Day 255-258: "The object of war."
"The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact." – George Orwell, 1984
"So this is the Ascalon?"
Caldwell's voice echoed suddenly inside the cave. Sam looked up from her laptop, which was connected to the data crystals recovered from the Sun Tzu, and saw him step out of the passage leading to the surface. His eyes were wide in wonder. She smiled.
"One and only, sir," Hailey said, rolling out from under the massive device standing in the centre of the cave. Dressed in a grimy-looking jumpsuit, she got to her feet, took off her welder's mask and grinned. "Quite a feat, huh?"
"Impressive." Caldwell took his eyes off the device that was designed to fit outside a stargate. "How long until it's finished?"
"We've done what we can with the outer frame." Sam turned around in her chair and surveyed the device. "Only things missing are the thrusters and stargate. So now we've turned our attention to the second part: the Asgard-modified beam weapon."
She slid off the chair and walked over to what looked almost like a V12 engine, or at least a messy version of it. She ran a hand along the top and met Caldwell's eyes. "With the parts Daedalus brought from Earth and what we salvaged from the Sun Tzu, I estimate that we'll be done within a month. Hopefully."
"No sooner?" Coming closer to study the beam weapon, Caldwell frowned darkly.
"The fact that we've gotten to this point at all is a miracle," Sam said, sighing. Her eyes perused the smaller device, automatically noticing all the pieces that were missing or needed additional work. "Within a month's the best I can do. And that's if we manage to get the rest of the parts we need. I have a deal with Larrin to check up on their progress on the Aurora-ship upgrades in a few weeks. I'll see if she's found something on our shopping list." Sam looked at Caldwell and frowned. "What's the rush? Has something happened?"
Caldwell blew a breath and ran a hand across his balding head. "The superhive's gone below the radar. Again. And this time we can't pick it up, not even Atlantis. I don't like it."
"Think they figured out a way to mask their ZPMs' subspace signal?" Approaching them from the side, Hailey looked from Caldwell to Sam and back, biting her lip.
"I'm not sure that's even possible." Sam stared back at the data crystals from the Sun Tzu that were spread all over her workbench, thinking. "The output is too strong to mask completely, so it must be something else. Temporary interference of some kind, or they're out of range of Atlantis's sensors, or…" She paused. Both Caldwell and Hailey looked at her. "Or they've also cut down to using a single ZPM."
Silence fell. For a tense moment, Sam met Hailey's eyes as Caldwell stared hard at the beam weapon. There was a deep crease in his forehead.
"While I'd like to think they're only working on a single ZPM, seeing as that'd make fighting them easier than before, I'd rather not rely on guesswork at this point." Caldwell gave both Sam and Hailey a scrutinising stare. "If the superhive doesn't show up soon, I'll get Xiaoyi to authorise an extended patrol of the outskirts of the galaxy and take Daedalus to see if they've simply gone beyond our sensor range. But I don't like the thought of leaving Atlantis alone."
"Hence the Ascalon," Sam surmised. "We'll try to step it up. See if the Travelers or the Genii might've come up with something we need."
"Have you managed to set up a meeting with the Genii to discuss the mission with Commander Taron?" asked Caldwell, running a hand along the beam weapon.
"Yes, finally. Hailey confirmed it yesterday," Sam said. Withdrawing his hand to his side, Caldwell nodded in satisfaction. "We're gonna meet them in two days. Meanwhile, you should get John to run some specialised drills in the event of an attack on the city. In terms of our defensive capabilities, that should only leave McKay's shield upgrades."
"From what I hear, it's going well. Xiaoyi's given him extra resources to work solely on it."
"Oh?" Sam frowned. "What about his work on the Sun Tzu computer download?"
"Reassigned to Dr Takahashi," Caldwell said. "Part of Xiaoyi's efficiency reforms. Every department has been divided into smaller sections for "better control", as she calls it. She's agreed to open up for more off-world missions, though, so I've been called in to supervise."
"You're kidding." Hailey's eyebrows rose in surprise. Caldwell's rose as well, and Hailey seemed to realise what she'd implied. "Uh—Sorry, sir, I didn't mean that you… Um, what I mean is—"
"At ease, Captain. I'm sure we all appreciate Xiaoyi's change of heart." Sam repressed her smirk. Sometimes, it was nice to see parts of that upstart little cadet she'd met so many years ago. It brought back fond memories. She turned to Caldwell, who checked his watch. Visiting hours was over, it seemed. "I'll keep you posted. Good luck on your end."
"Thanks. I might need it."
The last was said with such poorly veiled displeasure that Sam struggled to contain a grin. As Caldwell left moments later via Daedalus' Asgard transport beam, she turned to Hailey, who still looked rather embarrassed.
"Come on. Let's do what we can tonight, and maybe if we're lucky, John's gonna bring us the modulator we need this weekend."
That seemed to make Hailey's eyes suddenly twinkle innocently. "Do you think he'll stay overnight this time, ma'am?"
"She's managing to breathe on her own, so we've taken her off life support," Jennifer said with a smile above the chart she was currently taking notes on. "It's the same for most of the other Kadarian children."
"Does it mean she'll wake up soon?" John took his eyes off Reika for a moment to stare at the doctor, his eyebrows creased. Jennifer's smile faltered a little.
"It means it's up to her now," Jennifer continued in a lower voice. "Physically, she's as fine as she'll ever be, but we know too little to say anything about her mental state if or when she wakes up. We haven't dealt with Wraith feeding on children before. There's no telling how it'll affect their psychological state."
John's hands fisted upon the bed. As far as they knew, Wraith didn't go after children. Not much life in them. Which meant the Kadarian children were fed on as torture, or part of the same sick game that made the Wraith superhive annihilate nearly every colony world they came across in their damn civil war. It made him want to put a bullet between Todd's eyes, or whoever Wraith bastard was at the helm of that damn ship. He didn't care if that would kill him afterwards.
"Children are tough, though," Jennifer said, holding the chart against her chest. She smiled and brushed a lock of pale hair away from Reika's smooth face. "They're often better at bouncing back than adults. You'd be surprised."
"Let's hope so," John said, his voice low. He had to admit Reika looked almost like herself again, with only a slightly pale white hair colour to indicate what she'd been through. "You'll keep—"
"I'll keep you informed, Colonel," Jennifer said. Her eyes twinkled a little as if amused by something. It made John's neck tense self-consciously, and he awkwardly pulled his hands away from the bed and into his pants pockets. "If you'll excuse me, I need to check on my other patients."
John nodded, still tense about the knowing smirk on Jennifer's face. He didn't relax until she was well out of sight and earshot. Once he did, he pulled his hand out of his pocket and trailed a thumb down Reika's cheek. The ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "You're doing good, kiddo. Any day now, you hear?"
"Sheppard. You're here. Good."
The sudden voice made John startle. He snapped his hand back as if he'd just been caught red-handed, but the newcomer wasn't the slightest bit interested in his subordinate's show of sentimentality.
Caldwell lingered in the doorway, following a couple of nurses passing by with his eyes. Once they'd passed, Caldwell hurried inside and swept his hand over the door controls. He'd had already turned and approached Reika's bed when the door hit the frame, not sparing the girl even a cursory glance before settling his eyes on John.
"I need you to put together a black ops team. Search and rescue mission in an urban city environment. CQC expected. Top priority. Daedalus will take you there. You leave in an hour." Caldwell already began to turn back towards the exit.
"Excuse me?" John frowned. "What the hell's going on?"
"It's Carter." Staring across his shoulder, Caldwell's lips pressed together thinly, his eyes glinting.
Cold dread washed down John's spine. He hadn't seen Sam since his visit to Tirana a week ago when he'd found her sleeping on her desk. The vision of a grieving woman – his former… something – had lodged itself firmly at the back of his mind since then. It was so different from the harsh looks she'd given him when she'd been nothing but the commander with a capital C. Since that night, sleep hadn't come easily. Too many memories and too many thoughts. They all came back now with the mention of a single name.
"The Genii?" he asked tensely.
"Yes. Two messengers arrived at Tirana fifty minutes ago." Caldwell's expression darkened considerably. "I'll brief you on the ship on the way there. Go get your team. Signal Daedalus when you're ready to be beamed up. I'll notify Xiaoyi we're heading out."
With that, Caldwell left. For a stunned moment, John was rooted to the spot next to Reika's bed. Then he shook himself out of his stupor and ran.
"Now that we're all pleasantly gathered here, mind finally giving us the whole story?" Colonel Sheppard paused in his restless pacing long enough to stare accusingly at the three people seated at the end of Daedalus' conference table.
Reese hadn't seen him this agitated since…well, the aftermath of the Bhaati mission. The implications made her tense.
She skirted her eyes down to the woman with the downcast eyes at the end of the table. From what she'd figured out, the woman was Dahlia, the sister of Chief Ladon Radim. There were unshed tears in the woman's eyes and she struggled to meet Colonel Sheppard's. Instead, it was left to the man at her side, one Commander Verlo, to answer.
"The day after your mission with Commander Taron, Radim's Chief of Security, Rathorn, seized control of the Genii council." Unlike Dahlia, Verlo seemed grounded, balanced. There was an air of authority and experience around him. "With the council's backing and some carefully manufactured evidence, Rathorn declared Chief Radim a traitor, claiming he'd formed an alliance in secret with the Wraith faction owning the lab you hit. He has now been elected by the council as the new Chief of the Genii."
"Bastard," muttered Captain Hailey to Reese's right. She was sporting a black eye and some other bruises, sustained while escorting Colonel Carter to her meeting and the subsequent captivity. "I told her something was up when we passed all those security checkpoints."
Sheppard gave the captain a pointed glare. Hailey snapped her mouth shut, and he turned back to the Genii. "What does he want with Sam? Not to mention, what the hell do you want? You didn't get Hailey out of there and offer to help us get Sam without expecting something."
"Sheppard." Caldwell's tone spelled warning. Seated across from Verlo, the bald colonel's eyes were like icy steel.
Sheppard barely backed down. He faced steel with steel until Caldwell eventually decided to plainly ignore him.
"You said that Radim has been scheduled for public execution," Caldwell said, addressing the two Genii. Out of the corner of her eye, Reese watched Sheppard clench his fists, lock his jaw and resume his restless pacing. "When is it due?"
"Three days," Dahlia said, speaking up for the first time, her voice quivering. She looked up. "Colonel Sheppard is right, Colonel Caldwell. We – I – have acted with another thought in mind. In exchange for rescuing Colonel Carter, we would like your help to free my brother."
"Chief Radim is currently locked up in a high security prison," said Verlo. "It would take an army to break him out with our kind of resources – an army we cannot spare at this time."
Reese frowned, puzzled about Verlo's turn of phrase. She opened her mouth, only to have Sheppard voice the question she'd wanted to ask. "At this time?"
Verlo nodded. "Chief Radim planned for an eventuality such as this. Our history has proved that staying in power for an entire lifetime is a tenuous hope at best."
"Yeah, I remember Cowen." Sheppard's lips curled into a look of distaste, his eyes meeting Ronon's in shared disgust across the table.
"Indeed." Verlo bowed his head in acknowledgement, then turned to Caldwell. "When Rathorn acted, several of Radim's closest went into hiding and were smuggled off the planet, including myself and Miss Radim. As of this moment, we are still gathering and positioning our forces, as well as preparing actions to retake control of the Genii capitol and depose Rathorn. As we proved with the rescue of Captain Hailey here, we have loyalists inserted everywhere, ready to assist us."
Verlo paused, then looked at Sheppard, who stopped pacing. "Rescuing Colonel Carter should be no problem. She is being kept in the Central Command building's lower levels and most likely undergoing interrogation. Rathorn wants to use her to gain control of Atlantis. That is what our sources tell us, at least." Verlo cleared his throat. "By the time we arrive at the planet, however, our people should be in position to escort her to safety."
"You just need to give the word, right?" Sheppard's expression darkened, his tone quieter but dangerous. It was clear what he was indicating: blackmail. Unless they helped free Radim, the Genii wouldn't help free Carter. Sheppard turned to Caldwell. "I say we beam her out of there and get the hell out of Dodge. Let them take care of their own messes."
"Sheppard," Caldwell warned again, his eyes steelier than before.
"I understand your reluctance, Colonel," Verlo said, turning slightly in his chair. "And for your sake, I wish it were that easy. However, Rathorn has most likely already removed the tracking device in Colonel Carter's body."
Reese's eyes widened. The subcutaneous transmitter was the only way for Daedalus to safely lock onto a specific person, namely Atlanteans, to beam up. If the Genii had developed technology to counter that… Even she understood the implications.
There was a deep frown on Caldwell's face now, but he didn't say anything at first. When he did, he almost seemed to hold back a sigh. "Okay, Commander, you've made your case. In exchange for your help freeing Colonel Carter, we will help you free Radim."
Behind Reese, Sheppard made a noise, but Caldwell cut him off. "We'll reach the planet in less than twelve hours. Colonel, I want you to sit down with the Commander and devise a plan for Radim's rescue. I want it in my hand by 1600. Understood?"
There was a tense moment in which nothing happened. Reese didn't dare turn to see how Sheppard was responding. When he eventually spoke, however, his voice sounded clenched, as if he was holding back something piercing.
The voice interrupting him was quiet, timid even. John looked up to find Hailey in the doorway to his assigned crew quarters on Daedalus. She cradled her left side slightly, probably from that bullet impact on her armoured vest; Rathorn had shot her to set an example for Sam on the consequences of not complying. She'd been lucky she wore that vest.
John stared down at the multi-coloured cube in his hands. "Just something I've been working on. Nothing important." He found his bag and put the cube back in it, along with the pieces he had yet to attach. "Something on your mind, Captain?"
"I just wanted to make sure I'm going down there with the rest of you, sir." Hailey stepped inside the room, which was empty save for the two of them. Ronon was probably off somewhere letting out steam.
"You've been hurt, Captain, you should rest." John pushed to his feet, feeling an instinct to put distance between himself and the broken Rubik's cube in his bag.
"Would you, sir?" Hailey countered, her eyes glinting defiantly. She put herself in the middle of his path.
John stopped, his lips thinning. Her words hit home. There'd been times when he'd refused to rest because he knew his people needed him. His friends had needed him, like when Teyla had been trapped on Michael's Hive ship. Sam had tried to stop him then, but he would've gone anyway, so she'd let him, despite her obvious reservations. Was this any different?
"With all due respect, Colonel, I'm fine," continued Hailey. "A broken rib's nothing. Can barely feel it at all. I can still do my job. Please, sir."
There was a genuine insistence in her eyes, along with something that resonated somewhere deep inside John's consciousness: fear. Fear that someone she…
"Fine," John said, quickly pushing past her into the corridor, not meeting her eyes again. "Don't make me regret it, Captain."
"I won't!" Hailey called after him, and he could practically hear her smile as she ran off in the other direction.
Sheppard's plan was sound. Locking onto an unknown target in an unknown underground location was next to impossible without the Asgard's fully advanced sensor array. Only Odyssey had been equipped with one of those before Earth fell, and that ship was MIA. Their own Asgard-modified sensors were nowhere as powerful, even when powered by a ZPM. As such, Sheppard's team would infiltrate the prison at night, secure Radim with a transmitter, and then be beamed out of there while Genii loyalists smuggled Carter out of captivity.
Simple. At least in theory… Caldwell had gone over the plan thrice, considering all the facts and factors that might come up. He had no formal objections. Even so, he found himself perusing it for the fourth time as a multitude of colours streamlined past the mess hall's windows. There was an itch he couldn't scratch. Something he couldn't put his finger on.
Or it could just be that he was generally worried.
He'd known Sam Carter for a long time, all the way back to Stargate Command. He'd discussed, planned, argued and bled with her, and then nine months ago they'd been pushed together further by the circumstances, bound by oath, secrets and duty. If something happened to her…he'd be alone. The undeniable and horrifying burden would be only his.
A sudden noise made Caldwell look up from his tablet computer.
Commander Verlo stood by the water dispenser unit, a glass in hand and an apologetic look on his face. "I am sorry, Colonel, I did not mean to disturb you. I was just getting a glass of water, but I don't seem to be doing this correctly."
"You push the glass against the handle," Caldwell explained, making the appropriate motion in the air. Verlo attempted it again and smiled when water poured out of the tap.
"Thank you, Colonel. Now I might rest a little better."
"Trouble sleeping?" Caldwell turned in his seat, letting his tablet computer go into sleep mode. "I imagine few Genii have spent a night in a ship like this."
"An understatement," said Verlo, taking a sip of water and approaching the windows overlooking the pocket of hyperspace they were travelling through. "Hive ships do not provide luxuries such as this."
"You've been on one before?"
"It is where I acquired this." Verlo turned, smiling grimly, and pointed to the jagged scar going down his jaw line. It tore straight through his beard, making him appear more grizzled than his forty-something age. "Six years ago, we were going to plant a bomb inside a dormant Hive ship, hoping to destroy it before the Wraith woke up again. We failed. The Wraith woke up before their time and thwarted our plans. Only a handful of us escaped."
Caldwell grimaced. Atlantis had been responsible for waking up the Wraith race. He had never felt the need to apologise, however. Things happened. You just had to deal with it and move on.
"I hope you understand that we did not want to use Colonel Carter's imprisonment against you, Colonel," Verlo said, twirling the now empty water glass in his hand. "Chief Radim would've strongly protested if he knew about it."
"You are in a difficult situation. Desperation makes people do things they wouldn't normally do. I understand," Caldwell said. Then his eyes narrowed. "Just to make myself clear, however… Once Radim and Carter are safe, the rest is up to you. If there's a prolonged civil war, we can take no part in it."
Verlo met his eyes with a serious look of his own. "Reasonable. From what my sources tell me, you have certain things of your own to deal with…" With a sudden knowing smile, Verlo began to walk towards the exit. "Have a good night, Colonel. Thank you for your honesty."
Staring after him, Caldwell frowned. The itch was back. With a slow motion, he reached for his tablet computer and turned it on again.
"Coming out of hyperspace in three-two-one-mark."
Outside the bridge windows, the multi-coloured spectrum of hyperspace turned to real space with millions of blinking stars all around. Daedalus soared forwards before slowing down to a relative crawl, the planet before them growing larger during their approach.
"It looks different from up here," Dahlia Radim remarked, standing off to the side of the bridge, two Airmen behind her. Her eyes were wide in wonder. "So small."
If the situation wasn't so dire, Kevin Marks might've smiled. As it were, he only shared a look with Emma Cooper, who rolled her eyes.
"Sensor scans check out," Cooper reported, translating the information popping up on her screen. "No sign they've picked up our approach. The entry point provided by the Genii is clear."
"Move the ship into orbit," said Colonel Caldwell, glancing at Marks from his captain's chair. He then flicked a button on the chair's control panel. "Ground team, standby for transport."
"Copy that." Sheppard's voice resounded in the bridge's speakers.
"We're in position," Marks said, running his fingers across his keyboard. In the windows, the Genii home world stopped growing larger as Daedalus levelled out and slowed even further.
"Beam them down," Caldwell ordered.
It only took a moment, then the science officer said, "Transport complete."
"Keep a sensor lock on them at all times. If something goes wrong, I want you to get them out of there immediately."
With some effort, Caldwell leaned back in his chair. Marks knew by experience the look on his CO's face. Sharing a look with Cooper, he waited, tense and all too aware that a Genii was currently standing not five feet from him.
Stepping out of the secret passageway used by Radim's loyalists to get in and out of the underground city, Reese felt a chill go down her spine. Beyond the factory district several levels below them, the Genii capitol spread out in the monstrous cavern, glittering in the semi-darkness like a dozen ant colonies. She'd never seen it before.
Nestled several miles underground, the city was made up of roughly nine major districts, with large suspension and arch bridges stretching between each of them on several levels. Hundreds of buildings in all sizes and shapes were wrapped around the huge stone pillars keeping the caverns from collapsing. In the artificial light, Reese could see pipelines stretch and curve everywhere she looked, connecting the districts, and huge waterfalls were roaring down from the city's underside into the abyss. Everything was massive cold rock, metal and steel, with mists and smoke rising from buildings and shadows like something taken out of a steam-punk comic.
"Terrifying, huh?" Hailey came up behind her, weapon in hand. "And kinda impressive."
"I hate caves," Reese said lowly.
Hailey chuckled. "Take a deep breath and think of baseball. Or Clooney. Whatever helps. Come on."
Rolling her eyes, Reese followed Hailey and the rest of the team down several ladders into the factory district. They wound up at ground level among some derelict, boarded-up buildings closest to the cavern wall. Behind one of the buildings, Sheppard held up his hand, signalling them to stop.
At the corner, Commander Verlo was gesturing for someone on the other side. Reese watched as a large group of Genii soldiers suddenly rounded the corner. These, however, looked far shabbier than she'd expected for such a militaristic society.
"Colonel Sheppard," Verlo said, "you know Officer Massan."
Next to Verlo, Cassel Massan was small, slight and completely unassuming. While his companions were dressed for combat, he wore just the standard Genii uniform with a blue strip of cloth tied around his left arm to signify his allegiance. From what Reese could see, he wasn't even armed.
"I've signalled our people," Massan said, his voice quiet. "They are in position to help us break out Colonel Carter. Rathorn has kept her in interrogation all day, but my sources report that she's in good health. Well, considering."
"She gets out in one piece," Sheppard stated evenly, his eyes dark.
"Of course, Colonel," said Verlo. "But we will have to move simultaneously. If we raise the alarm at either location beforehand, Rathorn might take more volatile actions."
"Fine." Sheppard turned around and waved to Hailey. "Captain, you'll go with them. I'll radio it to Daedalus." At Reese's side, Hailey nodded sharply. Verlo opened his mouth to say something, but Sheppard cut him off. "Let's get a move on, people. Haven't got all day."
Although sharing a look with each other, Verlo and Massan said nothing further beyond splitting up and going in different directions. Hailey moved to follow when Sheppard held her back. Standing close by, Reese overheard him.
"You know these people, Captain. Anything smells funky – you find Colonel Carter and get the hell out of there. Understood?"
"Alright, get going. Stay in touch." Hailey saluted him and then ran off to catch up to Massan's group. Turning away from her, Sheppard eyed the rest of them: Reese, Ronon and two Marines. Along with Verlo, they were Radim's rescue. "Keep your eyes peeled, people. This ain't Kansas."
Hailey had been in the Genii capitol many times before on diplomatic and scientific missions. This side of it, however, was something she'd never expected to see.
Massan led her and the Genii team through a run-down, half-operational maintenance network going through the underbelly of the city. From the smell of it, Hailey wouldn't be surprised if the sewage system had started to seep into it in places. Three times, they had to cross narrow, wobbly suspension walkways to get from one district to another, until they finally got in sight of their target: the Command Centre.
The Command Centre housed the government, military logistics and planning HQ, and the intelligence offices – what would most likely be the Genii's CIA equivalent. Colonel Carter was held in the latter.
"Looks like Rathorn has boosted the security," Hailey said, crouching next to Massan. In the distance, the Command Centre rose like the natural focal point of the city. All over it, floodlights and guard patrols were systematically searching for any intruders, even though it was the middle of the night local time. "What's your game plan?"
"There is an access point on one of the sublevels," said Massan, pointing towards the lower parts of the building. Roaring waterfalls soared out from underneath it and into the abyss below. "It is an emergency exit leading from the section of the building containing the cells and interrogation offices. My sources on the inside will open it for us and then lead us to Colonel Carter."
"How do we get out?"
"Same way, in theory. If the alarm is raised, we will have to fight our way out."
"Wonderful," muttered Hailey.
Massan smiled. "Do not worry, Captain. Right now, I am sure Rathorn's eyes are on the prison. He is far more afraid of someone rescuing Chief Radim than an off-worlder. Especially so close to Radim's execution date."
"Right. Let's hope he got that memo." Hailey paused and watched as Massan got to his feet and began to move on, the Genii loyalist soldiers following in his wake. An uncomfortable sensation began to churn in her stomach.
By nature, Massan seemed like such an honest man. Rathorn had always seemed iffy, but Massan… He genuinely cared about Radim. She'd seen that first hand. Or, at least, that's what she thought she'd seen.
I wonder if Sheppard's right. If there's something else going on that we don't know about. We know that's how they've operated before.
Getting to her feet, Hailey hurried up and caught up to Massan as he waited for two of his people to open a sealed bunker door. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Captain Hailey."
"Why did Rathorn need evidence to take down Radim? If he wanted the power, he could've just assassinated him. He was Radim's Chief of Security. Why go to all this trouble?"
"An very good question." Massan stroked his chin with his fingers. "I believe Rathorn wanted to avoid as much uproar as he could. Despite what it might look like, his forces are actually in minority. However, they currently control the nuclear reactor you helped us build, as well as the entire storage of nuclear explosives. It is what has mainly prevented us from acting sooner. In addition, I suspect he wants to win people over by seemingly giving Chief Radim a fair trial, as well as discredit him with the outrageous accusation that he's collaborating with the Wraith."
"And people buy it?" Hailey raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
"Some do. Others are scared, so they do nothing. But most are not stupid. His words might sound true and fair, but people have served under leaders like him before."
Hailey opened her mouth to reply, but with a loud groan, the heavy bunker door was finally swung open. Massan waved the other Genii ahead, and then picked up a pocket watch.
"I'm sorry, Captain, but we must move ahead." Massan replaced the pocket watch and indicated her to go first through the door. "Commander Verlo and Colonel Sheppard will already be at the prison. If you have further questions, they will have to wait."
The infiltration was going better than expected. Entering the high-security prison through a ventilation shaft, which originated on the maintenance level, had given them the first element of surprise. Verlo disabling the alarm and lights inside the prison had given them the second. It'd barely taken them ten minutes to get from sublevel 5 to sublevel 3 where Radim's cell was located.
Peeking around the corner to the end of the corridor, Ronon could see their final obstacle: four guards stationed in formation outside a heavy bunker door, two crouched low and two behind aiming high. Their faces were as clear as day thanks to his night vision goggles, revealing tense, attentive eyes and clenched jaws. Heavy shotguns were held tightly in their arms at eyelevel. Dangerous even at this distance.
Ronon leaned back into cover and signalled 'four' with his fingers, followed by 'two low, two high'. Opposite of him, Sheppard clenched his jaw and nodded curtly.
"Go high." The harsh whisper was a command.
Drawing up his energy weapons, Ronon counted to three and swung out of cover. The guards never knew what hit them. His two in the back were dead long before Sheppard's silenced P90 sprayed across those crouching in front.
The four guards collapsed in a single heap, those Sheppard had shot still moaning and very much alive. Striding quickly forwards, Ronon prepared to open fire again, but Sheppard ran past him, blocking his access. The next thing he knew, Sheppard slammed down on the surviving guards with the butt of his P90, effectively silencing them. He then kicked away the shotguns and began to drag the bodies out of the way.
The act made Ronon's eyebrows furrow. It wasn't like Sheppard to use excessive force, but the look on his face quelled Ronon's half-formed remark. Instead, he grabbed the closest dead guard and pulled him away from the door, helped by Captain Matthews and the two Marines.
Once their access was clear, Sheppard stepped in front of the door and clicked his radio. "Verlo, come in."
On the radio, the Verlo's voice came out in a slight garble, most likely due to the high density of metal in these walls; it messed up the signal. "—erlo—what's—situation?"
"We're at location Charlie," Sheppard said, eyeing the door without touching it. "Flip the killswitch."
Within seconds, Ronon heard the sudden stop of a low humming; the electrical currents running through the bunker door had been shut down. Sheppard spun the handle around and paused. Raising his weapon in readiness, Ronon nodded.
With one great heave, Sheppard swung the door open. They flooded inside, prepared to open fire – but it wasn't necessary. The sole occupant of the room was a beaten-up and dishevelled Ladon Radim. He raised his head tiredly.
"Well, you've looked better." Sheppard lit his flashlight and pulled up his night vision goggles. Ronon did the same. The transition from green to dark made him blink. "Cut him loose."
"Colonel Sheppard?" Radim's voice was cracked. He blinked confusedly as the two Marines stepped forward to loosen his bonds and pull him up. Matthews was at the door, keeping watch. "So they managed to convince you…"
"Something like that," Sheppard said, his voice tense. He turned and pulled up his radio, checking his watch as he did so. "Daedalus, we've got him. Standing by."
"We—onel." Like Verlo's, Caldwell's voice was also garbled, but even worse.
"Say again?" Sheppard frowned. "Daedalus, we've got Radim. Get us out of here."
Only static sounded on the radio.
"Fuck," Sheppard muttered. "Something must be interfering with the signal."
"Radiation?" suggested Matthews. "This whole place is run on nuclear power, isn't it?"
"Yes, but that's not it," said Radim weakly, coughing hoarsely. "It's this room. Rathorn left a nuclear device in here, designed to slowly poison me. It's—" He coughed again, pointing to one of the corners of the room. "It's his way of torture."
Sheppard pointed his flashlight in Radim's indicated direction. The beam of light fell on a small device standing on a table.
"Oh, you're kidding me!"
"Matthews," Sheppard said sharply, silencing her. Ronon saw him work through their options in the dim light of the flashlight. "We need to get the hell out of here. Find a radiation-free spot so Daedalus can beam us up."
"What about him?" Matthews asked, pointing at Radim. "And us? We've been exposed."
"The amounts should not be fatal for you," Radim said, sagging slightly in the arms of the two Marines. "It is one of the old nuclear devices we made before you gave us shielding technology. Its exposure is only incurable over time. If we leave now, your doctors should be able to treat you without any problems."
"Hear that? We'll be fine." Sheppard turned back towards the door and pulled on his night vision goggles again before switching off the flashlight. "Alright, change in plans, people. We'll exfil where we came in, try to re-establish contact with the ship once we get outside."
"Shouldn't we let Commander Verlo know?" Matthews asked, covering their exit as Sheppard led the way.
Sheppard didn't answer immediately. Ronon knew why. He was waiting for news.
Water splashed into her face. Sam startled into consciousness and struggled for a moment against bonds that dug into her arms and feet, gasping in sudden pain.
"Time to wake up, Colonel."
Recognising the voice, Sam gritted her teeth and forced herself to stop moving. She raised her head, finding her target leaning against a desk in the corner. Commander Gavorn, the new Chief Rathorn's head of the Intelligence Offices, had greying hair at his temples and an unblemished skin that belied his age – and his nature.
"I've got a little surprise for you," Gavorn said, gesturing to someone behind Sam. The heavy bunker door, which could only be opened from the inside, opened. "Recognise this young lady? She was caught trying to hide in the city along with some traitors."
Sam heard the shuffle of feet. Then someone was flung down on the floor in front of her feet; someone with a very familiar groan of pain.
"Hailey?" Sam gasped. The captain's face was bruised, something it hadn't been when she'd been sent away from the meeting with the Genii council earlier that day. Sam swung her glare at Gavorn. "You bastard!"
Gavorn only grinned. "So that is what it takes to get a reaction out of you. Excellent. We'll be done long before our guests arrive."
"Ma'am…" Hailey mumbled, clearly in pain. "Close your eyes."
Confused, Sam didn't understand the odd request until Hailey rolled over fully, exposing a flashbang grenade in her hands. She threw it away from her before continuing the roll into a foetus position with her ears covered.
In a split second, the room erupted into chaos. There was a loud bang and bright flashes of light. Sam couldn't protect her ears, which rang terribly in the aftermath. But she felt the vibrations of air pressure changing and heavy weights dropping down to the ground.
When she opened her eyes, Hailey was quickly undoing her bonds, a worried expression on her bruised face. The three Genii who'd interrogated Sam, including Gavorn, lay in bleeding heaps on the ground. To Sam's shock, Cassel Massan was checking each of them, popping a round in one guard's head when it turned out he wasn't dead yet.
"You okay, ma'am?" Hailey's voice sounded distant and muffled, but Sam could see her lips move. She simply nodded in reply, massaging her sore wrists as they sprung free.
Her legs shook as she stood up, and Hailey had to hold her steady as waves of dizziness washed over her. Eventually, however, Sam felt strength seep back into her muscles. She tried walking, observing Massan talking with three other Genii soldiers, who all wore a blue band around their upper arm. While still confused, Sam's mind was working quickly, trying to figure out the situation.
By the time the ringing had calmed down, Hailey was on the radio. "Hailey to Sheppard. We've got the package, sir."
"Good work, Captain." John's voice filtered back on Hailey's vest-attached radio. In the background, Sam heard gunfire and tensed.
"What's going on?" she asked, indicating the radio.
Catching her gesture, Hailey turned up the volume on her radio. "Package wants to know your sitrep, sir."
"We've run into a snag. Original exfil is a no-go. Had to exfil the way we came. Tripped an alarm or something. Now got the whole damn garrison on our heel."
"What about Chief Radim?" Massan asked, stepping close. Hailey repeated his question, using a code word in lieu of his name.
"Package is in one piece. We're—Hold on." John's voice disappeared for a moment. Sam didn't realise she'd held her breath until he spoke again. He sounded annoyed. "Got a radio message from Verlo. Tell his people to go to plan B."
"Copy that," Hailey said, frowning confusedly at Massan. "What about—"
Suddenly, alarms began to blare out in the corridor.
Massan cursed. "They must have found the guards we knocked out earlier. Aleon, signal the others. For good or for worse, tell them it's time." As one of the Genii soldiers ran off, Massan turned to Sam and Hailey. "I'm sorry, Captain, Colonel, but I can no longer guarantee your safe escape. Our plans have just been forced to move ahead."
"What plans?" Hailey demanded. Sam frowned, paying close attention to the exchange. Massan looked hesitant, but it seemed to be a sufficient cue for Hailey. "No, don't tell me. You're gonna retake the city now? I thought you weren't ready! That's why we're here, isn't it?"
"You are correct, Captain. Plan B wasn't supposed to be executed until Radim was safely off-world and our people were in position." Looking tense, Massan ran a hand through his hair. "However, the situation has forced our hand. We have no choice but to act now, even if we're at a disadvantage." Massan sighed. "I fear this will be a bloodbath."
"Not our concern. We were only tasked with helping you get Radim out in exchange for you helping us save the Colonel here," Hailey said, gritting her teeth. "Come on, ma'am, Daedalus is in orbit. We need to get in touch with them and get them to—"
The ground and walls shook violently. Then the lights went out. Sam was almost knocked over as someone – she guessed Hailey – skipped a step and lost balance. Reacting instinctually, Sam steadied them both. Moments later, the shaking stopped and one of the Genii lit a flashlight.
"Plan B?" Sam asked, staring wide-eyed at Massan. Next to her, Hailey dug out her own flashlight and turned it on.
Massan nodded, straightening. His face, cast in shadows from Hailey's flashlight, was serious now. "More explosions will follow. As you can see, this one targeted this building's supplying power station." He sighed briefly. "But it will not be for long."
Even as he said it the lights came back on, flickering for the first few moments. Massan pulled out a sidearm and held it out to Sam. "You will need this to fight your way out to higher ground where your ship can transport you out, Colonel. The corridors will soon be crowded with Rathorn's men. Please try not to kill those with a blue band on their left arm."
"Wait, wait—" Hailey said as Sam accepted Massan's weapon. "Daedalus's beams might be able to penetrate this far. Just let me get in touch with them."
"But my transmitter—" Sam began to say, but Hailey dug in her pocket and presented Sam with a small, capsule-shaped device.
Sam accepted it as Hailey clicked her radio. "Daedalus, this is Hailey. We're ready for transport. Do you copy?"
No answer. Pocketing the transmitter inside her bra, Sam tensed again. Could it be time already?
"Daedalus, this is Hailey. I've got the package and the Genii's already started their damn civil war. Do you read me?" Hailey's voice turned edgy. "Daedalus, this is—"
Her radio crackled to life. "All members of Ground Team, this is Daedalus. We're under attack by the Wraith. Unable to transport at this time. Will contact you when it's clear. In the meantime, stay low. Keep the packages alive. Daedalus out."
For a second, Hailey looked speechless. Then she lowered her radio. "You've gotta be fucking shitting me!"
"Anyone wanna tell me where these damn bogeys came from?" Caldwell's voice rang out amidst the occasional weapons impact. Holding on to his seat with one hand, he waved the other at the SOs, indicating they take Dahlia Radim off the bridge. She went willingly, though she stared back at him until she was out of sight.
"Must've dropped out of hyperspace right behind the star," Telman, the science officer, reported from the station behind the captain's chair. "The electromagnetic interference from the star would've interfered with our sensors until the ships came closer."
"Titan wing just lost a bird," Marks called out, eyes angled towards his screen. Outside the windows, the planet tilted out of view as Daedalus swooped and swerved out of the plasma volleys coming from the closest Wraith cruiser.
"Any ZPM subspace signal from the Hive ship?" Caldwell asked, straightening as the ship levelled out and moved beyond the immediate firing range with a quick engine burst.
"No, sir, it looks like a regular Hive ship," Telman said. "Heads up. The second Wraith cruiser is powering up their weapons."
"Then fire up the plasma beam weapons." Caldwell turned to Marks, his eyes dark and serious. "Weapons free, Major. Take them down."
Marks couldn't help smiling. Compared to the Wraith superhive, these Wraith ships wouldn't stand a chance against Daedalus' ZPM-powered weapons and shields. He swung the ship around, locked onto the coordinates provided by Cooper, and fired.
"John, this is Sam. Hailey's brought me up to speed. Looks like our exits are blown for now. What's your sitrep?"
Crouched low underneath a window being shot to hell, John cursed as shards of glass flew all over him. "We're holed up pretty good in one of the civilian districts. Got a whole company coming down on us, though. Verlo's promised us back-up, but we've yet to see any."
"My people will come, Colonel," Verlo said, interjecting himself into the conversation. He'd rendezvoused with them after the prison alarm had been set off. He now sat behind a stack of crates, waiting for a lull in the firing. When it came, he rose slightly and delivered a couple of rounds out the window, letting the enemy know they weren't dead yet. "Give them a few minutes."
"That's what you said five minutes ago," John grumbled, before turning back to his radio. "We're just sitting tight for the moment, Sam. Once Verlo's people gets here, we'll fight our way to the surface. Still need to get the second package out of the city." John looked to where Radim was being treated by Matthews. He looked really bad. "How about you?"
"About to exit the HQ structure. Tell Verlo the loyalist attack failed. Power's still online, but we've got a plan—"
Sam stopped and John could hear muted shouts in the background. He waited, tensely, for her to continue. Looking around, he saw the others glance at him apprehensively in between shooting short bursts through the windows. Verlo's brows were furrowed deeply.
Finally, John couldn't wait anymore. "Sam?"
To his relief, she answered immediately. "Damnit, they're everywhere…" The obvious annoyance in her tone made him smirk slightly. "Alright, John. Get your package out safely. If you have to, stay put until Daedalus can beam you up. Unless the superhive's up there, they'll be alright."
John tensed, his frustration spiking again as he sensed a 'but' coming. "Sam…"
She ignored him. "I'm taking my team to one of the locations the loyalists haven't been able to secure. Massan calls it Location H. Should bring this war to a quick stop. If our plan works."
"Sam…" John warned again, clenching his fists. He'd known her long enough to know when she was about do something spur-of-the-moment, and given the situation, he had a really bad feeling about it.
"You've got your orders, Colonel," Sam said in a no-negotiable tone.
"… Aye, ma'am." Gritting his teeth, John counted to ten and turned off the radio. Becoming aware of his surroundings, he turned to Verlo with a dark tone. "What's location H?"
Verlo's face grew serious. "The nuclear power plant. It has become the main power supply for the entire city. And…it fuels Rathorn's new nuclear weapons project."
"Ma'am, Caldwell's mission objectives were crystal clear: save you and Radim, not get involved in their damn war!" Hailey cocked a new magazine into her P90 and fired a few suppressive shots down the centre aisle of the machine room.
"And who will get involved in ours?" Carter countered, crouched low behind a stack of crates. She pulled out one of the grenades Hailey had brought along, and pulled the pin. "We need the Genii, Hailey. They need us. That hasn't changed. We both know Rathorn won't consider a deal should he win this. But we already have an arrangement with Radim. Cover me!"
As Carter launched the grenade down the aisle, covered by Hailey, Massan immediately spoke up from where he was crouched behind her. "Chief Radim always honours his alliances."
Hailey only glared at him as shouts sounded at the other end of the room. A second later, the grenade blew up and the enemy fire drew to a sudden halt.
No one said anything for almost a whole minute. There were faint moans coming from where the grenade had detonated. One of the nearby machines was venting steam.
Hailey leaned out of cover, and then slowly got to her feet on the colonel's orders. Inching down the centre aisle, she led them to the enemy's location, where bodies lay strewn around at odd angles.
"Fan out," Carter ordered lowly, raising a Genii rifle to eyelevel. She took left, Hailey went right, and the loyalist Genii with them went down the middle.
Their search came up empty. All of Rathorn's guards in this room were down. Hailey watched as some of the loyalists went around, checking each body, and going as far as finishing off those who weren't dead yet. She felt sick.
"This is wrong, ma'am," Hailey muttered lowly as she met up with Carter at the end of the room. She gestured back at the Genii loyalists.
Staring back in Hailey's indicated direction, Carter's lips thinned and her eyes glinted. "The lesser of two evils."
"Is it?" Hailey narrowed her eyes, which met Carter's steely ones.
"You have no idea," Carter said, lowering her voice considerably.
For a split second, there seemed to be a red tint in the colonel's eyes. Hailey almost took a step back. Then the moment passed and Carter's shoulders sagged a little. When she looked up, she seemed more like the colonel Hailey knew and cared about. The tired, but dedicated one.
"I know this isn't the ideal situation, Hailey," Carter said, running a hand through her dishevelled hair, "but there are plenty of reasons why we need to do this. The simple fact is that if Rathorn catches us, we're dead. No. More than dead."
Hailey frowned. There was something off about Carter. Her frustration with the situation was suddenly overpowered by worry. "Ma'am… What'd he do?"
Carter's face darkened again. "Let's just say, I expected the Wraith." With that, she quickly turned towards the nearby door; weapon nestled in the crook of her arm. "We need to move on. Rathorn's people will soon know we've taken this section. There's not much time."
"Hive ship is launching more Darts," Cooper reported from Caldwell's left.
Glancing at the Heads Up display on the bridge windows, Caldwell saw the red triangles burst out from the side of the largest red circle. "Relay their position to Titan wing."
"Sir…they're headed towards the planet." Frowning, Cooper ran her fingers across her keyboard, pulling up a closer view of the battlefield on her own screen. "At least three dozen."
"Just our luck to wind up in the middle of a culling," said Marks on the right, eyes on his screen as he manoeuvred Daedalus through the spread of plasma shots across the battlefield. When one of the Wraith cruisers came into view, he punched a button and Caldwell could feel the discharge of Asgard beam weapons through the bridge floor.
The beams hit home, tearing through the cruiser like a spear. Before the other ships could retaliate, Marks had already moved Daedalus out of the way. Caldwell spared only a second to appreciate his pilot's skills and enjoy the cruiser exploding everywhere in the bridge windows.
"Get me Ground Team on the radio," Caldwell ordered.
"Communications array took some chop in that last hit, sir," replied the comms officer, Gibson. "Compensating."
Once he received the go-ahead, Caldwell flicked a button on his armrest. "Ground Team, this is Daedalus. We've spotted about three-dozen Wraith Darts headed towards the planet. Might be a culling. Stay alert."
"Like we didn't have enough to worry about," Sheppard answered, his slightly garbled transmission from being underground cleared up by the ship's ZPM-boosted communications array. In the background, Caldwell could hear shouting and a lot of gunfire.
"Hang on, Colonel, we'll be with you in a moment. Got two more ships up here to handle before we can lower our shields and transport you up."
"Make that three, sir," Telman called out. "Long-range sensors are picking up a Hive ship entering hyperspace in this direction. ETA about twenty minutes."
"Any ZPM subspace readings?" Caldwell asked, his eyes paying close attention to the battlefield around them at the same time. Seeing an opening, he added, "Marks, target the last cruiser."
"No sign of a ZPM signal, sir," Telman said as Marks swung Daedalus around to begin an attack course towards the remaining Wraith cruiser. It'd taken up a position between them and the Hive ship, obviously protecting it.
The news didn't calm Caldwell, however. A Wraith Hive ship with a single ZPM couldn't be tracked like the superhive. He'd have to see the ship with his own eyes before he was satisfied they could take it on.
"Sir, the Wraith Darts are attacking the Genii surface settlements," the Telman said. "Biometric scans show that they're beaming down ground troops. A lot of them. Looks like they might be headed underground."
Caldwell flicked on his radio again. "Ground Team, heads up. Seems the Wraith know there's people underground."
"Copy that," Carter responded this time. "They're probably picking up the nuclear reactors. Means the Genii's main cover is blown."
"Only if we let the Wraith transmit their location," Caldwell said. Outside the bridge windows, Marks had managed to position the Daedalus and now fired off two rounds of the beam weapon. The remaining Wraith cruiser was torn to smithereens. Caldwell smiled. "We're targeting the Hive ship now. Stand by."
Signing off, Sam replaced the radio in her pocket and turned back towards the large coolant tanks.
Wedged between the tanks and the wall, her face flushed from the hot, humid air, Hailey gave her a narrowed stare. "Why didn't you tell him the Wraith are here for you?"
"Because he won't be able to do anything about it. He's got the Hive ship to worry about." Wiping off sweat from her brow, Sam picked up the pack of C4 she'd readied earlier and handed it to Hailey. "Make sure you wedge this in deep – we don't want anyone to spot these things prematurely in case they check the area."
"I know, I know." Rolling her eyes, Hailey shimmied back in behind the tanks, disappearing from view.
"Colonel Carter, we're done." One of the Genii loyalists that'd accompanied them, a young woman named Fay, approached her. "The explosives have been set where you wanted them."
"Good," Sam said, peering around the steam generator and coolant pumping room. She couldn't see any blinking red diodes, which meant the charges were hidden pretty well. Once they detonated them, it should bring down the entire room, as well as the ones on top of it.
After considering the heavy security in the nuclear power plant, this was their best option to relatively safely disable the nuclear reactor vessel that was placed on the floor above them. Given its weight and the force of its downward fall, the reactor would go straight through this level and into the water-processing dam underneath the building. That should keep it from overheating and melt down, as well as protect the population from any radiation leak.
Downside was that the Genii would have to go back to their previous types of power plants. Not that Sam minded. If Rathorn won, it'd be a serious blow to his plans. If it helped Radim win instead, she doubted he'd complain. Much.
"God, please tell me we're done." Hailey popped out from behind the coolant tanks. She ran her hand through her hair, plastering her wet bangs away from her face. "This is worse than the heat waves on Tirana."
Sam smirked and addressed Fay. "Let Massan know we're on our way back."
"Yes, Colonel," Fay said and moved away.
"I don't know about you, ma'am, but I need a spa day." Hailey went over to where she'd stripped off most of her gear to be able to get behind the tanks, and began to put it all back on. "Somewhere far, far away from crazy, gun-toting bastards and life-sucking vampires."
"Sounds wonderful," Sam said, picking up her Genii-borrowed weapon and the small detonator. She pocketed it and began moving towards the exit. "Tell you what, Hailey. Once we get out of here, I'll introduce you to this little place we found on M3X-266 that I always wanted to try—"
Behind them, a bunker door groaned open. Sam spun around, instinctually reaching for her weapon. She caught a glimpse of a man's shocked face and a three-barrelled shotgun before all hell broke loose.
"Cavalry's here!" Matthews shouted just as the sound of numerous guns joined in the firefight outside their shelter. Panicked shouts rose up as the sieging enemy was suddenly attacked from all sides.
"About damn time," John muttered, slamming his last mag into his P90. He glanced back at the ashen-faced Radim, who sat slumped against a crate, his eyes struggling to stay awake. "Hope you're ready to get the hell out of here."
"Colonel, I daresay that's an understatement." Radim attempted a smile, but it turned into a grimace as he began to cough raspingly.
"Chief!" Verlo, crouched nearby, immediately came to his side and began to hover.
Radim waved him off. "I'm—I'm all right, Commander. Please—return to your post."
"Looks like they're making short work of Rathorn's guys out there," Matthews said, regaining John's attention.
He leaned slightly out of cover. The captain was right. The Genii that'd surrounded their building and laid siege to them were crumbling to the ground one by one under the crossfire from Verlo's back up. The loyalists were coming down from all sides. Despite the hits they took, they pushed on until there were just a few stragglers clutching the wall opposite John's window.
"Take them down," John ordered, and his people opened fire. Ronon's shot crippled one, John downed the second, and one of the Marines, Stiles, killed off the last one with a shot to the head. Not seeing anyone else, John relaxed and rose fully to his feet. "Good work, people."
"I'm out," Matthews said, ejecting her empty ammo mag from her P90. "Anyone got spares?"
"Here, I got one." The second Marine, Ward, grabbed one mag from his vest pocket. John noticed he was bleeding from numerous small cuts on his head. Probably from broken glass. The rest of them seemed to be in one piece, thankfully. "Last one."
"Alright. Check your ammo and gear," John said, running a mental inventory on himself. He still had a couple of grenades, his sidearm and a pack of C4. "We probably haven't seen the last of Rathorn's people yet."
"Don't forget the Wraith." Ronon's quip was quick. He was smirking slightly, as he tended to do these days when he got to fight.
"I haven't," John said, slightly miffed. He rolled his shoulders and stretched his legs; glad to finally be able to move normally again. He didn't like to admit it, but he'd started to notice his body complained a bit more than before. "Commander, ready to move out?"
Stepping away from the window where he'd made contact with the loyalists on the outside, Verlo nodded. "Yes, Colonel. They will escort us back to the passageway. It seems to be our only option right now."
"Alright." John gestured to Ward. "Help the Commander with the Chief. I wanna be out of here before Rathorn figures out his attack's been—"
"Daedalus, this is Hailey!" The captain's voice suddenly sounded on John's radio. She had to be on the general channel. "I need immediate evac. The package is down. I repeat: the package is down!"
John's heart stopped.
"We're unable to get a solid lock, sir," Telman called out from behind as the ship jolted slightly with weapons impact. "Sensors are picking up some radioactive interference from the nuclear reactor. I'm also reading multiple human and Wraith life signs converging on their location."
Caldwell cursed. Someone must've hit something critical down there during the firefight. "Captain, we cannot lock on due to a radiation leak. You need to get away from it before we can beam you out."
Caldwell cursed. Someone must've hit something critical down there during the firefight. "Captain, we cannot lock on due to a radiation leak. You need to get away from it before we can beam you out."
"Say again? You're breaking up, Daedalus." On the speakers, Hailey sounded didn't blame her.
"Hailey, you need to get out of there now," Sheppard joined in on the conversation. "Verlo's people say there are more soldiers on the way."
"Goddamnit!" Hailey cursed, her speech interrupted by grunts. "All right, I'm getting her out of here. Wouldn't mind some back-up, though. The loyalists with me are all dead. And I can't raise Massan on the radio. It probably won't be long before the other guards realise one of their patrols are missing."
"Daedalus, Radim's been given a transmitter. Are you able to lock on his signal now and beam him out of here?"
Caldwell looked back at Telman, who nodded in affirmative. "What're you thinking, Sheppard?"
"Nuclear reactor's not far from where we are," Sheppard said simply. "Ronon, Matthews and I can be there in fifteen minutes tops."
Staring at the Heads Up display, Caldwell watched as Daedalus swerved in and out of firing range from the remaining Hive ship. If they destroyed the ship now, they'd have enough time to drop the shields and beam up Radim before the second Hive ship arrived.
Decision made, Caldwell flicked on the radio. "Okay, Colonel, we'll take it from here. Tell Chief Radim and the rest to find a safe location and stand by." He then turned to Marks. "Boost the plasma beam weapons by 30 % and target the ship's hyperdrive engines. Take it down now."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Oookay, easy now, ma'am. I'm just gonna put you down here for a moment." With some effort, Hailey eased the unconscious Carter down to the ground beside the bunker door, careful not to jostle her bleeding head too much. She'd been hit by a ricochet during the firefight and Hailey hadn't had time to bandage it yet. "Gotta make sure no one wants to come after us."
Free of the weight, Hailey rolled her shoulders to work out the kinks. Then she slung her backpack off and quickly found a couple of grenades, some C4 and a roll of wire. Recalling her training, she made a simple booby-trap in the doorway. The door went outwards, so when someone came through, they'd trip the wire and set off the grenades and C4. The whole thing took less than two minutes.
"Good thing you made us brush up on these skills on Tirana, Colonel," Hailey said as she picked up Carter again, holding her arm across her shoulders and dragging her through the room they were in as fast as she could. "You've certainly given me a number of opportunities to use them."
They were in some sort of storage room, a level down from the main nuclear reactor levels. Having entered the complex through here, Hailey knew they were about to exit outside at the other end of the room. From there, they'd have to follow a network of maintenance walkways on the underside of the building and finally cross a bridge to get to the neighbouring building complex.
Hailey put Carter down again before checking the outside, making sure it was clear. From the doorway, she could see parts of the city. It was on fire, literally. From the sounds of it, the loyalists were still blowing things up. She could also hear gunfire echo through the monstrous cavern.
"Damnit, ma'am, we really got into the thick of it this time," Hailey said as she returned for Carter. The colonel didn't answer, her bloodied head lolling at an awkward angle. Rolling her eyes, Hailey began to descend the staircase outside the door that led to the suspended maintenance walkways. "If we get out of this, I want more than one spa day. How about a raise? You get me Rathorn, and I'll blow his fucking—"
There was a loud boom and a blast of shockwave hit them from behind. Hailey stumbled, Carter's weight dragging her down, and they crashed down the last few steps onto the walkway.
"Ow…" Hailey clutched her head. It'd hit the metal grating of the walkway pretty hard. She felt dizzy and a little nauseous. "Fuck, I didn't know they were so close behind. Get up, Jenn, get up!"
Groaning, Hailey rolled to her feet and quickly located her P90. She hastened up the staircase, taking in the scene inside the storage room. It was decimated. Storage crates were mixed with blackened human – and to her disgust, Wraith – limbs in the debris. The corridor leading back to the nuclear reactor complex was blocked.
"Ugh… Good news, ma'am." Hailey descended the steps, picking up Carter again, who seemed to have grown heavier in the last few moments. "Looks like they won't be able to get to us from the complex. Just wish I'd thought of that earlier. Might've saved us some time…"
Moving more slowly, Hailey bit down her pain and dragged Carter along the walkways. Every step made her muscles burn more and more, but she pushed on, her eyes set dead-on the narrow bridge in the distance that she had to reach. It was where Sheppard's team would meet her if everything went according to plan.
Daedalus was a no go. A second Hive ship had turned up and there wasn't time or opportunity to beam them up until it'd been destroyed. But she could get to that bridge. She knew she could. Help would be there. And Carter, who was possibly the closest thing she had to family right now, would be saved. She just had to hold on.
"Hey, you there! Stop!"
Hailey briefly closed her eyes. This is NOT my fucking lucky day.
"That's the door, but it's locked!" Verlo shouted, gesturing to a bunker door at the end of the water processing plant's main floor. "We could get it open, but first we'll have to take care of those." He reloaded and leaned out from cover to fire a suppressive shot at the soldiers and Wraith Drones scurrying into cover behind them.
Spraying an armband-less Genii soldier with bullets, John got back into cover as his team and Verlo's troops brought down the full force of their weapons on the few heads popping out behind pumping machines, containers and crates.
"There's no time," John shouted back, taking advantage of the moment to survey the path ahead. There was reasonable cover and he could make it in two sprints. "Cover me!"
Verlo's shout of "Suppressive fire!" barely rang out before John bolted out of cover and sprinted across the enemies' line of sight, a few straggling shots tailing him. He slid into cover behind one of the machines, regained his breath and gestured for Verlo to do it again. As the P90 and Genii gunshots rang out, John crossed the last few yards and crouched down next to the target door.
Making sure he was out of sight, John pulled out his last pack of C4 and tore off parts of it, molding it between his fingers. Eying the lock on the door, he reached up and fastened the strip of C4 around it.
Three whistling shots impacted right above his head, making John flinch back into cover. He found a simple detonator and timed his move to the lapse in gunfire. In less than a minute, John moved away from the door, detonator in hand, and pushed the button.
The shockwave was minute, but rattled his head nonetheless. Turning, John saw his work had done the trick. Half the door had been blown off its hinges. "Door's open!"
"Suppressive fire! Keep those damn traitors and Wraiths back!" Verlo's shout rang out amidst the gunfire, and then John saw him leap out of cover and sprint the whole way to the door, followed closely by Ronon and Matthews. He skidded to a halt next to John, crouching down as another stray shot hit dangerously close to his head. "Nice job," he nodded to the door. "Now I see why Chief Radim's always spoken so highly of your explosives."
"Yeah, he asks nicely. Every time." John reloaded his P90 and met Verlo's eyes. "So through there?"
"Yes," said Verlo. "There are service tunnels on the other side. They'll lead us straight to where we will rendezvous with Captain Hailey."
"Okay. Lead the way."
They left the raging gunfire behind, retreating into the bunker on the other side of the blown door. While John and Ronon made sure the room was clear, Verlo closed what was left of the door, partly shutting the sounds out, and then gestured to a nearby window.
"Down there," said Verlo, slightly out of breath. He pointed at the bridge about three levels below and east of them. "That's the maintenance bridge. Leads over to the main power plant—"
John tensed. He saw immediately what made Matthews call out. On the other side of the abyss, Hailey was hurrying down a staircase leading to the bridge, dragging Sam along with her. But she kept staring back and John could see why.
A team of Genii soldiers were hunting them, quickly sprinting the maze of maintenance walkways. One of them fired off a few shots, but they seemed to be in warning only as none of them hit.
"They won't make it," Matthews said, her eyes wide in worry.
John agreed. Hailey looked tired, and supporting someone else's weight while trying to dodge an enemy in pursuit was damn near impossible with that short distance between them. There weren't that many options. Only one, in fact.
John turned on his radio. "Hailey, this is Sheppard. We've got eyes on you." Even at this distance, he could see her turn around looking for him. "You can't outrun them. Stop and let them take you. We're coming for you."
"I—blocked—the—way—back," Hailey gasped in heavy breaths. "They'll—have—to—go—in—your—direction. Perfect—ambush—sir."
"Copy that, Captain. We're on the way."
Hailey slowed down when she reached the bridge, eased Carter to the ground, and raised her arms above her head in surrender. Her lungs were burning, her legs shaking from the exertion. Blinking stars appeared in her vision, and she forced herself to take slower breaths.
The Genii soldiers soon caught up with her: one officer and three more grunts. They surrounded her, weapons raised.
"Stand still," the officer ordered, holding his sidearm trained on her. Then he nodded his head towards her. "Vasily."
One of the male soldiers stepped forward, disarmed Hailey and forced her to kneel down beside Carter. Her head swam a little, still dizzy from the fall earlier.
She watched quietly as Vasily leaned down and searched Carter's pockets for any hidden weapons. Finding her combat knife, he threw it over the side of the bridge, but he kept her sidearm for himself. The detonator, which Hailey tried not to seem too interested in, was given to the officer. He stared at it for a moment before pocketing it.
"You're Atlantean," the officer said, peering at her closely. "Why're you here? What's your mission?"
Hailey only stared at him, slowly beginning to get her breath under control.
"That's not going to work, sir. She's a fighter, this one." One of the other soldiers, a woman, sneered above the barrel of her shotgun. "Gotta use force."
"Perhaps." The officer looked around, stopping when he heard the echoes of gunfire coming from the water processing plant across the abyss. "But this is not the best location."
"And where should we go? The way back's a mess," Vasily said.
"That building. We can hold it with just the four of us." The officer nodded towards the small building on the other side of the bridge while he found his radio. Hailey recognised it as a secondary pumping station. "Tomas, check it out. I will call it in. We will need a safe path to the Command Centre, and Chief Rathorn will want to know the Atlanteans are here."
As Tomas, the second male soldier, moved off across the bridge, the woman narrowed her eyes at Carter. "You know, I think I've seen that one before." She stepped forward and rolled Carter onto her back. She looked shocked at first, then gleeful. "It's that leader of theirs. Carter something."
"Are you sure?" The officer asked, holding the radio away from his mouth.
The woman stared at Hailey, who clenched her teeth in defiance. She grinned. "Let's find out."
"Looks like they can hear our little gunfight," John said lowly, cocking his P90. They'd reached another window to check on Hailey and Sam's situation. The officer was staring in their direction. "So much for the element of surprise."
Verlo narrowed his eyes. "There's still a chance. I recognise the man. He's got a reputation for being cautious, so he'll most likely send out a scout before moving on. Which means they'll be trapped down there."
"Not exactly a tactical position," Matthews pointed out, frowning.
"I didn't say he's the brightest." Verlo smirked. He pulled out his radio and hailed his 2IC. "Gavin, how's the situation back there?"
The static of the radio wavered for each gunshot ringing out. "We've got them pinned down, sir. Team three managed to cut off their exit and teams two and five are moving to outflank them."
"Good, take them down. All of them. Whatever means necessary. I need this place to go silent very soon."
While Verlo gave his orders in the background, John stared at the bridge. The officer had, as Verlo suspected, sent one of the male soldiers ahead as a scout. The rest of them just remained on the far side of the bridge, eyes on Hailey and Sam. But none of the Genii held his attention for long.
From this vantage point, John could see Sam clearly, even in the poor lighting. Having been turned on her back, she lay slumped on the bridge's floor, unconscious. There was blood all over her face.
Then the female soldier struck Sam's head with the butt of her shotgun.
"Fuck!" Matthews cursed.
John surged forward, only to realise he was too far away and trapped in this damn bunker-like building. Before he could do anything else, Hailey had jumped to her feet and was in the Genii's face, clearly raging. It only earned her a whip of the soldier's gun, but Hailey stood her ground, noticeably protecting Sam from further abuse.
"You think they managed to set the explosives before they were—" Verlo stopped when he saw what was going on. "Oh d—"
"We need to move," John said, moving away from the window and straight for the door he'd spotted earlier. He noticed that, in the background, the gunfire was becoming sparser.
"Yeah," said Verlo, quickly regaining his composure. He caught up with John and the rest as the former wrenched the door open, revealing a staircase that went five levels down. "It's not far. Just look out for that—"
"Scout. Got it," John finished for him, his blood pounding in his ears. He forced himself to breathe evenly, to resume that careful frostiness he'd gained with experience.
Hang on, you two.
She knew Sheppard's team was right around the corner. Logically, she knew that what she'd just done was crazy, but Hailey wasn't thinking straight. She'd just reacted, and now that damn Genii woman was laughing straight into her face. Hailey wanted to kill her.
"I told you she's a fighter." The woman looked over at the officer. To the side, Vasily was grinning.
"She's also Carter's aide," the officer said, replacing his radio in one of his pockets. "Command just confirmed it. These are VIP targets. Chief Rathorn has dispatched two columns to ensure Carter's capture."
"Not this one?" The woman bumped her shotgun into Hailey's shoulder with a little force. Hailey winced, but remained defiant and glared up at her.
Sheppard's coming, she told herself. Just hold on. Don't do something crazy…again.
The officer looked her over, frowning. "Non-essential."
John met Ronon's eyes in the dimness. They were shielded behind two pieces of machinery that pumped water from the cavern lake below the city to the adjoining processing plant. Nearby, almost completely stealthy, was the enemy scout.
John held up his hand, telling Ronon to stay put, before leaning up slightly to peer between two pipes to see the scout's approach. He was headed straight for them.
Slowly, with great care, John positioned himself. This would have to go down silently. This building was too close to the bridge. If the enemy Genii heard gunfire, they'd turn tail and hunker down on the other side. Going across the bridge then would be suicide.
Holding his breath, John let the scout pass them, then sneaked up behind him. In one brutal motion, he snapped the scout's neck with a resounding crack. He went with the body, easing and silencing its fall, and then pulled it out of sight.
"Efficient," said Verlo quietly, standing up from his hiding spot along with Matthews.
John let out the breath he'd been holding, feeling his heart thudding hard against his ribs. He stared at the body of the scout for a long time, then looked up to face Ronon's grim features. "Only three to—"
A gunshot rang out.
Distantly, a gunshot rang out. Someone screamed. Then another shot. Silence, save for the sound of roaring water.
A cold, humid draft rose from the nearby waterfalls pouring down into the cavern lakes more than a mile below them. Sam could see the lights of the Genii underground city glimmer in the darkness as she struggled out of unconsciousness. One of her eyes wouldn't quite open. A warm trickle down her nose told her it was blood, probably in the process of clotting.
Sam tried to blink away the crust, but it only made it worse. Squeezing her eye shut, she kept the other open and tried to ignore the throbbing pain in her head.
"Isn't it pathetic, sir?" A rasping voice spoke up suddenly at the edges of her fuzzy mind.
Sam turned her head, spotting a shadow moving slightly in the dimness opposite of her. Slowly, it solidified, turning into a Genii soldier. He was leaning against the railing opposite of her, a bloody bandage tied around his arm. When she tried to focus on him, he openly leered.
"My, my. How the mighty have fallen."
"Yes," someone agreed. Sam tilted her head sideways and saw a spotlessly dressed Genii officer, who returned to watching what Sam now realised was the narrow bridge she and Hailey had used earlier to infiltrate the nuclear power plant along with the Genii loyalists.
Suddenly panicked, Sam shot up, to the immediate sound of a cocked gun.
"Stay right there, Colonel." The officer had turned on the spot and had his three-barrelled shotgun trained on her in one smooth motion. The soldier was slower, but he soon shoved Sam back hard with the barrel of his rifle.
For a moment, she felt nothing but cold air rushing up against her back. Then the railing of the bridge was there, halting her fall, and air filled her lungs. Sam bit back a moan and fought to calm her suddenly racing heart. Her mind felt like it was full of mud.
Somewhere, a bunker door slammed shut.
Forcing as much toughness as she could into her voice, Sam turned to the officer. "Where is she?"
"No one gave you permission to speak, Colonel." Face twisted in a grimace, the soldier surged forward again – only to halt at the officer's abrupt stopping gesture.
"The Chief wants her able to talk, Vasily," the officer said, ignoring Sam as he faced off with his subordinate.
"Can't see why," a third voice chimed in. Sam glanced sideways to see a burly female soldier approach them from the other side of the bridge with a grenade launcher slung over her back and a shotgun in her arms. There were blood splatters all over her face. "Just kill her. If she's working with that bastard, it'll get him out of hiding."
"And the might of Atlantis behind him." The officer turned to the female soldier, unsurprised by her arrival. He gestured to the vast city tucked inside the cavern. Some parts were lit up in flames, Sam saw now. Distantly, she even thought she could hear the sound of gunfire. "This will be nothing if her people learns she's dead. Alive, she's of use."
"A shame." The female soldier only shrugged. Then she met Sam's eyes and grinned. "I wouldn't mind putting a bullet in her head." With slow, deliberate steps, she approached Sam, leaning down until her foul breath was inches away from Sam's face. "Like I did her friend just now."
"Colonel—" Verlo said warningly, but John didn't listen. He'd already crossed to the end of the room and wrenched the door open and hurried inside an identical machine room. It was empty, so he hurried to the next door. Before he could open it, however, Verlo restrained him. "Wait!"
"I can't." John pushed him off, going for the door. He was faster than Verlo's second lunge for his arm, managing to wrench it open and enter in one smooth motion.
But then he stopped.
In the middle of the barely lit room, Hailey laid in a rapidly growing pool of her own blood. She was wheezing, her eyes barely open as she noticed John in the doorway.
"Col—" She coughed, blood spilling out of her mouth. She was clutching her stomach, her hands bright red and shining eerily in the dim light. "Fucking—twice—"
Her eyes closed.
Shocked into steely discipline, John checked the room quickly with Ronon and Matthews before crouching down beside Hailey. There was still a pulse, but it was unstable. She'd been hit twice, both times with a shotgun – that much was clear. While her armoured vest seemed to have taken the brunt of it, some of the pellets had managed to sneak around the edges.
"Damn," John muttered as he tore off Hailey's vest, jacket and armour. Blood oozed out over his hands as he felt for the entrance wounds. "You couldn't have waited a couple of years, captain?"
There was no answer.
John blew out a breath and used Hailey's jacket to press on the wounds. Beside him, Matthews and Ronon stood quietly; the latter's expression murderous.
"The female soldier is returning to the others, and it looks like Colonel Carter has regained consciousness," Verlo said, peering out a nearby window. "Colonel Sheppard, this is our chance. Their attention is—"
John was already on his feet. He'd found his field medkit and now flung it towards a stunned Matthews. "Put pressure on her wounds and radio Daedalus. Verlo, get your back-up down here now. I'm going out there."
Striding towards the door, John cocked his weapon and made sure he had a full clip loaded. Ronon followed without a word. John paused for a moment and looked back at Verlo, who was now crouched down next to Hailey and Matthews. "She lives, you got it?"
Sam would kill him otherwise.
"You have my word, Sheppard." Verlo used one hand to help Matthews press hard on Hailey's wounds while the other picked up his radio. "Go."
Nodding curtly, John turned and exited the building.
On the other side of the bridge, the Genii woman was approaching Sam, a shotgun in her arms. John tensed, bringing his sidearm to eyelevel as the woman leaned down into Sam's face, talking to her. His finger found the trigger, preparing to fire as he saw Sam glance sideways towards him—
—and then Sam's hands locked around the Genii woman's head, and she kicked out the feet from under her, pulling her to the edge of the bridge with a roar and strength John didn't know she possessed.
Before the other Genii had a chance to react, Sam began to bash the woman's head into the metal grating. At the glint of raised weapons, John and Ronon immediately zeroed in and pulled the trigger. The officer went down with one red energy shot, his shotgun clattering to the edge of the bridge before soaring down into the abyss. The second soldier turned towards the source of the gunshot, his rifle raised, and John let out four consecutive shots. In a silent yell, the man fell down to his knees.
But he was still moving. In slow motion, John watched him struggle back to an upright position and he didn't think. He squeezed the trigger again and again, until the man – finally – lay slumped against the railing with unstaring open eyes.
Coming out of his stupor, John heard his heart pounding fast and hard. He let out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding, and swept his eyes back to Sam. She sat back from what looked like a bloody mess, and met John's eyes.
A million emotions surged through him. John's face remained stoic, his neck tense, as he lowered his weapon.
"This one's a top priority," Verlo told the medical officer leaning over Captain Hailey's unmoving form. Before this mission, Dahlia had told him to do whatever he could to ensure the relations between Atlantis and the Genii were left strong. Given the captain's courage – and Sheppard's veiled warning – it was the least he could do. The Atlantean captain, Matthews, paid close attention to them. Apparently, their ship wasn't able to beam them up yet.
"Sir, we've got reports from the other groups in the city." Gavin, his 2IC, approached him. "They're facing heavy resistance, but they're in position for stage three."
Verlo glanced towards the window and sighed. He'd never gotten an answer whether Colonel Carter had managed to put the charges in place or not. "Tell them to hold out. I'll check the situation."
"Yes, sir." Gavin retreated to a corner, issuing orders through his radio to the other pockets of loyalists in the city. Verlo watched as the medical officer continued his treatment of Captain Hailey, Matthews hovering nearby, and then turned towards the exit.
There were three Genii bodies on the metal bridge. An unharmed Colonel Sheppard was searching the officer's pockets while Colonel Carter sat in the background, eyes closed, and Ronon covered them. She looked beaten up, but on his approach she opened her good eye and gave him a fierce look.
"What's the situation?" Carter asked, wincing as she tried to get to her feet.
Curiously, Verlo had expected Sheppard to be at her side immediately to offer his support, especially given his previous erratic – and perhaps foolhardy – behaviour, but he remained where he was, turning the dead officer's pockets inside-out.
"Rathorn's people are putting up a very strong resistance, but our people are ready." Verlo hesitated for a moment, feeling bad for the woman struggling to her feet. "Eh, did you manage to—"
"Found it," Sheppard interjected. He stood up and showed them a black box in his hands that looked a little like the Atlanteans' radios.
Carter smiled. "We better get to a safe distance, Commander. Rathorn won't be able to ignore this."
On the Heads Up display, the plasma beam weapons tore through the Wraith Hive ship's aft section. One part of the ship broke off, the hit triggering secondary explosions spreading out from the point of impact. For good measure, Marks sent off another shot of the Asgard weapons and watched as the beam hit home. The Hive ship exploded in a burst of energy, silently but grotesquely beautiful.
Cheers sounded on the bridge.
"Status update," Caldwell said out loud, breaking through the cheers.
"Shields at 53 %, missiles and railgun ammunition down by 40 %," Marks reported, pulling up the necessary information on his screen.
"Minor hull damages on aft and starboard sections," Telman said from the science station behind them. "A few electrical fires, but they're under control. No casualties."
"We lost an F302, but the pilot managed to get out," Marks continued. "He's been recovered. Titan wing is returning to ship."
When no one else said anything, Caldwell's face finally lost some of the tension in it and he gave everyone a small smile. "Good work, everyone."
Marks shared a grin with Cooper. This was how fighting the Wraith with a ZPM-powered Daedalus was supposed to be. Perhaps the time had finally come when they didn't have to get their asses kicked without a fight.
"Sir, I'm reading multiple explosions beneath the planet's surface," Telman said, his voice sobering. It brought them back to business again. "Power outputs from the underground city have just gone dark."
"Get me Sheppard on the radio," Caldwell ordered, returning his stare to the Heads Up display. Giving him a better view, Marks moved the ship through the debris field over the planet and entered a geosynchronous orbit. "Colonel Sheppard, this is Daedalus. What's going on down there?"
It took a moment before there was a reply. "Sending Rathorn a message. And most likely handing Radim his victory on a silver platter." But Sheppard didn't sound happy about it. Marks didn't understand why until his next words. "You all done up there? We've got casualties."
Any good feeling they'd felt was gone. Caldwell's eyes darkened. "Stand by, Colonel. We'll have you up in a second."
The colonel turned to Marks, who didn't need any extra orders. He quickly brought down the shields, and Telman completed the circle.
"I've transported them directly to the infirmary." Telman's voice was quiet, sombre.
No one said anything for a moment. Then Caldwell sighed and rubbed the ridge of his nose. "Stand down battle stations."
"Rathorn was able to escape through the stargate, along with about a platoon of soldiers and the councilmen who'd been working with him," John said, staring at his own fingers drumming on top of the table.
He was in Daedalus' briefing room, having cleaned up and gone through the resident doctor's post-mission check-ups. The other members of his team, with the exception of Sam and Hailey who were in the infirmary, had already left following the standard debrief. Now it was just the two of them: him and Caldwell, whose demeanour was solemn.
"Verlo says the surviving Wraith ground troops went with him, along with about a third of the Genii's nuclear warheads. His people managed to see the gate address before the stargate closed, but when they checked the other planet, Rathorn was long gone."
"A waypoint," Caldwell noted.
John stopped drumming his fingers, instead fisting them restlessly. "Yeah."
"Well, Daedalus will keep monitoring the Genii home world in case the Wraith return. Otherwise the Genii will have to relocate to one of their colonies, if they have one." Caldwell sighed slightly and leaned back in his chair. "I'll have Carter put out the word on Rathorn once she's back on her feet. If a Genii has started to collaborate with the Wraith, something's up. Since the same Genii wanted to capture Carter, chances are that it's got something to do with Atlantis. Or at least us."
"When hasn't it?" John countered, feeling annoyed. "Every damn year, there's something new. We never get any rest, do we?"
Caldwell eyed him quietly, causing John to look away. Unconsciously, his fingers began to drum again. The room was silent, awkward even, for a minute before Caldwell broke the silence.
"At least our alliance with the Genii is strengthened. Before Dr Hendricks cleared him for return to the planet along with a radiation treatment plan, Radim made a promise that whatever we need, we'll get it. He was very appreciative."
"Good for him." John's hand fisted again as his teeth gritted. "That's why we do this. To please Ladon Radim."
At that, Caldwell raised an eyebrow. "Sheppard—"
"I know, I know," John interjected quickly, knowing he'd let too much slip. He pushed away from the table and got to his feet. He couldn't dampen the sarcasm in his tone, however. "Today's a great victory, given the shitty circumstances we wound up in. Thank you, sir. I'll keep that in mind."
He began to walk away towards the exit, but Caldwell's second insistent "Sheppard" made him stop and sigh.
Without turning back, John said tersely, "Hailey's in bad shape. Your doc may be good, but she'll need to go to Atlantis to recuperate. What's your cover story with Xiaoyi?"
"Responding to an imminent Wraith attack on a friendly planet, as relayed by one of 'my' informants," Caldwell said. It was clear that he was allowing John to change the subject. Why, he didn't know. "My crew is already altering records in case someone's checking."
"Lucky for you the Wraith showed up, then." John looked across his shoulder, raising an eyebrow. "And how does that explain Hailey's bullet wounds?"
Caldwell's lips thinned. "Friendly fire."
John snorted humourlessly, turning back towards the exit. "Not far off, is it?"
The Daedalus infirmary was dimmed and quiet save for the heartbeat monitor doling out monotone sounds. At least they told Sam it wasn't time to lose hope. Hailey could still get through this. The doctor seemed to think so.
"You should get some sleep."
Sam took her eyes off Hailey's still form and glanced towards the entrance. John, showered and changed, shuffled inside with his hands deep in his pockets. He stopped at the end of her bed, skirting his eyes towards Hailey.
"She'll be here in the morning."
"I know." Sam sighed, lowering her bandaged head to the pillow, and stared at the ceiling. "I just can't relax. It's my fault she got hurt. We should've just waited for Daedalus to beam us out."
John eyed her for a moment, rolling a little uneasily on the balls of his feet. "How's the head?"
"Numb. Concussed." Sam chuckled humourlessly, noting that John had effortlessly dodged the pitfall of whether or not she was to blame. He was good at that. "Doc pumped me full of painkillers. Can't feel much."
"Yeah, know the feeling." John ran a hand through his hair, not quite meeting her eyes. The sight of that familiar action sent a real smile to Sam's face. As silence fell between them, however, she sobered.
"What's the sitrep on Rathorn?"
"Missing, along with his Wraith buddies," John said. "But you shouldn't worry about that now. You've been through a lot the past thirty-six hours. You need rest. A break."
Those words made her eyes begin to burn suddenly, and Sam stared back at Hailey. She looked so frail and vulnerable. "I promised her a spa day."
"You can take her when she gets better."
John's voice was quiet, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable. He shifted on his feet, his eyes skirting back and forth. For a moment, Sam desperately wanted him to hold her. But she couldn't ask. She didn't dare. Instead she squeezed her eyes shut, willing back the tears that threatened to fall.
Silence filled the room again. Hailey's heartbeat monitor beeped steadily. Neither Sam nor John made a move. Only when she felt her emotions were back under control, Sam opened her eyes.
John was staring at her, his dark eyes filled with indiscernable emotion, his lips thinned and his brows furrowed. It was just like when they'd faced each other on the maintenance bridge. Like then, Sam felt a chill run down her spine and her heart skipped a beat. Too many emotions passed between them. The air became heavy and oppressive.
"You're angry with me," she said, her voice almost a whisper. John raised a sarcastic eyebrow as if saying 'really?' "Because of Hailey?" He didn't reply. "What is it then?"
John's jaw tightened and he withdrew his eyes, resorting instead to pacing. Sam watched him go back and forth several times, seemingly fighting with himself, before he finally stopped and glared at her.
"Talk to me, John." Sam's eyes began to water again. So many things were still unsaid. Right now, she couldn't handle another secret. "Please."
"I am mad at you," John said simply, pointing his finger at her almost childishly.
He was still holding back, though. She could see it. Feel it. He was struggling. Why he didn't just let it all go, she didn't know. She knew she deserved it. She'd deserved it for a long time.
"You're my CO, Sam," John continued, still speaking in a frustrated tone. "You've pulled some crazy shit this past year, but also done a lot of good things. Because of that, if you say 'jump', I'll say 'how high'. Even if I don't like it, I'll do it because I know you've got a good reason."
Slightly confused, Sam raised an eyebrow. "So… you're mad at me because you trust me?"
"Partly." John glared at her again, his jaw locked tightly. It seemed like it pained him to admit as much.
And for a split second, she thought she knew what he wasn't saying.
"Oh." Sam's throat thickened, and her heart began to race. "Um... Good to have that cleared up."
Silence fell between them again, awkward and tense. With nowhere to go, Sam began to skirt her eyes back and forth, lingering only occasionally on John. He stood locked in one place, but slowly, his shoulders began to lose some of their tension and his eyes didn't look as intense.
Eventually, John sighed and he sounded resigned. "Next time you wanna be all heroic and stuff, at least give me a heads up. You kinda killed my routine back there on the bridge."
"Your routine?" Despite it all, Sam smiled. The humour was like a valve release. Familiar and cathartic, like walking through a waterfall and coming out clean on the other side.
"Yeah…you know…" John scratched his head, looking a little embarrassed.
Sam chuckled and, for a moment, everything seemed like it was back on track. Like all moments, however, it passed and evolved into another awkward silence.
"Um… I should probably get some sleep too," John said finally, shifting on his feet. "Been a long day."
Sam glanced at Hailey again, worried. She almost jumped out of her skin when John's hand suddenly covered hers.
"She'll be all right," John said quietly. His thumb caressed the ridge of her knuckles. His eyes were once more indiscernible, or that's at least what Sam told herself. What she saw in them…was one of those things they'd never been allowed to talk about.
"I know," said Sam thickly, a lump forming in her throat again.John nodded, squeezed her hand, and then let go. After saying goodnight, she watched him leave the infirmary without looking back, and her insides twisted.