restless people on base. Including himself.
"Well, you look good," John said lowly, and his neck tensed when Sam's cheeks reddened again. Still, he didn't take it back. He meant it. "Maybe getting away from Atlantis wasn't such a bad idea..." he continued hesitantly. At the moment, he half wished he'd joined her, if only to see her smile on a regular basis again. He'd missed that.
Sam didn't quite meet his eyes. A sad look crossed her face before she could hide it behind a half-smirk. "Maybe."
They lapsed into a silence John was surprised didn't feel more tense, even with his admission, Sam's brief relapse, and the weight of his question on his mind. It was almost like when they'd been simply friends. Before things got complicated, and before they lost Earth.
"So how're things out there?" Sam asked finally. She'd finished her sandwich and now leaned back on the log against the tree trunk of the willow. She met his eyes steadily. The atmosphere instantly changed.
John hesitated. What he'd seen so far – a happy, healthy Sam getting along with most of her subordinates – would that disappear once he told her about the Coalition's request and his own proposal?
"John," Sam prompted, leaning forward with a deep frown. Her tone was serious. "Spit it out."
"The Coalition lost three of its planets to attacks like the ones on Avros and Kadara last week." John's fingers dug into the remains of the sandwich. His eyes narrowed. "You know what that means."
"Yeah… We knew they might turn on other human planets," Sam said quietly. A guilty look crossed her face before she let out a small breath and straightened. "I'm guessing the Coalition found a way to contact you. What do they want?"
"Help," John said simply. "They want to retaliate, and to figure out if the Wraith know where their other colonies are." He looked down at his ruined sandwich and threw the pieces into the lake. Nearly immediately, a couple of birds flew down and swooped them up in their beaks.
"How?" Sam frowned.
"They've got the location of a Wraith science lab from the Genii. It's still active, but it's small and with minimum security. It's ideal for an infiltration. The goal's the Wraith database. It should give us the location of most Wraith outposts and planets."
John observed the birds mesmerised, his anger seeping away. In its place he only felt cool, reasonable logic. It was familiar, almost comforting. Xiaoyi and the IOA were miles away.
"Sounds like a good deal," Sam agreed, but she still frowned a little. "So why've they turned to us? Why not get it themselves?"
John had asked himself that difficult question. The council seemed to think it was a trap, but he wanted to think the best of the Coalition. They'd gotten on better terms with them after the impromptu Inquisition last year. Even the Genii had reached out with an olive branch before the Wraith superhive began to wreak havoc.
"They're 'relocating' their people," John said finally, his fists clenched briefly. "All security's tied up in that. Besides," he continued quickly – a sliver of desperation entered his voice – before Sam could challenge him, "We both know the Coalition doesn't have the means or experience to pull off something like this."
Sam looked very thoughtful. She met his eyes straight on, studying him, and John tried to convey all his belief and resolve in his stare. For a second, it felt like it was just the two of them again; commander and 2IC conferring on an issue. Just a second, but it was enough.
Sam sighed and leaned further forward. "The Genii might be capable of it, but we've got no idea how far they've advanced since the last time we met. They've been extremely isolationistic."
It was sort of an agreement, far more than it was a counter-argument. John nearly let out a sigh of relief. He mimicked Sam's position, eager to continue.
"Even so, what would they do with that kind of information?" he asked. "They barely have any spaceships and none that are capable of taking on a normal Hive ship."
"It'd be beneficial for us too," Sam agreed. "Daedalus could monitor the Wraith actions. We'd get a head start if something happened." Then she raised her eyebrow at him. "Why're you telling me, though?"
"Xiaoyi and the council think it's too dangerous. That it might be a trap set out to catch us. Caldwell can't help. So…" He drifted off, suddenly finding it difficult to actually ask the question he'd come here to ask. Gone was the comforting feeling of nostalgia, of companionship. Reality came rushing back.
Sam's whole demeanour changed. She stiffened and stared steadily out on the lake. "What makes you certain I'll be able to help? Xiaoyi and the council don't trust me."
John didn't have a reply. Sam did have a point. Her political pull was like zero on Atlantis these days. Still, Caldwell's statement had rung true: so far, things seemed to have changed. And most importantly, this wasn't Atlantis. This was Sam's base.
"You asked me to trust you once," John began slowly, his tone determined. He narrowed his eyes at her. "I know you've worked on stuff behind the IOA's back. You're saying there's nothing you can do?"
Sam turned to meet his eyes, her blue orbs glinting. Her lips had thinned, but there was no anger in her features. Only unwavering resolve and that last, tiny speck of challenge. They both knew the stakes of what John was asking.
"It's not a trap," John said firmly. His hand reached out to cover hers before he noticed. Neither dropped their gaze. "Trust me."
"I never get to go anywhere anymore," McKay pouted. He stood on the end of the platform, arms crossed, a sulky look on his face.
John nearly rolled his eyes, hands deep in the pockets of his leather jacket. "It's no big thing, Rodney. Just some boring dinner with the locals."
"Then why does he get to go?" McKay pointed at Ronon, who stood off to the side of the platform, adjusting the sleeves of his old brownish coat. Even unarmed, he looked menacing.
Ronon raised an eyebrow. "'Cause I'm bigger."
McKay, apparently, didn't find it funny. "That's so not fair!"
"Rodney," John interjected before McKay got his whole tirade out for the third time since they'd gotten out of the transporter. "Tell you what: you can come next time. I'll make sure they don't serve lemons." McKay kept pouting. John shook his head. "Didn't Sam send you some rocks to squint at?"
McKay blew out an angry puff and swung his arms out in exasperation as he turned to leave. "This is so typical! You're always hogging all the fun."
Now John did roll his eyes and chose to ignore him as he disappeared out of the room. He called up to the operations centre, "Dial it up, Doctor."
The gate technician on duty, Li Shang, who was one of Xiaoyi's supporters like John had predicted, acknowledged and the stargate began to spin.
John met Ronon's dark eyes. "Ready?"
The Satedan only grunted and moved into position. No matter how much John had tried to say things were different, Ronon still wasn't happy about the situation. John held back a sigh, consciously aware of the dark-haired woman seated up in the glass office. Another argument about chain of command here would only arouse suspicion.
Xiaoyi followed him with her eyes until they'd stepped through the stargate.
Four weapons clicked immediately as they exited the event horizon. Captain Matthews's security team had trained their sights on them. No smiles were on their faces this time around.
"Stand down," Sam ordered firmly, stepping out from the darkened cluster of trees. In the reddish light from the setting sun, John could see she was dressed in black BDUs, her hair pulled under a black cap, and a P90 was attached to her TAC vest. She eyed them narrowly. "Anyone stop you?"
Meeting her eyes equally, John shook his head. "Said the Tikwee invited us for dinner. McKay's upset he couldn't come."
Sam smiled tightly. "Let's hope that'll change. Hailey?" She turned and gestured to a young, similarly dressed captain, who stepped forward with a bag. The woman opened it and handed out its contents: spare BDU jacket, two TAC vests, P90s, M4s and even a stun weapon for Ronon.
John shrugged out of his off-duty leather jacket, and put on the BDU jacket and vest. He checked its pockets and was satisfied to find spare clips, grenades and several packs of C4. The familiarity made him relax.
"We scouted the planet earlier," Sam told Ronon and John as they got ready. "No guards at the stargate and the DHD is good. Got a strong energy signal about a klick north from the stargate. Most likely our target. Hailey's got the ATA gene therapy, so she'll be our sensor."
The captain fished out an Ancient life signs detector for emphasis and looked to her commanding officer.
"We'll move on foot," Sam continued, as she crouched down and began to draw lines like a map in the dirt with her knife. "There are swamps and marshes to the west, and a cliff like the Grand Canyon to the east, but fortunately a lot of cover in-between. We didn't encounter any guards, so we'll probably get to the lab all right. We'll set up some claymores along the path in case we pick up someone on the way back."
With the track record they all had in their respective galaxies, John agreed wholeheartedly.
"We'll settle on a game plan once we get to the Wraith lab, but remember: this is an infiltration mission. We don't go in guns blazing. Silent kills, if possible." Sam looked specifically at Ronon. "Ronon, I want you on point. Any questions?"
John watched Ronon uneasily. The Satedan's dark eyes bore into Sam's, like a silent battle of wills. But Sam met him punch for punch, unflinching even as Ronon's obvious dislike showed in his face.
Finally, he grunted, "No."
"Then let's move out," Sam said firmly and got to her feet. Only when she broke eye contact did Ronon look away. "Captain, you know the drill."
"Yes, ma'am!" Matthews responded sharply. "We'll check in two hours from now if you haven't returned." She looked back at Ramirez, who was stationed by the DHD. "Sergeant, dial up the planet."
Only the slightest buzz of insects and the roar of a nearby waterfall sounded in the air. John peered above the large pile of rocks he'd taken cover behind. About twenty feet ahead, dark and ominous in the shadows of towering mountains, stood the unmistakable Wraith organic structure.
He glanced sideways and met Sam's eyes where she'd hidden behind a thick, mossy tree. With only the barest rustle of twigs and leaves under her feet, she crouched and moved to his side. Captain Jennifer Hailey and Ronon were already crouched close by.
"I'm reading five life signs in the north-east part of the structure," Hailey reported in a whisper after checking the Ancient scanner device.
"Close to the main energy source?" Sam asked, her eyes on the Wraith structure.
"No, ma'am." Hailey mused at the device's screen. "There's a strong transmitting signal coming from that area, though."
"Must be the control room," John said. He nestled his P90 comfortably in his arms, also glancing at the structure ahead. If the control room was full of Wraith, it was a no-go. They'd have to try something else. "Last time we went to one of these labs, McKay managed to hack into their network from a research console."
Sam looked thoughtful. "Hailey, can you pick up any other significant energy outputs?"
Hailey pursued the scanner intently, making some adjustments to the parameters. "There are two strong outputs apart from the main energy source. One of them is on the eastern part, close to the entrance. No life signs close by."
"Then that's our goal," Sam decided. She squatted down beside John and pulled her two packs of C4 from her vest pockets. "We should split up. Ronon, take Captain Hailey with you and set up charges in one of the power relay rooms." She handed the C4 to Hailey, who pocketed it without question. "Colonel Sheppard and I will head for the research lab. Get there when you're done." She picked up her P90 and held it at the ready. "Once we've downloaded what we can, we'll get the hell out of there and set off the charges. Hopefully without drawing any attention to ourselves."
"No heroics," John said lowly, giving Ronon a second look although it was as much a message to himself as to the Satedan.
Sam's eyes softened briefly and John tensed a little. Then she broke off eye contact and got to her feet. The rest of them followed suit. "Let's maintain radio silence unless something comes up," she said, her tone determined. "Move out."
Ronon moved before she'd finished, leaving Hailey to hurry up after him with a slightly anxious look. Staring after them, Sam frowned, but didn't comment.
Richard Woolsey observed the glass office in hesitation. Inside, a single desk lamp cast Shen Xiaoyi's face in sharp contrast where she sat perusing her computer tablet. It made her features seem even more severe than usual.
With a deep sigh, Woolsey bridged the gap between the operations centre and the wooden door. The knock on wood was alien in this metallic city, and promptly reminded him of Earth. It made his insides twist.
"Come in," sounded Xiaoyi's reply and Woolsey entered, closing the door behind him. Xiaoyi's eyes were narrowed, almost suspiciously. "Richard."
"Shen," he greeted and halted in front of the desk. "I hope I'm not interfering," he said politely.
"Not at all," Xiaoyi put the computer tablet down, her features barely twitching in a polite smile. "I'm just reading a report from Tirana. Seems like Colonel Carter will provide us with our first shipment shortly, pending the analysis made by Dr McKay."
"That's good news. And ahead of schedule," Woolsey said in amazement. "I didn't think we'd receive anything for another three weeks."
"Yes, it is quite a surprise." Xiaoyi smiled mirthlessly. "But I'm sure you did not come here to talk about naquadah, Richard. Is there something on your mind?"
Woolsey stiffened, then steeled himself for the inevitable. "As a matter of fact, there is. I do not think it was wise to dismiss Colonel Sheppard's proposal so readily."
"You'd want to see him and his team die?" Xiaoyi raised an eyebrow, the shadows dancing on her face. He didn't like the tone of her voice.
"Of course not," Woolsey said quickly, affronted at the suggestion. "I just don't think the idea of extending a friendly hand to the Coalition would be so bad. We could certainly benefit from a few friends here in this galaxy now that we've lost—"
"I've seen what the friends of this galaxy do to each other for a moment of respite from the Wraith," Xiaoyi interrupted, leaning forward in her chair with a thin-lipped expression. Her eyes were cold.
Woolsey contained his sigh. "Not everyone are like the Bhaati, Shen. The Athosians and the Kadarians have been very kind to us."
"And in the past five years, the Genii have invaded Atlantis twice," Xiaoyi stated unfazed. "I will not give them a third chance. This is our home, Richard."
And for a moment, Woolsey thought he'd heard her tone crack just a little, but her icy facade didn't waver.
"Shen," he said softly. "We've got to learn how to trust each other. Even with Atlantis and Daedalus, we will only hold our own against the Wraith for so long. If we want to survive…" He drifted off, his palms up in an open, honest gesture. "…we need friends. And we need to be out there to find them. We can't hide in this city forever."
Xiaoyi stared at him, her stony expression unchanged. "I won't send our people on suicide missions, Richard, and that's final."
It was, Woolsey realised, and he left not long after with a polite goodbye. Xiaoyi only asked him to close the door behind him and he left her in the darkened glass office. When he looked back from the operations centre, he didn't feel anger or despair.
They'd reached the research chamber undetected and in complete silence. Once they called out "Clear", Sam moved towards one of the main consoles and flung off her backpack. The gesture seemed so fluid that John began to wonder if she'd done this recently, or if it was the old habit two years as a base commander hadn't dampened. He'd been surprised when she'd told them they'd scouted this planet earlier the same day. She must've done it immediately after he returned to Atlantis. Without hesitation.
"So, you do this often?" John asked as he crouched by the chamber's only entrance. The feel of the P90 in his hand was familiar and comforting, so was the mission they were on. He almost smirked. This was how it should be.
Sam chuckled. "Not in a while, no. Funny thing about being in charge is that you don't get out as much as you used to."
John checked the empty corridor outside and then looked back at her. "Tell me about it. I half expect we'll need to get permission to go to the mess soon."
"Let's hope you won't have to ask when you want to use the loo," Sam said as she plugged several thick wires under the console. John's eyes followed the wires and recognised one of the devices Rodney had developed to make the transition between Wraith and Earth technology easier to accomplish. Another of those things he wanted to ask where she'd gotten - she seemed to have acquired more than was stated in the original equipment manifest she'd given Xiaoyi.
"Xiaoyi, a Drill Sergeant? That's a scary thought," John said wryly. The image conjured in his head clashed horribly with reality. From the across the room, Sam grinned and John looked back at the corridor again. It was still empty and silent.
Sam operated in silence for a while as John kept an alert lookout. He observed her through the corner of his eye. Her motions were fluid and rarely uncertain, and when she leaned over her computer tablet she bit her lower lip in a familiar gesture of concentration. It made him smile inwardly.
It was almost like old times. He loved the feeling.
"Alright, I'm in," Sam said, her voice sudden in the silence. "Wow."
"What?" John looked over his shoulder. A display had lit up in front of Sam. She stared at it transfixed.
"I think I know why they've left us alone lately," she said and pushed several buttons. A map appeared on the display, then it zoomed in on a specific region in space. Sam pointed at several white dots. "Those are the Coalition's planets that were attacked." She punched another button. A line appeared along the planets, much like a plotted path. Just outside one of the planets, John recognised ten blinking beacons. "See this?"
John's stomach turned to ice. "Hive ships. Where're they headed?"
"That's just it," Sam shook her head, half-amazed. "Their target's not a human planet. It's this one." She pointed to a red dot and looked at him. "According to the data, it's the Wraith superhive."
"Wait," John frowned and leaned back so he could get a better look. "They're targeting their own?"
"Looks that way," Sam said, glancing back at the display. She chewed her lip. "We know the superhive attacked the Coalition's planets, so my guess is that it knew those Hive ships were coming. And…" She hesitated, her eyes locked with his as realisation hit.
"…and they figured they'd poison the water holes," John said darkly.
Sam looked uneasy. "So to speak." She stared at the display for a long while. Then, silently, she shut down the display and cleared her throat. "I'm beginning the download."
"Hopefully, they won't notice," John said, but his grip tightened around the P90 nonetheless. The mood had changed and neither of them smirked anymore. They were back to the professional discipline deeply ingrained in them from years of training and experience.
The Wraith civil war was pushed far away to the back of his mind, and John's focus narrowed to the silent, dark corridor outside.
Hailey stuck the detonation transmitter into the pack of C4 and activated it. Nodding at the green light, she glanced over at her tall companion. "You don't talk much, do ya?"
Ronon just gave her a quick stare in reply. The reaction was simple, as she'd expected, and his demeanour was the same. She didn't know what she'd done to offend him, however, so she shrugged it off. "I met a guy like you once. He smiled more, though."
Ronon, again, didn't reply. He continued fastening the C4 charges Hailey gave him to thick sticky veins along the organic walls of the power relay chamber.
Hailey made a face. This thing they were in was gross. It almost made her wish this were a Ha'Tak. It'd be cleaner when they blew it up. As it was, Hailey envisioned exploding fireworks of rotten meat and entrails raining down on them like a bad B-rated alien critters invasion movie. The thought made her sick.
Attaching a detonation transmitter to the last C4 charge, Hailey leaned against one of the consoles and fished the remote detonator out of her pocket. She ran a check on it and made sure the transmission to the charges was strong and green.
"Did you ever meet Teal'c?" she asked finally, feeling the need to fill the silence. "I heard he went to Atlantis once. You'd have lots to talk about."
If possible, Ronon's look darkened. It intrigued Hailey.
"So you met him? He's a good friend of Colonel Carter." At that, Ronon wrenched the C4 from her hands and quickly turned around. Hailey blew a frustrated breath. So her suspicions had merit. "What do you have against the Colonel, anyway?"
Ronon fixed the last C4 in place and picked up his stun weapon. "We're done here," he grumbled and moved off before Hailey could get another word in.
Hailey followed with a big roll of her eyes, securing the remote detonator in her hands as she went into the dark reddish corridors. The Satedan had already reached the next T-section back the way they'd come and Hailey had to break into a run to catch up.
She barely registered movement in the corner of her eye as she crossed the T-section, but it was enough to react instinctively. She flung herself against the opposite wall and spun firing her P90 at the incoming stun shots. She wasn't hoping to hit anything, just to suppress the Wraith Drones long enough to get away. The Colonel had said silent kills, if possible. It was futile, though, as it wasn't long before her shoulder and arm went abruptly numb.
"Get down!" Ronon called out gruffly.
Hailey slumped to the floor in a wave of sudden tiredness. Blue and red flashes went back and forth in the air above her. Darkness crept into her eyesight and she gritted her teeth against the spreading numbness.
A low, alien-sounding klaxon went off.
"Shit," John cursed as the lights darkened and the klaxon broke through the silence. He got his radio out and hit the button. "Ronon, this is Sheppard. Come in."
No reply. John repeated the call three times, without success. "Damnit!"
"Go find them," Sam ordered, her eyes meeting his across the room. She'd picked up her P90 and held it securely in her arms. "I've got this covered."
John didn't like the idea of leaving her behind, even for a few minutes. He'd done it once before on Atlantis when Michael came for Torren, and she'd been shot and captured by the Wraith hybrids. Dark memories mixed with nostalgia invaded his thoughts. Like then, however, the look on Sam's face didn't brook any argument, so he got to his feet with a growl, pushing the images aside.
"Seal the door behind me," John said gruffly. "I'll be back in five."
"Be safe," Sam said, and the barest emotion in her eyes betrayed the hard lines of her face. He wasn't the only one with worries, but this wasn't the time or place for that.
Insides churning, John nodded curtly and left down the corridor, his P90 trained ahead of him. The klaxon made it impossible for him to hear any other sounds and so he watched the shifts of light for any signs of movement.
It gave him at least a second's warning.
From a chamber up ahead, two Wraith Drones stepped out with their stun spears raised. John pulled the trigger and trailed a burst of bullets across the first Drone's armour. It went down in spasms, twitching on the floor.
The second Drone fired off three stun shots and John dived for a protruding pillar in the wall. The shots soared above his head.
John abided his time, watching the shadow of the Drone coming closer on the wall. In a lull of stun fire, he rolled out and sent off a volley at the Drone's legs. The Wraith Drone slipped and John finished him off with five shots to the neck. Whitish fluids sprayed across the floor.
As silence fell over the corridor, John could hear the distant sound of Ronon's stun weapon. It couldn't be too far off. He quickly got to his feet and ran.
Ronon hugged the corner and counted to three. At three, he swung out and fired at the cluster of Wraith Drones down the corridor. "Now!"
"Grenade out!" Hailey shouted and lobbed the hand grenade down the corridor. The Drones recognised the tactic and threw themselves sideways, but it was too late. In a burst of smoke and fire, they crashed into the webbed walls.
Ronon didn't wait to see if they got up again. More would come. He turned and grabbed the woman under her arm. "Come on."
Hailey stumbled next to him, but held on with gritted teeth as he half-lifted, half-dragged her to the next junction. The shot to her torso had left one side of her body completely unresponsive. Not that it stopped her. The woman was a wild one.
"Here," Hailey said heavily, and Ronon eased her down in a small dent in the wall. She dug out the Ancient life signs detector and groaned. "Damnit! We've got ten more bearing on us. Where do they come from?"
Ronon cocked his gun and peered down the corridor both ways. "Stasis pods."
"Fuck," Hailey muttered and thrust the Ancient device back into her large BDU pants pocket. "These things are—"
A tingle went up his spine and Ronon ducked out of the way just as a blue shot swerved close to his face. Adrenaline pumped through his veins. The feeling was exhilarating.
Ronon crouched low around the corner and took out two of the front Drones with two red shots straight to their chests. The Drones toppled over each other, their stun spears clattering to the floor. The remaining Drones took cover by the walls and Ronon sent off a couple of shots to keep them there.
"I'm outta grenades," Hailey called out behind him.
Ronon reared back as several shots went by. So their usual tactic was blown. Time to improvise. "Got one of those flash thingies?"
"It won't stop them," Hailey said, but still dug out a long device from her vest pocket and held it in her hand.
Ronon ignored the statement. "Be ready to move." He waited for the gap in fire, then rolled out and sent off a volley of deadly red bolts. It hit two more Drones across the chest and neck. They thrashed against the others, distracting them for only a moment. "Now!"
Hailey flung the flashbang grenade around the corner and Ronon turned away from the high-pitched whine and sharp light, eyes scrunched up until it passed. With no time for niceties, he picked up Hailey and heaved her over his shoulder.
"Hey!" she cried out and beat against his back with her good hand. "This isn't the stone age! I can walk."
Ronon snorted, but didn't comment. Instead, he unfastened the backup M4 on his belt that Sheppard insisted he wear and handed it to her. "Watch my back."
"I'm not gonna be able to hit 'em from here," Hailey grumbled, but nevertheless seemed to calm down.
Fortunately, she didn't weigh much and Ronon could set a good pace. Every now and then, Hailey fired off a few shots behind them to slow the pursuers. Judging by the heavy stomps and Hailey's increased shots, the Wraith were still on their tail like annoying rats. Like she said, she wouldn't be able to hit any of them, but the suppression should give them some leeway.
"I'm outta ammo," Hailey said, with the familiar empty click of the M4 following her statement. Ronon looked back for just a moment and saw no pursuit.
The next thing he knew, something sharp jabbed into his stomach and he buckled. He fell to his knees with the additional weight, and quickly pushed Hailey to the side so he could be free. It wasn't quick enough. A swift blow to the head made him see stars.
Metallic blood tasted in his mouth. Ronon gritted his teeth and soared to his feet. He caught the Drone in chest and threw him into the webbed wall. White hair tangled in his hands as he took hold of its head and banged it twice against his knee. The stun spear dropped to the floor, but the Drone was resilient.
It punched Ronon in the side, a hard-fisted punch that made him grunt in pain. Then it caught hold of his arm and began to twist it sideways and down, intent on bringing him down. Ronon went with it, and hit the floor with a rolling motion to free himself.
The Drone was on him instantly. Its hands closed around his neck and lifted him with inhuman strength. Ronon's neck muscles clenched and he grabbed at the Wraith's fingers to pry them loose. When that proved useless, Ronon tucked his knees up and uncoiled into the Drone's chest, breaking the lock with his superior lower body strength. Ronon fell to the floor, gasping for air as the Drone recovered and lunged at him. He forced his burning muscles to act and spun around, kicking out the Drone's feet from the side, sending them both back to the ground.
The Drone wasn't fazed as it got a hold of his shirt and flung Ronon across the floor into the wall. He knew this engagement was taking too long but there was no other choice. Ronon reached into his hair, pulled out a knife, and with one swift motion flung it at the Drone as it got up. The blade stuck itself to the hilt in the Drone's chest, but it ignored the pain and lunged at Ronon again.
Ronon dove forward at it with a palm strike. The Drone countered by grabbing his arm and flinging him again down the hallway. He landed with a clatter, and realized that his gun was underneath his leg. The Drone charged forward with intent to crush Ronon and it was right on top of him when the familiar burst of P90 fire shot through the haze.
The Drone shook in place as it was perforated right in front of him. Ronon gathered his strength to kick the Drone away as he pulled his pistol from the ground to finish it off with single shot to the chest. He narrowed his eyes at the twitching, faceless Wraith on the floor before looking at Hailey. "You okay?"
Hailey nodded, then looked to the side for the cavalry. Sheppard ran up to them, grim-faced and worried. "Thank me later."
"Like hell," Ronon said, managing a smirk. "Woulda had him if you'd waited a second." He went to Hailey and picked her up again – this time under her arm so she could limp along – then fished the remote detonator out of his pocket. "Here, take this."
Sheppard kept his P90 trained on the corridor behind them, but accepted the detonator quickly. His voice sounded mildly offended. "Can't I ever save your ass without you getting pissed off?"
Ronon snorted and noticed Hailey grin beside him. "Nope."
"I need five more minutes," Sam insisted when the door opened to let them in. She moved quickly back towards the console and began to run her fingers across the connected tablet screen while Ronon put Hailey down by the door.
"We don't have five minutes," John stated, positioning himself by the door and peering back out at the corridor. "There's a shitload of trouble heading this way, Sam."
"Three minutes," Sam compromised, picking up the pace. Her eyes flitted quickly side-to-side as information scrolled down the tablet screen. "You move ahead. I'll catch up with you."
"Not happening," John growled. He turned back towards her, his eyes hard. "Three minutes and we go together."
Sam stopped and looked sideways at him, her eyes equally hard. John steeled himself, not about to take 'no' for an answer. He'd be damned if he left her behind to fend for herself again.
Silent words passed between them, and then...
"Alright," Sam said abruptly, her lips pursed. She looked at her watch and then at the screen again. "Two more minutes."
John couldn't keep away the satisfied sense of victory as he looked back at the empty corridor. Standing on the other side of the door, Ronon observed him quietly. Some of the darkness in his eyes disappeared as if he pondered something. John merely raised an eyebrow in challenge and perked his ears.
He heard a set of heavy stomps come nearer. He switched off the safety on his P90. "Sounds like we've got company."
The Wraith Drones that'd followed them came around the corner down at the end of the corridor. John opened fire immediately in short bursts. The first Drone staggered and dropped to his knees, fluids flowing down its chest from John's bullet holes. The others moved swiftly around their dying comrade, taking cover in the small niches along the wall.
Ronon swung out of the doorway and fired off a couple of red killer shots. One of the Drones in the back who hadn't reached cover yet swerved into the wall head-first and didn't move again. Another Drone stepped over its body without falter, its weapon pointed at John.
John ducked underneath two blue stun blasts and hugged the wall inside the research chamber for a few moments, before swinging out to send off two more suppressive bursts. Ronon took the opportunity to land a red killer shot straight in the face of a Drone that peeked out of the niche it'd been hiding in.
"Eight more life signs closing in," Hailey called out amidst the thuds of stun blasts, eyes on the life signs detector in her hands.
"Almost there!" Sam began to pack up her stuff while the tablet finished the download. "Thirty seconds."
On a sudden thought, John fished out the remote detonator and threw it in her direction. "Here! Hold on to that. I'll run cover."
Sam caught it deftly and put it next to the tablet on the console. John leaned out of the doorway to fire off another set of bullets until the P90 clicked empty.
"Reloading!" John shouted above the klaxon and stun blasts. Ronon understood and leaned out to pin down the Drones. A third Wraith had joined the others on the floor by the time John cocked a new round into the chamber.
Crouching, John aimed for a fourth Drone when Sam finally called out, "Done!" and began to hurriedly unplug and pack up her remaining stuff.
"Ronon." John gestured to Hailey and Ronon picked her up again. As the others readied themselves, John stepped out into the corridor under a continuous burst of 5.7mm fire. "Let's go!"
Ronon fired off a red shot down the corridor and then moved off with Hailey, followed closely by Sam, who was adjusting her backpack. Sam slapped his shoulder as she passed and John sent off a final burst before following suit.
They ran hard, Ronon on point with Hailey limping beside him. The exit was close by, and Sam took a cover position next to it as Ronon, Hailey and John ran outside. Surrounded by thick undergrowth again, John heard her fire behind them and turned just in time to see her dive out of the door under a rain of blue stun blasts.
He half-turned to help her up, but Sam had spun in her fall, rolled over and was already on her feet, waving them on while sending off a last burst of suppression fire. "Get back to the stargate!"
She fished in her pockets and drew out a grenade.
John got the picture and ran after Ronon and Hailey, who'd already entered the forest. He glanced behind him to see Sam take cover behind a rock as several Wraith Drones appeared in the open doorway to the science outpost. They exploded before they could get out. John saw limbs fly across the small clearing. He turned to give Sam cover, but a blue shot hit dangerously close to his head and he was forced to continue. In his wake, he heard the familiar sound of the P90 tear expertly through the night.
The forest covered him quickly, and soon the sounds of gunfire died down. John made the others run ahead as he halted, his breath quick but steady. Adrenaline pumped in his ears as he listened. Twigs snapped and he swung on his feet towards it, weapon raised.
Sam ran out between two tree trunks, blue shots trailing the branches behind her. "Go!" she yelled, still sixty feet behind. John fired off a burst of 5.7mm bullets towards the origin of the shots before he began to backpedal down the path.
Whitish hair glowed in the darkness of the forest. John counted at least six of them as the Drones swept fluidly among the trees. Sam finally caught up to him and they broke into a flat run. The stargate wasn't far ahead, only about half a klick. They'd reach their trap soon.
John held Sam at an arms-length next to him, turning back every twenty feet to fire off a volley towards their pursuers. The Drones' blue stun shots soared around them, forcing them to run in zigzags down the path.
Up ahead, John noticed one of the marks he'd left behind and quickly found his radio. "Ronon! We're comin' in hot!"
Sam suddenly pushed him to the ground as a stun shot swept past his head. They got quickly to their feet, with John covering their rear as Sam went on. He was quickly running out of bullets. Within seconds, his weapon clicked forebodingly.
"I'm out!" John ran past her and Sam quickly followed suit. The stun shots were relentless at their feet.
"Get ready!" Sam yelled back and John saw Ronon's head pop up behind a rock. John's muscles burned, but he didn't care. Only ten metres, five, four, three, two—
They dived for the ground as Ronon pulled the triggers. The ground shook and dirt fell all over them. A ringing sound stuck in John's ears until the shakes had stopped and silence fell over them. Only when he opened his eyes did John realise he'd landed on top of Sam and was sheltering her head.
He rolled off awkwardly and sat up, glancing backwards to avoid her look. About forty feet away, what remained of six Drones lay scattered across the path and forest floor. John was surprised how close they'd been.
Finally, John looked at Sam, who'd sat up as well and was in the process of rolling her shoulder with a slight wince. Her breaths came in quick gulps, as if she was still unused to the physical strain. John's own pulse was already calming down.
"I thought we agreed: no heroics," John said, raising an eyebrow. Sam snorted between heavy breaths, then accepted his hand as John helped her up. He made sure she was in one piece before gesturing behind them. "Come on. Let's blow this thing and go home."
Sam found the remote detonator in one of her pockets and gave John a relieved grin. "Not exactly the Death Star, but what the heck."
She flicked the safety off on the detonator and pushed the button. The ground reverberated as great fireworks of yellow and red flames erupted above the treetops in the distance. John felt the low, rumbling shake and met Sam's eyes, smirking.
He could get used to this.
A cleared throat made John aware of Ronon and Hailey, who stood on the path ahead of them. What seemed like a smirk briefly touched the Satedan's lips, but when he met John's eyes it was gone as quickly as it'd come. He then turned and moved towards the stargate, silent as ever, and Hailey gave them a somewhat confused look before letting herself be half-carried away.
The blue shimmers of the event horizon broke through the darkness of the night, causing the gate room to dance with shadows. Up in the operations centre, Shen Xiaoyi crossed her arms and looked pointedly at the gate technician in charge. Li Shang ran his fingers across a keyboard and observed the screen in front of him. A beep sounded.
"It is Colonel Sheppard's recognition code, ma'am," Shang reported crisply and looked up at her with a strength in his eyes that Xiaoyi approved. It was sorely lacking these days, but it wouldn't be for long. She would make sure of that.
"Thank you," Shen said and moved towards the balcony overlooking the gate room. "Open the shields."
Laughter and smiles seemed to precede the two men exiting moments later through the stargate. Apparently, they had been to Tirana on the Tikwee's invitation. Or so they claimed.
"Colonel Sheppard," Shen called out. The man in question stopped abruptly and raised his head. Ronon eyed her as well, his smile gone. Was that a bruise on his face? Shen steeled herself. "Would you join me in my office?"
The two men glanced at each other silently, and Ronon seemed reluctant to leave. Still, they parted and Sheppard began to ascend the grand staircase. Shen turned and strode to the glass office, pausing by the wooden door.
"Please," she gestured him inside as Sheppard crossed the small catwalk from the operations centre. From behind the consoles, only Shang paid them any attention. The other gate technicians seemed to purposefully look away. Shen closed the door and went to stand behind her desk.
"How's Master Togar?" she asked, rearranging a few of the folders on her desk.
"Fine. Told me to say hi." Sheppard was nothing if not a closed book. Shen had to give him credit. Once he was in control of his emotions, he was a different player all together.
She smiled. "I hope to visit Tirana soon. I hear the Tikwee have been very pleased with our presence there."
"No complaints," Sheppard agreed. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. Shen followed the motion interestedly.
A moment of silence ticked by. Sheppard showed no signs of uneasiness.
Finally, Shen sat down and began to look at her laptop, ignoring the man on the other side of the desk. "Thank you, Colonel. That'll be all."
Sheppard nodded and prepared to leave without another word.
"One thing," Shen said sharply, halting him. She narrowed her eyes at him, holding his gaze locked with hers. "I do not like it when people try to go over my head. Remember that."
Sheppard's eyes darkened.
Shen smiled inwardly.
Approximately one year earlier...
"With all due respect, General, I think it's a mistake." John stared defiantly at the wall-mounted screen, the operations centre dark and empty apart from McKay who operated the consoles.
Alone in his office on Earth, General O'Neill did not look impressed. In fact, his expression had grown sourer by the minute. "Look, Sheppard, I get it. You had a great commander. But the IOA—"
"The IOA doesn't know anything about war," John insisted darkly, "And we're at war here, General. Even if Michael is gone, there are plenty of Wraith to go around. They want Atlantis. Sooner or later, they're gonna find us, and when that happens we need a commander who knows when to jink or punch out."
O'Neill threw his hands in the air. "Sheppard—"
"General," John interjected, pulling himself to his full height. "Colonel Carter knows more about what's out there than the IOA combined. We need someone with her knowledge and experience here. Why else did you put her here in the first place?"
"I'm not denyin' Carter's competence, Sheppard. God knows she could wind up a Joint Chief some day, but the IOA's made its decision." And by the tone of it, it was final.
"Then appeal to the President," John said, feeling like he was coming to the end of his run. "I dunno, just do something. The Colonel earned this command. It's hers."
O'Neill's expression softened and he observed John through the screen for a long time. "I get your point, Sheppard, but don't court disaster. You're no good as a hangar queen."
John scoffed darkly. He'd heard the stories about the General and his bouts with the IOA. It's why John appealed to him. That, and he'd been Carter's CO for a long time. "Ain't that where you come in, sir?"
O'Neill snorted. "Don't push it. I ain't got magic shoes." He heaved a deep and frustrated sigh, and looked at John. "Why're you doin' this?"
"Because the Colonel deserves it," John said, a little warily. In truth, it was more than that, but it was as much as John could say. Carter – Sam's – place was here, in Atlantis. It just was.
O'Neill's look, however, made him very uncomfortable. He seemed to look straight through him, an ability he'd many times attributed to Sam. It was an unnerving sensation when done by her former CO and long-time friend.
"I won't promise you anything," O'Neill said finally, and his tone was hard. The humour was gone from his eyes, but John didn't mind if O'Neill held true to his words.
"Thank you, General."
"Don't thank me yet," O'Neill grumbled. "This is gonna be a political nightmare. O'Neill out."
The screen went black and soon the stargate shut down, casting the gate room in complete darkness until McKay turned on a few lights.
"So now what?" he asked uncertainly.
John turned to look at the inert stargate for a few moments, then glanced back at McKay. "Now we wait."
And hope the bastards back down, he added silently, or it won't be pretty.