Day 46: "We don't want you here."
It was a cold night. The seas were calm, glittering like ice in the pale moonlight. Far above the towers and lightening rods of Atlantis, stars blinked out of the darkness.
Daniel always felt small in the presence of the stars. There were so many of them and, in silent moments like this, he always found himself contemplating a now familiar question: What secrets did they hold, these tiny yet larger than life phenomena?
Before he'd joined the stargate program, before Abydos, before the long years of SG-1, he'd dreamt of wonderful adventures, of secrets and treasures. He put that down to the influence of his parents' professions. Both the Egyptians and humankind had studied the stars. To him, that'd always been a cause for great wonder and curiosity, and it'd driven him towards his future.
Daniel couldn't help but wonder if he'd known then what he knew now, would he still have gone through the stargate the first time? Despite everything he'd been through, what his friends had been through, and what eventually Earth had been through, the answer was still yes. That familiar ground was comforting to him. Especially now, as he withdrew his gaze from his position on one of the South Pier balconies and sighed heavily.
Not every night was as clear as this, and from the balcony outside his quarters he could see things he rather wished he didn't.
Below, along the edge of the pier, the silhouette of Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard ran faster and faster towards the end of the flat platform, only to stop suddenly and run back to repeat the process. For the past months or so, Sheppard always ran at this time of night. Alone. He was like clockwork.
The sight always made Daniel sigh. He thought he knew what kept John up every night, and why he drove himself harder than anyone else during the daytime and wouldn't stop doing so anytime soon.
The woman in question was probably in her office right now, also alone, pushing her body to the limit of destructive exhaustion. These days she rarely, if ever, let herself be bullied into five consecutive hours of sleep. It made Daniel sad to see how she clung to her birds and computer tablet beyond the decent hours of the night, refusing any offers of comfort or company. Always working. Never taking a break to just sit down and breathe.
Daniel sighed again, knowing all too well how military life could ruin most of the humanity in people, and this'd certainly happened now. Losing people under your command was hard for most officers. Daniel had seen that with Jack, but at least Jack had – albeit grudgingly – accepted his company. Lately, Sam had begun to push him away. Logically, he attributed it to grief and could understand that he just needed to be patient, but the continual dismissal was starting to grate on him.
He just wanted to see her smile.
Before Earth happened, she'd been so happy. Since Sam took over command of Atlantis two years ago, she'd seemed much more at ease with her career, with her friends and family…and with whatever had once been between her and Jack. It was only two months before the evacuation, when he'd been to visit Atlantis and became entangled in the Attero device affair, that Daniel attributed the change to Sam's 2IC.
At the time, he'd thought they were only very good friends and Sam admitted as much, but during their e-mail correspondence later, Daniel understood that something else had happened. Something neither John nor Sam could talk about openly.
Daniel couldn't claim to understand it, since he hadn't been around to see the progress, but judging by their reactions from falling out two weeks ago…it must've been serious.
For some reason, he still found it odd that Sam had obviously taken a risk she'd never dared before. It made him question whether he could really say he knew her anymore. She'd changed. Then again, with Earth gone…they all had.
Daniel looked up at the stars again, sighing once more when he saw grey wisps of clouds drift ominously across the sky. Sam was his friend. He'd stand by her, no matter what. He just wished 'no matter what' could be easier done than it was said.
When he woke up in the Atlantis infirmary a month prior and heard the news about Earth, he'd thought long and hard about the road ahead. Aside from the fact of nature that time could be a harsh mistress, life had a way of throwing them off-balance when they least expected it, and sometimes it was hard to recover.
Losing Earth had unbalanced everyone. It'd been a devastating blow, but the continued threat of the Wraith superhive didn't help to ease the process of getting past that physical and emotional pain. In the past month, Daniel had seen many who seemed stuck in that same spot. Like a continuous time loop they couldn't escape.
They were still picking up the pieces of Earth's loss. Tomorrow, Daniel would do his part for the salvage operation. It was the one thing Sam still wanted him to do because of his years of experience and diplomatic skills, but his confidence was wavering. After all, he'd never had any particular positive experiences with the IOA and, lately, he'd had a nagging feeling that something wicked was coming.
"Now remember, we're on a trade mission. We come in peace, so keep your weapons low and try to look friendly."
Sheppard, eyes dark but steady, gave each of them a look as they walked along the wide path, but stopped in particular when he came to the Canadian scientist. When a deadly silence fell over the group following Sheppard's last words, Dr McKay drew his eyes up from the life signs scanner in his hands.
"What?" McKay's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why're you all looking at me? I'm friendly. I can do friendly. See?"
The scientist put on what Captain Reese Matthews was sure he meant was his friendliest face, but to her it didn't look anything like it. Not exactly what she'd expected, given the rumours about him. Then again, she didn't exactly know what she was expecting. This was all a bit sudden to her.
At six in the morning, Sheppard had banged down her door and told her to haul ass to the briefing room in half an hour. When she got there, she'd been surprised to see both AR-1 and Reese's own – recently established – team. But there'd been no time for questions as they sat down for a thirty-minute briefing with Colonel Carter about the imminent trade mission. Apparently, it had to be done so early due to planetary differences in daylight hours and their mission was an important one. Most of the mission details had barely fastened in Reese's mind at this hour, but what'd stuck was the importance of acquiring a stable trading partner and she could understand that. Chewing ration packs had grown old long ago.
"Maybe you should just let Teyla turn up her charm, Rodney. Save yours for your special someone," said Sheppard with a slight roll of his eyes. The affronted scientist stuttered, trying to come up with some sort of comeback, but Sheppard pressed on, looking over his shoulder at the rest of the team. "Keep your eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. We don't want any incidents this time."
The last was addressed to the soldiers of the team, Reese's team making up the rear and the big Satedan guy on point.
Reese nodded solemnly, holding her P90 just an inch closer. It'd been a while since she'd been out in the field – all the way back in the Milky Way – and the gathering forest around her already put her on edge, reminding her that she was on unknown territory, in an unknown galaxy, dealing with unknown characters. The treetops were tightening the gaps and less light escaped to the thick undergrowth. If she hadn't seen the brilliant daylight in the distance ahead, she would've almost thought it was close to dusk.
The people they were going to negotiate trade relations with was apparently an old trading partner of Atlantis, but they'd pulled back from that agreement at the height of the Wraith-Asuran war about a year ago. Now, Colonel Carter hoped they could renew the old arrangement, so they could say a final goodbye to rationing. Though how the Colonel was going to sort out fresh food for more than two thousand people, Reese had no idea. Atlantis had recently started sending out Jumpers for fishing, as well as cooperating with Pegasus hunters to collect game and fruits from the mainland, but it wouldn't be nearly enough for such an amount of people in the long run. Even combined with the previously established trading partners, she doubted this village alone could provide them with the still lacking resources. They would need at least six or eight more trading partners, depending on their capacity for export.
Reese pulled herself out of her thoughts and looked to Sheppard, who'd pulled back a little. She noticed his finger resting along the bottom of his P90 and tried to remain frosty. She hadn't forgotten the silent tension in the meeting earlier: the almost cold, ignoring looks on the faces of her commanding officers. Still, he seemed a tad more relaxed in this setting, so she forced herself to remain calm.
Shifting his eyes between their surroundings and her, Sheppard said, "When we get to the town I want you, Ramirez and Sanders to keep an eye on our exit. Let me know if the natives get restless."
Trying to refrain from gripping her weapon tighter, Reese focused on the spot of sunlight growing larger in the distance. "Do you suspect trouble, sir?"
"It never hurts to be prepared," he said matter-of-factly. "We didn't exactly leave the Bhaati on pleasant terms last time around. Some might not be that happy to see us."
Sheppard turned his head suddenly, but seemed to quickly deduce it was nothing and took two strides to keep in step with her. Reese looked in the same direction but saw nothing but trees and bushes and shadows. No movement apart from them.
Frowning, she asked, "I thought Colonel Carter said the Bhaati were the ones to initiate contact this time and that they insisted on re-establishing trade? That should give them some credit."
If she'd been any less on guard, she mightn't have noticed the twitch in Sheppard's finger or the sudden hard look in his eyes at the mention of their commanding officer.
"They did and it does," said Sheppard tonelessly, but Reese felt there was more to it; something the Lieutenant Colonel couldn't admit, something that was better left unspoken.
The daylight in the distance became clearer and the forest brightened up as they neared the end of it. Sheppard held his weapon closer to his chest, but with the muzzle low.
"Just keep our exit clear, Captain," he said. "Don't let anyone push you around, but don't pick any fights either, alright?"
Reese stared after him as Sheppard picked up his pace. Glancing over her shoulder, she looked back at the spot to where Sheppard had paid extra attention. Still nothing. There were only insects and the low buzz of birds and humans in the distance.
So why did her finger itch so close to the trigger?
"This latest attack on Earth personnel by Pegasus natives clearly underlines my point, Colonel! Your feeble security measures have no effect. If this keeps up, I'm sure Dr Keller and her staff will be quite burnt-out by the end of the week!"
Coolidge's nostrils flared, making a very tempting target for Sam's very restless clenched fist. Given that he was on the opposite side of the conference table, however, made it difficult for her to actually do any harm to him.
Teeth gritted, Sam leaned forward, entwining her hands tightly on top of the table. "I am not sending them back to their planet only to be fed upon and killed by the Wraith. Besides, I have it on good authority that the natives were not the ones to initiate the fight. That they were, in fact, provoked."
"And when has verbal provocation exonerated killers and criminals?"
"Colonel Carter," said Xiaoyi before Sam could butt in, her lips thin and eyes cold. As always, she kept her voice controlled but low. "Aside from security issues, even you know that we cannot sustain so many people on board this city any longer. It will eventually drain all of our resources."
"Exactly," said Coolidge, spitting the words out with a grimace. "We need to start thinking about ourselves, Colonel. We're cut off from Earth, we have no secondary line of supply, and there is a big Wraith cruiser out there waiting to kill us all!"
"A ZPM-powered hive ship, actually," said Daniel, his voice clinging to an ounce of diplomacy Sam found otherwise lacking in this room. His eyes narrowed as he met both Coolidge's and Xiaoyi's stares. "Which is beside the point, because if we send these people back to their planets they'll probably be captured by the Wraith and questioned about our whereabouts."
Coolidge twirled abruptly on his heel and gestured widely with his hands. "Then we fly off to another planet, preferably one that has higher oxygen levels and more varied resource base."
"We can't do that!" Sam nearly slammed her fist into the table. "Besides the fact that taking off with a single ZPM will take a heavy toll on its power reserves, the moment we reconnect a second ZPM we'll be like a shining beacon in subspace, leading the Wraith superhive straight to our new planet." She glared at the two IOA members on the other side of the table. "Whether you like it or not, we—stay—here."
"Then I suggest you do something more effectively to stop these fights between Pegasus refugees and Earth personnel, Colonel." Xiaoyi pulled back in her seat, her elbows resting on the arms of the chair. She truly was an Ice Queen. "Clearly, a few security points in such a large city as Atlantis are not enough. Perhaps you should consider speeding up the relocation."
Sam closed her eyes, fisted her hands until her knuckles whitened, and counted to ten. The throb in her head from lack of sleep had worsened by far since this meeting began. It was becoming a daily – and quite an excruciating – occurrence. One she'd rather be without. There were other issues on her schedule that warranted more of her time than the two IOA representatives seated on the other side of the table. But judging by their increasing number of visits, neither was about to leave her alone any time soon.
Sam took a deep breath and gathered whatever shred of control she had left. "As I said before, we're going as fast as we can. The mainland is neither suited nor capable of sustaining a large amount of people at this time. The Athosians and Treegan have created settlements, but that is as far as we've come at this point. In the meantime, the other tribes will remain here."
"It's not good enough," said Coolidge at once. He gave her a narrowed look, leaning forward on the table as he lowered his voice. "Colonel, I'm sure you agree that we cannot allow more Earth personnel to be injured in petty fights. Seeing as Atlantis has been an Earth base from the start, it's the refugees that have to go."
Sam bristled, almost rising out of her chair. "We promised them protection from the Wraith; I won't change that now."
"Military protection, yes," hissed Coolidge, nostrils flaring, spit flying. "But did you also promise them an eternal supply of food, water, housing, precious medicine? Did you promise them that they could take a hit at our people in return for our protection? They don't appear very graciously thankful for your protection, Colonel!"
Now Sam jumped to her feet, teeth gritted in instinctive response to keep her from yelling. "God!Are you really so xenophobic that you can't spare a shred of charity to someone who's lost everything, Coolidge?"
Red-faced, Coolidge rose to his feet angrily, beady eyes wide and frantic. "We've lost everything!"
Breathing heavily, the American IOA representative glared at Sam, who found herself unable to respond, jaw clenched to the point of a headache exploding below her temples. The atmosphere was heavy, tense, and neither side was relenting.
Finally, Xiaoyi rose to her feet, quickly followed by Daniel who stepped closer to Sam's side.
"Perhaps we should adjourn for the day," Xiaoyi said icily, touching her colleague's shoulder. Coolidge shrugged it off angrily and turned on his heel with a last glare at Sam, then stomped out of the conference room with Xiaoyi behind him.
Sam, never losing eye contact with the two IOA representatives, set her jaw more tightly until the doors closed and it was only her and Daniel left in the room. Daniel let out a long breath, raising his eyebrows briefly.
"That could've gone better," he said unhelpfully.
Sam sank down in her chair. Leaning on her elbows, she closed her eyes and began to massage her throbbing temples. Coolidge's last words tumbled uncomfortably around in her head.
"How much longer d'you think it'll take?" Airman Trevor Sanders asked half-teasingly, half-seriously, as he looked across his shoulder at her from beneath his black cap.
Sanders was sitting on a log by the dirt-trodden road, seemingly bored. Close to the corner of a Bhaati house where he had both cover and line of sight, Sergeant Miguel Ramirez only grinned, chewing gum open-mouthed as he glanced around at their surroundings.
"My answer five minutes ago hasn't changed, Sanders," grumbled Reese, her finger itching to close in on the trigger of her P90.
One hour with the same constant questioning from the former SG-21 member and Reese was going stir crazy. Not to mention that the continued looks they were sent from passing Bhaati natives – some frightened, some curious, some contemptuous – were beginning to nag on her nerves despite Sheppard's warning about friendliness earlier.
Pushing off the wall of the Bhaati house she'd leaned against, Reese took a few restless steps across the dirt road leading into the town square. It was bustling with activity. People in drab colours moved amongst stalls and small shops, while vendors called out their prices and wares for both the interested and disinterested. The town was larger than Reese had expected and it reminded her of the Medieval-like towns she'd seen back in the Milky Way. Judging by the goods of the market square, she could understand why Atlantis would want them as trading partners; her mouth watered at the sight and smells that came on the wind.
Still, there was something off about this place. None of the town people had approached them after Sheppard and the others met and left with the leading town council member for the negotiations. Not even the curious children, who Reese had found was normally eager to engage with them. Sheppard had said some wouldn't be that happy to see them, but even the children? Was the Wraith that much worse than the Goa'uld? Were things that different between the Milky Way and Pegasus galaxies?
It seemed that wherever she looked these days, she only saw scared and distrustful faces. No happiness, no trust; only tension.
"Hey Cap'n," said Ramirez lowly, drawing her attention. He straightened and nodded towards a corner of the town square ahead of them, his eyes focused and slightly narrowed. It immediately put her on edge.
Heart skipping a beat, Reese turned casually so she could glance at whatever Ramirez had spotted. She found it, or rather him. A man was leaning against the side of a blacksmith's house, arms crossed, seemingly casual except for the dark, piercing look he sent their way. She met his eyes and felt a shiver go down her spine when he held the stare in challenge.
Then someone crossed the line of sight and the spell was broken. When Reese looked back, the man was gone.
Sanders rose slowly to his feet, his face much more vigilant and serious now. He stepped closer to her, as Reese eased her grip on her weapon.
"That's the third guy, isn't it?" Sanders' voice was low, sober, focused.
Reese nodded, keeping quiet as she surveyed the rest of the area, looking for any other suspicious activities. Finding none put her even more on edge.
Stepping away from any eavesdroppers, Reese tapped the on button of her earpiece radio. "Matthews to Sheppard."
It took a few moments, then the low voice of the Lieutenant Colonel crackled through the slight interference. Obviously they were inside somewhere with bad reception.
"Sheppard here. What's your sitrep?"
"We had another eye on us, sir." Reese paused, biting her lip. She lowered her voice even further, turning her face away from the square and her fellow soldiers. "Despite what you said, sir, I don't like this. It's starting to look less and less random."
"Stay frosty, Captain. It doesn't look like we'll be able to move out anytime soon. Amid wants us to stay the night, but I've told him no. We should get out of here later today." He paused, exchanging a few words to someone off the radio, then continued. "Just keep our exit clear, and don't upset the natives. We need them on our side. Sheppard out."
Reese tapped the radio button in confirmation and then let out a frustrated breath. Needing the natives on their side was all and well, but she didn't like this at all. She had to stay frosty, though, like the Lieutenant Colonel said. Pulling herself together, she turned determinedly to her team members, who looked at her in varying degrees of apprehension. Neither of them seemed comfortable in this setting either.
"Keep on the lookout, but stay cool. We're not leaving yet," said Reese firmly, resuming her position along the wall of the closest Bhaati house. She held her P90 close in readiness, but not too tightly. She hoped that'd be enough. The last thing she needed was edgy, trigger-happy Marines.
Ramirez only shrugged, continuing to chew his gum where he leaned against the opposite house from Reese, while Sanders sighed lightly and sat down on the log once more, twisting his cap so it properly shielded his eyes from the sun. They didn't fool her, though. They were on edge, alert, but thankfully controlling it.
"I wonder what they want," said Sanders in a musing tone. "We're getting supplies and food, obviously, but what do they want? There's not a whole lot we can offer anymore, is it?"
"I'm sure the Colonel's got a plan," said Reese, though she couldn't help but wonder the same.
With Earth gone…
Realising that that path would only intensify the uncomfortable feeling in her gut, Reese channelled the suddenly dark mood into some good-natured ribbing on the Marine's part. "Maybe they want you, Sanders."
Ramirez caught on quickly, turning his frown upside down. "Yeah, they've been checking you out every fifteen minutes, Sanders Boy. They're probably thinking of marrying you to their daughter or something."
Sanders grinned cheekily, taking it in stride. "Well, I can't help being a stud. I was born this way."
Sam breathed in the cool air of her office and let it out slowly. Eyes closed, head popped back against the back of the chair, she took this moment to ease her headache away. The crumpled ibuprofen wrapper lay on the desk next to a half-empty glass of water, the ingested pills slowly dampening the throbbing in her head. She sighed in relief, moving her hands to massage some of the lingering pain away.
After several moments, she opened her eyes and stared into the emptiness of the dimmed room. The blinds were partially shut, giving her a moment's peace from the bustle of activity outside in the operations centre, where the dayshift crew were dealing with all the requests and reports coming in from all the departments, including the different civilian Pegasus and Milky Way communities on-base.
The Operations Centre – or OpCentre, as it'd been dubbed – had become the true hub of the city; the central management Sam insisted everyone go through to avoid complete, utter chaos. Still, they were balancing precariously on that fine line between control and chaos, especially given the outbreak of fistfights in the past two weeks.
Following their settling on this planet, Atlantis had returned from basic survival to trying to resume their old lives without the Wraith looming over them. It was hard, especially given the shock of losing the SGC and Earth, but also because in the time they'd been out of contact with their Pegasus allies, the other Wraith factions had begun stirring again in the rest of the galaxy. To what extent, Sam didn't know, but their long-range sensors and some few off-world missions had shown a lot of Wraith activity going on. They had yet to verify if the Wraith superhive and Todd's faction was involved.
Not many in Atlantis knew about this and Sam wanted to keep it that way. They needed to resume some sense of normality, to get back on track, and figure out what to do with everyone currently on board the city. There were so many people and they were all so different. Sam almost felt like she was back on Earth; the squabbling, the ego-centrism, the each-to-his-own attitudes… Only this time, she was left with the overall responsibility for everyone in this city, including the city itself.
Sam hated it, but she'd never be able to admit as much out loud. This was her command, as ordered by Major General O'Neill. She had to deal with it. For now, she just needed a breather, some distance to regain her control.
Things had spiralled too far in the meeting with the IOA earlier and Sam had nearly lost herself in the process. To have Coolidge insinuate that she prioritised the Pegasus refugees over the Earthborns… It was despicable. To her, Atlantis and the SGC had never been just about Earth and she knew many would agree with her.
But that was beside the point right now. A short break, that's what she needed, and then she'd be back on her game. There was still so much to do…
Sam's eyes opened and landed on the photo of SG-1, carefully situated next to the upraised PC tablet. The laughing faces looked at her, looked through her, saw everything.
A stone dropped into her stomach. Sam abruptly reached forward and slammed the frame facedown, and then turned firmly away.
She busied herself with some paperwork for a minute before she eyed the facedown frame again. Feeling guilty, Sam picked it up and moved it to a shelf behind her. She avoided lingering on SG-1's familiar faces, on her own face, and turned back towards her PC tablet.
Edging the chair closer to the desk, she touched a button and the lights brightened a bit. As if on cue, someone knocked on the glass door and Sam sighed.
Guess break's over.
The door opened carefully, revealing Chuck in his standard blue-grey BDUs, holding his tablet in his arms. "Sorry to disturb you, ma'am. There's something I think you should see."
Sam leaned back heavily in her chair, gesturing him to enter. "Alright. What it is, Chuck? News from AR-1?"
"No, ma'am. They haven't called in, but their check-in time isn't for another hour or so." Chuck stepped forward, fingering his PC tablet. He looked very uncomfortable, which put Sam on edge. "Um… This is what I thought you should see."
Sam accepted his tablet with both hands, surveying the text on the screen. A frown marred her face as she scrolled down to the end of the document.
"Did you double-check this with Dr Keller?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Chuck. "None of them exhibited any signs of sickness. As far as she could tell, they were all physically healthy, but they still insisted on either a leave of absence or sick leave."
Narrowing her eyes at the list of thirty-eight names on the tablet screen, Sam knitted her eyebrows. They were all civilians and most of them scientists working on the repairs of Atlantis after the battle with Todd's superhive. She recognised all of the names. She'd seen whom some of these people hung out with in the mess hall and corridors, but she couldn't afford to jump to any conclusions just yet. If her nagging suspicion was correct, this could turn out very ugly.
Sam glanced up at Chuck. The sergeant seemed on edge, hesitating a little in meeting her eyes. If anything, he looked a bit guilty. She straightened in her chair and gave him her best commanding officer's look.
"Chuck, you've got eyes and ears in this city. Please tell me what you know."
Night had fallen over the Bhaati town, making the forest surrounding it look even more ominous and dark in the distance. The town square had silenced, the vendors closing their shops and the shoppers returning home to their dinners and stoves and warm houses. Reese pulled on her jacket, but the chill was difficult to shake off once it'd had a chance to set in her bones. So she walked in a casual circle in the middle of the road, Sanders and Ramirez keeping a slightly tired but tense lookout at each of the flanking houses.
They'd only been here four hours with another hour to go until check-in time, but it felt like much more than that. Strange as it was, though, when they returned to Atlantis it'd only be a little past midday. The day was still young in a different part of the galaxy.
Looking at her watch, Reese wondered what it was like back in the Milky Way. Morning, midday, evening, or night? She'd kept track in the beginning, but now she'd lost it. It was all on Pegasus time now.
"Can't wait to get back," said Sanders, stretching his legs. "A nice lunch, some decent conversations."
"As much as I hate to say it, I've gotta agree with my boy here," said Ramirez, drawing his eyes briefly away from his lookout. "This is a really strange mission, Cap'n. So what if the natives invited us? I haven't exactly felt very welcome around here."
"That's because they know the Wraith have been after us and that's made them careful."
The sudden addition of Sheppard's voice startled them a little. From around the corner, Sheppard and the rest of the original AR-1 appeared, making the three soldiers straighten to a half-attention.
"Captain," greeted Sheppard. "What's our status?"
Reese wanted to ask about Sheppard's statement, but the grim look upon his face said clearly that this wasn't the time. In fact, she picked up a sense of urgency; he wanted to get underway as soon as possible.
Pushing back her curiosity and tension, Reese said, "We spotted a few more people keeping an eye on us, but there's been nothing the past hour and a half."
"Good," said Sheppard.
He glanced around at their surroundings. Apart from the Atlanteans, the street and market square had emptied completely and the windows were shut. Only a few streams of lights escaped from somewhere around the corner, but there were no moving shadows. Still, Reese's finger itched closer to the trigger of her P90.
"We're moving out," said Sheppard, nudging McKay and Teyla on in front of him. Ronon had already reached the edge of the forest and looked back at them impatiently. "Atlantis is expecting us back within the hour. Let's not disappoint them."
The question about the Wraith was still burning in Reese's mind as they resumed a tactical file with Ronon and Sanders in front, Reese and Ramirez making up the rear, and the rest in-between. McKay had found his little Ancient gadget and was looking at it from time to time, putting Reese on edge. That thing was scanning their surroundings, most likely on Sheppard's orders. But that meant he was on edge and Reese didn't think a handful of suspicious villagers was enough to do that to such an experienced officer.
Reese drew Sheppard's attention from a watchful 360 degree as they moved into the forest. She hastened a bit to keep in step with him, leaving Ramirez alone at the back of the column.
"How did the meeting go?" Reese asked, keeping her voice low. "And what'd you mean about the Wraith, sir?"
Sheppard didn't answer straight away. He eyed the forest and her critically, making Reese tense even more and become consciously aware of the difference in rank between them. Still, she was the second highest-ranking officer on this mission, and if whatever Sheppard kept quiet about was pertinent to the mission, she deserved to know.
"Sir, are you expecting trouble?" Reese prodded for the second time that day, feeling a bit reckless and subordinate in doing so. She held her ground, though, when Sheppard's piercing eyes met hers.
In the end, he seemed to give in.
"Eventually," said Sheppard darkly, his face full of shadows in the forest's evening light. "Amid – the town council leader – was pretty insistent on us staying longer. Too insistent, if you catch my drift."
Reese knitted her eyebrows. "So he didn't want us to leave… Why?"
"The Wraith have attacked Pegasus colonies more frequently than usual in the past two weeks. Some of the colonies have been old allies of the Bhaati and Atlantis, so Amid thinks the Wraith might turn on them eventually, which is why the Bhaati want our protection in exchange for food and whatever other supplies they can offer."
"There's something more about the Wraith, isn't there, sir?" Reese could feel it in her bones and by the serious tone of Sheppard's voice.
"Yeah… The Wraith haven't just been culling, but also razed villages, destroyed crops, things they haven't bothered with before…and they've asked questions."
"Questions about what, sir?"
Sheppard's low voice in the darkness sent shivers down Reese's spine. "Atlantis."
"Oh great, it's stopped working." McKay's half-snarky, half-worried voice cut through the darkness of the forest, his face almost immediately lit up by the flashlight on Teyla's wrist. He held up the Ancient life-signs scanner. "I told those kids not to play with it."
"Is it broken?" Teyla asked in concern, stepping closer.
Reese tried not to be distracted from keeping an eye on their right-hand side, with Ramirez covering the rear and Sheppard on her left. Each of them flashed their lights briefly at McKay and Teyla, but Sheppard's stayed longer before returning to the undergrowth.
"These things don't break…I think." McKay halted in his tracks, fiddling with the Ancient device.
"We're not stopping, Rodney," said Sheppard sharply. "The stargate's just a few hundred metres away. You can have a look at it when we get back." He turned to face the front of the group. "Sanders! Go on ahead and dial up the 'gate."
Sanders answered in the affirmative, his shadow setting off at a run in the dim light. Reese couldn't shake off the uneasy feeling that'd been with her the past few hours as she watched him jog away. Ronon's broad, tall shape remained just a few metres ahead of them, the back of him occasionally lit up by their swerving flashlights.
Two minutes passed. Then five. The forest was eerily silent. Trees began to stand further apart as they closed in on the clearing where the stargate was located, letting a bit more evening light onto the path.
Reese saw out of the corner of her eye how Sheppard crouched slightly and kept his weapon at the ready, immediately putting her further on edge. He watched the forest but didn't say anything. The silence was almost unbearable.
"Shouldn't we hear the 'gate going off about now, sir?" Reese found herself asking, her fingers tightening around her P90. "We're close enough."
"Easy, Captain." Sheppard's response was firm.
It didn't calm her down but it reminded her to stay frosty. She narrowed her eyes into the dim light, keeping a close eye on any movement in the undergrowth on her right. Fortunately, a bit of moonlight escaped through the branches, making it easier to see the difference between tree trunks and moving shadows.
Just as Reese glanced back to check on Ramirez, a scream tore through the forest.
"Damn." Sheppard swore below his breath. "That doesn't sound good. Matthews, on me. Ronon, stay—"
Sheppard's order was cut short as the undergrowth suddenly rose up and stormed towards them, roaring incomprehensibly in innumerable human voices.
In the chaos of flashlights and moving shadows that immediately followed, Reese moved sideways on instinct, which was just in time as she felt the rush of air above her head from something heavy. Looking up, her flashlight caught on something glinting and she jumped out of the way as it surged back towards her.
In the darkness, the undergrowth grotesquely started sprouting arms and legs as the camouflaging twigs fell off human limbs. With a few feet between them and the attackers, Reese could see that they were locked in a bottleneck situation on the road. There were people blocking both their way to the stargate and the way back to the village, and not just a few. Their team had to be outnumbered at least three-to-one.
Reese could glimpse the white in their attackers' eyes and her heart skipped at the crazy look directed at her in the blinking light. She gripped her P90, slinging it forward to try and threaten them off as one of the attackers roared forward, swinging a club of some sort. She backpedalled, feeling vulnerable with her back exposed to the forest.
In the distance, Sanders was still screaming.
"Colonel!" Reese cried out, hoping for some orders.
Somewhere to her left she could see Ramirez, or what she thought was the Sergeant, with McKay and Teyla behind him. It was hard to discern faces in these conditions; the clearing ahead only created faceless silhouettes that seemed to tower above her.
"Warning shots only!" Sheppard yelled. "They're Bhaati!"
"What the hell?" That was definitely Ramirez's voice, so the one on her left was a friendly. Reese immediately turned her back towards him, feeling a bit safer to know he was there.
A sharp movement in the corner of her eye made Reese flinch back, again narrowly escaping the path of a large wooden club. Because of the darkness, Reese struggled to calculate the distance. She relied on her instincts again, swerving on her feet as her attacker took another swing at her.
The P90 was hardly any decent in close-quarters combat as a butting option, forcing Reese to dodge the third swing from her attacker and pull the weapon around to use it for blocking instead as the club came on the return. She heard the weapons fire from a different P90 as she jumped away, but didn't look around to see whom it'd come from. The scream of pain was enough to tell it'd hurt someone, and she trusted the shooter enough to not have hit one of their own.
Reese tried to put some distance between herself and her attacker, but the man kept going savagely at her, pushing her off the road and up against a tree trunk. She ducked under his arm as he threw the club around and ran, only to get caught in a glancing blow from a different club-wielding Bhaati, who suddenly appeared in front of her.
"Fuck!" The epithet escaped her lips before she knew it.
Reese stumbled sideways until she crashed into the dirt ground. Pain shot up her left arm in waves, paralyzing it. Over her, the Bhaati lined up for another shot, only to be hit by some sort of red energy straight to the chest. He crumpled heavily across her legs, another one of his mates falling prey to the same energy weapon second later.
"Argh, dammit!" Reese cursed, rolling over and trying to get to her feet. She kicked away from the heavy Bhaati lying spread-eagled across her feet, hearing a satisfying crack as she hit his face. Then another foot joined in and pushed the man off her, before a strong hand pulled her up.
"You alright?" It was Ronon, who sent off another shot at one of the Bhaati pinning down Ramirez with some sort of staff. The Satedan had blood running down his face; it was an eerie sheen in the dimness.
"Yeah," gritted Reese out, holding her left arm close to her chest. It felt pretty much useless. The club had definitely punched a nerve centre. Worst-case scenario, something was broken.
Reese looked beyond Ronon just in time to see another shadow dislodge from the forest, glinting silver in the dim light. "Get down!"
She pushed Ronon sideways, but it was like pushing a wall until he reacted to her shout. They dropped to the ground, Reese on top. The arrow shot through the air, disappearing somewhere on the opposite side of the road.
They had no time to share thanks as the Reese's first attacked came at them, raising his large club with a heave and bringing it down hard. Ronon pushed Reese off, both rolling to separate sides, narrowly avoiding the blow. It made a deep dent in the dirt.
Unable to push herself up since she was lying on her left side, Reese pulled her combat knife out of the sheath on her leg. Without thinking, she lodged it deep inside the leg of the burly Bhaati as he positioned himself for the next attack. He cried out in pain and dropped the club.
Reese saw it fall towards her head as if in slow motion and then everything went black.
Walking into IOA territory felt like walking into an Ori village before the Ark of Truth, or a Jaffa camp before Dakara. There was an oppressive tension in the air and no one but a few brave ones seemed to meet Sam's stare.
Stalking through the corridors of one of the largest towers on the West Pier – incidentally where all of the surviving IOA members were housed, along with most of the Earth evacuees and some Pegasus refugees – Sam glanced left and right while keeping her mind on her destination. The tension in her neck increased with each brisk step that brought her forward among ex-SGC colleagues, both military and civilian, a few original Atlantis Expedition members, and even some Pegasus natives who looked rather frightened and kept to the wall as she passed.
The picture was growing clearer with every minute spent in this hotpot of IOA territory, and Sam cursed herself harder and harder for being so blind and clueless. She bet Coolidge and Xiaoyi were laughing in glee inside their "offices". Or at least Coolidge would, since Xiaoyi hardly ever showed a shred of being emotionally touched by something. The woman was pure ice.
Coming up to the security point separating the housing areas and the main corridor leading to transporters and local mess hall, Sam went straight on. She paused only to let the security personnel run the weapons scanner over her.
After the violent wave of fights breaking out last week between different groups, she'd organised these checkpoints to make sure weapons were kept out of the large public areas where the fights had mainly taken place. It worked in keeping the fights from becoming bloodbaths and remaining only verbal spats, but the remaining IOA members – of course – still didn't think it was enough.
Sam wanted to throw them all out. Maybe transport them to a locked storage room on the Daedalus and then leave them on a distant planet. Unfortunately, as she'd learned from Chuck and the people on his list, she couldn't do that. They were too damn popular.
Twisting abruptly down a corner, Sam gritted her teeth as she saw her target at the end of the hallway.
"Ms Xiaoyi. Can I have a moment of your time, please?"
Sam nearly spat the last word out, hating herself for even showing an ounce of politeness, but the situation called for basic niceties. There were too much at stake and there were witnesses. She needed to keep her cool, which was difficult as hell since the Chinese woman didn't seem the slightest bit surprised. In fact, Sam could've sworn Xiaoyi smirked briefly.
Pushing down an instinctive angry rebuke, Sam looked at the crowd of people surrounding Xiaoyi and added pointedly, "In private?"
"Of course, Colonel Carter," said Xiaoyi graciously, giving her peers a small smile. "We will resume our…discussion…tomorrow." She turned to Sam, who felt like the people who now passed her were grinning behind her back. "We can talk in my quarters, Colonel. We won't be disturbed there."
The icy smile annoyed Sam to pieces, but she kept her jaw locked as she followed the Chinese woman down a few doors and waited while Xiaoyi entered the pass code.
Soon they were inside the small-sized Spartan quarters, where the lights turned on as they entered. Sam remained standing while Xiaoyi sat down in an office chair by a small desk, both of which she must have received from someone with access to the original Expedition storage areas since they weren't of Ancient design. It furthered Sam's conviction that the woman and the IOA had connections, even within Sam's own people.
"What can I do for you, Colonel?" Xiaoyi sat primly in the chair and interlaced her fingers carefully. Sam's fists clenched briefly at her sides.
"I don't think we need to skirt around the issue and play pretend, Ms Xiaoyi. We both know clearly what's going on. I want you to call off the strike."
A thin line replaced Xiaoyi's smile. "I'm afraid we cannot do that. You see, Colonel Carter, we didn't propose this strike and so we have no hand in organising it. I would be glad to make inquiries into it and seek out the people responsible, but I would advise against forcing these people back to work. They are very upset."
Sam had noticed. Nearly everyone on the list Chuck had given her had been nearly hostile when she came around to their quarters to speak with them and figure out where the shoe was pushing.
"I can understand their issues, but this is not the way to deal with it. They should've come to me or anyone of the command staff, and we could've resolved this internally."
Xiaoyi raised a calculated eyebrow. "They are civilians, Colonel. They are not someone you can boss around. They do not answer to you."
"They are still considered to have contracts with the Air Force," said Sam, her eyes narrowed. "As long as I'm the appointed commander of this base, that clearly means they are under my command." She crossed her arms, staring defiantly back at the Chinese woman, whose eyes hardened.
"Those contracts were annulled the second they stepped through the stargate five weeks ago. They were forced away from their home and everyone they loved by your Air Force." Xiaoyi's voice raised just a notch, her eyes glinting briefly before she regained control. She gave Sam an icy stare. "Do not think they care much for the legal work, Colonel. As far as they're concerned, they are no longer required to follow the command of the military and they are not alone."
The threat was obvious. The tension in Sam's neck increased as she struggled to keep her anger down. No words came to her, though. She felt played by an underhanded manoeuvre, a sneak-attack, and she was suddenly very exposed between a rock and a hard place. She hadn't seen it coming, not really.
If she forced the issue, the strike would only continue, making the still critical repairs on Atlantis after the Wraith attack two weeks prior severely behind schedule. Her only option would then be to implement Martial Law, and there was no way in hell she was going to jeopardise the precarious status quo they'd reached after settling on this planet. Not to mention the ideological and political repercussions of doing that. This could spread like wildfire among the rest of the civilians – and even the military – and the last thing Sam needed was more people rallying to the IOA's cause, turning Atlantis into a political battleground that would most definitely turn very ugly in the end.
If she gave in to the strike's demands, however, that'd mean the remaining IOA members had won and their followers would definitely feel encouraged to continue to expand their territory and influence. And it would only confirm that she was a weak leader, making the people still recognising her command doubt her, even if they still followed her orders.
What would you do, Jack?
There was no answer and Sam felt disheartened to remember that Major General O'Neill had been on the SGC when it…
Sam fisted her hands and fixed her eyes on Xiaoyi. There was a bad taste in her mouth as she said, "What'd you want? And no more games, Ms Xiaoyi. Give it to me plain and simple, and don't take me for a fool. I know the IOA had a hand in this, one way or another."
Xiaoyi pursed her lips and gave Sam a pointed stare before admitting, "Alright. I will say it plainly." Her eyes hardened. "Relocate the refugees to a different planet. Let Atlantis become an Earth colony. Let us face it: we are all that is left."
An immediate rebuke threatened to burst out, but Sam kept her mouth shut, repressing the memories of a silver-haired man's face on a screen wishing her Merry Christmas.
After a moment, she said lowly, "They're all that's left of their people as well. Only they've got no grand military base of their own that can shelter them from the Wraith."
"Do not think I'm completely heartless, Colonel Carter," said Xiaoyi, yet her features were expressionless. "I sympathise with them. We can offer them humanitarian help, but you should realise that these people are farmers, hunters, collectors. They have no place in a city such as Atlantis."
Anger reared up again, but Sam found her words cut off by the sudden spark of her earpiece radio.
"OpCentre to Colonel Carter." Amelia Banks's tense voice rang through her ear. "We need you up here, ma'am. AR-1 came in hot. They've got casualties."
John stood along the wall of the Atlantis infirmary, fully equipped, grimy and bloody from a blow to the head with a stone. It was another reminder that an enemy didn't have to carry projectile or energy weapons, or be particularly trained, to injure one of Earth's finest. No matter how advanced weaponry and armour you wore, the most basic weapons could still hurt…and kill.
"How the hell could this happen? He's just a kid."
Due to the adrenaline still in his system, John heard Captain Matthews' whispered question behind him. She lay dazed on one of the infirmary beds, completely unaware of the medical staff tending to her arm and head wound. On an opposite bed, Ronon sat topless while a nurse stitched a gash on his back, while Sergeant Ramirez, McKay and Teyla lurked quietly in the background.
No one answered Matthews' question.
John turned back to the window so he could see what went on inside the surgery. Between Keller's back and the anaesthesiologist, there was a gap revealing Sanders' pale face. He looked as if he was just sleeping, not having life-saving emergency surgery.
While the rest of them had mostly suffered hits and bruises from clubs and hammers, no less than three arrows had pierced Sanders. It didn't look promising. Despite Keller's expertly handling of the surgical instruments, John knew only a miracle could save the kid.
He closed his eyes, cursing. His hand fisted and itched to punch the wall behind him. It didn't help relieve his anger when a different female voice sounded in the background.
"Where is he?"
The tone in Sam's voice broke the dam that held back his anger. There was no doubt he was her intended target. No one could be that irritated at dying kid. He turned with a furious glare as Sam stormed around the corner, her eyes hard and her jaw locked.
"Colonel, what the hell happened? This was supposed to be a peaceful trade mission."
"Tell that to the guys with the sticks and stones, ma'am." John gritted out.
He couldn't help the edged tone to his voice. He'd almost lost three of his people today; he wasn't in the mood for sweet talk. Still, they were in a semi-public place, not her office. People were watching. He saw Ronon giving them a furtive look out of the corner of his eye, though McKay had no such reservations. The Canadian looked like a fish out of water.
"We went in there, talked trade with the town leader Amid and his people, and got out. Somewhere in the midst of that, some of the Bhaati decided we shouldn't be there at all and they set up a trap to capture us." John's voice was low as he stepped closer to Sam, almost breaking into her personal space. She crossed her arms firmly and held her ground. "I'm guessing that they wanted to hand us over to the Wraith instead of becoming our allies."
"Why?" Sam lowered her voice as well, sounding completely professional. Her eyes were not quite as hard now, but John brushed it off. That train had passed.
"The Wraith've been attacking some of the Bhaati's allies, asking questions about Atlantis and our whereabouts," said John. He remained in his spot, tense, anger still coiling uneasily in his stomach. "That's why they wanted to open up trade again. They want protection from the Wraith and they know we can give it."
Sam put her hands on her hips, drawing herself up to her full height. She glanced at the surgery room on the other side of the see-through glass. Keller was still working quickly but firmly on Sanders. Her lips thinned and she turned back to John.
"How can you be sure the trap wasn't ordered by Amid?"
John locked his jaw as the realisation dawned upon him. "I don't."
Sam looked at him, her eyes glinting slightly. "Until we're completely sure of the Bhaati's intentions, we're not promising them any protection."
He knew it was a tactical decision, a reasonable and logical one, but there was still something that made John want to object.
He stepped into her personal sphere, but Sam didn't seem to notice. She stared at the surgery room, where Keller and her staff were now looking up at a flat line on the screen. It was accompanied with a long, continuous beep. Keller turned and gave them both a sad shake of her head.
John fisted his hand, closing his eyes briefly as he swallowed the urge to punch something, or someone. Beside him, Sam moved from her frozen position and he almost thought he could hear a waver in her voice, but it disappeared as quickly as he had heard it.
"I'll expect your report in two hours."
She didn't look at him again as she walked out through the infirmary, past frowns and wide-eyed expressions that instead turned to John for whatever confirmation or comfort they sought. Cursing inwardly, John glanced through the window to where Sanders' face was covered up with a linen cloth.He hated this part.