Day 170-208: "Righting the wrongs."
"I'm assigning Major Dawkins to assist you with your duties," Xiaoyi repeated, her tone a little exasperated.
"I handle my duties just fine," John retorted, his arms crossed. He shot a sidelong glance towards where a green-clad, short man with the SGC patch on his shoulders stood at ease next to Xiaoyi's desk. "No offense, Major."
"None taken, sir," Michael Dawkins said, the corners of his lips edging upwards. His hair was slicked back and parted on one side. Not even an earthquake would be able to shake it loose. John resisted a wince every time he looked at him.
Xiaoyi leaned back in her chair and gestured to a folder on the desk. "Our situation's changed from a year ago, Colonel. You've stated it yourself. In addition to ensuring a high level of security on Atlantis and Tirana, you also have an increased number of weekly off-world missions requiring a specialised security detail to protect our people. Not to mention you've taken it on yourself to personally lead most of the training regimes, which, Major Dawkins has informed me, are quite extensive. I wonder if you ever have time to relax?"
It had to be a joke. John shook his head and prepared to leave. "That's military life, Miss Xiaoyi. In a potentially hostile situation there isn't time for fun and games." he said. "As for my state, Major Lorne handles things when I'm gone, busy, golfing, or taking a whiz. You won't have to worry." He began to walk away.
"Colonel," Xiaoyi called out sharply, her good mood gone. Tilted, dark eyes glinted icily at him. "This assignment comes directly from Colonel Caldwell."
With both Caldwell's and Xiaoyi's warnings a week ago, he had no choice. John forced himself to turn back, his eyes narrowed.
"Fine," he gritted out. He looked at Dawkins, who straightened on the spot. "You can report to my office tomorrow. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some important stuff to take care of."
Without a backward glance, John stormed out of the office through the backdoor, his mind churning. After a brief glance at the watch, he keyed on his radio for a private channel while checking his six. "Sam. You still here?"
"Yes," Sam responded lowly in his earpiece. "I'm about to head down below."
Staring down the empty corridor in front of the transporter, John grimaced and lowered his voice. "Better scratch that and scramble. I'll drop by with the night shift and explain later."
"Would you believe it? I mean, the guy might as well be a politician. He's certainly got that paper-pusher look," John said and threw a rock hard into the water for emphasis. When no reply came, he glanced over his shoulder.
On the log beneath the willow-like tree, Sam stared silently at the spot where his stone had landed. Ringlets drifted out from the epicentre. It fractured the half-moon reflected in the lake.
"Sam? You listening?"
It drew her out of whatever trance she'd fallen into. Sam's face contorted darkly. "Yes. I'm sorry. I've just got a lot on my mind." She took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow at him. "Did she actually say Dawkins's gonna replace Lorne?"
John frowned. "Not exactly. But from the looks of him, he'd hit the jackpot or something." He paused and eyed Sam suspiciously. "What's your point?"
"I'm not sure," she sighed and pinched the ridge of her nose. From the looks of it, she struggled with a headache. Maybe the failed smuggle attempt on Atlantis earlier weighed a bit too heavily. "Look, it might be Dawkins is just supposed to be an assistant of sorts. You do have a lot going on. Even so, it complicates things."
"Tell me about it." John snorted. "I'm getting paranoid looking over my shoulder all the time. He insisted on tailing me all day, even though I specifically said tomorrow."
Sam smirked. "We'll have to work out something else, but in the meantime you should probably cut back on off-world trips."
"I knew you'd say that," John groaned. He threw a second rock into the lake, hard and far out, then sighed. "Fine. Not like I'm gonna miss working with the Genii."
"Really? I thought you hit it off so well," Sam teased and got to her feet. "I especially liked the black eye you gave Radim's bodyguard."
John only grimaced at the memory. Due to some misunderstanding on his first trip to the Genii home world a few days ago, he'd ended up in a bundle with Radim's guards and fought back. Thanks to Sam, he'd avoided cell time, but only with the promise she'd punish him dearly. He'd never really lived down the crown of flowers the Tikwee teenage girls in the village had made him wear for a day. Ramirez had even cracked a joke and John threatened to put him to scrubbing the shower floor with a toothbrush next time the sergeant was on Atlantis.
"Look at it this way..." Sam smiled and stepped up to him. "You could use Dawkins to push for some free weekends now. I'm sure we could figure out something for you to do around here. Maybe even a visit to the Travelers?"
"That supposed to cheer me up?" John raised an eyebrow, but he half-smirked in return as they began to move off towards the Tikwee village for Sam's weekly dinner at Master Togar's. "Another people likely to kill me on sight."
"I'm sure they'll come around." Sam winked, the moon highlighting her grin. "Just show them that Sheppard charm."
"—and Ms Xiaoyi is expecting an answer. What should I tell her?"
John stopped half-stride and swung on his heel, a glare on his face. Dawkins nearly collided with him and jumped back to avoid it. John's tone was annoyed. "Tell her the same as last time and the time before that: I'll get to it when I'm back."
John raised one finger warningly and then strode off down the corridor. It soon opened into the lower levels of the gate room. Sun streamed in through the windows behind the stargate, giving it an eerie glow.
Ronon was already there, along with Captain Matthews' day shift team. They were all dressed in standard security uniforms, with P90s strapped to their chests. In stark opposite, John had dressed more casually in jeans, combat boots and his leather jacket. An overnight bag was slung over his shoulder.
"Hi guys," John greeted them, and received nods and greetings in return. He turned to Ronon, who looked behind him with a slightly dark look. Exasperated, John swung around and gave Dawkins an expectant look. "Yes?"
Dawkins straightened his spine and puffed out his chest, barely giving the others a glance. "One of the IOA representatives was asked to join you. I was told to make sure you didn't leave him behind. Sir," he added, as if it was an afterthought.
"Who?" John's eyes narrowed and an uneasy feeling twisted his stomach. This wasn't exactly in their plans.
"He should be here any minute, sir," Dawkins said and looked back in the direction they'd come from. "Oh. There he is."
John stared behind Dawkins and was a little surprised to see Woolsey stride down the corridor at a brisk pace, briefcase in hand. He'd dressed in worn, green BDUs with no ID patches on. Quite different from the suits he usually wore. Was this an inspection?
"Colonel," Woolsey greeted as he came up next to them. He looked a little harried, but covered it quickly. "Major," he noted nearly coolly to Dawkins. "Please explain to Ms Xiaoyi that next time I'd appreciate a head warning."
"I will, sir," Dawkins nodded and finally excused himself from John's presence.
A sigh of relief escaped beneath John's breath. He glanced at Woolsey, who seemed a little preoccupied. Instead of the third degree, he decided to do it simple. "You ready?"
"As well as could be," Woolsey said, then remained silent while John called for the technician-on-duty – Shang was on today – to dial Tirana.
Bright sunlight made Sam squint as she stepped out of the Jumper.
"Ugh." Hailey winced beside her. She shielded her eyes with her spare hand. The other was clenched around the straps of a near bursting black bag. "I never get used to the climate on this planet."
Sam smirked and stopped to put on some sunglasses. "If you'd rather be drenched and cooped up in an underground storage facility for the rest of the week, you could've just stayed behind on M34-R6X."
Hailey wrinkled her nose. "With Genii scientists stinking like the wrong end of a skunk in heat? No thanks."
She shut the Jumper door with the handheld controller and flipped on the invisibility. Seemingly alone in the forest clearing, they turned to a narrow path barely visible in the undergrowth and moved off.
"Personal hygiene aside," Sam said, taking the lead down the crooked path, "I was very impressed with what they had accomplished so far."
"Yes, the radiation suits were a nice touch," Hailey grumbled. The large bag in her hand caught on a branch and she struggled a little to release it.
"Safety precautions," Sam reminded her, amused. "It's more than they had the last time they experimented with nuclear power. At least they've turned their experiments towards a long-term societal benefit."
"So you really think this nuclear reactor will be able to power an entire underground city? They did struggle with that toaster-looking thing."
"It'll probably be a while and they've asked for our help… but yes, I think they'll work it out one day. In the meantime, we've got what we asked for."
"Some of what we asked for," Hailey corrected.
The forest thinned and the sunlight became brighter again. Soon the forest ended and a vast field of grass opened up before them next to the big lake gathered at the bottom of the mountains. It was a short walk to the mine camp from here, following the shore of the lake until they passed the AA railgun close to the log cabins.
"Y'know, ma'am," Hailey said as they trailed past the lake, "we're not gonna get a lot of the stuff we need from the Coalition. They're helpful, sure, but way behind us technologically."
Sam held back a sigh. The question wasn't really where to get the things they needed. It was how.
"Maybe we could sneak in with a Jumper, pinch the stuff, and sneak out before the old bat noticed," Hailey suggested. "It's a big city."
"Every Jumper's got homing devices," Sam reasoned. "Even when invisible, Atlantis' sensors would pick us up from miles away. Should we by any chance get in undetected, knock out our own people, and escape with the items in hand, people would notice they're missing and ask questions. We can't afford that."
"So…what's your plan?" Hailey asked as they came around the lake and left the fields of grass behind. They greeted the guys on guard duty by the AA railgun, and Hailey hurried up to match Sam step by step.
"I'm working on it," Sam said, resigned.
Past the AA gun they entered into the mine camp – a clutter of wooden cabins and a few cabins currently under construction by Earthborns and contracted Tikwee builders. The mountains rose up sharply above them.
Sam saw a lot of activity by the mineshaft opening and steered Hailey towards her cabin instead. Once it came into view, she grinned.
At the porch of her cabin John sat fiddling with his golf ball. Dressed in his leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, with a slight smirk on his lips, he looked like a stereotypical flyboy. A flyboy far away from home, that is.
"You're kinda late," John said. He got up from the ground and sauntered towards them with his hands in his pockets. Sam felt the distinct urge to hug him, like so many other times lately, but she repressed it.
"A lady's only fashionably late, sir," Hailey said quickly, grinning. She switched the bag into her other hand and gave him a brief salute. John returned it a little awkwardly. He'd never been much for formality.
"Our friends kept us a little longer," Sam said amusedly. "You ready for some vacation?"
"As long as it doesn't involve being tied to a chair this time, yeah." John grimaced and shuddered.
Sam stifled a grin. Before Asuras, John had come clean about his previous…entanglements with Larrin and the Travelers. Not something he remembered fondly. From her own experiences with the woman in question, Sam understood. The almost Amazonian qualities Larrin possessed were probably a bit over the top for someone like John. Still, her reconnection with the Travelers in the past month had only strengthened Sam's sense of humour when it came to his earlier predicament. She patted his arm. "I'll tell Larrin to be gentle."
Though John's eyes were invisible behind the aviator sunglasses, she felt the surge of emotion in them. Suddenly a little awkward, Sam glanced at Hailey and gestured to the bag. "Put the stuff inside. I'll take it to the cave later."
"Yes, ma'am." Hailey nodded, smirking. Whatever she'd read into their subtext, Sam hoped she wouldn't hear about it. The woman was too frank sometimes, like an annoying little sister. "I'm gonna grab some chow, then I'll sneak in and get some work done on that power relay. See ya."
With no further ado, the captain went to Sam's cabin and strode inside. Sam turned back to John with a smile. "So…"
"Before we start anything, there's someone else here for you," John said. "He's off on the grand tour with one of those botanists Xiaoyi sent here last month. The sour one, uh…Michelle?"
Just by the tone of his voice, Sam recognised which woman in particular John talked about. She'd apparently given him some grief back on Atlantis before being sent here. Sam frowned. "Who's the visitor?"
"Don't get too excited," John warned and gestured towards a couple strolling close to the mineshaft. "Seems like Xiaoyi sent him."
As the couple came into clearer view, Sam's neck tensed slightly. "Woolsey? What's he doing here?"
"Apparently he's the new civilian oversight on Tirana," John said, a little grimly. "Permanent assignment. Xiaoyi gave him the news today."
Seated on the only chair in Sam's cabin, Woolsey accepted the wooden cup of hot local tea Sam offered him. John declined the cup in her other hand, so Sam kept it for herself and sipped it carefully.
After a moment and a deep breath, Woolsey spoke. "Just to have it on the record, Colonel, I'm not here to take over your job. This is your turf, not mine. I'm just here to observe."
Sam gave him a smile, but felt her neck tense all the same. "You might've been sent on a fool's errand, then. There's not much to see, really. We mine, hang out with the locals, go on the occasional sweep of the planet. It's all in my reports."
"Yes." Woolsey nodded and a shadow crossed his face briefly. His hand tightened a little around the cup of tea. "Still, Ms Xiaoyi feels that my services will best serve our needs here. If there's anything you'd like an input on for instance… I'm available." He ended on that note and Sam nodded in some kind of thanks.
For several moments, neither of the people in Sam's sunlit cabin said anything. John, who leaned against the wall by the fireplace, eyed both of them narrowly. Eventually, he addressed Woolsey, who seemed lost in his own little world.
"If you don't mind me asking…" John shared a glance with Sam before continuing. "What'd you do?"
Instead of the stereotypical politician's affronted look that there might be a second agenda hiding in the background, Woolsey's eyes hardened behind his glasses. He gripped the cup tighter and met each of their stares.
"I played the Devil's advocate, Colonel," he said. "A necessary evil in any decent administration but not always wanted."
Sam could relate to it all too well. A touch of sympathy went through her, but her spine remained tense and on guard. After all, Woolsey had remained silent when Xiaoyi and Coolidge booted her off Atlantis. That display of inaction still stung.
But now he was here, and by the sound of it he wasn't about to leave anytime soon. Just like her.
With a tight smile, Sam raised her cup towards Woolsey. "Welcome to Tirana then, Richard."
"I don't like it," John said later as they entered the mines after nightfall.
"Me neither," Sam muttered lowly. She checked behind them to make sure no one had seen them enter, then led John down a dark passageway away from the main mining caves. After a sharp bend, she switched on a flashlight in one hand. In the other she carried the bag they'd gotten from the Genii, which Hailey had stored in Sam's cabin while the mining went on.
"Xiaoyi's up to something. Remember what McKay said?"
Sam made a face. "That she's asked for full access to the Atlantis and SGC database on her personal computer. I remember."
And it worried her a little. If Xiaoyi was on the search for something specific, the implications were that she knew or at least suspected something…
"Apparently, she's gonna review all of the departments," John mumbled tersely behind her. "Take stock, whatever. Dawkins's been pestering me about some efficiency report all week. I'll bet you anything Woolsey's here to do the same."
After several new bends and climbs over huge boulders, Sam turned and went towards a narrow fissure in the wall. She gestured for John to wedge through, her lips pursed in a sharp frown in the flashlight.
"Maybe," Sam said, handing him the bag and then following him. Once through, she turned and began to heave a large rock in front of the opening. John helped her to get it in place. "We can't do anything about it now," she finished as they moved onwards. "Besides…I'm not sure whether Woolsey's truly on her side or not."
"He's with the IOA at least," John said with a growl, walking in step with her. "Been hanging around them ever since they got here in force."
"But he worked as my liaison before Xiaoyi made her coup," Sam reminded him. They descended down a narrow passageway full of sharp rocks, and eventually began to see light at the end of the tunnel. "I got to know him a little. And he helped us out with the Coalition inquisition last year."
"So you're gonna include him in our plans?" John asked sharply.
"Of course not," Sam retorted, halting. In the light of the flashlight, John's grim features were sharp and contrasted. "He's not a bad man, but that doesn't mean I trust him. Not completely."
"Good." John nodded and some of the hardness in his face softened. "I don't want you banished to another distant planet if Xiaoyi discovered what you were really up to here."
It made Sam smile. She put her hand on his arm gratefully. "Thanks, John." With a nod behind her, she said, "You ready for the big surprise?"
John glanced at her hand and smirked, his eyes playful in the dimness. "Always."
"Asgard shield emitters. Naquadria generators. You didn't get this off Atlantis," John said, both amazed and suspicious, as he walked around the brightly lit cave.
Getting up from under the large, engine-looking mixture of various parts, Sam wiped her hands on a piece of cloth and met John's eyes. "Earth."
She knew it'd shock him. John's eyes widened. "You're kidding."
"Daedalus beamed it up from the SGC before…well, before." She stopped herself from saying too much. Technically, John was still below the paygrade. Not that this had been Homeworld Command's intended use of the equipment they'd sent, but Sam had been forced to improvise. The present circumstances took priority.
"I didn't see any of this reported in their supplies," John said as he lifted a hand-sized device from a rudimentary workbench and turned it over.
"I erased it from the records," Sam admitted. She shut a few open panels on the engine-like machine that revealed a myriad of transparent wires taken from a broken Jumper. "I didn't want the IOA to ask questions."
John put the device down and ran his hand along the Asgard shield emitter next to it. "Is it gonna work?"
With her eyes on the large, odd-shaped device in the middle of the room, Sam sighed. "Hopefully. Once I get all the parts I need it shouldn't take too long to assemble. Hailey's helping me out."
"Months maybe. Weeks." Sam shrugged. "It all depends on when I get the parts. Right now I'm short on wires, plugs and all the little bolts and pieces that's gonna hold this thing together. There's also the matter of getting some kind of thrusters. At least eight of them. Speaking of which…when you get back to Atlantis, I need you to do something." She bit her lip hesitantly.
John grimaced. "I'm not gonna like this, am I?"
Sam only smirked and wrung off her engineer overalls to reveal black pants and a tank top. As she pulled on her BDU jacket, she turned to wink at him. "After a day with Larrin, you might."
The stargate shut down and Sam stared at it for a few moments before turning to Captain Matthews, who was positioned by the DHD. "Dial Atlantis."
"Yes, ma'am," Matthews responded quickly and began to punch the buttons on the DHD. The stargate slowly began to hum with energy as the chevrons lit up in a specific order.
"Into the belly of the beast, ma'am?" Hailey muttered bravely next to Sam. They'd both dressed somewhat casually in simple BDUs, as if nothing was out of the ordinary on their weekly visit to Atlantis. Several steps behind them, the containers of food supplies and raw materials were stacked beside a number of scientists and grunt workers.
"Stay frosty," Sam said lowly, straightening her spine as the blue vortex burst out from the stargate and eventually settled into a stable event horizon. "This is just a supply run."
"Right." Hailey snorted, but silenced immediately at Sam's reproachful look.
Among the people coming back with them were a number of Xiaoyi's suggested personnel, who too often seemed to stare at them one times too many. Just as Sam had suspected, trust was an issue. There might even be some among the Tikwee colonists who reported to Xiaoyi for extra favours. Politicians had a knack for finding eyes and ears in high and low places.
Sam dug out her radio and keyed her recognition code on a GDO. "Atlantis, this is Colonel Carter on Tirana. We request permission to come through."
"Colonel Carter, this is Atlantis. The shield's down. Nice to see you again." Chuck's voice made Sam smile. Most of the time he'd been replaced by a technician called Shang, so this was something familiar.
"Alright, people." Sam turned and called out to the crowd, "Let's move out." She stooped down and picked up a crate along with Hailey, and then led the way into the blue event horizon.
After a familiar tingle and the feeling of being instantly frozen and defrosted, they exited into the sunny, warm Atlantis gate room. At the end of the raised platform, Caldwell stood at ease, hands behind his back. He'd dressed in base uniform – a blue sweater over navy pants and light blue shirt. The Atlantis patches were on his shoulders again.
"Welcome back, Colonel," Caldwell greeted her and Sam sent Hailey a significant look. They put the crate down next to the platform, then Hailey stepped back and guided the incoming containers into proper stacks.
Sam stepped up to Caldwell, her insides cool. "Colonel," she said respectfully. "How're the repairs going?"
"Slowly," Caldwell said lowly. "We'll probably be planetside for another fortnight. I'm sure McKay could use some extra hands." He eyed Sam and the rest of her group almost mournfully.
Sam smiled a little. Even though their first-hand reports and off-world informants said the Wraith had been embroiled in their own civil war for the past month, there was nothing a pilot loathed more than being chained to the ground. Caldwell was no different.
"Maybe I could spare a few if it'll speed things along," Sam offered. "At least Daedalus will be at 100 % capacity when this is done."
"110 % according to McKay," Caldwell deadpanned, clearly not as optimistic. "But I'd rather have her up in the air at 90 % than spend extra time on the remaining 10."
Sam agreed it would perhaps make her feel safer, but without these repairs and upgrades to her shields and weapons, Daedalus would just end up like she'd done last time if they came to a head with the Wraith superhive. At this critical juncture, they couldn't afford that.
"How's everything on Tirana?" Caldwell asked once he'd finished grumbling about McKay and repairs. "I understand Sheppard went to visit yesterday."
"Yes," Sam said, wary of any eavesdroppers. "He's off to the Athosians now." The lie rolled carefully over her lips and although Caldwell knew the truth of it – that New Athos was just a waypoint for the Traveler rendezvous point – she hoped anyone who eavesdropped believed it. "Should be back sometime tonight or tomorrow."
"Well, I'm sure he's having a blast." Caldwell smirked tightly, and then looked around the gate room.
The stargate had shut down and some of Sam's people had moved on with the crates, helped by Atlantis personnel. Hailey stood by the crate she and Sam had carried with them, appearing to be bored out of her mind.
"While you're here," Caldwell said, a little loudly for the benefit of the eavesdroppers, "I suggest you pop by the office later. Seems we've got some efficiency reports regarding the Atlantis military to go over." He then lowered his voice and stepped closer to Sam. "Dawkins handed them in to Xiaoyi two hours ago."
Sam's insides twisted. John was supposed to do them once he got back – he'd told her so himself. Had Dawkins gone behind his back?
"I'll see you later," Caldwell said in a normal voice again, then turned and left without another word.
Sam looked over her shoulder at Hailey and the woman's idleness was replaced by sharp attention. With a minute gesture, Sam asked her to carry on and Hailey disappeared in direction of the transporter.
With a sigh, Sam glanced up at the glass office above the platform and startled to see Coolidge glare fiercely down at her. Xiaoyi stood next to him, her eyes indecipherable. After a moment's pause, the Chinese woman turned and went to sit behind her desk.
Coolidge's eyes followed Sam as she ascended the grand staircase.
Time to play.
A stream of people were going in and out of the supply room door, carrying with them an assortment of items under the supervision of Dr Rodney McKay. The man scrutinised each item that was taken out, making a sort of huffed sound as he crossed them off on his tablet computer.
"What do you think you're doing?" McKay snapped at a skinny gangly man in SGC uniform who exited with a small, unmarked box. He wrenched the box from the man and turned it upside-down according to the direction of the arrow painted on the box, then thrust it back at the skinny fellow. "You wanna get us all killed? Seriously. I'm surrounded by idiots."
McKay swung around, muttering under his breath, and narrowed his eyes at the next person in the line, a woman in Atlantis uniform.
Hailey stifled a smirk and straightened her spine. With deliberate steps, she walked up to the supply room door. "Hiya, doc."
"Huh?" McKay looked up from his tablet. His frustrated expression curdled into a grimace. "Oh. It's you. Mini-Sam."
"Nice to see you too, McSnarky." Hailey couldn't help her grin. "Having fun?"
"A blast," McKay scowled. He glanced at the woman in the Atlantis uniform, who still stood by the door with a large metallic object in her arms. "What're you waiting for? Get that up to Zelenka." He groaned when the woman finally left, then frowned at Hailey. "What're you doing here?"
Hailey fished out a piece of paper from her pants pocket and handed it to him. "Picking up some stuff for Daedalus. Colonel Caldwell wanted it ASAP."
McKay read over the paper and he mumbled the text in a rapid tone. "—bla, bla, bla…power converters. Fine," he said aloud to Hailey and immersed himself in his tablet again. "They're in the back. Aisle 15D. Try not to get yourself lost this time."
"I've got a map," Hailey deadpanned, to which McKay only rolled his eyes. However, with his permission she went through the door.
The supply room was one of many, but this was the largest of them – if you didn't count the drone storage. The room was spacious but filled from floor to ceiling with metallic shelves brought from Earth years ago. Hailey noted some of the shelves were emptier than last time, even as others had filled up with refined items and plating from the recently established Atlantis forge.
A few people milled about the brightly lit room, but none seemed to take any notice of her. That served her perfectly. Even so, Hailey appeared to be really interested in locating aisle 15D, when what she really wanted to find was aisle 12A.
Aisle 12A turned up faster than she'd expected. With a discreet look around, Hailey veered off and hid somewhat behind a large container. She dug out a small transmitter from a jacket pocket, then swept her eyes across the many shelves.
The item she looked for was fortunately on a low shelf. Hailey grinned and made another look around – no one were looking – before attaching the transmitter to it. She pushed the power button on the transmitter and it began to blink.
Keeping her eyes on her surroundings, Hailey found her radio and turned it on the pre-decided channel. She clicked the radio thrice in quick succession. Her neck tensed as she waited for the reply. It took five seconds, then her earpiece resounded with two affirmative short clicks.
Relief filled her belly, but she held back a smile. She glanced again around the room. She was rather secluded here and no one would be able to see anything. In fact, it seemed the room was empty save her. The coast was clear. Hailey tapped her radio four times and waited.
Within moments the large, bulky item to which she'd attached the transmitter disappeared in a ray of light.
Satisfied, Hailey snuck out of aisle 12A and continued calmly towards aisle 15D.
"Hey!" McKay called out behind her. He stood in the doorway, tablet in hand, with a really annoyed look on his face. "I've got important things to do, you know."
"Just a sec," Hailey called back and hurried down aisle 15D. She quickly found the required box of spare power converters and then strode back towards the exit.
"Finally!" McKay practically tapped his foot when she exited. He turned to the door controls and connected his tablet to it. In rapid movements, he input a 17-digit password and the door sealed. Hailey hid her smirk.
"By the way, sir, Colonel Carter asked me to give you this." Balancing the box in one hand, Hailey handed him a flashdrive from her pants pocket.
"What's this?" McKay frowned and turned it over.
"Specs and suggestions for upgrades on Atlantis. Something about the shields in particular, I think." Hailey shrugged. "She said you'd understand."
"Of course I will." McKay rolled his eyes and huffed. "I'm the smartest man in two galaxies."
Turning a corner in the familiar corridor, Sam reached the door to John's office – in which Caldwell had temporarily taken up residence while on base – and waved her hand above the controls. The door rolled open and revealed a brightly lit room.
Caldwell sat behind John's desk, papers and folders surrounding him, albeit tidier than if it'd been John's clutter. He looked up as she entered and sealed the door automatically behind her.
"That was quick," he noted and put down one of the files in his hand.
Sam shrugged. "Surprised me too. Apparently, I check out. Someone must've sent them some good reports."
"Good. Let's hope that keeps them off the scent," Caldwell said and cleared space on the desktop for her tablet computer. "Now, tell me where we're at."
In one swift motion, Sam set down the tablet computer and inserted a flashdrive. The screen lit up and demanded a password. Sam cracked the encryption and drew up a revised galaxy map. She zoomed in on a particular area and several planetary systems popped up, along with red dots to identify the latest locations of known Wraith vessels, planets or outposts.
"According to my initial talks with the Travelers, none of the Wraith factions have discovered the supply colonies they established after the Attero device destroyed their main colony," Sam said. "They put their fleet on alert months ago when reports of the Wraith superhive began to circulate, but they've got no real weaponry to withstand it. Evasion's been their primary tactic, but they've still got people who want to live planetside – particularly younger generations – so that's only half effective. They don't want to split their people, so discussions have begun about ordering everyone to live on their ships full-time."
"It's worked for them before," Caldwell said, his gaze thoughtful. He leaned closer and stapled his fingers together. "What's the status of their ships?"
"It varies," Sam said with a grimace and leaned against the desktop. "Most of them aren't equipped for a fight with the Wraith, let alone a superhive. Their strongest bet is the Ancient Aurora-class ship they acquired years ago." It'd fortunately been off on a mission when the Attero device activated.
"Our strongest bet too," said Caldwell, his tone grim. "Even with upgrades and your little project as back-up, Daedalus would only be able to hold off the superhive for a while. We wouldn't be able to destroy it unless from within, but that—"
"—is a suicide mission," finished Sam. She met Caldwell's eyes, equally grim. "We're not there yet."
Caldwell nodded in agreement, and then broke the tense moment by gesturing to the tablet screen. "So what did the Travelers think of our plan?"
"Larrin seemed open to the idea of joining forces, but the Traveler Council was a bit more reserved." Sam sighed and crossed her arms. "I'm hoping John's gonna have better luck in the negotiations."
"Mhm," Caldwell hummed. He glanced at the tablet screen, his brows furrowed. "What about the Genii? Did they agree to our terms?"
Sam resisted a deep moan. "Got some details to work out still, but if we provide the minerals and scientific input on their nuclear project, they'll open up their refineries and factories for us. Should help out in the event we need extra materials we can't get out of Atlantis. I'm nowhere on the thrusters, though," she added resignedly.
"I've got a broken F-302 in the hangar bay," Caldwell suggested. "We've cannibalised it for spare parts."
"I'll keep that in mind." Sam smiled. She looked back at the tablet screen and pulled up another map. "As for Wraith movements, nothing's changed since we did a new download of their network two weeks ago. The only thing I've confirmed through our informant network is that the Wraith factions are still at each other's throats and it doesn't look like they'll stop anytime soon."
"Todd's faction?" Caldwell asked darkly, looking at a large red dot on the screen that signified the Wraith superhive. A small fleet of normal Hive ships and cruisers surrounded it. It would seem that even among the Wraith, people flocked around the strong.
"They've got the upper hand," Sam said, her insides twisting. "The other factions seem to put up a good fight, however. No signs of a cease-fire yet."
"Small favours, I guess." Caldwell sighed and leaned back in John's office chair. "But that's just one side of the matter. Atlantis' sensors picked up the superhive at one of our old trading allies three days ago. Xiaoyi wouldn't let me send anyone in until yesterday. Reports say the villages were leveled. No survivors. Same as before."
Sam's lips thinned. Ire rose in her, but she kept it back. The injustice of it all rankled her, and reminded her that little kids like Reika might never make it in this galaxy if vampiric creatures were allowed to determine the rules of the game. The casual way the superhive seemed to dispose of whole human colonies without even culling them, and the IOA's calm acceptance of the fact… It was despicable and it spoke of some higher agenda that Sam had yet to figure out.
"We're gonna win this," Sam stated, her tone hard. "I'm not having another Earth happen again, nor am I gonna leave Pegasus to its fate." She paused, then added lowly, "I'll do whatever it takes."
Caldwell stared at her steadily for several moments, his expression thoughtful. "How's your project coming together?"
Sam smirked as a blast from her past coined her phrase. "Like a big, honking space gun."
"Everything okay?" Sam asked with a smile as Hailey stepped up to her side. Behind her, a couple of jumpsuit-clad airmen from the Daedalus carried a container to the edge of the platform.
"Thanks, guys." Hailey nodded at the two airmen, who made a few salutes to the two women before leaving the gate room. She turned to Sam and said, "You could say that, ma'am."
"Good." Sam smirked, then straightened and looked up at the operations centre. She clicked on her radio. "We're ready down here, Chuck."
"Dialling Tirana, ma'am," Chuck responded quickly. The stargate hummed with energy and swept into motion.
As they waited, Sam glanced up at the glass office. Xiaoyi and Coolidge stood inside, deep in conversation, but their eyes occasionally glanced in their direction. Slanted, icy eyes met Sam's and Sam nodded calmly in acknowledgment. Xiaoyi continued her conversation with the barest of nods to indicate that she'd seen her.
Sam was tempted to roll her eyes, but turned back to Hailey instead. "Hope you got familiar with the Daedalus. You'll be working there a few days a week for the next fortnight."
Hailey made a face. "I've got to work with McSnarky?"
"Think of it as an opportunity," Sam said lowly but amused. There was no doubt what the tone of her voice suggested.
"Yes, ma'am." Hailey nodded, a little more serious.
The stargate burst into life. Once the event horizon stabilised, Sam and Hailey picked up the container from Daedalus, and then led the group back to Tirana.
Matthews' security team expected them on the other side, weapons raised. When they spotted Sam, however, they lowered them and Matthews moved forward to greet them.
"Welcome home, ma'am," the captain saluted her, the other hand secure on the P90 attached to her TAC vest. As people passed them, she bent a little closer and muttered, "Message from the Lt Colonel. He'll be back tonight."
Sam glanced around automatically to make sure none of those she suspected of reporting back to Xiaoyi had heard. She nodded and said, "Tell him I'll be in my cabin."
"Will do, Colonel." Matthews straightened and returned to her position at Sam's dismissal.
"You think he succeeded?" Hailey muttered as they followed the rest of the group on the way back to the Tikwee village and the mine camp. The container was a bit heavy in their hands, but neither complained. Not when the content was vital to their project deep in the mountain.
"I hope so." Sam sighed. "We really need them if we're gonna have any shot at taking the superhive down."
Hailey hummed in agreement and the two fell silent for a moment as the trees began to thin out. The familiar fields opened up beyond the forest and they could see the roofs of the Tikwee houses in the distance. Smoke rose up from the chimneys. A waft of hot, spicy food drifted on the wind.
Once they neared the village, Hailey tensed up beside Sam. "Ma'am."
Sam stared in the direction Hailey pointed out and her insides twisted as she spotted Woolsey in company with Togar and some of the other Tikwee colony council members. They strolled down the main street of the village, with Togar obviously gesturing to some of the booths and stalls they passed. Woolsey wore a courteous smile as he listened.
"Emerson," Sam called out to an Airman in her group, one of the guys John had told her she could trust. The young man turned and approached them. "Help Captain Hailey with this container. Get it to the mines." She didn't need to tell them it had to be done discreetly.
"Yes, ma'am." Emerson saluted and took the container off Sam's hands. Hailey gestured for him to follow, with only a fleeting glance at Sam, and then they were off.
Sam turned towards the main street as the rest of the group veered off towards the mine camp. Steeling herself, she walked up the street.
Togar spotted her first, a wide smile on his lips. "Ah, Colonel. It is good to see you." The familiar grey hair, the laughing wrinkles, and his deep baritone voice only calmed Sam a little.
"Good to see you too, Master Togar." Sam smiled somewhat tensely, and hoped it wasn't obvious. "I see you've met Mr Woolsey already."
"Yes, indeed," said Togar, giving the balding BDU-clad man a second look. "He came here this morning, said he wanted to get to know us better."
Sam eyed Woolsey, who seemed a little ill at ease under her scrutiny. However, he met her eyes as he said, "I explained to Master Togar that I'm to stay for an indefinite time and thought I might as well present myself."
"Very courteous," Togar said approvingly. "Said many good things about you, Colonel." He winked at her and turned back to Woolsey. "I've certainly enjoyed our talks today, Mr Woolsey. I trust you'll share a meal with us tonight?"
"Thank you for the invitation," said Woolsey. "I'd be happy to. There're still many things about your culture I'd like to know more about. This harvest ceremony, for example… It seems quite unique."
"Yes, yes." Togar chuckled. "So the Colonel told me. To us, though, it's nothing more than what we've done for generations."
The two men continued their talk about harvest ceremonies and how it could be related to other types of ceremonies Woolsey had read about in the Milky Way and Pegasus. Meanwhile, Sam nodded at the appropriate places and came with a few inputs. Her mind, however, was elsewhere, while her eyes stayed on Woolsey.
From the NID to the IOA, the man had somehow earned General O'Neill's trust enough to the point that Jack had actually asked him for input on how to deal with the IOA. Or so Daniel had told her last year after Woolsey was called in to help them out with the Coalition's Inquisition. Apparently, he'd been a key player in getting Sam back on Atlantis after the IOA had removed her, despite the fact that he'd been her chosen successor.
Sam had chosen him as her civilian advisor for that very reason when the IOA made their push for more influence several months ago. She hadn't trusted Coolidge or Xiaoyi then, and she still didn't. But Woolsey…he'd shown himself on occasion to be a man of principles.
Was that why he'd sought out the Tikwee colonists, to truly learn more about them and possibly earn their friendship? She knew he wasn't like Xiaoyi, but more times than not since Xiaoyi took power, he'd never acknowledged an opinion different than hers. Not publicly, nor privately. And there was the matter of his obvious inaction after the attack on Kadara…
Sam held back a sigh. It'd take more than this recent turn of events to earn her trust again, but if he stayed true to the man O'Neill had once entrusted with her career… He'd have potential.
"And when will we be joined by Colonel Sheppard?" Togar turned to her, the question snapping Sam out of her reverie. Woolsey observed her too, his eyes indecipherable.
"Um, tonight, I hope." Sam smiled, and crossed her fingers behind her back. "He's visiting an old friend off-world at the moment."
"You owe me big," John groaned as soon as the door to her cabin closed behind him. He looked a little worse for wear with ruffled and dirty BDUs, and as he crossed the floor to Sam's bunk – the only other seat available – he limped obviously. He sank into the bunk with a sigh.
"I take it things went well." Sam smirked and turned in her wooden chair. With one hand she reached out and turned the knob on the oil lamp set on her desk. A soft, warm glow lit up the cabin.
"Kinda. Larrin says hi," said John with his eyes closed, his head leaned back against the wall. It seemed like he'd gone through a warzone…or maybe Larrin's quarters if the woman's suggestive grin at their last meeting held any meaning. That particular thought made Sam's neck tense a little.
After a deep breath, John looked at her, his tone serious. "We'll get to borrow it, but it needs fixing."
He fished out a folded pieced of paper and held it up. Sam got to her feet and crossed the room to snatch it from his hand. Then she read it over and whistled. "What'd they do to it?"
"Reversed it into a Hive ship. Apparently the Wraith got into action with one of their Generation ships a while back." John smirked, his eyes dancing in the light from the oil lamp. "I'm betting that's a night they'd like to forget."
Sam grinned and put the paper away in her pocket. "Thanks, John. This is really great news."
"Sure." He shifted in his seat and winced slightly. Whatever Larrin had done to him, Sam could only guess it had to involve some roughhousing. A fact that she realised bothered her more than a little.
"She must've been real happy to see you," Sam said, her grin gone. Her insides coiled uneasily.
"Not sure about 'happy'," John mumbled, shifting in his seat so he was turned towards her. "More like 'cracked' and 'sadistic'. Chucked me into an airlock when I got there and kept me locked-up for two hours before she'd even talk to me. Seemed a bit pissed, to be honest."
Sam raised an eyebrow. In her meetings with Larrin so far, there'd been no mention of their previous alliance's bad points, like Asuras or the Attero device last year. So if Larrin was angry about something… "What'd you do?"
"Didn't call," John deadpanned, "or something like that. Said we took ages to get back in touch after we jumped planets six months ago."
"Oh." Sam didn't know what else to say. No wrath like a woman scorned?
"Managed to explain to her eventually why we've been off the grid, and she let me out. Seemed happy after that. Personally, I think she just liked to see me sweat." John grimaced and rolled his shoulders. Something popped and a sigh of relief came past his lips. He opened his eyes fully and met hers. "Don't send me back there."
This time, Sam's smirk returned. There was something reassuring about the tone in John's voice and the emotion in his eyes. "No promises. You did get results."
"You're mean," said John grouchily and slumped back against the wall. His annoyance, however, seemed short-lived. After a moment, he looked up at her. "So what's your sitrep?"
"Reports." Sam gestured to the pile of papers on her desk, next to several small metallic objects she'd tried to fix for her project in the mountains. "New demands from the power that be. You were right about the efficiency reports."
"Lucky guess," John said, then raised a finger in her direction. "You should take weekends off too, y'know."
"Probably," Sam said, but held back a sigh. "It's almost like my old job, except the environment's different. Got a nice view, though." She nodded towards the window above her desk. When the curtains were pulled aside, she had a nice view of the lake and the rolling landscape beyond it. Quite different from the gate room on Atlantis.
"Ugh, you're hopeless." John grumbled and got to his feet with a grimace. He crossed the floor and held his hand out. "C'mon."
"Where're we going?" Sam frowned, eyeing him suspiciously.
John nodded towards the door. "Tavern. You need a social life, I need a beer or whatever they pass for it anyway." He grimaced as he put weight on his foot again.
Sam held back a smile, but found that she didn't want to argue. The way he held his hand out…he probably didn't do that to Larrin. She hoped. "Alright. I guess the reports can wait."
"Xiaoyi's not here. Who's gonna tell?" John asked rhetorically and pulled her to her feet. Then he moved to hold the door open for her.
Woolsey might, but Sam refrained from saying so. Instead, she simply turned off the oil lamp and followed John into the crisp and cool night air, a smile on her lips.
It was clear by the Tikwee colonists' behaviour towards Colonel Carter that she'd earned their respects and loyalty. And attention, Richard Woolsey noted with a wry smile. Until Carter and Sheppard had arrived, laughing at some joke, he'd held the attention of everyone seated around the table. Now, the Tikwee seemed to have forgotten him. At least for the moment.
Not that Richard minded. Entertaining foreign ambassadors wasn't exactly a well-developed skill of his. It had taken all his little greys to carry on a conversation with everyone around the table at once. He hadn't exactly racked up the same amount of off-world stories as the notable Colonel Carter.
"And when Turghan threatened to stone the girl…?" Togar asked at Richard's right, his eyes wide.
"Well…" Carter grimaced. "Moghul told us using force to free her would lead to war between the two tribes, so he suggested a different approach. Apparently, the chieftains of each tribe could challenge the other to a one-on-one fight to the death. Seeing as I'd been presented as SG-1's chieftain…I fought him."
"And kicked his ass, Jackson told me." Sheppard smirked and took a gulp of his beer. It seemed to Richard that his eyes danced as he met Carter's.
Carter only smiled. "Some might say he deserved it. I only wanted to make him release Nya."
"Does that mean you killed him?" asked one of the Tikwee elders, a woman with elaborate curls flowing down her back. "If it was their custom…"
"It's not mine," said Carter firmly. Her eyes glinted. "I made him yield. That was enough. I wasn't after bloodshed."
"An admirable quality, Colonel." Togar nodded gravely. "A lesson I'm sure others would benefit from."
"Of that I have no doubt," Richard spoke at last, and gained everyone's attention. He met Carter's eyes across the table and raised his glass in her honour. "To Colonel Carter." He paused for a moment, judging his choice of words. "May those who challenge you regret it."
"Hear, hear!" the Tikwee called out approvingly and raised their glasses in the air.
Sheppard, however, stared at him, his eyes intense. For a second, Richard expected the worst. The man had never put a damper on his opinion of the IOA. But then…Sheppard's lips twitched and he smirked at Carter. "Wise words."
Richard held back a sigh of relief.
"So…Woolsey's turned 'round," John remarked quietly as they made their way back to the mine camp. He felt slightly inebriated; it'd been some time since he'd had anything alcoholic in his system. There wasn't a lot of it going around on Atlantis these days. In this state, he didn't mind that he walked closer to Sam than he'd done for months.
The nearly full moon shone brightly, not a hint of clouds on the night sky. High above them, the snow-capped mountain glittered eerily along with the local star constellations John was just starting to know. Sam had pointed out a few of them on his past visits.
"Apparently." Sam smiled. She crossed her arms tightly and John noticed she was trembling a little beneath her Atlantis leather jacket.
"Here," John said. He pulled off his jacket and hung it on her shoulders. The cold dug a little deeper into his bones, but John didn't care.
"Thanks," Sam said softly and drew the slightly oversized jacket closer around herself. It was a sight that turned over his insides a little and made them flutter. John pushed the feeling down automatically. It wasn't like that anymore.
"So when's your next visit to Atlantis?" John asked, strolling next to her with his hands deep in his pockets. They were on top of the slanted hill overlooking the mine camp when Sam stopped.
"Two weeks, if all goes according to plan." She bit her lip and stared down at the lake, in which the moon and mountain reflected like a clear mirror. "I'm sending Hailey with the next supply run. I'll take the opportunity to visit the Genii again. See if they've found someone who can supply the thrusters I need. Not to mention all the small things, like plating and bolts."
John's tone must've said more than intended, because Sam turned to him with a wry smile. "I know you don't like it, but they're our allies now."
"I know that," John muttered. "Just… Never mind."
Sam looked like she wanted to say something, but held back and withdrew her eyes instead.
After several long, tense moments she said, "I never expected we'd be divided like this, John. After Earth was lost…it never crossed my mind we'd bring this side of her with us." She sighed almost mournfully. "We've been involved in things bigger than petty rivalry between nations for more than a decade, but once it hit close to home…we drew back. What does that say about us?"
"When it gets down to it, everyone's worried about their own skin," John said lowly, staring at the moon reflected in the lake. He glanced at her. "But that's the past. You put us back out there."
"No." Sam shook her head. A soft smile played on her lips as she turned to face him. She was beautiful. "You did, John. If it hadn't been for you, I would've…" She paused, suddenly sheepish as she looked at her own feet. Her voice was low as she said, "I owe you a great deal, John."
A hot and uneasy churn made his insides twist. Feeling extremely awkward, John shifted on his feet and focused his eyes on everything but the woman next to him. He almost felt lightheaded, but mostly tense. What could he possibly respond to that? Was she just talking about the picture Coolidge stole, or was it something else?
"Don't worry about it," John said eventually. He met Sam's eyes awkwardly. Was that a blush on her cheeks?"Just finish what you've started."
"Atlantis command, Daedalus requests permission for take-off." Caldwell's voice was loud and clear on the speakers in the operations centre.
From where he stood at the back, John could only see the top of Xiaoyi's head as she stood rank next to a front console. However, he heard the steel in her voice very well as she responded, "Daedalus, this is Atlantis command. You've got permission for take-off. Godspeed and be careful out there. That's a brand new ship you're flying."
"Daedalus confirms. Thank you for all the good work. Keep a light on for us. Caldwell out."
On the wall-mounted screen, John saw the dot labelled Daedalus take off from the left-hand pier on the Atlantis blueprint. A dotted course showed the direction into the atmosphere as it sped away of the city.
Silence fell in the operations centre. Xiaoyi turned around to gaze at them all, her eyes lingering for a moment on the person next to John, and then she left for her glass office without another word. There was no mistaking the ice in her features.
"I guess it was too much to expect a motivating speech," John said lowly to his neighbour.
Sam grinned at him. "I'm sure when the IOA's finished processing the efficiency reports Dawkins handed in, you'll eat your words."
"You saying my leadership skills stink?" John raised an eyebrow in challenge.
"Administrative skills, maybe," Sam teased. "You were never one for reports."
"Great, so I'll get motivational speeches so I can write reports better. Bureaucrats," John swore below his breath. He shook his head and looked at her. "So…did you get my package last week?"
"Yes," Sam said. "Thanks. It runs much smoother now that it actually holds together with more than MacGyver tape."
"Always happy to help." John smirked. Bolts and screws had a tendency to do just that. No point having a weapon that'd burst to pieces at its debut.
He nodded towards the staircase as the operations centre began to clear out of its excess personnel. Together, they descended and made their way towards the transporter.
"Infirmary, then the gym?" Sam asked as they entered the transporter and the doors closed.
"Of course," John said. "Keller said she's noticed some progress. Both Reika and the other Kadarian children showed the same signs. Could be we'll get good news one day soon."
"I'd like that." Sam smiled, her eyes soft. She did that a lot these days. John figured he understood why. There was a lot more to smile about.It was all coming together. Piece by piece, they were righting the wrongs. That's all that mattered.