Day 308: "We're done running."
"We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it." ― Ernesto Guevara
Nobody smiled anymore. Discipline had taken over. In the Operations Centre, the technicians worked without pause trying to restore Atlantis' drives. Down in the gate room, the soldiers were growing restless. Reese could see it in both their twitches and their rigidness.
Those who'd been stunned in the assault earlier now sat lined up against the wall, under guard by Major Lorne and his men. Others paced slowly back and forth, or gathered in small groups where the laughter sounded forced, but was just a way to pass time.
She'd heard of the tension up here during Atlantis' previous bouts with the superhive. She'd never seen it up close, though, or tasted it herself. During the last times she'd been down in barracks, feeling useless and restless while waiting for news, but at the same time able to ignore what was going on much more than she could here now. Proximity: it could be a curse or a blessing.
"Think they'll come up with a plan?" Sergeant Nelson leaned against the wall outside the conference room, his eyes sharp and focused. It was a change from earlier, Reese noticed.
"Maybe." She shifted on her feet and followed his line of sight to the glass office at the other end of the gate room. The blinds were half-closed, but still able to reveal the people inside: Carter, Woolsey, McKay, Lorne and Hailey. Reese looked back at Nelson. "It wouldn't be the first time."
"Still, taking down one superhive is a bloody miracle." Nelson paused, then muttered, "Two is a fucking pipe dream."
Unable to come up with a fitting response, mostly because she agreed, Reese glanced at Ramirez. He stood quietly against the conference room door, eyes set distantly on the floor. He hadn't said a word yet. Not even an apology. It was starting to grate at her nerves, especially now that things had calmed down – for their part.
Her hands clenched. "I'm taking a walk. See if I can scrounge up some rations."
"Aye, aye, Captain," said Nelson, straightening slightly in his spot.
Ramirez, on the other hand, remained motionless…until she noticed him following her with his eyes down the grand staircase and out of sight. There was a whole lifetime in those eyes. They haunted her.
Perched on the edge of Xiaoyi's desk, Sam idly noticed Matthews descending the grand staircase, before tuning back to what Rodney was saying.
"— it's the only option that makes sense. Submerging the city will hopefully bleed off whatever the Wraith throw at us while we wait for the cavalry."
Standing with his arms crossed, Woolsey looked to her for confirmation.
Sam nodded. "It's worked in the past with the Asuran stargate satellite."
"Except the superhive's capable of destroying entire settlements and turn the ground into molten rock," Hailey added tonelessly. "By comparison, it's ten times more lethal than the Asuran plasma beam."
"So we'll boil?" Lorne raised an eyebrow. Sam could see the scepticism on his face, but knew he was too much of a professional to let that affect him negatively.
"If the shields fail: like lobsters," Rodney said, unenthused. "And we'll turn the ocean into a radioactive hotspot. Give it a few months, and we'll start reeling in gigantic aquatic life forms."
"We can't help it." To the side, Sam could see Woolsey frown at her words, but thankfully he didn't protest. This really wasn't the time to have environmental concerns, even if they were valid. The needs of us outnumbered the needs of them. "With the Ascalon's power source burnt out, we're going to have to buy all the time we need. The Traveler fleet won't be here for at least four hours."
It was their only true hope. The dyson ring had already been a gamble due to a few faulty satellites that could break the conductive chain if they failed, and now it was down. According to the Travelers, it could be brought back online eventually, but it required the one factor they lacked: time.
"The Wraith ship will be here in less than one hour," Hailey said, again in that toneless voice that'd become like a second skin to her in the past few weeks. While she maintained a keen mind, her eyes had grown duller and less present than before. It made Sam's stomach churn uneasily.
When this is over…
"Even if we are able to hold out that long…" Rodney paused, clearly unconvinced. "… Sam, no matter how many generational ships you've managed to persuade to come, they won't make much of a difference against the superhive. Their combat capabilities—"
"— are better than they were," Sam interjected, having anticipated his reaction. "We've helped them upgrade shields and weapons. I know it might not be enough, but they're coming here primarily to give cover to Daedalus and Vestige, their Ancient Aurora-class battleship. It's been outfitted with Asgard shields, railguns and nuclear missiles. The Travelers are also in possession of drone weapons."
Rodney's mouth formed an 'O'. Next to him, Hailey smirked slightly and said, "They should be able to do some damage."
"Some damage," Woolsey noted with a frown.
Sam sighed. "Yeah. Some damage. We have no idea yet what this Wraith ship will be like besides being powered by at least two ZPMs. If we're lucky, it's only just now been outfitted with a second one and won't have had time to grow by the time it gets here."
"And if we're unlucky?" The question had to be asked, Sam supposed. Still, she hated it.
"Then the previous superhive we encountered was just the little brother, and this is the superhive we've been acquainted with in the past." She paused, giving everyone in the room time to digest that possibility. It didn't take long. "Rodney, we're going to need alternatives. You've got less than an hour. In the meantime, put Zelenka in charge of getting the drives back online."
"What's your status?" Hunched in front of the console, Caldwell stared at the video feed of Carter in Atlantis' Operations Centre. In the background, the technicians were deeply immersed in their work.
"All non-essential personnel have been evacuated to Tirana. But still no stardrive." Carter's expression was tense as she brushed a stray lock of hair from her face. "I'm considering sending everyone out to push." She sighed. "How about you?"
Caldwell cast a glance at his bridge crew, who were involved in everything from basic repairs to calculating the upcoming battle. "We're still operational. Some systems were more affected than others, but all in all, we got out of this mostly in one piece."
He still couldn't believe that, considering their past encounters with a Wraith superhive, and it almost made him wonder if there weren't some higher power looking out for them… But then again, this ship had been different. Weaker in a way, which lent credence to the hypothesis he and Carter had formed that the superhive had cut down to a single ZPM two months ago to avoid showing up on long-range sensors.
Except now there's a second Hive ship that's stopped using that tactic, Caldwell mused. Guess the Ascalon drew their attention.
He turned his focus back on Carter. "We will provide cover for you as long as needed."
Carter nodded, although he could see she wasn't happy with that idea. "Let's hope it won't be long." She paused and sighed heavily, pinching the ridge of her nose before looking up again. "Are your transporters back online? I would like to move the stargate satellite inside the city. We might be needing it later if we survive this."
"Give us the destination coordinates and we'll have it done as soon as possible." Caldwell paused as Carter gestured for someone outside the screen, then looked down when his console beeped. The coordinates appeared on a separate screen, and he transferred them to Telman's console.
"Hold on. The Travelers just checked in." Carter reached out for a tablet that someone gave her, then spent a moment surveying it while biting her lip. "Looks like they're on schedule, at least. The first ships will reach the rendezvous site in twenty minutes. The Vestige is about forty-five minutes behind them. Once it's there, they'll make a coordinated jump to this location."
"What about the Wraith?" With the superhive's improved long-range sensors, Caldwell suspected it might be able to penetrate subspace and detect the approaching Traveler ships. However, they'd had no proof of this yet, nor did they know what the Wraith might do if they detected Atlantis' cavalry.
Carter understood his unspoken concerns. "The superhive's still on course. Two more Hive ships are trying to follow in its wake, but they're at least a day behind and that gap will widen once the superhive picks up speed. No sign that they're veering off for the Travelers."
"Might be best to give the Travelers a head's up nevertheless," Caldwell said. After all, the fleet was their only hope right now unless they managed to come up with something else.
"You're crazy." McKay was staring at her as if she'd grown an extra head. They were in his lab, surrounded by a few others but left very much to their own devices.
"You have a better idea?" Annoyed, Hailey refocused on her computer screen. It displayed a large schematic of an ordinary Hive ship's interior. She figured that even with the size difference, the layout on board the superhive would be pretty much the same. "Look, they don't have shields, so if we could transport the stargate inside its hull – let's say here," she pointed to a spot on the schematic close to the engines, "and strap a nuke to it, the detonation should be enough to tear it to pieces."
"Besides the incredibly precise calculations required for such an operation, how exactly do you propose Daedalus find a spare moment in the battle to drop shields and execute the transport?" Beginning to pace, McKay threw his hands up in incredulity. "They're going to be torn to pieces before they have a chance to say 'make it so'."
"They could do it just as the ship exits hyperspace," Hailey said. "There will be a gap between the superhive's exit and the moment it's able to fire weapons. We could use that."
"Maybe, if we had a live Asgard on board Daedalus capable of making that precise calculation in less than five seconds." McKay paused, eyeing her disapprovingly. "You've watched too much Star Trek."
Hailey blew an annoyed breath. "Fine. But it's still an option if Daedalus is able to find a gap in the battle long enough to see it through. If the other ships ran cover in the meantime…"
"They're not going to last long, but yeah, it could happen." Still not looking entirely convinced but getting there, McKay stopped and turned fully towards her. "Okay, it's not like we have anything else, so let's try it."
He reached for his earpiece radio, presumably to report back to Carter, but was interrupted by the citywide speakers.
"All hands, this is Colonel Carter. The Wraith ship's ETA is ten minutes. Report to battle stations."
As the colonel's voice died down, McKay stared helplessly into the air. "But… we need more time."
"We'll have to make do." Picking up her tablet computer, Hailey grabbed hold of McKay's jacket and pulled him along. "Now, where do you store the nukes?"
Sam went to lean against the railing of the balcony overlooking the gate room. Woolsey was already there, staring down at the forty-odd soldiers still gathered around the stargate with an indecipherable expression.
"If we survive this…" she began.
Face grim, Woolsey nodded without looking at her. "I know." He glanced at the closed conference room doors. "There will be changes."
"Good." Sam straightened, glancing towards the wall-mounted screen in the Operations Centre. The red dot on the sensor map – TARGET-2 – was just about to reach them. "It's time."
Although she expected him to follow her, Woolsey remained at the balcony while Sam approached Chuck, who was back at his usual spot behind the main control console. "Raise shields."
"Aye, ma'am." Chuck touched a sequence of buttons, and the only sign that the shields were up was the dip in power levels displayed on his computer screen.
They'd kept the shields off until now to save power for the descent unto the planet. They'd also reconnected the stargate so that they had an escape plan if everything went to hell. But they were done running. This was their home and they were going to defend it tooth and nail until they were out of options.
"Signal the fleet that we are about to be engaged. Then go to radio silence," Sam said. In the slightest hope that the superhive had not picked up the Traveler fleet on sensors, radio silence would keep the Wraith from learning about them, or at least their battle strategy. She then turned to Zelenka, seated behind another console. "Doctor, let me know the second drives are back online."
"Y-yes." Zelenka pushed his glasses further up the ridge of his nose. "We're running another test shortly. Should give us a better estimate."
Sam opened her mouth to comment on it, then refrained. She knew they were doing the best they could. They didn't need further badgering or reminders about time being of the essence.
Instead, she nodded curtly. "Good."
"Hyperspace window is opening," Banks reported aloud, drawing everyone's attention.
Sam's eyes swerved back to the wall-mounted screen where TARGET-2 came to a sudden halt, approximately 10,000 kilometres away from Atlantis. The blue dot signalling Daedalus immediately moved into position between them.
The Wraith Hive ship was considerably larger than the one they'd destroyed earlier, yet still not fitting entirely to the specifications of the superhive they'd both hunted and been hunted by for the past nine months.
But it still supports our hypothesis on the superhive attempting sensor camouflage. Going from several to one ZPM would decrease its size since it wouldn't have enough power to sustain its previous mass. Caldwell's hands tightened slightly around the armrests. This one's larger than the last one, though, and it hasn't been equipped with multiple ZPMs for more than a couple of hours. Perhaps the previous one was only outfitted with one ZPM all along, whereas this one…
A knot tightened in the pit of Caldwell's stomach as he stared at the bulky ship on the HUD, coming to the only conclusion he could. "Hello, old friend."
"Regeneration speed is up by approximately 60 %. Hull shows considerable signs of radioactive damage from hyperspace travel," Telman reported from his station behind the Captain's chair. "I'm highlighting the weak spots on the HUD."
"Marks, fire at will. Give it everything we've got." Surveying the situation, Caldwell knew that halting the ship's regeneration immediately was vital, even if it meant expending their armaments sooner rather than later. Plus, they needed to take advantage of the lull before the Wraith fired back. Although not really necessary, he added, "Target the weak spots."
There was a barely perceptible ripple in his chair as Marks fired off two consecutive Asgard plasma beams, followed by four nuclear missiles. They all soared across the debris-laden field, carefully targeted so as not to be interrupted by debris, and then dug into the Wraith ship's hull. Explosions occurred around the impact point, branching out along the hull in a cluster network of secondary detonations.
Telman spoke up immediately. "They're relocating power to impact site. Other weak spots have reduced regeneration speed."
"Again," Caldwell ordered.
Marks followed up with another shot of the Asgard plasma beam weapons, hitting a separate weak spot. More explosions, more ripples, and another report from Telman that regeneration was speeding up in the new impact area.
Marks complied. Same procedure. Same reports.
By now, Caldwell started to frown. Why didn't the ship fire back? Had the Wraith battle damaged them more than outward appearance let on? Were they still letting the additional ZPM or ZPMs fulfil their purpose, which was growing and expanding the organic hull and armaments? They couldn't possibly know the Ascalon was inoperative, so what was it?
Before he had a chance to evaluate the probabilities, Telman called out, "Sir, multiple targets on sensors! They've launched Wraith darts."
Caldwell reached for the internal communication button, prepared to call Titan wing into action—
"Massive energy build-up!" Telman reported, his voice rising in volume. "Regeneration is put on halt."
Caldwell changed tactics. "Major, fire off another shot and prepare to pour everything into shields—"
"Incoming fire from Wraith darts," another of the science officers called out. "They're swarming the debris field."
Keying his internal comms, Caldwell shouted towards the microphone. "All hands, brace for impact!"
Moments later, the ship jolted from the combined fire from the Wraith darts. They didn't make nearly as much of an impact as a Hive ship's weaponry, but their continued fire could nevertheless drain the shields.
"Railguns!" Eying the HUD, Caldwell watched the nearly hundred Wraith darts spread out between Daedalus and the superhive, and then start being picked off by Marks' targeted railguns. They were holding a covering position, which would ordinarily be the cruisers' task, except there weren't any here. Still, they were no match for Daedalus' weaponry, so why…?
"Hive ship's opening fire, starboard battery! Energy readouts project the yield at 9 gigatons." Telman paused, his voice intensifying. "That's approximate to a Mark IX, sir."
A yield like that could potentially bleed their shields dry in seconds, perhaps even with a ZPM connected. Caldwell's hands tightened around the armrests. "Brace for impact and prepare to return fire."
No one questioned him. They set to work while Caldwell stared at the HUD, where the Wraith plasma shots soared towards them, tearing through Wraith darts and debris like they were no hindrance at all.
Then things blacked out for a moment. Caldwell was thrown out of his chair, unable to hold on during the barrage onslaught.
He struggled back on his feet, electrical fires bursting out all over the bridge, the smell acrid in his nostrils. He coughed. "Status!"
"Shields are down to 25 %!" Marks reported, coughing too. "Multiple hull fractures. Some are venting atmosphere."
"Evacuate the adjoining compartments and seal them off," Caldwell ordered, setting his eyes on the HUD once more. The darts were regrouping as the superhive shifted position, turning its broadside away from Daedalus to make a smaller target.
"Hive ship is regenerating again," Telman reported. "Surviving Wraith darts are opening fire. Some are making a break for Atlantis."
With their weakened shields, even the darts' barrage could drain them dry if they could keep it up long enough. Caldwell gritted his teeth and began to say, "Return fire—"
"Sir, Atlantis just transmitted a message," the communications officer called out above the general chatter and noise. "Drives are back online and they're going to land on the planet momentarily."
The tension in his neck lessened for a second. Eying the barrage headed their way, Caldwell took a moment to think, then nodded and turned to Marks. "All power to shields. Hold position until they've landed, then take us out of here, Major. Do it in a disorderly fashion. Let the Wraith think they've scared us away."
Marks smirked slightly. "Yes, sir."
Having descended through the atmosphere and fended off Wraith darts at the same time, Atlantis finally hit the ocean floor with an abrupt jolt. Sam held on to one of the consoles, reminded once more that John wasn't in the control chair. He had a certain finesse that Vega lacked, at least at the moment.
"Phew. Still in one piece, ma'am," Vega reported over the radio. Sam couldn't help smirk slightly at the honest sound of relief in the captain's voice.
"Thank you, Captain. You may step down." She gave the silent technicians in the Operations Centre an acknowledging gaze. "We will take it from here."
"Aye aye, ma'am. Vega out."
As the radio disconnected, Sam addressed the room at large. "Keep the shields up. Report the moment the Wraith make a move and locate those Wraith darts that crashed onto the planet. I don't want any surprises. Also, monitor the Traveler fleet and let me know when they've joined up with Daedalus."
The technicians all replied in the affirmative. Satisfied with that, Sam turned to Rodney and Hailey, who'd arrived earlier during Atlantis' descent. She gestured them towards the glass office, where Woolsey and Lorne were already seated.
Closing the wooden door for privacy, Sam eyed Rodney and Hailey critically. "So what did you come up with?"
"Originally, a 'gate buster' strapped onto a stargate and beamed inside the superhive by Daedalus," Rodney said. Sam raised an eyebrow, if nothing else impressed with their creativity. Rodney folded his arms tightly across his chest and glanced at Hailey with a hesitant expression. "But with their recent damages, they won't be able to hold out long enough without shields to manage that, so…" He paused and swallowed uncomfortably.
Hailey took over, her eyes tinged with a bit more emotion than earlier today. "We send in a Jumper carrying a couple of Mark IXs, and detonate them within the superhive."
Sam tensed, frowning. There were far more implications in their proposition than what was being said explicitly. For one, they knew the superhive possessed superior sensors; the attack on Kadara had proved it could detect invisible puddle jumpers. Which meant…
"A suicide run," Sam stated.
Hailey nodded. "The way I see it, it's our only option. Unless we leave the city behind and resettle somewhere else."
Crossing her arms, Sam's lips thinned. "We're not there yet."
"But… a suicide run?" To the side, Woolsey frowned deeply. Clearly, he wasn't rejecting the idea, which at least spoke well of his more pragmatic mind-set, but he wasn't convinced either.
Lorne looked up at Sam. As a fellow member of the military, he knew what the call to arms might and certainly could entail. She knew only too well; after all, she'd been part of some of those missions at the SGC. They'd never expected to return from the infiltration of Apophis' invasion fleet either, but they'd lucked out. Perhaps it could be done here as well.
"With the fleet running interference, an invisible Jumper could theoretically make it inside and back again," said Sam, addressing Woolsey. "The Mark IX can be detonated by remote control, or a timer if the Wraith are jamming transmissions." She paused, giving Rodney and Hailey a second look. "I don't like it either, but sometimes it's a necessary evil."
Woolsey sighed, running a hand across his now tired face. "I understand."
"One Jumper might not be enough, though," Rodney said quietly. His eyes were solemn, yet pained; undoubtedly knowing he was proposing an even greater tragedy. "You know, 'don't put all your eggs in one basket' sort of thing."
Sam closed her eyes briefly. He was, of course, right. It didn't make her task any less difficult to carry out. Ordering a few soldiers to a near-certain fatal mission was horrible, but even more…?
Sam sighed. "How many Jumpers do we have in the Bay?"
Rodney hesitated. "Enough to spare a couple, but it's not just that. We don't have enough Mark IXs to equip more than one Jumper."
"That's not a problem," Hailey interjected, meeting Sam's eyes. Tension lines appeared on the captain's face. "We have a deal with the Genii." She paused, eyes narrowing. "They owe us."
The throbbing hum was starting to grate on her nerves. It was the only sign they were currently under attack by the superhive apart from some science mumbo-jumbo on a computer screen that Reese didn't understand. She would've liked it better if there at least were some jolts to keep her mind and body busy, but the city's shields were too good for that. At least for now.
"Never thought I'd see that face again." Ramirez's mutter was low and tense. Startled, Reese stared at him, not having heard him say a word all day.
She followed his gaze down to the gate room where Commander Taron was exchanging a greeting with Carter, who didn't look entirely pleased with his presence either. She barely shook his outstretched hand and then introduced him to Woolsey, who stood next to her.
"Radim pardoned him," Reese explained curtly. She forgot about the hum for a moment, instead eying the large containers being wheeled to the side of the stargate platform by Genii soldiers. "Probably took pity on him for being used as a scapegoat by Rathorn."
Ramirez' eyes narrowed darkly. "Doesn't excuse his actions."
Reese agreed, but for some reason she couldn't bring herself to say it as he turned and resumed his position by the conference room doors. Her nose was throbbing, distracting her. And down below, Carter was thanking Taron and his people as the stargate began to dial up again, this time an outgoing call.
Blowing out an annoyed breath, Reese pushed away from the railing she'd leaned against and paced towards the Operations Centre, needing the distance. She caught sight of Hailey sitting behind one of the consoles, staring at her computer as if it were miles and miles away.
Should've figured she'd be like that with the Genii paying a visit…
Holding back a sigh, Reese sidled up to Hailey and nudged her good-naturedly. "Didn't expect presents from Santa this year."
"They had something we needed." Hailey didn't look up to meet her eyes, her tone low and faint as if her mind wasn't really present.
"Tampons and Jonny Depp?" Reese smirked, but her attempt at lightening the mood didn't have the desired effect. Hailey kept staring emptily at her computer screen with no familiar quip slipping from her lips.
Fucking Genii bastards. Reese's hands clenched tightly for a moment, the only outward sign of frustration she allowed herself. She used to be bulletproof. You took that away from her.
Hailey suddenly perked up slightly. Reese followed her line of sight to Carter and Woolsey, who had ascended the grand staircase and now approached the technicians.
Realising she wasn't in her assigned spot, Reese inched backwards, intending to blend into the background. Carter noticed, but didn't comment or order her away. Rather, she almost looked as if protocols were the last things on her mind.
It set Reese on edge.
"How are the shields holding up?" Straightening a little, Carter looked at Chuck, who sat next to Hailey.
"Good. Even though the Wraith's energy weapon has a higher output than the Asuran stargate satellite beam, it's not as efficient as the latter. The water's bleeding off most of the impact." Chuck paused, checking with his computer screen. "Still, it's straining the shields. We might be able to keep this up for six hours at the weapon's current energy output, but nothing more."
"It's enough," Carter assured him. She turned to Banks, who looked up at her as if anticipating her next question. "ETA on the Traveler fleet?"
"An hour, ma'am. Daedalus is waiting for them in the next solar system."
Carter glanced between McKay, Hailey and Woolsey, her expression solemn. "Then it's time."
None answered her, but they all wore equally solemn faces.
Carter closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath before walking towards the balcony overlooking the gate room. Following the colonel's every move with her eyes, Reese tensed further. The atmosphere had changed. Something bad was going to happen. She could feel it.
"May I have your attention?" Carter addressed the soldiers stationed below by the stargate. Reese heard the rustle of clothes and combat boots, presumably from said soldiers turning to face the colonel. Carter straightened, leaning out to rest her hands on the railing. "As you know, our best offense against the superhive was the Ascalon, which has been rendered inoperable for the time being. We have, as such, been forced to come up with a new plan to take down this second superhive."
She paused, probably giving the room time to digest her words. "The mission is this: we're sending three puddle jumpers equipped with nuclear warheads to infiltrate and destroy the superhive from within the ship. The Traveler fleet and Daedalus, which will all be here in an hour, will provide cover. Although the main objective is to detonate the warheads with a timer, once inside the superhive, there is no guarantee of escape."
Again, Carter paused, her head turned down for a brief moment. When she spoke once more, her tone was hard. "Any volunteers?"
The silence that followed was deafening. Reese froze in her spot, stunned. Slowly, she turned her head towards Hailey, who rose to her feet. Before the captain could open her mouth, however, someone else spoke up first.
"I'll do it."
Reese's heart skipped a beat. Breath caught in her throat, she turned her eyes towards Ramirez, who'd stepped forward to the railing on the opposite side of the room. He looked every bit the man with a purpose.
"I got the gene therapy, so I can fly. Don't need my leg for that." Ramirez raised his chin, daring anyone to defy him.
Behind him, Nelson stared at him darkly. Then, he stepped forward too. "I'll go with him. He'll need someone to watch his back."
As Ramirez glared at Nelson, others began to voice their agreement as well from down in the gate room. Reese counted six in total, including the two sergeants.
This isn't the Charge of the Light Brigade, her mind screamed. This is—this is—
"I—" To the side, Hailey began to speak up and something twisted inside Reese's stomach.
Her hand shot out and grabbed Hailey's shoulder tightly, probably painfully, but she didn't care. When their eyes met, dull versus fierce, Reese shook her head, her gut wrenching with indescribable emotion. She felt as if her body was acting on its own with her mind watching helplessly.
For a moment, a sliver of doubt entered Hailey's bleary eyes. For a moment, Reese thought it was enough.
Then Carter spoke up again. Her voice seemed hesitant underneath its layer of hardness. "Anyone else?"
Hailey's eyes shone brightly as tears welled up, and her shoulder began to shrug out of Reese's tight grip, slipping away like feathers on the wind...slipping, slipping, slip…
And then the words tumbled out of Reese's mouth too. "Count me in, ma'am."
Carter turned to look at her, saw Reese's grip on Hailey, and her eyes softened in sudden realisation and hurt as they met the latter's. Faced with that, Hailey's shoulders slumped, her eyes turned down, and she didn't make another attempt to escape Reese's grip. She sank instead into her seat like a whisper on the wind, barely present once more.
A painful twitch crossed Carter's face, but then her features hardened again and she turned to Reese and nodded in acknowledgment.
After that, Reese felt as if her body wasn't part of her anymore. She looked around, her breath barely coming in and out of her lungs, and her mind wasn't quite able to grasp what she'd just done.
Until she met Ramirez's furious eyes across the room, her nose twitched painfully, and she saw everything with newfound clarity.
Seven volunteers. Not enough for three Jumpers, not when they had to anticipate resistance once the Wraith knew they'd infiltrated the ship. They'd need at least four per team: one pilot, one technician who could operate the nuke and two soldiers to cover said technician while he set the timer. Even that was a bare minimum, but it was all Sam was willing to sacrifice. Even now, she had to think of the future.
Is this how the General felt when he ordered everyone in the SGC to evacuate so that as few as possible were killed in the self-destruct? Is this what we need to become?
Ensconced inside the glass office for a private moment, Sam buried her face in her hands. She wished John were there. He'd be able to understand her qualms and give her the support and strength she needed.
How do I choose who lives or dies?
There wasn't an easy answer to that question. Only one. You consider the mission requirements and choose the best soldier suited for the job. That's how it'd always worked. That's what she'd been taught, and that's the way she'd run things.
With a shaky hand, Sam turned on her earpiece radio and keyed the proper channel, suppressing every sliver of doubt in her system. "Major Lorne, please report to the office."
She spotted him down in the gate room conversing with his men before complying with her order. The soldiers in his wake turned to each other, their expressions solemn. They knew what had to be done. They knew the impossible choice she would have to make.
Lorne knocked on the door before entering. Sam turned to face him, mustering whatever conviction she could. "Lee, Michaels, Emerson, Greggs and Sahid."
A testament to his professionalism, Lorne simply nodded curtly. "I'll have them report to the Jumper Bay."
"Let them bring weapons for maximum damage and crowd control. Also, if they wish to say their goodbyes to someone…" Sam paused, her voice wavering slightly. "Tell them to do it quickly."
"Why'd you do it?"
Reese had been studying the Genii nuclear devices placed inside their Jumper more closely after the briefing with Carter and Lorne, when Ramirez appeared, his tone harsh.
Straightening, Reese crossed her arms across her chest. "I think a better question is: why did you do it? You're not even cleared for duty, Sergeant." She narrowed her eyes. "Are you so desperate to go out in a blaze of glory? Like some fucking kamikaze pilot? This is some serious shit you're getting into, Ramirez."
"Think I was born yesterday? Screw you, pendejo!" Ramirez snapped, stepping into her personal space. She didn't back down, even if he towered almost a head over her, even if his presence made her tingly all over. "What I do is my choice. That's all that matters." He paused, his eyes glinting. "But you? You shouldn't be here."
Indescribable fury lashed through her veins like the snap of a whip.
"Don't presume you can tell me what to do, Sergeant." Reese paused, narrowing her eyes, feeling as if the pressure that had built up inside her these past days was about to burst out of her. "You lost any right to disagree with me the moment you broke my nose."
It was a slap in his face. She could see it and she relished it… until the second he clenched his teeth together, turned his back on her and stormed away.
This was the moment. Sam stared at the wall-mounted screen. Just a brief distance away, ten white dots and one blue dot were about to arrive at the battlefield. Up in the Jumper Bay, three puddle jumpers were standing by to take advantage of the situation.
"Hyperspace windows opening," Banks reported above the throbbing hum of the Wraith attack on their shields, which suddenly lessened in strength. "Wraith energy weapon output is down by 20 %. The superhive is repositioning to greet the fleet."
They're preparing their defence. Come hell or high waters, they're not going to give up Atlantis easily.
"Daedalus is on coming around the right flank, opening fire on the superhive," Banks continued. "Generational ships are targeting remaining Wraith darts and running interference. Vestige is on centre approach and preparing their weapons. Superhive is regenerating."
"Open Jumper Bay doors," Sam said, turning to the technicians and scientists seated in the Operations Centre. "Signal the puddle jumpers they've got the green light to move to location Alpha.
Hailey's console – the biometric sensors – beeped.
"Colonel, someone just pressurised the underwater Jumper bay on the North Pier underside. I'm picking up twelve life signs. No, make that twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five… Numbers are increasing." Hailey paused, looking up from her computer screen. "All Wraith, ma'am."
"How…?" Sam's eyes widened, yet realisation dawned on her quickly.
A look at Rodney told him he'd caught on too. "The Wraith darts that crashed. It was a ploy. They must have swum from the wreckage and dug their way to the underside of the city. The shield doesn't cover that area."
It makes sense. They don't want to destroy the city. They want to use it to get to Earth. They think there's a huge feeding ground there.
Maybe I should've told them differently.
"Major Lorne!" Sam shouted, turning towards the gate room. The man arrived in a hurry, sensing her urgency. "We've got Wraith infiltrators. North Pier, underwater bay. Twenty-five targets and increasing. Take as many men as you need and plug that hole. We'll keep you updated with enemy positions." She paused, narrowing her eyes. "You're authorised to use force."
"Yes, ma'am." Lorne nodded curtly. Turning sharply on his heel, he stormed back down the grand staircase. His voice echoed to the upper level. "Alpha, Bravo and Delta team, get your weapons and ammo – we're moving out!"
Knowing there was no point dwelling on internal security at the moment, Sam turned back towards the Operations Centre. To the side, Woolsey was still partly in shock from the sudden turn of events. She ignored him for now. "Status of the puddle jumpers?"
Chuck surveyed his computer screen. "Last one just crossed the shield. They've cloaked and are waiting for the signal. No sign the superhive has detected them yet."
"Send an encoded message to Daedalus and Vestige," Sam said. "Inform them of the plan."
Ensconced inside the Vestige's control chair interface, everything was just shy of a blur. John's mind intercepted and interpreted simultaneous messages and warnings at the same time, responding to most of them by instinct. One message, however, couldn't be left to instinct.
"Larrin?" John asked aloud, not completely aware of what was physically going on in the room around him. All he knew was that the Traveler engineers and technicians were helping him keep the ship together and out of annihilation's way.
"I see it," Larrin responded, her voice distant yet clear at the same time. "We are able to pick up the gateships' homing beacons on the sensors."
John could see it too. The battlefield materialised in his head, displaying the generational ships flying in criss-cross formations while chasing down Wraith darts, helped by Daedalus' Titan Wing. On the right flank, Daedalus – having recharged its shields – was pounding away at the superhive with Asgard plasma beam weapons and nuclear missiles, while swerving out of the way of Wraith energy weapons a moment later. And then there was him, firing off and directing Ancient drones towards both Wraith darts and the superhive, while Traveler gunners manned the railguns mounted all over the Vestige.
In between all of this, three invisible puddle jumpers were charging the superhive from three separate directions, doing their best to avoid energy weapons, missiles, debris and ships. For a moment, it looked like they would succeed. Then one of the puddle jumpers crossed the path of the superhive's re-directed energy weapons and disappeared from his mind's map. The massive explosion that followed from carrying a Mark IX, however, took at least twenty-odd Wraith darts and parts of the superhive's hull with it.
"They've spotted the Jumpers," John called out, already redirecting his Ancient drones to intercept the Wraith darts and plasma shots headed for the remaining two puddle jumpers. "Tell everyone able to target the superhive with everything they've got. We need to keep them busy regenerating rather than expending energy on weapons fire."
The message was received quickly. Daedalus changed its approach and fired off a pair of Asgard plasma beams, then repositioned and repeated the procedure even while under the occasional hits from the superhive. Four of the Traveler generational ships broke off from covering positions and shifted their energy weapons to the superhive. John followed up with ripping his drones through the superhive's dense hull, tearing off chunks of organic material that joined the expanding debris field.
The superhive's energy output refocused, pouring more into regeneration than weapons fire, but not everything. They still spewed out a hailstorm of blue energy shots, hitting all ships in range that were unable to get out in time. One of the generational ships lost shields and exploded, the remains of its hull bursting outwards to hit a neighbouring ship, which moments later sent out a distress signal.
John couldn't think about that, though, leaving it to Larrin's people. He was tracking one of the puddle jumpers, which was about to get swarmed with additional Wraith darts that appeared to be on some kind of kamikaze run. The darts crashed into each other in the Jumper's wake, attempting to pull the small Ancient ship into the subsequent explosion. They wouldn't be able to see it, but the superhive was most likely directing them. Some of the darts began to open fire, joining in the blue hailstorm from the superhive.
Even with John's Ancient drones picking off whatever Wraith dart he could, the puddle jumper didn't stand a chance. Just a few kilometres away from the superhive, it crashed into one dart, then two and three more, and ignited its nuclear device. The effect was smaller, meaning they were probably carrying the Genii's nukes rather than a Mark IX, but the explosion still dug into the superhive's hull, exposing its internal structure and resulting in secondary explosions all over the impact points.
All power shifted to regeneration and John could only stare in disbelief as the holes torn in the superhive was quickly covered with a new organic hull.
"Damn it! Exactly how many ZPMs do they have in there?" John didn't have time to get an answer, however. New information and intercepts appeared in his mind, telling him that the last hit Vestige had taken had reduced their shields to 55 %, and their drone storage was down by 50 %. Also, two more generational ships had become crippled and were currently under attack by numerous Wraith darts. Larrin was trying to communicate with him to discuss tactics, her voice frantic, but John's attention was abruptly drawn somewhere else.
The last puddle jumper was now inside the superhive.
Reese had to admit: Ramirez could fly. Not what she'd expected, given that he'd spent most of his time on grunt duty and only gotten the ATA gene therapy a few months back. But he'd been able to take advantage of the hell outside and sneak inside, even if it meant picking up some parasites along the way.
"They're still gaining on us!" Nelson shouted, observing the Jumper's HUD where four red dots were in pursuit. Outside the windscreen, the superhive's cavernous hangar bay dwarfed them by comparison.
"I know, I know! Mierda!" Ramirez swore beneath his breath as he adjusted their approach out of the incoming energy shots.
With a sharp turn, he brought the Ancient mini-drones online and fired. Two of the Wraith darts were destroyed immediately. A third tried to escape, but couldn't for long. The fourth, however, swerved out of the way at the last second, causing the mini-drone to hit a suspended platform instead. Both Ramirez and the dart resumed firing, each able to make a final, almost simultaneous hit.
Reese nearly jolted out of her seat when the dart's firing grazed the puddle jumper's port drive pod, instinctually reaching out to the chair in front of her to keep steady. Her neck snapped backwards with a sudden crash, and things became a blur outside the windscreen.
She clung on, distantly aware that Ramirez was letting out a string of curses in Spanish, but unable to focus on what was going on until everything came to a screeching halt. With a painful snap, she crashed into the chair in front of her, only held back by her seat belt. Her already broken nose hit something hard and she cried out in pain.
"Bloody great landing, Ramirez," moaned Nelson, slowly sitting upright in his seat.
"Funcionete," Ramirez responded in kind, going over the controls. Next to Reese, Airman Greggs sniggered, so she presumed Ramirez's retort was just one of his usual cocky comebacks. "Systems are still online. We should be able to fly out of here."
Reese blinked away tears of pain and focused on the flickering HUD. They were on some kind of platform. Her eyes widened; multiple life signs were converging on their location.
"Greggs, Nelson, let's go!" She unfastened her seat belt and ran back to the two Genii nukes secured in the back compartment, ignoring the blood that was starting to trail down her nostrils. "We've got incoming. Secure the outside."
Both replied in the affirmative, getting to their feet and sprinting outside after Ramirez lowered the hatch. Moments later, Reese could hear P90 weapons fire as she hurriedly unfastened the straps around the two Genii nukes.
"You stay here, Sergeant," Reese said sharply when she noticed Ramirez get to his feet and come to help her. "Make sure the systems are set to go. Wouldn't want to blow up right after take-off."
Ramirez narrowed his eyes, but didn't comment. "Aye, Captain."
Nelson appeared in the hatch opening. "You ready? We gotta move before more Wraith Drones arrive."
"Yes, take this." She handed him one end of a rubber strap and together they began to pull the Genii nukes out of the Jumper, which were fortunately set on wheels for easier deployment. She glanced back at the Jumper, where Ramirez had returned to the cockpit, but was staring back at them with a dark look. Something twisted inside her chest, but she couldn't think about that now.
"Over there." Nelson pointed to a row of Wraith darts spread out on the platform. His voice echoed in the mammoth hangar bay. "Should cause a chain reaction large enough to spread to the other levels."
Greggs was already positioned close to the entrance to the platform, firing towards whatever Wraith head popped out of the open doorway. They passed him and came to a halt underneath the first Wraith dart in the row. Gesturing Nelson to set to work since he was the one with the most technical expertise, Reese joined Greggs by the entrance and pulled up her P90.
"Nice shooting, Airman," Reese said, surveying the heap of Wraith Drones that'd already formed outside the entrance. She hunkered down, quickly taking in their surroundings.
The hangar bay was laid out like a tunnel, with each curving level containing platforms with Wraith darts and what appeared to be unfinished cruisers. They were close to the bottom, with at least twenty levels overlooking them. It wasn't the best tactical position, but they had no choice. Time was of the issue.
"Keep a look on the upper levels," Reese told Greggs. "They're excellent sniper positions. I'll cover the door."
Her radio crackled to life, Ramirez's voice sounding in her earpiece. "We've got incoming. At least fifty life signs on four separate levels, in addition to ten Wraith darts powering up further in."
"Copy that, Sergeant," Reese said, just as she caught sight of the first four Wraith Drones in the entrance.
Blue stunner shots burst out, causing her to press against her cover, which was a column supporting the level above them. During a lull, she swung out and opened fire. The first Drone of the group went down in spasms, followed quickly by a second before the last two jumped into cover.
Next to her, Greggs began to shoot and Reese startled when two heavy objects suddenly crashed to the ground nearby from above. She didn't have time to consider them, however, as more Drones appeared in the doorway. There were at least ten of them now, and they poured out despite the fact that she was gunning them down one by one.
"Reloading!" Reese cried out, sliding back into cover as Greggs took over. She ejected the empty mag and quickly inserted a new one, slapping the lid in place. With a nod, she swung out again and laid down suppressive fire as Greggs reloaded his weapon.
Everything became a blur. She didn't know time, only the constant pressure of her weapon firing and the relentless arrival of faceless Wraith Drones. Heat passed her by in the form of blue stunner shots, making her flinch for a second. It was time enough for yet one more Wraith to get out of the entrance and spread out along the wall in an attempt to outflank them.
"Agh!" That was Nelson's shout. Reese snapped her eyes back for a second, just long enough to see the sergeant crumble to the ground and reveal two Wraith Drones coming up on their right.
"Sergeant!" She turned to defend her and Greggs when the two Drones suddenly burst into humanoid fireballs. Shocked, she followed the trail of fire to Ramirez, who stood in the Jumper entrance with a flamethrower in his hands.
"The timer isn't set!" Ramirez shouted, turning his flamethrower towards the entrance Reese had been covering. More Drones caught fire, some running panicked in different directions only to be taken down by Greggs' well-placed shots.
Reacting on instinct, Reese jumped to her feet and sprinted to the Genii nukes. She flung herself down, caught sight of motion in the corner of her eye, and sent off a burst of 5.7 mm rounds across the chest piece of a lurking Drone. Not seeing anyone else on that edge of the platform, she turned her attention to the nukes.
Nelson had gotten about halfway. Recalling the little information she'd been given back on Atlantis pre-mission, she began to turn the old-fashioned knobs and switches.
Twice, she had to stop because another Drone had managed to outflank them, or was lowered down from the upper level. Meanwhile, she barely registered that Ramirez had moved from the Jumper to the column she'd sat behind and was blasting away at the platform entrance with the remains of his flamethrower.
Then she heard the whine of multiple Wraith darts. She looked up just as they swooped past overhead, culling beam on, but it wasn't aimed at them. It materialised ten more Drones.
Ramirez didn't turn fast enough. The Drones were aiming for him…when they were hit by the familiar sound and sight of a P90. Greggs yelled, pulling the trigger until he was out of ammo, but he didn't get them all. Before Reese could pull up her own weapon and fire back, the Wraith hit him with at least five stun shots.
Then they burst into flames and staggered backwards, across the edge of the platform and into the dark abyss.
For a split second, Ramirez met her eyes. In the blurred background, she saw more movement from Drones exiting the entrance past all the existing humanoid fireballs, saw another culling beam materialise five Drones between them and the Jumper…and she knew what had to be done.
"I'm sorry I broke your nose, Cap'n!" Ramirez yelled, pressing the flamethrower close to his chest, his eyes more alive than she'd seen them in weeks.
Then he was bombarded with blue stun shots.
Tears filled Reese's eyes. Her fingers moved automatically, twisting the dial back until there were just ten seconds on the clock. She stared at the fallen bodies of Nelson, Greggs and Ramirez, and at the Wraith that turned their attention on her now.
I didn't want it to end like this.
With a single beep, TARGET-2 disappeared from the sensor map. Just like that. More red dots – Wraith darts – followed, taken in the consequent blast and shockwave. Some darts immediately went into kamikaze mode, trying to take down as many enemy targets as possible.
In their wake, there were five friendlies left alive.
Cheers eventually broke out. Relieved laughter. Spontaneous hugs and tears. Someone hugged her. She thought she smiled back. She wasn't entirely sure. She couldn't stop glancing at the spot on the sensor map where the superhive's IFF signature had been.
For three-hundred-and-eight days, they'd tried to defeat the new monstrosity the Wraith had created. For three-hundred-and-eight days, the superhive's destruction had eluded them. But now, it was gone. Or at least two of them; they didn't know if there were more out there.
Even Amelia's news didn't cheer her up. "The other Wraith Hive ships have broken off trajectory and are turning back."
Nor did Lorne's news on the radio. "All targets are accounted for, Colonel. The hole is plugged."
Sam walked as if in a trance. She ordered the city to re-emerge from the ocean. She ordered damage and casualty reports. She coordinated with the Daedalus, the Vestige and the remaining generational ships to land on Atlantis for repairs. She shared the news of their victory with the rest of Atlantis, and sent off a message to Tirana, the Travelers and the Genii as well.
Then she went to the balcony for the first fresh, salty air she'd inhaled for what felt like an eternity. She leaned against the railing, watching as the remaining Traveler fleet and Daedalus entered the atmosphere in the distance and turned towards Atlantis.
The doors opened. Woolsey came to stand next to her. "You did a great job, Colonel Carter." He paused, his voice low. "The current leadership owes you a debt of gratitude."
Sam's jaw tightened. "It's not me you should be thanking."
"Yes…" Woolsey sighed deeply. "Today, those twelve have shown Earth from its best side, which is more than I can say for a few others." He looked up at her, his eyes firm with conviction. "Their bravery will not be forgotten."
Sam wanted to believe that. She truly did.
Sam was there on the pier when they exited the Vestige. Just seeing her made John smile for a moment. This was the victory for which they'd worked, bled and suffered. Despite its bittersweet taste, there was still a feeling of satisfaction. He hoped Todd was on board that ship when it blew. He hoped he wouldn't ever have to see that damn face again.
He hoped… That, in itself, was a victory. For so long, they'd faced nothing but obstacles. Now, he felt as if anything were possible.
"You're really whipped, aren't you?" Passing by him, Larrin nudged him playfully in the shoulder.
John scowled, his good mood ruined. She truly had a way to grate his nerves… With a grimace, he followed Larrin down the gangway to the pier.
Larrin strode directly to Sam, who was flanked by Woolsey and Caldwell, and then flung her arms around her. Stunned, Sam met John's eyes and patted Larrin's back awkwardly before Larrin stepped back and said, "You, my friend, are a keeper."
"We are aware," Woolsey said, smirking slightly.
Sam cleared her throat. "Larrin, this is Richard Woolsey, representative of the current leadership, and you've met Colonel Caldwell previously."
Giving Sam a second look, Larrin shook Woolsey's hand, but didn't really address him beyond a polite greeting. Once that was done, she once more turned to Sam. "Despite the circumstances, I'm glad I could finally visit this city. It's magnificent, and it flies. Not up for trade, then?"
Chuckling, Sam shook her head. In that moment, John could see how tired she was; shadows lingered in her eyes like ghosts despite her laugh. It made him tense. He'd seen that look before, long ago. Given what it'd led to, he didn't want a reprise.
"You'll have to settle for the occasional visit." Sam glanced uncertainly at Woolsey. "But first we'll have to fully formalise our agreement in the council…"
"That won't be a problem." Woolsey gave her a polite smile. "I have a feeling that after today, there will be many changes around here." He paused, his smile faltering. "Once we have…settled some matters."
Sam's eyes glinted knowingly, but she didn't comment. Instead, she turned to Larrin. "I've sent a message to the Governing Council with today's result. They'd dispatched a few ships to aid you, which will be here within two days. If you need additional people or resources for the repairs, do not hesitate to ask. I can also arrange somewhere to sleep for your people if there is need for it."
"I appreciate it, but we sleep best on our ships." Larrin smiled. "I wouldn't mind a tour of the city, though, when things have calmed down."
"I'm sure that we can arrange that," Woolsey smiled.
Despite the late hour, despite the hours spent in clean-up duty and making sure no more incidents – internal or external – would happen tonight, John found himself walking down the Atlantis hallways with Sam and Woolsey. One last visit, that's what she'd told him before sighing deeply and looking as if the weight of the world had landed upon her shoulders once more.
When he caught sight of the door flanked by two guards, John grabbed Sam's hand and held her back. She turned sluggishly towards him. "You know, this could wait for tomorrow. She's not going anywhere."
"I know." Sam gave him a worn-out look. "But I need to know, John. Why today? Why Earth?"
He surveyed her closely, his eyebrows creased in worry. There was still determination underneath that layer of exhaustion, and the promise of insomnia if she didn't see this through. The latter, in particular, made him nod. "Okay." He paused and gave her a hard look. "But then it's straight to bed, okay? You've had a long day."
Sam smirked slightly. "Yes, Colonel."
Despite the familiar inflection of his rank, John didn't feel a derisive undertone like he'd done in the months following their break-up. Rather, he sensed her playfulness and it made him smile.
They caught up to Woolsey, who'd paused in front of Xiaoyi's door. He looked uneasy, but grim; this was the task that befell those in command and he wasn't about to ignore it.
"Ready?" he asked. Sam nodded, and Woolsey gestured to one of the guards, who opened the door.
John had never been in Xiaoyi's quarters before. Judging by Sam's grimace of recognition, he knew she had. It was very Spartan, except for some Earth paraphernalia and furniture, as well as a row of orchids placed on a shelf underneath a UV light.
It felt strange. Intrusive. Yet justified. John looked around, wondering where the woman was hiding, when Xiaoyi stepped out from the kitchenette.
"Mr Woolsey, Colonels," she greeted them, then walked slowly to her couch and sat down with a cup of steaming tea. "Would you like something to drink?"
John's fists clenched. After all that'd happened, he'd expected to see a change in her behaviour, but she was as stone cold as always. He was about to open his mouth to unleash some scathing remark, but Woolsey spoke first.
"We would like some answers, Shen." Woolsey remained standing, his arms at his sides, his voice solemn. "Why did you initiate the Wormhole Drive plan, and what did you mean when you said Earth isn't gone?"
Xiaoyi's lips thinned. "I was following orders from my government."
"Your government?" Sam's words were heated. "This is an international base. They have no jurisdiction here."
"It wouldn't be the first time one nation's government has made decisions that have affected an entire world," Xiaoyi said, narrowing her eyes. John had to admit, she had a point. It didn't mean he agreed.
"When was this? With the discovery of the Sun Tzu?" Woolsey eyed her critically. John glanced at him. By the sound of his tone, the man either knew or suspected some of this. To what extent, however, John had no idea.
"Yes." Getting to her feet, Xiaoyi went to a bookshelf and retrieved a worn, leather-bound book. "The captain wrote a diary of the ship's journey since the attack on Earth. After being damaged by the alien ships, Sun Tzu escaped to a Chinese off-world base for repairs. While there, the Chinese government contacted the base through communication stones. Once they learned of Sun Tzu's survival, they gave her a mission: bring back Atlantis. My government believed it was the best weapon they had against the aliens."
"That's crazy," John said, frowning. "If the combined forces of Earth didn't stand a chance, what good could Atlantis do? Not to mention that we would've brought back the Wraith with us."
Xiaoyi met his eyes evenly. "Those were my orders."
"And you didn't question them," Sam stated. She'd crossed her arms and was now staring at Xiaoyi with a clear look of distaste. The woman didn't flinch; her face was a smooth mask of ice and steel once more.
Woolsey cleared his throat. "Does this mean the Chinese government, at least, is still alive?"
"Unknown." Not meeting any of their eyes, Xiaoyi's lips thinned. "Sun Tzu lost touch with them about three months into their journey. Their last message was a reminder of the order to bring back Atlantis."
"Sometimes, you have to decide to disobey an order." Tightening the grip of her arms, Sam narrowed her eyes. "For the welfare of the people under your command."
John agreed wholeheartedly. Xiaoyi didn't respond.
Woolsey sighed. "What of the Sun Tzu? What does the diary say of their journey?"
"Much of what the survivors have already said," Xiaoyi said tonelessly. "Their hyperdrives were damaged by the alien ships and they didn't have time to complete repairs before the Chinese off-world base was attacked. The journey from Milky Way to Pegasus claimed many lives, and the crew was forced to resort to unspeakable things in order to survive." Xiaoyi grimaced briefly. "The diary stops before they reach Pegasus, so we still do not know why they crashed on that planet."
"They were attacked by the Wraith," Sam said quietly. Both Woolsey and John stared at her in surprise. "A few days ago, I was able to decode the control crystals I retrieved from Sun Tzu," she explained to John, then turned to Xiaoyi and Woolsey. "The Wraith must have picked up their approach on sensors and attacked them as soon as they reached Pegasus. In the consequent battle, the ship wound up in the meteoroid field around the planet and crashed due to damages sustained there." She paused. "They didn't stand a chance."
To the side, Woolsey reached up to take off his glasses and rub his eyes. Underneath that grim layer of his, the day seemed to have done a number on him as well.
He replaced the glasses and sighed. "So that is one mystery solved." Narrowing his eyes, his voice grew cold. "But there are more, aren't there?"
Xiaoyi avoided Woolsey's stare and looked for a second as if her mask would fail.
Frowning, John stared at Woolsey, wondering what else the woman had done in the background that they didn't know about. The IOA representative didn't give it away, however, instead squaring his shoulders and addressing Xiaoyi once more.
"There will be an official investigation and a hearing once we are back in order. A committee representing all of Atlantis will decide your fate." Woolsey paused. "As for Earth… I find it difficult to believe that there are still people alive there. It has been ten months. From our initial reports, the alien ships were intent on destroying everything."
John noticed Sam bite her lip. He knew those facts had haunted her for a long time, and he could see that they still did. She had had friends and family there. People she cared about. She needed closure.
"If the superhives are truly gone, we could send Daedalus back to check," John suggested. He locked eyes with Sam, who smiled briefly, her eyes shining brightly. "We've got friends now to watch our backs. We're not alone. Not anymore."
He shifted his eyes to Xiaoyi, who finally let a sliver of emotion past her icy mask:
Strolling down the dark, familiar hallways, Sam could feel her feet growing heavier with each step. The day was gradually left behind. She didn't miss it. The whole day had been intense and gut wrenching, and the encounter with Xiaoyi had sapped her of the last remnants of energy. When Woolsey left for his quarters earlier, it'd been as if the air had been let out of her. She'd practically sagged against the transporter wall.
In step next to her, John eyed her with scrutiny. "I'm thinking you need a 'Do Not Disturb Or Get Shot On Sight' sign on your door."
Sam's immediate response was a quick grin that, for a moment, dispelled the draining sensation of exhaustion. Rounding a corner, she thought of something to say, but then froze when they came in view of the said door.
"What's wrong?" John wore a deep frown, his eyes obviously trying to figure her out so that he could fix it. But faced with his sincere determination to help, Sam couldn't meet his eyes.
Physically, it was just a room. No monsters under the bed, no assassins in the night. In short: nothing scary.
Just a room, the words echoed inside her head. Except it isn't…and right now, I don't…
She knew what would happen once she crossed that threshold. Despite the exhaustion, she would remember the last moment in the Jumper Bay when she'd given the twelve brave men and women, some of which she'd ordered to go, her last speech. She'd go through the words she'd spoken, over and over, wondering if they were enough or if they'd felt fake and superficial. And she would wonder what their last moments were like, and remember those she'd befriended on Tirana, and think about Hailey and the indication that she'd been about to volunteer for the mission, even though Hailey knew it'd be suicide, and how Sam wasn't ready to lose another who'd become her family, and—
"Sam?" John prompted, stepping closer with that worried pair of eyes she'd seen following her in-between the clean-up earlier, and she knew a simple "I'm fine" wouldn't suffice. Compared to a month ago, the truth slipped easier from her lips.
"I'm tired, John." Her voice was low, almost a whisper, almost weak and broken. "Not just from the past couple of days. I'm… I'm really tired."
The rest was left unspoken: Tired of losing people, of regrets and second-guessing, of keeping secrets, of being scared and alone.
Tears began to well up in her eyes; she was too tired to resist. A flicker of understanding reflected in John's dark eyes and he suddenly pulled her into a hug, squeezing her firmly against his chest. Sam held on tightly, her tears soaking blearily into his shirt.
No words were spoken. He held her until her silent sobs quietened down a few moments afterwards, then pulled her a little awkwardly after him past her door and down the hallway. She followed, not caring whether anyone saw them, and let him lead her into his quarters.
 Pendejo = stupid
 Mierda = shit
 Funcionete = pussy