Day 21: "I didn't vote for you!"
want to what?" Rodney's eyes were boggled. Sam gave him a
pointed look and he quieted down. "But—but wouldn't that…?"
"It could work," said Zelenka, pushing his glasses up the ridge of his nose. "The electromagnetic interference of the nebula should make us undetectable on long-range scans, especially if we run on as little power as—"
"Yes, yes, yes," Rodney brushed him off, grimacing. "We know all that. Any other time and it might work perfectly, except we've got a Wraith superhive with the sensor range of Atlantis on our tails just waiting to crush us like little bugs on a—"
"What?" He turned sharply to Sam. "You haven't noticed the red lights blinking and klaxons hammering through your head every six hours? Not to mention the wonderful jolting around the last time when the Wraith managed to fire off a volley on us before we jumped to hyperspace. We're just lucky to have three ZedPMs boosting our shields!"
"Rodney, we don't have time for this. Focus." Sam glared at him. The Canadian scientist moaned, sinking down in his chair. Satisfied, Sam continued. "Now what does the database say about the nebula in this system?"
"This isn't Star Trek, you know," muttered Rodney. Sam poked him in the arm, earning her a yelp. Grumbling, he settled down in front of the computer and drew up the Ancient database. "Fortunately for you, this might actually work to some degree, but not in the long run. They'll find us again."
"Not before we've had a decent break and can start thinking fresh," said Sam.
"That is until the Wraith show up with their ZPM-enhanced weaponry and siphon all the power out of our shields," said Zelenka unhelpfully.
Both Rodney and Sam gave him a pointed look this time. When he only looked at them with a 'what?' expression, they sighed simultaneously. Rodney continued to input data into the computer.
"Here," he said after a while, pulling up a photo and a translated text. "Ortus Monachus: the 'Rising Monks' nebula. Hey, don't look at me. I didn't name it."
"The Ancients definitely had a way with names," said Zelenka, staring at the screen.
Sam rolled her eyes and leaned down to read the information about the nebula. According to the Ancients, the nebula was made up of ionised hydrogen and helium gases, as well as plasma: all remnants of a supernova explosion that occurred approximately 18,000 years ago. There also seemed to be leftover naquadah matter from a nearby planetary explosion during the supernova formation.
"It's beautiful," Sam said, looking at the picture. Blue, purple, green and yellow colours mixed in the light from the system's star. Clouds of dust formed shapes that might actually resemble the name the Ancients had given, although it seemed more like a Rorschach test than anything concrete. Sam could see rabbits leaping over stones.
"And deadly," said Rodney pointedly, raising his eyebrow at her. "If anything should ignite that nebula, we'd be fried in a matter of seconds."
Sam didn't reply to that, instead straightening and looking at each of her top scientists. "It's risky, but it's worth it. We need time. This is the best chance we've had in a long time."
Rodney nodded reluctantly. "As long as we refrain from sparking an explosion. However, we should have an escape route ready for when the Wraith do show up."
"Goes without saying," said Sam, nodding. "Also, we don't know how the shields will hold up against the radiation, so even with a full complement of ZPMs, we should conserve energy any way we can. Shut down any unnecessary systems, but see if you can boost our long-range sensors somehow. It'd be nice if the nebula didn't have quite the same effect on us as it would on the Wraith."
"You're the boss," said Rodney, already typing away on his PC tablet.
Sam looked at the two of them, both with their eyes glued to a computer screen, and smiled. "Let me know when we're ready to take her into the nebula. I'll be in my office."
"Where's Colonel Carter?"
John looked up from the framed photo of SG-1 clutched in his hands and saw Caldwell in the doorway, tall and rank with his arms at his sides. He pushed down the immediate sense of having been caught with one hand in the cookie jar and broke eye contact by looking at his watch.
"I assume she's in her quarters getting some shuteye. That's if she followed my suggestion." Caldwell's bland stare made John a bit uncomfortable, so he pressed on. "Anyway, I'm here. Anything I can do for you?" He put the photo self-consciously back in its allotted place next to the PC tablet, then slipped his feet down from where they'd rested on the edge of Sam's desk.
Caldwell appraised him for a moment, following his movements, then broke from his position and entered the office, though he remained standing, arms crossed. "What's our latest update on the Wraith superhive?"
Shaking off the uneasy feeling in his gut, John said, "Still sitting right where we left 'em. No movement for the past seven hours. It would seem our plan's working."
"So far," said Caldwell. His features showed anything but optimism in the executed plan. "How long does McKay think we can keep this up without getting our asses blown up by the nebula?"
"Technically, it would require an ignition to set off an explosion," said John matter-of-factly, earning him a raised eyebrow. He amended, "But we should be able to hold it up as long as necessary."
"Which could be a very long time," said Caldwell brusquely. "Restricted power use and MREs are killers for morale in the city. I've already heard several reports about almost-outbreaks of fistfights; soon, we might have a riot on our hands. And I wouldn't put it past Todd's people to work out a new way to detect us. We're sitting ducks in here."
"Look," said John, leaning forward on the desk, his voice clearly annoyed. "It's risky and reckless, yes, but we've been left alone for seven hours straight. That's one hour more than we usually get. I'd say that counts for something."
Caldwell, however, didn't look convinced. "It's not good enough."
Angered, John jumped to his feet, fisting his hands at his sides. "Hell, I know it's not good enough, but what do you want us to do? That ship's been hounding and pounding us for the past three weeks, and all we've been able to do is disable it for a moment so we could run off. Trust me, I wanna take it back on them as much as you do, but I'm not gonna risk the lives of the people in this city!"
The two men stared at each other. John's knuckles whitened. Caldwell's chest puffed out as his dark eyes glinted.
"What's going on?"
Sam's voice came like a bucket of ice-cold water dumped on his mind, but John found it hard breaking eye contact with the senior Colonel. Only when she prodded with a crisp "Colonels?" did they react.
Turning towards her, John immediately noticed that Sam looked as bleak and worn as when he'd first suggested — ordered — her to get some shuteye. Despite the dangerous glint in her eyes, it was obvious that she hadn't gone to sleep after all. It was starting to worry him immensely.
Sam raised her eyebrows expectantly at him, arms crossed tightly across her chest. Whatever John had wanted to say, he couldn't get it past his lips. Disappointment and annoyance coursed through him, and he cursed inwardly.
"Colonel, I think we should consider our other options regarding the superhive," said Caldwell, taking John's silence as cue to take over the situation.
As Caldwell spoke, John looked down at the photo he'd clutched so tightly less than ten minutes ago. The grinning faces of a past and present SG-1 team were really starting to annoy him. Since Christmas, he'd seen Sam view it with such softness in her eyes that he often felt like an intruder and let her be when he actually wanted to talk to her.
John regretted that now. Somewhere in the past three weeks, she'd stopped to view him the same way.
He only listened to the conversation unfolding between Caldwell and Sam with half a mind.
"What other options?" Sam's voice was clearly bristled. This'd been her plan. She wouldn't let it go without a fight. "We've tried everything we could think of. At least now we've had a chance to breathe."
"How about a chance to think?" Caldwell asked, equally relentless. "We're sitting ducks here. Once the Wraith figures out our location, the superhive will be here in seconds, guns blazing, and we can't do anything to stop it from destroying Atlantis."
John saw Sam's lips thinned and anger welled in him. He stepped around the desk, fists clenched.
"Cut her some slack, Caldwell," he said, almost growling. "We get it: you're not happy. Neither are we. We're all sick and tired of this cat-and-mouse chase. We just want that superhive to turn his nose and leave us the hell alone, but guess what? We're not that lucky. Deal with it."
"I am trying to deal with it, Sheppard," Caldwell said, taking a step towards him. His tone was low and menacing. "Unlike you, I'm thinking about the long-term survival of the people on this base, and I'm willing to make some sacrifices to achieve that."
"Listen here, you—!"
"Stop. Both of you." Sam stepped between them, her eyes blazing and giving life to the otherwise pale and drawn face. "We're not getting anywhere standing here bickering like this."
A tense and awkward silence fell over them.
Sam took a deep breath and then looked at John with that particular look he'd grown to hate recently. There was nothing remotely comforting about it, even if her voice was controlled and soft as she said his name.
"John," she said. "Would you please find McKay and bring him to the conference room? I don't care if you have to drag him out of bed as long as he's in that room in twenty minutes."
His jaw clenched and his hands fisted, but as before, John found the words stuck in his throat. Next to Sam, Caldwell shifted on his feet, his eyes settled challengingly on John. It seemed clear whom Sam was going to listen to.
Slowly, John stepped away from the desk, his eyes on Sam, whose blasted look he was now starting to loathe with all his heart.
He felt like he was back in the operations centre three weeks earlier, chided and put down by his commanding officer. But Sam wasn't only his CO. They'd been equals, using each other as sounding boards for whatever ideas and suggestions the other came up with.
At least that's how it'd been until she started shutting him out and refused to share the burden, instead running herself ragged and ignoring her declining health and John's suggestions to either get enough sleep, food or just a moment to relax. Far too many times lately, he'd gone to bed only to find it empty, and when he finally tracked down Sam, she often brushed him off and insisted that she had something really important to do. At those times he often wondered if he should just give up, but the few times she still listened to him and returned to bed with him…he told himself to keep at it.
Yet now, after all he'd done, Caldwell was the one standing next to Sam while John was reduced to errand boy.
"Sure." John's voice and smile were anything but pleasant. "… Colonels."
Twisting around abruptly, John stalked towards the door and waved his hand angrily over the controls. For the first time in a very long time, he felt like disobeying an order.
"You want to blow up a nuke inside the nebula?" asked Woolsey in disbelief. "Why?"
"It's insane, but it could actually work," said Rodney, comprehending the plan immediately, while most of the other staff looked confused. Somehow, he seemed to glean more excitement from this than the few hours of sleep he'd gotten before the meeting. "With the highly explosive gases inside the nebula, the explosion would be enormous. As long as the Wraith don't jump out before detonation, you could do some serious damage."
"Which is why we'll have to keep the Wraith occupied until the nuke has been launched," said Sam.
"And how do you plan to do that?"
John's voice was quiet. He met Sam's eyes, his shoulders slightly slumped, and he was fiddling with his thumbs. Shaking off the uneasy feeling from John's stare, Sam entwined her hands and leaned forward across the conference table. She broke eye contact with John to look around at everyone around the table.
"The Daedalus. We use its beaming technology to insert the nuke inside the nebula, then detonate it remotely."
"Sorry, I'm still not following you," said Woolsey, rubbing his brow. "Why is this such a good idea?"
Before Sam could answer, Caldwell butted in from the seat next to her. "It'll give the nuke ten times more explosive power, which should inflict some serious damage on the Wraith superhive when it shows up."
"When it shows up…?" Woolsey turned to Sam, his face grim. "I thought you said we were safe from detection inside this nebula."
Sam pushed back a sigh and squared her shoulders. "The electromagnetic interference from the nebula is making it harder for the Wraith to detect us, but based on the last three weeks, it's a very good chance they will find us again. We have to be prepared."
She glanced at John, trying to gauge his thoughts on the matter. She was unnerved, not by the stony expression on his face, but by the dark piercing look he suddenly directed at her. There was nothing familiar about it and Sam withdrew her eyes uneasily, trying to fight off the feeling that something was very wrong and she didn't know what.
"Besides," said Rodney and turned towards the IOA representative, "this nebula has given us the best fighting chance we've had in a long time. Of course, it could all blow up in our butts and then we won't have to worry about being chased around by the Wraith like—"
"Rodney," said Sam sharply. Woolsey looked more alarmed than before.
"What?" Rodney said defensively. "I'm sure even a mind like yours has considered that Atlantis's manoeuvrability — though not very good to begin with — is severely limited inside this nebula. Not to mention that it's impossible to use the stardrive unless we clear it."
"Daedalus will run interference and keep the Wraith at bay," said Caldwell before Sam had a chance to reply. She met his eyes, startled. "That should give you enough time to clear the nebula and jump to the next rendezvous point before the nuke is detonated."
"What about Daedalus?" asked John, his tone pointed and almost defiant. "Your shields are no match for the superhive, and in here you're as limited in moving as Atlantis is."
"We're still faster and more agile than the Wraith," said Caldwell, straightening in his chair. "We'll get the job done and Atlantis will be safe."
"Will it?" asked John challengingly, his dark eyes glinting. On top of the conference table, his hands were clenched to the point where his knuckles whitened.
Woolsey looked even more alarmed.
"Stop it," Sam snapped brusquely. She was rattled by the intense look the two male Colonels both wore and remembered the incident she'd stumbled upon in her office earlier. She wouldn't have a repeat. "We're all on the same side here."
Caldwell and John said nothing, but they slowly broke eye contact. Still, Sam felt her neck tense and a headache coming on. It was not over, not by a long shot.
Taking a deep breath, she continued with a tone of finality. "Like Rodney said, this is the best fighting chance we've had in a long time. Igniting the nebula should deliver a crippling blow that's too fast for the superhive's enhanced regenerative hull to handle." She looked at everyone in turn, from Woolsey to Caldwell, trying to regain some control of the situation.
Rodney was fiddling with his PC tablet, looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, his eyes skirting between John and Caldwell. Woolsey seemed deeply unsettled, but tried to hide it behind his lawyer's mask as he met her eyes. Caldwell simply stared back at her stonily, and John...
John didn't meet her eyes. His hands were clasped tightly, knuckles white, and his jaw was set. Sam recognised restrained fury when she saw it and her stomach twisted uncomfortably with the knowledge that she had no idea what was going on, only that if he got the opportunity, he would go to the gym and unleash his anger on Ronon, and this time, he would probably not drop by her quarters afterwards.
You can't think about this now. You can't. You just...
Sam closed her eyes and took another deep breath, before looking up and gaining everyone's attention. "Crippling, destroying or dissuading the Wraith superhive from following us, is worth the risk. We can't keep this chase up forever. Our power levels keep dropping severely in each armed encounter with the superhive, and will continue to do so until we're completely depleted. Not to mention that we're already rationing whatever supplies we have and it won't last much longer."
She paused. "There're more than a thousand people on board this city ship. We're obliged to keep them alive, but we're also obliged to keep them safe. I say this plan is our best shot at doing that."
No one said anything for a moment and then they simply nodded, except for John, who had his head down.
"I'll head back to Daedalus and start the preparations," said Caldwell, rising to his feet. "McKay, let me know when you've got the nuke prepped and ready."
"Y-yes." Rodney hesitated, glancing once more at John, who suddenly got to his feet and stalked out of the conference room without another word.
Sam watched him go with trepidation and unrest, ignoring the wavering look Rodney gave her before he exited as well. Caldwell gave her an affirming nod before leaving, and then there was only Woolsey and Sam left.
The IOA representative approached her slowly and Sam had a feeling she already knew what he was going to say. Frankly, she'd just been waiting for it the whole meeting.
"I feel I should warn you," Woolsey said quietly, "that the other IOA representatives will probably not be as confident in this plan as you are."
Sam sighed, pinching the ridge of her nose. She could feel her headache coming on more strongly. "Tell me something I don't already know."
Woolsey hesitated, then continued in a low voice, "For what it's worth, I stand behind you one hundred percent. I'll argue your case." Sam looked up at him, surprised. He gave her a ghost of a smile. "Like you said, it's our best shot. And we have the best people from Earth behind it."
"Thank you," Sam said honestly, giving him a brief smile.
Woolsey just nodded, and then left the room, leaving Sam standing by the conference table and pondering all that'd happened.
Sam didn't felt too terrific about ordering her obviously dead-on-their-feet scientists to secure Atlantis for battle, but it was her job. They needed to do this as quickly as possible. Despite Rodney's minor enhancement of the long-range sensors, the nebula was a cause for interference and sometimes they couldn't read any sensor data at all. They had no idea when the superhive would move.
She didn't feel completely comfortable with their plan, but it was the only option besides continuing the chase they'd been on for the past three weeks, and that would eventually lead to a massive burnout for both the people on board Atlantis, as well as the city itself. Besides, she had to remember that best-case scenario would be that the Wraith superhive was destroyed. Worst-case scenario, the superhive escaped unscathed.
Leaning back in her chair, Sam took a moment to close her eyes and rub them tiredly. She sighed, knowing she was only one of many who were feeling the effects of the chase, of being constantly on guard, of having barely hours to rest between each jump. She could now understand some of the hardships that must have fallen on Ronon in his Runner years. Always knowing your enemy was behind you and could somehow locate you, like a glaring beacon on a map, was a constant mental toll.
Sam opened her eyes and found Daniel standing in the doorway. One of his arms had been cast and put in a sling. Bruises still marred his face and neck, and when he walked it was with a limp.
She smiled bleakly. "They let you out of the infirmary, huh? Sure that's a wise thing? There are lots of places to take a tumble down around here."
"Ha-ha," smiled Daniel, scoffing. "I'm sure there is. They all probably have my name on it."
He limped inside her office and settled down in one of the comfy chairs opposite her desk. Sam rose to help him, but he waved her off, even though he groaned in pain as he sat down.
Watching him, Sam couldn't help thinking about Earth and her throat was suddenly very thick and itchy. She swallowed, withdrawing her gaze until Daniel addressed her again.
"So… You didn't answer my question."
Despite the obvious pain he was in, Daniel managed to look concerned, something that hit Sam harder than seeing him in yet another hospital bed, fighting for his life while the world around them twisted and turned. She looked elsewhere, crossing her arms defensively as she took a deep breath. Her eyes swept past the picture of SG-1 beside her PC tablet, causing her to hesitate for a moment before responding.
"I'm okay," she said eventually. "There's been a lot to do. Still is, as a matter of fact. Never a slow day, huh?" She tried to smile, but she felt it came out all wrong and too tight. Daniel only looked at her. "I'm okay, really. How're you doing? Are all your bones in the right place?"
"Heh, I'm okay. Nothing that hasn't happened before. I'm already back on my feet, see? It only took three weeks." Daniel smiled and Sam couldn't help but return it, even as her heart broke once more at the remembrance of that dreaded day when everything had changed.
They drifted off into silence, each contemplating something that wasn't spoken. For Sam's part, she was thinking about when she first arrived to the gate room after receiving a rather confusing and stressed message from one of the technicians.
At first, she'd been overwhelmed by seeing all the Earth evacuees being escorted to other locations simply because the crowd was too big for the room. People were moving everywhere, frightened, unsure, and angry. Equipment was being shoved through the gate and crashed into people and other supply crates.
It'd been complete chaos.
Demanding an explanation had proved difficult because no one would listen. The IOA members that'd come through had then discovered her and begun to hound her with questions to which she didn't know the answers. Everywhere, people were shouting or crying out names, bumping into each other with what little they had been able to bring with them. The Marines tried to keep control without much success, holding their weapons up to ward off the flow of people and direct them away from the stargate.
And then Daniel had been rushed through the gate in a medical bed, badly injured, and Sam finally realised something bad was happening to the SGC. It was one of the worst, most desperate feelings she'd ever had in her life. If John hadn't found her at that moment and helped take control...
"Have you talked to him yet? Apologised?" Daniel's question brought Sam away from memory lane and back to her office, where she was now trying to avoid the uneasy feeling welling up in her. She glanced at her friend, who wore an indiscernible look. He was one of the few who'd figured out what John meant to her.
Guiltily, Sam stared down at her entwined hands.
"He's avoiding me."
"Can you blame him? You've been kind of distant lately."
"He said that?" Sam looked up in surprise.
Daniel sighed. "He didn't need to. You know how people talk when they think you're just a patient sleeping in a hospital bed. I've heard them say you're throwing yourself into everything with gusto. Sound familiar? Keller's not happy with you, by the way, and you shouldn't argue with people with big needles."
He paused, a sad look splayed across his face. Sam could only imagine he was thinking about another female doctor that'd once threatened them with big scary needles. Looking up at her again, Daniel added meaningfully, "Besides, I know you, Sam. I know how involved you can get. Remember when Jack was stuck on Edora?"
Sam met his eyes, unable to smile. "Do you think I've ruined it?"
Daniel hesitated. "No. But I wouldn't advise you to continue shutting him out. That would give the wrong message, unless that's the message you want to—"
"No!" said Sam quickly, embarrassed. "I don't want to... I mean... God, why is this so hard? It should be simple, like science."
This made Daniel chuckle, even as it turned into a wince when the bruised skin pulled tight in his face. "Only you would compare a relationship to science," he said, amused. "Just—just talk to the guy, Sam."
"That easy, huh? Never seemed so to me." Sam sighed heavily, running a hand across her tired eyes. "There's just never a good time. And with the Wraith just around the corner... I dunno. He's pretty angry."
"All the more reason you should talk to him," said Daniel.
Sam gave him a ghost of a smile. "Is this why you broke out of the infirmary?"
"Who said anything about breaking out?" countered Daniel, smiling. "Keller thought I could manage on my own now, as long as I stay clear of any exploding equipment and broken staircases. Just in time, mind you. I was bored to death down there."
"Then you've come to the right place." Sam sighed, leaning back in her chair, arms hanging at her sides. "Never a boring day around here."At that precise moment, the citywide klaxons started beating through her eardrums, proving her point.
When Sam received the message from Daedalus that their transporters had been disabled, she knew the ship would never be able to get them back online before the Wraith superhive destroyed it. With Atlantis already clearing the outskirts of the nebula – thanks to the few precious moments of warning Rodney had given them by enhancing the sensors – the Earth battle cruiser was very much on its own.
Sam knew she had to think and act fast. She touched her earpiece radio, heart racing. "Carter to Sheppard, come in."
"I'm kinda busy trying to save an Ancient city from a big-ass superhive at the moment," was John's terse response, but Sam had no patience for whatever bitterness he seemed to hold.
"Turn around and get us back in there," she ordered sharply. "We're gonna provide cover for Daedalus while they get their transporters back online."
"Are you out of your goddamn mind? Atlantis can't handle the superhive on its own; it's not Battlestar Galactica!"
Sam spoke as if she hadn't heard him, already leaning over the nearest console to execute her plan, the gate technician nearby making room for her. "Prepare to launch drones and energy weapons as you see fit. I'll try to boost our shields further. That should buy us more time."
John didn't respond, but Sam was too busy to think about it at the moment. She sat down in front of a PC tablet, pulling up the needed program.
Woolsey and Rodney both approached her, incredulity and shock on their faces. They spoke at the same time, while the rest of the technicians looked on with uncertainty, halted in their actions by Sam's decision.
"You want to take them head on? It's insane! We should—"
"Colonel, Atlantis is not a battleship—"
"—our shields will be depleted in—"
"—got a thousand people on this city!—"
"—we should haul ourselves out of here as quick as we—"
"We're not leaving Daedalus behind!" Sam halted them both with a piercing look. Before they could start blabbering again, Sam turned to Banks with an authoritative stare. "Shut down all non-essential systems. I need as much power as you can give me if these shields are going to hold."
Hesitating for a split second, with a skirting look between Sam and the two men who had just objected, Banks slowly responded with a nod before setting to work.
Satisfied, Sam then turned her head briefly to the technician seated behind them. "Chuck, give me Colonel Caldwell."
The Canadian hesitated only a second before touching a few buttons and nodding to her. Sam touched her radio. "Colonel, don't back out just yet. We're coming back for you."
Caldwell's voice filtered through her ear. "What? Are you crazy? Get yourselves out of here!"
Sam ignored him, typing away furiously at the PC tablet in front of her, pulling up programs and inputting new codes and variables. "I'm pulling all we've got to our shields right now. We'll be able to hold them off for a few minutes. You've got that time to get your transporters back online and launch the Mark IX, then we're out of here."
Before the man could reply, Sam had shut off the link and pushed a button to contact John down in the chair room. "Colonel Sheppard, get us between Daedalus and the Wraith superhive. As soon as they've launched the nuke, I want you to get us out of here as quickly as you can and jump to the next rendezvous site."
John didn't reply immediately and his voice sounded odd once he did. "Roger that."
With no screens to show where Atlantis was headed except data on the consoles and computers, the people in the operations centre had almost no idea what was going on until the city was rocking with the impact of Wraith ZPM-enhanced energy weapons.
"Shields are holding, but power levels have dropped to 82 %." Rodney, having given up trying to reason with Sam, had settled down by another console and was pushing buttons speedily along with his verbal report. Between the two of them, they'd find a way to stave the Wraith off for a moment. "ZPM pressure is rising rapidly."
Finishing with her shield adjustment algorithms, Sam jumped to her feet and went over to watch over Rodney's shoulder. "Estimated time for overload?"
Just then, the earthquake-like waves of weapons impacts culminated in a nearby console bursting into sparks. One of the technicians yelped in pain and slumped to the floor.
Rodney looked on in horror for a second until Sam jolted him out of his shock with a shake and a clipped, "McKay!"
Opening and closing his mouth several times, Rodney turned back to his computer screen and swallowed. "At the current strain, we'll lose shields in five minutes, that's unless the shield emitters fry out first."
Sam ducked her head with a grimace as more sparks burst from somewhere overhead. She clung on to the console with both hands.
The lights flickered, covering the room in fleeting, pervasive shadows. People who hadn't been sitting by consoles were now stumbling everywhere, holding on to whatever they could grip when the enhanced Wraith energy weapons impacted. Woolsey clutched the railing of the balcony overlooking the gate room, eyes wide and trying to meet Sam's, who was too immersed in Rodney's computer screen to notice.
Gritting her teeth together as she held on to Rodney's console during the impacts, Sam raised her voice to overpower the buzzing noise. "Get in touch with Zelenka. Tell him to keep the ZPMs from overloading by rerouting power from the naquadah generators. That should buy us some more time."
Rodney didn't argue, touching his radio and shouting in the background as Sam moved to check on the downed technician, who was moaning in pain. One of the female technicians was leaning over him, dressing his wounds with bandages from the operations centre's first aid kit.
"He'll be alright, ma'am," she said loudly, wincing at the impacts and sparks alike. "First and second-degree burns, but nothing serious!"
Sam nodded and moved on; holding on to consoles and chairs alike as the room suddenly and abruptly shook from the weapons impacts. She looked at Chuck. "How is Daedalus holding up?"
"They're nearly there. A few more minutes," he said and promptly ducked his head as a sparking conduit was flung from overhead and ended up dangling three feet away from his left ear.
Sam touched her radio headpiece to contact John again, but was thrown off her feet when the room suddenly tilted at a forty-five degree angle. Grasping for balance, she found nothing but air and crashed on the ground, hard, banging her head on something solid and sharp.
Dazed, she struggled to push herself up or grasp for support as she slowly slid down the tilted floor, blinking her eyes rapidly to clear away the appearing black spots. The room tilted back to a more horizontal position and Sam got shakily to her feet, calling out randomly, "Report!"
Rodney was the one to shout back, scrambling back into his seat from the floor. "The Wraith managed to punch through the shields!"
"Damage?" Sam asked, still blinking and shaking her head to clear away the haziness. The sounds seemed wrapped outside a bubble, but a rising high-pitched tone was ringing in her ears.
"We can't tell," said Banks, her voice strained. "A lot of the systems have been shut down. We've only got propulsion, communications and life-support."
"ZPM power levels are reaching critical!" Rodney's voice was filled with barely-controlled panic.
Leaning heavily against a console, Sam finally cleared her vision enough to meet Rodney's wide-eyed, apprehensive look. The same thought ran through their minds.
Steeling herself, Sam turned to Chuck and opened her mouth to order a retreat—
"Atlantis, this is Daedalus," Caldwell's voice said on the crackling speakers. "The nuke's been launched. Now get the hell out of here!"
The cost of Atlantis' and Daedalus' escape were 12 fatalities, 40 casualties, countless fried consoles and conduits, heavy structural damage to one of the city piers as well as the battle cruiser's hull, faulty shield emitters, and several Mark II naquadah generators.
To avoid complete power failure in space, Atlantis had been forced to land on a nearby planet that they only vaguely knew supported life. The ocean was nothing compared to the previous planets the city had been situated on, but at least the air was clean, if not a bit thin. Anything else, they would have to work out as they went along.
Immediately after landing, they'd been forced to shut down all three ZPMs to avoid a catastrophic overload, and were now running on an assortment of Mark II and Mark III naquadah generators on the most important operating systems. Anything else was offline for the time being until repairs had been made.
What made everyone on edge was the lack of a shield or even a cloak. With no long-range sensors, and Daedalus being grounded for repairs, they had no way of completely knowing what'd happened to the Wraith superhive after they jumped to hyperspace. Daedalus had just barely escaped in time, and initial reports said the Wraith had shown no signs of being fast enough to escape the blast.
No one managed to relax, even after finally leaving space to settle on a new planet.
Since Atlantis had jumped to the rendezvous point, Sam had walked around the city half-dazed, but mostly on edge. A constant headache from the blow she'd taken during the attack was her closest companion, keeping her from nodding off. Keller had offered painkillers, but Sam was wary of the supply stock and the many others who needed it more than she did.
12 fatalities, 40 casualties; Sam had trouble swallowing this truth.
Apparently, so had James Coolidge, ever the most outspoken of the three top remaining IOA representatives. Just a few hours earlier, he'd stalked into the mess hall, which had been serving as a triage centre, with Shen Xiaoyi and several people Sam didn't quite know on his heels.
"Colonel Carter!" he snapped angrily. "Do you know how many lives were lost in this god-awful crusade of yours today?" He waved his hands dangerously, eyes wild and fixed upon Sam.
He drew a lot of attention. Those both tended to and waiting for medical help were staring, some half-forgetting why they were in triage in the first place. Sam, however, was even less impressed with the man than the last time he'd barged into a room and demanded her attention. In fact, she felt herself bristle as she saw the blatant ignorance on his part in regards to the wounded people he and his gang was stomping through to get to her.
"Mr Coolidge, this is not the time, nor place—"
"You've got that right, Colonel. This is absolute the worst possible time to come up with crazy plans that turns Atlantis into a giant, fried-out mess — not to mention that it gets people killed — just to satisfy your need for recognition!" He halted in front of her, hands at his sides.
"My need for recognition?" repeated Sam incredulously, feeling the anger spiking inside her.
Recalling everything she'd ever been taught about self-control, she found she was balancing on the edge of blowing up in the man's face, which was probably just what he wanted. However, she needed to get her opinions off her chest and, nearby, Keller was puffing herself up to come over and tell them to calm down. Sam decided to save the doctor the trouble.
"Mr Coolidge," she gritted out pointedly, grasping for control. "Let's take this outside. We're in the way for doctor Keller."
"No, Colonel, it's about time you tell these people the truth," Coolidge said, tugging his arms close to his chest and planting his feet firmly onto the ground. To his side, Xiaoyi looked as cold and icy as ever.
Sam swallowed her immediate reply and instead straightened, taking full advantage of her height compared to the two IOA representatives and their goons.
"The truth?" she asked. "With all due respect, sir, I've told them nothing but the truth. The Daedalus was unable to complete the mission on its own and Atlantis was the only possible back-up. We went in and we got out."
"And you're aware 12 people died in this foolish plan of yours?"
Sam almost snorted. The whole situation seemed very surreal. She looked around the mess hall, meeting a few gazes from the wounded and their caregivers. Some didn't look impressed either.
"I'm very aware of the consequences, Mr Coolidge," Sam said.
The man's face reddened, but before he could burst out into another tirade, Xiaoyi stepped forward. "Then maybe you could explain to us, Colonel Carter, why you went against the advice of Mr Woolsey, your top scientist Doctor McKay, and even your own second-in-command, Colonel Sheppard?"
That rendered Sam speechless. Staring at the IOA entourage, standing among the wounded like a block of impenetrable naquadah wearing nearly impeccable suits, she struggled to regain her composure. Eventually, she had to force the sudden thoughts and revelations in her head back so she could focus on the present.
Locking her jaw and pulling up to her full height, Sam crossed her arms and said in a very low, definite tone of voice, "Last time I checked, I was the commander of this base. You should know that; the IOA were the ones who signed the paperwork."
Both Coolidge and Xiaoyi stared back at Sam's equally unrelenting eyes. Then Coolidge took another step forward, his eyes still wild but more controlled. He nearly barred his teeth.
"Yet, I didn't vote for you."
The statement, heartfelt and sudden, pierced Sam like needles of ice.
So that was what it all boiled down to. This wasn't about how many people had been killed or how much damage the city had sustained. Like always, this was about power.
Coolidge gave her a cold stare. "I never wanted you on this base, Colonel. You military people are reckless and wherever you go or whatever you do, a lot of innocent people die."
"Obviously, Colonel Carter," said Xiaoyi, her eyes glinting like ice, "we made a mistake in giving command of Atlantis back to the military."
"That may be," Sam said slowly, feeling like a Mark II naquadah generator — in a state of barely controlled overload. "But you did, and General O'Neill put me in charge. Let me remind you that despite the fact that we sustained fatalities and damage to the city, Daedalus can confirm detonation of the nebula before they jumped, and that the Wraith superhive was still inside. I'd say escaping the Wraith for good, whether we destroyed the superhive permanently or only managed to inflict heavy damage, justifies my decisions."
Xiaoyi stared at her, lips thin, eyes cold. "You would be wise to remember, Colonel, that the end does not always justify the means."
Things had ended abruptly then, by Coolidge, Xiaoyi and their goons making their exit with looks of warning and contempt and just sheer superiority issues. Keller, as well as a few of the other people, had patted Sam on the back or given her a small smile, but many had looked at her in a way that'd made her extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious. She'd stayed in the triage room only thirty minutes more, feeling like she was under close scrutiny, before she finally caved in and left.
Now standing on the balcony outside the operations centre, watching the horizon where high mountains soared into the dusky sky across the sea, Sam didn't know what to do or feel. Everything had happened so fast and they were still awaiting final, definite confirmation of the nebula explosion to quell any remaining uncertainties. As soon as Daedalus was finished with the basic necessary repairs, they would go back and only then would Sam be able to relax.
Until then, she reminded herself that she was the commander of this city, this base, and she was responsible for more than a thousand people on board Atlantis. Major General O'Neill, who'd risked his career to return her to command of Atlantis seven months ago, had entrusted her to them. Their safety – and the classified files he'd sent her upon the loss of Earth – was her main concern. She didn't have time for anything else.
She couldn't think about anything else.
However, looking to the spot next to her, once frequently occupied by John with his smiles and his humorous quips about everything and nothing, Sam found it was difficult not to think about something else.
It was lonely at the top — she'd always known that — but Sam felt it even more keenly when it was also becoming lonely in her bed.