Day 58: "Take up our quarrel."
Captain Reese Matthews felt sombre as she equipped for the upcoming off-world mission in the armoury. The motions were more mechanical than conscious as she put on the tac-vest, clipped the P90 to it, and filled the pockets with a few spare mags, field rations and C4. They weren't expecting a fight, but after the incident with the Bhaati, Colonel Carter had told all teams to be prepared for anything, even going as far as sidestepping the temporary ammo rationing. Colonel Sheppard had conveyed the message, adding that if they were forced to fight, they shouldn't hold back. This was their home now.
Somehow, Reese was glad they had Colonel Sheppard. Ever since the Bhaati incident, he'd looked after them, always giving them advice if the teams were going out without him or assigning more team members for added security. In the wake of Sanders' death, he'd approached her and let her speak her mind. She'd kept back, of course, but it felt reassuring to know there was an officer she could turn to if there was something on her mind. She hadn't felt that since she was back at the SGC.
It'd been hard to lose Sanders, but she needed to go on, to deal with it. She was still a team leader and people were looking to her. Sheppard had reminded her of that.
But how did you move on when it was becoming just a little more difficult to get out of bed every morning?
Sergeant Miguel Ramirez entered the armoury, followed by the two new members Sheppard had assigned to her team. Dr Jeremy 'Jerry' Stevenson was their basic scientist and anthropologist, Staff Sergeant Eileen Kerrick their Air Force engineer. They were a ragtag team but all of them were from the former SGC, so at least they knew of each other peripherally before being put together.
"So…scouting, huh?" said Stevenson conversationally after putting on his tac-vest. "Sounds fun."
"Ain't nothin' that fun," said Kerrick, jerking her weapons off the rack and moving on to the ammunitions caches. Ramirez handed her a few mags, which she slipped into the pockets of her vest with a grimace. "I can think of a thing or two more fun than this."
"Like making wells and cutting down trees?" asked Ramirez with a raised eyebrow. He clipped the P90 to his vest and kneeled to fasten a combat knife to his leg. "I hear your buddies've got their work cut out for them setting up camps on the refugee worlds."
"At least they get to blow things up," growled Kerrick, waving a pack of C4 to underline her point before pocketing it. "Which is more than I'm gonna be doin'. Stupid recons."
Reese chose not to say anything in response as she lingered by the doorway, waiting for the rest to finish suiting up. Sometimes people just needed to air things before moving on. She preferred to do it before the mission rather than underway. As for the topic… She found it'd been an issue for many people, some more surprising than others. Only yesterday, she'd heard one of the NCOs celebrating the sudden decision to relocate the refugees Atlantis had picked up before the evacuation from Earth.
As a Captain, she didn't have the right to know what happened on command level decisions that weren't strictly military, but… In her opinion, it seemed Colonel Carter had been too harsh in expelling the Pegasus refugees from the city. Of course, rumours said the IOA had a hand in it, but Reese had long ago decided not to trust rumours, especially on a military base. Though she wouldn't put it past the IOA remnant to try something – she'd been in the mess hall that day they landed on this planet – she thought Colonel Carter was made of harder stuff than this. It'd seemed like it in the past, at least. After all, it'd only taken Reese two weeks into the stargate programme to hear the legends of Carter and SG-1's achievements.
Listening to Ramirez and Kerrick starting to bicker rather bitingly, a behaviour that was becoming exceedingly familiar and annoying, Reese sighed and shifted on her feet.
"Come on, guys, we're on the clock here," Reese said sharply. "Get moving."
Huffing but conceding to her authority, Kerrick turned on her heel and practically stomped past Reese, followed by the rather nervous Stevenson, who hadn't dared say another word during the exchange. Ramirez remained behind, eyes dark as he stared after the other team members, his hands on the P90.
He'd changed somewhat after Sanders' death, but Reese couldn't blame him. That'd be hypocritical of her. Instead, after a moment's silence, she prompted, "Sergeant."
When Ramirez's stare rounded on her, his presence strong, Reese held her ground and added firmly, "Let's go."
His demeanour changed slowly, the dark features replaced by what appeared to be a condescending smile. "Yes, ma'am."
Ramirez popped chewing gum into his mouth as he walked past her, but didn't meet her eyes again.
Holding back a sigh, Reese hitched the P90 up in her hands and followed the sergeant out of the armoury. The door closed behind them, the locks clicking in place. The two Airmen stationed as guards stared into the air like statues, letting them pass with only a minor acknowledgment to their rank insignias.
"With all due respect, Colonel Sheppard, fighting the Wraith should no longer be our concern."
"And I'm telling you, the Wraith superhive is a sitting duck."
Eyes narrowed, fists clenched, John felt close to the bursting point, which was not what he'd expected when he'd walked into this meeting earlier. This was supposed to have been an easy in-and-out mission, an elevator pitch, and a damn cakewalk. Instead, it'd turned into the bureaucratic version of the Spanish Inquisition.
"If we strike at them right now with everything we've got, we'll get rid of that damn thing once and for all, or I swear to God, it's gonna come back and bite us in the ass." John blew a frustrated breath, adding in a mutter, "don't know about you, but I prefer mine whole."
No smirk. No response. Seated across from him, Sam only stared stoically somewhere just to the right of his face, her lips taut in grimace. At his side, Caldwell showed more presence, clearly considering his proposal but still woefully silent. In fact, he seemed to subtly look to the surprise addition fixed between him and Sam, who'd so far been the only voice besides John's.
Shen Xiaoyi, creepy x-ray vision and all, looked prim and proper in her impeccable business suit – a stark contrast to the somewhat creased uniforms and jumpsuits the three colonels wore. As she'd wasted no time telling him earlier, she was the new IOA representative to the senior council. And yes, they were calling it a council now. 'Senior staff' was apparently misleading and excluding, so of course they were trying to avoid hurting anyone's feelings.
Not that any of the other department heads has been summoned here. Apparently this wasn't deemed worthy of their attention…or is it the other way 'round?
Whatever murky thoughts were running through John's mind, were cut short as Xiaoyi spoke up once more, her voice almost a drone.
"Thanks to Colonel Carter's solution with the zero point modules, Atlantis is protected from the Wraith superhive's sensors." Xiaoyi levelled her eyes at him, her fingers interlacing carefully on top of the conference table. "I think you will find that many in this city agree that we have lost enough people, Colonel. As such, we should instead focus our efforts on our new home and how we will acquire new resources, not expend what little we already have."
The idea was so tactically foreign right now that John, holding back his anger, glanced at Sam expectantly. He could somewhat understand Caldwell's silence given the history between him and Xiaoyi, but Sam's had blindsided him. Just a few weeks ago, she'd almost thrown Coolidge out of her office with her bare hands. Today, though, she'd followed the back-and-forth argumentation wordlessly, even through some of Xiaoyi's more radical ideas. But that couldn't hold for long, John figured. Colonel Samantha Carter had fought harder battles than that, damn it, and he'd seen the hint of a spark in those eyes of hers earlier.
And yet… now there was nothing but an expressionless façade as she stared down at her clasped hands. He almost growled.
"Atlantis might be protected, for now," John bit out, turning his narrowed eyes back at Xiaoyi as blood began to pound in his ears, "but what about our people out there in Pegasus? We can't just leave them."
"Humanitarian aid—" Xiaoyi began, but she was cut off.
"We're not leaving anyone behind."
The words were sharp and unexpected, yet welcomed. Looking back at their source, John saw Sam giving Xiaoyi a hard look as if sensing a rebuttal. The woman gave none, seeming entirely unfazed. Nevertheless, a sense of relief coursed through him…at least until Sam turned her eyes on him, her jaw tight. He knew that look by now.
"However, we can't overextend our resources," Sam said lowly. "I'm all for sending the help we can afford, Colonel, but we can't engage in open hostilities with the Wraith. Not with our current standing."
Xiaoyi nodded in agreement, looking to John with what he was sure was supposed to be a reassuring smile. It made him cringe inwardly.
"Do not believe we'll leave them high and dry, Colonel," Xiaoyi said. "Your engineers have already prepared several worlds for settlement. Rich worlds with plenty of natural resources. I believe some do not even have stargates, which in my understanding should make them safe from detection by the Wraith."
"Sure, that sounds very nice and all, but you're forgetting one little thing," said John sarcastically, holding one finger up for emphasis. "Thanks to their ZPMs — and we know they've got more than two due to that subspace sensor thingy — the superhive's got upgrades we can only guess at. If they want to, they're gonna find those planets and what d'you think'll happen then? They'll kill everyone, just like they've been doing the past month."
John narrowed his eyes dangerously, leaning forward across the table towards Xiaoyi. "That's genocide, Ms Xiaoyi. You wanna have that on your conscience?"
An awkward silence ensued, with John keeping his eyes trained on Xiaoyi, never breaking eye contact, and Sam and Caldwell eyeing each other in the background. The tension was suffocating. For several moments, John held on. Then Xiaoyi withdrew her eyes and a sense of victory filled him. Although she appeared to concede to his point, the hard lines on her face told John that this battle was far from over.
"Even if Atlantis would be able – and willing – to send help," said Xiaoyi after a moment, "how would the planets in question be able to notify us of their need, especially if they do not have a stargate? "
She looked at each of them with a raised eyebrow, her hands folded calmly on the tabletop.
This time, it was Caldwell who broke his self-imposed silence, his voice serious. "Daedalus already makes weekly visits to many of these worlds and will continue to monitor them in the future. With one of the ZPMs left over from Atlantis installed, we can also extend our long-range sensors. If the Wraith are attacking a friendly planet within that sensor grid, refugee or otherwise, we'll pick it up."
The definite tone in the senior Colonel's voice assuaged a few of the doubts in John's mind, causing him to ease back in his seat. At least for the moment.
Directing his self-assured and respected demeanour at all of them, Caldwell continued. "As for the Wraith superhive itself… Daedalus's systems have overall been considerably boosted by the ZPM and we're now able to get in and out of a system quickly without being detected. We could evaluate the situation."
John perked up and noticed in the corner of his eye that Sam stirred in her seat.
"Last time we checked, Todd's superhive had moved from the nebula to a nearby system, but they were still regenerating," Caldwell said. "If they're still there, we could drop a Mark 8 and halt their regeneration. If we get a lucky shot… Well, I don't think anyone would mind."
"Except Todd," John said, smirking darkly at the thought. Xiaoyi looked like she wished to roll her eyes and clearly ignored him in favour of Caldwell.
"Even so, Colonel, for how long do you think you can halt the superhive's regeneration?" Xiaoyi regained her oppositional tone without a hitch. "There is to my understanding a limited supply of nuclear devices and we have no means presently of making more. If you cannot destroy the superhive in one attack, or three, I do not see how this would help Atlantis or our'allies' in the long run apart from the proverbial poking of the bear."
After a short moment of silence, Xiaoyi's eyes went to Sam coolly, her voice lowered and razor sharp. "What concerns me is that you all seem to be ignoring the possibility that the proposed attacks on the refugee planets are simply a ruse; a ploy used by the Wraith, in conjunction with people like the Bhaati, in an attempt to lure us out."
On the other side of the table, Sam's eyes glinted at the undoubtedly veiled stab at her competence, and it looked briefly like she wanted to bite something out in retort, but nothing passed her taut lips.
John clenched his teeth and looked away, his blood boiling up again at the pitiful sight. Sam had fought the IOA so fiercely in the weeks after they'd evacuated to Atlantis, but now… she was letting Xiaoyi run all over her with barely any resistance and the show was pissing him off. Colonel Samantha Carter had more guts than this, dammit! Only last week, she'd fought him to the brink of a fistfight over her decision to relocate the Pegasus refugees off-world. Even if she'd been spouting arguments he now found echoing in the infuriatingly calm and icy Xiaoyi, that display of force still counted for something.
However, if she'd lost the guts to resist the IOA, then by God, he'd take them on. Not on behalf of her, but on behalf of the refugees and the people in this city who were the true innocents of this power struggle. After all, he was still Sam's de jure second-in-command. No IOA representative could take that position away from him, no matter how smartly they dressed for meetings.
Eyes narrowed in determination, John watched the woman in question turn to Caldwell.
"Colonel, if Atlantis is not capable of defeating the superhive, what makes you think the Daedalus is capable of doing so? Yes, the ZPM is in all likelihood able to boost your shields and Asgard weapons, but will it be enough? Is it worth the risk of leaving Atlantis' military strength severely reduced should things turn out adversely?"
Eyebrows arched in silent question, Xiaoyi looked at each of them in turn, her shoulders relaxed and her features containing an air of superiority. Her icy eyes fell last on Sam, who only stared back at Xiaoyi with a hard look of her own, her hands fisted together on top of the table.
"I say it is." John met Xiaoyi's eyes in challenge. "I'm sure you know by now that the military don't leave our people behind."
"Even at the cost of your own?" asked Xiaoyi, unperturbed, though her emotionless face darkened briefly.
John gritted his teeth. "There's always risks in hostile situations. Every man and woman in this city knows that."
Xiaoyi didn't miss a beat. "And what of friendly situations, Colonel?"
The shock of those words was enough to leave him speechless. Everyone around the table knew instantly what Xiaoyi referred to. After all, the memories from two weeks ago and the young man they'd buried on the mainland afterwards were still fresh in mind.
John felt an icy stone drop into his stomach and his wary eyes glanced briefly in Sam's direction, recalling the aftermath of that event with overpowering clarity.
Xiaoyi seemed to notice their reactions and her straight-faced expression screamed victory as she told him, "May I remind you, Colonel Sheppard, that you yourself fell victim to a ruse that was going to capture you and deliver you to the Wraith. By a people who had once been on completely amicable terms with you."
"You know as well as I do that there's been no confirmation of that," John said lowly, his fingernails digging into his palms in repressed anger. Blood started pounding more furiously in his ears.
"You cannot expect me to believe that they had honourable intentions when they attacked your team and killed Private Trevor Sanders, Colonel," said Xiaoyi coolly, leaning forward on the table, hands clasped. "Just as I will not believe that the two scientists who were lost on PX6-74D last week were as 'safe' as you promised."
John had almost pushed to his feet, fists ready, but now he stopped at the sharp edge in Sam's voice. She leaned forward in her seat, her eyes solely focussed on him as if there was just the two of them in here.
And for the first time in a long while, John felt the connection that'd once drawn them together. In that second, he thought they had an understanding. In those large blue eyes, he lost sight of the full-bird Colonel and saw only the woman. His friend. His confidante. The one who'd comforted him after his father's funeral, and whom he'd comforted after General Hammond's. The one who'd said that 'yes', they'd get through this. They'd survive.
Then Sam's eyes darted to Xiaoyi and her low, firm voice shattered the illusion. "Ms Xiaoyi is right. Our weaponry isn't strong enough to destroy the superhive completely. Even with a boost from the ZPM, the Asgard beams wouldn't cut it. If the Daedalus went up against someone as strong as that superhive, we'd certainly come out on the losing side. We can't risk it."
John was tempted to call her on the change of topic, but Sam's expression hardened and she moved without pause to Xiaoyi. "However, I will agree to a reconnaissance mission by the Daedalus. We need to know where our enemies are and our latest intel's already too old by a week." She looked back at Caldwell, who met her eyes head-on, almost as if he'd expected it. "When can you be ready to move out?"
"Recalling the crew, preparing the ship… Give us 90 minutes."
"Good," said Sam. She squared her shoulders as she turned to face Xiaoyi again, her tone definite but light. "That's settled. We have more issues on the agenda, but seeing as it's almost lunch-time I'd say we could do with a break."
Xiaoyi nodded, but John thought her fixed smile was a tad bit too polite and cold. "I agree, Colonel Carter. Perhaps we shall reconvene in one hour? Excepting Colonel Caldwell, of course."
Sam nodded, her smile strained but present.
Xiaoyi rose to her feet as calmly as ever, unhurriedly gathering her files. John fisted his hands at his sides, but kept his mouth shut. She looked at them, giving a curt nod. "Colonels."
They all nodded back, silent. Gathering her papers in a pile, Sam stood and picked up her PC tablet in the process. Caldwell followed Xiaoyi with his eyes as she left the conference room. Once the doors closed behind her, he looked at Sam with a narrowed, serious stare.
"Carter," he said lowly. "I don't know what kind of deal Ms Xiaoyi made with Mr Woolsey, but I hope you know what you're doing, allowing her into this. If this doesn't go well…"
"We need the IOA as much as they need us," Sam said dismissively, fiddling with her PC tablet.
"Do we?" muttered John darkly. He couldn't help think that he'd heard that argument once before and it hadn't ended well.
Sam only gave him a mixed look as if she was conflicted, then turned and left through the opening conference room doors. It was becoming a regular occurrence. John could only watch her leave with an uncomfortable churning in his stomach.
From the other side of the table, Caldwell appraised him coolly. John ignored him and followed Sam's example: leaving without a word.
Reese found herself forced to shout into the radio, having turned the volume up as far as she could. She hoped that Stevenson could get anything out of the garble on his end. She swiped the mist on the outside of her goggles, cursing beneath her breath at whatever weather gods she had offended.
No one had told them they were going to step into a storm. The few MALPs Atlantis had were undergoing repairs after having been jostled around in the last battle with the Wraith superhive, so apparently no one had seen the need for a robotic evaluation before heading out, and it had frankly never crossed Reese's mind either. After all, they'd been here before, or AR-1 had before the Evacuation.
Ranking as the equivalent of 18th century industrial Europe, the Avrosians were one of the many societies in the Pegasus galaxy that'd once been in trade relations with Atlantis, which was why Atlantis wanted to re-connect with them after the cat-and-mouse chase with the Wraith. Reese's team was there to re-establish that contact.
That was if they ever managed to find the damn city! They'd trotted around in the complete, utter, stormy dark among stones and bushes for almost two hours, drifting several klicks away from the stargate. It made her wish at least one of them had been given the ATA gene therapy so they could've taken a Jumper. Although Stevenson had the gene, he'd never flown a Jumper and only managed to operate minor Ancient technology, so he didn't count. Unfortunately, giving the gene therapy to the rest of the team was deemed far less important in the grand scheme of all things that was Atlantis base priorities during emergency periods. At least in this particular period of crisis.
Crackling in her ear, Stevenson's reply was just another string of garbled words, taking her a moment to decipher.
"—othing.—this interference is—essing—ith the—. We should—ead—towar—rgate."
Ancient life signs detector was still blind then, Reese summed up. Or they'd strayed so far off-course that there was no civilisation to pick up apart from them. There was a limited range on the detector after all. That meant they had to step back, change tactics.
Halting, Reese turned around with her flashlight, looking for the rest of the team. They'd tried to stick close with flashlights and glowsticks to locate them, but the harsh winds whipping at them and foggy rain had already spread them out of sight two times. Fortunately, she could see all of the three green sticks glowing in the stormy dark. What she couldn't see, however, was where the hell they were. Apart from the rain pelting down on them and the firm ground beneath their feet, as well as the somewhat distinctive shadows rising in the background that could be mountains – or buildings for whatever she knew – it was nearly complete darkness. Even the moon was dark.
Waving her flashlight, Reese made them converge on her location. Kerrick was cursing openly in Irish; half of the words surviving the radio interference still sounded completely alien to Reese. Ramirez was quiet, standing on her left with his hands on the P90. Stevenson was adjusting his goggles with a grimace, pushing hair out of his face.
They stood close together, trying to shield off some of the rain and gusts of wind. With the electrical interference from the storm — Stevenson's assumption — Reese turned from radio amplification and resorted to the Air Force's equivalent of sign language to tell them they were going back to the stargate and call for back-up.
"—bloody time!" shouted Kerrick through the rain, her face drawn in a grimace behind water-proof goggles. Hers was probably one of the few voices that could carry decently enough through this storm. "I hate—damn planet—!"
Reese held back a groan. They were all wet, cold, frustrated and overcome with a rather foul stench from what could only be nearby marshes. Kerrick was just voicing it. Still, she tried to keep the spirits up.
She stepped closer to them and shouted at the top of her voice, "I'm sure Atlantis will get us a Jumper; that should get us out of this foggy storm! Stevenson, you're on point with Kerrick. Let's get going!" She waved and gestured them into action, making her decision clear in case the storm carried away her voice.
It was the most logical decision. Kerrick was antsy to do something and Stevenson had the Ancient gadget, but as Reese watched them climb the low hill they'd just descended, stumbling in the shadows, she thought maybe she should've chosen caution over impatience and sent Ramirez ahead. Somehow, she just knew it would come back biting her in the butt.
Major Kevin Marks hadn't seen his commanding officer look so troubled in over a month. It was as if something was unnerving him deeply. For as long as he'd known Colonel Steven Caldwell, Marks had figured nothing could truly shake him. The only thing that came close was the Evacuation, as he'd heard some people calling it in the mess.
The Daedalus had been in transit when it happened, with some of the original crew on holiday leave. They were undermanned, only carrying extra supplies that the SGC had figured Atlantis needed to fight off the Wraith superhive. Marks didn't know about that, but he had noticed there was a much larger amount of certain supplies than normal. Not that he'd look deeply into it on his own or sneak in the records, but…
There'd been something about the Colonel when they were leaving Earth, something Marks couldn't put his finger on. When they'd arrived at Atlantis a week after leaving Earth only to hear that the planet they'd left behind was lost…he thought he that had to be it. The event had shaken their foundations and beliefs, but it seemed the Colonel's even more so. Ever since, he'd looked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
"How long until normal space?" asked Caldwell, staring straight ahead from his captain's chair at the subspace lights passing by through the bridge windows.
Marks looked at the screen in front of him and touched several buttons in sequence. "Twenty minutes, sir."
Caldwell acknowledged with a nod, sinking back in his chair and touching his fingers to his lips in a contemplative manner. For a moment, Marks wondered if it was only the Wraith that was on the man's mind. Or maybe something that was too high above Marks's and everyone else's paygrade to know. Something Caldwell had to carry alone.
Marks wasn't sure if that particular thought eased his mind or not.
"Can anyone else suddenly see their feet?" Kerrick's voice filtered clear as ice as opposed to earlier through Reese's earpiece radio, partly answering the engineer's question.
"Seems the storm is breaking up," said Ramirez, his tone nowhere near as cheerful as Reese was when she looked up at the sky.
The dark stormy rain clouds that'd blanketed the sky and hidden the stars from them were slowly drifting apart; showing cracks with only a little hint of light. It was enough for Reese to see that they were at the end of the downward slope, the ground stretching into the viewable distance like a huge open field. Except that this didn't match the feeling of the path they'd taken from the stargate. It'd been much more rocky and bushy. What was in front of them was… a huge nothingness.
Reese stopped, taking the moment to wipe the rain off her goggles. The winds had died a little and the rain was easing up, but it was still difficult to see and hear clearly. She gave the view another look before clicking her radio, "Stevenson. How far off are we from the stargate?"
The two green glowsticks ahead of her halted abruptly, one of them seemingly doing a 360-degree sweep. Several moments passed in which Reese's suspicions only rooted themselves deeper in her consciousness. There was definitely something odd about the picture before her and like the famous line went, she had a bad feeling about this.
Finally, Stevenson replied. "The beacon's two miles off at…uh…ten o'clock?"
"What's up, Captain?" asked Ramirez, coming up immediately to her left.
Reese frowned, ignoring the Marine sergeant's question for now. She needed more info. "Stevenson," she said again. "Could that scanner of yours detect anything other than life signs? Like structures?"
At her side, Ramirez shifted restlessly on his feet. Even though he was quiet, she could feel the tension rolling off him.
"Yes, I think so. Dr McKay's made a few modifications to the scanners, so I should be able to pick up—"
"Do it," ordered Reese firmly. "And broaden your range as far as you can. Direct it three o'clock of my position."
Looking at Ramirez, she finally answered his query. "Colonel Sheppard said the city was south of the stargate surrounded by hills. We thought we were going south, but I think we went north-west instead." As she spoke, she pulled out her old-fashioned compass and grimaced at the needle when it stopped. "Damnit!"
The sergeant caught on quickly. "So we're just good and lost, eh, Captain?"
Ramirez's voice was slightly edged, but Reese couldn't blame him. She was frustrated with the idea herself. To get lost on a recon mission – it was the worst that could happen to a soldier, not to mention an officer. They were supposed to be the best suited for the job and they even had the help of Ancient detectors. The one vital thing they lacked was a decent map, but that shouldn't be an excuse. Reese had trusted the Ancient life signs detector to get them through the storm to safe haven in the Avrosian city and she'd failed. That was her responsibility. But with the possibility of the city being so close…she might just have the chance to redeem herself — for the moment.
"I'm detecting a cluster of what could be structures a few miles off, ma'am. It's difficult to say since the Avrosians aren't known to use alloys in their structures." Stevenson sounded uncertain, but Reese couldn't afford to let this pass by. If they had indeed been lost and the city was this close, then going back to the stargate now would be a waste.
Taking another glance at the sky where the stormy clouds were continuing to break up, Reese hefted her P90 into her arms. "Atlantis will have to wait, guys. Let's meet up and head to that cluster."
She adjusted her goggles and moved off towards the other glowsticks, Ramirez close behind. They'd almost reached the others when Stevenson's voice filled her ear once more.
"Yes, Doctor?" Reese frowned at the odd tone Stevenson used, instinctively clutching her P90 a little tighter.
"There's a high level of radiation coming from those structures…" A moment passed without any further explanation, nagging uncomfortably at the back of Reese's mind, then the man continued ominously, "… and I'm still not detecting any life signs."
"Run the scan again. Boost the signals if you have to." Caldwell's voice was eerily slow and powerful as he repeated his order to the subdued bridge crew.
It sparked everyone into motion.
From behind the captain's chair, the crew assigned to sensors were working diligently, methodically sending out long-range waves designed to pick up the subspace signal that the two-or-more ZPMs on board the Wraith superhive emitted.
Marks frowned as he worked on his console, the data being transferred to him as soon as the sensor data came in.
It was futile.
"It's gone, sir," Marks said. "We can't pick the ship up on any of the sensors."
He looked up at Caldwell, who pushed himself abruptly out of his chair and strode towards the windows at the front of the bridge. He stood strong, powerful, silhouetted against the shifting lights of the nearby nebula, the superhive's last hiding place. His shoulders were rank, his hands firmly on his hips, but there was something in his stance that had them all holding their breath.
For a second, Marks considered how quickly things changed.
"Let's do another sweep of the solar system, but stay on your toes," Caldwell said finally, without turning. "We're not going back unless we're completely sure they're not just pulling the wool over our eyes."
Marks shared a look with Major Emma Cooper, who sat on the other side of the captain's chair. Neither of them said a word but slowly pulled back to their consoles, listening to the rest of the bridge crew doing the same. Marks was sure they were all thinking the same thing.
The Wraith superhive was loose again.
"OpCentre to Colonel Carter. The MALP's through and we've established contact with AR-5."
Sam touched her earpiece radio in a slight relief. There was only so much of quarrelling over resources, work shifts, deadlines and unbearable tension that she could take in one day, especially with Rodney being behind most of the complaining. Her head was aching with the day's numerous impressions.
"Copy that, Chuck. On my way." She glanced at the various department heads seated around the conference table that looked either offended or curious at the interruption. "We'll have to get back to this later."
"Matthews's team?" asked John, knowing that was the only team off world at the moment.
He seemed to perk up at the thought, which was certainly a change from the sullen and bored look he'd worn throughout the administrative meeting. Not that the latter was anything new since Sam first came to Atlantis. John had never been fond of meetings in general, least of all the administrative kind.
It was good to see that some things never changed no matter what circumstances they found themselves in or forced themselves into.
Back in the bleak reality, Sam nodded briefly, closing her laptop and leaving it behind along with her notes as she went through the opening doors and into the Operations Centre. John quickly got to his feet and followed. He came up behind her as she stood in front of a static monitor, ordering Chuck to patch the signal through from the MALP.
"Captain Matthews, this is Colonel Carter. Do you read?"
The screen flickered then cleared up, showing the face of a goggled and rain-drenched Captain Reese Matthews. Sam noticed Sergeant Ramirez in the background, with Staff Sergeant Kerrick and Dr Stevenson forming up beside him, all of them with green glow sticks attached to their vests. Everything else was covered in rain and darkness.
It took a moment for the sound to come through to the monitor, making it slightly out of synch with the image. "Yes, ma'am. I read you loud and clear."
Frowning, Sam crossed her arms. "What's the situation? Did you manage to contact the Avrosians?"
Matthews stared into the MALP camera, looking morbidly alien in her goggles and cap. "…Not exactly. When we came here everything was fogged up and the storm messed with the Ancient detector, so we got off-track for a while. Then it started clearing up, but…" It was clear by the expression on the captain's face that something had happened and it was of the sort that made Sam tense up. "Ma'am, there's nothing here."
"What do you mean?" asked Sam immediately, shifting on her feet. Next to her, John jolted closer to the monitor, obviously as disturbed as she was. "Chuck. Run a wide-range scan through the MALP."
In the background, Chuck set to work straight away. One of the projects Sam had assigned the scientists a month ago was upgrading several types of equipment, and the few MALP they had were now capable of doing atmospheric and geographical scan in a three-mile radius. That should put the Avrosian city just within its limits.
On the screen, Matthews shook her head, grimacing. "I mean there's nothing at all, nada, zip. The Avrosians are gone. There's a few structures left of their city, but Stevenson picked up high levels of radiation from them so we haven't ventured further."
"What the--?" John's outburst brought him forward. "'The hell happened?" Sam sent him a look but he carried on, undeterred, now almost growling at both the screen and her. "A year ago there were nearly five thousand people living on that planet. Teyla talked to them only five days ago on M7X-341!"
Even though she was as riled up as John, Sam ignored him in favour of directing a question at the young captain, seeing as Chuck was still working on the MALP scan. "Did you find any signs as to what could have caused it?"
"No, ma'am. We're not equipped for it, and we can't get good visuals either." Matthews shifted on her feet, swiping water off her goggles to emphasise her point. "I'm requesting a Jumper so we can run an overhead sweep. It might be they've just moved to a different part of the planet."
In five days? Sam doubted it, but she let it remain unsaid. Matthews' reasoning was sound and it was expecting too much of them to have been able to run a good scan with the limited equipment they had. Not to mention that the storm wouldn't help in the least.
"Granted," Sam said finally, giving John a nod.
He didn't need to be told twice to get off to the Jumper Bay. Sam knew that even if she'd told him to send someone else, he'd have just defied her and gone himself no matter what. If she could escape one more struggle today, she'd gladly accept it.
Chuck's voice immediately drew Sam away from the monitor, coming to his side and looking over his shoulder at his laptop screen. "What've you got?"
Looking at the results from the MALP scan, Sam felt like a stone had been dropped into her stomach.
There truly was no life there. Somehow, the entire city had disappeared and Sam doubted any natural disasters could do this type of damage, especially given the radiation Stevenson had detected.
Sharing a silent look with Chuck, Sam rose to her full height and strode slowly back to the monitor, where Matthews and her team were shifting on their feet restlessly in the rainy dark. "Captain, you and your team are to return to Atlantis."
"That's an order, Captain," Sam said sharply, brooking no further argument.
Though impossible to read behind the goggles and cap, Matthews finally resigned to Sam's authority. "Yes, ma'am."
Only a little relieved she still had some clout, Sam nodded and signalled for Banks to terminate the video connection.
Sam knew soldiers and she knew officers like Matthews. If they could, they'd never abandon a mission. But there was no use in having all of them inside that Jumper, not when all indications told her that all they'd find was a devastated city with zero life signs.
"We're just gonna go back, quick as that?" Surprisingly, Kerrick's frustrated voice sounded in Reese's ear.
Turning around, Reese saw the rest of the team huddle together, their jagged and rain-soaked features glowing with the blue shimmering of the open wormhole. It was impossible to see their eyes behind the illuminated goggles, but Kerrick's lips were drawn in a snarl, Stevenson was trying to avoid chattering his teeth, and Ramirez was familiarly detached.
No matter how much she agreed with Kerrick, Reese knew she couldn't show it. Not here, not in front of them. And especially not after having been given a direct order from Colonel Carter.
Gripping her P90 tightly, Reese growled into her microphone. "Just like that, Staff Sergeant. Now get going."
Stevenson moved immediately, not needing to be told twice. Ramirez sauntered forward, halting by the MALP and taking up a flanking position.
When Kerrick didn't move, Reese lowered her voice dangerously. "That's an order."
Reacting with a huff, Kerrick passed Reese without another look, standing on the other side of the MALP as it tentatively started to turn around towards the stargate.
Reese slowly counted to ten and followed.
Looking up as the office door opened, Sam was only partially surprised to see John stepping in and closing it behind him. He didn't move further than three steps, nor did Sam offer him a seat. It was clear on his face that that wasn't what he wanted.
"The Wraith." Sam's lips thinned even as John growled what was on both of their minds.
"The superhive's the only one capable of this," Sam agreed, her eyes hard.
Based on the intensive scans run by the Jumper, John had returned with just fractionally more insight on what'd happened on Avros. Once the storm cleared up a bit, it'd been clear that only a particular area had been devastated by what could only have been an attack. All the buildings of the Avrosian city had been levelled and there was little else but mud and some sort of glassy ground, which Sam had pegged to be the result of severe heat. The stargate had escaped the blast radius, but only barely.
What'd been on all of their minds for the past hour since the Jumper returned was who the hell had the power to wipe out the Avrosians in this manner. There were few in Pegasus who could — that they knew of, anyway — and given the Wraith's attacks the last few weeks in surrounding systems, there was only one logical assumption.
"Now tell me we're just gonna stand by and let the Wraith ravage this galaxy," John said slowly, eyes dark and emotive.
They shared a look and, for the second time today, Sam felt the connection they'd once had, as if they'd finally found something to agree upon.
Just as soon, however, Xiaoyi's words from two weeks ago appeared inside Sam's mind and she sank back in her chair, not responding for several moments. In the corner of her eye, her laptop went into sleep mode, concealing a set of schematics and logs. She stared at the black screen for a while, then at the picture of SG-1 beside it.
She knew that as soon as the words she was about to say escaped her mouth, John's look of encouraged expectation would change, and she'd be taking an irrevocable step in the wrong direction.
But it was either Sam or the city, and she couldn't be selfish.
Heading down the corridor, Reese didn't care who she bumped into. Not that there was a whole lot of people around. This was one of the less inhabited towers on the West Pier, where most of the soldiers had been bunked together.
Technically, nearly all of the West Pier and South Pier towers were being emptied out, at least with the refugees being relocated and the civilians from Earth being assigned personal quarters instead of shared ones. As someone had said, the higher ups had finally figured out that there actually was room enough for everyone in this city. It hadn't been said nicely.
Personally, Reese was just glad they were done with the security checkpoints. She wasn't one of the lucky privileged ones who could sneak in the line.
But none of that mattered now. Reese was steaming and she just wanted to get away for a moment so she could blow it off.
It'd been her mission, dammit! She should've been in that Jumper getting the information first-hand instead of having Ramirez telling her off-handedly in the dinner queue that the Avrosian people had been wiped out by the Wraith. He hadn't even batted an eye, as if it was an everyday newsflash to hear that a civilization had been annihilated!
Reese fisted her hands, growling in the empty corridor. It'd been the same back in the Milky Way during the Ori invasion. The more experienced SGC members had eventually treated new stories of mass-murder and destruction with the same kind of off-handedness that Reese despised. They even had the gall to get more animated when talking of college ice hockey.
Turning a corner, facing the same ever-lasting Atlantis corridor that looked the same no matter where you went in the city, Reese huffed in frustration. Today was just another proof of how twisted and unbending the world — and its people — had become.
"The hell you mean 'we can't'?" John took a sudden step forward, his voice low but filled with emotion.
Sam met his dark and dangerous eyes with a bravery she didn't know she possessed, steeling herself for the oncoming fight. There was no way she would win this by the IOA's arguments; they were too feeble. She had to battle him with reason.
"Think about this rationally, John," Sam said imploringly, leaning forward across her desk. "At the moment, we've got no weapons to overpower the superhive, nor shields that can withstand their barrage. And if they somehow manage to find Atlantis, what happened to the Avrosians will happen here." She paused, hardening her expression. "I'm sorry. I wish we could, but we can't."
"We beat the Wraith before," said John matter-of-factly. "And the odds were pretty stacked against us then as well." He stepped forward, leaning down on his fists on top of her desk. He lowered his voice. "Look, I'm not even saying we'll be able to take them all out at once, but at least we've got to try." His eyes darkened. "We owe it to the people we've lost."
Sam had no immediate response. John's proposal was appealing to her on several levels, but the rational part of her was still screaming that enough was enough — they couldn't afford any more losses, especially not with the future that was in store for them.
"It's too risky," Sam said finally, keeping her voice firm. "We can't risk open war. We're outnumbered; we've got limited supplies… Do you want us to eventually fight them with sticks and stones?"
"That's the IOA talking," growled John and pushed off her desk angrily. "You know we can manufacture our own stuff. You even discussed it with the SGC when we were up against the Asurans almost two years ago!"
"That wasn't ammunitions manufacturing I was talking about," said Sam, resisting the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose. As always, the now-familiar headache was pawing its way to the forefront of her head.
"But it can be turned around to it as you well know, Sam." John paced up and down on the other side of the desk, fisting his hands slightly. The use of her name instead of rank made her startle a bit. "Hell, we've got a bunch of the smartest people on Earth in this city. They can figure it out."
Sam sighed, pushing her bangs away from her face. "This isn't about what we're capable of, John. We could probably make Mark 9s and nukes with the right materials and time, but it'd be a moot point if there were no one around to use them. An open war with the Wraith could kill us all."
"Then how about guerrilla tactics?" John asked and while Sam was glad he partly understood her point of view, she was less pleased to have him come up with yet another argument she partly agreed with. He made it sound too reasonable, too easy. She wanted to give in, but…
"I'm sorry, John. I have to say no."
The angry look on John's face as he stared accusingly — and for a moment almost pityingly — at her only pushed the stone of shame deeper into her stomach. Even though his departure moments later would've normally warranted some relief, Sam could only sink into her hands with despair, longing for days when things were so much easier.
Seeing the desk lamp ignited inside her dim office behind half-shut blinds must've become a familiar sight to those few starting their night shift, Sam mused. She was leaning back in her office chair, staring out through the blinds at the people in the operations centre currently undergoing a shift change.
The graveyard shift, as someone called it, was Sam's alone time. It was when she had a precious moment without IOA representatives wanting to change everything, or repair and administration issues that needed her immediate counsel. There was no one demanding pieces of herself or her time. No one told her with their eyes that she'd changed and not for the better.
The downside, however, was that the nagging thoughts she constantly repressed now found escape freely and indiscriminately. Regret, doubts, guilt… those emotions always dragged her to the end of her sanity, to the point where she waited with bated breath for the final push that would plunge her into the deep.
She was so close now. As she stared at the operations centre, not really seeing the people or her surroundings, she found a set of eyes before her that screamed betrayal and contempt, bringing her to the verge of tears. They were timeless eyes, burned into her memory by the man she'd claimed to care for more than most – and still did. They never gave her rest, never a moment's respite, and it was all she could do not to break down there and then.
Sam closed her eyes violently, brushing a stray tear away from her cheek. With sharp motions, she pulled the chair forward and settled down in front of her PC tablet. There was always work to be done and never enough time to do it. Which only made her think of Major General O'Neill and everything else that was associated with him now: SG-1, Teal'c, Cam, Vala, Earth…
Gritting her teeth, Sam clicked open the folder she'd been working on before John had come earlier and before business had pulled her away from the office for the rest of the day. She input the passwords necessary to break the encryption she'd put on it, pulling up the unfinished plans, files and logs stored in the particular file. Moving the mouse around, she clicked the fifth file in the list of dozens she'd compiled from the various databases available to her.
Two images popped up. One of a very unclear blob of something dark in the sky emitting a strong beam of light towards a planet, the other a sketchy schematic that Rodney and Radek had worked out in the particular incident's aftermath. Sam hadn't been there when it happened, but according to John it'd been a very perilous situation for Atlantis.
Supporting her chin in her palm in thought, already running the scientific possibilities and challenges through her head, Sam found the attached text file Rodney had composed years ago: 'Asuran Stargate satellite'Whatever the IOA was up to, Sam mused, there was no way Atlantis was going to be taken off-guard by the Wraith again. She'd make sure of that.