Day 26: "I guess this is it...Colonel."
Immediately following the short service, Sam stepped silently away from the crowd and left the small grassy field to enter the seclusion of the forest. Probably returning to the city, since she touched her earpiece radio and seemed to listen intently.
John noticed this as he stood by the row of twelve freshly dug graves, each headed by stones or crosses depending on what the deceased would've wanted. On some, dog tags were present, bringing him uncomfortable recollections of some of the wars he had been part of, like Afghanistan or Bosnia, and of those they'd buried during their first year in Atlantis before Daedalus or the stargate could be used to transport the bodies home. To Earth.
Twelve dead. Three military. Nine civilians, of which three had been scientists. Eight Earthborns. Four Pegasus natives. John couldn't help but do a mental tally as he looked over each of the graves, having spent most of the service staring into the empty air.
His hands fisted in the pockets of his BDU pants.
It was too early to leave. People still clung to each other around the graves, crying, mourning and in all kinds of despair. They needed more than a short eulogy. They needed a strong presence with them, a comforting hand upon their shoulders, and some soft-spoken, earnest words of condolences. They needed her to see they were real people, alive and hurting, and not a damaged city.
The Old Sam would've known that. The Old Sam would've told whatever hard-ass was on her case that "screw the city; it can wait." But not this one… I don't even know who—
John gritted his teeth angrily, an action that didn't go unnoticed by the person standing next to him.
"John." Gently, Teyla touched his arm, her voice lowered so as to escape any eavesdroppers. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he muttered, burrowing his hands further into his pockets, unable to meet her eyes for fear that she'd see straight through him; she had that ability. Instead, he stared back down at the twelve mounds of upturned earth, some already obscured by bouquets of fragile native flowers. "It's just a waste. These people shouldn't have died. They weren't even involved in the fighting."
Teyla touched his arm again, squeezing lightly. The strength of her fingers reminded him that she'd lost one of her people as well, three graves down. John was ashamed to admit that he hadn't recognised the name. He felt annoyance flush through him at that and an urge to shrug off her hand. He didn't deserve her consolation.
"I am sure there was nothing you could have done, John," said Teyla quietly. "The Wraith…well…"
She drifted off and left it unsaid, but John knew what she had in mind. The damn life-sucking aliens had been stronger than them this time. It was another thing that bothered the hell out of him and made his fists clench tighter.
Then Teyla said in a brighter tone, "At least we do not need to run anymore. We are safe here."
"That depends on how you look at it."
The low, bitter words escaped past his lips before he could register them. Teyla's hand tightened in response and when John looked up at her, he noticed her look of warning. Nearby, a group of people passed them on their way back to the Jumper landing zone and John tensed.
Leadership 101: when morale is low, don't make it plummet.
Angry with himself for losing control like that, John turned and strode away, stopping by the last grave in the row. It was one of those carrying a dog tag. Shifting restlessly on his feet, he tried to place the name to a face, forcing his mind onto other things. It was a slow process, however, made worse by the fact that there'd been an influx of new faces after Earth.
Another fact that pissed him off so much at times that he wanted to crack his knuckles upon Atlantis' walls. It shouldn't have happened, yet it did, and the broken pieces after Earth's loss seemed impossible to fix.
John's narrowed eyes skirted in the direction Sam had gone, the uncomfortable tightness spreading in the pit of his gut familiar by now.
Then Teyla crossed his field of vision and John returned to stare back down at the grave in front of him, cursing himself for once more losing focus. The guy in the grave didn't deserve that. None of the dead did, not when his actions had put them there.
John's fists clenched again, though this time painfully.
"Do you not believe we are safe here, John?" Coming to a halt next to him, Teyla lowered her voice once more, sounding cautious.
Regretting his previous words, John tried to amend them. "Probably for now, but you know the Wraith. They don't give up once they've caught our scent. Sooner or later…" He let the thought linger, intermingling with memories from the past five years.
"But I thought…" Teyla paused and he saw her eyebrows furrow. "Sam told me earlier today that they've figured out how the Wraith were able to track Atlantis. She also said that they knew how to prevent them from finding us again."
That was news to John and he felt his blood flare up to an instant boil as he rounded on Teyla, glaring at her. "Sam told you that? When?" When she didn't immediately respond, he locked his jaw and turned his glare to the forest obstructing the view of Atlantis on the horizon. "Funny how I didn't get that memo."
John gritted his teeth in renewed frustration, no longer seeing the grave in front of him or the people around him. Instead, he saw only flashes of all his interactions with Sam over the past few days, wondering when the hell she'd learned this vital piece of information and then decided to keep it from him. Did Caldwell know? Did everyone except him?
"I'm sorry, John."
Teyla's voice was lined with a sad tone that seemed to acknowledge some deeper understanding of the situation, and as the full impact of her words registered, old instinct and discipline screamed at him to get the hell out of Dodge…except he couldn't.
The grave below him was still without a face and there were still stragglers milling about the area, mourning. Someone had to look after them. Someone had to pick up the pieces, even if some of those pieces were—
John fisted his hands until it hurt, nails almost breaking skin, the pain bringing him down to earth from his close to panic-induced state. He looked back at Teyla, who was looking at him with even greater sympathy, and something tugged at the pit of his gut.
For weeks now, he'd reined it in, but…what was the point anymore? Everything had changed. Clearly he wasn't important anymore.
And so the words passed like a breath of wind from his lips: "Yeah… Me too."
It felt like defeat and relief at the same time. For a fleeting moment, a weight had been lifted off his chest, but when Teyla squeezed his arm, John felt suddenly disgusted with himself and returned to stare intently at the grave below him.
"I'm sure she meant to tell you, John," Teyla said eventually, clearly playing the diplomat. "Much has happened."
John scoffed derisively. "Yeah, and she's just been too busy running around the city and trying to take care of everything herself."
In the corner of his eye, he could see Teyla stare at him intently. "It sounds to me like she is looking after us, like a leader."
"Or trying to," John grumbled beneath his breath.
Teyla paused for several beats, before stepping closer and asking quietly, "Do you no longer believe Colonel Carter is capable of doing her job?"
John couldn't respond to that. After the latest battle with the Wraith, a part of him was screaming 'yes' and another was crying 'no', and he found himself trying to ignore both.
Teyla knew his unspoken answer, however, and gripped his arm. "John…"
Her quiet and empathetic demeanour made him shift on his feet, feeling yet again the sudden impulse to leave. You didn't criticise your CO outside the chain of command and he was starting to feel like a bitter turncoat. In the presence of those around him, people under his command, he felt it even more keenly, especially since he now recalled the face lying under earth and stone beneath him: Captain Ruchenkov of the late SG-17. Engineer. Not assigned to any security team during the battle. He'd been off-duty.
The sudden recognition startled him, and John's insides became a mixture of ice and fire as his jaw tightened painfully. Ruchenkov shouldn't have died, but he did. Because when it came down to it, Colonel Carter had ordered John to take Atlantis back into the nebula and she was his CO. That was the cold, hard truth.
And John hated it. Hated everything it represented. Hated everything it made him feel.
Teyla stopped him when John took a sudden, angry step back, and her brown, concerned eyes appraised him. "I am sure the decisions Colonel Carter made were necessary considering the circumstances. She probably felt the deaths of each of these twelve people as keenly as you and I." She paused and then added, "That is what a good leader does, John."
Rationally, he knew that she saw through his façade, and she was trying to remind him that he was still a leader, that he still had a responsibility to the people around him. Staring back into Teyla's brown eyes, however, John felt the blood that'd simmered over the past few weeks now rush up into his head like a volcano ready to erupt.
He stepped closer, eyes intense and teeth clenched. "But good leaders also know when they've crossed a line."
A horrible, sinking feeling of shame and agony lodged in his stomach at the words he was about to hiss below his breath.
With a heavy feeling in her body, Sam watched as two of the multi-coloured zero point modules were disconnected and retrieved from the power console. She refrained from yawning like an obviously tired Rodney was doing next to her, and instead straightened her slumping back.
"Let me see if I got this right," said Woolsey, standing on Sam's other side. "The Wraith are able to track us because of the ZPMs? How?"
"Through an incredibly complex procedure that would take way too long for me to explain," Rodney said crankily. Sam rolled her eyes.
"The gist of it, though," Sam said, looking sideways at Woolsey, "is that we believe the Wraith have come up with a kind of subspace radar."
Woolsey looked blank, a phenomena Sam was now well used to after her years at Stargate Command and Atlantis both. She took a deep breath, pushing off the wall she'd been leaning on.
"Conventional sensors, both Wraith and otherwise, work two ways: active or passive. The active sensor works by sending out 'pings' through both regular space and subspace that bounce off objects and are then sent back with a profile of the objects. That way they can continually keep track of what's out there. The passive sensor, however, is kept on all the time, but it's not actively sending out 'pings' to track the objects in space. Instead, it simply picks up whatever energy source comes its way."
"I'm with you so far," said Woolsey. "I think." He gave her a small smile. Sam returned it before continuing.
"Now, we know normal Wraith hive ships have a limited range on their sensors," she explained. "Even though they can detect objects through subspace, their long-range sensors are not the best."
"That's if you compare it to Atlantis, who has been able to detect the Wraith through subspace sensors when they're three weeks out," said Rodney in an almost lazy drawl. He met her eyes. "What?"
"I was getting to that, McKay," said Sam a little grumpily. On the other side of the power console, Zelenka paused to glance at them, then continued with his extraction and packing of the Ancient power modules.
"Well, I can't help it if you insist on making a lecture out of it. God knows we've had enough of those," said Rodney, clearly annoyed. He looked at Zelenka with narrowed eyes. "Can't you speed that up? We're missing lunch."
Sam rolled her eyes, ignoring the jab at turning the 'lecture' comment back on him, and turned firmly towards Woolsey again as Zelenka and Rodney bantered in the background.
"The point is," said Sam, "that Atlantis used to have superior long-range sensors. Unless the Wraith were told our exact coordinates, they couldn't find us."
"Then the ZPM-powered hive ship turned the tables," supplied Woolsey carefully.
"Yes." Sam nodded. In the background, Rodney and Zelenka both snapped their mouths shut after some Czech swearing on the latter's part. "Their enhanced sensors were able to track us through subspace. At first, we didn't know why they kept finding us and why it took less and less time, but now we have a better idea."
"The ZedPMs," interjected Rodney mournfully. "Three fully powered ZedPMs working in tandem provided the Wraith superhive with a glaring beacon in subspace they could easily track. You see, the power signal of three zero-point-modules is unique. No one else in the Pegasus galaxy, at least that we know of, can give off that amount of power signal. We might as well have painted a red circle on our butts and let the Wraith use us for target practice."
"Essentially," Sam told Woolsey, resisting the urge to jab her elbow into the Canadian scientist, "we have to shut down two of our zero-point-modules in order to stay invisible on the Wraith superhive's sensors."
Woolsey frowned. "Why two?"
"Because we believe that is the minimum amount of what the Wraith ship is carrying, and we are able to track it using the same parameters on our long-range subspace sensors as they have for the past three weeks on us. That's how we discovered the most likely reason they were able to follow us in the first place."
"By looking for their ZPM power signal?" Woolsey's look of confusion was replaced by a dawning expression of realisation.
"ZedPM subspace signal, actually," said Rodney pointedly. At Sam's glare, he added, "Just to be clear."
Woolsey sighed deeply and Sam didn't begrudge him. The loss of two ZPMs was horrible when three were available, especially considering that one alone wouldn't help Atlantis stand a chance against the superhive.
Zelenka finished packing up the Ancient power sources and handed one case to Sam, keeping the last for himself. He gazed at the sole connected ZPM with a mournful look.
Sam left the room first, followed closely by Woolsey, with Rodney and Zelenka making up the rear, talking lowly amongst themselves regarding the case in the latter's arms.
"How much power will remain?" Woolsey asked as they went down the corridor towards the nearest transporter.
"We still have the last ZPM, which has the highest power levels, several leftover Mark II naquadah generators, as well as the Mark III generators Earth sent us a month ago," said Sam. She tried to muster enough energy to sound optimistic. It was hard. "Still, as a precaution, I'm afraid we'll be back to rationing power and reducing exploration of the city like before."
Woolsey frowned. "What of the other ZPMs? Will you merely leave them in storage?"
"We can't run the risk of losing them," Sam said matter-of-factly, tightening her grip on the case. "Once we resume gate activity, we'll have a lot of people coming and going. ZPMs are rare and valuable."
"If I may say so, that sounds like paranoia," said Woolsey, looking at her sideways as they strode forward.
"With all due respect," said Sam a little firmly, her tiredness easing a little with renewed annoyance. "Atlantis doesn't exactly hold a perfect track record when it comes to internal security. Even with armed guards, we still have too many unknown variables aboard this city. Not to mention that, at the moment, we're at our weakest level of alertness. We've overextended our resources, people are getting restless, and the Wraith superhive — despite sustaining heavy damage in the nebula — is still out there, looking for us. For now, I believe we need to tighten our ranks and do everything we can so the Wraith doesn't find us again."
A yawning Rodney added from behind, "Besides, one of the ZedPMs will go to Daedalus. With it, the ship should be able to withstand a great deal more if it should encounter the superhive again."
Sam nodded and gestured to the black case in her hand. "This one will be kept here in a secure location for emergencies. The location will be classified and revealed on a need-to-know basis."
"Does that include the IOA?" asked Woolsey carefully and Sam's neck tensed.
Despite her tiredness, Sam could recall clearly when Coolidge had barged into the triage centre in the mess hall five days earlier, accusing her of craving recognition — of all things — at the expense of Atlantis and its inhabitants. The incident had set some serious thoughts grilling in her head, but she had yet to come up with any concrete plans as to how to deal with the IOA representatives. Between organising the service today and repairs and supplies, she simply had no time left for it.
However, at this point, she had no love lost for either Coolidge or Xiaoyi. And for the time being, Woolsey was under her personal scrutiny as well. He was proving to be a stand-up guy that was handy when it came to politics, but she was as of yet still unsure exactly which camp he held with.
So, as they approached the transport, her answer was simply, "Need-to-know, Mr Woolsey. Let's keep it like that for now."
"—this isn't over!"
John jumped out of the way as James Coolidge stormed out of Sam's office, soon followed by a much calmer but icier Shen Xiaoyi. The Chinese woman nodded curtly in John's direction, but otherwise said nothing as she passed him.
His eyes narrowed as he watched the two of them disappear around a corner. Their presence never boded well and judging by their exit, something huge had just taken place inside Sam's office.
Looking back through the open doorway, John saw Sam leaning heavily on her elbows behind her desk, sighing deeply and rubbing her eyes. For a moment, that part of his heart that he couldn't ignore reached out to her obviously tired look, but then her irritated eyes found his and John's sense of good will disappeared, renewing the frustration that'd stayed with him all day. He steeled himself.
He entered, despite Sam saying, "This isn't a good time, John."
"We need to talk," said John brusquely, moving to close the blinds as the door shut automatically behind him. "And we're gonna do it now, before you run off to solve the world's problems again."
Sam gritted her teeth and hid her head in her hands. "I'm not in the mood for this."
"Good, 'cause I'm not either." John closed the final blind and turned towards her, his arms crossed, his feet shifting back and forth uneasily. "Now, we're gonna talk and then we're gonna fix this."
"Fix what? In case you didn't notice, I've got a whole city to fix, not to mention trying to keep myself from kicking Coolidge's ass to a place far, far away!"
"I mean us!" hissed John, jolting forward, his hands fisting. "Geez, Sam, did you really forget or did you choose to forget that we're supposed to have a relationship?"
Sam's jaw clenched, her fingers entwined to the point where her knuckles whitened. "That's unfair."
"Unfair?" repeated John in disbelief, his stomach churning irritably. "You know what's unfair? Shutting me out for the past few weeks like I'm nothing more than your 2IC, and even that you've been rubbish at! I had to hear from Teyla about the ZPMs."
Sam flinched at that, but clearly decided to overlook the last jab as she narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm shutting you out? You've been avoiding me."
"Can you really blame me?" John began to pace angrily back and forth in front of her desk. He forced himself to lower his voice lest the gate technicians on the other side of the door managed to hear him. The rest was spoken through barely gritted teeth. "I've tried to do the right thing. Tried to keep whatever it is we have alive, to stick close by, to understand, but you haven't exactly made me feel like I'm welcomed."
"I do want you around," Sam said, leaning forward in her chair as if to bridge some of the distance between them, but was stopped by her desk and looked almost comical when she realised that. She cleared her throat. "But we both agreed that Atlantis comes first."
John almost scoffed, shaking his head at her audacity. "Yeah, I agreed because I thought we could handle it. It's pretty obvious that we haven't." He gestured to the gap between them as if to underline his point.
Sam's eyes narrowed, her voice angry as she gritted out, "And you're gonna blame it all on me?"
John couldn't help the urge to point accusingly at her as he took a step forward. "You've been the one running around the city like a Duracell Bunny, thinking you have to either do everything yourself or tell everyone personally what to do! Whatever happened to delegation? Whatever happened to trust?"
That made Sam jump out of her chair. "Are you mad because I'm doing my job?" She leaned on her fists on top of the desk, eyes glinting. "I've got a responsibility to this city and its people, John! I can't just ignore them!"
"But you can ignore me?" John came to a halt right in front of her desk, his height making him tower above her so she had to crane her neck slightly. Blood pounded in his ears. "Think I don't understand how FUBAR things are right now? Think I don't want to run off to wreak havoc on those damn crazy-ass aliens for what they did to Earth? Or blow the shit out of the Wraith?"
Panting slightly, John paused, flicking his eyes to the SG-1 picture facing away from him on Sam's desk. "Think I don't know what it's like to lose people, Sam?"
It struck a cord, like he knew it would. A wet, clear shine entered Sam's eyes and she blinked furiously, looking close to tears. For a fleeting moment, his hope rose.
Then it all came crashing down when Sam's expression hardened once more, deleting any trace of the Old Sam for whom he'd decided to risk it all a couple of months back before shit hit the fan.
Teeth gritted, John continued, "You've holed yourself up in this damn office and burnt the candle at both ends ever since we lost touch with Earth, and I've tried to understand that, but…god damn it, Sam, we're supposed to be a team." His eyes narrowed dangerously as he finally uttered the nagging thought that'd been plaguing him ever since she first started pushing him away. "If you didn't want that anymore, you could've just had the decency to say so instead of just ignoring me."
Silence fell over the room as their eyes met. Not the comfortable silence of intimacy as they cuddled together late at night or early morning, feeling full of adventurous mischief and daredevilry. Nor the professional silence of command as they considered some proposition brought forth by one of their subordinates or allies and then silently agreed which course of action to take.
This was a deadly and contemptuous silence John had only known once before and had hoped never to relive. Even as Sam pulled up to her full height, arms crossed tightly, he knew what was coming.
"Do you want to call it quits?"
Her voice was steady and blunt. Her eyes were hard, her chin up, and John found himself straightening his back and locking his jaw, meeting hard with hard.
"At least then I know what to expect," John said sharply.
Their rigid, heated eyes probed for weak spots in the other's defence. There was none. Sam's face was now completely closed off, the hint of tears gone, and John felt like her true mask was finally settling in place. She couldn't let go of command, not even for him.
Sam's lips thinned and her arms tightened beneath her chest. "Then I guess this is it...Colonel."
"Fine," John gritted out. "Colonel."
Then, blood still pounding in his ears, he left.
In his wake, Sam slowly unfroze from her immobile position and sank down heavily into her chair. Drawing her rapidly blinking eyes from the closing doorway, she saw the numerous new e-mails waiting in her inbox, some marked with red exclamation marks for 'greatest importance'.
Sparing a wavering glance at the now closed door, her eyes anything but hard, Sam then picked up her tablet pen and set to work.