Day 238: "We don't know."
John wanted to warn her, but there was no time. He stood deathly still in the Operations Centre as the stargate connection was cut and Xiaoyi stepped towards the balcony railing in the sudden silence.
"Colonel Carter," Xiaoyi said, her tone mechanical. Next to her, Coolidge sneered and glared down at Sam. John felt his hand fist in response. "Would you join us in my office, please?"
Down in the gate room, a tired-looking Sam glanced around at the people who had converged there and seemed confused as she eyed the assortment of security and medical personnel, all frozen in the midst of obvious preparation. "What's happened?"
Xiaoyi didn't give her the pleasure of an explanation. Having spent the whole day so far within spitting distance of her, John hadn't expected one. The woman was on the prowl.
"My office," Xiaoyi said, her voice hardened. "Now."
Sam looked up at her, a shadow crossing her face. Her commander's mask was finally up, and her eyes had regained a certain spark. As Xiaoyi turned on her heel and walked towards her office, followed by a skulking Coolidge, Sam's eyes found John and he held them as she ascended the stairs.
"It's the Sun Tzu," he said quickly as Sam reached him. "Atlantis picked up their emergency beacon outside M2X-914 two hours ago. Daedalus is checking it out."
Sam's eyes widened and she stopped. "That's impossible. They said—"
"Colonel," Xiaoyi said sharply. She had stopped outside the glass office and stared at Sam icily. It was clearly a warning.
Sam's jaw tightened and she glanced at John. "Thanks for the heads-up," she muttered. "We'll talk later."
John nodded, but as Sam walked away and entered the glass office ahead of Xiaoyi, his neck was tense as a wire. Like an itch that couldn't be scratched. It'd been there since their talk yesterday at the pier. Seeing her again brought it all back.
"Colonel Sheppard." Xiaoyi now stared at him. "Notify me the second Daedalus checks in."
John forced down an urge to clench his fists as the wooden door closed behind her. She'd been on his back ever since the Sun Tzu's emergency beaconhad shown up on the sensors, like he had something to do with it. The very idea put him on edge.
He glanced around the Operations Centre, wondering what to do next. The pandemonium that had raged before Sam dialled in from Tirana had been quenched somewhat. Now it seemed people walked on eggshells, tiptoeing around each other to finish their preparations and glancing nervously at the glass office with its blinds closed, and even at him.
Waiting for the other shoe to drop, John reasoned, but the thought didn't sit well with him. There never should have been another shoe in the first place. A dead ship should either have stayed dead or never have been labelled KIA. Instead, the game had changed and this whole thing was a potential FUBAR.
John didn't want to go through one of those again. The last time had cost them too much. If Sam got trapped in Xiaoyi's politics again, they'd lose the edge they'd painstakingly gained against the Wraith. Or at least suffer a setback of an indeterminable length.
Either way, John had so far today seen enough to know that this situation with the Sun Tzu could and would make people lose their focus. He just hoped that Sam wouldn't be completely sidetracked by all this. They needed her now, more than ever…despite the insistent nagging at the back of his mind that Xiaoyi might be right.
He did know something that others didn't. And it had nothing to do with Sam's black ops missions or the Wraith. It was about Earth.
"You must be joking," Coolidge said. His eyes had narrowed dangerously.
"I wouldn't joke about this," Sam said through gritted teeth, reminding herself to keep her hands unclenched. The man had changed over the past months, and not for the better. She gave Xiaoyi a hard stare. "Homeworld Command told us the Sun Tzu and the Apollo were destroyed outside Saturn by an unknown alien force. You must've seen the video logs. They didn't even have time to react."
"Then how do you explain the fact that the Sun Tzu has found its way to the Pegasus galaxy?" Xiaoyi's expression was cut in stone.
"A miracle?" Sam raised an eyebrow. "If that is the real Sun Tzu. The Daedalus haven't reported back yet to confirm the emergency beacon, have they?"
"Humour me, Colonel," said Xiaoyi, her lips thinned.
Sam held back a sigh. "I can't explain it. I don't have all the facts. None of us do. All I know is what Homeworld Command told me. On Christmas Eve, the entire Milky Way stargate network shut down. The day after, an unknown alien force appeared on the edge of the Sol system. The Sun Tzu and the Apollo intercepted the aliens outside Saturn, where they were attacked before being able to attempt contact. According to Colonel Ellis's last message, the alien ships were massive and packed a lot of firepower. They didn't stand a chance. That's why Homeworld Command ordered the retreat and evacuation to Atlantis. Preventive measures in case things went south."
"If the stargate network was down, how was this even possible?" asked Xiaoyi, even though she must have known the answer if she'd read through the logs like John had reported months ago. But she wanted to hear it from Sam's own mouth, for what good that would do.
"Thanks to the SGC's special dialling computer, the Earth stargate wasn't entirely affected by the network shutdown," Sam said. "They managed to stop the virus that caused the shutdown before it could gain a foothold in the computers. Once they'd purged the systems of the virus, they brought the stargate back online, but they were unable to dial the Milky Way stargates. That, apparently, made someone suggest trying to force a dial to the Pegasus network."
"Where did the virus originate?"
"Unknown," said Sam. "The SGC didn't send any data on the virus, so I can't tell if it was similar to the Goa'uld virus that shut down the stargate network years ago, or something else entirely."
"How can you not know?" Coolidge asked abruptly. He took a step forward, his pale and drawn face twisted in a grimace. "You were in their pockets, Colonel. You knew them inside-out. Friends of yours, most of them, weren't they?"
Something twisted inside Sam. Her tone trembled for a heartbeat as she replied, "Yes, most of them. But it's the truth. I wouldn't lie about something like this."
Xiaoyi smiled humourlessly, as if Sam's statement had rung a bell somewhere. "Perhaps not, Colonel, but nevertheless, there are many questions that need answers."
"I can't give you what I don't know," Sam said, her voice a little heated. This was simply ridiculous. Only politicians would go on a holy crusade to deal with an emergency. "Maybe I should be asking you the same thing? You were there."
Apparently, Xiaoyi didn't like it when the tables were turned. "We did not have the privilege of being close, personal friends with the head of Homeworld Command."
Of course not, Sam thought, ignoring the low blow from Xiaoyi. General O'Neill didn't normally get along with any of the IOA representatives. 'Those egotistical, self-centred bastards', he'd called most of them. Except Woolsey, which was why O'Neil had pushed for the latter when Sam was temporarily replaced as commander of Atlantis almost two years ago.
Reminded of him, Sam recalled the face of General O'Neill on the wall-mounted screen in the Operations Centre eight months ago. Her insides clenched as she took a deep breath and looked up at the two IOA representatives.
"Look," Sam said. "You were there when General O'Neill's message came in. I remember that. You must have heard the same thing I did. Earth couldn't win that fight. Half our fleet was destroyed within minutes, the rest of them on missions elsewhere, and the stargate network was down. The Ancient defence platform in Antarctica managed to take down one of the smaller alien ships, but then it was destroyed. The SGC was next, so they blew themselves up to stop the aliens from reaching Atlantis. They saved us."
"A grim decision," Xiaoyi said, unaffected. It was like Sam couldn't even dent the woman's armour. "But that is not the issue here. The Sun Tzu is here now, which I'd say greatly contradicts your story." And in turn opened up for the possibility that something else might be untrue, but that was left unsaid.
"Well, I've told you what I know," Sam said and crossed her arms, fingers clenched around opposite arms. Her tone bordered on insubordinate. She'd noticed how Xiaoyi claimed it was 'her' story, not Homeworld Command's. "Perhaps you should check again with the logs, or interview the Daedalus crew. Though, I doubt you'll hear a different story."
Especially since the Daedalus had left a few days earlier with much needed supplies and a spare ZPM for Atlantis's defence against the oncoming Wraith superhive. Caldwell knew what she knew. For the past eight months, they'd compared notes and reached the same conclusion every time: they didn't know enough. The key pieces were missing, like who the aliens were, where they came from, what happened to the Milky Way stargate network, and the most important question on everyone's minds: why Earth?
"You seem very sure of that," said Coolidge, taking another step closer. She could almost feel his breath upon her skin. "Tampering with the truth is still a crime, Colonel."
Sam nearly bristled. "I'm not—"
"Then how do you explain your three late-night calls to Homeworld Command in the week prior to the attack?" Xiaoyi picked up the topmost paper in her stack of folders and handed it to Sam. "Private communiqués with General O'Neill?"
Reading the paper in her hand, Sam's jaw tightened. "Those calls are classified."
"Not anymore, Colonel. You will tell me what you discussed. Was it about Earth? Did you know that we were going to be attacked?"
"No." Sam crossed her arms tightly, her eyes glinting dangerously. Still, Xiaoyi remained calm and at the edge of her seat – as if she'd waited for this for a long time and things were finally coming to light. Was that the reason she'd gone through Sam's files all those months ago? To find proof? "I had no idea," Sam continued. "Neither did Homeworld Command. That's why we're in this situation. Because we got clusterfucked."
Coolidge's face twisted in an ugly grimace. "Then what, pray tell, did you talk about, Colonel? Pillow talk?"
Sam's cheeks heated and she struggled to keep calm. Xiaoyi's lips twitched in a triumphant smirk.
"We discussed the Wraith," Sam said finally through gritted teeth. She completely ignored Coolidge, meeting instead Xiaoyi's eyes. "Atlantis had picked up the superhive on our long-range sensors and we knew they were coming for us. With the Daedalus back on Earth for resupply, we talked about possible strategies."
"Excuse me if I find it difficult to believe you, Colonel," Xiaoyi said, calmly leaning back in her chair. Sam's eyes narrowed. "I do not trust people who lie to my face."
Sam snorted and rolled her eyes. She shot both Coolidge and Xiaoyi a second, wry look. "That makes two of us, ma'am."
Coolidge surged forward, a growl coming from the back of his throat, but rather than back down, Sam met him halfway, towering half-a-head over him.
"Try it," she muttered, hard eyes locked with his. Her hands had fisted on her sides, ready to pounce if necessary. Coolidge didn't move, his eyes fiery and his whole body trembling in anger. Sam's lips thinned as she flexed her muscles. "And this time, look me in the face."
Coolidge flinched, and his eyes skirted towards the wooden door. The reference wasn't lost on him.
"That's enough, Colonel." Xiaoyi rose to her feet, her tone like steel. "Stand down or I'll have you removed to a cell."
Sam gave her a heated look, but remained where she was. "If that's the real Sun Tzu out there, you'll need me."
Xiaoyi's eyes narrowed. "Hardly. There are plenty of competent people in this city, Colonel. You're not irreplaceable."
Anger flashed through her veins, and Sam opened her mouth to speak—
The wooden door swung open without a knock. John appeared in the doorway, his expression grim as he noticed the tension between Sam, Xiaoyi and Coolidge. Their eyes locked for a moment before John turned to Xiaoyi, but Sam already had a sinking, sobering feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"Daedalus just checked in. It's the Sun Tzu."
M2X-914 had once been a lush, humid forest planet home to a number of dinosaur-sized carnivores. At least, that is what the Atlantis database claimed. Whatever had attracted the Ancients to establish an outpost here more than 13,000 years ago was undoubtedly gone now, along with the outpost itself. Only the stargate had survived, seeing as it orbited the planet as a spacegate.
Staring out of the Jumper's windows as it descended through the atmosphere, McKay saw nothing but barren rock and ice as far as the eye could see. There was no humidity and temperatures were well below -40 degrees Celsius. It was a giant arctic desert, much like Earth's poles without the global warming. But at least there was air and some sunlight. And they were all dressed in warm clothes. Small favours.
"Can't really imagine someone's lived here once. Chilling." Major Dawkins sat in the front passenger seat, his eyes scouring the ground below them as the Jumper reached the biosphere and evened out to follow the terrain. His tone seemed light, but McKay thought he detected a certain nervousness in his voice. Maybe because this was his first stint in the field, or so Sheppard had told him.
"Kinda reminds me of Hoth," said Captain Vega, who navigated the helm.
Seated behind her, Sergeant Mehra didn't seem amused. "Kinda reminds me of Antarctica."
McKay didn't chip in, even if he could think of a hundred things to say. It just seemed pointless at the moment. His eyes were drawn instead to the Jumper's console when an alert flashed on its HUD.
"We're coming up on the crash site," said Vega. The atmosphere tensed at her words. From the compartment behind them, Major Teldy came to stand next to McKay's chair, the nozzle of her P90 digging a little into his shoulder. "Should get a visual very soon."
McKay scooted to the edge of his seat, trying to stare over Major Dawkins's shoulder. Far up ahead on the horizon, he saw black smoke rising from the icy ground. That had to be it. Daedalus said the ship had crash-landed, but as they covered the distance McKay could see debris everywhere on the ground. A huge chunk looked mysteriously like a major part of the ship's hangar. It had to have crashed more than it landed.
"Oh my god," Major Teldy said, almost a whisper. Needless to say, it was an understatement.
If they didn't have the IFF signal to go after, McKay would have found it hard to believe that the smoking, blackened twisted metal colossus on the bottom of a crater was the Sun Tzu. Both its hangars were missing by the looks of it, and the front part was buried in the crater like folded metal. Only the back end of the ship seemed more or less intact. At least the parts he could see above ground.
No one said a word as the Jumper made another pass, surveying the damage. McKay thought he heard someone sniffle at the back of the Jumper, but when he looked there were only expressions of disbelief, shock and stoic grit.
Something clenched in his stomach as McKay looked back at the remainder of the Sun Tzu. Its blackened hull looked scorched in places as if from enemy fire, and there were some huge gaps where something had punched through – either in the crash or before as the ship went through the meteoroid field surrounding the planet. He wondered what kind of story was behind it.
"Okay," Dawkins said finally, his voice shaky. His features were slightly pale as he looked over his shoulder. "Let's get down and start the search."
The city buzzed, like something had stirred the hornet's nest. Reese saw it everywhere as she headed down the Atlantis corridors. People were tense, nervous, and some even clumsier than usual. A scientist Reese didn't know tripped as he practically pelted down the corridor, but when she went to help him up, the guy didn't seem to know she was there. He only jumped to his feet and ran again, muttering beneath his breath.
Reese frowned. Something was up. The barracks she stayed at had almost emptied completely by the time she got back from a late breakfast, a rare sight when most of the inhabitants had Saturday mornings off.
She spotted a familiar face in the crowd. "Hey, Kerrick!"
Eileen Kerrick, the combat engineer who'd been attached to Reese's team in the past, turned around and waved. She nodded towards the people bustling around them as Reese stepped up to her. "Crazy, right?"
"You know what's going on?"
Kerrick raised an eyebrow. "You mean you don't? They found the Sun Tzu. Can you fucking believe it?It crash-landed on some planet here. In Pegasus."
Reese's breath halted. "What? But…it was destroyed."
"That's been the story all along, hasn't it? Turns out it didn't." Kerrick grinned almost like the Cheshire cat. "Damn, they'll have some fucking story to tell. I hope they kicked some alien ass."
"Clear the way!" someone yelled down the corridor.
Reese looked back and quickly shuffled against the wall, colliding with Kerrick's shoulder, as a whole squad of combat-clad medics rushed past, empty gurneys clattering between them. All along the corridor, the other Atlantis personnel that had been milling about did the same. They remained frozen in place until the medics disappeared around a corner, still shouting for people to make a hole. Rushing medics was never a good sign.
"I'm gonna head up and see what's going on," said Kerrick, already turned to head back into the buzzing crowd. "You wanna come?"
Reese thought about it, then shook her head. Things would be chaotic enough without her getting in the way to get her gossip fix. "No, you go. I was gonna visit Ramirez. Let me know what you hear, okay?"
Sixty-four transponders. That's what Daedalus could pick up on its sensors. Three of them had been located in space, trapped inside the meteoroid field that surrounded M2X-914, through which the Sun Tzu had obviously torn, at great cost to its hull integrity. Those were the bodies Daedalus was able to beam up, as the meteoroid field prevented them from getting closer to the planet without serious injury. The rest were left for the Atlantis rescue operation. Still, sixty-four out of an original two-hundred crew. What the hell had happened to them?
John stood outside the Operations Centre, listening to the information flitting back and forth between Atlantis and Major Dawkins on M2X-914.
"How many life signs does the Jumper's sensors pick up?" asked Xiaoyi, her tone neutral, her features void of any emotion.
"About eighteen," said Dawkins. "Mostly located near the engineering section. Dr McKay believes the front of the ship took most of the force upon impact. We're trying to cut a way in to them now. Most of the interior structure has collapsed."
"Very well." Xiaoyi's lips thinned, her arms crossed tightly. "Do you need reinforcements?"
"Daedalus are sending us additional engineers to help, but we'll also need radiation suits. It seems one of the ship's naquadah generators is leaking radiation."
"I will send a Jumper to assist you immediately," Xiaoyi said. She looked around until she met John's eyes, then gave him a meaningful stare.
John got the message. He pushed off the wall he'd leaned against and cued on his radio as Xiaoyi's and Dawkins's conversation continued in the background. "Dr Kusanagi, this is Colonel Sheppard."
"Yes, Colonel?" Miko's response was swift.
"Round up all the radiation suits we have in storage and bring them to Jumper Five. I'll send some guys down to help you."
Miko responded affirmatively and logged off. John made another call for Major Lorne, who dispatched some of his men to help out the scientist. In the meantime, Xiaoyi's conversation with Dawkins had come to an end and the woman turned towards him again.
"The suits are on the way," said John, pushing his hands into his pants pockets. "They'll ship out in Jumper Five."
"Inform Dr Keller that some of the wounded will most likely suffer from radiation poisoning," said Xiaoyi tonelessly. John thought her eyes seemed shinier than usual, but the rest of her was tense and severe. "I realise Atlantis is not equipped for this scenario, but please tell her to do what she can."
John nodded grimly. Essentially, Xiaoyi told Keller to ease their passing. At least she realised when some things could not be done. John supposed that he shouldn't be surprised she managed to keep some of her objectivity, and yet… These were her people. She might even know some of them. But so far he hadn't seen even a dent in the woman's armour.
"I'll let her know."
There were bodies blocking their path. Alicia Vega felt nausea well up in her as the coppery scent of blood and burnt flesh hit her. In a heap of dark jumpsuits, blackened faces and debris, what appeared to be two bodies were trapped underneath broken metal beams. A hand was sticking up, missing two fingers. The blood had stopped running.
Someone behind her couldn't keep it in. Alicia blocked out the sound of retching as she pulled her bandana up to cover her nose and mouth. Along with Dusty Mehra and a couple of combat engineers, she stepped forward and started picking up the debris blocking the doorway.
It was like they were in some sort of horror movie. Emergency lighting flickered on and off around them, and a thick odour of smoke from some previously burning circuits made her throat clench. She reminded herself to breathe through her mouth.
"Watch that beam," one of the combat engineers said, pointing at the intended target to Alicia's left. "Try not to move it. It's supporting what's left of this ceiling. We'll have to reinforce it before we move on."
Alicia kept an eye on the beam as she continued to move away debris, handing it to Dusty who moved it out of the way. The combat engineers tried to work around them, finding broken support beams elsewhere to reinforce the doorway and make it safe to reach the two bodies buried on the other side.
"This is crazy," muttered Dusty at one point as Alicia handed her what seemed like a piece of a wall panel. The sergeant eyed the hand sticking up ahead of them.
Alicia didn't have any response. Dusty was right, after all. This was crazy. Alicia hadn't seen anything similar unless she counted Bosnia, but that had been at a distance and only through the sights of her sniper rifle. This was up close and personal.
She'd never done grunt work like this, but the situation called for all hands available. The ship was huge and the damage massive. They had a lot of ground to cover to get to those few life signs that the Ancient device Allison operated could still detect.
"Okay, that should do the trick." The combat engineers stepped back from their handiwork, and one of them looked at the bodies still wrapped in debris beyond the entrance. "Let's get them out of here."
Alicia steeled herself. This wouldn't be pretty.
"Jack did what he thought was right," Daniel said, his voice low.
Sam sighed and stared out the window at the ocean lapping against the piers of Atlantis. "I know. It's just…"
"You don't know what to believe now that it turns out the Sun Tzu survived after all." Daniel looked at her and smiled sadly.
"Yes," Sam said. The fighting spirit she'd felt in Xiaoyi's office earlier was gone. Now she only felt incredibly tired. There were so many things going on already without this situation with the Sun Tzu added to the mix. She stared at what was left of her sandwich, which had been forgotten during the course of their conversation. "Who'd have thought they survived?"
"From what you've told me, it sounds like a miracle." Daniel picked up his cup of tea and sipped it carefully. His eyes drifted to the oceanic scenery outside the windows of the Little Chow. Seeing as he'd been unconscious at the time of the evacuation, he'd only heard what happened to Earth afterwards.
"It is," Sam said. "It must be. I mean, if Earth couldn't…" She drew a sharp breath and paused. Once she felt sufficiently in control, she continued. "If Earth couldn't fend off those aliens, whoever they are, how the hell did the Sun Tzu pull it off?"
Daniel shrugged. "You'll have to ask them that. But…" He paused and met Sam's eyes above the rim of his teacup. "…I don't think Jack or General Landry lied to us." He took her hand and squeezed it. "Don't let Xiaoyi or Coolidge get to you."
Sam smiled as she recalled the meeting in Xiaoyi's office earlier. "They're certainly putting a lot of effort into trying." But her smile faltered when Daniel raised an eyebrow. Sam sighed. "It's just… I never imagined there'd be a day like this. Maybe eight months ago when we didn't know what had happened to the General Hammond, but once we announced them MIA, I moved on. Now… I don't know what to believe. What if they're trapped somewhere in the Milky Way, or also on their way to Pegasus?"
"Maybe the survivors can answer that question too," Daniel said, giving her hand another squeeze and letting go to finish his tea.
"They've got a tall order," Sam said, thinking of the questions that were bound to come from all corners of the city; questions that had been nurtured for eight months. There wouldn't be answers to everyone.
Sam swirled her now cold cup of coffee, then glanced around the Little Chow. It was nearly empty save for her and Daniel. She wondered where the regulars hung out now. Nearly eight hundred people in this city and they were the only ones here.
Movement in the doorway drew Sam's attention. John had stepped inside and looked around, eyes narrowed. Once he'd spotted them, he headed off in their direction. He looked like hell.
"Hey," Sam said, her voice half-muted. John slumped down in a chair next to their table. "Captain Matthews told me you found survivors."
"Yeah… The first batch came in just now," said John, his features grim. "They're being decontaminated."
"How many?" Daniel asked quietly.
John's jaw tightened. "Sixteen total. Two died before the rescue teams could reach them. The rest are critical. Most have radiation poisoning."
Sam's insides clenched and she could see a shadow cross Daniel's face. They both knew what that meant. They'd been there. But this time Oma Desala wasn't around. There'd be more graves out on the mainland.
Sam noticed John's hands had fisted at his sides. She wanted to reach out to him, but the tension in his eyes when he looked at her stayed her hand. Instead, she looked awkwardly at Daniel as the silence dragged out. Words seemed to fail. This whole situation was unreal.
"Who wants coffee?" said Daniel eventually, and pushed back his chair. Sam held up her half-filled cup, nodding her thanks. "John? It's fresh. Sort of."
"Uh, no thanks. I'm good." John seemed startled out of some reverie, breaking down his defences for a moment. It was enough of a drop that once Daniel left with his and Sam's cups, Sam noticed a dark cloud settle back over John's face.
"What's wrong?" Sam asked, her neck tense. She knew Major Dawkins had been sent to M2X-914 instead of John on Xiaoyi's orders. It would've been a slap in his face. He might even blame her for that. She'd put Xiaoyi in a terrible mood.
"There were only sixty-four transponders," said John. He dug his trusted golf ball out of a pants pocket and began to fiddle with it. "I wonder what happened to the rest."
"Oh." Sam hadn't expected that. Hell, she didn't know exactly what she'd expected. Her mind worked on a different track today. After this morning, she felt defensive. "Well, I don't know. We'll have to ask the survivors."
John looked at her, his dark eyes indiscernible. "I guess so."
Something about his tone made Sam look back at him, frowning, but John withdrew his gaze to the oceanic view outside the windows. She tensed and opened her mouth to ask—
"Here you go." Daniel put down a steaming cup of coffee in front of her. It seemed to be the cue for John to stand up.
"I gotta go," John said, putting his golf ball back in his pocket. "I'll see you guys later." And then he was gone.
Sam stared after him, a nagging feeling creeping up her spine.
"What was that about?" Daniel asked.
"I don't know." Sam tried to shrug off the sense of foreboding as she met Daniel's eyes across the table. "But I think I need to find out."
"Rodney, didn't you hear the Major's order?" Zelenka's voice sounded inside the radiation suit's headpiece. The man's accompanying legs were barely visible from McKay's position under the console. "There are no more survivors. We're moving out."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard it." McKay grimaced when the tangle of wires above of him sparked. "I'm kinda busy at the moment, though. I'll get one of the Jumpers to wait for me."
Zelenka tried to look underneath the console, but his large bulky radiation suit prevented him from a clear view. "What are you doing?"
McKay successfully extracted the wire he'd been looking for and quickly inserted it into his tablet. "I'm trying to download the ship's computer logs. See what they've been up to for the past eight months. Sort of like a black box."
"You think you can salvage anything from this?" Zelenka sounded dubious, probably as he took a glance around their surroundings. The Sun Tzu's engineering deck was pretty much in shambles and most of the consoles and control panels had been smashed upon impact. "I'd put my money on the survivors telling us more."
"If they live that long," McKay said, pushing back the images that'd met him once they managed to open a way into to the engine room. It only made him nauseous. The radiation leaking from the generators and the crash-landing had looked to be the least of their worries. It'd seemed like they'd been on this ship for a long time.
Zelenka made a noise that might've been a sad agreement. McKay could hear him move off, pushing debris away from his path.
"Look," McKay said, "I could do this a lot faster if you helped me. Then we could get back to the city and try to solve this puzzle. Not to mention getting some food and coffee. I'm starving."
It didn't take long for Zelenka to respond with a sigh. "Alright, Rodney. What do you need?"
Reese didn't know what to say when the wounded started coming in through the door to the infirmary. She sat still by Ramirez's bedside, counting and watching as jumpsuit-clad and naked Asians were moved to beds and gurneys. Some were even taken to the surgery right away. Others were only rushed past the entrance door to a separate decontamination and treatment room - radiation victims. She'd known they were coming, but still…
This was too surreal.
"Can't a guy get some sleep around here?" Ramirez's eyes opened tiredly. He sounded sluggish, but it was probably the drugs talking. Keller had put him on some pretty strong painkillers.
"You've already slept a whole day, Ramirez." Reese smirked in spite of herself.
"Cap'n?" The sergeant blinked his eyes at her, not quite managing to focus. He was either surprised to see her or just disoriented. Probably both.
"I'm here, Sergeant," Reese said. She found his hand and squeezed it, her insides clenched tight for a moment. Yesterday had been the scariest mission she'd done since Sanders died. She'd almost forgotten about it with everything else going on. "How do you feel?"
"Like someone decided I'm today's special," Ramirez said, smirking in what Reese clearly recognised as a drugged way – he never smiled like that when sober. But at least he remembered something.
"More like yesterday's," Reese chuckled, but stopped when she heard the abrupt noise of a flatlining heart monitor.
Ramirez heard it too and glanced around, noticing the flurry of motions around them. His words came out more clearly now. "Seriously, what's going on, Cap'n?"
From the next room, Keller came rushing out to the bed with the flatlined patient. She quickly took control, checking the Sun Tzu crewmember and rattling off orders to the nurses and doctors around her. Soon, she'd started CPR. That's when Reese noticed the extensive burns on the crewmember's body.
"Get me a crash cart!" Keller's voice split through the rising noise of the infirmary. She didn't stop the CPR, even as blood covered her gloved hands when her motions peeled the patient's burnt skin off.
Nauseated, Reese stood up and drew the curtain around Ramirez's bed. They didn't need to see this. Once she'd sat down, the commotion continuing outside their little corner, she gave him a grim look.
"They found the Sun Tzu today," Reese said lowly. "It crashed on a planet here in the Pegasus galaxy. Somehow it survived the attack on Earth and the past eight months, and came here. No one knows how, but I'm sure they're trying to work that out."
Ramirez's own expression shifted between confusion and a mirror of Reese's grimness. For a long while, he didn't say anything. Probably taking it all in, as well as listening to the flatlined heart monitor and Keller's continued instructions. They could hear the charge load up on the crash cart, and then the heart monitor would stop for a fraction of a section before its long beep returned and Keller gave new instructions.
Finally, he looked at her. "How're you taking it, Cap'n?"
"Me? I—I…" Reese didn't know what to say. She'd been taken off guard. She'd expected questions, but not…that one. "I'm fine."
By the look in Ramirez's eyes, it was obvious he didn't believe her. Considering the many hours they'd spent in drunken company telling stories of Earth and sharing anecdotes of those they missed, she supposed maybe she shouldn't either.
"Really," Reese said, a bit stronger. This had to border on insubordination. Too bad he was confined to this bed and then weeks of physical therapy. She really didn't want to pity him right now. "I'm fine."
But when the heart monitor suddenly turned off and Keller called time of death, Reese didn't feel fine at all.
The infirmary was dimmed and silent save for the slow beeps of a nearby heart monitor. A couple of orderlies were cleaning the room, picking up discarded bandages from the floor and mopping up dried spots of blood.
Shen thought Dr Keller's preliminary reports had prepared her, but once she saw an orderly pick up the tattered and blood-spattered remains of a Sun Tzu jumpsuit, she froze.
Something clenched inside her. Like something dislodged and sent a painful shiver throughout her body, pinning her in place. Shen's heart skipped a beat, her breath lodged somewhere in the bottom of her throat. Even her eyes burned for a moment.
She counted five beds in this room, and she knew there were another seven in a restricted-access room across the hall that was reserved for the radiation victims. All hooked up to monitors that broke the tired lull of the early evening.
That wasn't nearly enough. They were too few.
Something low and guttural sounded at her side. Shen looked sideways, unsettled by the twisted grimace on James Coolidge's face. His hands fisted, his eyes burned, and he seemed to shake with unspeakable anger as he stared around the dimmed infirmary.
She had no words for him. No comfort. Today, he was on his own.
"Tag him and take him to the morgue." Keller's voice broke through her muddled mind.
The doctor exited the surgery, followed by two scrub nurses steering a blanket-covered gurney past them and out the door. Shen stared, noting the dips and lumps underneath the blanket. There was a person under there, she told herself. A human being. But for all she knew, it could've been anything else. Maybe a secret stash of watermelons.
"Ms Xiaoyi, Mr Coolidge." Keller sounded tired, resigned. She pulled her surgical cap off her head, causing her hair to fall down across her shoulders. There were dark circles under her eyes.
"Doctor. What's your situation?" Shen was amazed at the calm in her own voice.
"Well… We have currently twelve survivors, most of them on life support," Keller said, taking a cursory glance around the infirmary. "Four didn't make it, three of them on the table. That was the last of them." She gestured towards the open doorway where the scrub nurses had taken the gurney. She blew a breath and sighed. "It's a good thing the SGC sent us their medical equipment in the evacuation or we'd have to go completely rudimentary."
"How would you judge their chances?" Shen asked, her attention drawn to the closest bed. Its occupant – an emaciated Chinese woman – had woken up and looked at her with sunken, dull eyes. Shen pointedly looked away, an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of her stomach.
Keller's expression was grim. "Most of them won't make it," she said lowly. Coolidge made a sudden twitch at Shen's side. "Besides the radiation poisoning and their injuries from the crash, for which I can only ease their pain, they're all dehydrated and suffering from starvation, which makes recovery difficult."
"Starvation?" Shen asked, horrified.
"Yes," Keller said, her lips thinned in a grimace. "They must have been at that ship for a very long time. Either that, or they've been held in captivity. I can't confirm either way since any signs of abuse associated with captivity would be hidden underneath their current injuries. I'd have to do further examinations, but they need to get strong enough first."
Shen looked at the female Sun Tzu patient again. Thin, bony fingers reached for her. Only three on one hand. The other arm was gone, amputated. There was a silent request in the woman's sunken eyes.
"Just to make this clear, Doctor… You're saying—" Coolidge stopped himself, his voice shaking, his grimace twisted. "You're saying these people died, and will die, because they starved?"
Keller met his eyes, frowning a little. "It's part of the reason, yes. Their bodies were already under a lot of stress before the crash due to the starvation. The fact that some have survived their injuries so far is close to a miracle, but I don't know how long their bodies will hold on. We'll have to take it day-by-day. " She looked at Shen, her tone resigned. "Also, I can't tell if it's the same for those who didn't make it past M2X-914 unless they're brought here for autopsies."
Shen didn't know what to say. Keller was in effect saying that some of these twelve, who'd already been cut down from sixteen, sixty-four and two hundred, might not make it through the night. Was this what the Americans called Murphy's Law?
A loud crash resounded in the tense silence.
"Goddamnit," Coolidge swore underneath his breath. He'd slammed a fist into a nearby table. Keller now eyed him worriedly, wide-awake. "Goddamnit!"
"James," Shen began, but Coolidge cut her off.
"No, I won't believe this." His eyes were wide and furious. "I won't." He began to turn on his heel, but Shen gripped his upper arm tightly, holding him back.
"Where're you going?" Shen asked.
Coolidge wrenched out of her hold and glared at her. "To get some damned answers."
Sam found John on the balcony outside the Operations Centre. He stared stoically at the fiery red horizon where the sun was setting, his arms crossed, his mouth clamped down tightly. Like he was someplace else, not four feet away.
"Hey," Sam said, hesitant. John tilted his head towards her, acknowledging her, but otherwise remained silent. "Came to see the view?"
John's eyes went back to the red sunset, his arms loosening their grip a little. "No," he said eventually. "Just getting some air. It's been a rough couple of days."
"And months," Sam said wryly, trying her best to lighten the mood. John's smirk didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Yeah… That too." He continued to stare at the horizon, but let down his hands. Sam noticed they clenched into fists before they disappeared into his pants pockets.
So that was how it would be. They were back to square one. That's at least what it felt like. Sam didn't know where to start or what had caused this sudden – or was it sudden? – turn of events in their slowly returning friendship. Closest guess dealt with the Sun Tzu and today's incidents.
"I heard Rodney's working on decrypting the Sun Tzu's computer," Sam said, breaking the tense silence. "Or what he managed to download, at least. I got the feeling it wasn't easy over there."
"I wouldn't know," John said a little bitterly. "But I got the same feeling. Dawkins was pretty shaken up once he got back. He might even be human."
Sam managed only a courteous smirk. Inside, she felt like a large lump of ice was doing flip-flops in her stomach. "You're mad because you weren't there."
John glanced at her sideways, his eyebrows knitted together. "No."
Sam frowned. She'd been sure it had to be something like that. Dawkins had practically taken over John's job lately. "Then…what?"
John's jaw tightened and his eyes returned to the sunset. Sam stared at him, her own hands clenched at her sides. The tension thickened.
"Yesterday, when you said you 'never intended for any of this to happen', I thought you were talking about Sgt Ramirez or Reika." John's dark irises shifted to stare at her. There was a fire in his eyes. "Did you?"
Sam froze, her limbs stiff. A cold shiver ran down her spine. Time seemed to move slowly. She withdrew her eyes and stared at the fiery sunset, now touching the oceans and enveloping the sky and water with red tendrils.
"Yes and no." Her voice was quiet, solemn. She'd hoped he hadn't noticed. Yesterday had been an emotional day. She'd slipped. But there was no way she could play the ignorant card now. He'd see right through her.
"So you knew?" John's accusation stung. Of all the people on Atlantis, his was the support she needed the most right now.
"I didn't know the Sun Tzu survived. I believed what Homeworld Command told me." Sam sighed. "Including everything they said about the attack on Earth. That part's true. I don't know more about what happened to Earth than anyone else in this city."
Sam met John's eyes. "I do know things that others don't. Classified information. Above your pay grade, even mine, but I was let in on it because we're all that's left."
John's eyes narrowed. He'd taken his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms tightly again, the sunset forgotten. "Something to do with Earth?"
"No," Sam said, a bit forcefully. "It's…"
She drifted off, battling with herself. Caldwell had told her no one could know. Besides, Homeworld Command had given it the highest classification. Even experienced colonels like them weren't supposed to know.
But Sam knew this secret had cost her more than what happened to Earth. The evidence was right in front of her: John looked at her with suspicion, almost distrust, even after all her attempts lately to regain what they'd once had.
"It's about the Odyssey. I can't tell you more than that," Sam said, her voice low. "But if you ever wondered why I burned the midnight oil before and after we lost Earth…that was it. Even with all that was going on here in Pegasus, I couldn't stop thinking about them. About their—" She snapped her mouth shut.
"So…they're alive?" John's expression hardened. "Does that mean the General Hammond—?"
"No," Sam said immediately. "Both ships are listed MIA for a reason. Homeworld Command lost contact with Odyssey weeks before the attack on Earth. General Hammond was supposed to follow Daedalus to Atlantis even if it wasn't completely finished, but with the alien attack I suspect they never made it past the atmosphere. I'm hoping the survivors from Sun Tzu can help answer that."
The tense silence returned. Sam was torn between desperate and sense of duty. Locked with John's eyes, she tried to convey all the honesty she could muster, hoping he'd understand or at least accept what she said to be true. She needed him if their subterfuge operations here in Pegasus were to succeed.
But John still looked suspicious, his eyes guarded. Sam bit her lip and withdrew her eyes. She looked at her hands. Maybe this wasn't professionally related at all. Maybe it was that big elephant in the room, which had only grown larger after they lost Earth. It was still here.
"Look," Sam said hesitantly. She met his eyes again. "When I said I never intended for any of this to happen, I… I meant a lot of things. Including…" Sam's cheeks flushed and, for a moment, she wanted to chicken out, but something made her keep her eyes trained on John. "Including you and me."
John's stony expression faltered. Awkwardness reared its giant head. Maybe he hadn't expected that. Sam shifted on her feet, wringing her hands. Heat filled her face.
"I kept you out of the loop for a lot of things," Sam said, embarrassed. "And…I pulled back when I shouldn't have." She paused, seeing the uneasy shift in John's posture as he once more looked back at the sunset. The elephant had joined them. "For what it's worth…I'm sorry."
John didn't immediately respond. The red beams from the sunset played across his features, making his uneasy expression more pronounced. If possible, he seemed tenser than before. He didn't meet her eyes.
Eventually, John spoke, but his tone was low, almost hesitant. "So all those late-night classified calls with Earth before Christmas?"
Sam didn't know what to feel. It wasn't exactly a declaration of forgiveness, but at least he seemed to be willing to listen. That had to count for something. But…she'd just wished that maybe…
Sam held back a sigh. Perhaps she'd done too much damage to him.
"They weren't about Earth or the aliens or the impending stargate network shut-down," Sam said finally. She reached up to rub her eyes. Damn, she was tired. This drained her more than the morning meeting with the IOA. "But I know that's what Xiaoyi's believed all this time. It's why she's giving me a hard time. She's convinced herself and others that Homeworld Command knew about the attack and did nothing."
"That's bullshit," John said abruptly, and the conviction in his tone surprised Sam. She looked up at him, wide-eyed, and saw him staring back at her. "General O'Neill was a decent guy. I can't see him lying about what happened, even if it'd been a direct order. Not with so many lives on the line. The Ice Queen and her Goon just doesn't want to face the facts. Don't let them get to you."
Sam didn't know what to say. She opened her mouth several times, but no words came out. It was weird how Daniel had said the exact same thing earlier. Did John…?
She didn't have the time to finish that thought.
"Colonel Carter!" The call came as soon as the balcony doors opened. Sergeant Chuck Campbell rushed out, eyes wide in fright. "Colonel, you've gotta come quick. He's gone mental!"
"Who?" Sam frowned, her body tensing up.
"Coolidge." Chuck pointed to the door. "He's in the gate room, waving a gun. With a hostage."
Sam was through the door before John could react. Leaving the pale and shaken Chuck behind, John hurried after her, his neck tense and his hand itching for a gun.
Inside, the central tower room was covered in reddish hues from the windows behind the stargate. It put everything into sharp contrast. Shadows played along the walls, floors and between the frozen people in the room.
Sam stopped at the top of the grand staircase and stared down into the gate room at Coolidge, her eyes hard. The man stood on the raised platform, a terrified-looking petite woman held in a tight headlock in front of him, a gun pointed at her temple. Three security guards had positioned themselves at his sides, their stun weapons aimed at him.
"Let Ms Brown go, Mr Coolidge." Sam's tone was like ice. The commander's mask was in place. John stopped three feet away from her, shifting his eyes between Sam and Coolidge. He felt an indescribable urge to pull her away – she was too exposed.
"Not until I have answers," Coolidge said, his voice sharp. He eyed the three security guards who'd inched forward, and took a step back.
Smart man, John thought. Coolidge knew that with his human shield, his back was his only weak spot. The security guards wouldn't risk endangering the hostage. He just needed to keep them in front of him.
"Answers to what?" Sam said equally, her arms left hanging at her sides. She took a step down the staircase, immediately gaining Coolidge's attention.
"You're not that big of a fool, Colonel." Coolidge sneered, pushing the gun nozzle tighter against the woman's – Brown's – temple. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. You've been hiding it for months."
"You'll have to spell it out for me." Sam's eyes glinted. She remained in her spot, probably to stop antagonising Coolidge.
"I want the truth about Earth," Coolidge said, his black beetle-like eyes narrowed. "About the aliens that attacked us, about the stargate network collapse, about everything you've kept secret from us."
"I've already told you what I believed – what we all believed – is the truth," Sam said. "Unknown aliens attacked us, attacked Earth, and they took down all of our defences in less than half a day. They decimated half our fleet, the Ancient defence platform in Antarctica, and they were headed for the SGC and Earth's stargate when General Landry gave the order to self-destruct in order to stop the aliens from finding the way to Pegasus and Atlantis."
"But they lied!" Coolidge snarled. Brown whimpered in his tight grip, her cheeks puffed red and streaked with tears. Coolidge didn't even look at her. "Homeworld Command said Sun Tzu was destroyed, but now we've got proof they didn't. What's to say they haven't lied about everything?"
Sam didn't respond immediately. Her features were hard and tense. John took the moment to edge closer to her, his eyes trained on Coolidge in case the man decided Brown wasn't his desired target after all. He really wanted a gun right now. At least that'd stop him from feeling completely naked and bare. And he wouldn't mind seeing the IOA bastard's head in the middle of his crosshairs.
"It's possible," said Sam finally, her tone a bit softer. John glanced sideways at her, tense, but Sam's posture was still straight and uncompromising. "Our information is based on what Homeworld Command told us, as well as video and sensor logs from the Apollo before it was destroyed, but we can't deny that some things don't make sense." Sam took a couple of steps down the staircase, stopping when Coolidge visibly tensed up. "But something happened, Mr Coolidge. The Sun Tzu is evidence of that. They've seen combat. Whatever happened eight months ago, we'll get to the bottom of it. This," she nodded towards the crying scientist in Coolidge's headlock, "is unnecessary."
"I'm not a fool, Colonel." Coolidge's lips thinned. Whatever hairs he had left on his head seemed to rise in anger. He pulled Brown back a few steps more. "I don't want to hurt Ms Brown, but if it means we'll finally get some answers…" He left the rest unsaid.
Sam's jaw tightened. "I told you earlier, Mr Coolidge: I don't have the answers you're looking for. The only ones who can shed some light on what really happened eight months ago are down in the infirmary."
"They won't make it," Coolidge said.
The atmosphere in the gate room tensed. In the Operations Centre, the gate technicians glanced between each other, their faces pale and scared. Brown let out a heart-wrenching sob, the gun digging into her skin. Next to John, Chuck swallowed loudly. John met Sam's eyes for a moment and he could see the hesitation flash across her features.
Sam looked back at Coolidge, her voice low and sad. "Did Dr Keller say that?"
"Yes." Coolidge's voice seemed to tremble for a fraction of a second and, for a moment, it sounded like the man's defences was coming down, but when Sam took another step down, Coolidge's gun hand stiffened and he pressed it tighter against Brown's head. His eyed burned red in the light of the sunset. "They're all going to die because you refused to go back for them, Colonel. You didn't want to save them. You left them behind. You left Earth behind!"
"If we went back, the Wraith would've followed," Sam said, holding her palms up, trying to appear as non-threatening as possible. Her voice was softer now, calm and logical. John wasn't sure if reason would work with Coolidge. The man seemed beyond the point of no return. "Imagine Earth and the Milky Way in the same state as Pegasus, but combined with the aliens that attacked Earth. Would you rather have that? You wouldn't just condemn Earth, you'd condemn the entire galaxy."
"We could've saved them." Coolidge glanced around him, wide-eyed and pale. Something desperate glinted in his eyes. He was derailing. "We've got the city of the Ancients, goddamnit, we could've saved them!"
"Atlantis isn't enough. The Ancients proved that. Even with a fleet of Aurora-class ships, they couldn't defeat the Wraith." Sam sounded sad. She took the lapse in Coolidge's attention to move further down the staircase. John inched closer, intent on following her down.
"And we're barely holding on as it is, James." Coolidge's eyes swivelled back to her, white-knuckled fingers gripped forcefully around the gun. Brown cried silently, her eyes squeezed shut. The security guards tightened their hold on their stun weapons. Sam was halfway down the staircase now. "If we went back to Earth…we'd be faced with two strong opponents instead of one. We'd lose everything."
"No," Coolidge retorted. His shield of anger was breaking, his eyes shifting more quickly between the security guards surrounding him. "No, I won't believe it. I can't believe it. That's not the way this works. I've read the reports. You and your precious SG-1 always saved the day. We could do that too; we just need to—to—" He broke off, his breath caught in his throat. John was unnerved to see a clear shine in the man's eyes.
The atmosphere in the gate room thickened. No one seemed to know what else to say. Next to John, Chuck shifted on his feet, obvious uncomfortable. John knew how he felt. This situation had changed to something even more unpredictable. He'd feel a lot better if Coolidge didn't have a loaded gun in his hands.
"I know." Sam broke the silence, soft-voiced and contemplative.
John glanced at her nervously and then back at Coolidge. The IOA representative seemed frozen in place, his eyes trapped in the thousand-yard stare John had seen so many times in Afghanistan. But his grip on the gun handle was still tight. Not a good combination.
"It's terrible not to know what exactly happened to Earth, or the people we love," Sam said. Her words echoed in the tense gate room. "And to have the Sun Tzu here now… it raises a lot of questions." She paused, her eyes hardened. "We all want answers, Mr Coolidge, but the fact of the matter is that we can't contact or return to Earth. Our only safe line of communication is the stargate network, but the SGC is gone and the Milky Way network is down. The Wraith are out there, looking for us and for a way to Earth, and that means we can't go anywhere."
Sam took another step down, her voice softer, her palms raised. "I understand your point, Mr Coolidge. This doesn't make sense. We've lost Earth; we've lost people we love. Seven billion people gone, just like that, and we have no clue who our enemy is. It should never have happened, but it has. We can't change the past. Our only choice is to accept that Earth is lost, move on and save what we can."
"And how do you propose we do that?" Coolidge's eyes glinted again, and there was a sharp edge to his voice. He pushed the gun closer to Brown's temple. "How do we move on when it's possible that our family's still alive somewhere and we're stuck here, in this goddamned galaxy, knowing that we've left them behind and that we didn't save them?"
"I don't know," Sam said. John could feel the sadness in her voice, and something uneasy fluttered in his stomach. It felt like the closest he'd come to Sam's inner thoughts since they'd decided to throw the regulations aside over a year ago.
"Then what's the point?" Coolidge snarled, breaking John out of his thoughts. He tightened his headlock, causing Brown to cry out in pain. The security guards jerked closer, which made Coolidge step back again.
"Don't do it," Sam said, almost with a twinge of sharp desperation. She began to move down the final half of the staircase, drawing Coolidge's attention to her. The man's narrowed eyes were full of anger. "Let Katie go. Take me."
"Sam—" John said, but Sam held her hand up, cutting him off.
"We'll go somewhere quiet," Sam said, eyes locked with Coolidge's. "We can talk about this. Figure something out. Just let Katie go."
John really wanted his sidearm. Coolidge looked too tempted to take Sam up on her offer, but damned if John was letting her go willingly somewhere with that guy. He began to descend the staircase as slowly but quickly as he could.
Sam had reached the bottom of the staircase. She was at eye level with Coolidge, who'd backed off a couple of steps, his grip on both Katie Brown and the gun white-knuckled.
"There's nothing left to talk about," Coolidge said, his tone indiscernible. His eyes were narrowed and fiery in the red sunlight. Sam inched closer, palms still raised.
"James." Xiaoyi's voice broke through the rising tension. She stood behind one of the security guards, having entered the gate room from a nearby corridor. Her eyes were wide as they locked with her colleague's. "What's going on, James?"
"I'm sorry," Coolidge said.
Then he moved the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Once the stargate connection cut, Atlantis's gate room became dark and dim with the exception of a few lights in the Operations Centre and the glass office. It gave the atmosphere a chilling feel.
Woolsey stared up at the closed blinds of Xiaoyi's office and held back a sigh. He knew he'd picked a difficult job, but he'd never imagined it would take him somewhere like this.
He glanced around and expected to see signs of what had transpired here, but there was nothing. Not even a drop on the wall or the stargate. It was all red and white stone as it had always been, but covered in shadows of the night. The windows behind the stargate framed some assorted blinking stars and moonlight. A lone Marine stood by the wall, silent and watchful, her features cut in stone. She only gave him a nod.
With slow steps, Woolsey headed for the grand staircase and ascended to the second level. He greeted the two gate technicians on the evening shift, but otherwise bypassed the Operations Centre and headed straight for the glass office. Once he reached the wooden door, his knuckles hesitated above the wood. He had no idea what would face him on the other side. One of their own had died today and not at enemy hands.
Pushing away the uncomfortable thought, Woolsey knocked and entered the office in one continuous motion.
Xiaoyi didn't look up at him immediately. By the light from the desk lamp, she was reading a black leather book covered in scribbling. From what Woolsey could see, it was in Chinese, but he'd never seen the book until now. Perhaps it was a recent acquisition.
"Shen," he said, closing the door behind him and moving in front of the desk. He stood awkwardly as Xiaoyi slowly raised her head and stared up at him. He had no words for the look on her face. It was almost like she didn't see him at all, and yet her eyes bore down on him with absolute clarity.
"Richard," Xiaoyi said tonelessly. She didn't close the leather-bound book in front of her. The light from the desk lamp made shadows play across her face.
"I heard the news. I'm sorry." Woolsey wasn't sure if he was supposed to shake her hand or give her a hug. It was the proper social etiquette, but Xiaoyi had never been the human-contact type. Instead, he remained erect in front of the desk, shifting uneasily on his feet.
"It was quick, at least," Xiaoyi said, glancing down at the book. "I wish I could say the same for the Sun Tzu survivors. Six are already dead."
"I'm sure Dr Keller's doing everything she can," Woolsey said, but it felt half-hearted and false. He hadn't been here earlier. He couldn't know what it was like. "How…how are you handling it?"
"Fine." Xiaoyi withdrew her eyes and closed the leather-bound book with a snap. She began to pull out files and papers from a nearby stack. Her voice was still void of emotion. "We have things we need to discuss. Please take a seat."
"Can't this wait, Shen?" Woolsey asked, knowing what Xiaoyi had in mind. It wasn't why he was here. "Let's just take a moment. The work can wait for a day or two. For God's sake, James died today."
"I'm fully aware, Richard!" Xiaoyi's tone was sharp and icy. "I was there. It doesn't change the fact that there's work to be done. I'm sure you're aware of the changes that need to be made around here."
"Yes, I got the memo." Woolsey's jaw tightened a little. Reluctantly, he sat down in one of the comfy chairs by the glass wall. "But I don't see how promoting Major Dawkins to Lieutenant Colonel and replacing Sheppard is a good idea. Sheppard has been the military leader on Atlantis for nearly six years. Some might take it as an insult."
"Colonel Caldwell gave his consent," Xiaoyi said. She handed him a fistful of papers. On a cursory look, he could see it was the formal paperwork detailing the change of XOs. "Sheppard hasn't done his job. He's obviously been too lax with security if civilians could get their hands on a loaded gun from the armoury. It almost cost Katie Brown her life, which is unacceptable."
Woolsey felt a shiver run down his spine. He'd never imagined he'd hear Xiaoyi speak of her former colleague and friend so callously. It seemed so unreal.
"Then what is Colonel Carter's crime?" Woolsey asked, recalling the second objective from the memo Xiaoyi had sent him. The Airman on messenger duty had seemed riled about that one in particular. "From what I heard, she attempted to diffuse the situation."
"She's the proof that the former administration was incapable of handling situations like these, not to mention our current situation with the Wraith," Xiaoyi said, her voice cold. "Many of the board members share my sentiments. Colonel Carter is an unpredictable enigma. Someone like that cannot be trusted in an important administrative position such as the one on Tirana."
"And my role in all this?" Woolsey's tone was dark. He had a hunch.
Xiaoyi's lips thinned. "With James gone, you're next in line. Your input is…appreciated."
Woolsey's polite smile didn't meet his eyes.
This was the true face of politics. It all came down to strategy, positioning, and ensuring one's own seat was cushioned. It just so happened that half of the IOA board members listened to Woolsey these days, probably something to do with his recent 're-positioning' to Tirana, and Xiaoyi needed his vote to get a consensus.
"I'm sorry, Shen, but I won't support a decision to remove Colonel Carter from Tirana." Woolsey couldn't say he didn't in part enjoy the sudden glint in Xiaoyi's eyes. "When we took away her command of Atlantis, it was based on the fact that she had made some bad calls that resulted in loss of life and extensive damages to the city. Her work on Tirana, however, has been exemplary."
"Have you forgotten what happened to Sergeant Ramirez?" Xiaoyi asked.
"His injuries were unfortunate, but not something any of us could have foreseen if we'd been in different positions. I see no fault on Colonel Carter's part."
Woolsey sat back in the chair, trying to appear completely at ease. He lowered his voice. "We need to move on, Shen. This thing with James…we can't go on like before. Let's hold a memorial service, find some sort of closure, and get our lives back on track. I think we've deserved it. All of us."
A flash of annoyance crossed Xiaoyi's face, but it disappeared quickly. Instead, Xiaoyi entwined her fingers and gave Woolsey a long, appraising look. Woolsey didn't notice how his neck tensed up until she finally spoke.
"A memorial service sounds like a good idea," Xiaoyi said. She glanced at the leather-bound book she'd perused earlier. "There are many to be mourned."
Seeing how Xiaoyi's eyes lingered on the book and the jade figurine next to it, Woolsey wondered whom she'd lost. She'd never said. But his question never made it past his lips as Xiaoyi found a new stack of papers and handed it to him, an air of no-nonsense business around her.
Perhaps one day, Woolsey thought, she'll realise that she can't use politics to make the pain go away. There's a life waiting for her too. It's waiting for all of us.
Sam stopped pacing when the doors swept open. Expecting Xiaoyi, Sam was surprised when John nodded to the guards outside the door and stepped inside. Her neck tensed as their eyes locked. They hadn’t seen each other since Xiaoyi had called them both into her office after…the incident. Sam was still fuming about the sudden decision to replace John with the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins.
“Hey,” John said, breaking the silence. He glanced around the room – Sam’s former quarters, still with some of her things packed away in boxes – and visibly tensed as his eyes passed the bed. He hurriedly looked away.
“I figured you’d be in the gym kicking the shit out of Ronon,” Sam said, testing the waters. It relieved her to see John’s lips twitch in a smirk.
“I was,” John said. “But then I got sick of sitting on my ass all the time. I think he’s getting cabin fever.”
“Tell me about it.” Sam clenched her hands and paced over to the window. “I’ve been spoiled on Tirana. Lots of fresh air, grass, local brew…” She paused, staring at the moonlit oceans outside that lapped against the piers of Atlantis. “It doesn’t take me long these days to feel like bouncing off the walls.”
“Probably doesn’t help being confined to quarters,” John said. Sam only hummed darkly in agreement. Along with Xiaoyi’s decision to replace John, Sam had been put in house arrest until the IOA board had convened to talk about her future on Tirana. It was like the aftermath of Kadara all over again.
John walked over to the wall next to her and leaned against it, staring into the air, his arms crossed. For a long while neither of them said anything. It was actually a somewhat comfortable silence. It nearly made Sam smile.
“So…” Sam’s hesitant voice broke the quiet atmosphere. “You going to be okay in charge of the training regimes?”
“Yeah,” John said. He didn’t sound angry or frustrated, just…accepting. “I mean, it sucks that I’ll have to go through Mr Twin Peaks to get off world, but at least I’ve learned a lot about his weak spots in the past few months. I’ll be sure to use them to our advantage.”
Our. That’s what Sam’s mind noted. John was still on board with their secret operations, despite all that had happened today. It comforted her to hear that.
“Good. Don’t make it too easy on him,” Sam said simply. Their eyes met and they shared a small smirk. John’s mischievous side seemed to pop up. Sam could recall some of his practical jokes from before. She wouldn’t mind seeing Dawkins on the other side of those.
Silence fell over them again.
“Y’know, I figured out something today.” Sam’s voice was low as she stared out the window. The moonlight spread across Atlantis, making it appear gold and silver in the darkness.
John pushed off the wall and came to stand next to her, shoulder-to-shoulder, but not touching. Sam could still feel his warmth. It was distracting.
“I can’t win against her,” Sam said. The culmination of all that had happened these past few days and months made her feel like the wind had been knocked out of her. “I’m not a politician.”
“Then don’t be one.” John’s words were simple.
Sam managed a smile in return. “You make it sound so easy.”
“Just focus on your end,” John said, shrugging. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“Well… There is the matter of Commander Taron and his men I need to resolve.” Sam blew out a breath. She could just picture the major headache any meeting with the Genii would cause. “The Genii blew me off earlier today when I tried to contact them. Spouted something about an emergency and getting back to me in a few days.”
“See, you’ve got more than enough to worry about.” John nudged her shoulder, his warmth spreading through her instantly. He gave her a smirk, looking almost comfortable standing right next to her. “I’ll take care of Atlantis.”
Something tugged at her insides almost painfully. Sam found a smile somewhere and pasted it on her face, ignoring the sudden burning in her eyes. There was a hole gaping in her chest that she’d ignored for a long time. He managed to remind her of it.
“Thank you,” Sam said finally, her words slightly thick due to the clench in her throat. She returned her stare to the scenery outside the window, not trusting herself to keep her eyes locked with his.
John didn’t know how long they’d stood together by the window, almost touching, completely silent, staring at the moonlight like old times, when the doors opened again.
Woolsey. The man spoke to the guards outside, dismissed them, and then entered the room with an air of authority John hadn’t seen since he’d been the temporary commander of Atlantis almost two years ago.
“Colonels,” Woolsey greeted both, then settled his eyes on Sam. “Colonel Carter, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know the IOA board has cleared you of all charges. We see no fault with your work on Tirana. You’re free to go.”
Sam didn’t move.
Woolsey hesitated and glanced between the two colonels. “That said… I’d like to apologise on behalf of the IOA for all the trouble you’ve gone through today.”
More like the past eight months, John wanted to say, but held back when Sam spoke up.
“Thank you.” Sam’s tone was formal, her eyes somewhat guarded. She crossed her arms, as if considering her next move. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said eventually.
A sad grimace flickered across Woolsey’s face. “Thank you, Colonel. James was…troubled. He didn’t take the loss of Earth very well.”
“It hasn’t exactly been easy for anyone,” John said, slightly rude. He was still pissed that Coolidge had managed to get his hands on a gun and threatened to kill an innocent woman earlier. There was also that other grievance towards Sam that John couldn’t get out of his mind. Sympathy didn’t come easy.
“I’m not condoning James’s actions, Colonel,” said Woolsey, giving John a second look. “I just…”
He turned to Sam, visibly torn between troubled and resigned. “When the SGC evacuated eight months ago, James’s family was in a car outside Cheyenne Mountain, waiting to pick him up so they could go on Christmas holiday. James tried to have them evacuated too.” Woolsey paused, his eyes sad behind his glasses. “But there wasn’t enough time. General Landry ordered the Mountain closed in preparation of the self-destruct. I… I suspect James couldn’t live with himself after that.”
The silence that followed was awkward. John looked to Sam, unsure what to say himself. He'd carried his frustrations for so long, they couldn't just disappear at the drop of a hat. Sam was the one who saw the good in people.
“I understand,” Sam said simply. Her eyes had softened, but her posture was still tense.
Woolsey seemed to accept that this was all the reaction he would get. “Well,” he said uneasily, “I’m sure you’re eager to get back to the mine camp, Colonel. I won’t hold you any longer.”
“What about you?” Sam asked, halting Woolsey’s exit.
“I’m returning to Atlantis,” Woolsey said, a half-smile on his face. “There’s no further need for a civilian oversight on Tirana. You’ve got things running smoothly, Colonel. I trust that you’ll keep it that way.”
If John didn’t know any better, he’d swear Woolsey almost winked at them. But the man had exited the room before John could think twice, and all he heard was Sam’s relieved exhale of air.
“I’m gonna head down and check on Reika and Ramirez before I leave,” Sam said, turned towards John with a smile. “Come with me?”
John shook away the uneasy feeling in his gut. “Sure.”
They headed out the door and down the dimmed corridor. There was not another soul in sight. Only their footsteps broke the silence as they traipsed down familiar paths, winding up outside the transporter.
That’s when Sam’s hand gripped his and squeezed it once, almost hesitantly. It felt cold when her fingers let go. John looked at her, bewildered and slightly on guard. Sam’s eyes glittered in the dimness, silent but heavy, and in a moment of clarity, John thought he knew. It made his insides clench.
John opened his mouth, intending to say a lot of things, but none came out. There was a lot going on inside his head, travelling at light speed. In the end, he seemed to say more than a thousand words. Sam entered the now open transporter and looked back at him with a sad smile.
“I know,” she said and gestured to the spot next to her. “Let’s just get down to the infirmary.”
And the way she said it made John’s insides twist again, but not in a good way.