Day 294-301: "There's a time for everything."
Things were going according to schedule. The thought pleased her as she passed through the busy production floor of the factory, where the workers were quick yet efficient. A few sneaked glances at her, but were quick to turn away. She approved of that. Time was of the essence. None could be wasted on trivial matters. You either worked or you didn't. That was the rule of law.
"I will be back in two days," she told the man haunting her steps – the manager of the factory. She casually handed back a clipboard where she'd put down her signature on a number of work permits. "Make sure— Ough!"
Three small children pelted across the aisle from the right, almost running into her. Their hands were filled with cloth-covered mechanical parts fresh from the machines. She was forced to halt mid-stride, startled.
"Oi! Get back here, you brats!" The factory manager caught hold of the last child by the scruff of his neck and pulled him forcibly back to stand still in front of her. The other children had quickly disappeared among the many workstations. "Apologise!"
The boy, no more than six or seven, was scrawny and filthy, his work uniform barely a proper fit. On one side of his face was a large bruise. He stared pointedly at the floor, clutching the mechanical parts tightly to his chest. "I'm sorry, Madam Ypresa. Please forgive me."
She wrinkled her nose and looked away briefly. Orphans.
"You're forgiven. Get back to work," she said, and the boy slunk away for the first few steps before breaking into a run. Around them, work continued as normal, even as more than before sneaked glances their way. Ypresa took a deep breath and straightened her back, then turned to the factory manager with narrowed eyes. "Get your people under control."
The man nodded hastily and bowed out of her path. "Of course, Madam Ypresa. I apologise deeply. The boy will be punished."
"Not like last time, Mr Jolson. We cannot afford to draw any more attention to this place than there already is." Ypresa began to walk again, her heels clicking on the concrete floor. Especially with the commissioner already inquiring about our sudden influx of advanced resources and Ancient technology, she added inwardly.
"Yes, Madam. I will keep that in mind."
They reached the exit and the factory manager unlocked and opened the heavy door for her. She stepped outside into the cool, late evening air. Darkness had already fallen over the factory district, with the Tikwa capitol glittering just above the rooftops in the distance.
"Have a good evening, Madam." The factory manager bowed again and returned inside at Ypresa's dismissive nod.
She turned back towards the street and saw her horse-drawn carriage waiting. The sight was welcome. It had been a long and tiring day. Now, she just wanted to go home to her family and enjoy a glass of wine with her husband before bed.
"Straight home, Rae," Ypresa told her driver as the footman opened the door for her.
Ypresa stepped inside the dark carriage and settled down, immediately pushing off her high heels and sighing in pleasure. The door closed, the carriage rocked into action and she looked up…
…and caught the flash of a face before someone threw themselves at her from the shadows and knocked her out.
Tall, broad-shouldered and lean, Commander Rathorn had dark narrow eyes that were set deep in his face. His once neatly trimmed beard was ragged and clumped together in places. His uniform was in tatters, burnt to a crisp at the edges, and hung limply off his shoulders. His breath reeked of alcohol and his eyes of the fiery craziness that burned in the horizon.
"What you need, Captain, is a motivator."
He stood in the shadows, Carter kneeling at his feet, naked, bound, bruised. A single stream of light shone down from above. Their features were jagged and covered in black.
Hailey fought against the restraints, her own hand twitching for the weapon she normally wore. She knew what was coming. This time, she would stop it. She just had to—
"No!" Hailey cried out hoarsely and stared as Carter crumbled to the ground, gasping for breath, the sound like an awful rattle. Blood burst out like a red mist, then started to pool beneath her. Anger came easily, red-hot and fiery as the horizon. "You fucking bastard! I'll kill you!"
"She is wearing armour, isn't she?" The man, grinning, stepped around the prone form of Hailey. He reloaded his weapon and cocked it. Fire shone in his eyes. "Cooperate, Captain. That's all we ask."
Cold, clammy hands on her neck. A pointed nail scraping down from her chin to her racing pulse. Another presence emerged out of the darkness, its cold breath like death.
"That's not going to work, sir," the new, raspy voice said. Female. Cocky. "She's a fighter, this one."
A gun cocked.
The surroundings changed. Cold, damp air rose from the dark abyss beneath them. Hailey stood alone on the bridge. In the distance, the fighting had stopped. Only the heavy beats of her heart pounded in her ears.
"Look me in the eye, Captain."
Every muscle tensed. Hailey's lungs struggled to get enough air. She knew what was coming next. Her voice was hoarse, thick with tears. "No."
"Turn around, coward."
Her body moved of its own accord. Hailey struggled, fighting the pull, but she couldn't stop it. She couldn't do anything, not even stop the tears flowing down her cheeks. "No, please…"
The other woman laughed, pointing her shotgun at Hailey's chest. "There's only one way to take down a fighter."
Hailey screamed –
– and jerked upright. Everything was black around her. For a moment, she looked around in panic, expecting to see that female Genii's face looming over her, but there was nothing. She was in her bed on Tirana. The Genii capitol was far away. It'd just been a dream. Just a dream…
Breathing heavily, Hailey stumbled quickly out of bed and crossed the short distance to the water jug they kept indoors. Her hands were shaking as she poured herself a glass of cold water, spilling most of the contents over her hot fingers.
The air in the room was cold against her clammy skin, but it woke her up fully. Hailey welcomed it. She still looked across her shoulder for that sneering, gleeful face just outside her reach.
She gulped down the water and set the glass down on the table with a long sigh. Her heart was still hammering in her chest when she turned back towards the bunk bed.
In the top bed, her bunkmate stared at her in the darkness. "Another one?"
"Go to sleep, Kath." Hailey's voice turned harsh as she started pulling on her clothes in quick, jagged motions.
"…You should talk to the colonel. This can't go on, Jenn." Kathy propped up on one elbow, her features clearly worried. She kept her voice low so as not to wake the others in their barracks. Hailey doubted there'd be any point. They all knew what was going on. They all stared at her with those damn eyes that made Hailey want to crawl deeper into her bed and stay there.
"I'm fine," Hailey said, crouching down to tie her shoelaces. She kept her eyes on her task, ignoring whatever expression she imagined Kathy was wearing at the moment. Finished, she got to her feet and picked up her jacket, her senses turning dull as a comfortable void filled her. "Get some sleep. You're on the morning shift."
Hailey ignored her and exited the cabin. Outside, the night was cold and crisp. The sky was covered in thick grey clouds just waiting to burst open with rain. Off in the distance, she could see the patrols on duty and hear the low hum of the slumbering AA railgun. None of these kept her attention for long.
Pulling her collar up against the cold, Hailey stalked off towards the mining entrance, making sure none of the patrols could see her. Every step dispelled the horrific dream – along with everything else – from her mind. In the end, she was empty.
She welcomed it.
If he chose, John could probably cut through the tension with a knife. Even in the relatively bustling hangar bay, with moving people and puddle jumpers all over, the silence that had descended around him dwarfed everything else.
On his left, he had Treya, Larrin and a platoon of Travelers. On his right, he had Radim, Massan and a platoon of Genii. It was like watching the old Cold War posters.
"So, now that you've greeted and shook hands and all… Conference room?" John stared expectantly at either party, feeling very much like a ref at a rugby match. It wasn't pleasant.
"This way, Chief Radim." Treya's voice was gracious, if not a little cool, as she gestured to the hangar bay exit. Next to her, Larrin looked like she'd rather show them the way to the other hangar bay exit, which was just protected by a layer of shielding at the moment; ships were still going in and out for supplies.
"Thank you, Councillor Treya." Looking much healthier than when John had last seen him, Radim offered a polite smile. As he moved past him, however, John could see that Radim's hair seemed to have thinned out and become a little patchy. The sight was sobering. He might still be up walking, but he'd be forever marked by Rathorn's coup d'état. Radiation sickness didn't just go away like a bad cold.
With Treya and her people taking the lead, John followed behind the Genii entourage until they reached the same conference room where Sam had made their case just a month ago. John couldn't help but be impressed they reached the room without incident. The Genii weren't exactly held in high graces around here, no matter how much Radim had insisted his faction had nothing to do with the colonial tech thefts four months ago – or how many nuclear devices he offered in return for resources and cooperation.
The two groups took their places around the conference table, with John keeping to the background. After all, he was technically here just to observe and facilitate the trade negotiation as Sam's proxy. His only mission was this: don't let them kill each other. Otherwise, Sam might kill him. Though, depending on how this turned out, he might not mind a clean death.
"Shall we begin?" Once more, Treya took initiative as the hostess in that typical let's-get-to-it attitude of the Travelers. If Radim took offense to the lack of polite small talk, he hid it pretty well.
Even so, John knew this would be a long day. The only thing that kept him going, however, was the fact that whatever happened here, it'd be insignificant compared to what would happen on Atlantis.
"You drew this for me? It's beautiful, Reika. Thank you, skipper." Smiling at the little girl propped up in bed, who already found a new piece of paper to draw on, Sam brushed her fingers across the colourful lines and circles.
Reika had taken quickly to the use of different-coloured crayons in the past few weeks, her initial ignorance of those reminding Sam that Reika's upbringing had been quite different from her own. For one thing, they didn't have crayons on Kadaria. Even so, Keller had encouraged Reika to keep drawing as a way to rehabilitate muscles she hadn't used in months. Her dexterity was much improved, even if her days were primarily spent in bed.
The most recent gift looked similar to other pictures Sam had received in the past. Circles for faces, dots for eyes, curves for smiles. Yellow and dark for hair, and lines for limbs. In the corner, Reika has insisted on Sam making a contribution. Her almost perfectly round and humanised sun, wearing a large grin, stood in somewhat contrast to Reika's more jagged shapes.
"So who have you drawn this time?" Sam eyed the girl.
"Mother and father and grandfather," Reika said without pause, her eyes already on the new shapes being drawn out on blank paper. As if an afterthought, she looked up and pointed at a figure on the drawing in Sam's hands. "And you. See?"
Sam smiled. "I see. I must say, you really make me pretty. What's this, though?" She pointed to the uneven yellow triangles pointing up from the figure's head.
"A crown." Reika's eyes traced the shape. "You're a princess because Atlantis is your castle."
The simple statement made Sam chuckle. Ever since Daniel had started telling Reika fairy tales, she'd been obsessed with princesses and dragons and handsome knights. Glamour, heroics and happy endings – they were a far cry from reality, but Sam found she didn't mind. Reika's childish imagination was a breath of fresh air.
"What does that make me?" A familiar voice sounded from the doorway. Reika's head turned up and she smiled widely as Daniel stepped inside the infirmary ward, a wheelchair pushed in front of him.
"You're the one who tells the story."
"That doesn't sound very glamorous," Daniel said, parking the wheelchair next to the bed while Sam went to find something for Reika to use over her hospital gown. He frowned. "Can't I be a knight or a wizard?"
"But you don't fight."
Reika's matter-of-factly tone made Sam laugh out loud. A spare BDU jacket in hand, she turned to Daniel. "She's got you there."
Daniel rolled his eyes and looked almost tempted to stick his tongue out at her. Instead, he turned to Reika and puffed out his chest dramatically. "Well, maybe I can be the valiant driver who make sure the little princess will reach the movie on time."
Reika giggled at his antics. "Okay."
In almost perfect synch, Sam and Daniel dressed the girl in the jacket-turned-robe, and moved her from the bed to the wheelchair. As Daniel made sure Reika was seated comfortably and that the IV line to the drug dispenser was hanging free, Sam picked up the standard hospital quilt from the bed and wrapped the girl in it. Although Reika smiled at her, Sam couldn't help but feel a little sober at the realisation that she was still very small and skinny for her age. The oversized socks on her feet didn't help removing that image.
"There you go." Sam tucked Reika's feet inside the quilt and smiled at her. "All set to go. Are you excited?"
"Yes. I hope it's the one with the dragon. He's funny."
Both Daniel and Sam grinned, their eyes meeting momentarily. Ever since Private Durani had stepped forward with a very impressive children's cartoon library on her portable hard drive, those caring for the Kadarians had insisted upon showing them to the children every day after lunch. It served as a very good way of putting their minds off everything else.
Speaking of which… Sam's insides churned uncomfortably as she crouched down in front of Reika's wheelchair. Behind it, a dark shadow now crossed Daniel's previously contented face.
"I've got to go to an important meeting now, but I'll come say goodbye before I leave tonight, skipper." Sam reached out and caressed Reika's cheek with a soft smile that belied the stormy feelings contained within her at the moment. "Let me know how the movie goes, okay?"
"Okay." The little girl smiled back, and then looked up at Daniel. "Giddy-up!"
The command did its trick. Daniel and Sam both chuckled, dispelling the momentary feeling of dread. Getting up to her feet, Sam winked at Daniel. "You heard the Lady, chauffeur."
"Alright, second star on the right and straight on 'till morning." With some dramatic effect, Daniel pushed the wheelchair into action and Sam watched them leave the room with growing trepidation. Once they were gone, her hands fisted tightly and her insides grew hot.
An uneasy feeling ran down Woolsey's spine as he crossed the threshold from the laboratory next door. Despite his rather frequent visits down here in the past week or so, he never got used to the sight of the three Sun Tzu survivors encased in the Ancient stasis pods. They were, however, never his true target.
Xiaoyi stood silently in front of the left pod, face raised to stare at the small, scrawny body of another Chinese woman within. She didn't acknowledge him. In her hand, she clutched a leather-bound book tightly, her knuckles white.
As he moved closer, Woolsey saw that she was miles away, locked in some world to which he wasn't privy. Eying the book suspiciously – this wasn't the first time he'd seen it – he stepped up to her and cleared his throat loudly.
Xiaoyi visibly startled, her eyes swinging around at him wildly. But it wasn't her panicked, haunted eyes that stunned him. It was the tears on her cheeks.
"Uh, I'm sorry." Woolsey withdrew his eyes respectfully, then went to his pocket and fished out a handkerchief. He held it out in her general direction, but it remained untouched.
After a moment, he looked back and saw Xiaoyi glare at him, her tears gone, but her cheeks flaming red instead. He awkwardly returned the handkerchief to his pocket. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"What do you want?" Raising her chin defiantly, Xiaoyi moved both hands behind her back, hiding the book from his view. Noting the action and filing it away for later, Woolsey straightened his spine.
"I heard Dr Huang was willing to talk today. Did she share anything new about the circumstances that led the Sun Tzu to Pegasus?"
Xiaoyi's lips thinned. "No. She talked mostly about home and where she grew up." A shadow passed Xiaoyi's eyes quicker than she could hide it. "However, it didn't last long before Dr Mackenzie had to intercede."
The implications of that made Woolsey sigh. Although they were fortunate to have an experienced psychiatrist from the SGC present, the progress made in the last seven weeks was minimal, at least when it concerned the survivors' mental health. Physically, Keller said, they were fine – with the exception of the three who'd eventually wound up in stasis pods because of debilitating health. The remaining two alternated between good days and bad days, and, lately, it'd been mostly the latter.
"We'll have to give them time," Woolsey said, one hand grasping the other in front of him, while at the same time paying close attention to Xiaoyi's response. "It can't be easy having to relive that journey…"
Xiaoyi didn't reply. No words were really necessary. The scraps of information Dr Takahashi had finally managed to decrypt from the Sun Tzu's black box a week ago was enough to give Woolsey nightmares.
The surviving crew from the alien attack on Earth had spent nearly seven months on that ship trying to cross from Milky Way to Pegasus on barely-running hyperdrives, which were presumably damaged in the alien attack. Even with extreme rationing, they'd run out of food a few weeks before they reached this galaxy. How they'd survived…he didn't want to know.
Slightly nauseated, Woolsey shifted on his feet and saw that Xiaoyi was once more lost in her world. The hand holding the leather-bound book had trailed down to her side. Holding back a frown, he cleared his throat and gained her attention.
"Perhaps we should return to your office. There are a few things I would like to go over with you before today's council meeting."
"Of course." Xiaoyi's features smoothed and her manner became all about business. She didn't even give the stasis pods behind her a second look as they left.
He found Larrin alone on the Vestige's observational deck. Everyone else had adjourned to the conference room for the second part of the negotiations. Trusting Treya and Radim to handle the rest on their own, John had excused himself after lunch and gone here instead.
"Impressive sight." His voice broke the silence of the observational deck. In front of the large window at the end, Larrin looked back at him. John nodded towards the view outside as he approached her. "You've been hard at work."
Orbiting the small star in the distance was the majority of the Traveler fleet. They looked like blips on a radar; mere shadows against the yellow star backdrop. If he hadn't seen the sensor logs on the command centre earlier, he wouldn't have known there were also dozens of solar panel satellites already orbiting the star. Quite a feat given that they'd just started less than two weeks ago.
"We're efficient once we have a common goal." The words were delivered dismissively, yet John detected a note of pride in the depths of Larrin's tone. "Besides," she continued, "we're also setting up a colony on the second planet in this system. With the dyson ring, we'll have access to renewable energy, which is a step up for us. No more nuclear dependence."
"Except for nukes," John pointed out lightly.
Larrin sighed. "Yes, except for that." She suddenly shook her head in annoyance. "I don't see how you can work with those people, Sheppard. They're all backwards, ignorant idiots."
"Like Sam said, the Genii owe us." John held back a smirk. Larrin's annoyance could be amusing when not directed at him. "They might be less technologically advanced than us, but they've got the numbers and the basic resources we'll need to fight the Wraith long-term. That, and they've offered to help with the dyson ring construction."
"Even so." Larrin clenched her hands into fists. "I'd rather face a Wraith straight on than get friendly with a Genii, especially on a day-to-day basis."
"This coming from the same woman who didn't want to get friendly with Atlantis, and now look at us." Taking a step forward, John leaned against the railing stretched across the large floor-to-ceiling window. He stared at the moving ships in the distance and decided to change the topic. "Though, I still can't believe you've scrounged up most of those satellites." He glanced at her as she came to rest against the railing next to him. "Where'd you salvage them?"
"Here and there. You'd be surprised how many abandoned or dead planets carry satellites in orbit. Based on the blueprints and samples we received from Atlantis, it was a pretty standard procedure to construct additional collectors and solar panels."
"Wait." John frowned and gave her a pointed look. "Exactly how many abandoned high-technological planets do you know of? We've just encountered about a handful. That's with access to the Ancient database."
Larrin smirked. "Everything's got a price, Sheppard. I'm not about to give up our primary repositories just like that." She looked him up and down, trailing her tongue along the tips of her teeth, and stepped a little closer. "I might be persuaded, though."
John snorted, albeit uncomfortably. "Nice try."
Stepping out of his comfort zone, Larrin chuckled. "As if I would try anything on a taken man." The words made John shift uneasily on his feet and not meet her eyes. It didn't go unnoticed. "You're not—even after last—?"
Clearing his throat, John stared resolutely at the Traveler fleet in the distance, a mixture of feelings going through him. "We're taking it one step at a time."
Larrin grinned. "Does that mean—"
"No, we're going slow." John rolled his eyes. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Larrin."
"Oooh, touchy." The words were reminiscent of his previous visit, which put John further on edge. Larrin, however, simply winked at him. "I think it's good, Sheppard. I'm happy for you. People deserve to have someone special, especially these days."
With the last three words, there was the barest tremble in her voice that made John give her a second look. Before he could ask, however, Larrin had composed herself and put on another wide smirk. "So… Sam never mentioned why she couldn't come today."
"She had other business to attend to," John said. An uncomfortable feeling of disquiet filled his veins as he looked back at the Traveler fleet. "Council meeting. Really important."
"We've run multiple simulations on the shield system. So far, they've all been successful. However, we won't have a real idea of how well the upgraded system works unless it's combat-tested."
Standing in front of the wall-mounted screen inside the conference room, McKay showed several diagrams and level outputs to support his statements. Shen surveyed them carefully, although she wasn't proficient enough to understand them completely. Still, Dr Takahashi had confirmed that McKay's work was valid and that was enough for her.
"What's the power drain compared to earlier?" Carter's question drew Shen's attention.
While the appearance of Carter at the meeting was expected with Caldwell absent, Shen could feel her body tense up every time the woman made herself known. It had happened a few times so far, especially when it came to the latest developments in the Sun Tzu issue, which they'd covered earlier. Carter had seemed very interested in whatever the survivors had revealed until now, a fact that didn't escape Shen's notice.
Was it something she would try to use against her? The question hovered uneasily at the edge of Shen's mind.
"There's a 5 % increase on a normal day, and about 20 % increase when the shield's fully activated, which would cut down the ZedPM's reserves by at least a couple of decades in the long run." McKay rolled his eyes and said, "Not that it'll make a major impact on Atlantis. She'll still be standing for at least four or five centuries with the current ZedPM."
"Thank you, Dr McKay. You've done an excellent job." Feeling the need to take back control, Shen gave him a nod and cut short any further elaboration.
She'd expected some kind of reaction from Carter or Woolsey, but the two didn't protest, nor did anyone else. They just fell into attentive silence as McKay sat back down again. Carter didn't even look at her.
That scared Shen more than anything.
Clearing her throat, she quickly busied herself with the laptop in front of her. "If there is nothing else, I suggest we move on to the next item on the agenda." Shen forced a smile that a few others – thankfully – returned, then sat forward in her chair. Her insides began to churn uncomfortably as she caught sight of the title in front of her. "Item 102/09: status of on-going medical treatments and current inventories. Miss Rey, could you introduce the topic?"
"Thank you, Miss Xiaoyi." The middle-aged redhead, who served as head of the five-month old Human Resource and Finance department, straightened in her seat and pulled up a spreadsheet on the wall-mounted screen. "Reviewing the latest budgets and inventories has shown that we've spent more than 50 % of our medical resources in just the past two months alone. Although this could be explained by extraordinary circumstances that couldn't be predicted, such as the attack on New Kadara and the arrival of the Sun Tzu, it has nonetheless turned into a serious issue that we need to address."
"Dr Keller, would you please elaborate?" Shen asked, gesturing to the young doctor on the other side of the table.
"Yes." Keller licked her lips and stared nervously at everyone seated around the conference table. "Um, although we've been able to supplement our original inventory over the past months with medicinal herbs from our Pegasus allies, the supplies we received in the SGC evacuation are running low, especially when it comes to targeted drug delivery, specialised medication and non-reusable equipment. We're researching ways of either replicating pharmaceuticals from Earth or making them from scratch, but so far we're coming up a little short."
"Have you found anything helpful in the Ancient database?" Once more, Carter asked the questions. Shen tensed.
"We've found some alternatives that we can use, but we're still lacking ingredients to create even a fraction of the recipes in there." Keller sighed, wringing her hands slightly; she looked pained. "…If we can't replenish our rare medical supplies soon, I will have no choice but to start stepping down treatment in order to save some of those items for the future. We don't know what might happen and we need to be prepared. Still, I'd rather avoid that, so I'm open to options."
"There could be some device in this city that we haven't discovered yet." The suggestion came from McKay, who looked extremely worried at this news. "We've only covered, what, 20-30 % of what this city has to offer? There are still a number of devices we could look into more closely—"
"There is no time for that." The words slipped out of Shen's mouth before she realised what she'd said. Confused looks turned to her, with the exception of Woolsey and Carter, who both narrowed their eyes. Eager to redirect, she took a breath and said, "This has once more become a matter of survival for us. There have been – and still are – many patients in Dr Keller's care that require specialised treatment. That means experimental and rare medication. If we go through our reserves at the same pace as of the past two months…we'll run out within weeks. Isn't that right, Doctor?"
"Uh, yes." Keller still looked slightly confused.
Shen straightened her posture and summoned every sliver of conviction into her voice. "There have been primarily two groups of patients with extraordinary needs. The three Sun Tzu crew members that were previously in medical comas have already been moved into stasis pods, thereby saving us precious supplies. That leaves the second group of patients: the Kadarian children. Miss Rey, could you show us the list of supplies currently required in their treatment?"
Rey complied quickly, having anticipated her request. The list sprung up on the wall-mounted screen, automatically scrolling down to the bottom line.
"Strong pain reliefs, experimental drugs, nutritional IVs – these are just a tip of the iceberg." Shen saw some of the council members were nodding contemplatively at her words. That boosted her confidence somewhat. "Dr Keller, how much time do you believe remains of the children's treatment and rehabilitation?"
"Uh…" Keller looked wide-eyed at her. "At least three or four weeks. Some are progressing faster than others, though." She narrowed her eyes slightly. "But we have no way of knowing exactly what the long-term consequences of the experimental treatment will be. They might go into remission once we take them off the drugs."
To the side, Shen saw Carter's expression tighten. She could see the muscles work in the colonel's jaw and knew from experience that at any moment, there would be an outburst.
"However, we've taken all of this into account," Keller said, her voice heating up a little. "Once we get a breakthrough in our research, we'll be able to make our own medication from original samples. We're also making new nutritional IVs from the old ones, and—"
"Doctor, while I admire your optimism, this issue will only be resolved if your research works. Do you have a deadline on when that might occur?"
"Of course not." Keller looked outraged. "You can't force medical science. We don't get immediate results like fixing an electrical circuit and a computer code. We have to go through trial and error, which could take—"
"So your answer is 'no'," Shen stated, her insides clenching. She understood Keller –even sympathised with her – but this was their reality. Time was running out. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but you said it yourself: if we cannot replenish our medical supplies soon, we will run out in a few weeks at our current consumption level." She sighed. "It seems to me that our only option is to revise the treatment plan for the Kadarian children who, currently, constitute the majority of our medical expenditure."
"…What do you suggest?" Carter's question was more like a statement, her tone deadly calm – like she knew that Shen had something in mind. The thought made her uncomfortable. She didn't like being predictable. Too dangerous. She also didn't like the implication in Carter's tone, or the delivery. An emotional outbreak would've been better.
"The Tikwa Administration has offered their services. They are willing to accept the Kadarian children as humanitarian refugees."
Sam wanted to laugh in derision at Xiaoyi's solution to what she probably called 'the Kadarian issue'. Her hands clenched tightly, hidden from view underneath the tabletop, while she forced herself to stay calm.
Getting emotional in this council would get her nowhere. The past had taught her that. She wasn't sure who'd support her anymore. Even Woolsey was an uncertainty these days, considering the amount of influence he'd seemingly garnered after returning from Tirana.
From what educated rumours told her, he was now the number two on Atlantis, and he'd never outspokenly disagreed with Xiaoyi since the time he'd been booted off to Tirana. Whether that was all a game or a genuine alliance with Xiaoyi, Sam didn't know and she wasn't sure she wanted to find out. She'd promised John not to get swept up in politics again.
But listening to Xiaoyi talk about finances in a matter that was clearly humanitarian… It pissed her off.
"Welcome back, Colonel. Have a nice trip?"
Still combat-clad, John suppressed a wince as he stepped up to the operations console Chuck was seated behind. "Nice enough." Seeing Chuck's slightly arched eyebrow, John realised he hadn't suppressed the wince entirely. "Torren threw up all over my brand new pants. Had to request new ones." He gestured to the dark spots on his standard black uniform pants, hoping Chuck wouldn't pick up the faint scent of engine grease from when Larrin took him on tour of the satellite constructions. The half-dignified snort told him he'd succeeded.
"Sorry to hear that, sir." Chuck seemed to struggle to keep down his continued amusement. "Children, right?"
"Yeah…" John sobered, his eyes finding the closed conference room doors across the gate room. The table outside containing drinks and slices of fruit was untouched. He wondered if that was a good or a bad thing, given that the meeting had started nearly two hours ago.
"They're scheduled for a break soon," Chuck said, giving John a knowing look. "Want me to notify you, or do you wish to wait?"
Shifting uneasily on his feet, John considered it. If he left now, he might catch Reika and Jackson down at the mess hall with the other children. Sam could always tell him the news in case they didn't travel around first – they had a tendency to do just that. But if he stayed, he might—
The decision was made for him. Across the gate room, the conference room doors suddenly opened and people started filing outside to the drinks and fruit table in groups of three and four. John tensed.
In one of the groups, someone laughed loudly. Others smiled. They parted and John saw Xiaoyi behind them, smiling too as she talked inaudibly to them. More smiles and laughs.
Sam was nowhere to be seen.
"Shit…" The curse slipped past his lips before John could think twice. He ignored Chuck, who tensed next to him, and began to walk towards the conference room.
Then he stopped. Sam appeared in the open doorway, her expression dark and edgy. It took a moment before she noticed him. Eyes locked, she shook her head twice and moved slowly towards the drinks table.
It wasn't much, but John relaxed by a fraction. That'd been their sign when no decision had been made yet. There was still time.
And judging by the looks she sent Xiaoyi's back, Sam had a plan.
Suppressing a smile, John glanced back at Chuck. "You can let me know when they're done for the day."
"Yes, I have a report on that in my office. Excuse me for a moment."
The moment Xiaoyi broke away from her group of cohorts, Sam seized her opportunity. She walked unhurriedly through the OpCentre in Xiaoyi's wake, who left the door open as she went to search for the aforementioned report.
Sam stepped inside the office and calmly closed the wooden door. The click gained Xiaoyi's startled attention.
"You know damn well that the Tikwee are nowhere near as medically advanced as us." In the privacy of Xiaoyi's office, Sam's voice turned harsh and all pretence of previous compliance was gone. She chose her words carefully. "If you send the children there and they go into remission, they're as good as dead. Are you really so willing to let more people die? Hasn't there been enough?"
Sinking into her seat behind the desk, Xiaoyi's eyes glinted. She took a moment before she answered, giving herself enough time to adjust and let that smooth mask cover her expression. "As you yourself stated some time ago, Colonel Carter, we're at war. Rationing is a necessary evil and casualties are to be expected."
The ridiculousness of being faced with her own words as an opposing argument made Sam snort. "In that case, I'll bring up the Geneva Conventions. Those are still valid, right?" Before Xiaoyi could respond, Sam pushed on, crossing her arms and pulling up to her full height. "Fourth Convention: We have an obligation to render aid and protect civilians during wartime. If we refuse, we wilfully cause great suffering to eight innocent children's physical and mental health, which would be considered a grave breach of the treaty and punishable as a war crime."
Eyes widening slightly, Xiaoyi didn't respond.
"Or maybe I should remind you of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child? Since this is technically an international base, we'll have to follow the principles of the UN. Right?"
Sam narrowed her eyes, her jaw tightening. "Every child has the right to survival, to develop to its fullest, and to be protected from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation. Were you aware that the Tikwa Administration uses orphans in mining on Tikwa 2, or that many of the children sent to certain orphanages on Tiwka disappear without a trace?"
Again, Xiaoyi didn't respond. Sam thought she might detect a trace of shock in the woman's eyes, and her thanks went back to Master Togar's personal insight, when she learned of today's meeting agenda, and Daniel, who knew more about international laws and conventions than she did.
Sam leaned down on top of Xiaoyi's desk. "Atlantis is still legally an international Earth base. If you send those children away now, you're breaking treaties all our nations have signed." She paused and lowered her voice, her anger dialling back down to a dangerous simmer as she prepared to leave. "Take it from me: it won't go unnoticed."
I won't let it.
The threat was left unspoken in the air, and – for some reason – Sam knew she'd won.
"If I may say so, Colonel… Well played."
The low-voiced comment had barely time to register in Sam's mind before the transporter doors closed and Woolsey flashed away to his destination. She turned, startled, and stared in shock at the closed doors.
Compared to the courteous small talk between them since they'd left the council meeting, Woolsey's last comment sounded much more…significant. It made her uneasy. Paranoid. Wondering if she'd just painted a bull's-eye on herself again.
Then she recalled O'Neill's words about the man and his non-intrusive and supporting behaviour on Tirana during his stay there. And she started wondering if maybe his words held another meaning entirely…
"Sam!" A young girl's voice broke through her mind.
Blinking, Sam turned to see Reika being pushed down the corridor with one hand by John, who held the rolling IV stand in the other. They were coming from the direction of the small mess hall on this level.
"Hey, skipper." Sam's face immediately transformed into a smile as the two of them came closer, the recent turn of events coming to mind once more. She reached down and ruffled Reika's hair. "Where've you been off to?"
"We're on a quest." Reika smiled, the blanket wrapped tightly around her. She seemed to be shivering a little, making Sam notice the slightly cool temperature. The weather outside was changing, affecting the atmosphere inside. "John's found a treasure."
"Oh really?" Smirking, Sam met John's eyes. He was dressed in his standard black BDU, most likely recently returned from his mission to the Travelers. "What kind of treasure?"
"It's a secret." John's eyes twinkled. He then pushed the IV stand towards her. "Something magical."
"It would only show up when I'd eaten my food!" Reika sounded both miffed and excited.
"Now I'm wondering if I should be worried or not." Grabbing the IV stand, Sam walked alongside John as he pushed the wheelchair forward. "It's not something furry, is it?"
"My lips are sealed." A mysterious, but very familiar, smirk crossed John's face. There was a different spring in his steps that told Sam the good news had travelled fast, which calmed her. She didn't want to bring up the issue in front of Reika, who she'd tried to shield from the politics and bureaucracy ever since she'd regained consciousness.
They walked through the infirmary corridors until they reached Reika's room, where the temperature was thankfully warmer. While Sam helped Reika get settled in bed, John went to the corner of the room and picked up something from the shadows.
"Yes!" Reika almost shouted impatiently, both giddy and a bit tired-looking at the same time. Two trips – one to the movie and one to eat dinner – in one day were apparently enough to wear her out, but it was nevertheless a vast improvement from just last week.
"Alright. You better close your eyes, kiddo." While Reika squeezed her eyes shut, John turned back towards them with a tray in hand. Sam's own eyes widened once she saw its contents.
'How?' she mouthed at John, who just shrugged as he put down the tray on Reika's bedside table.
"Open them," John told Reika, who complied dutifully.
For a whole second, Reika's eyes were wide…until they scrunched up in confusion. "What is it?"
Sam burst out laughing at the momentary disappointment on John's face. John recovered quickly, however, and held up one of the three glasses he'd brought with a smile in Sam's direction. "This, kiddo, is Sam's favourite food. It's something rare and magical called Jell-O." He scooped up a piece of the blue jelly, still grinning. "And today you both deserve it."
"Because we're princesses?"
John snorted, then sent Sam a teasing wink that promised her she'd never hear the end of it. "Yeah, because you're princesses."
The hallways were dimmer and colder this evening. In the windows spread out at specific intervals, Woolsey could see another storm brewing outside the city. Dark clouds were gathering. Occasionally, there was even the flash of lightening. If he didn't know better, he'd say it responded to his mood. Whatever hint of satisfaction he'd felt after the council meeting was gone now. In its place was trepidation.
Woolsey came to a halt outside an open doorway. Light streamed out from within along with sounds of people. Not too many. Not enough to arouse his curiosity under ordinary circumstances.
Except these weren't ordinary circumstances. At least, he didn't think so. There were too many odd things happening; odd in the way that they differed from before and Woolsey's instinct always told him to pay attention to changes, even those small and seemingly insignificant.
Like the recent stockpiling and off-world trading missions, the humanitarian help extended to various allies, the increasing number of meetings with the Tikwa Administration…
While he was happy to see Xiaoyi become more involved in Pegasus, Woolsey couldn't shake off a feeling that'd grown more persistent in the past few months and that'd eventually led him here.
Collecting himself, Woolsey straightened and strode into the room with a purpose. No one noticed him immediately, giving him time to look around. The room looked like a standard science lab, with a mix of Ancient and Earth technology. It wasn't entirely what he'd expected, but he pushed the feeling of uncertainty away once he spotted his target.
Dr Takahashi sat at what seemed to be his workstation, completely immersed in a computer in front of him. All around him were wires, boxes, devices and more computers.
All that faded to the background when Woolsey spotted the image on Takahashi's computer screen: the schematic of a zero point module. Next to it was a window containing what seemed to be very complex code.
And on the table next to the computer was a briefcase emblazoned with the Tikwa Administration logo: something small and seemingly insignificant.
"Mr Woolsey?" One of the other scientists addressed him from behind.
Takahashi seemed to jump in his seat. He swivelled around quickly; the computer screen and the briefcase disappeared behind his back.
Unsettled, Woolsey cleared his throat and initiated his cover story. "Excuse me for not announcing myself. I dropped by to have a word with you, Dr Takahashi, if you wouldn't mind. I was told that I could find you here."
The Japanese man looked startled for a moment, then seemed to recover. "Of course, Mr Woolsey. Just one moment."
With more calm now than before, Takahashi turned back to his computer and hit a few keys on the keyboard. The screen faded to black, covering the image of the ZPM schematic and the complex computer code. The briefcase was left alone. It was already closed.
Woolsey followed his every step, the feeling in his stomach growing more persistent than ever.
"… Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness…"
Leaning against the doorframe, Sam smiled softly at the sight of John stretched out next to a sleeping Reika, reading out loud from his copy of The Art of War. His voice was low and soothing. The kind that he'd reserved sometimes for Sam in the dark of night when they'd just lain in bed and talked. The kind that showed he cared.
Peering down at Reika, John smiled and brushed a piece of hair away from her face. She didn't stir. "…and they lived happily ever after."
Grinning, Sam pushed off the doorframe and let the door close automatically behind her. "I'm pretty sure that isn't the original ending Sun Tzu had in mind."
"Just keeping it in her world." John smirked and closed the book, but didn't move from his spot. He seemed completely at ease, which made Sam happy. It'd been so long since she'd seen him like that on a regular basis. Reika had a magical healing effect of her own, apparently.
Which only made leaving her harder and harder, especially now that they'd gotten Xiaoyi's written reassurance that Reika wouldn't be relocated until Keller was absolutely sure that she wouldn't go into remission. And then she and the other children would be relocated to Pegasus settlers that had a familiar rural lifestyle to the Kadarians – not to Tikwa – unless someone else stepped forward to claim them.
Sam sighed. "I hate to ruin the moment…"
"…but you wanna know how it went with our friends before you leave," John finished. His expression grew more serious and his arm tightened slightly upon the pillow above Reika's head.
John blew a breath and kept his voice low. "Well, they're progressing, if anything. The Traveler ships have finally been equipped with Genii nuclear warheads. No one's killed each other. Radim and Treya even reached an agreement on the division of labour on the dyson ring once Radim signed a statement that his faction had nothing to do with the Genii thefts four months ago. And Larrin apologised for tying me up for blood samples." He smirked humourlessly. "Turns out they just wanted to be able to create better interfaces for the Ancient tech. The ATA gene therapy's given most of them terrible headaches."
Sam hid a smile. "Still, she could've asked nicely."
"Second that." John rolled his eyes, then met her eyes seriously again. "Bad news is that the estimated deadline on the dyson ring is two weeks. At the earliest. Even with the Genii chipping in."
Running a hand through her long bangs, Sam sighed. "Well, I guess it's the best I could hope for given that they only started a few weeks ago. But I have a really bad feeling about this. It's been too quiet too long. Daedalus should have found the superhive by now."
John hummed in response. "It's a big galaxy. For all we know, the superhive's developed superior sensors and kept track of Daedalus, making sure they've been out of reach all the time. Anything's possible for them with enough power, right?"
"That's the general assumption, at least." Pacing a few steps, Sam stopped and grabbed hold of the bottom of Reika's bed. "But that'd mean they'd either burn through ZPMs very quickly or expand their complement to account for the power drain. I don't know which scares me most."
"Wouldn't mind learning where they'd gotten so many ZPMs in the first place," John said lowly. "We'd be stronger with a bigger arsenal of our own."
"Goes without saying." Sam smiled. He sounded almost like Ronon – bigger and meaner was better, according to him. "But so far we're safer by staying hidden."
"Yeah, I know." Sighing, John looked down at Reika again and brushed his thumb across her mop of pale hair.
For a moment, none of them said anything, then Sam reached down to rub Reika's leg, careful not to wake the girl. "Well, I better go. Hailey's waiting for me. We're taking another look at the weapons component of the Ascalon before Larrin comes to pick it up and bring it to the dyson ring."
"All right." John smiled, still seated comfortably in the bed next to Reika. "Tell her 'hi' from me. And remember to get some sleep, too. Both of you. You look like you need it."
Sam rolled her eyes and made a mock salute. "Yes, sir."
There was something comforting about the feel of metal underneath her skin – the yielding screws tightening under her pressure, the sense of accomplishment when she sat back and saw the finished product, something she had done. It kept the other things at bay. It was easier to get lost in the work. She didn't have to feel anything.
Hailey swept the back of her hand across her sweaty brow, the temperature in the Colonel's cabin high due to the simmering fireplace. From outside, she heard the low hum of the naquadah generator that powered the Colonel's computer on her desk – and the other electrical devices in the mine camp. It grounded her, and gave her something to listen to as she worked.
Shifting in her seat on the floor, Hailey reached for the tablet computer lying nearby and hooked it up to the wires attached to the square device she'd been working on. As soon as the power came on, she initiated the code she and Colonel Carter had put together and watched the numbers and letters scroll down the screen. It stopped at the last line with a question: INITIATE?
Hailey pressed the Y button and looked up as the square device came to life. The image on her screen changed, displaying the stargate satellite currently in orbit above Tirana.
It was similar in many ways to the SGC's dialling computer, except it provided a 3D image of the satellite as it moved around. A small camera had been attached to the satellite as well, providing Hailey with a square window in the corner where she could see the planet's dark and glittering landscape – it was a cloudless night. The video wasn't meant for targeting, though, as a separate programme was currently crunching the necessary numbers.
Once the area around the satellite had been mapped out, a separate grid image appeared on Hailey's screen. It immediately picked up the debris Daedalus had left in orbit for target practice. Inputting their position, Hailey calculated a new vector for the stargate satellite and engaged the thrusters.
The satellite performed exemplary. There were no hitches, no malfunctioning components, and no error messages. All their testing – and Hailey's work on the square device, which was a combined transmitter and control computer – had led them to this.
She supposed she should smile, but nothing came to her. Instead, Hailey made a few more tries before she powered everything down, found something minor that could become an issue given certain circumstances, and set to work on fixing it.
She didn't even notice when Carter showed up or remembered what they talked about; she probably just smiled and said the right things. Then at one point, she'd left the cabin and gone back to her bed.
Back to her nightmares.
Shen peered outside at the OpCentre where the graveyard shift sat quietly and alone in the dimness. Shang was in charge, but even so, she closed the shades and turned back to the other occupant of her office. "Did he show any interest in your work?"
"Nothing that seemed a cause for concern, Madam Xiaoyi," Takahashi said. He stood stoically and straight-backed next to her desk, his chin raised. In the scarce light of her desk lamp, his features were half covered in shadows and his eyes glittered. "I believe he might have seen my computer screen at the time, but he asked no questions about it. Unless he is personally familiar with computer code or has a photographic memory to relay what he saw to another scientist, I do not think he knows what I was doing."
Shen bit the inside of her lip as she retraced her steps to the desk and leaned on the edge. "I would rather be sure. Do you still monitor his personal computer?"
"Yes. There has been nothing suspicious to report." Takahashi paused. "Do you wish for me to delve deeper? It would require a more direct intrusion into his computer than a mere virus."
After a moment's pause, Shen shook her head. "No. It is too dangerous. Even if he doesn't know anything yet, he is paying attention."
He had ever since he returned from Tirana, maybe even before then. Wherever she went, she felt like his eyes followed. If not his own, then someone working with him. This place had eyes and ears all over. Shen wished she'd been able to control all of them.
A wave of tiredness washed over her. Shen ignored it, pushing off the desk to pace a few steps and keep herself moving. A familiar weight of stone fell into the pit of her stomach as she forced herself to push the suspicions aside for the moment; there was nothing she could do about it. Yet.
"How is your work progressing besides unexpected visits?" Turning back to Takahashi, Shen crossed her arms and stopped pacing.
"Very well. Our calculations are almost done. The viruses have been spread in the system. No one has detected them so far." Takahashi subtly pushed his chest out and kept his eyes in front out of respect. Shen appreciated the gesture.
"Good. And your search of Atlantis?"
Takahashi's face fell for a split second, his head bobbing forward as if going into a bow. "I am sorry to say that it is still fruitless. She's hidden the ZPM very well."
Anger flushing up inside her, Shen turned back to her desk and regarded the jade figurine – her last Earthly possession from her parents – and the leather-bound diary on the desktop. Her lips curled into a grimace. "Keep at it. We're running out of time."
"Hai, Madam Xiaoyi."
With a curt but deep bow, Takahashi left through the office backdoor. Shen remained by her desk for a long while, her eyes fixed upon the diary.
In the darkness of his living quarters,
Woolsey took off his glasses and rubbed the ridge of his nose in frustration.
His database search had come up empty. Again. No matter what kind of keyword he tried or how much digging he did, he just couldn't find it. The Ancient entry on Aleira was gone. If he hadn't read it two weeks ago with his own two eyes, he would've brushed this off as a piece of his imagination, but to find no trace of it at all…?
Woolsey rubbed his tired eyes, his vision blurry. This was becoming too complex. So far, all he had was many separate oddities – small things and whispers – but none that'd gotten him any closer to the bigger picture. In reality, it meant he had nothing.
He put on his glasses again. The text on the computer screen became visible: NO RESULTS.
With a decisive punch of a button, Woolsey closed the search window and disconnected from the Ancient database. He ran a program to erase his digital footprints – something he'd acquired through one of his sources among the scientists once he'd learned he'd been bugged, presumably by Xiaoyi's people – and then sat back in his chair, fingers stapled together beneath his chin.
The time showed 01:12. Time to go to bed on a normal night, but this one – as well as every day of the past few weeks – had been anything but normal. Too many new questions had arisen. Too many puzzles to solve; including whatever had been in that briefcase in Takahashi's lab.
Woolsey turned to stare out through the open window at the now calm, glittering ocean in-between the city's towers. Rising up in the distance, the control tower stood seemingly alone yet powerful among all the other towers. Lights were on in many of the windows from top 'till bottom. Other restless souls like him, most likely.
"What's your agenda, Shen? And why is the Administration involved?"
The whispered questions went unanswered, like the many others on Woolsey's mind. It would be yet another restless night.
Tall, broad-shouldered and lean, the Genii Commander had dark narrow eyes that were set deep in his face. His once neatly trimmed beard was slightly ragged from a life on the run, but his Genii uniform was impeccable. He wore a large smile.
"Perhaps you need a motivator."
"No…please…" Her voice broke, her joints and limbs aching painfully, and she had to remind herself to breathe through the pain. The air was stale and metallic, permeating her senses, making her nauseous. "You promised."
He moved from the shadows into a single stream of light that shone from a lamp above. "I know. You should've listened to your peers. Don't trust a Genii."
She started crying, the tears running freely down her red, hot skin. Swift images flashed through her mind. Her children tied down to chairs and gagged, but otherwise unharmed – so far. Her husband dead on the floor in front of them.
They'd been stolen away in the night as punishment; she hadn't come to him quickly enough. All because she'd hoped the Genii civil war had sent him running for good, so that she wouldn't have to go through with her part of their arrangement.
"Now, try again." Rathorn stopped in front of her, gently slapping a leather belt in his palm. "You wouldn't want my comrade to take over, would you?"
She whimpered, shivers running down her spine as a long-nailed finger trailed up her naked arm at Rathorn's words. Cold, clammy hands came to rest on her neck. She could feel the protrusion in the Wraith's feeding hand. She cried harder.
"Come now, Envoy Ypresa." The Wraith's raspy voice sounded close to her ear, its breath cold and alien. It chuckled mirthfully, as if this was just a game. "One final time. Where is Atlantis?"